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Elizabeth Banks

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2014 In Film.

So, yeah, this is a little late — I believe the current parlance is “dragging” — but I have gotten in quite a bit of catch-up over the past two months. (In fact, I watched two of my top 25 this past week, including the aforementioned Whiplash — Thanks OnDemand!)

The only Best Picture contenders I missed in the end were American Sniper — yeah, no thanks — and The Imitation Game, which looks frightfully Oscar-baity to me, and apparently does rather poorly by Turing, so oh well. Otherwise, and now that those Oscars have come and gone, time to fish or cut bait. So here’s last year’s Top 25 at last!

Suffice to say, 2014 was a pretty lean year in cinema — as weak as any I can remember (and even then the Academy made a hash of it) — so here’s hoping for a higher average quality of prospects over the next ten months.

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

1. Boyhood: YMMV, of course. But I thought Richard Linklater’s ambitious chronicle of an average Texas upbringing was the one real standout movie experience of 2014, and far and away the best film of the year.

While we’d seen glimmers of this sort of storytelling in the 7-Up documentaries, Linklater’s own Before series, and even the Harry Potter movies (where we watched all the Hogwarts kids grow up over the years), this remarkable coming-of-age tale felt like something entirely new. The degree of difficulty here is extraordinary, and yet Linklater and his dedicated adults — Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke, whose onscreen aging makes the film that much more resonant — took what could’ve just been a gimmicky stunt or shapeless experiment-gone-wrong and imbued it with subtlety, nuance, and introspective intelligence.

In a sense, Linklater crafted with Boyhood the experience that Terence Malick clearly sweat bullets to approximate in The Tree of Life — how it’s the little things, the languid afternoons or random car trips, that stick with you as you grow up and/or grow old. But, unlike Malick’s more labored undertaking, Linklater makes the storytelling here seem effortless. Which of course, it wasn’t — this took 12 years! The magic of Boyhood is that that passage of time is woven into the fabric of the film itself. You sense it, slipping past you and the characters both, as you watch.

True, Oscar rarely gets it right — Last year was a notable exception in that regard. Still, as Dan Kois pointed out on Oscar night, snubbing Boyhood was an egregious mistake, and one that will speak poorly of the Academy’s judgment for many moons to come.

2. Only Lovers Left Alive: “There’s water here. And when the cities in the South are burning, this place will bloom.” Go long on Detroit, y’all: While the drop-off from Boyhood to the rest of the pack is a steep one, Jim Jarmusch’s wry-sexy-cool vampire saga Only Lovers Left Alive rests solid at #2. I’ve never been all that much of a Jarmusch fan — long-time readers may remember me wondering what the fuss was about over Dead Man. (And, at this late, post-Twilight date, who isn’t a little sick of cooler-than-thou, elitist vampires?) Still, Jarmusch et al nailed it here.

If Boyhood reflects how quickly the inexorable arrow of time speeds us along from four-legs to two-legs to three, Only Lovers and its bevy of bored blood drinkers suggest that timelessness can be kind of a drag after awhile also. Still, watching our heroes and heroines kick around the ruins of Detroit and Tangier is great fun and, with all due respect to whatever Joseph Gordon-Levitt is cooking up these days, it’s hard to imagine a better film made of Neil Gaiman’s Endless than what we have here. (Mia Wasikowska’s character in particular is the spitting image of Death.)

Also, while I liked her as the White Witch, I’ve generally found Tilda Swinton underwhelming in the past — See, for example, what I wrote about Michael Clayton back in the day. Here, she’s absolutely captivating. (As for Tom Hiddleston, he’s been doing the bored immortal schtick over at Marvel lately, so this isn’t too far afield for him.)

3. Edge of Tomorrow: I haven’t read the source material (Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s All You Need is Kill), but the concept of Doug Liman’s Edge of Tomorrowlater remonikered Live, Die, Repeat — seems pretty simple: It’s “Groundhog Day meets Starship Troopers.” The beauty of Edge — easily the most fun and fully-realized thrill-ride of the summer — is that it milks this one basic idea for all it’s worth. The result is arguably the best video game movie we’ve yet seen, since Cruise’s character is basically playing Dark Souls here until he gets to the alien end-boss.

Speaking of which, Tom Cruise may be creepy as all hell in real life, but he continues to make excellent decisions on the action and sci-fi film front, and here’s he backed up by a very capable Emily Blunt — who hilariously promised she’d never make exactly this sort of film back in 2005 — and a number of wily, likable genre veterans: Brendan Gleeson, Noah Taylor, Bill Paxton. In a mostly forgettable summer, this is a movie that deserved to do better.

4. Captain America: The Winter Soldier: Is this ranked too high? Well, maybe, but The Winter Soldier was one of the most enjoyable experiences I had at the movies in 2014. Cap’s second outing is both a promising debut by the Russo Brothers, who are now apparently slated to take over the Avengers franchise after Joss Whedon, and a significant improvement over Joe Johnston’s sturdy first installment.

Perhaps the best part of The Winter Soldier — at a time when even those of us who wanted more comic movies back in the day are perhaps feeling a little buyers’ remorse — is the Alan Pakula, seventies-conspiracy-theory tone of its first two acts — heck, even Robert Redford is involved. The Winter Soldier demonstrates that Marvel is savvy enough to realize that not all their films have to feel the same (something we’ll hopefully see more of in their upcoming Netflix Daredevil series.)

As I said here, I’m not a big fan of the floating-helicarriers-again third act or the absurd death count in this film. Still, in this age of NSA overreach, CIA torture, and general 9/11 hysteria, it sure is nice to see Cap stand up for the real red, white, and blue.

5. Selma: Ava DuVernay’s powerful Selma — the best of the Oscar contenders besides Boyhood — applies the “House of Horrors” in-your-face approach of 12 Years of Slave to more recent American history, and quite rightfully portrays George Wallace and the cretinous cops of the white South as villains and thugs standing athwart freedom, progress, and basic human decency. Like Steve McQueen’s (better and more artful) film, it pointedly rubs the audiences’ face in the brutal crimes of Massive Resistance, both to evoke an emotional response and to stand as a much-needed corrective to all-too-many “white savior” movies like Mississippi Burning and Lincoln.

All that being said, I found it hard to take my history hat off during the movie, and on that end I felt like Selma had some issues. Much has been made of the treatment of LBJ — here are the briefs for the prosecution and the defense — and, while many films do worse violence to history, I still left the theater feeling like LBJ got screwed here. (His calling in a chit with J. Edgar was particularly galling.)

That aside, a bigger problem is that MLK himself seems off. As everyone knows, for copyright reasons, Selma couldn’t use any of Dr. King’s real words — which, by the way, is totally bizarre. Nonetheless, the words they came up with instead were tonally jarring — less memorable, too script-y, often (as at Jimmie Lee Jackson’s funeral) too on-the-nose. To me, they just didn’t sound like Dr. King, and didn’t capture either his poetic genius or his public persona.

