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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?”

2013 in Film.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MOST DISAPPOINTING:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MOST OVERRATED:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MOST [UNFAIRLY?] MALIGNED:

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

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

WHAT IS THIS I DON’T EVEN:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE REST:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flying, Spidering, Roaring, Zerging.


As a follow-up to the ambitious and underrated Cloud Atlas, the siblings Wachowski return to their manga-centric sci-fi roots in this first trailer for Jupiter Ascending, with Mila Kunis, Channing Tatum, Sean Bean, Eddie Redmayne, and James D’Arcy. Hrm…looks a bit like The Fifth Element, art direction wise, and Kunis sure does seem to fall off things a lot. Anyway, I’m in.


Also in the trailer bin of late, Spiderman (Andrew Garfield) makes at least three more enemies — we’ll get to a Sinister Six soon, no doubt — in Rhino (Paul Giamatti), Electro (Jamie Foxx) and the Green Goblin (Dane De Haan) in the first teaser for Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spiderman 2, also with Emma Stone, Sally Field, and Campbell Scott. After Chronicle, The Place Beyond the Pines, and Kill Your Darlings, I’m a mite tired of DeHaan, to be honest, but I’ll grant that his schtick does work well for Harry Osborne.

Update: And another I missed on the first sweep: David Strathairn gamely rallies the paratroopers in the atmospheric trailer for Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla reboot, also with Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Bryan Cranston, Juliette Binoche, Sally Hawkins and Ken Watanabe. I prefer the leaked one with the Oppenheimer voiceover (“I am become Death, Destroyer of Worlds,” bringing the thunder lizard back to its Hiroshima roots), but I can see how that might’ve been too edgy for a summer blockbuster.

Update 2: Tom Cruise cosplays Starcraft, and gets some mechanized infantry pro-tips from Emily Blunt, in the first trailer for Doug Liman’s The Edge of Tomorrow, a badly-named adaptation of Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s All You Need is Kill. Eh, maybe.

Update 3: Matthew McConaughey and Christopher Nolan celebrate the dream of flight in a brief and relatively vague teaser for Interstellar, also with Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Bill Irwin, Ellen Burstyn, Michael Caine, Matt Damon, Casey Affleck, Topher Grace, John Lithgow, David Gyasi, Wes Bentley, and David Oyelowo. As it says, one year from now.

Update 4: Speaking of gamely rallying folks, Gary Oldman tries to get San Francisco’s few remaining humans to chin up against those damn dirty apes in the first teaser for Matt Reeves’ Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, also with Jason Clarke, Keri Russell, Judy Greer, and, of course, Andy Serkis. The first one was surprisingly ok, and this can’t be worse than Oldman’s last dystopian epic, The Book of Eli, so I’ll likely matinee it.

Update 5: A few more come down the pike for the holiday film season: First up, computer genius Johnny Depp goes the way of the The Lawnmower Man in this short teaser for Wally Pfister’s Transcendence, also with Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany, Morgan Freeman, Kate Mara, Cillian Murphy, Clifton Collins Jr., and Cole Hauser. The Matrix-style binary is a bit of a cliché at this point, but Pfister has done memorable work as Nolan’s cinematographer, so I’m optimistic.

And, following up on the first trailer of a few months ago, Wes Anderson introduces us to the cast of characters of The Grand Budapest Hotel, among them Ralph Fiennes, F. Murray Abraham, Mathieu Almaric, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Jude Law, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Saiorse Ronan, Jason Schwartzman, Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson, Owen Wilson, and Tony Revolori.

Smorgasbord of Vengeance.

Lots of scores to settle and cold dishes served in the trailer bin of late…

Antebellum musician Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) finds himself way down on the wrong side of the Mason-Dixon line in our first look at Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, also with Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Michael Fassbender, Paul Giamatti, Lupita Nyong’o, Sarah Paulson, Brad Pitt, and Alfre Woodard.

Some strange musical cues here, including the themes from Pearl Harbor and The Wolfman (the latter used to better effect in the original, still-creepy Tinker Tailor teaser). In any case, I liked Hunger and Shame less than most, but I’d be up to give this a go.

Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em: Josh Brolin discovers to his dismay that he can check in but never leave in the red-band trailer for Spike Lee’s remake of Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy, also with Elizabeth Olsen, Sharlto Copley, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Imperioli, Lance Reddick, and James Ransone. I’m still trying to un-watch the original — some things involving octopi and tongues I wish I never saw in that there film.

One good remake deserves another: Deserve’s still got nothing to do with it as Ken Watanabe fills Clint Eastwood’s shoes for Sang-il Lee’s Yurusarezaru mono, the Japanese remake of Unforgiven, also with Akira Emoto, Koichi Sato, and Yuya Yagira. From The Seven Samurai to The Magnificent Seven, there’s a long and fertile history for this sort of cultural exchange, so I’d watch it.

What I likely won’t be watching is Sergei Bodrov’s fantasy epic Seventh Son, based on a series I haven’t heard of called The Wardstone Chronicles, even if it does have Jeff and Maude Lebowski operating on opposite sides of the ball. (Between this and R.I.P.D., Bridges seems to be in full “paying for an extension to my house” mode these days.)

