Beginners (2011)

Melancholic and funny, romantic and sad, totally great even while just slightly, just a touch unsatisfying, but even so also one of the best indies I’ve seen in a while and just go rent it, it’s a wonderful way to spend a couple of hours. Christopher Plummer and Ewan McGregor are terrific, as is the soundtrack, as is the style.

Captain Phillips (2013)

Another Oscar for Hanks, and a best-supporting nom for the head Somali pirate? This real-life tale manages to be incredibly tense despite you knowing more or less how it all works out. And it felt like it did a good job of showing lots of sides of the story.

Gravity (2013)

This is one heck of a thrilling (which is to say stressful!) tale of survival in space, an efficient, effective story that avoids easy pitfalls like flashbacks or voiceover in favor of real-time action and characterization. Bullock is great in her role as Mission Specialist Stone, and the truly amazing special effects used to tell the story do just that — they are all in total service of the story and are not distractingly displayed for the sake of impressing (and it deserves an Oscar for Sound Design). Gravity reportedly gets most but not all of the science right, but from the perspective of story and character coherence it gets it all right.

– Ender’s Game (2013)

Not a good adaptation. They lost the best parts of the book (Battle School strategy, Ender’s learning curve on the road to being a leader), and lingered too long on CGI landscape shots when they could have brought in more character for the secondary characters. Even if you weren’t going to skip it for political reasons (though please note the movie itself isn’t homophobic), skip it.

Gangs of New York (2002)

So I want to say you should see this historical sweeping Scorsese epic because Bill the Butcher, as played by Daniel Day-Lewis, is an amazing film character you won’t forget. But I want to say don’t see this beautifully shot, meticulously detailed sweeping film because a lot of it is sort of boring and it in the end doesn’t really say anything at all.

Arbitrage (2012)

This movie, about a hedge fund manager (Richard Gere) who plays it fast and loose with ethics and the law running into trouble, is an excellent character piece, an interesting comment on a certain class of wealth, and an okay thriller. Gere is pretty mesmerizing, and the supporting cast is good, so that the thriller part sort of doesn’t quite all come together is a flaw worth putting up with.

War Horse (2011)

I shouldn’t have watched this movie, even though I knew more or less how it all comes out in the end, because Spielberg is too good at depicting horribleness and I can’t handle animal in peril scenes like that. The movie as a whole is the same sort of schmaltzy crossed paths plot that a horse book like Black Beauty relies on, but it’s a bit too violent/war is awful for it to work as a kids movie.

~/- The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)

Oh how it pains me to say anything bad about a Peter Jackson version of something Tolkein after the triumph of the LOTR movies, so the good stuff first: Martin Freeman as Bilbo is a total delight, Ian McKellan as Gandalf and Richard Armitage as Thorin are excellent, and the riddle scene is tops. But, the other characters are mostly indistinguishable, the pace is off, and there’s too much time spent on sweeping vista overhead shots and not enough on storytelling. It’s nice to be back in Middle Earth, but splitting one book into three movies was clearly a mistake.

Bridesmaids (2011)

The funny parts are very funny, and Kristin Wiig is very watchable, but it’s a pretty uneven movie, and too many scenes were either eeh or meh. The combination of improvised scenes and scripted plot sorta didn’t work here, though I wished it had, and the combination of toilet (or, you know, sink) humor, loving friendship, sad screwed up life and budding romance also sorta didn’t work in combination here, though I wished it had.

The Heat (2013)

This is a hell of a funny movie (and by funny I mean dumb/crude/profanity-laden/riotously-funny funny). Plot-wise it’s stupid, character development-wise it’s stupid, and there are some moments of serious tonal dissonance, but since Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy are freakin’ hilarious, don’t worry much about the rest. Just go and just laugh (and cheer a little for this is actually a real feminist triumph — women now can make buddy movies just as dumb and crude and funny as the men without having that fact be what the movie’s about at all).

