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2016 in Film.

Queso, usually I’d put a bunch of excuses in this opening paragraph about why this is going up so late, when the real question is: nearly ten months into 2017, why even do this Best of 2016 movie list at all? (Answer: I’m a completionist and it was bugging me.) But really the bigger issue here is: I missed a LOT of movies last year.

I missed Oscar contenders (Hidden Figures, Hacksaw Ridge) and Oscar bait (Allied, Florence Foster Jenkins). I missed promising indies (Captain Fantastic, American Pastoral) and movies with cult-cachet (Swiss Army Man, High-Rise, Elle, Kubo and the Two Strings). I missed the big winter dogs (Passengers, Assassin’s Creed), the summer dogs (Independence Day: Resurgence, The Legend of Tarzan), and the just plain dogs (Alice Through the Looking Glass, Deepwater Horizon).

I missed some big tentpole remakes (Beauty and the Beast, The Jungle Book, The Magnificent Seven, Pete’s Dragon.) I missed a bunch of unnecessary sequels (Now You See Me 2, Ride Along 2, London Has Fallen). I missed the maybe-better-than-you-expect B-movies (The Shallows), the high-rated Disney outings (Moana). I even missed a few movies I still really want to see (Silence, Toni Erdmann).

But of the ones I did see, I suppose these are my…

Top 25 Films of 2016
[2000/2001/2002/2003/2004/2005/2006/2007/
2008/2009/2010/2011/2012/2013/2014/2015/The Oughts]

1. Moonlight: Damien Chazelle’s meet-cute May-December musical romance featured Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone at their…wait, one second. Er…Yeah, I know, a little late for that joke — Anyway, we’ll get to La La Land later on.

For now Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight was a perfectly-contained short story about a young boy forced to toughen up in a harsh and uncaring world, and a man trying to be brave enough to shed that lifetime’s worth of armor. I have some quibbles with the movie — the classical score can be occasionally cloying, and some of the characters — Naomie Harris’s junkie mom, Mahershala Ali and Janelle Monae’s saintly neighbors — occasionally felt too broadly drawn. But at a time when too many films feel swallowed by their own ambition, Moonlight told a powerful, personal, memorable, and resoundingly human story on a small and colorful canvas.

2. The Nice Guys: Not to bag on La La Land in every entry, but if you saw Ryan Gosling in one burgeoning (b)romance in the City of Angels in 2016, I hope it was this one. Harkening back to other LA neo-noirs like The Long Goodbye, Inherent Vice, and maybe even a smattering of Lebowski, Shane Black’s throwback buddy-cop misadventure was one of the smartest, funniest, and most purely enjoyable movie experiences of the year (even if I saw it on a plane.)

3. Captain America: Civil War: In his last installment, our hero took on the military-industrial complex that had made his beloved country more like Hydra than the New Deal America of his youth. In Civil War, Cap makes the case for free-thinking dissent as the proper form of democratic consent, and punches that billionaire war profiteering egomaniac Tony Stark a few times in the face to boot. (#TeamCap4life).

Clearly Cap is the hero we need right now, even if, in these Hail Hydra times, he’s not the one we deserve. Throw in that ripped-from-the-comics airline melee, Spidey-done-right, and Daniel Bruhl as the best and most nuanced Marvel villain to-date (until the 2017 list, at least), and you have another jewel in Marvel’s gauntlet. Go get ’em, Cap.

4. Green Room: Antifa, meet the Ain’t Rights. Like his first film Blue Ruin — do we have a Kieślowski color trilogy going here? — Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room portrays in naturalistic fashion a bad situation growing increasingly worse. It also provides a final stage for the late Anton Yelchin (meshing well with an ensemble that includes Alia Shawkat and Imogen Poots) and a rich opportunity for Patrick Stewart to play it real dark for once. Sadly, Green Room feels even more realistic now than it did last year, what with the return of Nazis marching in the streets. Tiki torch this, you rat bastids.

5. The Lobster: Since La La Land has been the Rosetta Stone of this list so far, let’s just say The Lobster is the meet-cute rom-com that movie is farthest from. I liked the first third-to-half of this movie, as sad-sack Colin Ferrell navigates the hotel of last opportunities with folks like Ben Whishaw and John C. Reilly, more than I did the back-half, where he finds himself caught up in an anti-romantic resistance of sorts, living in the woods with Rachel Weisz, Lea Seydoux, and a bunch of aloof ravers. (There’s also a section in the middle involving Farrell’s brother-turned-dog which I’d like to never think about again, thanks much.) Nonetheless, this weirdo, pitch-black satire about human coupling has moments that will stick in your craw, and makes the uncomfortable, misanthropic squirm-humor that propels (great) shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm seem positively Up-With-People.

6. Hunt for the Wilderpeople: In its own way, Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople is also the anti-Lobster — a funny, sweet, good-natured foray into the deep New Zealand woods with a gruff Sam Neill, getting ever less gruff as he lets orphan Julian Dennison under his skin. Throw in Rhys Darby for a touch of Conchords zaniness and you have a thoroughly pleasant afternoon hike.

7. Hell or High Water: It’s a credit to the overall experience of David McKenzie’s Hell or High Water that it’s this high on the list, even though there’s some seriously ham-fisted writing in this movie. The most obvious offender is the racist-sheriff-with-a-heart-of-gold, a character that might not have worked at all if it weren’t Jeff Bridges playing him. But the heavy-handedness starts in the very first shot of the movie, with the wall reading “3 TOURS IN IRAQ BUT NO BAILOUT FOR PEOPLE LIKE US.” Ok, ok, I get it.) Still, even if it’s occasionally just No Country for Old Men by way of The Dukes of Hazzard, it’s a crowd-pleasing movie alright, and its heart was in the right place.

8. Doctor Strange: Another quality Marvel outing that’s all the more impressive given how badly it could have turned out. Benedict Cumberbatch isn’t the most inspired choice to play Dr. Stephen Strange — he’s basically just doing his Sherlock with an American accent — but it’s great fun to have Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Wong, and Tilda Swinton(!) along for the ride, as well as Mads Mikkelsen playing the heavy. (Obvious highlight: “Mister Doctor?” “It’s Strange.” “Maybe, who am I to judge?”) Now maybe they can find something for Rachel McAdams to do in the next one — she’s as wasted here as Natalie Portman in the first Thor.

9. The VVitch: “Wouldst thou like the taste of butter? Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?” And now we’re back to the woods being terrifying again. While the most memorable part of Robert Eggers’ The VVitch is its (kinda problematic) ending, I was also impressed with the way this movie puts you square in the 17th century, conveying the strangeness, isolation, and religious panic that must have come from living alone along the unexplored frontier. (Kinda what The Village aspired to do, but really, really didn’t.) Sure, it’s a slow-moving affair, but that’s likely how it would be, until Black Philip comes-a-callin’.

10. 10 Cloverfield Lane: I thoroughly hated the original Cloverfield, but watched this on the strength of Mary Elizabeth Winstead and John Goodman. Pretty good choice! To be fair, this is basically the War of the Worlds reel in Tim Robbins’ basement drawn out to feature length. Still, 1010 Cloverfield makes for a reasonably taut chamber piece for most of its run, as alliances shift among the three main characters who may or may not be waiting out the end of the world in Goodman’s well-stocked bunker. Can you guess how it ends? Probably, but at least you got to see some of old Walter Sobchak along the way.

11. Rogue One: A Star War Story: To be honest, if I’d only seen this movie once, it’d have been much higher on the list. At that opening night show, Rogue One felt like it delivered the visceral thrill of the original films in a much purer way than the prequels or The Force Awakens. Finally, Vader — a character who’s been bogged down by New Age-y family matters for close to 25 years now — was an unstoppable malevolent force again, like he was when I was a kid. Finally, the world of Star Wars developed more much-needed diversity, even as Ben Mendelsohn gets to be the sneering Imperial aristocrat he was born to play.

Speaking of Imperial aristocrats, he gets a lot of grief, but I really liked CGI-Peter Cushing, and, while I get the icky implications for the future, I still thought it was an appropriate homage to a guy who hunted the undead for so long. And, of course, the Death Star’s exhaust port got a brilliant retcon.

But then I watched Rogue One again a few months ago on DVD. And, exposed to the light of day, it’s hard to ignore the movie’s serious pacing and writing problems. Almost all of Felicity Jones’ suicide squad are one-note at best — Alan Tudyk’s quippy droid comes off the best by a large margin. It’s hard to tell what they were going with with Forest Whitaker’s character, but it feels like more than half of his arc got cut somewhere. And, while we’re not at Starkiller Base, doing-violence-to-basic-physics bad, so much of what happens doesn’t make any sense. (If they desperately want to stop the transmission of the plans, why don’t the Imperials just blow up their own radar tower?)

So, in short, Rogue One was a great nostalgia delivery device, but it doesn’t really hold up. Here’s hoping some of the other one-off installments have more intrinsic quality.

12. Arrival: I haven’t read Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life” so can’t attest to how Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival holds up to the source material. As for the movie, it’s a heady First Contact story that shows a great deal of promise in its first half, before getting derailed by a silly bomb subplot involving Halt and Catch Fire‘s Mark O’Brien — how were these aliens meant to be surprised by a bomb? — and then spending the rest of the movie explaining what you’ve probably already figured out. Still, a good run up to that point.

Much was made of this being the blue state science-fiction movie we all needed after Election 2016. But given that Arrival ends up being more cerebral than smart, and that the basic message ends up being “acquiesce to the inevitable preordained tragedy in your future,” I don’t think that holds up in the way suggested.

13. Louder than Bombs: Joachim Trier’s Louder than Bombs very much has that indie-arthouse Squid and the Whale, broken family/coming-of-age-drama, I’m-watching-this-on-a-Saturday-on-the-IFC-channel feel about it, and not just ’cause Jesse Eisenberg is back for another round. But this story about a father (Gabriel Byrne) and his two sons (Eisenberg, Devin Druid) coming to terms with the untimely death of their photojournalist matriarch (Isabelle Huppert) has a natural, melancholy, lived-in feel and some well-observed moments (and, let’s face it, it’s always great to see Tom Reagan again, with or without his hat.) Definitely comes by its Smiths B-sides title honestly.

14. Hail Caesar: With The Ladykillers being the exception that proves the rule, there are two types of Coen movies: the instantly great ones (most of them) and the ones that’ll grow on you if/when you see them again. For me, Hail Caesar was among the latter.

Set around a decade after Barton Fink burned down the Hotel Earle and disappeared from Hollywood, Caesar continues Fink‘s initial inquiries into the mid-century studio system, fellow-traveling screenwriters, and movies as the spiritual iconography of our time. Also has Channing Tatum dancing, Tilda Swinton playing twins, George Clooney mugging, and Ralph Fiennes and Alden Ehrenreich doing their “Would that it were so simple” routine. Like I said, my initial reaction to it was around the level of The Man Who Wasn’t There — eh, ok — and like that one, I probably need to see it again.

15. The Birth of a Nation: Both the problem and the potential are right there in the name. The Birth of a Nation is wildly over-the-top and full-of-itself at times. It’s also too self-consciously designed as a star vehicle for its writer-director Nate Parker (who, it has to be said, must go alongside Polanski and Woody in the probable rapist scumbag in real life department.)

At the same time, I appreciated the scale of ambition here — the blatant eff-you to the racist-as-hell D.W. Griffith standard and the attempt to overturn a cultural legacy that’s treated Nat Turner (or Denmark Vesey or John Brown) as criminals rather than survivors who rose up against an American hellscape that we sanctioned here for far too long. If all the turning Nat Turner into a vengeful Christ figure here is laying it on extra-thick, maybe we needed an extreme corrective to get the message out. In that regard, Nation is striking the same vein as QT’s Django Unchained, with a better grip on history to boot.

16. Knight of Cups: So we’re getting to the part of the list where I’ll freely admit that some of these probably played better on my TV than they would’ve in the theater. I grew a bit bored by Tree of Life in its second hour and absolutely loathed To the Wonder from start-to-finish, perhaps because I was trapped in. (Loved The New World, tho.) But, watching Terence Malick’s equally languorous Knight of Cups at home felt like less of an imposition on my time, and I could just roll with its impressionistic beauty. Christian Bale takes long walks on the beach and wrestles with deep spiritual malaise about the meaning of life, his many romantic escapades, and (Malick, natch) the wisdom once bestowed to him by his father (Brian Dennehy)? Go with it, my man. It helps that, like its milieu, Knight of Cups looks like a million bucks, with a captivating, sensual sheen (provided by Emmanuel Lubezki) throughout.

17. The Neon Demon: Here, again, if I’d seen Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon at the multiplex, I think I’d just be waiting for this hyperbolic, cut-rate-Aronofsky madness to end. (Then again, I saw Only God Forgives on the small screen and lordy it did not help.) But for whatever reason, at home I could take Refn’s ludicrous, pulsing disco-club beautiful-people-are-vampires story for what it’s worth, and just enjoy the trippy visual stylings without being unduly burdened by plot, character, or the usual elements that make, y’know, a decent movie. Bronson and even Drive are far better, but this one’s oddly entertaining in its weirdo midnight movie Cat People sorta way.