I thought at first this might be based on Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising, but then I remembered they already made a lousy adaptation of that a few years ago. In any case, also along for the ride: Ben Barnes, Kit Harington, Alicia Vikander, Djimon Hounsou, Jason Scott Lee, and Antje Traue.

When bad things happen to his brother (Casey Affleck), Christian Bale goes vigilante to take down the local ne’er-do-well (Woody Harrelson) in the first trailer for Scott Cooper’s Out of the Furnace, also with Zoe Saldana, Willem Dafoe, Forrest Whitaker, and Sam Shepard. (TL;DR: Bale meets Death Wish meets Winter’s Bone.) Alrighty then.

When bad things happen to his brother (Matt Barnes), Ryan Gosling goes vigilante to take down the local ne’er-do-well (Vithaya Pansringarm) in the newest trailer for Nicholas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives.

Along with presumably another hyper-catchy soundtrack like Refn and Gosling’s Drive, this also has the added benefit of Kristin Scott Thomas apparently doing her “Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast/Ralph Fiennes in In Bruges” turn. As with Oldboy, I expect this to be hyper-violent, tho’.

And finally Wong Kar-Wai, Yuen Woo Ping, Tony Leung, and Zhang Ziyi band together to tell the story of Ip Man (again) in the newest trailer for The Grandmaster. This still looks to me like an unnecessary remake of the third Matrix movie, but you can’t fault the pedigree involved.

Update: One more down the pike today: Benedict Cumberbatch channels Julian Assange, and has some Social Network-style angst with his partner Daniel Bruhl, in the first trailer for Bill Condon’s The Fifth Estate, with Anthony Mackie, David Thewlis, Alicia Vikander, Peter Capaldi, Carice van Houten, Dan Stevens, Stanley Tucci and Laura Linney. Linney’s smarmy “truth, justice, and the American way” line is wince-inducing, but otherwise this could be promising.

Update 2: Blanchett, meet Blanche DuBois? After Madoff-y husband Alec Baldwin becomes only the second person in America to be prosecuted for misdealings during the financial crisis, Cate Blanchett learns how the other half lives in the first trailer for Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, with Sally Hawkins, Bobby Cannavale, Andrew Dice Clay(?), Michael Stuhlbarg, and (hopefully) the Woodster’s new best friend, Louis C.K.

That Sinking Feeling.


I’m just a symptom of the moral decay that’s gnawing at the heart of the country…George Clooney’s The Ides of March (which I finally caught several weeks after Drive — hopefully I’m a little faster with the back-half of this year’s Clooney double feature) is easier to admire than it is to recommend. Attempting to dramatize the dark corners of American politics where careerism strangles idealism, it’s a film with a serious purpose and admirable ambitions. It’s well-made, and definitely well suited to the deflated, cynical “change we no longer believe in” zeitgeist of this political moment. And it’s generous to its bevy of talented actors, even if they don’t interact as much on-screen as I might have liked.

At the same time, I found Ides‘ depiction of contemporary politics to be totally theatrical and unrealistic, and its messaging rather muddled. (For a Phillip Seymour Hoffman movie that does get politics right, despite its occasional Sorkinisms, check out Charlie Wilson’s War.) The basic conceit here is All the King’s Men, basically (or, if you’re new-school, Primary Colors) — No man is a hero to his valet and all that, especially in politics. But by having the feet of clay of Clooney’s Obama-esque candidate, Governor Mike Morris of Pennsylvania, here be (yawn…oh, and major spoiler, I guess), in the parlance of politics, a “bimbo eruption,” Ides not only makes itself seem relentlessly dated. It seems to flinch from the problems in contemporary politics that people are actually and justifiably cynical about.

So, now that I’ve spoiled one of the major “twists,” let me roll it back for a moment. It’s the final days of the Ohio Democratic primary, and Governor Morris is in a neck-and-neck race with Senator Ted Pullman of Arkansas (Michael Mantell, not a factor here.) Running the respective campaigns are Hoffman and Paul Giamatti — although, don’t get your hopes up, they have maybe 30 seconds of time together.The kingmaker of the entire race could well be Senator Thompson of North Carolina (Jeffrey Wright), who has recently dropped out and has delegates to spare — although, again, don’t get your hopes up, Wright is here for maybe five minutes tops. And the ace in the hole is Morris’ wunderkind campaign aide, Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling). He does…messaging? Voter outreach? It’s totally unclear, and we never see him do anything important. But the film depends on him being considered an amazing and indispensable political genius, so let’s presume he is. (Yes, yes, more Gosling haterade. He’s actually fine here, FWIW.)

In any case, Meyers is apparently such an earth-shattering asset that, one day, the opposition (Giamatti) asks to do lunch in a possible bid to get him to switch sides. But when word of this (totally innocuous) barroom meet leaks to an enterprising NYT reporter (Marisa Tomei), the story threatens to tank Meyers’ relationship with his boss (ok, maybe) and develop into a full-blown, campaign-sinking media sensation (Really? Why? They’re both Dems. And are all Ohio voters meant to be such political junkies that they would devote extreme import to an aide on one campaign having lunch with another? This is an inside-the-Beltway, Lloyd Grove tidbit at best.) And then there’s the complicating matter of Meyers’ new fling, a young and exceedingly friendly campaign intern (Evan Rachel Wood). What was it Chekhov said about comely interns in the first act of a political play…?

