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Marion Cotillard

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2015 in Film.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MOST DISAPPOINTING:

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

WHAT IS THIS I CAN’T EVEN:

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

THE REST:

Worth On Demand-ing::

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t Bother:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2012 in Film.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MOST DISAPPOINTING:

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

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

MOST OVERHYPED:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MOST UNFAIRLY MALIGNED:

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

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

2011 LEFTOVERS:

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

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

THE REST:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You have nice manners for a thief and a liar…

It’s a Sick World Sometimes.


Maybe he’s retiring, maybe it’s just a sabbatical. (And, either way, he still has Haywire in the can and Magic Mike, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., and a Liberace biopic on his plate, not to mention second unit work on The Hunger Games.) Still, as the crisp, dark, and intelligent Contagion once again makes clear, Hollywood will lose one of its most interesting working directors when Steven Soderbergh decides to hang up the clapperboard.

Less adventurous and more satisfying in its storytelling than Soderbergh’s last major film, 2009’s The Informant!, Contagion basically applies the Traffic technique of several separate, loosely interweaving tales told around the globe (albeit this time with a more subdued color palette) to spin a harrowing chronicle of a possible pandemic. The main reason the film works so well is because Contagion is actually not the end-of-times pestilence thriller the (spoilerish) trailers make it out to be. Rather, and much like David Fincher’s Zodiac, it’s mainly a smart, well-told procedural, and it’s the grounded, matter-of-factness of Contagion that ultimately makes it so frightening.

Contagion telegraphs its unsentimental, take-no-prisoners approach to the story in the first five minutes, when, after returning home to Minneapolis from a business trip to Macau (and a brief layover in Chicago), Gwyneth Paltrow starts having trouble breathing and [minor spoiler] promptly drops dead. Soon, her family (including a low-key, earnest Matt Damon) are in quarantine, and the CDC Director in Atlanta (Lawrence Fishburne) has dispatched an epidemiologist (Kate Winslet) to coordinate with local officials on plans for a possible outbreak. (FWIW, the Minnesota Department of Health is not amused with the film.) But, unfortunately for the world, the barn door is already open: This new MERS-1 virus — part-bat, part-pig — has already been unleashed, and not just in Minneapolis, but in cities all over. (Turns out, Oceans 14 in Macau was a terrible idea.)

As the situation worsens around the world, we start following more individuals on the frontlines in various locales: A CDC researcher (Jennifer Ehle) working to find a cure for this new plague. An academic biologist (Elliot Gould) trying to isolate the virus in San Francisco. A WHO official (Marion Cotillard) and Chinese doctor (Chin Han) looking to discover who was Patient Zero in Macau. Two homeland security suits (Brian Cranston and Enrico Colatoni) sent to determine if this is the work of the terr’ists. A blogger (Jude Law) firmly convinced of government conspiracies and homeopathic wonders. And all the while, even as secrets pass from person to person and fear mutates into panic, the virus continues to spread. Ain’t no Patrick Dempsey monkey gonna solve this one, I’m afraid.

There’re plenty of stars and recognizable faces flitting about this story — some have more to do than others. (The Cotillard subplot seemed a bit unnecessary to me, to be honest, and the Jude Law one is basically just an extended screw-you to the vaccines-cause-autism crowd.) But, as I said, Contagion‘s killer app is its versimilitude. The movie never talks down to its audience, or has its scientists repeating expository information over and over again. (For example, it explains once what a “R-naught” is and assumes you can keep up from there.) It doesn’t have scientists (or Matt Damon, for that matter) running around trying to catch infected monkeys with helicopters — The excitement mostly comes from watching scientists and bureaucrats do their job well. And I liked the fact that, even though no one is safe here, Contagion doesn’t feature some kind of sci-fi-ish, humanity-obliterating virus. It’s a nasty bug with, iirc, a 25% fatality rate — In other words, a more virulent version of the 1918 influenza epidemic — making the story that much more plausible, and scary.