18. Midnight Special: Speaking of midnight, Jeff Nichols’ Midnight Special is another movie with great promise that kinda falls apart in the final act. In its opening moments, as Michael Shannon (also in Nichols’ Take Shelter) and Joel Edgerton cruise along at high speed with night-vision goggles on, the film immediately feels like an lost and underrated Stephen King short story, a sensation helped along by Sam Shepard and Bill Camp showing up as conflicted cult leaders and Adam Driver playing against type as a nerdy government agent. But as the Very Special Kid (Jaeden Lieberher) moves to the fore and we get to the Very Special Ending, Special loses its punch, and begins to feel less like an original sci-fi story and more like one of the many so-so ’80s Spielberg knockoffs these days, a la Super 8 or Stranger Things.

19. Lion: Lion is a true story about Saroo Brierly, a young Indian boy who accidentally left his village as a child and spends his days haunted by what he left behind. It is also well-made and perfectly cromulent Oscar bait, with solid performances all around, especially Dev Patel as the young man in question, Nicole Kidman and David Wenham as his supportive, if not totally understanding adoptive parents, and Divian Ladwa as his resentful adoptive brother.

Still, even if they’ve added a mid-movie romance with Rooney Mara to pad the running time (and which doesn’t contribute much to the film), we’re talking about a two hour movie here that basically builds up to a Google search. Lion was…fine, I suppose, and would probably appeal more to more sentimental types.

20. A Bigger Splash: A remake of La Piscine (which I haven’t seen), updated for modern times to incorporate the European refugee crisis and accommodate folks’ desire to hang out with Tilda Swinton, Luca Guadagnino’s A Bigger Splash‘s main asset is Ralph Fiennes’ manic turn as an extroverted, cocaine-fueled record producer on Italian holiday. Fiennes has played against his usual clipped-and-distant type before, most notably in In Bruges, but he’s still a jolt of delirious energy throughout A Bigger Splash, which feels a bit like the first third of Sexy Beast before taking a turn — as I now know, like the original movie — in the late going. (It gets a bit long in the tooth after that.)

21. La La Land: City of Stars, why do you have to be so white? Alright, so La La Land — or, as Amy and I began calling it as soon as it was over, “white people shit.” To be fair to the film, I thought it got better as it went along — I was on the verge of walking out during the big frenetic “let’s put on a show!!” traffic jam-boree at the start — and Ryan Gosling and especially Emma Stone are both appealing enough, even if Gosling can’t dance without looking at his feet.

But the real issue here is: Why should I care? Stone wants to be a megastar? Gosling wants to open a jazz club (presumably so he can keep whitesplaining it to anyone who walks in)? Gosling is worried his fusion breakthrough with John Legend might make him a sellout? Honestly, who gives a shit? C’mon, people, it is — sorry, was — the year of our Lord 2016. This is like the poor King of England having a stutter all over again. Please come at me with real problems.

22. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: I never read the books (I know, I know, we’re a long way from The Leaky Cauldron days), and I’m not sure we need an all-new multiple-film foray into the expanded Potter universe. But a Harry Potter prequel spinoff set in 1920’s America? Now you’re speaking my language! (Also, not to give the ending away, but I think I’d prefer Colin Farrell as the multiple-movie nemesis rather than He-Who-Should-Not-Be-Named-On-Account-Of-Spoilers.)

23. Don’t Breathe: Fede Alvarez’s Don’t Breathe was one of those horror movies getting It Follows, Babadook, and VVitch-level hype in some corners, and I saw it after it had been rather intensely hyped. Given that, the second act twist didn’t particularly impress me, and I was expecting more memorable all around than just a reverse-Wait Until Dark. Still, it’s always good to see Stephen Lang getting his due — unless you’re watching Gods and Generals, in which case dear god why?

24. Star Trek Beyond: a.k.a. the one where Kirk’s big contribution to the endgame is popping wheelies on a motorcycle. Idris Elba and Sofia Boutella are both wasted behind the extensive make-up, but at least this third installment of nu-Trek sidestepped the stupid remix brain of Into Darkness and focused on telling a fun, small-bore TNG-ish adventure. Beyond isn’t classic Trek or anything, but it does lend credence to the theory that, in the reboot universe, it’s the odd ones that don’t suck.

25. Deadpool: Like I said for a few years now, I like to give the last spot to a genre movie that knows what it is and does it well. This year, that was Deadpool. I have no connection to the character and frankly find him kinda irritating — he’s a sophomoric Liefeldian (re: many pouches) knockoff of the DC’s funnier, more-meta Ambush Bug. And much like Ryan Reynold’s very similar comic hero in Blade: Trinity, he also “appears to have learned English from reading AICN talkbacks” (or Reddit, for the kids out there).

Still, Reynolds, director Tim Miller, and co. embraced the guy, pouches and all, and gave him a movie that suited the character. Besides, it was fun to actually have Colossus running around a X-Men movie for once — but not sure this will get me in the theater for Josh Brolin’s Cable.

MOST DISAPPOINTING:

Warcraft: Look, I know that you probably weren’t disappointed by Warcraft. But I sure was. Duncan Jones of Moon and Source Code bringing the game I’ve literally spent a year in to life? This could’ve been pretty good!

Except — and here was the big issue — Jones didn’t make a World of Warcraft movie, which would probably involve a bunch of D&D-like classes on a quest to level up and gain loot or somesuch. Instead, he made a movie of the original Warcraft, a.k.a. the RTS game from twenty years ago, which means…orcs bashing things for two hours. (And I don’t even recall a single “ready to serve!”) The story of the entire movie should’ve been a LotR-like prologue.

It also doesn’t help that, with the exception of Paula Patton and Team Preacher (Ruth Negga, Dominic Cooper), most of the human actors — I’m looking at you, Travis Fimmel and Ben Schnetzer — are 110-level charisma voids. By contrast, there are some good, fun actors among the orcs — Toby Kebbell, Clancy Brown — but they’ve been literally turned into cartoons. And Ben Foster, who can be fine in other things (Hell or High Water, for example) is operating on his own mad level of terrible here, like he method-trained for this by watching Jeremy Irons in D&D or Brando in Dr. Moreau. Just an all-around missed opportunity.

WHAT IS THIS I CAN’T EVEN:

Suicide Squad: Remember how I said Rogue One seemed like a disjointed mess the second time I saw it? That’s Suicide Squad right from jump street. The whole movie has that Tranktastic Four, “we rewrote this in the editing room” and “eh they’ll see it anyway” haphazardness to it. Margot Robbie acquits herself fine as Harley Quinn, I suppose, and this may be the most likable Jai Courtney has been in anything. But Will Smith is bored, Viola Davis seems ashamed to be there, Joel Kinnaman, as the-absence-of-Tom-Hardy, just plays his cop from The Killing, and Jared Leto is a completely egregious misfire as The Joker.

On top of everything else, the film is just ugly — everything looks like it got storyboarded by Ed Hardy, not the least the Clown Prince of Crime, who we know is damaged because…it says “Damaged” on his forehead. Trust me, this movie isn’t even fun bad — it’s just an amateurish disaster. In other words, exactly the type of movie you’d expect from executive producer Steve Mnuchin.

THE REST:

Worth On Demand-ing::

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice: MARTHA!! Why am I (barely) recommending this deeply flawed sequel to (the even worse) Man of Steel? Well, mainly because of Batfleck and Jeremy Irons’ Alfred. Zack Snyder can’t seem to understand that Superman should not be a tortured, emo character — he’s more like Chris Evans’ Cap, boy-scout to the bone. But, yeah, Batman sure is — maybe they should write “damaged” on his head — and that stuff here works pretty well.

Don’t get me started on Jesse Eisenberg’s Luthor — rein it in, Jesse — or Snyder’s absurd love for slow-motion bullet casings, or the truly awful ways Diane Lane is employed here. (I’m not just talking about the Stepbrothers-esque “Did we just become best friends?” part — Zack, get Martha Kent away from your creepy-ass Polaroids.) But still, y’know, Batman, Wonder Woman, there’s some stuff to like here.

Keanu: Keanu, about Key & Peele trying to get their cat back from some stone-cold gangsters (including Method Man) is…ok. To be honest, given its creative team, I expected something much funnier, but then again I saw it well after the hype machine had kicked in. A nice send-off to George Michael, if nothing else.

Loving: Jeff Nichols’ Loving tells an important story in a rather drab and by-the-numbers fashion — there was considerably more energy in his Midnight Special. Joel Edgerton basically mumbles his way through the movie and even Ruth Negga, such a spitfire in Preacher, is rendered inert here. But, y’know, it’s fine for what it is, no harm no foul.

Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising: Did you like the first Neighbors? Well, here’s more of the same, now with Chloe Grace Moretz, Selena Gomez, and Kiersey Clemons in the mix as well. Rose Byrne is the secret weapon of these movies, but give Zac Efron credit: he’s surprisingly game for anything.

Manchester by the Sea: Hey ma, look heah: we gawt moah white people praw-blems. I had this in the “don’t bother” section for awhile but eh, it’s competently made, I guess. The main problem here is Casey Affleck’s bitter janitor (an Oscar-winning performance?!) is so emotionally recessed that he doesn’t register — he just mopes his way through scene after scene. (Lucas Hedges gave us a more layered character here, I thought.) I really like Kenneth Lonergan’s other movies, but this one, like Inarritu’s 21 Grams (which is more fun, because it’s so much more pretentious), just assumes that misery is a substitute for character.

Don’t Bother:

Fences: My wife and I saw Dave Chappelle here in DC this past week, and his opening act was Donnell Rawlings, who you may remember from Chappelle Show or as Clay Davis’s chauffeur in the The Wire. Anyway, he basically summed up the problem with this movie in his act: “Denzel, it’s been two and a half hours! Get out of your backyard! Stop looking at the fence!” In other words, this is not really a movie of any kind. It’s a filmed play — which is fine, if it had any sort of energy. It does not — just go see the play.

Ghostbusters: I’m bummed about this one because every MRA asshole on the planet has been whining about an all-female reboot of Ghostbusters somehow ruins his childhood. (To which I say: First, obviously, grow the fuck up. Second, the original Ghostbusters is wildly overrated and wasn’t even one of the ten best fanboy movies of 1984, so develop some taste.) All of which is to say that I was rooting for Paul Feig’s reboot — but, alas, it’s just not very good. Kate McKinnon gets in a few zingers, and they make solid use of Chris Hemsworth, but Kristen Wiig is wasted as the straight woman, and too much of the movie feels like it’s being improvised on the fly, like one of those interminable 11:45am trial-run SNL sketches. I’m glad this Ghostbusters is out there so future fangirls have some role models to look up to, and because this movie’s sheer existence deeply angers many of the worst people in the world. But in the end, sadly, it’s just not all that funny.

Jackie: Yeah, sorry, I don’t understand the love for this one at all. I was bored, as was our entire party. JFK getting shot is not new information, so please find something more to say about it than “then Jackie came up with Camelot.” And maybe Natalie Portman nailed the accent to some extent — moah white people praw-blems — but you can see the Herculean striving throughout her performance, and it makes her Jackie seem weirdly graceless. This was just a ponderous film throughout, tho’ it was nice to see John Hurt give one final, brief curtain call.

Jason Bourne: Have you seen any of the other Bournes? Yeah, you’re good, then. This is basically a Gus Van Sant Psycho remake.

Money Monster: The ubiquitous, beat-for-beat trailer spoiled this movie several times over well before I saw it. And despite the impressive pedigree here — Jodie Foster, George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Giancarlo Esposito, Dominic West — here’s no other part to the movie that you’re missing.

Snowden: I’m very sympathetic to Edward Snowden and his predicament. This dull, hagiographic Oliver Stone outing still misses the mark by a country mile. That being said, Rhys Ifans does a pretty good CIA sinister, Nicolas Cage is here as NICOLAS CAGE!, and it’s kind of a funny kick to see Zachary Quinto playing Glenn Greenwald. Still, you’re better off watching CitizenFour.

X-Men: Apocalypse: Weirdly lifeless for a number of reasons. First, this movie makes the Willem Dafoe-as-Green-Goblin mistake of casting a fun, engaging actor (Oscar Isaac) as the Big Bad, but then burying him so deep in make-up that his personality disappears. Second, a lot of the new X-Men here, like Sophie Turner/Sansa as Jean Grey and Tye Sheridan/Ready Player One as Cyclops, are more than a little on the stiff side, while some of the better actors from the last outing — Nicholas Hoult, Evan Peters — aren’t given enough to do. (That’s especially true for Michael Fassbender’s Magneto, who gets one scene from a much better movie involving an attack on his family, and then just delivers exposition the rest of the time.) Third, maybe standards have changed, but this film looks really cheap for some reason. Bryan Singer delivered one of the best X-outings with X2, but this one’s only for completists.

