I read a lot of movie-geek kind of news -- different blogs and websites filled with mostly nonsense about the latest slasher movie or some little seen Japanese anime film finally getting a U.S. release at one theater in Austin. The guys who work for these sites tend to consider themselves pure and unfettered by corporate considerations and unswayed by the bloviating opinions of the mainstream critics. They are, for the most part, adequate writers with a few very interesting, cogent opinions on film, but mostly they're irritating. I read their stuff mostly to find out tidbits of info on the making of the new "Dark Knight" movie or what the new "Spiderman" outfit is going to look like, but occasionally I read their reviews, and lately, "best of" lists, as well.
Looking at those lists, it is apparent that this could have been a very depressing year, if you wanted it to be. Those rundowns are filled with disturbing, dark, violent, and vile films. I looked at my list of films for the year and, good or bad, there was nothing that would make me want to drive off a cliff, aside, of course, from "Transformers 3."
In fact, it was a pretty happy, fun year, as far as movies go. I've concluded that maybe, for once, it's good to live in a small market, where not every grotesque experiment in shock cinema is available to anyone who wants it. It's also possible that I just picked well this time around. You be the judge.
Martin Scorsese's beautiful fable about a boy living in a 1920s Paris train station was probably the most enjoyable and technically flawless film I saw all year. Heartbreaking, heartwarming, and ultimately life-affirming, I was taken by surprise by this lovely movie, mostly because of a fairly substandard trailer. "Hugo" brings to life the magic of cinema's golden age, and only the most hard-hearted could fail to be moved.
"Midnight in Paris"
Oddly, one of my other favorite films of the year takes place in nearly the same time-period, in the same setting, but couldn't be more different. Owen Wilson, playing a frustrated writer with very little support from his fiance, finds himself magically transported back to Paris in the '20s, a time and place peopled with some of the most influential writers and artists of the century. Director Woody Allen's dry sense of humor mixes with Wilson's affable nature to create a subtle, yet magical and hilarious romantic comedy. I had missed this movie until just a few days ago a good friend suggested my wife and I watch it, and loaned us the movie. All I can say is, good call.
Brad Pitt is just getting better and better. I typically enjoy a good sports film, and "Moneyball," anchored by Pitt's subtle performance as the at-the-end-of-his-rope Oakland A's manager Billy Beane, is better than most. It's not easy to make a moving, funny, exhilarating movie about the tough world of baseball salary negotiating, but here it is.
Steven Spielberg, with his second big-budget film of the year, creates a gorgeous, moving story of the horrors of World War I, as seen through the experiences of a remarkable horse. What makes this movie interesting is not just the cinematography, the seamless special effects involving the horses, or the acting, but it's the bold choice to make a stylized film in the vein of films from the thirties and forties, right down to the almost corny sincerity and "Gone with the Wind"-esque sunsets.
"Rise of the Planet of the Apes"
This is not a movie I would have imagined would be on anyone's "best of" list, let alone mine. That is, until it came out and blew everyone away. This takes Tim Burton's idiotic reboot of the "Apes" series and tosses it in the trash. This potentially silly subject matter is treated seriously, and because of quality writing and quality performances, including an amazing portrayal by Andy Serkis as the chimpanzee Caesar, "Apes" was one of the most thrilling, exciting, and dramatic moviegoing experiences of the year.
"Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2"
Part 2 of Part 7 of a series about child-wizards doesn't sound like the most promising movie in the world, but it was, in a word, great. Part 1 of "Hallows" was also good, but so downbeat. This film is the payoff and a great wrap-up to a decade long story. What better way to graduate that talented group of young actors.
I saw both this and "Harry Potter" in London. Talk about opposite ends of the spectrum. Quiet, funny, sweet, and sad, "Beginners" highlights both Ewan MacGregor's and Christopher Plummer's talents by taking them in unexpected directions in this tale of a father who comes out of the closet in later life, and the son who has to come to terms with it. An unexpected bonus: sitting two rows back from us was the kid who plays Artie on "Glee." So you know it was good.
"Tree of Life"
I was not sure about going to see this movie, even though it sounded interesting. I am not a fan of director Terrence Malik's slow, almost drowsy, style of filmmaking. "Tree," however, while certainly not moving a mile-a-minute, is so beautiful, lyrical, and flows so well that it captured me despite a plot full of ambiguity. Plot is almost the wrong word for it. This is a movie about beauty, grace, and purpose, not about a particular story. It's not an easy film, but certainly worth the time.
"The Adjustment Bureau"
Along with "Midnight in Paris," "The Adjustment Bureau" may have been the movie I just honestly loved most this year, despite its flaws. A simple, "Twilight Zone" story about an up and coming politician, Matt Damon, and the girl he loves despite the best laid plans of the universe, "Adjustment" is less about being a dark sci-fi thriller, and more about being an honest romance. The chemistry between Emily Blunt and Damon is so easy, so comfortable, that the action almost gets in the way. That's saying something in a movie marketed to guys jonesing for another "Bourne" movie.
