A Norse myth directed by Kenneth Branagh, with Idris Elba and Chris Hemsworth’s explosive pecs in tantalizing featured roles—how could this be bad? Maybe because Hemsworth’s pecs only got their one shining moment (see: trailer for Thor) and then remained uselessly clothed? Maybe because Idris remained trapped behind a stupid mask in something called a Bifrost for the entirety of the film? Maybe because Natalie Portman plays a scientist or something? I don’t really know actually, because I fell asleep halfway through. That’s how tiresome Loki was.
A truly interesting historical paradox—white babies raised by black women in the segregated South—is treated with all the seriousness of a cartoon. At least the Nazi-killing revisionist fantasy of Inglorious Basterds was supposed to make us uncomfortable. This revision—Look! Racism has been exposed! Hallelujah!—is supposed to make us feel good. Well, shame on us. So glad I didn’t waste a second on the book.
Why did I see this instead of Certified Copy?
29. The Way Back
Why did I see this instead of Certified Copy? (Oh right, because it’s about escaping a Siberian gulag. Anyway…)
28. X-Men: First Class
Why did I see this instead of Certified Copy???
27. Like Crazy
Sure, Felicity Jones is lovely and passably intelligent, and sure, Anton Yelchin is admirably ordinary and good at drawing chairs. But I never really believed their ocean-apart romance. Probably because they never really talked.
Well, of course it was bad, but I enjoyed it. As a virtual minute for minute remake of Peckinpah’s gritty original, it was bound to be at least half-terrible. But the story’s exploration of class, masculinity, and blame is all still there, and the self-loathing Hollywoodness of this remake is, if not deeply meaningful, at least kind of fun. Local girl Kate Bosworth hadn’t just married up; she’d also been making it for awhile in TV, to everyone’s ambivalence back home. Here is a movie about a very specific kind of Southern town, and yet the only actor even sort of from the South is Oklahoman James Marsden—Mr. Out-of-Touch Hollywood himself. Poor straw dogs; they never had a chance.
25. Hall Pass
Applegate’s still got it, and Owen Wilson does a delightful impersonation of Ryan Gosling’s “Hey Girl” meme. Plus, sweet house tour. Every dumb comedy induces groans—it’s part of the genre—and whatever the critical opinion, this was really no worse than most.
Fun opener. Great stuff with the British family. Increasingly stupid as the plot unfurls. If I never see Cate Blanchett vamp it in a bodaciously evil accent again (see also: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull), it will be too soon.
23. Winnie the Pooh
A most pleasing nostalgia trip for Hunny with Zooey Deschanel singing just the sort of music that she was born to sing.
22. Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Ugh, why is this so high on the list? Except for those loveable primates, this was really pretty bad.
Nothing disappoints me more in a sports movie than the total neglect of the athletes. Billy Beane the touted prospect who gradually underperforms his way out of the majors only to end up in senior management is a fascinating character, but we really only get a cross-section of him here. This movie seemed to be primarily concerned with putting Hatteberg at first and demonstrating the tensions that arise when stubborn managers refuse to explain their (relatively simple) logic to the troops. Because of Billy’s boring superstition, we didn’t even get to watch the games. Still, the furious phone negotiations were fun, and so was Pitt’s cocky ex-jock walk. And I guess I have to admit that I was never not entertained. I just really wanted more.
An unintentionally perfect title for a movie that had so much promise at the start but failed to hold me by the end. Christopher Plummer was a ceaseless delight as the finally uncloseted Hal, and so was that dog and Oliver’s artistic excavation of his past. But even the undeniable appeal of Ewan McGregor and Melanie Laurent couldn’t make up for Oliver and Anna’s underdeveloped relationship. How many times do I have to watch them take each other on tours of their living quarters to understand their relatively mundane and obviously surmountable fears of commitment? You might say that this was just Mike Mills’ way of running with a theme, but to me Beginners just seemed to run out of ideas.