However conflicted and exhausted he was in private (and this the film does well), his public voice — at least in 1965 — was more eloquent and more unshakeable in the conviction that freedom, justice, and the Beloved Community were inexorably going to win out. But, in a perfect world, the scriptwriter shouldn’t have had to reinvent the wheel — if you’re going to make a film about MLK, let the man speak his own words.

6. The Lego Movie: Everything is awesome? Well, for the two-odd hours The Lego Movie is on, it actually kinda is. What could’ve been a cheap-n-cheesy cash grab turned out to be a surprisingly fun trip to a witty meta-universe where the couches are double-decker, Lando hangs with Gandalf and Dumbledore, and Batman’s into therapeutic death metal. (“Darkness! No Parents! Super-Rich…kinda makes it better!”) And sure, the ending was a bit cloying — I’m on Team Kraggle, I guess — but I definitely didn’t expect that final reel going in.

7. Blue Ruin: I enjoy the cinema experience more than almost anyone I know, but tickets now on the north end of $12-a-pop means decisions have to be made on what to see with a crowd. So, for better or for worse, 2014 was the year that I embraced OnDemand for movie-watching.

One definite upside: the chance to catch movies like Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin, a Coen-esque indie thriller about what happens when an average, loser-ish guy (Macon Blair) decides to seek revenge on the men who killed his parents, just like they do in the pictures. Ruin loses some steam as it goes along, but few movies this year so vividly conveyed that sickly, lurching “then THIS happened” feeling of watching a simple plan unravel.

8. Force Majeure: Man, Oscar had a bad year. Just as The Lego Movie was AWOL from the Best Animation category, this darkly funny Scandinavian import about a pater familias who fails in his prime directive during a family ski vacation was nowhere to be seen on the Foreign Film list. (This prompted another Majeure Man-Cry.) Force Majeure is likely not everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s kinda hilarious if you vibe into it.

9.Whiplash: As Larry Mullen, Jr. once said of Achtung Baby, “I don’t think the lyrics are worth a shit to be honest, if you ask me. I think it’s all about drums!!” I actually caught this two nights ago, and to be honest, I call shenanigans on the Tiger Mom school of artistry that’s the film’s central conceit here. (As far as I know my sis never got ritualistically abused by a dance mentor, and she seemed to turn out ok.)

Nor did the stakes seem all that high to me — I guess, if I’m honest with myself, I just don’t care all that much about the world of jazz drummers. All that being said, this is a sleek, lean, well-made and very watchable audience picture with a fun performance at its core — the inimitable J.K. Simmons as the Hannibal Lecter of bandleaders. And it’s always great to see a long-time character actor get his due.

9. The Babadook: Stephen King once wrote — I think it was in Danse Macabre — that the secret to good horror is tapping into a real-life fear or anxiety. If so, I expect The Babadook would be much higher (or lower) on my list if I were a parent. For beyond all the freaky, stop-motion supernatural antics going on in this eerie Australian horror story, the real question haunting The Babadook is: “Wouldn’t your life be soooo much better if you just got rid of this %^&@%@ kid?” Well….wouldn’t it? If it’s in a word, or if it’s in a book, you can’t get rid of the Babadook…

11. CitizenFour: For all their other mistakes this year, big ups to the Academy (and HBO) for giving Laura Pointras’ CitizenFour a publicity boost. (And how weird was it to see Glenn Greenwald on the Oscar stage? Worlds collide!) I’ve written about Snowden at length here before, and nothing since then has convinced me I was wrong about him. (Sorry, but hysterical and completely 100% redacted warnings of damage, macho death threats from Pentagon dickbags, all-too-typical Hillary-running-right tsk-tsking, and outright lies by the NSA just aren’t getting the job done.)

I do wish CitizenFour had spent more time explaining exactly what Snowden revealed (it does a good job on metadata, for example) and less of him, say, futzing with his hair. Still, for humanizing Snowden and getting the other side of the story out there, this is an important and worthwhile film.

12. Locke: “Do it for the piece of sky we are stealing with our building…most of all, you do it for the fu**ing con-CRETE!” I’ll say this for Tom Hardy: Whether it’s The Dark Knight Rises, Bronson, Peaky Blinders (also by Locke‘s Steven Knight), or this film, half the fun of watching the man at work is doing impressions of him days and weeks after the fact. (Maybe it’s time to watch Star Trek: Nemesis again…lol, no, just kidding.)

All of Locke is just Hardy behind the wheel at night, muttering in a Welsh brogue about last year’s mistake and tomorrow’s “pour.” But damn if it isn’t engrossing for most of the drive.

13. The Double: Based on a Dostoyevsky novella and written and directed by British comedian Richard Ayoade, The Double resonated with me mainly, I confess, because it had the good sense to steal liberally from one of my favorite films (and this blog’s namesake), Brazil. Office satire, film noir sartorial sense, and unrequited love in a overly bureaucratic sci-fi dystopia? I’m in!

In any event, a fun two hours with very likable actors like Jesse Eisenberg, Mia Wasikowska, and Noah Taylor (the latter two also good in Only Lovers and Edge of Tomorrow this year respectively) And if the Eisenberg-Michael Cera Doubling dilemma even exists anymore — Eisenberg seems to have pulled away by now — I suppose this is Eisenberg’s answer to Cera’s Youth in Revolt.

14. Dear White People: A smart, well-written college satire of 21st century campus life — sort-of-a-Mean Girls meets Hollywood Shuffle — that’s both nuanced and topical about issues like being black in the Ivies and how white appropriation of hip-hop quickly devolves into egregious stereotypes. Writer-director Justin Simien is one to watch.

15. Guardians of the Galaxy: I thought the 70’s nostalgia was a little overdone, but still: With the help of some Douglas Adams sensibility and Chris Pratt’s aw-shucks amiability — still not sure if that’ll wash for Indiana Jones — James Gunn managed to tackle a complicated Marvel property and fashion a fun and broadly engaging space opera out of it, one that somehow didn’t turn off mainstream audiences despite having a talking raccoon and Wookie tree along for the ride. (Special props to Dave Bautista as Drax the Destroyer — he was much better than I’d anticipated.) So gratz on that, tho’ I’ll be realllly impressed if they actually manage to pull off The Inhumans. Lockjaw or go home!

16. The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies: Oh, PJ…well, 4.5 out of 6 ain’t bad. Battle of the Five Armies is a solid-enough Middle Earth fantasy battle pic, I suppose, and moderately engaging when taken on its own. I’m just no longer sure at this point what it had to do with J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit.

