I’m not a huge fan of end-of-the-year lists but I know others are. And they’re always great conversational pieces. So I’ll go ahead and list my Top 10 favorite films of the year, and follow it up with my Top 8 biggest disappointments. Have fun tearing it apart. :)
10) Nothing – How pathetic is it when a whole year goes by and I can’t even recommend ten movies?
9) Star Trek – Star Trek is back! These days, whenever a moviegoer plops down in the cinema for a summer blockbuster and hates the experience, they’re often bombarded with the tried and true, “You’re supposed to turn your mind off and just enjoy it!” I hate that reasoning. It assumes that we have some knob on our bodies we can adjust to help us enjoy different kinds of movies. Like it’s our fault that we didn’t enjoy the film. As I’ve grown older, these summer movies, these films that cater to the lowest common denominator (ahem, Transformers 2) seem to install this attitude. If you didn’t like it, then *you're* the problem. Then Star Trek comes along and shows us what a summer movie is supposed to be. It doesn’t ask you to do anything to enjoy it. It just plays out enjoyably. Star Trek probably made a lot of execs grown. "Fuck, now we have to actually make good movies next summer."
8) The Hurt Locker – When I started watching The Hurt Locker, I was shocked by how into it I was. It didn’t take me long to figure out why. You know how I always talk about the importance of “ticking time bombs” in scripts? Well this movie was built around *literal* ticking time bombs. And not in the cheesy McGyver way, but rather inside a specific world we hadn’t seen before. Genius! It also had a brash leading mean who brought back memories of Lethal Weapon Mel Gibson or Star Wars Harrison Ford. A guy who didn’t give a shit, who was fearless. Holy shit! I was convinced I was watching the best film of the year. – But then something happened. The Hurt Locker lost its way. It made the classic screenwriting mistake. It eliminated a clear goal for the protagonist. We started getting this introspective artsy character piece that was supposed to be profound, but instead just left us wondering, when the hell is the next bomb going to blow up? And when exactly did our kick ass main character turn emo? Ugh! Where had my movie gone? I also think they made a key mistake towards the end. The final bomb is strapped to a man…*we didn’t know.” Therefore we had no personal investment in whether he lived or died. So why did I care if our hero saved him or not? I kept thinking, “Imagine if this bomb was strapped to that boy instead.” That’s an ending I would’ve been biting my nails on. The Hurt Locker still makes my Top 10 because the first half is so strong and because competition wasn’t that fierce. But man, I think about what could’ve been…
7) Paranormal Activity – I have a love/hate relationship with improvised movies. I hate them because when they’re bad, they’re worse than a high school play. I love them because improvisation stifles predictability. Logical screenwriting structure is thrown out the window to favor what the actors are feeling in the moment, and these moments tend to be the only time I’m surprised when I watch a film anymore. Because the writer is stifled, I no longer know what to expect. Done well, this can be thrilling. Paranormal Activity was one of those times where it was done well. We’re not talking Deniro and Streep here, but I thought the actors did a convincing job. I loved the slow build up, the resistance to too many scares. It made the scary moments pack that much more of a punch. I’m not sure if I’ll get blasted for this choice, because I don’t know if the Paranormal Activity backlash has started yet (Is it 2 months or 3 months after surprise hits? I'm never clear on this). But I liked PA a lot.
6) The Hangover – The Hangover is the perfect comedy. I don’t mean it’s the best comedy ever or even that it should be put in the same sentence as classics like Dumb and Dumber or Caddyshack. I mean it’s the kind of comedy idea that you hear and you immediately know it’s a movie. I’ve stated this before but when I read the script, I knew immediately it was going to be a hit. They couldn’t screw it up. Even when Phillips and his boys fiddled with the jokes, even when they took out some of the cool nuances of the original draft, they still couldn’t mess it up. Because the premise and the structure were so sound. Now did I think the movie was as good as the script? No. I thought the Tyson stuff was silly (never a fan of bringing in “real-life” celebrities for cheap laughs) and I didn’t like the addition of the baby. But it never mattered. This was going to be a good movie no matter how much they fucked with it.
5) Inglorious Basterds – Had you told me that one of my favorite films of the year would be a Quentin Tarantino movie, I would’ve laughed in your face. Then probably spit in it. I’ve never been a huge fan of Tarantino because I prefer for the story to be the star, not the director. But I’ve warmed up to Quentin over the years, mainly because I realized we need more people like him. We need the anti-establishment or else all we’ll get is establishment. And I can’t imagine how establishment establishment will get if it has no competition. Basterds has the best opening scene I’ve seen in a film in as long as I can remember (maybe of all time). The way that scene is crafted is just so magnificent. The way we shift points of view, the way we’re carefully fed information, the dread we feel, the importance put on the most mundane things (milk), the introduction of a such a great actor, the seemingly endlessness of it. We have no idea where it’s going to end up, all we know is that it’s going to be horrible. And we’re crawling out of our clothes wondering when it’s going to happen. Does the rest of the movie live up to that scene? No. I’d offer myself as a slave to Tarantino if he promises never to put Eli Roth in a film again. And don’t get me started on Brad Pitt’s acting. But this movie was so outrageous, so different, so unpredictable, and had such a great cinematic touch, that I cannot deny it a place in the Top 10.