Mud (2013)

Film students are undoubtedly right now writing theses about the depictions of coming of age, family, class and rivers in Mud vs Beasts of the Southern Wild. This coming-of-age film in the classic boy-and-best-friend-meet-possibly-dangerous-drifter-and-help-him-out-in-secret vein has excellent performances, the lead kid and Matthew McConaughey in particular, and though I haven’t yet decided where the movie comes down on its opinions of the women in it, I keep thinking about those characters, who wind up being real interesting takes on classic types, and life on that river.

Music & Lyrics (2007)

This Hugh Grant/Drew Barrymore delight is a witty rom-com in classic quick-dialogue charming style. Both the 80s and the 2000s music/performers/music videos are hilariously spot-on, and the story never lags. There is approximately nothing that would make this a better little comedy.

Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

The CIA manhunt for Bin Laden is unsettling/difficult to watch at times, but very good. Well-acted, well-edited, not very preachy and very well-written — coherent, nicely paced and even though you already know how it all turns out, the climax is still tense and gripping. (It’s also refreshingly free of unnecessary character drama backstory.)

Much Ado About Nothing (2013)

With its hand-crafted low-budget but high-quality feel this Much Ado (set in modern times but with original dialogue) isn’t groundbreaking but it sure is delightful. Amy Acker, Clark Gregg, Fran Kranz, and Nathan Fillion and Tom Lenk are the standout actors here who, especially if you already like them in general, carry the show, though I admit Denisof is sorta miscast as Benedick. But it’s much fun.

– Premium Rush (2012)

I suspect all the pedaling would have gotten boring even if the characters hadn’t been the worst type of barely-drawn barely-thought-out stereotypes. Dig up one or two of the action tricks and/or crash sequences on YouTube and skip the rest.

 Unstoppable (2010)

This runaway train thriller (“thriller” used loosely here) is pretty much a barely-Lifetime channel-level script with big-budget set pieces and two amazing actors doing a nice job with the very little they have to do. Denzel Washington and Chris Pine (and Rosario Dawson too) are charming as heck so I suppose if this is on TV and you want to have something on while you’re doing something else go ahead, but I wouldn’t go out of my way for it. (Why on earth Rotten Tomatoes has this at 86% I do not know…)

++ Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013)

In an attempt to avoid being spoilerish I’ll just say I thought it was enough fun to see twice. (Although I am disappointed in one aspect of this Trek universe’s “world view” versus the old series, it’s its own thing, this rebooted Trek, and though I quibble here and there, I’m enjoying the ride). The old characters made new really get at the fun of the original, and though there’s a lot more big-action hand-to-hand action in Into Darkness, the quipping, the dynamic friendships, the romance, and of course the bromance, are well-paced and very entertaining.

Talladega Nights (2006)

I think this is one of the funniest movies made thus far this century, and I am happy to say that the Ballad of Ricky Bobby appears to be timeless (I knew back when it came out that the tiny baby Jesus dinner table argument scene would be, but the rest is still great too). It has both immediate laugh out loud moments, and cumulative, end-of-scene realizations about everything that came before that are equally hilarious. And, unlike so many comedies, a consistently just-right pace, enough character development to satisfy, and a plot that (for a comedy plot) actually sort of makes (internal) sense.

Iron Man 3 (2013)

So, it’s good, I mean I had fun, laughed a lot, liked some of what happened and it didn’t make me feel stupid for having fun, but it wasn’t so good I’d see it twice. Robert Downey Jr. is of course the reason to see it in the first place, but the fatal weakness of all the Iron Mans is that as soon as he’s in the suit there’s no Robert Downey Jr. happening. But still, in the summer comic book popcorn movie genre, it’s better than most (Thor and Captain America, I’m talking about you), just not as great as I wanted (The Avengers).