19. Cedar Rapids
I imagine regional insurance conferences are pretty much exactly like this: the belle of the ball escaping her life for the weekend, John C. Reilly in the pool.
18. Higher Ground
An admirable movie and a tough one to rank because it seeks to portray an American evangelical character struggling earnestly with her faith. And it is earnest. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a character like Corinne before, so sportily urging God to fill her with his light. There was a genuine impatience about her—she wanted it—like a pregnant woman trying to induce labor. In the end, though, the film felt hamstrung by the facts and limitations of its source (a memoir by Carolyn S. Briggs). Sure the van crash was scary, but why then immediately run for Jesus when you’ve shown only passing interest in him before? Still, I look forward to more from Vera Farmiga both in front of and behind the camera.
17. Source Code
Speaking of Farmiga…Jake Gyllenhaal’s endless do-over attempts to stop a bomb from ripping through a Chicago commuter train makes for some pretty entertaining cinema. The science of it all was a bit hokey, but Gyllenhaal’s emotional response kept things lively. Only the silly smiling Michelle Monaghan and the disappointing identity of the terrorist keep this little gem in the middle of the pack.
Maybe the year’s most controversial movie, which is sad. I’m sure I’m overrating it because I like Kristen Wiig and fierce feminine comedy in general. After all, the world of weddings and female friendships is so much richer than this half-slapstick-half-honest movie is able to contain. But here it is.
Too long, and too maudlin, as though the worst thing about World War I was that people forgot about Georges Melies. (You can practically hear Scorsese in the pitch meeting: “We’ll save the history of cinema by passing it on to the children. Especially those with limpid blue eyes.”) On the other hand, trains, timepieces, and film really do all belong in the same conversation, both scientifically and artistically (see Rebecca Solnit’s River of Shadows, on the life and times of Edweard Muybridge—thanks Katie!). And, as Drew has already written, those moments of Melies’ genius were pure genius and kind of made me want to protect old films. Well, Marty, you win again!
Not nearly as philosophically rich as Allen’s best romps, but still such fun. Owen Wilson’s wide-eyed joy at meeting Hemingway, Zelda, Scott and the rest was so over the top that it actually felt just right. And I have to give Woody props for his many great casting jokes, starting with Carla Bruni and ending with Marion Cotillard, who really can’t live in any era but the 1920s (see: Contagion).
13. The Descendants
So uneven! Part of me loves the way the King family just strolls along resplendent beaches, even as wife and mother Liz remains a vegetable and her secret lover remains on the lam. It’s sort of a perfect metaphor for useless affluence and leisure time and protracted death all at once. On the other hand, do they really need to walk around so much? This is not the Oregon Trail (see: Meek’s Cutoff, ahead). On the other hand, I did love Judy Greer and Matthew Lillard, Shailene Woodley’s dangerously sexy Alex (please let her avoid the fate of Lohan!), the overdeveloped Hawaii, and the all-American land drama that Clooney’s haole clan—subjects of that great title—face. And you have to admire all those unflinching shots of Liz’s contorted body in a film otherwise bathed in paradise.
But in the end, this was a movie that was too obviously drawn from a novel (which I didn’t read). The slowness that might’ve seduced me on the page distracted me on the screen; too many themes and scenes were overstated; and any real interiority got sacrificed to voiceovers and pregnant pause. Who is Matt King, other than George Clooney? I wish I could say I knew.
Tomas Alfredson literalizes the spy game by time and again offering windows into many hotel rooms. Great windows, too, from the glass terrariums of a modern Istanbul hotel to the peeling frame of a dump near Liverpool Street. And then of course there is the window onto the culture of the buttoned-down Circus, the British intelligence agency emasculated by a Soviet mole. Here we’re treated to some broken individual lives (a cuckold, a gay man in the closet, an ex-spy further tormented in his second life as a prep school substitute teacher) and a totally bodacious office Christmas party featuring lots of booze and a guest appearance by Stalin-Claus. Not to mention Tom Hardy’s plump, wounded, and incredibly tasty lips. (I can’t not mention them.)