4) Sunshine Cleaning – I love Amy Adams. I love Amy Adams so much I watched Julie and Julia, where some horrible callous hairdresser gave her the worst hairstyle in the world. I enjoy the innocence and non-presumptuous she brings to every role. She’s the anti-actress, the way actresses are supposed to be: invisible. This quirky independent film didn’t fall into all the usual quirky independent traps – namely patting itself on its back for being so quirky and independent (ahem – Away We Go). Sunshine Cleaning was always about the story, and the story covered a subject matter we’d never seen on film before: a cleaning business for crime scenes. The contrast between the beautiful simplicity of this girl trying to make it in the world and the horrifying messiness of these crime scenes she has to clean up is wonderful. And what a great symbolic gesture it was to her own struggle to clean up her life. An unassuming but surprising little gem.
3) Taken – (note: I appear to be speeding towards dementia, as Taken came out in 2008 - however I will still leave it here because I have nothing else to replace it with!) Bring out the Taken bashers! I’m ready for’em. Okay look, am I going to tell you that this is some complex thought-provoking look at kidnapping? No. But Taken gets the key ingredient to this kind of film right. It uses the first act to establish a believable relationship between a daughter and a father desperate to get back into her life. That way when she gets kidnapped, we’re just as desperate to save her as Liam Neeson is. Some people have stated that the first act was too long and that the movie should’ve started with the girl getting kidnapped. Wrong-o times a billion. We wouldn’t have known her and therefore wouldn’t have given a shit if she lived or not. – Then of course you have the phone call, the single best trailer moment all year. When Liam Neeson says he’ll find him and he'll kill him, I got chills.
2) Avatar – Avatar is on a scary run. I saw that just this Monday it made 19 million dollars. On a MONDAY. This is 3 million MORE than it was making during the weekdays LAST week. How is this film making more money as it goes on? Doesn’t that, like, go against every conventional box office rule in the book? To me, it’s clear. Avatar is the experience of the decade. It’s everything the prequels were supposed to be. A brand new universe. A film that gives us something new. Groundbreaking special effects (even if they were iffy in places). There were moments in Avatar that reminded me of the feeling I had going to the movies as a child. Specifically the flying and montage sequences. Those really captured what film is supposed to be about. In hindsight, I admit that yes, the story’s simple. But everything else is so complex that it doesn’t matter. As I pointed out in my review, there are all these little faults you notice during the film, yet somehow, when you add them all up, they equal a mindblowing piece of entertainment. This is the only film of the year I’ve decided to go back and see again in the theater.
1) District 9 – I waited 2 years for this movie. You’re not supposed to go into a film with high expectations. You’re setting yourself up for disappointment. But District 9 not only met my expectations. It exceeded them. Why? Well, much like my point regarding Paranormal Activity, the improvisational nature of this movie had me baffled. The film didn’t seem to be following any logical story structure I could understand. As a result, I had no idea what was coming around the corner. But the main reason I loved this film were all the key choices it made that made it feel real. First, the improvisation. People talked how people really talked. Second, the documentary angle. Digital handheld cameras and seeing people interviewed put us in a mindset that we were watching something that really happened. Third, the setting. Every single fucking alien film I know of was set in America. This was set in a place none of us have ever been. Just being outside of Hollywood's preferred environment legitimized the film. Fourth, it turned the alien invasion on its head. They didn’t come here to enslave us. They crashed here and we enslaved them. Pretty much every single cliché we identify with these kinds of films is broken. And I haven’t even mentioned the effects, which were fucking amazing for 30 million dollars. The ship looked real, the aliens looked real, the weapons looked real. This movie did next to nothing wrong.
Didn’t see: Precious, Moon, The Road, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Big Fan, Zombieland, the Squeakel, Sherlock Homes, Bright Star
My 8 Biggest Disappointments:
500 Days Of Summer – Oh man did I dislike this movie. One of my favorite scripts of the year fell apart on the screen and I have three people to blame: Jospeh Godon-Levitt, Stupid Zooey-Deschenl, and the director. First off, I hate Zooey Deschenel. She’s a pretty girl but she’s a fucking horrible actress. Those big blue doe eyes don’t scream out “adorable” to me. They scream out "I'm a fucking deer in the headlights and don't know shit about acting." I never believe anything that comes out of her mouth. As for Gordon-Levitt, I guess he’s trying to become the next DiCaprio, but I don’t think it's working. He so underplays this part as to become nearly non-existent. I know this isn’t a Hugh Grant rom com but lighten up dammit! Looking at that hound dog face for 2 hours had me raiding the local pharmacy for industrial sized bottles of Prozac. As far as the director, the script itself had an indie sensibility but what I loved about it was that it moved. It had an energy to it. Everything was so slowed down here to the point where I felt we were underwater. Ugh, easily the biggest disappointment of the year.
