39. Moonrise Kingdom
I know that it’s just as trendy to hate Wes Anderson as it is to love him. But until now I didn’t have strong feelings about his work. That said, I found this movie loathsome. Has comedy been reduced to the point that a drunken Bill Murray stating, “I’ll be out back. I’m going to go find a tree to chop down,” or an oddly dressed Bob Balaban instantly sends its audience into fits of laughter?
I’ve read a lot of commentary on how the relationship between the two young leads offers viewers a nostalgic sense of young love. Maybe my asexual pre-adolescence makes it impossible for me to understand the feelings between these two characters. But I can’t help but wonder if the nostalgia we are supposed to feel is for a past that never really existed—a vision of burgeoning (hetero-)sexuality that we have been conditioned to view as “sweet” without ever asking ourselves why. Perhaps the gender studies professor in me is reading too much into one small film, but I continue to wonder, do exchanges like “Was he a good dog?”/”Who’s to say?” truly reflect awkward precocity, or just lazy writing? Yes, the movie is pretty, but it would be so much prettier if it could just keep quiet.
A word of advice: If you ever stumble upon a recent release on Netflix that you’ve never heard of, and it includes a fantastic cast (Adrien Brody, Marcia Gay Harden, James Caan, Bryan Cranston, Stockard Channing, Christina Hendricks, Lucy Liu, Blythe Danner), and it’s about an interesting, weighty subject (urban schools)—there’s probably a reason it went straight to DVD.
37. Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
36. Killer Joe
Some images are too disturbing to analyze for symbolic/artistic merit
35. Two Days in New York
34. Ruby Sparks
32. Les Miserables
I love musicals and melodrama… but for the love of god, just bring…him…home already.
31. The Paperboy
A mess, but a fun one. And worth seeing for Nicole Kidman, who I think has finally moved to the number one spot on my actress list (sorry Joan). If you know me at all, you know that that is a big deal.
A pleasant exploration of alternative family visions, that betrays itself in the last minute by succumbing to tradition.
I get it. This is a film about Lincoln, not African American anti-slavery activism. And I didn’t dislike it (3 Netflix stars). But I am still frustrated that a film about the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment provides such shallow insight into the subjects of slavery and racism themselves. For instance, by reducing Thaddeus Stevens's anti-slavery activism to his secret affair with Lydia Smith (in an almost tawdry "gotcha" reveal moment—I'm sorry, but that scene is indefensible) Spielberg/Kuschner dodge major questions about the origins of anti-slavery sentiment, and literally present this black female character as the beneficiary of her white lover’s goodwill.
Also, by treating the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment as the final stop on the path to black liberation, Lincoln ignores the racial horrors that came in the Reconstruction era and beyond. Yes, those events followed Lincoln’s death; but while I think we should never stop celebrating the Thirteenth (and Fourteenth, and Fifteenth) amendment(s), it seems disingenuous to do so without even acknowledging the tragic legacies of white supremacy that followed. Finally (unpopular opinion alert): I am still waiting for the day when Daniel Day-Lewis plays a character that remotely resembles a human being.
Fun to watch, but pretty troubling. This is a movie about the stripping industry that only shows compassion/empathy for the character who abandons that industry. Stripping is bad, but Cody Horn’s wooden, charmless feminine presence is your path to salvation!!! Meanwhile, her kid brother made his bed, so let’s just bask in his inevitable downfall!
27. Safety Not Guaranteed
Really silly, but really engaging.
Really silly, but really engaging (dramatic version).
25. The House I Live In
Solid documentary about the war on drugs.
24. Damsels In Distress
Mess of a plot, but great, clever, funny dialogue throughout.
23. Silver Linings Playbook
More than a few cringe-worthy moments, but a tight and effective screenplay. I found myself liking this movie more than I wanted to.
Enjoyed, but little else to say.
21. Sleepwalk With Me
I remember liking this movie, but it’s probably a bad sign that I can’t remember why (and I watched it on Christmas Eve…)
20. Hello I Must Be Going
Solid indie about a thirty-something divorcee’s romance with a sensitive college-aged guy. It doesn’t break much new ground, but Melanie Lynskey is so good at being wayward here.