Speaking of scary, I should say that, back in the real world, I’m a pretty sanguine sort about germs, and so I found Contagion more unsettling than anything else. But if you’re at all of the germophobe persuasion, hoo boy — You’re going to have a tough time at this one. From infecteds hacking up a lung on a public bus, to waiters wiping down bar glasses with a dirty rag, to people endlessly and unconsciously touching rails, bannisters, buttons, and each other, Soderbergh does a great job here of intimating that human beings inadvertently leave a slime trail of germy death wherever we go — not the least in movie theaters, exactly like the one you’re sitting in. Point being, [cough, cough], OCD-ish folks will probably want to Netflix this one, instead.

La Violette Rose du Paris.


He’s had some hits in recent years. (Match Point,
Vicky Christina Barcelona.) And he’s definitely had some misses. (Scoop, Cassandra’s Dream.) But, if you haven’t caught it yet, Woody Allen’s ex-pat trifle Midnight in Paris is more than just the Woodster’s most profitable movie ever. It’s the best film he’s put out in at least a decade, and I suspect it’ll probably be one of the Best Picture contenders come Oscar time next spring.

Much like Manhattan, this film begins with a love letter, in the form of a languid montage, to its setting. While (naturally) a jazz ditty plays, we spend the first five minutes or so of the film ambling through the streets, parks, and cafes of the City of Lights, soaking up the Parisian ambience. (This is one of the many reasons I could see Midnight In Paris making a great double bill with Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset, which opened similarly.) As it happens, wandering aimlessly around this city is a favorite hobby of our protagonist, Gil (Owen Wilson), a successful Hollywood screenwriter looking to find inspiration for his first novel in the old corners of gay Paree. Unfortunately, his fiancee Inez (Rachel McAdams) doesn’t share this proclivity: She prefers cabs, shopping, and expensive jewelry. (If that doesn’t tell you what to expect from her character, her tea party parents — Kurt Fuller and In the Loop‘s Mimi Kennedy — should close the deal.)

And so it is that one night, while Inez is out dancing with a know-it-all acquaintance (Michael Sheen), Gil happens to hitch a ride in a vintage automobile and finds himself at what appears to be a costume party. The thing is, the guy on the piano (Yyves Heck) looks exactly like Cole Porter, the couple he falls in with — the Fitzgeralds of New York — just happen to be called Scott (Tom “Loki” Hiddleston) and Zelda (Allison Pill), and the gruff guy at the coffee shop (Corey Stoll) they take him to is the spitting image, in word and deed, of Ernest Hemingway. Apparently in Paris, the past isn’t even past… or at least once it’s past midnight.

So, yes, somehow the Lost Generation has been found, and soon enough Gil is relishing the movable feast: He’s getting book tips from Hemingway and Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), talking rhinos with Dali (Adrien Brody), running movie ideas by Bunuel (Adrien de Van), and falling in love with one of Picasso’s muses, the lovely Adrianna (Marion Cotillard). All the while, Gil begins to ignore his “real” life in the 21st century as too humdrum and mundane. After all, how you gonna keep Gil on the screenwriting farm after he’s seen Gay Paree? But, if the 21st century isn’t good enough for Gil, why should those madcap 1920’s be good enough for Adrianna? Nostalgia infects us no matter what our time, and so we beat on, borne back ceaselessly into the past…

As Allen’s fans have already figured out by the second reel, Woody is repeating himself here somewhat. (After a career as long and prolific as his, it’s to be expected!) Replace nostalgia with love of the cinema, and Gil’s time-traveling to the era he idolizes isn’t too far afield from Mia Farrow’s romance with matinee idol Jeff Daniels in The Purple Rose of Cairo. (For that matter, everything involving Michael Sheen’s pompous academic is set-up for another variation of the Marshall McLuhan joke from Annie Hall.) And Allen has always been one for high-culture namedropping in his writing and films. It’s just that this time, the likes of T.S. Eliot, Man Ray, Josephine Baker, and Alice B. Toklas are actual cameos rather than just allusions.

So, yes, Allen may have trod this ground before, but Midnight in Paris nonetheless works, for several reasons. For one, Owen Wilson — an actor I’ve never really felt one way or the other about — is one of the best Allen analogues to come down the pike in awhile. He manages to capture Woody’s usual collection of neuroses while coming across as more charming and self-effacing then Allen really can anymore. For another, the movie doesn’t aspire to deep philosophical truths about relationships and/or the meaning of life (like, say, the existentialism pervading Match Point and Crimes and Misdemeanors). It has some insightful things to say about the nature of nostalgia, and otherwise just aims to show us a good time. As they say in the closest thing we’ve got to Paris stateside, NYC notwithstanding, laissez les bons temps rouler.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bat Will Break.