The Social Network (2010)

This is a pretty gripping, emotionally-involving and fascinating story, especially since the plot is really little more than a couple Harvard guys came up with this online thing and then sued each other. Well-acted, well-paced, well-written, kind of makes me want to get off Facebook entirely. I think I’ll go post on Facebook that I have new movie reviews up now.

– Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters (2012)

Oh goodness, this is a bad movie. On the plus side, the comic timing in it is quite fantastic, Renner’s adorable when dour, Arterton does a nicely balanced ass-kicking heroine, and it’s a very efficient bad movie, only about 75 minutes long not counting the interminable credits (I appreciate efficient bad movies so much more than drawn-out bad movies). But despite all the makeup and costumes and CGI violence and large number of splattily-depicted ways to die, it’s a not very imaginative, very very bad movie.

Stalag 17 (1953)

This classic WWII POW film is in the same vein but sort of grittier than The Great Escape — even though the mortality rate is lower in Stalag 17 and it has more characters playing for big laughs, it’s less jaunty somehow. William Holden is excellent as the cynical, making-the-best-of-it-by-making-deals airman suspected of being an informant, as is the supporting cast. Oh, a couple of the secondary characters are right annoying types, but they’re so well played, and the movie overall is so well put-together, it’s alright.

– The Double (2011)

If only this Richard Gere/Topher Grace spy thriller had been done as a British miniseries. Movies like this, with good acting and big budgets that do less to move plot, emotion, and action in 2+ hours than one, say, a one-hour episode in an arc of six, drive me nuts. Should have been a complicated psychological Cold War call back (could have been in No Way Out territory, but darker), but instead the reveals were boring, as is what came between.

+ Hollywood Homicide (2003)

This is a movie to put in your queue for an evening when you sort of want to watch something you’ve already seen, but kinda feel bad about that impulse, and you want to be entertained without having to think but also don’t want to have to put up with condescending mindlessness. Harrison Ford and Josh Hartnett are adorable and really funny as Hollywood homicide detectives each with moonlighting gigs (real estate and acting, respectively) they handle while on the case. The set pieces (the dual-interrogation room scene in particular comes to mind) are hilarious, the chase scenes are real-action-movie quality, the soundtrack (half hip-hop half motown) is good, and the actors are all having fun, so the fact that the movie as a whole is somewhat weird and makes zero sense is sort of beside the point.

Gimme Shelter (1970)

Man, this is a documentary. The footage of the Stones on stage in their heyday, recording, listening to their recordings, hanging in the hotel, setting up the concert that would ultimately ‘end the 60s’ in tragedy, playing that concert, and watching themselves in front of that riotous crowd trying to steer it back to flower power and love as things went bad is just gripping. And of course, it has a great soundtrack…

Stones in Exile (2010)

This is a great documentary about the creation and recording of the Rolling Stones’ 1972 classic album Exile on Main St. The archive footage and photos are extensive and used well, and the filmmakers interviewed pretty much everyone who was there at Nellcôte (Keith Richards’ house in the south of France — the album was made in the basement) down to someone’s son who was eight years old at the time. The Stones in their rock-and-roll-lifestyle heyday are pretty mesmerizing.

-/~ The Company Men (2010)

This atmospheric film about executives laid off during the Recession has some excellent acting from Ben Affleck, Chris Cooper, and Tommy Lee Jones (and Kevin Costner knocks it out of the park in his few short scenes), the kind that makes you wish this was a better movie, and it’s an interesting exploration of those folks turned out in these times (especially if you paired it up with the much better Up in the Air). But it falls short of being a very recommendable film. In addition to some dipping into unbelievability and skimming past the realities it seems to want to pride itself for talking about, and a few too many heavy-handed speeches, Affleck’s character and his wife (played by Rosemary DeWitt) just aren’t all that believable together.