There are any number of small problems here. First off, the fact that Smaug the Magnificent is taken care of before the title card suggests that maybe his final fate should’ve been sorted out in the second film. (And cut that awful Alien 3 homage at the end of Smaug too please — it makes the Great Wyrm a buffoon.) Second, having to pad out an entire movie from what’s left means a lot of filler — everything about Alfrid, the Unibrow of Laketown, was cringeworthy.

More importantly, tho’, I get why Jackson wanted to tie The Hobbit closer to Lord of the Rings thematically and aesthetically, but doing so ruins the whole point of the Battle of Five Armies. This was Tolkien in WWI mode — the battle is a ghastly and ludicrous mistake set off by greed and misunderstanding. But as portrayed here, it’s instead a prelude to the WWII, “Good Fight” of LotR against the encroaching menace of Sauron. So instead of Tolkien skirting over the battle because it’s a bunch of nonsense that Hobbits rightfully shouldn’t be caught up in, we get two hours of honor and glory and sacrifice and more martial humdrum. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a place for that — it’s called The Lord of the Rings.

As a result, Bilbo is very much a passive participant in the film that’s ostensibly telling his story, and that’s a shame. I wouldn’t say additions are necessarily the problem — far and away the best part of this movie is the White Council showing up at Dol Guldur. But it looks like there were probably two great films to make from this source material — not three. The Battle of the Five Armies is still a very competently made action epic, and one that’s engaging from moment to moment. But, sadly, it’s the least of PJ’s six Tolkien films. We’ll always have Fellowship.

17. Under the Skin: Definitely the better of the two super-powered Scarlett Johansson movies of 2014 (oh wait — there were three; I forgot about The Winter Soldier), I still liked Under the Skin less than many of the raves (and, for that matter, less than Jonathan Glazer’s earlier film, Sexy Beast.) Whatever hidden depths others found in those black oily waters, I found it mostly a slow, surface-feeding sci-fi/horror film that was only semi-involving. Still, it was unique, and had some indelible images on occasion, not the least the final shot of soot mingling with snow.

18. Ida: As a grad school friend well put it, this Polish import about a orphaned nun-to-be discovering her roots is “stunningly sterile.” It’s a beautifully-shot film — Ida well-deserved its Best Cinematography nod — and the film offers a memorably well-drawn character in Ida’s world-weary aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza). But otherwise, there’s not much there there. Literally: This movie only clocks in at 82 minutes. This is more of a short story than anything — not a bad short story, by any means, but I much preferred Force Majeure and The Babadook as far as 2014 imports go.

19. Jodorowsky’s Dune: Of all sad words of tongue or penJodorowsky’s Dune, a documentary about a failed cuckoo-bananas version of Frank Herbert’s classic, is good fun for several reasons. First, Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky remains a ebullient personality at age 86. Second, the sheer ambition that went into this film is staggering (Salvador Dali as the Emperor? Orson Welles as Harkonnen? Mick Jagger as Feyd? Whoa.) Third, it’s interesting to notice how many other movies ended up ripping off the work done for this flick, even decades later with Prometheus. All-in-all, a lively documentary about what might’ve been.

20. The Zero Theorem: Also mining the Brazil aesthetic this year was its original envisioner, Terry Gilliam. The actual story here — about a introverted computer programmer (Christoph Waltz) seeking to find meaning through either a long-awaited phone call, the attentions of a beautiful call girl (Melanie Thierry), or theorem that will explain everything/nothing — could use some work, sure.

But the main joy in Zero Theorem is in the canvas it provides for Gilliam to rethink his Brazilian dystopia for modern times. (See, for example, Waltz being chased around by a Gwendoline Christie ad.) I’ll be the first to admit the film gets lost in its second hour, but I still enjoyed this chance for Gilliam to indulge his creativity and sense of humor, be it David Thewlis in a Tigger-suit, Peter Stormare and Ben Whishaw showing up as mad doctors, or Matt Damon in zebra stripes.

21. Still Alice: In all honesty, Still Alice mostly comes across as a well-above-average Lifetime medical movie of the week — it doesn’t have anywhere near the horrible gravitas of, say, Amour. And I think the story here would be more interesting — a la the triumph over stuttering in The King’s Speech — if the person trying to overcome Alzheimer’s was of more limited means than Julianne Moore’s uber-yuppie professor and her family here.

Still, Moore is very, very good in Alice, and her recent Best Actress win is deserved for her slip-sliding away in this film as much as for her impressive body of work over the years.

22. The Grand Budapest Hotel: As I said last spring, I was down on Budapest. To me, this seemed like a fall away from the heights of 2012’s Moonrise Kingdom back to the more kitschy, solipsistic Wes Anderson of The Life Aquatic and The Darjeeling Limited. Budapest almost felt like a parody of Andersonian tics — the trains, the sets, the whiteness — and, for whatever reason, I didn’t cotton to its spates of cartoon-y violence.

Plus, it may be like complaining about an Archduke Ferdinand joke at this point — and, it’s true, I hardly ever don’t find angry Hitler videos funny — but Anderson’s kitschy SS Banners fluttering about the hotel put me off. Worked for some, I know, but I personally found it a mite weird and distasteful to make a Holocaust film so precious and twee.

23. Le Weekend: Think of it as Before Morning. There’s not much to Le Weekend other than Jim Broadbent and Lindsay Duncan kvetching to and about each other over the course of a brief Paris vacation. (Well, that’s not entirely true — there’s also a winning and well-preserved Jeff Goldblum who shows up to enliven everything in the middle going.) Still, this small film has the benefit of well-observed relationship dynamics and two great actors at work in Duncan and Broadbent. Very much in the same ballpark as Linklater’s Jesse-and-Celine series, and worthwhile in the same way.

24. Snowpiercer: Like Under the Skin and Grand Budapest, I enjoyed this dystopic comic book adaptation by Korean director Bong Joon-Ho less than a lot of the critics. Even notwithstanding the oh-so-Korean-cinema cleaver attacks in the second act, both its physics and its politics are cartoonish to the extreme. (Taking the former, all I kept thinking as they moved up the train was: shouldn’t you be walking through dozens of living quarters at some point? On the latter, sure, making Captain America(!) a dupe of the powers-that-be is funny, but you’re telling me John Hurt’s character enjoyed playing Emmanuel Goldstein so much he ripped off his own limb? C’mon.)

Still, however nonsensical, Snowpiercer had its moments, from Tilda Swinton’s Thatcher-hatchet job to the swing through Alison Pill’s kindergarten class. I’ve seen worse.

26. John Wick: As in other years, the last spot is up for grabs. This could’ve been A Most Wanted Man or Calvary or Nightcrawler or We are the Best. But, as with Dredd a few years ago, I like to reward #25 to a genre movie that knows exactly what it is and makes no qualms about it. In this case, John Wick, a balletic action/revenge movie that does The Raid-style action remarkably well. I’d checked out a little bit by the car-centric final reel, but the club sequence was a-mazing.