Flitting alongside Harry Potter 7.2 this past weekend — review forthcoming, once I emerge from the backlog — was the Bane-centric first teaser for Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, with Christian Bale, Anne Hathaway, Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman, Michael Caine, Marion Cotillard, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Morgan Freeman. (Screencaps are here.)

As I said when the poster dropped, it’s hard to imagine this one topping TDK, and I could do without all the “every journey comes to an end” marketing pablum here. Still, the moment with Bats in trouble and backpedaling suggests Nolan may be maximizing Bane’s potential here.

Bruce Gets Incepted.

Gotham in Limbo? Take it for what it’s worth, but rumors abound that Inception alums Joseph Gordon-Levitt (long rumored as Joker 2.0) and Marion Cotillard have both joined Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises (which already includes Tom Hardy and Michael Caine), as Alberto Falcone and Talia Al-Ghul respectively. In movie terms, that would mean the son of Tom Wilkinson and the daughter of Liam Neeson from the first film, but I’m only familiar with the latter character.

2010 in Film.

With Snooki set, and the earth embarking on another tour around the sun, it must be time for the 2010 movie round-up. As always, there are a few contender films I haven’t yet seen — Blue Valentine opens here next weekend, for example. But, as it happens, I did see quite a few more movies than usual this year — an added bonus to having a full-time, non-gradual school income again. In any case, without further ado, the…

Top 20 Films of 2010
[2000/2001/2002/2003/2004/2005/2006/2007/2008/2009/The Oughts]

1. Toy Story 3: I kept expecting some other movie to come along in the second half of 2010 and knock this lachrymose Pixar masterpiece out of the top spot. But, in a not particularly great year for movies, Lee Unkrich’s surprisingly sad and soulful Toy Story 3 held onto the crown. (As it turns out, the highest grossing film of the year was also the best.) Basically, this is the movie about fleeting youth and fading plastic that Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are wanted to be. And, while I’m still not sure if kids will vibe into the melancholy shenanigans here at all, it touched a chord in more than one aging man-child out there…just ask QT.

2. The Red Riding Trilogy: Amid the moors of the North, there is an evil that does not sleep. Originally a TV miniseries in Britain, the Red Riding trilogy — 1974, 1980 and 1983 — counted as full-fledged movies for those of us stateside. And, while perhaps too grim for some tastes, this three-part, nine-year inquiry into black deeds in Yorkshire was as immersive and transporting a movie experience as there was in 2010. (The problem was, you didn’t necessarily want to be where it transported you.) True, the third film was weaker than the first two installments. But taken as a whole, this was one gritty and impressive crime saga, with a number of memorable turns by Paddy Considine, Andrew Garfield, Mark Addy, Rebecca Hall, Peter Mullan and others.

3. The Secret in Their Eyes: Alas, you will find no respite from the Yorkshire darkness in the Argentina of the Dirty War. Earlier in the year, I had A Prophet ranked above this movie, the Best Foreign Film winner of 2009. (It was released here in 2010.) But Juan Jose Campanella’s haunting picture has grown in my memory in the months since. Like Red Riding, this is another wistful investigation into murder, missed opportunities, and the choices we make, one that sticks with you well after the theater lights come up.

4. True Grit: For the third time in four years, the Coens make the top five. (See also No Country for Old Men and A Serious Man.) And while I concede to being a bit of a Coen fanboy, I’m guessing this retelling of the John Wayne classic stands on its own merits. The occasional quirk aside, this is the brothers’ Straight Story, and, as I said in the original review, it feels like an unearthed and quintessentially American coming-of-age tale. The travails of Ree Dolly may have been the cat’s meow to many critics this year, but, when it comes to teenage girls facing a heap of adversity, I myself cottoned to the western adventures of Matty Ross.