Unseen: The 5th Wave, 13 Hours, Absolutely Fabulous, The Accountant, Alice Through the Looking Glass, Allegiant, Allied, American Pastoral, Assassin’s Creed, Bad Moms, Bad Santa 2, Barbershop: The Next Cut, Beauty and the Beast, Ben Hur, The BFG, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Blair Witch, Bridget Jones’s Baby, The Brothers Grimsby, Captain Fantastic, Central Intelligence, Collateral Beauty, The Conjuring 2, Criminal, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny, Deepwater Horizon, Demolition, Dirty Grandpa, Eddie the Eagle, The Edge of Seventeen, Elvis and Nixon, Eye in the Sky, Fifty Shades of Black, Finding Dory, Florence Foster Jenkins, Free State of Jones, The Girl on the Train, Gods of Egypt, Hacksaw Ridge, The Handmaiden, Hardcore Henry, Hidden Figures, High-Rise, A Hologram for the King, How to Be Single, The Huntsman Winter’s War, Independence Day: Resurgence, The Invitation, I Saw the Light, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, Jane Got a Gun, The Jungle Book, Kubo and the Two Strings, The Legend of Tarzan, Live By Night, London Has Fallen, Love and Friendship, The Love Witch, The Magnificent Seven, Me Before You, Miss Sloane, Moana, A Monster Calls, Nocturnal Animals, Now You See Me 2, Office Christmas Party, Passengers, Paterson, Pete’s Dragon, Popstar, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Race, Ride Along 2, Sausage Party, The Shallows, Silence, Swiss Army Man, Sully, TNMT: Out of the Shadows, Toni Erdmann, War Dogs, Where to Invade Next, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, Why Him?, Zoolander 2, Zootopia, pretty much anything else you can think of.

(The Rest of) 2017: It’s September, y’all already know what’s coming out over the next few months. And while if I’d done this list nine months ago The Last Jedi or Blade Runner 2049 would probably get the pole position here at the end, I have to say at this point I’m most excited about…


The hammer of the gods
Will drive our ships to new lands
To fight the horde, sing and cry, Valhalla, I am coming…

2015 in Film.

Hey, remember 2015? Syrian refugees and the Iran nuclear deal, the Paris attacks and the Paris accords. Taylor Swift had bad blood and The Weeknd couldn’t feel his face. Donald Trump was leading in all the polls, but, lolz, we all knew wiser GOP heads would prevail in the end. And, hey — while it wasn’t a great film year by any means — some movies came out too!

One of the reasons I’ve been thinking about getting back on the horse around here is that I never did write up the 2015 movie list, which seems a shame after fifteen years running. (The 2014 list is still on the front page!) So, yeah, this is real late…but since I caught so many of these On Demand, I couldn’t have written this list up at the end of 2015 regardless. And besides, no matter how tardy I am in posting this each year, there’re always still a few more possible additions languishing unseen in the DVR and Amazon Prime queues — right now it’s Slow West and Chi-Raq on the slow burners. (I’ve also tried to watch Jupiter Ascending twice now, but haven’t made it past the first twenty minutes, right around the point Oscar Winner Eddie Redmayne starts doing his cut-rate Ming the Merciless bit.)

At any rate, of the films I did see, these below were my…

Top 25 Films of 2015
[2000/2001/2002/2003/2004/2005/2006/2007/
2008/2009/2010/2011/2012/2013/2014/The Oughts]

1. Ex Machina: Having already written a few worthy genre contenders like Sunshine and Dredd, The Beach author Alex Garland put on the director’s hat and and tore up the 2015 dance floor with this perfectly contained sci-fi-noir. A wry amalgam of Isaac Asimov and James M. Cain, Ex Machina is smart all the way through — I thought crowdsourcing AI was a particularly clever touch, until we actually tried to do it this year — and it possesses a secret weapon in Oscar Isaac’s amusingly dickish fratbro billionaire. In a can-you-top-this era of CGI excess, Ex Machina is a valuable reminder that sometimes the most satisfying science fiction tale is simply a small story told well.

2. It Follows: Speaking of simple ideas done well, how about David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows? Granted I don’t watch much horror anymore — tho’ I’m looking forward to catching The Witch sometime soon — but this was the first movie in ages that had me unsettled for a good while afterward, suspiciously eyeing slow-moving randoms on the street and keeping an eye to an exit strategy.

It Follows gets under your skin by making the most of a basic premise that’s been a subtext of the horror genre for years (and one that can carry all kinds of allegorical weight as needed, from aging to adulthood to AIDS): have sex and you’re a goner. And like the original Blob — or Death, for that matter — the creature may move slow here, but it is inexorable. Quentin Tarantino has a point about the problems with the goofy third act (tho’ he doesn’t really have a leg to stand on this year — see below), but man is this film creepy. Extra points for the very John Carpenter-y score by Disasterpeace.

3. Anomalisa: If there’s a fear more primal than the slow-stalking beast of It Follows, perhaps it’s the one haunting this business trip to the solipsistic hellscape of stop-motion Cincinnati: Forget not escaping Death for a second, you’re never going to escape you. Without any actors gracing the screen (and Tom Noonan taking up the bulk of the characters), Anomalisa is a bracing shot of distilled Charlie Kaufman — mournful misanthropy with plenty of anxiety and a dash of sweetness, coming right up — and seems like the movie John Cusack’s puppeteer was working toward in Being John Malkovich.

4. The Big Short: The best of this year’s Oscar contenders, Adam McKay’s chronicle of the traders who bet big on America’s financial collapse succeeds in being both informational and, often, quite funny. Even better, McKay vastly improves on the source material by infusing it with no small amount of righteous anger. Michael Lewis is compulsively readable, but he tends to flinch from interrogating his class, and so you end up with books like The Big Short, which are, in essence: “Look at these smart guys who beat the system! (never mind that the system was corrupt to the core.)” [Or, for that matter, The Blind Side: “Look at these great rich white people who took in an at-risk black youth! (never mind they only did it because he was a football prodigy.)”] McKay’s film restores the balance by re-emphasizing that the mortgage meltdown was about more than just hubris and assholery — it was systemic corruption all the way down. And yet, nobody went to jail — The Big Short has the confidence to let that last laugh curdle.

5. Spotlight: Speaking of which, this year’s Oscar winner could stand to have a few more dollops of righteous anger added to the mix as well. Instead, Spotlight chooses to tell this incendiary story of cover-up and corruption in the Catholic Church as a journalistic procedural. So, while it’s all very sober and well-made, the overall experience feels akin to watching Law and Order re-runs. (While it’s a subplot throughout, I also wish they’d done more with how Michael Keaton et al missed this story for so long. There’s a come-to-Jesus moment near the end that felt to me like a big fat ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ before getting back to the regularly scheduled media back-patting. The Church isn’t the only once-venerable institution crumbing from within these days.) I don’t want to be too down on Spotlight — I’m putting this at #4, after all — but it’s ultimately high-quality Oscar bait, and doesn’t feel like a movie we’ll be talking about much in years to come.

6. Star Wars: The Force Awakens: ZOMG Star Wars y’all! J.J. Abrams’ reboot of the original fanboy/tentpole universe has the benefit of great casting and instantly likeable characters in Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, and BB-8. This is also clearly a labor of love for Abrams — just look how he Wars-ed up Star Trek a few years ago. At the same time — and, to be fair, this becomes more pronounced after the first viewing — The Force Awakens also feels like an exceedingly cautious retread of the original trilogy at times, a sensation exacerbated by both too many unnecessary Chris Farley Show-style callbacks (hey, remember that thing? That was so cool! Here it is again!) and that ultra-stupid, basic-physics-defying Starkiller Base in the third act. (Seriously, do not get me ranting about Starkiller Base. It is a silly place.) Still, the important thing here is, after the prequel misfire, Star Wars feels back. Bring on Rogue One and VIII.

7. Kingsman: The Secret Service: Stardust notwithstanding, Matthew Vaughn films tend to do well on this list –See: Layer Cake, Kick-Ass, X-Men: First Class— and Kingsman is no exception. This anarchic, occasionally snotty send-up of Bond tropes was a visceral blast that didn’t take itself too seriously, didn’t overstay its welcome, and didn’t try to be anything it wasn’t. (And how about that cuh-razy church melee?) This would’ve been one of the most fun times I had in a movie theater this year, had I not actually caught it on a plane.

8. Mad Max: Fury Road: He lives, he dies, he lives again! Speaking of visceral melee-fueled thrill rides, and given that George Miller has been an excellent filmmaker over the years, Fury Road was a far better Mad Max sequel after thirty years off than we had any right to expect. Miller’s crazy gamble paid off and then some — however hard to shoot, there is some strikingly beautiful cinematography throughout this film. That being said, and with the caveat that I’m not much of a Road Warrior or car guy, I thought Fury Road was a bit overrated by the end of 2015. It was the best of the summer blockbusters by several lengths, but even a chase sequence as masterfully constructed as the one here gets old after two hours. Er…how long are we riding shiny and chrome again?

9. The Revenant: I avoided this movie for awhile since I presumed, like Birdman, 21 Grams, and the rest of Inarritu’s output, it would be interminably pretentious. And, yeah, it is. The story here is also absurd in its Mountain Man, quien es mas macho survivalism. (Twice, Di Caprio’s character goes to town on raw and/or wriggling flesh when there’s a fire literally right next to him.) But, unlike Birdman and its claustrophobic hallways, The Revenant also has the advantage of really first-rate nature cinematography, provided by Emmanuel Lubezki. I wasn’t particularly engaged by the revenge tale here, but this is an often beautiful-looking film, and no mistake.

10. Ant-Man: Some day, Marvel will really drop the ball on one of these B- or C-level hero stories. (Perhaps that’s why they’ve postponed The Inhumans.) Today is not that day. Like its star, Ant-Man is a charming, low-key, and amiable addition to the ever-expanding Marvel-verse, with a secret weapon in consistent scene-stealer Michael Pena. It’d have been nice to see what Edgar Wright was cooking up for this character for, lo, so many years, But, to his credit, gun-for-hire Peyton Reed managed to steer this bug away from the zapper. Best of luck on the sequel.

11. Creed: For all intent and purposes, Creed is basically The Force Awakens of the Rocky world — this is another 21st century update of a 70’s classic — and it suffers from many of the same strengths and weaknesses as Abrams’ reboot. Like Episode VII, Creed boasts a lively young cast and solid support from an aging veteran of the earlier films. And, like VII, it follows the contours of the original story to a fault. Still, worth catching, even if it made me wonder how soon we can expect Richard Dreyfuss teaching Chadwick Boseman or Felicity Jones or the like how to catch sharks. (In fact, they could just digitally insert old Hooper into Blake Lively’s new shark flick.)

12. Inside Out: Like Marvel, Pixar is another corner of the Disney empire consistently churning out quality product. My main issue with Inside Out at the time was that it felt reductive, and needed many more emotions rattling around Riley’s (and everyone else’s) head than just the five presented. But, a year or so later, that seems like a quibble. Yet another excellent Pixar outing.

13. Bridge of Spies: I had hopes this well-made Spielberg prestige picture about James Donovan and the U-2 spy plane would be a little more overtly Coen-y, given that the brothers wrote the screenplay. (The only time it really comes through is when Donovan (Tom Hanks) is introduced to Abel’s fake family.) But, even if it’s a bit staid throughout, what we got here is a worthwhile throwback of a movie, with Hanks well-cast in what would be the Gregory Peck/Jimmy Stewart role.

14. Macbeth: “Stars, hide your fires; Let not light see my black and deep desires.” Foul is fair indeed in this often gorgeous retelling of the famous play, with Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard headlining as the ambition-wracked titular couple (she’s amazing, he’s a bit much) and several ringers in the wings, including Paddy Considine, Sean Harris, and David Thewlis. Another film on this list, like The Revenant and Fury Road, that’s worth seeing for the cinematography alone…tho’ the Bard’s not half-bad either.

15. What We Do in the Shadows: Several good laughs to be had in Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement’s warm-hearted, cold-blooded mockumentary of Kiwi vampire roommates. Even if early hype had me expecting something even funnier, it’s impressive that Waititi, Clement et al made such a fresh-feeling film out of what’s been one of the more well-mined corners of genre of late. I’m in for We’re Wolves (tho’, with Murray (Rhys Darby) playing the leader of those swearwolves, why wasn’t Bret invited to the plastic pantomime?)

16. MI: Rogue Nation: Chris McQuarrie’s impossible mission doesn’t quite hit at the level of Brad Bird’s Ghost Protocol, but it’s right up there. With a smart choice of villain in Sean Harris, more for Simon Pegg to do, and an impressive newcomer in Rebecca Ferguson, MI:RN was the second-best summer ride after Fury Road, and feels like a franchise that, well after the first installment, is still going places. And loath as I am to agree with Donald Trump, what I said about Edge of Tomorrow applies here as well: For all of his personal faults, Tom Cruise remains a surprisingly committed movie star.