MOST DISAPPOINTING:


Interstellar: Hey, you know what would’ve made Gravity better? If, instead of lamenting her dead kid, Sandra Bullock went back in time for the last thirty minutes to see her again! Because there’s no way audiences are going to be interested in this outer space stuff unless we glom it on to a treacly soap-opera-level story about missing fathers and second chances!

Honestly…w…t…f. Interstellar had issues from the start — nothing about getting McConaughey into space makes much sense — but there were still some positives along the way: The wave planet is suitably nightmarish, and Matt Damon’s character is an interesting wrinkle. But then that Looney Tunes, saccharine final act came along and all goodwill I had for the movie was sucked out into the vastness of space. A weird miss by Christopher Nolan — here’s hoping for better next time.

THE EMPEROR’S NEW CLOTHES:

Birdman: The irony of Birdman is that the one part of the movie that may well have deserved an Oscar — Michael Keaton’s comeback performance — is the one that got short shrift. (Eddie Redmayne got the award for degree-of-difficulty instead, in the Oscar-baity and completely conventional The Theory of Everything. Because, wow, he doesn’t really have ALS!)

Anyway, with the exception of the game cast, this movie is pretentious and terrible from the word go. Everything else about it: that godawful subtitle, the interminable jazz drums, the ideas that sound smart but are awfully shallow, the high-schoolish references to Raymond Carver and Macbeth, the looking down on comic book movies which are usually better thought out than this affected drek, the delusions of artistic grandeur — is obnoxious and hollow. It’s like a two-hour adaptation of David Denby’s whiny complaint that people who saw The Matrix should read Cheever instead.

The only positive thing I can say about Birdman is that it’s better than Inarritu’s 21 Grams, a film which is terrible for almost exactly the same reasons — and even that’s not much of a positive, because I laughed harder during 21 Grams than I think I have in any movie before or since. This is just a lousy, pretentious movie — but it’s about how hard it is in Hollywood when nobody understands your integrity as an artist (#firstworldshowbusinessproblems) so like Argo and The Artist, let’s give it an Oscar.

Foxcatcher: Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher isn’t as offensively lousy as Birdman, but it is rather full of itself, not nearly as deep as it thinks it is, and deadly dull to boot.

Miller strains hard to make the tragic tale of uber-wealthy paranoid schizophrenic John Eluthere Du Pont (Steve Carell) and his fascination with Olympic wrestling (and specifically with Olympic wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum)) a metaphor for wayward father figures, the tyrannical predilections of the super-rich, and the death of the American Dream. And, yes, I’m inclined to agree that 1%’ers are generally awful, exploitative people, and success in America is all-too-often a rigged game. But tell me something I don’t know, like, I dunno, the story of why Du Pont shot Mark’s brother, Olympic coach Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo).

Instead, we get two gray and glacial hours of Tatum playing Mopey McGee, followed by a random-feeling leap to almost a decade later which briefly covers the murder. Tatum can be an engaging actor, but he’s bereft of his usual charisma here — he just grunts at things, eats sad dinners alone in his kitchen, and occasionally wrestles the pain away. (In the first five minutes, when Tatum waits in line — decline-of-America metaphor alert! — at the world’s grayest, saddest McDonalds, I figured we might be in trouble.)

For his part, Carell is solid enough as Du Pont, but he’s given an unfortunate putty nose which makes his performance seem like even more of an against-type stunt. The best part of Foxcatcher is Ruffalo, who doesn’t have much to do but is given one standout scene where he has to contemplate selling out on camera. Otherwise, this film is a portentous slog.

MOST UNFAIRLY MALIGNED:

Robocop: Like John Carter and Ender’s Game in this category in years past, Jose Padilha’s remake of Robocop isn’t an amazing film or anything, and it doesn’t hold a candle to Paul Verhoeven’s twisted, misanthropic classic.

But having watched this reboot several months after it bombed in theaters, I was surprised to discover it actually isn’t half-bad — The filmmakers had actually put some thought into how to update the story in a clever way. Like Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, it also features a surprisingly-not-all-that-hammy performance from Gary Oldman. And months before Birdman, the beginnings of Michael Keaton’s 2014 comeback were laid here. Again, a Saturday afternoon movie at best, but this wasn’t the remake atrocity it was made out to be.

THE REST:

Worth Netflixing: Calvary, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, The Fault in Our Stars, Frank, God’s Pocket, Godzilla, Gone Girl, Horns, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Pt. I, The Immigrant, Inherent Vice, Kill the Messenger, Life Itself, A Most Wanted Man, Neighbors, Nightcrawler, Noah, Palo Alto, The Skeleton Twins, The Theory of Everything, We Are The Best, X-Men: Days of Future Past

Don’t Bother: 300: Rise of an Empire, The Amazing Spiderman 2, Devil’s Knot, Fading Gigolo, Filth, Lucy, The Monuments Men, Nymphomaniac, Transcendence, St. Vincent, This Is Where I Leave You

Best Actor: Tom Hardy, Locke

Best Actress: Julianne Moore, Still Alice

Best Supporting Actor: J.K. Simmons, Whiplash

Best Supporting Actress: Patricia Arquette, Boyhood

Unseen: 3 Days to Kill, Alan Partridge, American Sniper, Annie, Begin Again, Belle, Big Eyes, Big Hero 6, Blended, Cesar Chavez, Chef, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, Divergent, Dom Hemingway, Draft Day, The Drop, Dumb and Dumber To, Earth to Echo, Endless Love, The Equalizer, Exodus: Gods and Kings, Fury, The Gambler, God Help the Girl, The Giver, Heaven is For Real, The Homesman, I Frankenstein, If I Stay, The Imitation Game, Into the Storm, Into the Woods, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, Jersey Boys, Joe, The Judge, Labor Day, Let’s Be Cops, Left Behind, Life After Beth, Maleficent, The Maze Runner, Million Dollar Arm, A Million Ways to Die in the West, Mommy, A Most Violent Year, Mr. Peabody and Sherman, Mr. Turner, Muppets Most Wanted, Need for Speed, Nonstop, The November Man, Nurse 3D, Oculus, Pompeii, Ride Along, The Rover, Sabotage, Sex Tape, The Signal, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, Starred Up, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, They Came Together, Think Like a Man Too, Transformers: Age of Extinction, The Trip, Top Five, Tusk, Two Days One Night, Unbroken, Veronica Mars, Walk of Shame, Wild, The Wind Rises, Winter’s Tale