5. The Social Network: With top-notch work from David Fincher, Trent Reznor, and the entire cast, The Social Network has a crisp, sleek, and entertaining interface to be sure. On an intellectual level, it’s definitely one of the most purely enjoyable movies of the year. But I still find this film somewhat dubious in terms of content. It works better as a Shakespearean tale of ambition and betrayal — Richard III by way of Revenge of the Nerds — than it does a legitimate recreation of the origins of Facebook. Still, given that much of the action takes place at a university whose motto is Veritas (“Truth”) and yet whose most prominent landmark is the “Statue of the Three Lies,” I guess I should probably forgive TSN its many factual screw-ups. Print the legend and all that.

6. A Prophet: Call it the Antisocial Network: Another 2009 foreign film that made it here in 2010, Jacques Audiard’s novelistic, keenly observed A Prophet — about a young prisoner learning to survive and thrive in the interstices of a cross-cultural jailyard — was another of the best films of the year. A Prophet can feel slow at times, and it’s not an experience I’m likely to revisit anytime soon. But it’s this film’s continual attention to the devastating detail that makes it a prison movie to remember.

7. Inception: Just as he did with The Prestige after Batman Begins, Christopher Nolan took a mental health break from Gotham City after The Dark Knight by crafting this mindbending sorbet, the best “summer movie thrillride” experience of 2010. (The only other ones that come close are #9 below and the first-half of Tron: Legacy.) I still wish Inception was a bit more ragged in its dreaming, and, like a dream, it makes more sense when you’re watching it than when you think back on it later. Nonetheless, Inception was great fun throughout, and if nothing else, it spawned one of my favorite new Internet memes.

8. The Fighter: I just saw this one over the weekend, so it has no review up yet. Suffice to say, I was pleasantly surprised by David O’Russell’s chronicle of the comeback of welterweight “Irish” Micky Ward, the pride of Lowell, Massachusetts. In fact, I had the opposite experience here that I had with The King’s Speech. There was a potentially interesting story told extremely conventionally, while this is a tried and tested sports movie formula — a boxer with one last shot at a title — that still felt fresh and invigorating. True, the seven Ward sisters were a bit much — They were the only time this boxing movie veered toward the egregious cartoon rednecks of Million Dollar Baby. But otherwise, solid performances by Mark Wahlberg, Melissa Leo, Amy Adams and especially Christian Bale give this could’ve-been-by-the-numbers film a much-needed heart.

9. Kick-Ass: Capitalizing on the promise he showed in Layer Cake, director Matthew Vaughn brought to life the most engaging comic book reverie of 2010 with Kick-Ass, his warmer, more colorful take on the Mark Millar comic. This film saw Nicolas Cage continue his Bad Lieutenant mini-revival, Mark Strong continue to hone his talent for instant Big-Bad gravitas (see also: Sherlock Holmes, 2011’s Green Lantern), and, like a bat out of Hell (or New Mexico, for that matter), 13-year-old Chloe Moretz become an out-and-out, foul-mouthed, ass-kicking action star. Few films this year were as fun as this one.

10. Exit Through the Gift Shop: As this potentially faux-documentary explains: Before he exposed the sweatshops under Springfield, British provocateur Banksy set the world of street art careening over the shark by encouraging Thierry Guetta, a.k.a. Mr. Brainwash, to get in the graffiti game. It’s still an open question whether Banksy’s disastrous creation of MBW was inadvertent or just his latest well-crafted skewering of the powers-that-be. Either way, Exit Through the Gift Shop, about the rise and fall of street art, is a merry prank indeed.

11. Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows: While the Harry Potter books grew distended and clumsy in the home stretch, the movie series continues to gain steam along that last low road to Hogwarts. In bringing to life the first half of Hallows, David Yates has made arguably the best Potter film yet, and not just because he has the good sense to riff on Brazil therein. The danger feels more palpable, the hopping around the countryside feels less episodic, and, after a decade of doing this, the Big Three wear their characters naturally now. Here’s hoping Harry Potter and the Battalion of Thespians manage to close things out as smoothly this summer.

12. Inside Job: You think Banksy got away with a grift? Check this one out. Pinning its high-profile subject to the mat much more successfully than did Alex Gibney’s Casino Jack documentary, Inside Job impressively lays out the causes and (lack of) consequences of the Great Wall Street meltdown of 2008. Those would be a swollen, rapacious, and unregulated financial services sector, and a government that, even after the Big Bust, still bends over backward to appease it. The only real problem with Inside Job is the feedback loop — The only folks likely to see this film are the same ones who already know the story and are enraged by it. Still, I’m glad it’s there, and at least it’s encouraging economists to clean up their act.

13. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: Like I said back in August, Scott Pilgrim seems to have gone the way of the much-maligned Speed Racer. As visually inventive as it was, Pilgrim didn’t make much of a splash at the box office. But even if its fanboy fan service tendencies still rankle, Edgar Wright’s ode to geek crushes and the g4m3r life deserved more love than it got on the first play, so hopefully it enjoys several more lives on Blu Ray and beyond.

14. The Town: Admittedly, Boston is getting a bit peaked as Hollywood’s go-to destination for white working-class crime stories of late (Mystic River, The Departed, Gone Baby Gone.) That being said, Ben Affleck’s “Beantown Heat” was a strong, well-made, and entertaining ensemble film with a good sense of place and charisma to burn. Everyone from Jon Hamm and Rebecca Hall to Chris Cooper and the late Pete Postlethwaite bring their A-game here, with special kudos to Jeremy Renner as Affleck’s crazy-like-a-fox pahtnuh-in-crime.

15. The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers: After watching Inside Job, you might wonder why our government is in such a furor over Julian Assange and Wikileaks when crimes like constructing an illegal torture regime and, oh, causing an worldwide global economic meltdown seem to go unpunished. And after watching Ellsberg, you might think we’ve seen this movie before anyway. (Just take it from the man himself.) Constructed like a conspiracy thriller, Ellsberg is a testament to the notion that sometimes whistle-blowing — the only “misdeed” our current administration can seem to get angry about these days — may in fact be a higher form of patriotism. However you feel about Ellsberg and Wikileaks, this is a compelling documentary about tough choices in contentious times.

16. Never Let Me Go: Like The Secret In Their Eyes, this quiet, elegiac sci-fi film has risen in my estimation in the months since I saw it. Keira Knightley is still a drag on the production, and all of the characters a bit too locked-in for my taste — If they were so invested in one plan to avoid their fate, they should’ve been more willing to contemplate other avenues of escape as well. Still, also like The Secret In Their Eyes, this is a movie whose mood of reticent mourning lingers on.

17. Terribly Happy: How do you say “Blood Simple” in Danish? This weird Coenesque ditty about a sheriff with a troubled past investigating Something Rotten in Denmark was yet another late arrival to these shores — It premiered in Europe in 2008. And yet, once again, it was among the best 2010 had to offer. Let’s hope the pattern holds and right now, some of the best films of this year are already kicking around other continents, ready to be unleashed.

18. The King’s Speech: I wrote about this one rather recently, so my views on it haven’t changed much. This is a undeniably well-made, well-written, and well-performed film, but I found its sports-movie structure and Merchant-Ivory bromance all a bit pat. Still, Colin Firth in particular is excellent here — With this and A Single Man, he’s aging into a more interesting actor than he was before. Consider it his Baldwinning.

19. The Ghost Writer: As he pieces together the memoirs of England’s ex-PM, boilerplate and boredom are the least of Ewan MacGregor’s worries — He also has surveillance men and femmes fatale to contend with. Ghost, welcome to the Machine! This conspiratorial yarn isn’t a particularly deep film — more just a cheeky throwback to 70’s paranoia thrillers and an extended screw-you to the departed Tony Blair. Still, whatever his other sins, Roman Polanski fashioned a brisk and entertaining cloak-and-dagger flick here.

20. The Kids Are All Right: I thought about Get Him to the Greek, Greenberg, and Shutter Island for this last spot. But, in the end, I gave the nod to this, Lisa Cholodenko’s well-observed slice of family life in 21st century California. This is a small and unassuming film, but one that does what it does quite well — It takes a number of well-drawn characters and lets them breathe and bounce off each other.

Most Disappointing: Alice in Wonderland: An embarrassment to the Carroll book: Tim Burton and Johnny Depp have never seemed so uninspired together.