Lazily compared to Bridesmaids due to surface similarities, this movie reminded me much more of Young Adult (my #1 from last year) in its angry tone, and its humorous critique of the empty standards through which women are taught to measure success and self-worth. It is much less effective than Young Adult in addressing these themes, but I do think that there’s some insight hidden beneath the raunch, hard drugs, and bulimia jokes.
This is a stirring little film about a female soldier’s uneasy return to domestic life following a tour in Iraq. While the screenplay and direction feel a bit by the numbers, Linda Cardellini’s portrayal of the fumbling protagonist is the real deal. Plus it co-stars Roger Sterling as an alluringly disgruntled vet. Enticing?
17. End of Watch
Loses some impact due to a questionable framing device, superfluous melodrama, and a tendency toward stock peripheral characters. But the characters played by Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena are anything but stock, and their great chemistry brings something special to this small-scale but effective depiction of LAPD work.
Liked very much, but need to view again to determine exactly where I stand on its magical realism. But I will say: the world is a better place with Hushpuppy in it.
15. Queen of Versailles
Really interesting documentary, which one-line summaries can do no justice
14. The Deep Blue Sea
This movie felt unique to me in its ability to be both miniscule and bombastic in scope. As we witness the wreckage that World War II has brought to England, we also see that this damage cannot hold a candle to the pain that Rachel Weisz suffers from unrequited love/lust/obsession. If it sounds melodramatic, well…it is. It’s also very slow, but beautiful to look at, and hard to forget.
13. How to Survive a Plague
This documentary has some pretty major flaws. Namely, in suggesting that the plague has been survived, it ignores the high toll that AIDS continues to take in America—specifically within poor communities, communities of color, and among queer youth—and it disregards the persisting global AIDS crisis. The fact that one of the survivors it profiles died a few months after its release underlines the false optimism of its message. In spite of these problems, How to Survive a Plague is a really good documentary. Its camcorder footage offers an up-close look at the early AIDS crisis, at the deep anger that the disease channeled within the gay urban community, and at the remarkable public health campaign that that anger bred. A moving experience, and a valuable historical document.
I understand the criticisms of this film’s focus on a white family amid an Asian natural disaster. But I was really impressed by the cinematic recreation of the tsunami and its wreckage. While the focus remains on one white family, the film does a pretty incredible job of revealing the disaster surrounding them in the wake of the tsunami, and of making it clear that (SPOILER ALERT) the tragedy endured long beyond their very lucky return to European stability.
I was initially frustrated because I had no investment in the relationships profiled, and I had no reason to believe that Michelle Williams’s character could be happy with either one of these schlubs. But then I realized that that was the point. This is not an infidelity drama. Rather, it is a movie about directionless quirksters who have yet to reach emotional/professional adulthood, who have nonetheless accepted the adult burdens of marriage and domesticity. It’s really an investigation of romantic failure, and it forces us to think about why we as filmgoers might feel inclined to root for romances that probably are better off failing. If you ask me, that is a really important question to be asking.
10. Hope Springs
Talk about false advertising! This in an introspective indie drama about the struggles of sexual intimacy and honesty, masquerading as a flashier, cheesier, big-budget sex comedy. While Tommy Lee Jones has been receiving accolades for his very good performance in Lincoln, he blows himself out of the water here with his portrayal of a gruff, aging man who lacks any sort of language to address his sexual, romantic, and emotional needs. Meryl Streep, in an uncharacteristically understated role, gives what I believe to be her best performance since Adaptation. It loses steam when Hollywood makes an occasional clumsy entrance (that awful score!), but if the trailer made you not want to see this movie, then there’s a pretty good chance that you will like it.
9. Zero Dark Thirty
As my selections thus far probably suggest, I am not much of an action movie aficionado. So perhaps what I witnessed here was commonplace, but while watching this movie I had to ask myself again and again: “How did Kathryn Bigelow do this?” I admired the film for its technical craft, and its ability to incorporate so much plot into a (relatively) fast-paced 157 minutes. I don’t know that I have anything to contribute to the torture debate, but I will say that the film did nothing to challenge my anti-torture sensibilities, or to ease my discomfort with the drunken frat boys screaming in the streets of DC after bin Laden was killed—nor do I think it intended to. In striking the political nerve it did—and in prompting so many wildly varied responses--ZDT reminded me of film’s power to be provocative in the best, and the worst ways.