    A Good Year For:
  • Brazil Homages (The Double, The Zero Theorem)
  • Chris Pratt (The LEGO Movie, Guardians of the Galaxy)
  • Jazz Drums (Birdland, Whiplash)
  • Marvel (Captain America: TWS, Guardians of the Galaxy)
  • Stars Driving Around the UK (Locke, Under the Skin)
  • Tilda Swinton’s Thatcher Impression (Snowpiercer, Zero Theorem)

    A Bad Year For:
  • The Family Dog (Calvary, John Wick, The Babadook)
  • Hydra (Captain America: The Winter Soldier, CitizenFour)
  • Parenting (The Babadook, Force Majeure)
  • Sony (The Amazing Spiderman 2, The Interview)

2015: Ant-Man, The Avengers: Age of Ultron, Blackhat, Chappie, Cinderella, Crimson Peak, The Fantastic Four, Far from the Madding Crowd, Fifty Shades of Gray, Frankenstein, Furious 7, Hot Tub Time Machine 2, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Pt II, Inferno, The Jungle Book, Jupiter Ascending, Jurassic World, Kingsman: The Secret Service, London Has Fallen, Mad Max: Fury Road, Magic Mike XXL, The Man From U.N.C.L.E, The Martian, Midnight Special, Minion, Mission Impossible 5, Paddington, Peanuts, Penguins of Madagascar, Pitch Perfect 2, Poltergeist, San Andreas, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, The Seventh Son, Silence, SPECTRE, Straight Outta Compton, Taken 3, Terminator: Genisys, Tomorrowland, The Walk, The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death, and


“There has been an awakening…can you feel it?”

The Mad and the Sinful.

A few other trailers that popped up via Comic-Con ’14…


Reborn as Tom Hardy, Australia’s most notable post-apocalyptic survivor looks to need a hand or three from Charlize Theron in the first trailer for George Miller’s long-anticipated Mad Max: Fury Road, also with Nicholas Hoult, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, and Zoe Kravitz. Eh, ok…looks like The Road Warrior with better production values.


Meanwhile, the survivors of the enjoyable first film look to go all Smokin’ Aces on Powers Boothe in a new red-band trailer for Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, with Mickey Rourke, Jessica Alba, Rosario Dawson, Bruce Willis, Jaime King, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Eva Green, Dennis Haysbert, Martin Csoskas, Christopher Lloyd, Ray Liotta, Juno Temple, Stacy Keach, Christopher Meloni, Jeremy Piven, and Lady Gaga. Not particularly inclined to throw any more money at Frank Miller, but the first one was good fun.


Update: One more: Julianne Moore and the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman briefly discuss the political ramifications of one Katniss Everdeen in the most recent teaser for Francis Lawrence’s The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Pt. I, with Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Sam Claflin, Elizabeth Banks, Jeffrey Wright, Stanley Tucci, Toby Jones, Gwendoline Christie, and Natalie Dormer. Alrighty then – Not bad, but I thought the two recent addresses by President Snow were savvier (and creepier) marketing.

2013 in Film.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MOST DISAPPOINTING:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MOST OVERRATED:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MOST [UNFAIRLY?] MALIGNED:

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

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

WHAT IS THIS I DON’T EVEN:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE REST:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can’t Start a Fire Without a Spark.


Katniss and Peeta discover winning isn’t everything in the first teaser for Francis Lawrence’s Catching Fire, with Philip Seymour Hoffman, Sam Claflin, Jena Malone, Jeffrey Wright, and Amanda Plummer joining Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Elizabeth Banks, Liam Hemsworth, Stanley Tucci, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Paula Malcomson, Willow Shields, and Toby Jones.

I thought the first film was an admirable attempt at recreating the book that was mostly hamstrung by the fact that we were no longer privy to Katniss’s interior monologue. And the second volume, with its straining for a reason to get back in the arena, is probably the weakest of the trilogy. Still, this is a very promising teaser – It’s fun to watch Sutherland and Hoffman, two pros of different generations, adding heft to the proceedings.

2008 in Film.

Well, now that we’re in the second month of 2009, and since I’m *mostly* caught up on last year’s prestige crop, it seems arguably the last, best time to write up the belated Best of 2008 Movie list. (I did see one more indy film of 2008 Sunday morning, but as it was after my arbitrarily-chosen 1/31 cutoff, it’ll go in next year’s list.) Compiling the reviews this year, it seems my October hunch was correct: For a combination of reasons, I went to the movies a lot less than usual in 2008. (The review count usually clocks in around 45. Last year, I only saw 30 films on the big screen.) And, looking over the release schedule, I see lots of movies I had every intention of viewing — Appaloosa, Be Kind, Rewind, Blindness, Choke, Leatherheads — and never got around to.

At any rate, given what I did see, here’re the best of ’em. And here’s hoping the 2009 list will be more comprehensive. As always, all of the reviews can be found here. (And if a movie title doesn’t link to a full review, it means I caught it on DVD.)

Top 20 Films of 2008

[2000/2001/2002/2003/2004/2005/2006/2007]


1. The Dark Knight: Yes, it’s the obvious fanboy pick. And, admittedly, TDK had pacing problems — it was herky-jerky at times and the third act felt rushed. Still, in a not-particularly-good year for cinema, Christopher Nolan’s operatic reimagining of the Caped Crusader and his arch-nemesis was far and away the most enjoyable experience i had at the movies in 2008. And if Candidate Obama was America’s own white knight (metaphorically speaking) this past year, Heath Ledger’s Joker was its mischievous, amoral, and misanthropic id. If and when the economic wheels continue to come off in 2009, will stoic selflessness or gleeful anarchy be the order of the day? The battle for Gotham continues, and everybody’s nervously eyeing those detonators. Let’s hope the clown doesn’t get the last laugh.


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


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


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


5. 4 Months, 3 Weeks, & 2 Days: A 2007 release that made it stateside in 2008, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, & 2 Days is a movie that I probably wouldn’t ever want to watch again. Still, this grim, unrelenting journey through the seedy hotels and sordid back-alleys of Ceaucescu’s Romania is another hard one to shake off. And, tho’ I caught it early on, it remained one of the very best films of the year.


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


7. Iron Man: Much better than I ever anticipated, Jon Favreau’s (and Robert Downey Jr.’s) Iron Man kicked a summer of superheroes off in grand fashion. In the end, I preferred the gloomy stylings of Gotham in 2008, but there’s definitely something to be said for this rousing, upbeat entrant in the comic movie canon. It delivered on its own terms, and it was a much better tech-fetishizing, boys-and-their-toys type-film than, say, 2007’s Transformers or (I suspect) 2009’s GI Joe. Bonus points for the Dude going all Big Jeff Lebowski on us here…now quit being cheap about the sequel.