So you can basically tell where The Ides of March is going from relatively early on. (If not, every Obama-esque utterance by Morris, who’s a pro-gay-marriage, secular humanist liberal dream candidate, also gives the game away. There’s gotta be something up the man’s sleeve or there’s no movie.) Still, I admired some of Ides‘ visual conceits — for example, having the climactic, idealism-deflating tete-a-tete occur in a hotel kitchen. (In US politics, really horrible idealism-deflating things have happened in hotel kitchens.) And, thanks to its actors and crisp direction, the film mostly sustains an impressive dramatic heft even when the story seems more than a little implausible.

But here’s the trick [back to the big spoiler, if you want out]: So Governor Mike Morris, as its happens, has a failing for the interns. To which I say…Honestly, who cares? This is the sort of thing that destroys your political idealism? We had an impeachment crisis over exactly this issue, and 60% of America shrugged and backed the president at the time. And, ten years after the Bill Clinton era, the sin of his administration that rankles isn’t his dalliances with Monica Lewinsky — It was the final removal of Glass-Steagal, which helped pave the way for the (unpunished) economy-imploding blowout of our times. Similarly,the thousands hitting the bricks for #OWS in various cities right now don’t particularly care who Obama, or anyone else in Washington, is screwing at any given time. They care who they’re screwing over.

And, in the end, the intern problem here is only the icing on the cake. The Ides of March is a film that’s almost entirely about the process of politics — scoops and polls and leaks, campaign managers and endorsements. It has almost nothing to say about the actual content of politics — jobs and schools and taxes. I don’t even remember, other than the aforementioned litany of hot-button cultural issues, any actual, honest-to-goodness questions of political import coming up. One of the main reasons, I’d argue, why the American people are sick-to-death of politics and politicians today, is all the useless, inside-baseball, endless-horse-race media coverage, when all folks really want is a good, well-paying job and a decent school in the neighborhood. In this respect and despite its good intentions, Ides is less a diagnosis of the disease afflicting the body politic and more just another manifestation of the symptoms.

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

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

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

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



50. The Proposition (2005)

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


48. The Prestige (2006)

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

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

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


47. WALL-E (2008)

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

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

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

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


46. The Royal Tenenbaums (2000)

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

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

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


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

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

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


44. Coraline (2009)

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

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

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


43. O Brother Where Art Thou? (2000)

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

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


42. Shaun of the Dead (2004)

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

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

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

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


41. The Pianist (2002)

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

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

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

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


40. Knocked Up (2008)

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

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

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

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


39. Sideways (2004)

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

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

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


38. Let the Right One In (2008)

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

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

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

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


37. Intolerable Cruelty (2003)

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


35. The Wrestler (2008)

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

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

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


34. The Hurt Locker (2009)

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

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

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

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


33. A Serious Man (2009)

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

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

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


32. The Cooler (2003)

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

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


31. Moon (2009)

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

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

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


30. Requiem for a Dream (2000)

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

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

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

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

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


29. Sexy Beast (2000)

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


28. Milk (2008)

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

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

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

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


27. Layer Cake (2005)

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

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

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

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


26. Garden State (2004)

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

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

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

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

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

2009 in Film.

Merry Christmas, everyone. As we’re at the halfway point of the big decade list — Pt. 1, Pt. 2 — now seems like a good time to uncork the usual end-of-year movie list. Think of it as a new-stuff sorbet before we move to the final fifty.

I should say before we start that there are a few movies I’ll very likely see from 2009 — most notably The Lovely Bones, A Single Man, and The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus — that aren’t included due to their limited release schedule — most don’t arrive around these parts until 2010. The better-than-expected Sherlock Holmes, which I saw yesterday and have not yet reviewed in full, is also not here, although I did think of slotting it in at #20 before the Victorian-era tazer and remote-controlled cyanide bomb showed up. And there are still a few other stragglers I wouldn’t mind catching at some point, most notably Invictus and The Messenger. But if any of these are really, really great, they’ll either get backdated in or show up in next year’s list, as per usual. So don’t worry — credit will get paid where due.

In the meantime, as has been the standard — and although the decade list has been working differently — we start at #1 and proceed from there. And without further ado, the…

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

1. In the Loop: “Tobes, I don’t want to have to read you the Riot Act, but I am going to have to read you some extracts from the Riot Act, like: Section 1, Paragraph 1: Don’t leave your boss twisting in the wind and then burst in late, smelling like a pissed seaside donkey.” Even if I hadn’t moved back to DC this year for a ringside seat to the clusterfrak, Armando Ianucci’s In the Loop would’ve been at the top of my list. I’m not normally a huge laugher at movies, but this flick had me rolling.

Basically, In the Loop is Office Space for people in politics, and it’s a smart, wickedly funny entertainment. And like Judge’s film and The Big Lebowski, I expect it will enjoy a long, happy, and very quotable renaissance on DVD. If you find The Daily Show or Colbert Report at all enjoyable, this is a must-see. And, even if you don’t, well the choice Scottish swearing should get you through.

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

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

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

5. Coraline: In an auspicious year for both regular (see #10) and stop-motion (see #13) animation, Henry Selick’s adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline was the pick of the litter. It sorta got lost in the early-year shuffle, but Selick & Gaiman’s dark, twisted fairy tale delivered the goods, and hopefully it’ll find more life on DVD.