17. Avengers: Age of Ultron: A messier and more frazzled foray than the superb first installment, Joss Whedon’s Age of Ultron unfortunately carries the weight of its blockbuster-ness around like a sack of potatoes. James Spader’s quippy turn as the Big Bad felt genuinely unconventional — weirdest Less Than Zero sequel ever, by the way — but everything else here felt both rushed and strained, sometimes to the point of incoherence. (I’m looking at you, Thor’s hot tub time machine.) The good news is, if Winter Soldier and Civil War are any indication, the brothers Russo are more than ready to take up this burden for the Infinity War.

18. Kumiko the Treasure Hunter: The first hour of this film is slooooow, and I might’ve felt that way about the second hour too if I had known where we were headed. But lucky for me going in, I had no inkling this tale, about a lonely Japanese woman obsessed with finding the buried suitcase from Fargo, was based on a “true” story. So I had no idea where this movie was going, and was honestly expecting something much more whimsical and magical realist than the depression case study we have here. Either way, the film has some truly haunting moments (Bunzo on the Metro, for example), picks up steam once Kumiko arrives in the Northlands, and has a wallop of an ending that will stay with you after the credits.

19. The Martian: Once again, saving Matt Damon proves the critical spending stimulus America needs. I read the Andy Weir book first and thought, while the science lectures were great fun, the writing and especially the characters were flat-out terribad. (Like, how many disco jokes do we need?) This movie skips over a lot of the fun science that made Weir’s book memorable, but improves on the people part of the equation, so it’s a wash. In any event, seriously, as the Buzzfeed quiz says, “put a bell on this guy”…wait, you lost him AGAIN?!

20. Sicario: Admittedly, this movie gets dumber and more formulaic as Benicio del Toro turns into a gloomy, cartel-smashing superhero. But, for most of its run, Sicario is a surprisingly poetic piece of cinema, and one that manages to keep a frisson of the same sort of this-fustercluck-is-actually-happening-right-now immediacy as Traffic or Syriana. Not sure we need a sequel here, tho’.

21. Carol: I tend to like Todd Haynes movies and was looking forward to this one…so I’m a bit bummed to relate that I was kinda bored by Carol. It has moments of loveliness, but for all intent and purposes this May-December romance felt to me like a less-Sirk-y remake of Far from Heaven. (Forbidden love vs fifties mores, etc.) Therese (Rooney Mara), the ingénue of this story, is a cipher, and thus not very interesting. As for Carol (Cate Blanchett), she not a particularly sympathetic character — if the couple here were straight, she’d seem like a middle-aged predator — and attempts to make her so mostly fall flat. (As Carol’s angry, insecure ex-husband, Kyle Chandler is given one note to play and he just keeps banging on it throughout.) I get that Patricia Highsmith’s novel was groundbreaking for the time, but, in 2016, this story seems a little more rote. But at least Carol feels like the era it’s set in, unlike…

22. Brooklyn: Another well-made fifties love story-turned-tragedy, about a young Irish woman (Saiorse Ronan) who starts a new life in America, but chooses to throw away her only real chance at happiness by marrying an Italian plumber (Emory Cohen) and moving to Levittown. (Sorry, I’m #TeamGleeson all the way.) Seriously, though, this is another throwback picture like Bridge of Spies, and it’s an enjoyable immigrant tale, even if it tends to act like Eilis came to the New World in 1880 or 1920 at various points. (It’s 1952, y’all. Back-and-forth transatlantic travel is an established thing.)

23. Crimson Peak: As all the moths and butterflies everywhere attest, this sumptuous Gothic romance/ghost story is basically Guillermo del Toro playing with his toys, so not in the league of say, The Devil’s Backbone. But, even if the story is all over the place at times — apparitions come and go whenever the movie needs a jolt — it’s all very pretty to look at. It’s just too bad del Toro likes seeing sharp objects slicing and penetrating people so much, since every gory slash ruins the otherwise lush atmosphere here.

24. Room: A well-made adaptation of a 2010 book by Emma Donoghue (which I haven’t read), Room kept me off-kilter throughout mainly because I’m so used to American movie tropes. Here, a woman (Brie Larson) and her child (Jacob Tremblay) ultimately escape from the shed they’re locked in for years, a la Kimmy Schmidt. And yet, the movie never turns into Sleeping with the Enemy (he’s still out there!) or a courtroom procedural (you have to testify against him!) It simply tells the story of their escape and the psychological aftermath. Both Larson and Tremblay are very good here, even if, to be honest, I spent a lot of the shed period of the film rooting for the Babadook to show up.

25. Straight Outta Compton: It was a close race for this last spot between two reasonably satisfying music biopics featuring Paul Giamatti as an industry leech: Love and Mercy and this F. Gary Gray overview of the rise of hip-hop’s N.W.A. I went with Compton in the end since it has more of a social message and, even despite the serious whitewashing here, at least it doesn’t keep telling us in every. single. scene. that the protagonists are musical geniuses. (Yes, yes, Pet Sounds is amazing and ahead of its time, I get it.)

MOST DISAPPOINTING:

The Hateful Eight: Welp, Tarantino has disappeared up his own ass again. This overlong chamber piece purports to have big ideas about history and the Civil War, not to mention the stark chasm between the mythology surrounding American heroes and the inglorious basterds they in fact often were. But there’s no there there – Hateful isn’t nearly as profound as it thinks it is. Worse, Tarantino botches the actual story here. Eight ne’er-do-wells trapped in a lodge during snowstorm should’ve played out as a decent Agatha Christie mystery. Instead, the big twist is revealed in the opening credits, and so many suspects end up being part of the ultimate conspiracy that the narrative just feels like a cheat. Of course, QT is more interested in the dialogue than the plot anyway, but, even then, the profane, inane chatter gets old well before everybody start bleeding all over the floor. Maybe Tarantino should pull a Jackie Brown and do an adaptation of someone else’s work for a change.

WHAT IS THIS I CAN’T EVEN:

Fantastic Four: I mean, there’s no use to piling on at this late date, but Josh Trank’s FF reboot is just an out-and-out disaster. Miles Teller, Michael B. Jordan, Toby Kebbell, Reg E. Cathey — there are some very likable actors in this picture. And yet the movie feels both amateurishly-made and as if the studio suits took the keys away in a panic move mid-production. Whatever happened, this FF is so bad it makes the two Tim Story movies feel like modern Marvel…who should really get this property back already.

THE REST:

Worth On Demand-ing::

Best of Enemies: A good documentary on the 1968 Vidal-Buckley feuds, though, to be honest, watching them debate feels like watching the NBA before Bill Russell. You can tell me Buckley is brilliant over and over again, but it doesn’t make it true. Meritocracy killed the Firing Line star.

The Hunger James: Mockingjay, Part 2: Fine and admirably downbeat like the third book, this still seems like it should’ve been one movie with the first part, and that the franchise overstayed its welcome by a year.

Love and Mercy: Well-done, but see Compton, above.

Our Brand is Crisis: Rather preachy by the end, but I still enjoyed it.

Spy: Better than I expected, but, then again, Paul Feig has been admirably consistent.

Tomorrowland: Brad Bird sure does love Ayn Rand, doesn’t he? Still, worth seeing just for Hugh Laurie’s rant about contemporary pop culture.

Don’t Bother:

Aloha: The kerfuffle over Emma Stone’s casting aside, this film is inert from the first reel. What’s happened to Cameron Crowe?

Black Mass: The world doesn’t need any more gangster movies. This one adds nothing new to the mix. The best scene is the one from the trailers, with Depp’s Bulger bullying a Fed at the dinner table.

Dope: Tries too hard, and I found it cloying in the manner of Diablo Cody. Tho’ I did like the section where Bitcoin gets involved.

Fifty Shades of Gray: Terrible. Not even sexy. And yet still an improvement on the book! C’mon, America, get it together – France did this all better sixty years ago.

Jurassic World: Ho-hum. A by-the-numbers product of the reboot machine. But it’s competently made, so Episode IX has that going for it.

The Last Five Years: A not-very-good adaptation of the recent divorce musical. I was bored by it.

Spectre: This is a pretty good Bond movie for awhile, but it completely skips the rails once 007 and his most recent muse end up at that bus station in Africa. Just as Skyfall Bruce Wayne-ified Bond, now we get Blofeld as The Joker. Doesn’t work, doesn’t make any sense, is egregiously dumb.

Steve Jobs: Typical Sorkin walk-and-talk-fest, all in the service of getting to know a guy whose main claim to fame was marketing gimmickry. Not my cup of tea.

Terminator: Genisys: Kind of a disaster, was ruined by the trailers, and feels made for TV. Also needs more Matt Smith and J.K. Simmons. But at least it’s weird.

Trainwreck: LeBron James is a surprisingly good comic actor. This still wasn’t particularly funny however.

    A Good Year For:
  • 70’s Reboots (The Force Awakens, Creed)
  • Domhnall Gleeson (Ex Machina, Brooklyn, The Revenant, Star Wars)

    A Bad Year For:
  • Timely End-of-Year Lists
  • Walks In the Woods (Kumiko The Treasure Hunter, The Revenant)

Unseen: 99 Homes, The Age of Adaline, American Ultra, Amy, Beasts of No Nation, Blackhat, Chappie, Child 44, Chi-Raq, Clouds of Sils Maria, Concussion, Cop Car, Daddy’s Home, The Danish Girl, The End of the Tour, Entourage, Far from the Madding Crowd, Furious 7, Get Hard, The Gift, The Good Dinosaur, Grandma, Hot Pursuit, Infinitely Polar Bear, Insidious Chapter 3, Insurgent, The Intern, In the Heart of the Sea, Irrational Man, Jem and the Holograms, Joy, Jupiter Ascending, Kill Me Three Times, Krampus, The Last Witch Hunter, The Lazarus Effect, The Look of Silence, Love the Coopers, Magic Mix XXL, The Man from U.N.C.L.E, Maps to the Stars, Max, The Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Minions, Mortdecai, Mr. Holmes, No Escape, The Overnight, Paddington, Pan, Pawn Sacrifice, The Peanuts Movie, Pitch Perfect 2, Pixels, Point Break, Poltergeist, Rikki and the Flash, Rock the Kasbah, Run All Night, The Runner, San Andreas, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Secret in their Eyes, Self/Less, Sisters, Slow West, Southpaw, The Stanford Prison Experiment, Stonewall, Suffragette, Taken 3, Ted 2, Trumbo, Victor Frankenstein, The Visit, A Walk in the Woods, The Walk, War Room>, We Are Your Friends, Wild Tales, Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death, Woman In Gold

(The Rest of) 2016: The Accountant, Assassin’s Creed, Bad Santa 2, Ben-Hur(?), Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Collateral Beauty, The Cure for Wellness, Doctor Strange, Fantastic Beasts And Where to Find Them, Finding Dory, The Founder, Ghostbusters, The Girl on the Train, Inferno, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, Jason Bourne, The Legend of Tarzan, Lion, The Magnificent Seven(?), A Monster Calls, Neighbors 2, The Nice Guys, Passengers, Pete’s Dragon, Snowden, Star Trek Beyond, Suicide Squad, Warcraft, War Dogs, X-Men: Apocalypse, and…

What will you do when they catch you? What will you do if they break you?”

No Strings Attached. | Legions Ahead.


Still catching up on unfinished business from Less than Zero, James Spader terrorizes Robert Downey Jr. and the rest of Marvel’s mightiest superheroes in the first teaser for Joss Whedon’s Avengers: Age of Ultron. The sea of generic Ultron clones seems really close to the ersatz-Skrulls of Avengers and robot armies of past two Iron Mans, but everyone’s gotta have stormtroopers, I guess.

And in very related news, DC and Marvel have released their respective movie calendars for the next six years. The wanna-be contenders at Warner Brothers/Detective Comics are going with Zack Snyder’s Batman v. Superman and two Justice League movies, Suicide Squad, Wonder Woman (set in the 20’s? I like it), The Flash (Ezra Miller), Aquaman (Jason Momoa), Shazam (with The Rock as Black Adam), Cyborg (Ray Fisher), and — sorry, Ryan Reynolds — a re-booted Green Lantern.

As for the current champs, Disney/Marvel, along with next year’s Ant-Man, we have two more Avengers (Infinity War, 1 and 2, a.k.a. Thanos time), the next installments of Guardians of the Galaxy, Captain America (Civil War) and Thor (Ragnarok), and new additions Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch? I still like Luke Evans), Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), Captain Marvel, and The Inhumans. Yes, we live in a universe that is actually going to have an Inhumans movie. Invest in Lockjaw dog costumes now.