8. Man on Wire: 4:40pm: Two foreign nationals and their American abettors successfully navigate past the guard checkpoint of the World Trade Center’s South Tower. Their fanatical mission: To use the WTC as a symbol to transform the world…through an act of illegal, death-defying performance art. Although it never explicitly mentions 9/11 (of course, it doesn’t need to — the towers themselves do most of the work, and reconstructing its story as a heist does the rest), the stirring documentary Man on Wire, about Phillipe Petit’s 1974 tightrope-walk between the towers, gains most of its resonance from the events of that dark day in 2001.

After seventy minutes or so, just as it seems this unspoken analogy is starting to wear thin, Petit finally steps out onto that ridiculous wire, and Man on Wire takes your breath away. Nothing is permanent, the movie suggests. Not youth, not life, not love, not even those majestic, formidable towers. But some moments — yes, the beautiful ones too — can never be forgotten. (Note: Man on Wire is currently available as a direct download on Netflix.)


9. U2 3D: One of two 2008 films (along with #16) which seemed to suggest the future of the movie-going experience, U2 3D was both a decently rousing concert performance by Dublin’s fab four, and — more importantly — an experimental film which played with an entirely new cinema syntax. Just as students look back on D.W. Griffith films of a century ago as the beginnings of 2D-movie expression, so too might future generations look at this lowly U2 concert and see, in its layering of unrelated images onto one field of vision, when the language of 3D really began to take off. At which point someone might also say, “Man, I wish they’d played ‘So Cruel’ instead of some of these tired old dogs.”


10. The Visitor: I wrote about Tom McCarthy’s The Visitor (which I saw on DVD) some in my Gran Torino review, and my criticism there stands: As with Torino, the central thrust of this story is too Bagger Vance-ish by half. Still, it’s fun to see a likable character actor like Richard Jenkins get his due in a starring role, and he’s really great here. And, if the “magical immigrant” portions of this tale defy reality to some extent, McCarthy and Jenkins’ vision of a life desiccated by years of wallowing in academic purgatory — the humdrum lectures, the recycled syllabi, the mind-numbingly banal conferences, all divorced from any real-world interaction with the issues at hand — is frighteningly plausible.


11. Synecdoche, New York: Long on ambition and short on narrative coherence, Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut is the There Will Be Blood of last year’s crop, in that it’s a film that I think will inspire a phalanx of ardent defenders among movie buffs, who will argue its virtues passionately against all comers. For my own part, I admired this often-bewildering movie more than I actually enjoyed it, and ultimately found it much less engaging than Kaufman’s real magnum opus, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Still, I’m glad I made the attempt, and it’s definitely worth seeing.


12. Frost/Nixon: Two man enter, one man leave! More a sports movie than a political one, Ron Howard and Peter Morgan’s Frost/Nixon is a decently entertaining depiction of two hungry down-and-outers locked in the debater’s version of mortal kombat. That being said, I kinda wish the stakes had seemed higher, or that the substance of the issues at hand — Vietnam, Cambodia, Watergate — had been as foregrounded as the mano-a-mano mechanics of the interview. Plus, that scene where Tricky Dick sweeps the leg? That’s not kosher.


13. Snow Angels: David Gordon Green’s quiet, novelistic Snow Angels is an early-2008 film I caught on DVD only a few weeks ago, and it’s been slowly sneaking up the list ever since. Based on a 1994 book by Stewart O’Nan, the movie depicts the intertwined lives of a small New England community, and recounts the tragic circumstances that lead to two gunshots being fired therein one winter afternoon. (If it sounds like Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter, it’s very close in form, content, and melancholy impact.)

In a movie brimming over with quality performances — including (an ever-so-slightly-implausible) Kate Beckinsale, Nicky Katt, Amy Sedaris, and the long-forgotten Griffin Dunne — three actors stand out: Michael Angarano and Olivia Thirlby fall into one of the most honest, believable, and affectation-free high school romances I’ve seen in a movie in ages. And the always-watchable Sam Rockwell sneaks up on you as a perennial loser who tries to be a good guy and just keeps failing at life despite himself. At first not much more than an amiable buffoon as per his usual m.o., Rockwell’s gradual surrender to his demons — note his scenes with his daughter, or in the truck with his dog, or at the bar — gives Snow Angels a haunting resonance that sticks with you.


14. Burn After Reading: As I said in the original review, it’s not one of the all-time Coen classics or anything. But even medium-grade Coen tends to offer more delights than most films do in a given year, and the same holds true of their espionage-and-paranoia farce Burn After Reading in 2008. From John Malkovich’s foul-mouthed, (barely-)functioning alcoholic to George Clooney as a (thoroughly goofy) lactose-intolerant bondage enthusiast to, of course, Brad Pitt’s poor, dim-witted Chet, Burn introduced plenty of ridiculous new characters to the brothers’ already-stacked rogues’ gallery. This is one (unlike The Ladykillers) that I’m looking forward to seeing again.


15. Vicky Cristina Barcelona: Another catch-up DVD rental, this was Woody Allen’s good movie last year (as opposed to the woeful Cassandra’s Dream), and a smarter-than-average relationship film (as one might expect from the man behind Husbands and Wives and Annie Hall.) There’re some definitive Allen tics here that take some getting used to in the new environment of Barcelona — a very Woody-ish omniscient voiceover, some Allenesque quips emanating from Scarlett Johannson and the striking Rebecca Hall (late of Frost/Nixon and The Prestige), and, as per Match Point and Scoop, some rather outdated depictions of the class system. (Hall’s fiance, played by Chris Messina of Six Feet Under, is basically a caricature of the boring, born-entitled Ivy League grad, circa 1965.)

Still, if you can get past all that, Vicky Cristina is quite worthwhile. (And, as far as the Oscar buzz goes, I’d say Javier Bardem makes more of an impression here than does Penelope Cruz.) Whether you’re as old as Woody or as young as Vicky and Cristina, the story remains the same: love is a weird, untameable thing, and the heart wants what it wants.


16. Speed Racer: Easily the most unfairly maligned movie of 2008 (and I’m not a Wachowski apologist — I thought Matrix: Revolutions was atrocious), Speed Racer is an amped-up, hypercolorful extravaganza of the senses, and, this side of the original Matrix, one of the more interesting attempts I’ve seen at bringing anime to life. Critics derided it pretty much across the board as loud, gaudy nonsense, but, then as now, I’m not sure what they went in expecting from the film adaptation of a lousy sixties cartoon involving race cars and silly monkeys. This is where some readers might ask: “Um, are you really saying Speed Racer is a better movie than Revolutionary Road?” And I’m saying, yes, it’s much more successful at what it aimed to accomplish, and probably more entertaining to boot. Sure, Racer is a kid’s movie, but so was WALL-E. And, given most of the drek put before the youths today, it’s a darned innovative one. Plus, I’ve seen a lot of filmed laments about quiet-desperation-in-the-suburbs in my day, but for better or worse, in my 34 years of existence, I had never seen anything quite like this.