Worth Netflixing: 44-Inch Chest, The American, A Single Man (2009), Crazy Heart (2009), Daybreakers, The Eclipse, Get Him to the Greek, Greenberg, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus (2009), Knight and Day, Let Me In, Life During Wartime, The Lovely Bones (2009), Shutter Island, Splice, The Square, Tron: Legacy, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, Winter’s Bone, Youth in Revolt

Don’t Bother: The Art of the Steal, Black Swan, The Book of Eli, Brooklyn’s Finest, Casino Jack and the USM, Catfish, Clash of the Titans, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Green Zone, Hot Tub Time Machine, Invictus (2009), Iron Man 2, Jonah Hex, Legion, The Losers, Machete, Red, Robin Hood, Salt, Sweetgrass, The Tourist, The Werewolf, The White Ribbon

Best Actor: Ricardo Darin, The Secret In Their Eyes, Tahar Rahim, A Prophet; Colin Firth, The King’s Speech
Best Actress: Natalie Portman, Black Swan; Jennifer Lawrence, Winter’s Bone, Haylee Steinfeld, True Grit
Best Supporting Actor: Christian Bale, The Fighter; Jeremy Renner, The Town; Andrew Garfield, The Social Network/Never Let Me Go
Best Supporting Actress: Chloe Moretz, Kick-Ass, Amy Adams, The Fighter; Charlotte Rampling, Life During Wartime

Unseen: 127 Hours, The A-Team, All Good Things, Animal Kingdom, Another Year, Blue Valentine, Buried, Burlesque, Carlos, Casino Jack, Centurion, Chloe, The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky, Conviction, Cop Out, Country Strong, The Crazies, Creation, Date Night, Despicable Me, Devil, Dinner for Schmucks, Easy A, Eat, Pray, Love, Edge of Darkness, The Expendables, Extraordinary Measures, Fair Game, Fish Tank, Four Lions, From Paris with Love, Get Low, The Good, The Bad, and the Weird, Gulliver’s Travels, Harry Brown, Hereafter, How Do You Know?, Howl, I am Love, The Illusionist, I Love You, Phillip Morris, I’m Still Here, Jackass 3D, Jack Goes Boating, The Karate Kid, The Killer Inside Me, The Last Exorcism, The Last Station, Leap Year, Little Fockers, MacGruber, Made in Dagenham, Micmacs, Monsters, Mother, The Next Three Days, Nightmare on Elm Street, The Other Guys, Paranormal Activity 2, Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief, Please Give, Predators, The Prince of Persia, Rabbit Hole, Rare Exports, Repo Men, Secretariat, Shrek Forever After, Skyline, Somewhere, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Step Up 3D, Survival of the Dead, Takers, Tangled, The Tempest, Tiny Furniture, Twilight: Eclipse, Unstoppable, Valentine’s Day, Vincere, When In Rome, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger

    A Good Year For:

  • Abduction as Seduction (Knight & Day, Red, The Tourist)
  • Andrew Garfield (Red Riding, The Social Network, Never Let Me Go)
  • Aussie Noir (The Square, Animal Kingdom)
  • Charlotte Rampling (Life During Wartime, Never Let Me Go)
  • Chloe Moretz (Kick-Ass, Let Me In)
  • Ghostly Ex’s (Life During Wartime, The Eclipse)
  • The Dude’s Paternal Side (Tron: Legacy, True Grit)
  • Working-class Bay Staters (The Town, The Fighter)

    A Bad Year For:

  • Angelina Jolie (Salt, The Tourist)
  • Art Museums (Exit Through the Gift Shop, Art of the Steal)
  • B-level DC Heroes (Jonah Hex, The Losers)
  • Eighties Remakes (Karate Kid, Nightmare on Elm Street)
  • Johnny Depp (Alice in Wonderland, The Tourist)
  • Leo’s Sanity (Inception, Shutter Island)
  • The Street (Inside Job, Wall Street 2)