6. District 9: For those who find Moon a little too talky and slow, I direct you to Neil Blomkamp’s little (ok, $30 million) South African indie that could. Alien Nation meets Cry Freedom with healthy dollops of Cronenberg body horror and old-school Peter Jackson viscera-splatter, District 9 came out as more than the sum of its parts, and (with #8) was one of the most purely enjoyable films of the summer.

7. (500) Days of Summer: “This is a story of boy meets girl. The boy, Tom Hansen of Margate, New Jersey, grew up believing that he’d never truly be happy until the day he met The One. This belief stemmed from early exposure to sad British pop music and a total mis-reading of the movie ‘The Graduate’.” Speaking of said music, here’s a movie the early Elvis Costello would love. Sure, (500) Days is unabashedly for folks who’ve been on the wrong end of a break-up. But, even if it is ultimately Annie Hall-lite in a lot of ways, it had more truths to tell than most of the rom-coms out in any given year…combined.

8. Drag Me to Hell: Shaking off the Spidey 3 doldrums, Sam Raimi went back to his gross-out Evil Dead roots for this carnival concoction. Besides being easily the most explicitly anti-gypsy film since Borat, Drag Me to Hell was also, in its own way, as much of a Great Recession cautionary tale as Up in the Air. One hopes that when the Senate takes up financial services reform next year, our erstwhile reformers in that esteemed body will note what happened to Alison Lohman when she, against all better judgment, decided to do the bidding of the Banks.

9. Star Trek: There was admittedly a whole lotta stupid in J.J. Abrams’ Star Warsy revamp of the Star Trek franchise — Once exposed to the light, the movie’s basic premises completely fall apart. But, like the stomachache that accompanies eating too much candy, those regrets come later. In the moment, Star Trek was more fun than you can shake a stick at, and as solid and entertaining a franchise reboot as 2006’s Casino Royale. Let’s hope The Revenge of Khan or whatever it’s called turns out better than Quantum of Solace.

10. Up: If the movie were just the first ten-fifteen minutes, this might’ve been in the top five. But even more than WALL-E, the good stuff in Up is front-loaded. And, after the story of a lifetime ended a quarter hour in, I wasn’t much in the mood for talking dogs and big, funny birds (even birds named Kevin) anymore. Still, Pixar is Pixar, and Up carried their usual mark of quality.

11. The Damned United: Frost/Nixon for the futbol set, Tom Hooper’s ballad of Clough and Revie was a low-key character study that made up for an awkwardly-frontloaded bromance with another great performance by Michael Sheen and plenty of “Life in a Northern Town” local color to spare. You can practically smell the mud off the cleats in this one.

12. Duplicity: Perhaps I’m giving too many props to well-made breezy entertainments this year (see also Nos. 8 & 9). Nonetheless, Tony Gilroy’s Duplicity was a sleek espionage caper and a decently sexy love story that was all the more amusing because the stakes were so small. As it turns out, Clive Owen had just taken on evil corporations with a global reach a few weeks earlier in The International (a movie I caught on DVD, and which was most memorable for its Gunfight in the Guggenheim) — He’s more fun when he’s on the payroll.

13. The Fantastic Mr. Fox: If you see one clever stop-motion adaptation of a sardonic children’s novel this year…well, see Coraline. Nonetheless, The Fantastic Mr. Fox was also one of the better entrants in the 2009 line-up. It was ultimately a little too Wes Anderson saccharine for my tastes, but, of course, your mileage may vary. And at least Fox didn’t wallow in the emo like, you know.

14. Inglourious Basterds: After a decade of languishing in the shallows, Quentin Tarantino found a bit of his old magic in this sprawling alternate history of WWII. Yes, it needed a good and ruthless editor, and some rather longish scenes don’t really work at all (I’m thinking mainly of Shoshanna’s lunch with Goebbels and Linda.) But at certain times — the basement cafe snafu, for example, or the memorable finale — Basterds is the best thing QT has done since Jackie Brown. Let’s hope he stays in form.

15. Public Enemies: Michael Mann’s high-def retelling of The Last Days of Dillinger was a strange one, alright. Like Basterds, it was long and languid and sometimes seemed to move without purpose. But, like Mann’s last grainy-digital foray into tales of manly men and the women they love, Miami Vice, Public Enemies has stuck with me ever since. Say what you will about the hi-def video aesthetic, it somehow seems to match Mann’s haunted, Hemingwayesque sense of poetry.

16. The Informant!: The tragedy of The Insider retold as farce, The Informant!, like many of Steven Soderbergh’s films, was experimental in a lot of ways. Some things worked (the ADM-buttery sheen); Others didn’t (the distractingly peppy Hamlisch score); Others still were hit-or-miss (the in-head bipolar voiceover). Nonetheless, The Informant! is mostly a success, and it’s good to see Soderbergh out there trying new things — I wish I’d gotten around to catching The Girlfriend Experience. (Ahem, the movie, that is. Sheesh, some people.)

17. Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans: I had definite doubts going in, but Werner Herzog’s Grand Theft Auto: New Orleans turned out to be a surprisingly fun gonzo trip. After years of hanging with the Kinski, good ole Werner sure knows his way around the crazy, and by pairing Nicholas Cage on a savage burn with hyperreal iguanas, voodoo breakdancers, and the like, he’s done Abel Ferrara’s Gloomy Gus version of this tale one better. There’s no Catholic angst for this Lieutenant — just reveling in sordidness…but then again, isn’t that the whole point of Carnival?

18. Watchmen: “At midnight, all the agents and the superhuman crews go and round up everyone who knows more than they do.” True, Zack Snyder’s attempt to recreate the Alan Moore graphic novel on film is flawed in a lot of ways. (The longer DVD version smooths out some of these issues while introducing others.) And I still wish the project had stayed in Paul Greengrass’ hands. But, give credit where it’s due — For all its many problems (most notably the fratboy-indulgences into “cool” violence), Snyder’s Watchmen got a lot of things right, from Dr. Manhattan sulking on Mars to Jackie Earle Haley’s turn as Rorschach. Snyder couldn’t match the degree of difficulty involved in the end, but Watchmen was still a worthy attempt.

19. The Road: In the Future, There Will Be Cannibals: John Hillcoat’s film version of Cormac McCarthy’s dabbling in the apocalyptic form definitely captured the resonances of the book. And this is a quality production through and through, with solid performances by Viggo, the kid, Charlize Theron, and all of the HBO All-Stars (with particularly big ups to Robert Duvall.) Unfortunately, I didn’t think much of the book either, and in its monochromatic grimness, The Road never seems as memorable as Hillcoat’s earlier film, The Proposition. All work and no play makes Hobo Viggo somethin’ somethin’.

20. The Men Who Stare at Goats: I’m sure a lot of lists would’ve found room for Avatar or Up in the Air in their top twenty, and both have their merits (even if Avatar‘s are almost completely technical.) But if Avatar was too flat and Air too glib, The Men Who Stare at Goats was a frothy excursion that delivered on basically the terms it promised at the onset. Ok, there’s not much there there, but sometimes a couple of likable actors having an extended goof will go farther than Big, Oscar-Worthy Messages and World-Beating Tech. Hmmm, if you think about it, the “sparkly eye” technique probably would’ve gone over better with the Na’vi than all those Aliens-loaned cargo-loaders anyway. Score one for the First Earth Battalion.

Most Disappointing: Where the Wild Things Are, Terminator: Salvation

Worth a Rental: An Education, Avatar, Cold Souls, Eden (2006), Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, The International, Paranormal Activity, Sherlock Holmes, A Single Man, Taken, Up in the Air, Zombieland

Don’t Bother: 2012, The Box, The Brothers Bloom, Extract, A Girl Cut in Two (2006), The Hangover, Invictus, Jennifer’s Body, State of Play, The Tiger’s Tail (2006), Whip It, World’s Greatest Dad

Best Actor: Sam Rockwell, Moon; Jeremy Renner, The Hurt Locker

Best Actress: Carey Mulligan, An Education
Best Supporting Actor: Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds; Robert Duvall, The Road
Best Supporting Actress: Marion Cotillard, Public Enemies; Melanie Laurent, Inglourious Basterds

Unseen: 9, Nine, Adventureland, Angels & Demons, Amelia, Antichrist, Armored, Astro Boy, Black Dynamite, Blood: The Last Vampire, Bright Star, Brothers, Bruno, Capitalism: A Love Story, Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant, Crank: High Voltage, Crossing Over, Everybody’s Fine, Funny People, Gentlemen Broncos, GI Joe, The Girlfriend Experience, Good Hair, The Education of Charlie Banks, The Great Buck Howard, Hunger, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, The Invention of Lying, It’s Complicated, Julie & Julia, Land of the Lost, The Limits of Control, , The Lovely Bones, I Love You Man, Me and Orson Welles, The Messenger, New York I Love You, Notorious, Observe & Report, Orphan, Pandorum, Pirate Radio, Ponyo, Precious, The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, The Proposal, Push, The Soloist, Surrogates, The Taking of Pelham1-2-3, Taking Woodstock, Thirst, The Time Traveler’s Wife, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, The Twilight Saga: New Moon, Two Lovers, The Ugly Truth, Whatever Works, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Year One

    A Good Year For:

  • The Apocalypse (2012, Zombieland, The Road)
  • Demons (A Serious Man, Drag Me to Hell, Jennifer’s Body, Paranormal Activity)
  • George Clooney (The Men Who Stare at Goats, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, Up in the Air)
  • Going Undercover to Play Both Sides (Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, Duplicity, The Informant!)
  • Guy Pearce Cameos (The Road, The Hurt Locker)
  • Hipsters with Unresolved Childhood Issues (The Fantastic Mr. Fox, Where the Wild Things Are)
  • “The Jews” (Inglourious Basterds, A Serious Man)
  • Matthew Goode (Watchmen, A Single Man)
  • Melanie Lynskey (Up in the Air, The Informant!)
  • Stop-Motion (Coraline, The Fantastic Mr. Fox)

    A Bad Year For:

  • Goats (Drag Me to Hell, The Men Who Stare at Goats)
  • Robots from the Future (Transformers 2, Terminator: Salvation)
  • Pithy Movie Titles: (Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, X-Men Origins: Wolverine)
  • Summer blockbusters: (GI Joe, Terminator: Salvation, Transformers 2, Wolverine)