17. Gran Torino: Alas, Speed Racer, it seems, grew old, got ornery, and began fetishizing his car in the garage instead. Good thing there’re some kindly Hmong next door to pry open that rusty heart with a crowbar! Like The Visitor, Torino suffers from an excess of sentiment when it comes to its depiction of 21st-century immigrants and their salutary impact on old white folks. But, as a cautionary coda to a lifelong career glorifying vigilantism, Eastwood’s Gran Torino has that rusty heart in the right place, at least. And while Eastwood’s Walt Kowalski may be a mean old cuss, Eastwood’s performance here suggests that the old man’s got some tricks in him yet.


18. A Christmas Tale: I wrote about this movie very recently, so my thoughts on it haven’t changed all that much. A bit pretentious at times, Arnaud Desplechin’s anti-sentimental holiday film has its virtues, most notably Chiara Mastroianni eerily (and probably inadvertently) channeling her father and the elfin Mathieu Amalric wreaking havoc on his long-suffering family whenever possible. It’s a Not-So-Wonderful Life, I guess, but — however aggravating your relatives ’round christmastime — it’s still probably better than the alternative.


19. Tropic Thunder: Its pleasures were fleeting — I can’t remember very many funny lines at this point — and even somewhat scattershot. (Tom Cruise as Harvey Weinstein by way of a gigantic member was funny for the first ten minutes. Less so after half an hour.) Still, give Tropic Thunder credit. Unlike all too many comedies in recent years, it didn’t try to make us better people — it just went for the laugh, and power to it. And when the most controversial aspect of your movie turns out not to be the white guy in blackface (or, as we all euphemistically tend to put it now, “the dude disguised as another dude“), but the obvious Forrest Gump/Rain Man spoof, I guess you’ve done something right.


20. W: Nowhere near as potent as Stone’s early political forays, JFK and Nixon, W still came close to accomplishing the impossible in 2008: making the out-going president seem a sympathetic figure. I suppose several other films could’ve sat with distinction in this 20-spot — In Bruges or Benjamin Button, perhaps — but none of them would’ve afforded me the opportunity to write these lovely words once more: So long, Dubya.

Honorable Mention: It wasn’t a movie, of course. But 2008 was also the year we bid farewell to The Wire. Be sure to raise a glass, or tip a 40, in respect. (And let’s pray that — this year, despite all that’s come before — a “New Day” really is dawning.)

Most Disappointing: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Worth a Rental: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, In Bruges, Revolutionary Road, Valkyrie

Don’t Bother: Cassandra’s Dream, Cloverfield, The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, Doubt, Hellboy II: The Golden Age, The Incredible Hulk, Quantum of Solace, Slumdog Millionaire, Wanted

Best Actor: Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler, Sean Penn, Milk, Richard Jenkins, The Visitor
Best Actress: Anamaria Marinca, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, Lina Leandersson, Let the Right One In, Rebecca Hall, Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Best Supporting Actor: Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight, Josh Brolin, Milk, Jeff Bridges, Iron Man, Sam Rockwell, Snow Angels
Best Supporting Actress: Marisa Tomei, The Wrestler, Tilda Swinton, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Unseen: Appaloosa, Australia, The Bank Job, Be Kind, Rewind, Blindness, Body of Lies, Cadillac Records, Changeling, Choke, The Class, Defiance, Eagle Eye, The Fall, Funny Games, Hancock, Happy Go Lucky, Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo, Leatherheads, I Loved You So Long, The Lucky Ones, Miracle at St. Anna, Pineapple Express, Rambo, The Reader, Redbelt, RockNRolla, The Spirit, Traitor, Waltz with Bashir

    A Good Year For:
  • Billionaire Do-Gooders (The Dark Knight, Iron Man)
  • Lonely Old White Guys (Gran Torino, The Visitor, The Wrestler)
  • Magical Immigrants (Gran Torino, The Visitor)
  • Rebecca Hall (Vicky Christina Barcelona, Frost/Nixon)
  • Richard Jenkins (The Visitor, Burn after Reading)
  • Robert Downey, Jr. (Iron Man, Tropic Thunder)
  • Romance at the Junkyard (WALL-E, Slumdog Millionaire)
  • Sam Rockwell (Choke, Frost/Nixon, Snow Angels)
  • Teenage Vampirism (Let the Right One In, Twilight)
  • Tosca (Quantum of Solace, Milk)
    A Bad Year For:
  • GOP Ex-Presidents (Frost/Nixon, W)
  • Political Do-Gooders (The Dark Knight, Milk)
  • Pulp Heroes (The Spirit)
  • Vigilantism without Remorse (Gran Torino, The Dark Knight)
  • Would-Be Assassins (Valkyrie, Wanted)
2009: Avatar, The Box, Bruno, Coraline, Duplicity, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, Knowing, The Lovely Bones, New York, I Love You, Observe and Report, Push, Sherlock Holmes, The Soloist, State of Play, Star Trek, The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3, Terminator: Salvation, Up, Where the Wild Things Are, The Wolfman, Wolverine and, of course,

Hrm.

Some folks inherit star-spangled eyes.

Before we set about picking a new president, some thoughts on the departing one: Oliver Stone’s W, which I saw a few weeks ago and have been negligent in writing about, is a decently enjoyable and surprisingly sympathetic portrayal of America’s worst president since James Buchanan. Still, it also seems a film that very few among the electorate were in the mood for right about now: Many lefties, I think, were looking for more red meat from the famously confrontational and controversial Stone, while conservatives were never going to set foot in the theater in the first place. As it is, W seems to have gotten sorta lost in the shuffle…which is too bad, really. It’s a solid-enough biopic, and definitely far better than Stone’s recent misfires, Alexander and World Trade Center. And, while it’s played mostly straight, there are still a few funny satiric jabs interspersed throughout the film. (See, for example, Dubya and the Vulcans getting lost on a dusty Texas hike.) So I’d recommend it…with some misgivings.

As with his underrated take on Nixon, Stone mainly seems to want to understand, and thus humanize, Dubya here — Don’t judge a man until you’ve walked a mile in his boots, etc. etc. And yet, while I found both the sentiment and the attempt laudable, I also think Stone may have missed the mark a bit here. In making Dubya so congenial (partly the fault of Josh Brolin, I guess, who’s both great and thoroughly likable in the role), and in putting so much emphasis on his daddy issues (more on that in a bit), Stone seems to absolve 43 of more than he should in the end. However oppressive the psychological burden of being a Bush, Dubya was ultimately his own man and his own president, and, lordy, was he a terrible one. However, generous Stone’s impulse in trying to understand Dubya, you can’t just pin all of the incompetence and misdeeds of the past eight years on a lousy, poor-little-rich-boy upbringing.