2011: 5 Days in August, 30 Minutes or Less, The Adjustment Bureau, Albert Nobbs, Amigo, Anonymous, Arthur, Arthur Christmas, Bad Teacher, Barney’s Version, Battle: Los Angeles, The Beaver, Beginners, Bernie, The Big Year, Black Gold, Brighton Rock, Caesar: Rise of the Apes, Captain America: The First Avenger, Cars 2, Cedar Rapids, Colombiana, Conan the Barbarian, The Conspirator, Contagion, Coriolanus, Cowboys and Aliens, Damsels in Distress, A Dangerous Method, The Darkest Hour, The Debt, The Deep Blue Sea, The Descendants, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, Drive Angry, The Eagle, The Factory, The Fields, Friends with Benefits, Fright Night, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Green Hornet, Green Lantern, The Guard, The Hangover Part 2, Hanna, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, Haywire, I am Number Four, Jane Eyre, Larry Crowne, Limitless, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, Moneyball, The Muppets, Paul, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Priest, Rango, Sanctum, Scream 4, Season of the Witch, Sherlock Holmes 2, Source Code, Straw Dogs, Sucker Punch, Super 8, The Thing, Thor, The Tree of Life, The Way Back, X-Men: First Class, Your Highness, and…

Thundering Son of a Sea-Gherkin! It’s Tintin!

I Don’t Sleep, I Dream.

In writing a favorable review of The Prestige in 2006, I compared Chris Nolan’s film version of Christopher Priest’s novel to an expertly-crafted, well-wound clock: “a dark, clever, and elegant contraption…that suggests razor-sharp clockwork gears and threatening pulses of electrical current, all impressively encased in burnished Victorian-era mahogany.” Well, the watchmaker is at it again: Audacious, trippy, inventive, and maybe a touch too sleek in the end, Christopher Nolan’s Inception is a psychic heist film that’s easily among the best mainstream releases of 2010. While Toy Story 3 actually packed more of an emotional punch, this is one fun night out alright, and as smart and engaging a summer sci-fi action flick as we’ve seen since last year’s District 9.

Now, to be clear: Like Nolan’s The Dark Knight and its obviously rushed third act, I have some definite issues with the movie, which I will get into a moment. But, also like TDK, these issues don’t really detract from the actual viewing experience as it unfolds. So, if you want to consider the last few paragraphs here as mainly nitpicking to death an otherwise entertaining and more-clever-than-we-probably-deserve summer movie experience, you’re within your rights. The upshot is: You should definitely see it yourself and come to your own conclusions — Inception is worth the ten bucks and then some.

Inception was originally billed by Nolan back in 2009 as a “contemporary sci-fi actioner set within the architecture of the mind,” and, short of The Romantic’s “Talking in Your Sleep,” that’s as simple a way of describing the plot as any. Here, Leonardo Di Caprio’s Dom Cobb is a corporate security specialist who — along with his right-hand man Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, burnishing his cool) and his “Architect” (Lukas Haas, Team Brick assemble!) — spends his days hacking important intel from people’s heads by manipulating their dreams. This futuristic process is called “Extraction,” and Dom and his team are very, very good at it, but not so good that a job doesn’t get botched now and again…partly because Cobb happens to carry along some unwieldy subconscious baggage, in the form of the often-armed, always-disarming Mal (Marion Cotillard).

On the hook with a very powerful individual (Ken Watanabe) after one of these jobs gone awry, the Dream Team are presented with a counter-offer — one that, if successful, will mean Cobb gets the diplomatic immunity he desperately desires to go home and see his kids again: Plant an idea deep in the head of a corporate rival (Cillian Murphy) and hope it will germinate — a process known as “inception.” Now, this is a more complicated affair than the business-as-usual of extraction, because, apparently, people’s brains reject memes that they perceive as coming from somewhere else. (I take it Nolan has never met a Glenn Beck viewer.)

And so, as per men-on-a-mission movies from The Magnificent 7 to Ocean’s 11, Cobb goes out to recruit a bigger, better team for this heist — including a “forger” (Tom Hardy) to play-act the needed characters in the mark’s brain, a “chemist” (Dileep Rao) to handle the tricky sedation situation, and a more enterprising Architect (Ellen Page) to build a more labyrinthine mousetrap of a dream. But even as this expanded collection of expert psychonauts prepares for the Big Score, there’s still the matter of that alluring French skeleton in Cobb’s psychic closet. And the more the new Architect — Ariadne by name — unearths the secrets within Cobb’s troubled brow, the less she wants to spend any time sharing a dreamscape with these damaged goods…

The fact that Ellen Page’s character is un-self-consciously called Ariadne should give you a sense of how occasionally clunky Inception can be in the early-to-middle-going, when Nolan’s characters are forced to explain the basic rules of the game — extraction, inception, “projections” and “totems” and the like — in expository bursts. Now, on one hand, I’m guessing most fans of science fiction generally have a high tolerance for this sort of please-explain-your-terms speechifying anyway. (Otherwise, so many sci-fi tomes couldn’t start along the lines of: “While flipping idly through the Vidquik transmids from Cathedral space, Dren Garrit settled his XLV-Class Starfarer into a cruising altitude of 26 parsecrons over Koggoth,” etc. etc.)