Comic Book Flicks
Closing out the "best of" list is a quick compilation of four big comic book movies that all managed to be pretty successful, if not commercially, then at least as far as quality. Marvel can be proud of its two films leading into next summer's "Avengers." Both "Captain America" and "Thor" were fun, beautifully shot, and action-packed from start to finish. Jon Favreau's "Cowboys & Aliens" kind of flopped, but I really liked it, seeing it twice in the theaters. You can't beat a growling Harrison Ford riding hell-bent for leather and shooting at aliens. The best of the lot, however, was "X-Men: First Class" a clunky title that belies a very good prequel to the whole "X-Men" universe. The acting is great, especially with Michael Fassbender as a young Magneto, and the story and writing were very solid. Let's hope they continue in this vein, forgetting the trainwrecks that were "X3" and "Wolverine."
Speaking of comic book movies and trainwrecks, there was one superhero that couldn't seem to get off the ground this summer. "Green Lantern" was too quippy, too silly, too dumb, and too long to be of any interest to anyone. You can't do that with a character only one-quarter of your audience has ever heard of. Naturally, the studio is lining up for part 2. Who can tell what these guys are thinking?
This movie, while not technically being awful, was potentially the most disappointing movie of the year. While I didn't start out a huge fan of the original, it's grown on me over the years, and is one of my son's favorites. We saw the sequel together and, while he seemed to enjoy it, I couldn't get past the overblown plot, huge inconsistencies, and oddly violent tone. It's not a terrible movie, but where Pixar is concerned, the bar is set pretty high, and "Cars 2" doesn't even come close.
Really, I probably shouldn't be picking on "Paul" because, one, it's fairly harmless, and two, virtually no one saw it. It's the story of a ridiculous CGI alien voiced by Seth Rogan who enlists the aid of two British sci-fi geeks in trying to escape from the government. The writing is lazy and the jokes are easy, but the special effects, at least that of the titular Paul, are pretty spectacular. But then the movie turns both violent and oddly weepy and it all falls apart. I saw this on an airplane which afforded it just the right level of attention.
Really? Is this what we've come to? I had to see this movie because I like everyone in it, and was embarrassed for them from start to finish. Owen Wilson, Jason Sudeikis, Christina Applegate, and Jenna Fischer play couples whose relationships are so stunted, so unbelievably false, that the women issue their idiot husbands a week off of marriage in order to allow them to sow their wild oats. The script is so inept they have employ the title phrase over and over, just in case you forget what movie you're watching. "I can't believe they gave us a hall pass!" "Well, we'd better hit on these girls, take advantage of our hall pass." I wanted a pass to leave the movie, but I saw this on the same plane where I saw "Paul." That was a long flight.
"Season of the Witch"
"Season of the Witch" was Nicholas Cage's annual entry in the "so bad it's good" category. He actually had two this year, the other being "Drive Angry." The difference is that the latter film is intentionally campy which makes it a little better, and therefore worse. Or something. It's confusing. At any rate, "Witch" is certainly a bad film, serving up a Crusades-era horror story starring Nicholas Cage's stringy shoulder-length wig and Ron Perlman at his hammiest. The movie is kind of fun because both the beginning and end are unintentionally hilarious, while the middle is just engaging enough to bridge the two.
"Breaking Dawn: Part 1"
Unlike "Harry Potter," splitting the final chapter of this excruciatingly long vampire saga is not helping. It's just making it longer. In this episode, Bella sulks through her wedding, honeymoon, pregnancy, and eventual death by bloodsucking fetus. The only time the movie stirs to life is when Edward, freaked out by impending fatherhood, I guess, tries to bite Bella back to life. When will it end!?
This tale of Greek glory was pretty, but pretty ridiculous as well. Director Tarsem knows how to create a stirring vision, but the story makes almost no sense and his final battle is incredibly anti-climactic. I'm sure the upcoming "Wrath of the Titans" is going to be bad as well, but at least from the trailer it appears to have some real energy. That's something sorely lacking from "Immortals."
This movie falls into the category of missed opportunities. There are small pieces of this film that are brilliantly funny, and the idea, a kind of "Office Space" meets "Strangers on a Train" is awesome. Why, then, is the movie so bad? Because the writers decided that the simple story needed spicing up, both with stupid car chases, and with a completely over-the-top performance by Jennifer Aniston, playing it as raunchy as she possibly can. Bad choice.
One of the worst movies of the year, "Apollo 18" started out promising. The "found footage" style seemed kind of unique since it was mostly NASA spacecraft surveillance footage, but eventually that becomes tiresome and you have to have a good story to take up the slack. I thought this was going to be a cool ghost story on the moon, but it's so not. I can't stand it any longer. I have to just speak the idiotic premise out loud, spoilers be damned. If you don't want to know, stop reading. Moon rocks. Moon rocks that are actually space-spiders are killing the astronauts. Wow.
"Transformers: Dark of the Moon"
It was pretty much a given the minute Michael Bay announced production on this movie that it would make it to the top (or bottom, depending on how you look at it) of this list. "Transformers 3" is technically slightly better than "Transformers 2," but that's like saying cholera is slightly better than bubonic plague. Yeah, it's true, but neither has anything to offer but misery and a headache-inducing soundtrack. I'm speaking of the movies now... cholera's soundtrack is much more muted. Michael Bay's three-part tale of robots killing each other has managed to take a fond memory of the toy I always wanted and but never got, and coat it with an oily, clammy kind of flop-sweat. I no longer want a "Transformers" toy. They remind me too much of looking into Michael Bay's subconscious.
Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.