Got all that? If not, the good folks at ComicsAlliance have made a handy infographic, below. And this isn’t even counting the gaggle of comic TV shows now on or forthcoming. Great Caesar’s Ghost, fanboy/fangirl nation, what have we wrought?

Amazons and Androids.

Also among the riches of Comic-Con ’14: Zack Snyder released a second image of the Batfleck (not to be confused with Bruce Wayne) and our first look at Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman from Batman v. Superman. So Diana’s meant to be Kryptonian, then (re: the tiara)? That’s a rather dramatic change.

Elsewhere, Joss Whedon’s Avengers showed up to gab and release, over a few days, this robot melee from Age of Ultron. Both properties also showed short teasers to the attendees, but thus far I’ve only seen them online in unflattering Kramervision form.

Lawyers, Guns, and Money.

Lots of catch-up to do in the Trailer Bin…

Finally out of The Master‘s clutches, a lonely Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with, for all intent and purposes, Siri (Scarlett Johansson) in the first trailer for Spike Jonze’s Her, also with Amy Adams, Olivia Wilde, Chris Pratt, and Rooney Mara. I believe this is called going the full-Lars. (Also, I’m never not going to hear the name of this film as “Her?”)

Alan Rickman and Donal Logue — now there’s one of the best buddy pairings on film since Ray Winstone and Brendan Gleeson in Beowulf — meet a lot of 24 Hour Party People American-style in our first look at CBGB’s, with Ashley Greene, Freddy Rodriguez, Johnny Galecki, Bradley Whitford, Rupert Grint, Justin Bartha, Stana Katic, and Malin Ackerman (as Debbie Harry?) I see Severus is now teaching young Mr. Weasley a completely different set of Dark Arts. Hrm, maybe.

Michael Fassbender finds he’s taken a wrong turn into Cormac McCarthy land in the newest trailer for Ridley Scott’s The Counselor, with Penelope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt, Goran Visnjic, and Dean Norris. Looks very McCarthyish, and no mistake. The good news is Ridley Scott still owes Fassbender a solid film after Prometheus.

It belongs in a museum! WWII soldiers George Clooney and Matt Damon put together a crack team to save priceless art and artifacts in the first trailer for Clooney’s The Monuments Men, also with John Goodman, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Jean Dujardin, and Cate Blanchett. As one wag aptly noted on Twitter, this is basically an Elseworlds Ocean’s movie, but I trust Clooney’s choices. Still, here’s hoping it works out better than Clooney & Blanchett’s last trip to Germany.

Over an unfortunately poppy soundtrack, Idris Elba and Naomie Harris channel Nelson and Winnie Mandela in the first trailer for Justin Chadwick’s Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. This looks a bit standard-issue-biopic-y, I’ll admit. But I’ll watch just to see Elba as Mandela — just no Henley poems, k?

Team Silver Linings Playbook joins forces with Team Fighter (sans Wahlberg) to dabble in the luxurious world of art forgery in this brief trailer for David O. Russell’s next, American Hustle, with Bradley Cooper, Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert DeNiro, Louis CK, Jack Huston, Alessandro Nivola, Michael Pena and Elizabeth Rohm.

Lowry? Has anybody seen Sam Lowry? Er, sorry, that would be Mitty, as in Ben Stiller’s adaptation of James Thurber’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, with Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Sean Penn, Adam Scott, Patton Oswalt, and Shirley MacLaine. I have to admit, this looks much fresher than I anticipated. Definitely maybe.

A terrible accident, an unexpected boon, and A Simple Plan all add up to another bad day for Sam Rockwell in the trailer for David Rosenthal’s A Single Shot, also with William H. Macy, Jason Isaacs, Jeffrey Wright, Kelly Reilly, Ted Levine, Melissa Leo, and W. Earl Brown. A great cast through and through, but you had me at Rockwell.

And if you need another reason to worry about Found Money, Alice Eve gets into trouble with the Russian mob, in the form of Bryan Cranston, in the trailer for Cold Comes the Night, also with Logan Marshall-Green. If nothing else, it’ll be good for Cranston to get some more menacing reps in before signing up with LexCorp (although, in that department, Mark Strong’s a solid choice as well.)

Where’s a mermaid when you need one? Tom Hanks is in considerable peril on the sea in our second look at Paul Greengrass’ Captain Phillips, also with Catherine Keener, Max Martini, Yul Vazquez, Michael Chernus, Chris Mulkey, Corey Johnson, David Warshofsky, John Magaro and Angus MacInnes.

I thought Greengrass’ most recent film, 2010’s Green Zone, was an overly preachy dud — I get annoyed with edutainment that aggressively berates me to endorse opinions I already hold. (I’m looking at you, Aaron Sorkin.) But Greengrass has a lifetime pass after United 93, Bloody Sunday, and the Bournes, so hopefully this is a return to form.

Thor Odinson, meet Clarice Starling: In a tight spot with a new Big Bad, Earth’s mightiest Asgardian (Chris Hemsworth) is forced to enlist help from his brother in the joint in the second trailer for Thor: The Dark World, also with Tom Hiddleston, Natalie Portman, Christopher Eccleston, Idris Elba, Anthony Hopkins, Rene Russo, Jaimie Alexander, Kat Dennings, Stellan Skarsgard, and Ray Stevenson.

After The Dark Knight, Skyfall, and ST:ID, I’m not sure we need any more villains unfolding their master plans from behind prison bars this decade — Heck, even Loki himself was doing this same shebang in The Avengers last year. Still, the first Thor was better than expected, and Marvel’s on a pretty consistent streak at the moment. I’m in.

I also thought the Nick Stoller’s 2011 reboot of The Muppets was decent enough, but I’m not getting good vibes at all from this first teaser for James Bobin’s Muppets: Most Wanted, with Ricky Gervais, Ty Burrell, Tina Fey, Salma Hayek, Frank Langella, Till Schweiger, Debby Ryan, Danny Trejo, Ray Liotta, and Christoph Waltz. Early yet, and I do like Stoller and Bobin’s prior output, but right now this looks like it’ll hit at about Smurfs 2 level.

So, yeah, Harrison Ford hasn’t gotten all that much better at voiceovers since Blade Runner, has he? Anyway, there’s also a new trailer for Gavin Hood’s Ender’s Game, also with Asa Butterfield, Ben Kingsley, Viola Davis, Hailee Steinfeld, Abigail Breslin, and a ridiculous number of clichés (the Inception BWOMP, “We’re running out of time,” etc.) Everyone wants a Ford comeback, but it’s hard to imagine this one getting my money, even if Orson Scott Card wasn’t a jackass. Oh well.

Bad Girls, Angry Gods, Rainy Nights, Dead Men.


I have yet to see Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, but it seems like it’d make a decent double feature with this one: Emma Watson leads a pack of ne-er-do-well teens into the mansions of LA’s idle rich in the first trailer for Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring, also with Katie Chang, Israel Broussard, Claire Julien, Taissa Farmiga, Georgia Rock, and Leslie Mann. Eh, ok. On the bright side, this doesn’t have to be very good to be far better than Somewhere.


Back from the recent unpleasantness in New York, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) makes a Faustian bargain with Loki (Tom Hiddleston) to save Natalie Portman and/or Earth from the clutches of Christopher Eccleston in first trailer for Alan Taylor’s Thor: The Dark World. Returning for more Asgardian shenanigans is pretty much the entire cast from the first film, including Anthony Hopkins, Idris Elba, Tom Hiddleston, Rene Russo, Ray Stevenson, Jaimie Alexander, Kat Dennings, and Stellan Skarsgard.


The inimitable Tony Leung does his best Neo impression in the rain in our first look at Wong Kar-Wai’s The Grandmaster, also with Zhang Ziyi. This is a lousy teaser, and the muddy, gray jump-cuttiness of it all is inauspicious for the director’s first foray into martial arts. But, hey, Tony Leung.


Ryan Reynolds (nee Hannibal “Blade 3” King, Deadshot, Green Lantern) looks for a comic book hit at last, while Jeff Bridges channels his recent Crazy Heart/True Grit turns to make a mortgage payment or three, in this ho-hum trailer for Robert Schwentke’s R.I.P.D., also with Mary Louise-Parker and Kevin Bacon. Looking like highly derivative MIB territory here, and Schwentke — the director of Red — does not inspire confidence.

2012 in Film.

Whatever its other faults, 2012 was actually a pretty solid year at the cineplex. In terms of great movies, the crop wasn’t as rich as, say, 1999. (To name just a few from that year: Being John Malkovich, Fight Club, The Matrix, Three Kings, The Iron Giant, Election) But, in general terms, I thought most of the movies that came out this past year avoided obvious pitfalls and delivered at or better than the level they promised.

For example, almost all of the year’s superhero movies were surprisingly good — no real Green Lantern-y whiffs this year. Most of 2012’s unnecessary sequels and even-more-unnecessary remakes — MIB III and Amazing Spiderman, say — turned out better than expected. Horror moved out of the serial killer/torture pr0n ghetto in both conventional (The Women in Black) and unconventional (Cabin in the Woods) ways. Lowbrow, could-be-terrible comedies like 21 Jump Street and Ted actually had some solid laughs to them. And even the intentional B-movies — like Dredd, Lockout, or Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter — all had their moments, even if I can’t recommend some of those in their entirety.

In any case, now that the last few 2012 films have hit DC theaters, and my dissertoral defense obligations are now behind me, it’s at last time for the usual end-of-year list ’round here. Since I didn’t do any individual reviews this past year — I still haven’t decided if those will return for 2013 — I’ve upped the 2012 list to 25 movies, and, at the end, added a few thoughts on some of the others that crossed my field of vision over the past twelve months. Without further ado…

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

1. The Dark Knight Rises: “Theatricality and deception, powerful agents for the uninitiated. But we are initiated, aren’t we, Bruce?” I know Christopher Nolan’s TDKR wasn’t as well-received in many circles as The Dark Knight, and for understandable reasons — the Joker will always be Bat’s #1 nemesis. Still, I loved this closing chapter of Nolan’s trilogy — its audacious scope, its Occupy Gotham meets the French Revolution ambience, its tight connections back to Batman Begins, its menacing yet loopy villain, its repudiation of the ends-justify-the-means arguments of TDK. (So much for the contention in that earlier film that “sometimes the truth isn’t good enough…Sometimes people deserve to have their faith rewarded.” That dubious line of thinking backfires for Alfred, Commissioner Gordon, Wayne, and everyone else who partook of it in the last film.)

I don’t know how The Dark Knight Rises plays to the uninitiated, since, like most fans, I went in presuming that (a) Bane would break the Bat and (b) Talia al Ghul was involved in some capacity. And admittedly there are some problems here, as in all of Nolan’s Batman movies. As soon as Alfred starts going on about French cafes in the first reel, it’s pretty clear where the film will end up eventually. (And that closing doesn’t make sense anyway, since billionaire Bruce Wayne is likely recognizable all around the world, certain Chinese prisons notwithstanding.) And speaking of prisons, how, exactly, did barefooted Bruce get back from somewhere in the Middle East into a Gotham City on lockdown?

All that being said, there was a lot to like here. I enjoyed the intricate plotting of TDKR, and how some of its central points hearkened back to lessons learned in the previous films. (For example, Bruce’s concern, in light of Joker-style escalation, about the fusion reactor becoming a weapon.) I liked how Anne Hathaway was introduced as a prototypical Anne Hathaway character — the Nervous-Nellie maid — before revealing her decidedly-unHathawayesque Selina Kyle. I was consistently entertained by Tom Hardy’s sing-songy Bane voice, including goofy flourishes like his admiring the pre-game rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner. (“He has a beautiful voice!” If only Bane had subsequently gotten a chance to freestyle.) And I thought there were moments of real poetry, such as when, to suggest the passage of time while Bruce’s back healed, a Bane-commandeered Batmobile prototype rolls along a snowy Gotham side street.

One common complaint I heard about TDKR is that it’s a Batman movie without Batman — that the Caped Crusader completely disappears in the second act of the film. I don’t get it, and my theory is people who hold this view have never, personally, been broken. Granted, we all expect that Bruce Wayne will get his back fixed and get back in the game. Still, even if it’s weirdly the most mutually supportive prison on Earth (which makes more sense once you realize Bruce throws down a rope once he got to the top), I like the Lazarus Pit detour, and the ultimate payoff of seeing Bruce/Bats back in action in Act III. Fall down, get back up. Get your back broken, have Tom Conti punch that vertebrae back in. Get the s**t kicked out of you, get rid of that rope and rise.

2. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey: “Saruman believes it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. I found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay…small acts of kindness and love. Why Bilbo Baggins? Perhaps it’s because I am afraid and he gives me courage.”

I can see why some folks didn’t cotton to TDKR, but I really can’t get my head around all the Haterade that’s surrounded Peter Jackson’s excellent and entertaining first installment of The Hobbit. This was a great movie! And it was easily as faithful to Tolkien’s book in both tone and story as the latter two Rings films. (For people complaining about the inclusions of Radaghast the Brown, Dol Guldur, and the White Council, I submit to you Osgiliath and Far-from-the-Bookamir. Pale Orc, meet Lurtz.)