If you’ve ever read anything about Bush 43, the story goes as you might expect: After a brief intro in Rangers Stadium, we meet President George W. Bush (Brolin) and various advisors in the Oval Office, as they mull over the decision to go to war to Iraq in 2003. (Speaking of which, Cheney seems a bit too Dreyfussian to me, Jeffrey Wright’s Powell is far too heroic, and Toby Jones is too lithe and elfin — and not nearly porcine enough — to capture Karl Rove, but Thandie Newton’s nerdy, scroonchy-faced Condi Rice is both kinda cruel and scarily dead-on.) In any case, soon thereafter we flip back to Junior’s days at Yale, where the young dauphin spends his time drinking, frat-ernizing, and generally upholding the unyoked humor of his idleness. Basically, Dubya — crafty and streetwise, but too often convinced in the infallibility of his “gut” — is a good-natured screw-up of the first order, and he’d be the first to admit it, as he does time and time again to the long-suffering, emotionally reticent if otherwise indulgent “Poppy” (James Cromwell).

Yet, despite failure after failure, this good-timin’ man evenually manages to muster up one great success in his life by wooing a good-hearted woman, the lovely librarian Laura (Elizabeth Banks). And, after a literal come-to-Jesus moment at the age of 40 (that’s right, the bottle let him down), Dubya decides he will follow in Poppy’s footsteps and enter the family business of politics. But, will his parents ever take this prodigal son seriously, particularly as compared to the family’s one great hope, Jeb? And, even if they do, what lengths will Dubya go to alleviate his long-standing psychological issues with his father at this point? Would he, for example, start a war he thinks 41 didn’t finish?

Now, from Charlie Sheen choosing between his working-class hero pa and Gordon Gekko in Wall Street, to Mickey and Mallory Knox inflicting the consequences of their childhood/sexual abuse on unsuspecting bystanders in Natural Born Killers, psychologically overdetermined characterization due to daddy issues is usually as omnipresent as mystical shamans in Oliver Stone films. (Or, for the other side of the coin, consider Mother Mary Steenburgen as the Ghost of Quaker Past in Nixon, or Angelina Jolie hissing with snakes in Alexander.) And, by itself, the Poppy-Dubya emphasis doesn’t bother me all that much — Stone is at his best when he’s painting on a broad canvas and laying it on thick, and just as the “cancer on the presidency” that was Watergate lent itself well to the gothic, Fall of the House of Usher look of Nixon, the story of 41 and 43 is an easy target for Henry IV/Henry V-type overtones.

All that being said, can all the colossal mistakes and errors in judgment that have characterized the past eight years really just be attributed to the Dubya family dynamic? Stone tries to mitigate this notion some, I guess, by giving us an imaginary disquisition in the War Room on the World According to Dick Cheney. (It involves oil, Iran, and the embrace of empire.) Still, one mostly gets the sense here that Dubya is a regular, friendly fellow who’s just bitten off more than he can chew in an attempt to please his pop. Such a reading, I think, underplays Dubya’s own arrogance, his close-minded conviction in his own sense of the right, his Ivy League legacy-kid air of entitlement, his sniveling weasliness when caught in a pickle, and his habitual intellectual dishonesty. Put another way, I get the sense the real Dubya is much more of an unlikable jackass than Stone and Brolin make him out to be here, and you can’t just pin all that and Dubya’s constant sucking as president on Pop. I mean, c’mon now, dads don’t get much worse than Darth Vader, but Luke turned out ok (if a bit whiny like the old man.) Eventually, the man must stand — and fall — on his own.

Still, for all its wallowing in Freudian father issues, W does end on an enjoyably bizarre note, with Dubya writhing on the horns of existential crisis. (No wonder he started reading The Stranger.) Has the prodigal son succeeded beyond his father’s wildest dreams in Iraq, or has he forever shrouded the Bush name in ignominy? And how does one handle a situation like the one in Iraq anyway, where, unlike baseball (and bowling), there are no rules? For Dubya, it seems, the story ends at is has for him in most other situations — with him walking away with a smile, not looking back, and leaving someone else to clean up the godawful mess he’s left behind.

Once (or Twice) in a Lifetime.

“A man only gets a couple of chances in life. It won’t be long before he’s sitting around wondering how he got to be second-rate.” Lots of choice stuff in today’s trailer bin: First up, President Josh Brolin braves pretzels, Poppa Bush, and enough JD to kill a small horse in this fun extended trailer for Oliver Stone’s W. (I can’t wait.) Elsewhere, Frank Miller borrows from Robert Rodriguez, who, of course, borrowed from him, to mine Will Eisner’s back-catalog in this short new teaser for The Spirit. (I’m still not sold.)

Also up recently, Kate Winslet and Leonardo di Caprio forsake the Titanic to suffocate in the suburbs in the first trailer for Sam Mendes’ Revolutionary Road. (Ok, altho’ it looks Little Children-ish.) Tom Cruise leads an all-star team of character actors in a plot to kill Hitler in the second trailer for Bryan Singer’s Valkyrie. And Brad Pitt moves from age to wisdom in the second trailer for David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. (Not as haunting as the teaser, but close.) I gotta say, it’s good to finally hit the Oscar stretch for 2008 — I haven’t seen nearly enough movies this year.

Update: One more, via LMG: Philip Seymour Hoffman puts on a play — and gets stuck waiting in the wings — in the trailer for Charlie Kaufman’s much-anticipated Synecdoche, New York, also starring Hope Davis, Catherine Keener, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Dianne Wiest, Emily Watson, and Michelle Williams.

Update 2: Ok, what with Marky Mark, Ludacris, Bridges the Lesser, the lousy whiteboy angst-metal, and the highly Matrix-derivative gun-fu and explosions throughout, the recent trailer for John Moore’s Max Payne looks Skinemax bad. But, then again, it does have The Wire‘s Jamie Hector (Marlo) briefly playing Exposition Guy with an island accent, so that’s enough for a link. Hey, I’m easily amused.

Failing Upwards: The Movie.

Hide the war plans and lock up the booze: The teaser for Oliver Stone’s W leaks on Youtube, starring Josh Brolin (W), Elizabeth Banks (Laura), James Cromwell (41), Ellen Burstyn (Bar), Ioan Gruffudd (Blair), Jeffrey Wright (Powell), Thandie Newton (Rice), Toby Jones (Rove), Scott Glenn (Rummy), and Richard Dreyfuss (Cheney). it should be up officially tomorrow.

The face in the misty light.

Dubya gets his damsel: Elizabeth Banks will play Laura Bush in Oliver Stone’s forthcoming W, with Josh Brolin in the title role. W starts shooting next month in Shreveport. As a admirer of Stone’s Nixon, I for one am looking forward to the finished product.

Update: Here comes 41. Stone casts James Cromwell and Ellen Burstyn as George H.W. and Barbara Bush respectively.

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