That being said, some of the ground-rules here do seem rather arbitrary, others seem undeveloped (what was that business with the basement opium den?), and others seem to change as the story progresses. (Most obviously, the midpoint introduction of Limbo. Speaking of which, 1) Why would Murphy’s deepest dream at the end be set in the di Caprio-Cotillard version of Limbo? and 2) how did Leo and Saito get out of their dream at the end without a clap?) But the wall-of-text exposition scenes are one of my smaller quibbles with Inception. After all, the rules are the rules — so long as they’re followed once they’re established, I don’t have too much trouble with this sort of thing. (And as an aside, wasn’t it nice of Martin Scorsese to make the Limbo-set prequel of Inception, earlier this year?)

A bigger problem, to my mind, is that, for a movie about dreams, Inception seems a little too wary not to draw outside the lines. When I brought up the watchmaker metaphor at the beginning, it’s because, at times, this feels like a Bond movie conceived and written by Dr. Manhattan — brilliant in its complexity and ingenuity alright, but maybe just a little too perfect for human purposes, and even a bit…cold. (“I would only agree that a symbolic clock is as nourishing to the intellect as photograph of oxygen to a drowning man.“) FWIW, and for whatever reason, I found the (m)Orpheus and Eurydice side of the story much more emotionally resonant than Cobb’s rather hackneyed quest to see his kids’ faces again. (I mean, c’mon now, really?)

What do I mean by “too perfect”? Well, I tend to find my dreams both more innocuous and more flat-out-bizarre than anything going on in Inception. Like, I don’t really tend to dream that I’m an extra in In Her Majesty’s Secret Service. I tend to dream I’m at work in my cubicle, except my old kitchen is attached, and I have on blue facepaint and Berkeley‘s there, only he’s wearing an Abe Lincoln stovepipe hat, and my co-workers are trying to feed him a talking goldfish but I think that’s a bad idea, and Elvis Costello and Ray Davies are in the corner doing a mean cover of “Waterloo Sunset,” except it sounds more like Lady Gaga and it’s way too long for a 3-minute speech anyway… (Freudians and Jungians stand down. I just made this example up, and has nothing to do with my real dreams…as far as you know.)

The point being, dreams, even or especially the throwaway ones, are usually weird. But the Bondian vignettes in Inception just seem like video game levels to me. (Level I: Grand Theft Auto, Level 2: The Matrix, Level 3: Modern Warfare 2.) This relative aridness of Nolan’s Dreaming is compounded by the generic thug baddies all about — I don’t know about you, but I kinda think some of my dream projections would have super-powers or really scary reptile fangs or something — and by the fact that Nolan goes out of his way to explain every single thing about these dreamscapes, to the point where the actual ragged, twisted-pretzel logic of dreaming gets lost in the shuffle.

One of the bravura sequences in the film (also referenced heavily in the trailers and in my anticipatory post, so not a huge spoiler) is @hitRECordjoe‘s Matrix-y solo mission in the gravity-free hotel. And, yet, there’s a very specific story reason why JGL is floating around here. A cool story reason, to be sure, and the way different dreamworlds overlap with snap-into-place logical precision is one of the more satisfying aspects of the film. But, in dreams, does everything really have to have a reason? Shouldn’t he just be able to float, like, when he wants to, or just because he is?

Again, don’t get me wrong — I know much of the back-half of this post is my leveling fanboy complaints towards an intelligent, well-realized, and very fun summer movie. I enjoyed myself quite a bit during Inception, and I’ll very likely see it again. Still, like any number of dreams, both the movie’s logic and its captivating power do look a little more threadbare upon reflection after the fact. Twas a good dream, but a dream nonetheless.

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