But in the end, what was the point—that in the Cold War, both sides were corrupt? Really, that’s all? I guess I need to do like Dave said, and revisit it (or read le Carre) because this one ultimately left me confused, and dare I say it, cold. So why rate it so high? Because I am shallow and go for looks, and this pic was brilliantly photographed, awesomely dressed, and tricked out with some seriously wicked gadgets.
11. Our Idiot Brother
What can I say? I was totally taken with this sweet movie about Paul Rudd as a stoner hippie whose too-honest kindness screws him (and his family) again and again and again. His boneheadedness is played for laughs of course, but it’s also a corrective against the sisters’ spinelessness, greed, and carelessness. They may be right—he is an idiot—but his is the better way to live.
10. Jane Eyre
Two words: Michael. Fassbender.
Basically a B movie, but super stylish and fun, if also a big bloody mess. Well-plotted, well-scored, well-peppered with meaningful repetitions. But Gosling is best when he babbles, and he was all but mute to me here.
8. The Artist
A charming movie that I thoroughly enjoyed, for its homage to Singin’ in the Rain, and its dashing leading man Jean Dujardin, if not for its originality. The endless retake scene was lovely, and so was the magical moment when Peppy Miller embraces herself with Valentin’s coat. Talk about physical acting! Was this a great movie? No. But it was nice to be reminded that certain talents that have fallen out of vogue have at least not fallen out of existence.
The third movie of the year to feature an ethically dubious black boss (after the laughably cartoonish David Oyelowo in Planet of the Apes and the glowering Jeffrey Wright in Source Code). What are you saying, America??? Still, Laurence Fishburne is obviously the best of the bunch as a girthy CDC chief who can’t help using his access to life-saving technology to help his own family first. But really, who among us wouldn’t?
Contagion is the rare crisis film that generally puts its faith in institutions over mavericks. Soderbergh also wisely avoids scenes of panic, deftly managing multiple personal and professional narratives instead. Not all of them work (can’t they make Marion Cotillard just a little less ravishing—can’t they even try?), but the ones that do work beautifully. Of course Elizabeth Bennett would grow up to be a sure of herself holiday-working scientist, without a Mr. Darcy in sight. In 2011 anyway. Matt Damon is the heart of the film, negotiating personal grief in the midst of global disaster, and even I can’t deny the great joke of Gwyneth Paltrow’s horrifyingly addled brain.
It’s too bad there was virtually no healthy sex in this film, but I guess that’s the point of the title. What a shame. Otherwise, I pretty much agree with everything Will said, from the disappointing bender to Carey Mulligan’s transcendent song, except I must have liked all the parts he liked even better. Additional highlights: the lecherous boss, the way Fassbender flinches at the stray utterance of the word “disgusting,” the bored, businesslike way the hotel hooker puts her tangled bra back on, and of course, that insanely arousing date with Marianne. I should note that I am dangerously obsessed with Michael Fassbender (He. Just. Oozes. Sex.) which might account for my perspective here.
Top 5! Finally, the movies that aren’t just here because I saw them and had opinions, but rather the movies I would strongly recommend.
There’s probably no such thing as a fair ranking for this movie. On the one hand, it is as bold as any movie ever made, asking the largest, simplest question: “Why do we suffer?” It is unbelievably expansive in its imagery and its concerns. And its depiction of family life—the child’s emergence from those two giant opposites of Mother and Father—is deeply observant and humane. (I keep remembering the young Jack bouncing about experimentally on his doorstep, because his body is still so new to him, and so exhilarating.)
This is a movie without irony, and in its miracle of life interlude, it is utterly unafraid of cliché. (Sperm swimming! Sperm swimming for the egg!) So how can I question its clichés? Malick, whose storytelling and frames I normally love has finally put me in an impossible position. The end, I can say with confidence, is flat out corny, even if it is what grown Jack desires. But Brad Pitt, who is no harder on anyone than he is on himself, might almost make up for it on his own. I don’t know, I just might not be churchy enough for this movie. But I know I will see it again, and it will no doubt enjoy my wavering opinion—probably depending on who I’m talking to—for many years to come.