Away We Go – I’m not going to say that this was a highly anticipated film of mine. But I like a good road-trip movie and I felt if Sam Mendes was going to go this far out of his comfort zone that it must be a great script. Oh God was I wrong. This film is everything that’s wrong with the independent scene and very well may be the death of all quirkiness in cinema. Oh, they’re so different! Oh, they’re having a baby but they’re both aging hippies so they need to find a place to raise a family! Oh the humanity! Oh, their aging friends talk about sex right in front of their own children! Har har har! How funny is that! I'll give you a hint. It isn't! The only thing that made me laugh in this movie was the promotional campaign. For reasons I can’t even begin to fathom, they turned their marketing agenda into “Maya Rudolph for an Oscar." You’d see interviews where the actors would say, in all seriousness, “Oh, Maya Rudolph. What can you say about her? She’s Maya Rudolph. One of the most talented actresses in the world.” Ummmm…did I miss something ? Was this not the same actress who was in four skits in five years on Saturday Night Live? This movie was a disaster on every level.
Up – This is my “bye-bye at least 5000 of my readers” post. I didn’t like this movie. I thought the first 10 minutes were easily 10 of the best minutes I’ve spent in a theater all year. But after that I felt the movie was for kiddies. I think the official moment I tuned out was the talking dogs. It was just too weird. I couldn’t buy into it. As the audience died of laughter every time one of them would go “Squirrel,” I cringed. The bird was weird and the villain felt cliché. I just wasn’t into this.
Terminator Salvation – I don’t know why I keep thinking this franchise is going to revive itself. I was excited for Terminator 3. I was excited for The Sarah Conner Chronicles. And I was excited for this. Yet each one let me down (well, I guess T3 wasn’t that bad). The thing with Salvation was that I thought McG was an underrated director who had something to prove. The addition of Christian Bale and Cameron’s new find, Worthington, only further enhanced my anticipation of the movie. Then the trailer came out and it was actually pretty badass. But McG made the same mistake so many directors make. They don’t understand story. Terminator Salvation wasn’t *about* anything. There was nothing driving the story *at all*. What is it the characters wanted? What were their goals? They were all murky and weak. And, as a result, we got a murky and weak movie. This was the death of the franchise for me. I won’t get excited about Terminator movies anymore….although the idea I heard online of sending Bale back to present-day London did sound pretty cool. :)
Extract – I’m starting to think Mike Judge had all the stars aligned for him in Office Space. It was that perfect con-flux that so rarely happens in the movie universe, where every choice resulted in perfection. Now that I’ve seen Extract, I realize that when Judge’s unique sense of humor doesn’t fall together just the way it's intended to, it’s as flat as a pancake. And Extract globs along like its characters are stuck in that extract. I’m not sure where to put the blame but I’d probably start with the casting. Bateman doesn’t quite understand the Judge universe, and although Affleck is the liveliest of the bunch, he seems to be working inside his own Affleckian universe. The other problem is that Judge forgets to emphasize the key plot point which drives the story – which is that Bateman stands to become very rich if he can sell the company. But the scene where this announcement is made comes off as an afterthought, and Bateman barely acknowledges it. Since these are the stakes that drive his character and therefore the entire movie (the idea is, if he can’t stave off this lawsuit, he stands to lose *everything*) the fact that they don’t seem important to him or the plot undermines the whole drive of the film.
Up In The Air – This wasn’t a colossal letdown but it was a letdown. I wanted to give George Clooney a chance. I really did. But that shit-eating grin he always wears combined with that bobble-head move he always does confirmed my biggest fears, that he wasn’t right for the part. Thank GOD Anna Kendrick was in this movie cause without her, it wouldn’t have been worth the price of a matinee. Taking in this movie, a couple of script problems popped up that I hadn’t noticed before. First, it doesn’t really make sense that Clooney doesn’t like Kendrick’s impersonal way of firing people. Clooney is Mr. Impersonal. That’s his entire character – living a life that allows him to be as impersonal as possible. So that he all of a sudden *cares* about the people he’s firing – I don’t know, it doesn’t make sense. I could sense that Reitman knew this and his solution was to fudge his way around it. Second, the movie limps to the finish line. Why? Because there’s no plot. Every time you write a character-driven piece that’s plot light, you better know that your ending is going to have problems. Why? Well, since the plot is essentially what your character is doing, what he's after, if there isn’t any of it, than your character has nothing to do. The last 20 minutes of this film are a wandering mess because nobody has anything to do. There’s no goal. No direction. It was unfortunate. Cause I was sure this would be in my top 10.
Invictus – I actually didn’t see this. But my disappointment lies in the fact that they made the film in the first place.