Particularly bewildering to me is all the whining about 48 FPS. I thought An Unexpected Journey looked amazing. Granted, I spent a childhood watching Doctor Who, Blake’s 7, and the like, and so I’m used to suspending my disbelief while watching images that seem video-immediate. But still. All the kvetching about the new standard was, in my opinion, totally over the top. (In terms of snapping my abilty to engage with a universe on screen, I had more issues with the operetta-ness of Les Mis. Er…are they really going to sing every single line of this movie? Russell Crowe too?)

As for all the complaints about the pacing, admittedly this first chapter was languidly told — Three and a half hours and we only got to Out of the Frying Pan, Into the Fire. But, y’know, I like spending time in Middle Earth — If the dwarves want to sing again, have at it, good fellows. (Just don’t go all operetta on us.) And given that, for example, GRRM’s Song of Ice and Fire books are getting ten hour adaptations each, or Treme or Boardwalk Empire are enjoyable 35-hour stories where, often, not much happens plotwise, I had no problem at all with the expanded length — particularly as the additions were straight from Tolkien’s notes and not, say, 40 minutes of dwarf-tossing jokes. Let’s hope that holds through the third film, which is the one I’m really worried about.

In any event, I thought An Unexpected Journey was a great adaptation of the first third of The Hobbit, and that it threaded the needle quite well between feeling like it took place in the same world as the LotR trilogy and bringing a more lighthearted and jovial tone to Middle Earth, in keeping with the children’s book nature of The Hobbit. Bring on the incident with the Dragon.

3. Beasts of the Southern Wild: “I hope you die and when you die, I’ll go to your grave and eat birthday cake all by myself!” I tend to consider myself a cynical and curmudgeonly fellow, so I was quite surprised that Beasts of the Southern Wild — a film I expected to find aggravatingly twee — kinda knocked me sideways. I’m not even sure if the movie would hold up to a second viewing — When I reflect on it now, those scenes in Beast that don’t feel like scraps of dream seem like they probably shouldn’t have worked.

But, at least that first time around on the big screen, this fairy tale of a young girl living on the wrong side of the Louisiana levees (a.k.a. “the Bathtub”) had a strange sort of magic to it. I particularly liked the End Times conflation of Katrina and global warming, and vibed with the film completely around the time Hushpuppy feared that the melting ice sheet would inadvertently unleash the four boar-monsters of the apocalypse. Pretty soon, we’ll all live in the Bathtub.

4. The Avengers: “Shakespeare in The Park? Doth mother know you weareth her drapes?” In the 2011 list, I voiced my sneaking suspicion at #14 that Joss Whedon’s The Avengers wasn’t going to work. Consider that crow eaten. Even despite a bland opening sequence and a third act alien invasion that felt weightless, this was a surprisingly fun time at the movies, and perhaps the best popcorn film of the summer.

In particular, I liked that this was never a particularly “dark” movie. The Avengers aren’t tortured souls like Batman or even the X-Men, and Whedon, a former X-Men writer, didn’t portray them as such. Instead he was able to capture the voice of each of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes — Cap the boy scout, Thor the thunder god, etc. — throw them in a hovering aircraft carrier together, and let shenanigans and shawarma ensue.

True, Hawkeye in particular got short shrift, Scarlett Johansson was still woefully miscast as the Widow (Olga Kurylenko anyone?), and Cobie Smulders, a.k.a. your Aunt Robin, just isn’t much of a film actress. (Exhibit A: this alternate opening.) Still, I liked the balance Whedon came up with here, where Robert Downey’s Iron Man was given the dramatic arc befitting his star wattage, but Chris Evans’ Captain America still ended up leading the team. And, arguably for the first time on film, Whedon got the Hulk exactly right.

5. Looper: “I’m from The Future. You should go to China.” Speaking of Marvel comics, Looper [moderate spoilers] may just be the best Franklin Richards movie we see in awhile. In any case, I wasn’t much for either Brick or especially The Brothers Bloom, but I thought Rian Johnson’s third film was a smart, well-crafted science fiction story that was very worthwhile.

As in most time travel tales outside of 12 Monkeys, Looper‘s final few scenes don’t make any sense. (Spoiler: JGL’s decision at the end would seemingly have to result in everything Bruce Willis did being rolled back — Thus, none of that carnage at Jeff Daniels’ compound or along the road would ever have happened, and there would be no money lying around, etc. etc.)

But until then, Looper is a satisfying and stylish mishmash of time travel, telekinesis, and the Chandler and Hammett-isms (by way of Miller’s Crossing) that inspired Johnson’s Brick. It also included the creepiest time travel outcome I’ve seen since people were ‘porting into walls in The Philadelphia Experiment. (That would be the grim fate of Paul Dano’s future-self.)

6. Lincoln: “I wish He had chosen an instrument more wieldy than the House of Representatives.” I’ve already noted my problems with the history here: It’s rather ridiculous to argue that the lesson of the Civil War is that compromise is awesome, or that the constitutional amendments that emerged from it are a product of such. Quite the contrary, really. Spielberg and Kushner also vastly overstate the danger that the Thirteenth Amendment would not pass here, and Kushner, given the comments cited in that earlier post, unfortunately doesn’t seem to understand Reconstruction at all.

That being said, Daniel Day-Lewis’s eerie evocation of our sixteenth president is the performance of the year, and I remain impressed that this film, while a touch too Spielberg-y in its opening and closing moments, nonetheless forewent the traditional biopic route and embraced a narrowcast, nineteenth-century CSPAN aesthetic instead.

7. Oslo, August 31st: “Look at my life. I’m 34 years old. I’ve got nothing. I don’t want to start from scratch.” A movie that made it here via Netflix, Oslo, August 31st is a well-observed day in the life of a recovering heroin addict (Anders Danielsen Lie), as he returns to his old haunts and tries to make peace with the shambles he feels he’s made of his existence.

Looking desperately for a way to reconnect to the world at large, or at least to transcend his current despair, Anders has a series of conversations with former friends and enemies, during which he discovers that even those who didn’t miss the train of life going by are, by and large, just going through the motions. Everything here feels uncomfortably true, from Anders’ visit to see a former partner in crime, now a married academic, to his self-defeating job interview, to his plaintive calls to the woman who disappeared, to his falling back into old habits. A quietly devastating film.

8. Moonrise Kingdom: “I love you, but you don’t know what you’re talking about.” True, this Wes Anderson film could not be any more Wes Anderson-y — I’m looking at you, Bob Balaban the omniscient narrator — so if that’s a problem for you, I wouldn’t expect Moonrise to change your opinion of the man’s work.

As with the less-successful Life Aquatic and Darjeeling Limited, Anderson is ensconced in his usual sandbox. Nonetheless, this story of two tweenagers enjoying a summer love, and the problems this causes for all the conflicted and compromised adults around them, ranks up there with Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums (#46), and The Fantastic Mr. Fox among Anderson’s best. It’s also a beautifully shot film, redolent of the sun-drenched afternoons of years gone by.

9. Cabin in the Woods: “Cleanse them. Cleanse the world of their ignorance and sin. Bathe them in the crimson of – Am I on speakerphone?” When it comes to Joss Whedon, I’m not at all what you’d call a browncoat. I liked Firefly and Serenity alright, but much prefer Farscape when it comes to Blake’s 7 knockoffs, and neither Buffy nor Angel spoke to me like it speaks to many. (The West Wing is another show I never understood all the love for, but I digress.)

At any rate, consider me as surprised as anyone that both of Whedon’s 2012 films ended up in this year’s top ten. Sure, this outside-the-box take on teen slasher tropes is a gimmick movie, and one that’s more wry than it ever is frightening. Still, at least the first time around, what a ride Cabin turned out to be — It’s rare to watch a third act of a film feeling like just about anything could happen. I just wish we’d seen more of “Kevin.” (see pic above)

10. Killing Them Softly: “This guy wants to tell me we’re living in a community? Don’t make me laugh. I’m living in America, and in America you’re on your own. America’s not a country. It’s just a business. Now f**kin’ pay me.” This is another movie that racked up a lot of negativity for some reason, presumably due to it being mis-marketed as an action/gangster film.

Since I knew going in that this was Andrew Dominik’s follow-up to the strange and languid Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, I got about what I expected – a dark character piece that almost-but-not-quite-successfully tries to fuse Cogan’s Trade with a commentary on the Iraq War, the financial crisis, and general disillusionment in the Age of Obama. Personally, I liked spending time with these guys — Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn’s twin screw-ups, Richard Jenkins’ officious middleman, Gandolfini’s broken assassin. And, while the political angle didn’t quite gel, I still admired what Dominik tried to do here.

11. Amour: “Things will go on, and then one day it will all be over.” Not exactly the best time you’ll have in a theater this year — Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks, & 2 Days comes to mind as a similarly unrelenting two hours at the movies. Still, Michael Haneke’s unflinching study of an elderly couple staring dementia and death in the face has a grim power to it, as well as two mesmerizing performances by Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva.

I can assure you, I don’t plan to sit through this film again any time soon. Still, Amour puts the lie to so many other depictions of love you see at the movies, and I left E Street afterwards both somewhat shaken by it and thinking it was time to carpe some diem (or as the kids say, YOLO) right now, before it’s too late.

12. The Grey: “Once more into the fray. Into the last good fight I’ll ever know. Live and die on this day. Live and die on this day.” And if old age doesn’t get ya, there’s always wolves, y’know? First, let me be clear: This movie is as wrong about wolves as another film I’ll get to in a bit is wrong about torture. All the Canis lupus stuff in here is abject nonsense.

But, to me, the wolves were really just the dispatching agents in this often-gripping existential drama. The real story of The Grey isn’t about wolves at all. It’s about Liam Neeson and his pack of tough-guy survivors coming to grips not just with their looming mortality, but with the reasons they wanted to live in the first place. In the Alaska wilderness, as in Paris or anywhere else, nobody gets out alive.

13. The Deep Blue Sea: “Beware of passion, Hester. It always leads to something ugly.” Just as past years have seen dueling underwater monster movies (Leviathan/Deepstar Six), asteroid disaster flicks (Armageddon/Deep Impact), and Truman Capote bios (Capote/Infamous) and 2013 will have two separate attacks on 1600 Penn (Olympus Has Fallen/White House Down), 2012 featured three quite good movies about women forsaking their kind, boring husbands for passionate, simpleton lovers, and subsequently running into a social buzzsaw as a result.

All of ’em made this list, but in the end The Deep Blue Sea, Terence Davies’ lush evocation of postwar England, garners the top spot among them. Along with memorable turns by Rachel Weisz and Tom Hiddleston, occasionally dream-like scenes like Londoners awaiting the Blitz in the subway tunnels or singing along to “You Belong to Me” have stuck in my memory this year.

14. Argo: “Brace yourself; it’s like talking to those two old f**ks from The Muppets.” Ben Affleck’s well-made chronicle of a successful CIA operation along the fringes of the Iran hostage crisis often felt like transparent Oscar bait to me. The Hollywood stuff felt it like needed to be more fleshed out and, since the history is well-known, the many attempts to ratchet up the suspense in the third act just didn’t work for me personally. (YMMV.)

Still, I was impressed by how well-balanced Argo came out — From its opening storyboard sequence, the movie doesn’t mince words about our many misadventures in Iran, making what could have been simply a depressing jingoistic exercise into a more thoughtful story of diplomatic blowback. Overall, I prefer Affleck’s Gone Baby Gone and The Town — Still, as a director, he’s now 3-for-3.

15. Celeste and Jesse Forever: “You know what your problem is? Contempt before investigation. You think you’re smarter than everybody else.” Full disclosure: Writer-star Rashida Jones was an acquaintance of mine in college, so I went in to Celeste and Jesse hoping more than usual that I would like it. Nonetheless, after a rough 10-15 minutes at the outset, this well-observed and wistful after-the-rom-com, about the break-up of a longtime couple, gradually gets to work on you.

It seemed like bit players like Elijah Wood (as Rashida’s gay boss/BFF) needed more to do, and Chris Messina has played the surprisingly wise frat-bro so many times by now that I can’t really take him seriously anymore. But otherwise, Celeste and Jesse earns it emotional beats and, by the time the final reel rolled, I felt quite invested in it.

16. Cloud Atlas: “Our lives are not our own. From womb to tomb, we are bound to others. Past and present. And by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.”

Here’s yet another 2012 film where it feels like critics just began to pile on mercilessly at a certain point. The Wachowskis and Tom Twyker’s adaptation of David Mitchell’s high-brow sci-fi novel doesn’t quite gel, and some of the plotlines — Ben Whishaw’s amanuensis, Tom Hanks after the Fall — were more interesting than others, most notably Jim Sturgess in the South Pacific and Jim Broadbent’s nursing home jailbreak. (Also, no nice way to put this, but much like Keira Knightley, Halle Berry is an A-list actress who’s never all that good.)