After Old Joy and especially Wendy and Lucy, I doubted Kelly Reichardt could make a movie I wouldn’t love, and so far, I’ve been right. Bruce Greenwood is unrecognizable as Meek, the itinerant, know-it-all guide who maintains an effective trade stoking fear for power while leading three Oregon Trail families considerably off their course. Intentionally, unintentionally? Hard to say, but I think he’s more ignorant than insidious.
Yes, it’s slow, but so is walking the Oregon Trail! Yes, many of the scenes are hard to hear, but whispering men don’t intend to be heard when they’re lost in the wilderness with their wives. Yes, many of the nighttime scenes are dark, but many more are shot in the blisteringly bright light of day, with wagon train and human figures shrinking against a heat-cracked and unforgiving landscape. I love the way the characters are introduced, the men faraway and flimsy as reeds across a river, the women (led by Michelle Williams) faceless behind their bonnets. Even more, I love the way those bonnets continue to shelter and stifle the women in their timid challenges of male authority. Never has a head turn communicated so much about a culture so subtly. In scene after scene, the film depicts the group walking stoically alongside their wagons, a passage in American life I suppose might’ve envisioned before, but which Reichardt to her great credit made me consider as if for the first time. Seriously—they walked? Another stirring meditation on vulnerability at America’s edge.
Some walking in this trip, but mostly, they drive. I saw the feature film made for American audiences rather than the six-part British miniseries, but the cut I saw struck me as exactly right. With Michael Winterbottom behind camera once again, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon reprise their roles from Tristram Shandy—essentially exaggerated (or maybe understated) versions of themselves. The Trip is a moody, hilarious film about professional rivalry (who does the better Michael Caine, et cetera), weird gourmet foods, coming to terms with one’s artistic and professional limitations, and the joys and tedium of touring in even the grayest and most obligatory country. Much is made of Romantic poetry and the epic business of riding at dawn. And in both cases, rightly so. “Gentlemen, to bed!”
Thank you, David Goldfarb and Anthony Lane, for mentioning Another Earth. This is a small film that asks a big question: what if you did something unforgiveable? How would you atone? And what if at the same time, a parallel planet appeared suggesting an alternate past? Would you want to live it if you could? Mike Cahill’s haunting film stars the almost too-lovely Brit Marling as the wrongdoer, a weather-beaten and unsuspecting William Mapother as the wronged, and DJ Flava as himself, saying exactly the kind of idiotic thing a radio DJ would say if a second Earth all of sudden appeared in outer space.
The final planetary film of the year, and by far the best. Matt can say what he wants about von Trier’s heavy, misanthropic hand (and I know he will). But this film was legitimately gorgeous, a moving painting, and probably the best terrible wedding I have ever had the pleasure of attending. As the tormented bride Justine, Kirsten Dunst is radiant and perfectly attired—but who cares? A giant planet called Melancholia is coming, and the world is about to end!
Of course I personally preferred Another Earth's vision of a second chance to Melancholia's obliteration, but I have to reward von Trier for seizing depression by the jugular here. Or in the words of Tony Scott, “To the extent that the destructive potential of Melancholia is a metaphor for [Justine's] private melancholia, it is perfectly apt. One of the chief torments of serious depression is how disproportionate and all-consuming the internal, personal sorrow can feel. There is a grim vindication — and also an obvious, effective existential joke — in Justine’s discovery that her hyperbolic despair may turn out to be rooted in an accurate and objective assessment of the state of the universe. Mr. von Trier, inspired (if that’s the word) to make this movie by his own experience of depression, gleefully turns a psychological drama inside out.”
We so often disagree, Tony, but this time, you’ve got it totally right.