2010: Alice in Wonderland, All Good Things, The American, The A-Team, The Book of Eli, Brooklyn’s Finest, Clash of the Titans, A Couple of Dicks, Daybreakers, The Expendables, Greenberg, The Green Hornet, Green Zone, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt. 1, I Love You Phillip Morris, Inception, Iron Man 2, Jonah Hex, Kick-Ass, Knight & Day, The Last Airbender, Legion, The Losers, Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief, Morning Glory, Predators, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, Red, Robin Hood, Salt, Season of the Witch, Shanghai, Shutter Island, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Toy Story 3, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps, The Wolf Man, Youth in Revolt, more needless ’80s remakes than you can shake a stick at. (Footloose, The Karate Kid, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Red Dawn), and…

TRON 2. 2010, y’all. It’s the future, and no mistake.

Your Lonely Souls.

After Friday’s Basterds came a Saturday morning expedition to Sophie Barthes’ minor-key Cold Souls. I was sold on this film as soon as I heard about the sci-fi premise — once again there’s some weird science for sale in and around New York City — and it’s worth a rental at least, particularly if you’re a fan of Paul Giamatti. But Cold Souls also feels vaguely underwritten: The ideas it puts in play are more interesting than the execution, and it’s hard not to think of the movie as just another well-meaning but flawed act of Existential Schlub Theater, a la Charlie Kaufmann’s Synecdoche, New York.

So what’s the score here? Well, world-renowned screen thespian Paul Giamatti (Paul Giamatti) has lately been pouring his heart andsoul into a Broadway production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, and it’s killing him even worse than that John Adams gig back in the day — he lies awake nights, brain and stomach churning. So, after being clued into a New Yorker story about a Roosevelt Island firm that temporarily stores souls, Paul takes the plunge. Without even telling his wife (Emily Watson, bestowing her indie imprimatur), he takes a cable car over to yonder island, listens to the sales pitch from the eminently reasonable Dr. Flintstein (David Straithairn), and gets his chickpea-sized soul (or at least 95% of it) extracted from his person.

As you might expect, this has some strange side effects — The soulless Paul, for example, is completely impervious to the charms of a cute bunny (I mean that literally, although the extremely underused Lauren Ambrose doesn’t seem to have much of an effect on him either.) He’s also now a terrible actor — Without his broken soul propelling him along a dark and agonizing path, Giamatti’s Vanya flies over Russian pathos and lands somewhere in the Borscht Belt. But, when Paul heads back to Roosevelt Island to get his soul back…well, his complication has developed a little complication. For it turns out there is a brisk black market going on in the soul business, and Giamatti’s personal chickpea has been sent via mule (Dina Korzun) to St. Petersburg, where it’s being used by a beautiful Russian soap star (Katheryn Winnick) who now believes herself in possession of Al Pacino’s actorly chops. (Al Pacino has a soul?) Meanwhile, the avuncular Dr. Flintstein suggests, perhaps Giamatti could just pick a soul out of the black market catalog…word is Russian poets are going cheap these days…

There’s a lot to admire in Barthes’ Souls — It’s nothing if not clever throughout, and there are definitely a few chuckles to be had. Every member of the cast here is pretty darned good, particularly Giamatti and Watson, who manage to make a compelling, multi-dimensional marriage come across with very few lines. And I admired that the movie had thought through some of the second-level ramifications of a soul commodities business — black markets, for example.

All that being said, Cold Souls ultimately feels like something of a non-starter. As with The Brothers Bloom, a third act in Russia feels meandering and purposeless. The glimpses we do eventually get of people’s soul-landscape — a sort of Mark Romanek afterworld of out-of-focus children and creepy oldsters — are, frankly, less interesting than the ideas that were already put into play. And there’s just not much there there. In the end, the movie is better at the set-up than the follow-through. Cold Souls is worth watching on IFC some day, but, like poor Paul Giamatti after the operation, it ends up feeling curiously hollow.

Soap Spies and Soapbox Conspiracies.

As per the norm of late, I seem to be well behind on both my movie-watching and movie-reviewing these days. (It’s been awhile since Watchmen.) In an attempt to rectify the former, at least, I hit up the multiplex a few weekends ago with a decision to make. Eventually, and based mainly on which projected path would involve the least amount of downtime between shows, I decided to forsake an Apatow-ish afternoon with the old Freaks & Geeks gang (I Love You, Man, Adventureland, Observe and Report — still haven’t seen any of those) in favor of the latest batch of conspiracy-minded thrillers. Well, at least one of ’em was worth it.

First up was Tony Gilroy’s frothy but entertaining Duplicity, a tongue-firmly-in-cheek, corporate espionage rom-com of sorts that sadly didn’t make much of a splash at the box office. After a meet-cute in Dubai involving MI-6 agent Ray Koval (Clive Owen) and CIA asset Claire Stenwick (Julia Roberts), we cut to rival cosmetics company CEO’s Paul Giamatti and Tom Wilkinson going mano-a-mano like it’s Paris in 1778. Both looking for a leg up in the cutthroat world of shampoo, hand cremes, and lotions — not to mention a chance to roundly humiliate the other in corporate combat — these two masters of the universe have invested enough into their respective espionage and counter-intelligence departments (run by Milk/Michael Clayton‘s Denis O’Hare and writer-director Tom McCarthy respectively) to make Mossad blush.