Top Secret! (1984)

Happily, this 1984 farce starring Val Kilmer as an American rock and roll star who gets caught up in East German spy shenanigans is still totally hilarious (spy-movie cliche send up and rampant visual puns just never go out of style) and I can still recite pretty much the whole thing by heart, though I refrained from doing so out loud since I was watching with other people. In any event, it’s incredibly silly and great fun. And I’ll save you from trying to figure out where you’ve seen the actor who plays Deja Vu before — it’s Mr. Carson!

~/+ Flight (2012)

The trailer’s a little misleading — it’s not really about a plane crash, it’s a character piece about an alcoholic man. And it’s not a great movie really, the script is kind of heavy-handed  (though I admit I was in a bad mood when I watched it, and the Oscars showed a spoiler clip, so maybe that contributed to my meh-ness too), but it is a great performance. Denzel Washington is the entire reason to see this movie, and he’s extraordinarily good.

A Knight’s Tale (2001)

This medieval romp with an unapologetic 20th century soundtrack should be one of the funnest teen rom-coms ever, with charming Paul Bettany, dreamy Heath Ledger, hilarious Alan Tudyk and Mark Addy, many-hairstyled Shannyn Sossamon and eye-candy villain Rufus Sewell and princely James Purefoy, but it’s not. The great scenes are great, but in between there are too many montages, too many too-long build-up shots (especially of helmeted knights before jousting runs) — altogether too much boredom. Could someone please do an edit that’s about a half-hour shorter?

The Lincoln Lawyer (2011)

Excellent acting by all concerned in this nicely paced you’d-better-be-awake-and-paying-attention courtroom thriller. Matthew McConaughey is seriously comfortable inside his role as a slick defense attorney trying to navigate a legal and ethical catch-22. And Marisa Tomei, William H. Macy and the rest of the cast are rock solid too.

~/+ Magic Mike (2012)

The only problem with this Soderbergh male stripper movie is that it runs way too long. It’s got a fun, big-budget feel to the dance/stripping sequences (and Channing Tatum is quite charming as the too-old-to-still-be-doing-this character, and Matthew McConaughey looks like he had a blast with his role) and an improv’d indie feel to the dialogue and other scenes. It would be a wonderful film if they’d cut it by about a half hour (or even a bit more).

Chico & Rita (2010)

A love story with a Buena Vista Social Club-esque twist, set in Cuba and New York in the 40s and 50s. The plot is pretty conventional (or classic, I suppose), but the animation is really something, and the music (such great jazz and bebop and Cuban songs) is outta sight.

The Mummy Returns (2001)

A well-done sequel that repeats all the good parts of the first one, in a good way, and is at least as good or even slightly better. Even with a little kid! I think the Mummy and The Mummy Returns are right up there with the first and third Indiana Jones and Star Wars, for fun just-barely-PG-13 adventure.

The Mummy (1999)

Such a fun self-aware adventure romance, with abundant action at a nice clip. Brendan Frasier is adorably manful, Rachel Weisz is adorably clever, John Hannah is adorably side-kicky, and the Mummy himself, though not adorable, is a pretty great bad-ass.

2013 Oscar-nominated Animated Shorts (2013)

A delightful array, as always, of animated shorts, both the nominated and a few honorable mentions. They range from the moody to the clever to the perversely creative. I’m sure the Disney one, which is sweet and all (though why the woman had to have a Barbie waist is beyond me) will win the Oscar, but I’d give it to Fresh Guacamole — clever, funny, surprising, impressive and delightful, and all in just two minutes.

Heathers (1988)

I’d forgotten just how effed up this cult 80s comedy about cliques, suicide and oh yeah murder at a high school really is. Quite cringe-inducing, and quite, quite funny, with a bunch of great quotable lines. But it’s not exactly comfortable funny.

+ The Breakfast Club (1985)

love it when the classics hold up (without reservation). This is still an excellent, funny, right-on movie about teenagerdom. The jock, the brain, the basketcase, the criminal, the beauty — everyone should get to know these takes on those characters we all know (and/or were).