As my write-up of Magic Mike indicates (and even more so, as last year’s write-up of Shame revealed), I get frustrated when “bold” movies about sex take their inevitable turns toward sex-negativity. That’s one of the reasons I was so impressed with this movie’s investigation of sex as something liberating, and not something damning. While it does still fall for the age-old male/female nudity double standard, its ability to view sexual discovery as a path toward self-efficacy is a pretty special thing. And John Hawkes is great, as is Helen Hunt (I may finally be ready to forgive her for stealing Joan Allen’s Oscar in 1997).
This movie is very funny and very offbeat. When I checked my spreadsheet entry (yes, I have a movie list spreadsheet) to see my initial response, I had only written one word about Bernie: “theatre.” But that word really does capture what I loved about this movie. On the surface, it’s about a guy who loves the stage, who dolls up corpses for burial, and who feigns compassion even for the most insufferable members of his community. But it also made me think about the judgments we make based on the public personae of people we meet, and of the lengths we will go to in order to excuse those we love from the wrongs they may do. It also explores the theatrical nature of the American legal system—quite an undertaking for a little offbeat comedy.
I don’t know how anyone could turn down the opportunity to see the exquisite Melissa Leo play an ex-convict-turned-animal hoarder. I was drawn to this movie because I am drawn to any movie in which Leo gets to play a meaty role (as opposed to her completely thankless role in Flight). But I really loved the film’s small scale. While we don’t know much about Francine’s history, we become painfully aware of her detachment from the human world, her self-destructive compulsions, and of the very tenuous line she begins to toe between lover and abuser of the creatures that sustain her. Part character study, part social criticism, and all acting master-class, this tiny gem deserves an audience.
In the past, Michael Haneke’s refusal to engage in sentimentality has left me a bit cold (soft-hearted filmgoer that I am). But it works so well in this story of a couple that has walled itself off from the rest of the world, now opting to face one partner’s sickness and dementia alone. The performances are as exceptional as I had been led to believe. But I also appreciate Haneke’s unwillingness to poison this story of loss with saccharine or forced tears. This clear-headed approach to such grave subject matter gives the material a poignancy that it would never have had in lesser hands.
This Norwegian “addiction film” is so much more than that. It succeeds in presenting a relatable protagonist, whose sense of defeat seems tragic, but fully justified as we come to understand him. I love the film’s attention to Oslo and its residents—their random conversations, their comings and goings, and their discussions of romantic loss and aspiration. Somehow, the movie succeeds in exposing both the beauty and the coldness of Oslo, and in using this urban setting to provide us access into our protagonist’s distressed state of mind.
3. Your Sister’s Sister
Such good dialogue! Such good acting (Rosemarie DeWitt can do no wrong)! A funny, moving exploration of love, grief, sex, and family. But above all—such good dialogue!!! And acting!
So I was bound to fall for the film that was described to me as “legless orca trainer experiences sexual reawakening.” But this movie was not what I expected at all. In spite of treading over some familiar terrain (unconventional relationship revitalizes two isolated individuals), the film felt fresh and new to me. It provides a rare example of style and substance merging beautifully—of the stunning visuals, the score, the sex, the violence all combining to form a sensory experience that allows us to understand the magnitude of what our protagonists are experiencing. I will never think of Katy Perry’s “Firework” as a silly little pop song again.
1. The Perks of Being a Wallflower
From a technical perspective, it’s hard to justify this film as my number one pick. I wouldn’t call it an earth shattering, or even a particularly daring work of cinema. But in the end, I had to vote with my heart, and give my prize to the movie that made me feel the most. I have never read the book, and I think this helped me to take the movie in without any preconceived notions of what was coming my way. It certainly hits on some dark themes, but it was most impressive to me in its exploration of the more mundane—not since My So-Called Life have I been so moved by portraits of adolescent longing, uncertainty, possibility, and above all, love. I believed in the love that drew the three young leads together, and I saw something very real in the friendship that sustained them. I adored Logan Lerman’s performance, and I was more invested in his emotional journey than any other I’ve seen on screen this year. So while Perks did not provide the dazzling display and grandeur of a Lincoln or a Les Mis, its heart moved me like no other. Now that I’ve written this recap, I think I’ll go cry for a bit.