Enter (once again) top-notch professional spies Ray and Claire, who discover they’ve both been hired by Giamatti’s intel outfit years after their earlier falling-out in Saudi Arabia. Will these two photogenic spooks be able to bury the hatchet long enough to fulfill their mission objective of screwing over Wilkinson good? Or was that particular hatchet perhaps buried on an earlier Roman holiday? As you might imagine from a movie called Duplicity (by the writer of the Bourne films, no less), nothing is what it seems at first. And most everyone, not the least our two protagonists, is playing more than a few angles.

Blessed with charismatic performances from its two leads — I don’t usually cotton to Julia Roberts much, but she’s fine here — Duplicity is a jaunty bit of fun that mainly works because it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Sure, the wheels-within-wheels of the plot don’t quite always catch — They’re often contrived and sometimes needlessly convoluted. (If anyone out there saw the movie, could you explain what the significance of the marked bench was? I missed it.) And some of the setpieces definitely take too long, and don’t make much sense regardless. (See for example, the hunting-for-a-fax-machine sequence, which even the characters eventually call out as ludicrous.) But Duplicity gets away with much of this because it’s so goofy and good-natured about it all. If the cosmetics angle didn’t tip you off from jump street, the stakes of the game here are purposely hokey and overwrought — People talk about the MacGuffin here, a possible cure for baldness, like it’s the Ark of the Covenant.

In the end, Duplicity is probably 15-20 minutes too long, its final couple of twists are pretty easy to see coming, and the film then spends too much time showing us all the myriad details we could’ve worked out on our own. But it’s an amiable production through and through, and there are worse ways to spend two hours than watching Owen and Roberts sally sharp-edged barbs back-and-forth, debate the economic possibilities of frozen pizza, and occasionally tumble into the sack. At the very least, I didn’t leave Duplicity feeling cheated.

Which brings us to Kevin MacDonald’s State of Play, a movie that was sorely lacking the state-of-play that exuded from every soap-scrubbed pore of Duplicity. No, this is a Big Serious Film, about Big Serious Issues, like Sinister Political Corruption and the Decline of Newspapers and such. Now, I unfortunately missed the original BBC miniseries version of this tale, but from the cast alone (John Simm, Kelley MacDonald, Bill Nighy, Marc Warren, James McAvoy, Polly Walker) I have to bet it’s pretty good. But, as far as this American retelling goes, I found State of Play thoroughly ham-handed, mostly unbelievable, and often risible.

Darkness sets in early in State of Play, as the film begins with two seemingly unrelated deaths in our nation’s capital. First, a homeless bagsnatcher is hunted down in Georgetown and — conspiracy alert — executed with a ruthless, professional precision. Then, a comely Capitol Hill aide falls in front of a subway train in the middle of morning rush hour. (DC-area folks might find themselves pondering why said aide walked through Dupont Circle and Adams-Morgan to board a train over in Roslyn, Virginia. Everyone else will just wonder why the fact she fell in a small security camera “blind spot” is so important when there had to have been several dozen eye-witnesses at the scene.)

We are then introduced to gruff, slovenly beat writer with a heart-of-gold Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe), who lumbers around the rest of the movie like a newspaperman out of Sesame Street — he not only knows every single working-class-joe in the District, but they all seem to want to do him favors. The yin to McAffrey’s yang over at the Washington Globe is Della Frye (Rachel McAdams), the smart, attractive, but unfortunately surface-skimming blogger at the new online desk. McAffrey and Frye are assigned to cover the two murders for the Globe respectively, but there’s a catch. For the dead aide, it turns out, happened to be having an affair with her boss, the up-and-comer Rep. Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck), who was currently leading a congressional investigation into Pointcorp, a Blackwater-style private military contractor.

What’s more, Rep. Collins was once none-other-than newsman McAffrey’s college roommate, and, complicating matters even further, both have shared the attentions of the congressman’s wife (Robin Wright Penn). Will Cal use his journalistic pull to smooth things over for his two old friends in the press? Will Della be able to renounce her bloggeriffic tendency to wallow in scandalous ephemera and find the real story buried here? And, when it comes out that the murders are inevitably linked and that there’s something very Dark and Troubling going on in the corridors of Washington, will Cal take Della under his wing and find a way to make her a “real” journalist? I mean, that’s how Dad did it, that’s how America does it, and it’s worked out pretty well so far.

Even with Brad Pitt and Ed Norton, who were originally cast as McAffrey and Collins respectively, gone from this production, State of Play has all the marks of a Big Important Film, including respected name actors popping up all over the place. The supremely talented Helen Mirren is passable as the hard-nosed, tough-talking editor/doyenne of the Globe, but she isn’t done any favors by the script, which keeps forcing her into goofy, Prime Suspect-style exclamations of Britishness. Jeff Daniels has some fun as a smarmy, probably-Republican Senator (“Don’t use the Lord’s name in vain around me“), David Harbour of Revolutionary Road shows up as our slightly-off-kilter Deep Throat, Harry Lennix and Best Supporting Actress nominee Viola Davis briefly play a detective and coroner respectively, and Jason Bateman just about walks away with the film as an oily club promoter caught in the middle of all the shenanigans. (He plays it broad, and seems to be the only person involved who recognized what a B-movie this is.)