But even if it doesn’t live up to its ambition, Atlas is still an impressive and intellectually (if not emotionally) engaging feat. Granted, it wasn’t subtle about its message, but the degree of difficulty here should count for something. At least Atlas was reaching for something totally new — and every so often, especially during the occasional montage bringing together the six tales, you can catch a glimpse of it.

17. Take This Waltz: “Life has a gap in it… It just does. You don’t go crazy trying to fill it.” The second of this year’s adulterous love triangles — this one set to one of Leonard Cohen’s many classics and The Buggles — Sarah Polley’s follow-up to Away From Her has a low-key, natural, and lived-in feel that’s hard to fake.

True, Michelle Williams and Seth Rogen felt a little too baby-talk-schmoopy in their scenes together, and Luke Kirby’s handsome pedicabbie always just seemed like a self-absorbed creepshow to me. But one of the strengths of this film is how all the characters here seem like three-dimensional human beings, with all the needs, vulnerabilities, and suspect decision-making attending.

18. Rust and Bone: “We’ll continue…but not like animals.” Speaking of follow-ups, Jacques Audiard’s second film after A Prophet felt like the movie the much-hyped Silver Linings Playbook wanted to be. This rough-and-tumble romance between a street fighter (Matthias Schoenaerts) and a damaged whale instructor (Marion Cotillard) after a terrible accident is never as good as A Prophet, and it goes seriously off-the-rails in its third act, around the time Cotillard tattoos her leg-stumps “gauche” and “droit.” But up until then, Rust and Bone manages to sidestep a surprising number of movie-of-the-week pitfalls and keep its gutter-punch rawness intact.

19. Seven Psychopaths: “No, it doesn’t! There’ll be one guy left with one eye. How’s the last blind guy gonna take out the eye of the last guy left?” I didn’t like In Bruges as much as a lot of people, and occasionally this new film by playwright Martin McDonagh suffers from the same outrageousness-for-its-own-sake. (Case in point: the scene where Woody Harrelson interrogates Gabourey Sidibe.)

Still, I kinda liked how this increasingly loopy and laconic film seemed to realize it would be more fun just to hang around with its gaggle of likable actors (Sam Rockwell, Christopher Walken, Colin Ferrell, Tom Waits, Zeljko Ivanek, Harrelson) for awhile and just dropped the plot. I only wish McDonagh had found more to do with Olga Kurylenko and especially Abbie Cornish, who are (literally and figuratively) wasted here.

20. Anna Karenina: “Is this about my wife? My wife is beyond reproach. She is, after all, my wife.” Like Killing Them Softly and Cloud Atlas, Joe Wright and Tom Stoppard’s adaptation of Anna Karenina is a film I admired for its ambition, even if the conceit — here, that all of the Russian society scenes take place on a nineteenth century stage — doesn’t end up quite working. And even if there’s some of the same unnecessary grandstanding that marred Atonement‘s Dunkirk scene (intricate shots are fun and all, but they should serve the story), this is quite a beautiful picture.

While Keira Knightley unfortunately doesn’t make much of an impression in the title role, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson of Kick-Ass and Savages just seems out of his element as Vronsky, Jude Law brings pathos to a character that could’ve just seemed like the villain, and there are a number of enjoyable turns in the margins of this story, from Domhnall Gleeson (son of Brendan) covering the sociopolitical elements of the book to Matthew MacFadyen — who seemingly jumped right into late-Alec Baldwin mode right after his stint as Mr. Darcy in 2005 — as the oafish Oblonsky.

21. Skyfall: “Do you see what comes of all this running around, Mr. Bond? All this jumping and fighting, it’s exhausting!” Speaking of beautiful films, Daniel Craig’s third outing (and Sam Mendes’ first) as 007 doesn’t match the heights of Casino Royale, but it’s looks like the billion dollars it made, and it’s a far sight better than the sophomore misstep of Quantum of Solace. (It also features an instant classic Bond song in Adele’s title track.)

My biggest problem with Skyfall, and it’s a hard one to overlook, is that, in a transparent effort to capture some of that Dark Knight cachet, they effectively turned James Bond into Batman here. So Bond is now a rich orphan who grew up in Scotland’s version of Wayne Manor? Erm, ok. It doesn’t help matters that Javier Bardem’s ridiculous villain — The Joker + gay panic, basically — has exactly the same goofy plan as the Clown Prince of Crime did. (The next Big Bad to get captured on purpose, apparently? Gary Mitchell Garth Khan Gruber.)

But this is a Bond movie, so set your low expectations accordingly. Even if it feels like we’re already approaching Moonraker or Octopussy territory only three movies into the Craig era, this is still among the better outings in this long and storied franchise.

22. Django Unchained: “Gentlemen, you had my curiosity. But now you have my attention.” From the opening moments of Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, it’s clear this film is going to be a bit of a mess. (Our title card reads: “1858. Two Years Before the Civil War.” Uh…that’s three years before the war, Quentin.) And, to be honest, I liked this movie better when it was called Inglourious Basterds — Here, we have basically the same experience, with QT once again righting history’s wrongs with a blood-spattered vengeance.

I actually liked that Tarantino decided to put the evils of American slavery front and center in this film, since it’s an ugly underside of our history that, cinematically, has been pretty much buried. (One admirable exception to prove the rule: CSA.) The funniest scene in the movie is probably QT riffing off both Blazing Saddles and Birth of a Nation with his Klansmen complaining about their eyeholes.

Nonetheless, I’m not sure why, given all the very real horrors of slavery QT often draws from, we ended up with the exceedingly fake Mandingo Fighting as a centerpiece of this story, other than it was in some blaxsploitation films QT used to enjoy. With that in mind, and more egregiously, a good hour of this movie makes absolutely no sense: Why wouldn’t Schultz and Django just be like, “I’m a lonely German guy who will pay top-dollar for a slave that speaks German?” (Tarantino tries to address that particular question here. I don’t think it works.)

Still, however sloppy and self-indulgent, Django was a decently enjoyable movie for most of its run. It would be nice, tho’, to see Tarantino take a stab at another Jackie Brown-style project at some point. As it is, it feels like he’s continuing to disappear up his own ass.

23. Holy Motors: “Weird! Weird! Weird!” I’m usually not one to end a movie once I’ve started it, but I turned off David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis, via OnDemand, well before the end. (I hear Paul Giamatti shows up at some point.) Far more entertaining — and much, much stranger — was Leo Carax’s bizarro stab at the wandering limousine genre this year.

As with Django, it seemed like there was a lot of name-dropping and inside baseball, of the cinema history variety, going on in Holy Motors, which is behavior I find irritating a lot of the time. But I found Denis Lavant’s mad misadventures here compulsively watchable, even if we passed basic coherence two or three lefts ago.

24. The Woman in Black: “I believe even the most rational of minds can play tricks in the dark.” This wasn’t a Cabin in the Woods-style reinvention of horror tropes by any means. That being said, I quite enjoyed this played-straight Hammer films throwback, with Daniel Radcliffe unwisely investigating ghostly happenings at a mansion along the moors.

Rather than relying solely on blood, guts, and jump cuts, The Woman In Black resurrects classic cinema techniques and all the old standbys of this particular genre — rocking chairs, Victorian dolls, creepy children and whatnot — to put the audience ill at ease for ninety minutes. In sum, a slight but effective scare machine.

25. Dredd: “In case you have forgotten, this block operates under the same rules as the rest of the city. Ma-Ma is not the law… I am the law.” As with every year, a lot of films could have gone in this final spot on the list — Bernie, Life of Pi, Savages, Marley, ParaNorman. But I’m giving it to Pete Travis and Alex Garland’s Dredd, because it’s a good example of what went right at the movies in 2012.

There are better movies than Dredd this and every year, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a better Dredd movie. Travis and Garland took what was distinctive about this character – give or take his Watchmen-like satire of American superheroes — and transported an issue of the comic to the screen, no more, no less. Extra points for a likable cast (Olivia Thirlby, Wood Harris, Lena Headey) and for Karl Urban — unlike Stallone back in the day — never taking off the helmet.

MOST DISAPPOINTING:

Prometheus: Pretty much everything that needs to be said about the dumb-as-dirt disaster this turned out to be has been encapsulated by the Red Letter Media guys. Whhhhyyyyyy? Why does a movie with such a terrible script ever get greenlit? Why does Damon Lindelof, after putting out an idiotic film like this, continue to get work in Hollywood?

It’s sad, since even notwithstanding the greatness of Alien and Aliens (and I’d submit that Alien 3 and Alien: Resurrection are more admirable failures than this film), there are elements of a much better movie here — most notably Michael Fassbender’s T.E. Lawrence-loving android and the sheer look of the picture. Otherwise, however, this was just a terrible, nonsensical movie, and I ended up just feeling embarrassed for Fassbender, Charlize Theron, Idris Elba, and everyone else involved. For shame.

MOST OVERHYPED:

Silver Linings Playbook: I like David O’Russell. I like Jennifer Lawrence. I have no issues with Bradley Cooper. But, Lordy, I hated this film, and I just can’t figure out where all the hype is coming from. Granted, SLP falls into a very specific genre of movie I despise, whereby some severely damaged dude is suddenly saved from loneliness, madness, and/or general despair by a perfectly unique and perfect girl for him. (See also: Sideways, Punch-Drunk-Love, and all the other many iterations of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl.) Honestly, all of you who keep making this same movie, go see Amour or something.

But even notwithstanding that sort of ubiquitous rom-comminess, SLP just seemed really by-the-numbers to me. The only variation on the same-old stale tale, as far as I could tell, is that this time there’s a really important game AND a really important dance competition at the end. And while Jacki Weaver does some memorable things as Bradley Cooper’s long-suffering mom, I didn’t take DeNiro seriously here at all. Just a bad movie.

Zero Dark Thirty: As it happened, I kinda hated Zero Dark Thirty too, but at least here I get where the positive reaction is coming from. To be honest, I expected going in that I’d leave ZD30 conflicted — that it would be a good movie undone by its egregious lies about torture. As it turned out, this is not even a good movie — it’s strongest pleasure consists of watching quality character actors — Mark Strong, James Gandolfini, Stephen Dillane – in brief turns as suits. (Tom Donilon is English?)

For one, ZD30 is far too blatant in its CIA embeddedness. Every CIA character here is a well-meaning tortured soul, heavy-hearted with the burden of saving the world. There’s no mention of, say, Tora Bora. The CIA’s egregious, world-historical fuck-ups, like arguing there were WMD in Iraq, are brought up only in passing. The agency’s outright crimes, like, say, waterboarding a guy 180 times to obtain a false positive, aren’t even mentioned. Watching Type-A go-getter Jessica Chastain and her ponytail flounce around for America for two and a half hours, you’d have no idea that her real-life counterpart and her ilk have been found guilty of, among other things, torturing and sodomizing an innocent man.

Admittedly, it could be because this pro-torture distortion of the history put me in an increasingly foul mood. Still, even as a movie Zero Dark Thirty has serious problems. As one of Chastain’s co-workers, poor Jennifer Ehle has to offer up some of the most ridiculous telegraphs of her impending death since Lt. Deadduck in Hot Shots. And I found the last forty minutes or so of the film, which depicts the actual raid on bin Laden’s compound in excruciating detail, to be a total snooze.

We know what’s going to happen here. And since we’re already in Fantasyland as far as the efficacy of torture goes, why not add sharks or tigers or man-eating bears to this war pr0n raid on OBL’s Afghan fortress? Or how about a badass female #2 (Maggie Q? Olga Kurylenko?) to fight Chastain, martial-arts style, over a deep chasm or conveyor belt or something? Might as well, since we’re already far afield from anything approaching the Real World. In sum, this film is sheer propaganda, and ham-handed agitprop at that.

The Master: Going into this film, I was rooting for Paul Thomas Anderson to build on the promise of the first hour of There Will Be Blood. Unfortunately, The Master is a pretentious bore, and not nearly as deep as it thinks it is. Get past all the Kubrickian grand-standing — Kubrick has clearly replaced Scorsese and Altman as PTA’s object of homage these days — and Anderson has made another variation of the same movie he’s always made, from Hard Eight to Boogie Nights to Magnolia to TWBB: People create fake families for themselves, look for validation in those families, and are ultimately let down by those families. It wasn’t a very interesting point three movies ago.

Poor Joaquin Phoenix sweats Method blood to give his character some resonance, and Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams have their (brief) moments of note — To his credit, PTA always does seem generous with his actors. But none of them can do anything with what they’ve been given. The Master, unfortunately, is yet another solid case of the Emperor’s New Clothes.