But even all the talent on-screen can’t save State of Play from its very significant flaws. For one, the film clearly purports to be a paean to investigative journalism a la All the President’s Men, but the conspiracy that drives the story is outlandish in several ways. Basically — moderate spoilers here — it involves corporate and para-military thugs at the Blackwater outfit doing whatever is required to achieve their ultimate goal of “privatizing national security.” Now, I have no doubt that Blackwater and its ilk are shady as they come. And — given everything we’ve seen from them as lawless mercenaries in Iraq — it doesn’t take an extreme suspension of disbelief to envision a fictional Blackwater doing what they do here, engaging in under-the-table wetworks to protect some sizable market share.

But, and this is where the movie began to lose me, I’m not at all convinced that the Bad Guys here would even have to break the law as currently written to achieve their ultimate goal, and they definitely wouldn’t have to go to the sordid lengths suggested in State of Play. Maybe it’s news to the good people at the Washington Globe, but corruption has been effectively legalized for awhile now in DC. Why would Pointcorp be involved in such nefarious black-bag operations to ensure their pound-of-flesh profit margins, when they can just spread some money around legally and accomplish much the same objective? After awhile, I found the spy shenanigans here about as plausible as those of the evil soap corporations in Duplicity. (Honestly, did the writers not hear of Halliburton? They were bagging enormously lucrative no-bid military contracts for years the old-fashioned way.)

This brings me to my other major problem with State of Play — its depiction of journalism and what ails it. But, before I move on — and I’ll tread lightly here — State of Play makes a turn very late in the game that completely subverts the All the President’s Men conspiracy argument it’s been making up to then anyway, and it basically lets the air out of the entire movie. You can’t have it both ways, y’all.

Moving on, as most every single review will tell you, State of Play closes with a loving montage of each stage in the process of making a daily newspaper — the type being set, the rolls of paper being loaded, etc. etc. (They skip over all the crucial cutting-down-trees and paper-mill parts, of course — Let’s not get in the way of nostalgia.) And, yes, State of Play is very conspicuously crafted as a heartfelt ode to the newspaper industry in twilight, as mainly evidenced by the narrative tug between “good” journalist Cal, who pounds the beat relentlessly and tracks down every possible lead, and “bad” blogger Della, who — at first — opines without all the facts at her disposal and dishes out snark by the shovelful. (But don’t worry, it turns out she’s very trainable.)

Now, I posted briefly on this last month, but there are a lot of reasons newspapers are going under right now — market pressures, obviously, but also over-consolidation, a decline in local-area coverage, papers following the cable TV herds into surface-skimming irrelevance. And, for an equally loving, but more resonant critique of why it’s happening, I’d direct you to Season 5 of David Simon’s The Wire. As Simon says here: “In every episode, what’s being depicted is a newspaper that’s actually not connecting with the problems that exist on the ground. It’s not noticing that the police department has been cheating stats for years and making crime go away. It’s not noticing that the third grade test scores are being hyped so that No Child Left Behind is not exposed for what it is. That’s the critique, and very tellingly, almost perfectly, I think, with the exception of maybe one or two guys out there, everybody missed it.” Or, as Simon’s Gus Haynes puts it at one point when dissecting newspaper’s Pulitzer-hungry mentality: “It’s like you’re up on the corner of a roof and you’re showing some people how a couple of shingles came loose, and meanwhile a hurricane wrecked the rest of the damn house.

Now, whatever you think of this critique, notice it doesn’t have much if anything to do with bloggers. Ok, sure, the blogging mentality spilling over into “real” journalism perhaps hasn’t helped matters any — I said as much here. But the idea that the Della Fryes of the world — or Ana Marie Coxes, if you want to bring it home — are the main reason newspapers are in trouble right now, or the main reason newspapers miss the “real” conspiracies in our midst, is so facile as to be insulting.

State of Play tells a story of a “good” journalist at a “good” DC newspaper uncovering sordid scandal and “bad” corruption at the highest levels of government, all the while making a “good” protege out of a “bad” blogger. Well, sure, it’s a nice fairy tale, but let’s get real. I don’t remember bloggers having anything to do with Judith Miller, the NYT, and every other newspaper of note enabling Dubya’s whole fake-WMD fiasco in 2002 and 2003. I don’t remember bloggers telling the NYT to sit on the illegal and warrantless wiretaps story for an entire year, and an election year at that. I don’t remember bloggers convincing the likes of Bob Woodward or Tim Russert to circle the wagons around Scooter Libby when he outed Valerie Plame. And I definitely don’t remember bloggers encouraging the establishment media to declare Dubya-era torture a non-issue that we all need to just get over, in the name of a false “looking forward” reconciliation based on willfully ignoring illegality, corruption, lies, and moral atrocities.

So, thanks for the civics lesson, State of Play, but I’m not sure I can hold those wretched, superficial bloggers entirely accountable for the decline of paper-and-ink newspapers these days. Look, I’m as sorry to see journalism in the woeful financial state it’s in as the next guy. But — when it comes to enabling and cooperating with manifestly corrupt behavior in Washington — y’all might want to look at your own hands too. Not all of those stains are ink.

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