MOST UNFAIRLY MALIGNED:

John Carter: Peter Jackson’s first installment of The Hobbit could go here, as could Cloud Atlas. But, in the end, it seems like no movie got a tougher racket this year than Andrew Stanton’s estimable adaptation of John Carter. True, I watched this on Netflix rather than in the theater, which tends to be a more forgiving experience. But still, this film was a well-made, decently intelligent, and reasonably faithful and engaging adaptation of its source.

It wasn’t my favorite movie of the year or anything — it wasn’t even in my top 25, as we just saw — but it was totally fine for what it was. I have no clue why everyone pounced on this movie like they did. But, as with all the detest in some circles for An Unexpected Journey, it speaks poorly of what the Internet has done to movies in some ways. There’s a rush-to-judgment and piling-on effect that, at least in this case, wasn’t merited at all.

2011 LEFTOVERS:

Coriolanus: Not sure if this would have broken the 2011 list last year or not. Still, Ralph Fiennes’ bloody cover-version of a relatively unknown Shakespearean history, modernized by way of CNN and Afghanistan, has a lot to recommend for it. Along with Fiennes himself, Coriolanus features fine performances from James Nesbitt, Jessica Chastain, Gerard Butler and especially Vanessa Redgrave (as the general’s scheming mother) and Brian Cox (as the most hail-fellow-well-met of Senators). Definitely worth a Netflix.

Margaret: Whether you want to call it a holdover from 2011 (when it came out) or from the 2005 list (when it was filmed), Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret is also worth catching up with sometime. Here, Anna Paquin — better than I’ve ever seen her — is a self-absorbed NYC teenager forced to come to terms with the ramifications of a terrible bus accident she helped to precipitate. Along for the three-hour ride through this distinctively New York tale are Mark Ruffalo, Matt Damon, Matthew Broderick, J. Smith-Cameron, Jean Reno, Allison Janney, Olivia Thirlby, Kieran Culkin, and Rosemarie DeWitt. (FWIW, the provenance of the film’s name is also the best tell for what it’s ultimately about.) Well worth seeing.

THE REST:

Worth Netflixing: 21 Jump Street, Ai Weiwei Never Sorry, The Amazing Spiderman, Bernie, The Bourne Legacy, Detachment, Haywire, The Hunger Games, The Life of Pi, Les Miserables, Magic Mike, Marley, Men in Black III, ParaNorman, The Raid: Redemption, Savages, The Sessions, Snabba Cash, Ted, To Rome With Love

Don’t Bother: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Casa de mi Padre, Chronicle, Compliance, Cosmopolis, Dark Shadows, Flight, The Hunter, Hyde Park on Hudson, Jeff Who Lives at Home, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, Killer Joe, Lawless, The Loneliest Planet, Lockout, Rampart, Red Hook Summer, Safe House,Snow White and the Huntsman, Total Recall

Best Actor: Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln; Liam Neeson, The Grey; Dennis Lavant, Holy Motors; Anders Danielsen Lie, Oslo, August 31st; Jean-Louis Trintignant, Amour

Best Actress: Rachel Weisz, The Deep Blue Sea; Emmanuelle Riva, Amour; Marion Cotillard, Rust and Bone; Quvenzhane Wallis, Beasts of the Southern Wild

Best Supporting Actor: Ben Whishaw, Cloud Atlas; Ben Mendelsohn, Killing Them Softly; Jude Law, Anna Karenina; Clarke Peters, Red Hook Summer

Best Supporting Actress: Anne Hathaway, Les Miserables; Samantha Barks, Les Miserables; Frances McDormand, Moonrise Kingdom

Unseen: 2 Days in New York, Act of Valor, Alex Cross, American Reunion, Arbitrage, Battleship, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Brave, Butter, The Campaign, The Cold Light of Day, Contraband, Deadfall, The Devil Inside, The Dictator, Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax, End of Watch, The Five Year Engagement, For a Good Time Call…, Friends with Kids, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, The Guilt Trip, Hitchcock, Hope Springs, How to Survive a Plague, The Impossible, The Intouchables, Jack Reacher, Joyful Noise, Not Fade Away, One for the Money, Man on a Ledge, The Man With the Iron Fists, Mirror Mirror, The Odd Life of Timothy Green, On the Road, Parental Guidance, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, The Pirates: Band of Misfits, Premium Rush, Project X, The Raven, Red Dawn, Red Tails, Robot and Frank, Rock of Ages, Safe, Safety Not Guaranteed, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, The Secret World of Arietty, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, Step Up: Revolution, Taken 2, This is 40, The Three Stooges, Tim & Eric Billion Dollar Movie, This Means War, Trouble With The Curve, Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part II, The Watch, W/E, The Words, Wrath of the Titans

    A Good Year For:
  • The CIA’s Publicity Department (Argo, Zero Dark Thirty)
  • Existential Despair (Oslo, August 31st, The Grey)
  • Domnhall Gleeson (Anna Karenina, Dredd)
  • Doris Kearns Goodwin (Lincoln, Hyde Park on Hudson)
  • Anne Hathaway (The Dark Knight Rises, Les Miserables)
  • Limousines (Holy Motors, Cosmopolis)
  • Ben Mendelsohn (The Dark Knight Rises, Killing Them Softly)
  • Scoot McNairy (Argo, Killing Them Softly)
  • Channing Tatum (21 Jump Street, Haywire, Magic Mike)

    A Bad Year For:
  • The 1% (Cosmopolis, Les Miserables, The Dark Knight Rises)
  • Dull Husbands & Dim Lovers (Anna Karenina, Take This Waltz, The Deep Blue Sea)
  • Hi-rise Apartment Buildings (The Raid: Redemption, Dredd)
  • Slavery (Django Unchained, Cloud Atlas, Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter)

2013: 2 Guns, 42, 47 Ronin, 300: Rise of an Empire, About Time, After Earth, All is Lost, Anchorman: The Legend Continues, The Angriest Man in Brooklyn, As I Lay Dying, August: Osage County, Before Midnight, Better Living Through Chemistry, The Black Marks, The Bling Ring, Broken City, Bullet to the Head, The Butler, Byzantium, Captain Phillips, Carrie, Chavez, Closed Circuit, Closer to the Moon, The Colony, The Company You Keep, The Congress, The Counselor, The Dallas Buyers Club, Dead Man Down, Devil’s Knot, Diana, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: His & Hers, Dom Hemingway, Don Jon’s Addiction, The Double, Elysium, Ender’s Game, The Europa Report, Evil Dead, Fading Gigolo, Fast Six, Filth, Foxcatcher, The Frozen Ground, Gambit, Gangster Squad, Girl Most Likely, A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III, Gods Behaving Badly, A Good Day to Die Hard, The Grandmaster, Grand Piano, Gravity, Great Expectations, The Great Gatsby, The Hangover Part III, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, The Heat, Her, Homefront, Horns, How I Live Now, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Hummingbird, I, Frankenstein, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, Inside Llewellyn Davis, Iron Man 3, Jack the Giant Slayer, Jack Ryan, Kick-Ass 2, The Last Stand, The Lone Ranger, Lovelace, Mama, Man of Steel, Monster’s University, Monuments Men, Movie 43, Oblivion, Oldboy, Olympus Has Fallen, Only God Forgives, Oz the Great and Powerful, Pacific Rim, Pain and Gain, Parker, The Place Beyond the Pines, Red 2, Riddick, R.I.P.D., Side Effects, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, Star Trek: Into Darkness, Stoker, This is the End, Thor: The Dark World, The Tomb, To the Wonder, Trance, Twelve Years a Slave, Upstream Color, Warm Bodies, The Wolf of Wall Street, The Wolverine, The World’s End, World War Z, and

You have nice manners for a thief and a liar…

Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em.


Well, I’m sure it helped that, between the series of underwhelming trailers and the general hokiness of the source material, I went in with expectations calibrated at about shin-level. Still, I was surprised to discover this past Friday that Kenneth Branagh’s corny but amiable adaptation of Marvel’s Thor — which I caught IN THREE DIMENSIONS (the third of which adds next to nothing, by the way; save your money) — is totally and utterly not-bad.

That may seem like I’m damning this first of four comic book tentpoles this summer — along with X-Men: First Class, Green Lantern, and Captain America: The First Avenger — with faint praise. But, hey, sometimes ok is a good thing. There’s not much reaching for depth here: Branagh’s Thor is smart and self-referential enough to know that, once you get past all the family strife, Norse brooding, hubris of Gods, and whatnot, this is just a breezy, early-May popcorn film, and it keeps a light touch accordingly. The Dark Knight, this isn’t.

As such, and perhaps not surprisingly, Thor — the story of a fallen deity’s misadventures in the American Southwest, and the brother who betrayed him back home — feels more in keeping with the Make-Mine-Marvel larkiness of Iron Man. (And although IM was a much better film, Thor is more successful and self-contained a story than the rush job that was Iron Man 2.)

Like Iron Man, Thor is a comic that — Walt Simonson’s epic run in the 80’s notwithstanding — I’ve remained mostly agnostic about over the years. With all due respect to the Nordic pantheon from whence he came, Thor has just never been all-that-interesting a comic book character to me. He’s…a guy…with a hammer. Nor, for that matter, are his powers very well-defined. So, ok, he’s strong and can kinda sorta control the weather. But there’re a lot of generic strongmen running around the Marvel universe — Hulk, Hercules, Colossus, Juggernaut. What makes Thor different?

With that in mind, Branagh and his team of screenwriters make the smart move of dropping the “trapped as mere mortal Dr. Donald Blake” part of Thor’s origin and taking what’s distinctive about the character — mainly, his Asgardian roots and his noble, if a bit dense, nature — to fashion a fish-out-of-water story instead. Most of the humor that keeps the movie humming along — say, Thor going to the pet store to find a Lockjaw-type large steed on which to ride through the desert — ensues from this wise decision to skip canon and tell a rollicking Thor story (Thory?) instead.

The film also benefits from a bevy of actors, including but by no means limited to Chris “Papa Kirk” Hemsworth as the titular thunder god, who can managed the dual feat of conveying comic book gravitas when it is required and delivering moments of pure cheese with a wink and a nod. Anthony Hopkins, of course, is an old hand at this sort of thing by now, but his Odin is matched well by Tom Hiddleston’s impressive turn as Loki, the God of Mischief. (Let’s face it, Loki was always a more interesting character than Thor anyway, almost by design, and perhaps the most visceral geek thrill I got out of Thor was seeing Hiddleston — in the iconic horned helmet — lounging on Asgard’s throne like something out of Milton.) And a number of other actors here match the same wry and knowing tone perfectly, from Idris Elba’s Heimdall to Clark Gregg’s ubiquitous Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D to Stellan Skargard, here in the often-thankless role of skeptical science guy/mentor to the love interest.

Speaking of the love interest, Natalie Portman continues her post-Black Swan year-of-many-films here as super-physicist Jane Foster, and she’s decent enough at it. At the very least she doesn’t exhibit the deer-in-a-headlights stare that accompanied her last venture into FX-heavy fandom, the prequels. If there’s a weak link here, it’s probably — and sadly — Rome‘s Ray Stevenson (who already did time in the Marvelverse as the Punisher, in the one with McNutty) as Volstagg of the Warriors Three, a.k.a. Falstaff in the comics, Gimli in this film. I like Stevenson, but he’s mostly just miscast here. A more rotund individual (Oliver Platt? Mark Addy?) probably could’ve sold the character better.

Still, the very fact that the Warriors Three are traipsing around the margins of a big summer movie just goes to show what an embarrassment of riches comic book fans are enjoying at the multiplex these days. Even if I’m not much of a fan of Thor per se, I have to admit I definitely enjoy watching the world-building Marvel is engaged in as a studio right now. (Here, various Marvel denizens are name-dropped, and another Avenger shows up briefly mid-movie — You’ll know him when you see him.)

Like the comics they’re based on, these pre-Avengers films have permeable borders. It’s like nothing we’ve seen before at the cinema, and the ambition is thrilling. Of course, there will be a backlash eventually — one of these comic book films is going to bomb, and bomb big. But, surprisingly to me at least, Thor doesn’t signify the end is near. To the contrary, it shows that if you get a good director, good writers, and good actors who take their source seriously — but not too seriously — the comic book experience is actually pretty translatable to the big screen. The ball’s in your court now, Hal Jordan.

The Warriors Three (and a Team of X.)


Lots of action on the Marvel movie front this past week. The powers-that-be have granted us our first looks at Chris Evans as Captain America, and Andrew Garfield as the new Peter Parker, along with another shot of Chris Hemsworth as the Mighty Thor. Hmm…three-for-three, I’d say, although I still have a bad, straight-to-video-y feeling about the god of thunder.

Update: Just as I finished posting this, a promo image leaks from Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men First Class. From left to right: “Michael Fassbinder as Magneto, Rose Byrne as Moira MacTaggert, January Jones as Emma Frost, Jason Flemyng as Azazel, Nicholas Hoult as Beast, Lucas Till as Havoc, Zoe Kravitz as Angel Salvadore, Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique, and James MacAvoy as Charles Xavier.” Looks…crowded.

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