+  North by Northwest (1959)

I say this classic holds up (even though our current taste for faster pacing means you might have to force yourself to relax in order to enjoy the longer, slower scenes sometimes, and there’s less oomph to the suspense than there used to be) because Cary Grant is so damned charming and Hitchcock’e eye for framing a scene is so great. The train flirtation/seduction scene with Eva Marie Saint is still awesome (a too-straightforward-for-this-kind-of-thing friend said it seemed too much like a parody of itself at this point, but I say let go and enjoy it) and I don’t mind the semi-ridiculous climax because, as I said, Cary Grant.

+/- Rambo III (1988)

Alternately awesomely-preposterous and super-boring, Rambo III, the one set in Afghanistan, once again rewrites the Rambo character entirely (now he quips!) and markedly ups the body count from the previous installment. The only time you should watch this is somewhat intoxicated, late at night with friends, fast-forwarding through all the Trautman-in-the-Russians’-custody and talking-Afghanistan-rebels parts, and just watching the scenes with explosions (Rambo in a cave cauterizing his own wound with gunpowder, for instance, is a must-see scene, especially in slo-mo, as is the climactic horse v. helicopter and tank v. flying-at-ground-level-for-no-reason-helicopter sequence).  I would never tell you to watch it for serious, though.

First Blood Part II (1985)

Big-budget bad 1980s unrealistic jingoistic historic-revisionist violent Cold War action at its unintentionally hilarious best. Watch with friends, mock and enjoy.

+  First Blood (1982)

This first Rambo film is actually a pretty good character piece about a decorated Vietnam vet, now a drifter, who gets pushed by an unreasonable sheriff in a Pacific Northwest town and then all hell and lots of property damage (though, spoiler, only one actual death) breaks loose. Except for the property damage part, it’s nothing like the other Rambo films (oh, sure, parts of the script are mildly preposterous, but not as impossible to go along with as the sequels) and the cinematography is quite beautiful. It’s mostly worth watching, though, to see how different the movie Rambo was at the beginning.

Lincoln (2012)

Steven Spielberg + Tony Kushner + Daniel Day-Lewis is as potent a combo as you’d expect from their pedigrees (and that doesn’t even get into the rest of cast, which does mighty fine work). This is historical-epic old-fashioned movie storytelling, with the high production value all in the sets and costumes (and facial hair — all those sideburns and beards!) not so much CGI. Make no mistake, this is a talky history lesson, one told with deep sentiment(ality), but also humor, sweep, decidedly grand oratory and, it’s worth saying more than once, impressive acting.

 Haywire (2012)

I watched Haywire because I kept looking at best-of-2012 lists that said to watch it, and while I agree that Gina Carano’s physicality is great onscreen, there is no reason (I’m sad to say, given that it’s Soderbergh and also has Ewan McGregor and Antonio Banderas) to watch it (trust my list not others!). You are never given a reason to care about any of the people in it, or the mystery of the reasons for the betrayal and revenge (or the many, many, why so many? shots of Carano running down hallways), and while the soundtrack was made for a zippy hip thriller, there is pretty much zero suspense, nor does it in the end make much sense. The only plus is that the cinematography does lots with interesting camera angles.

Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)

This is a beautiful movie, and beautifully paced, and it kind of took my breath away, and it’s one of the best of 2012 (despite having a cast of non-actors). It’s magical realism (which means if you’re a real realism/rational-only sort you will probably miss out on getting caught up in its beauty, which is really too bad). The character of Hushpuppy, the kid at the center of the film, is one you won’t soon forget.

Dark Victory (1939)

Here’s why Bette Davis is delicious: she talks fast, she’s beautiful with googly eyes, and when playing an heiress who is going to die tragically young, she’s anything but subtle, in only the best ways. Dark Victory is a full-on melodrama complete with brain surgery and deception and a dashing doctor and horse shows and rash decisions and tragedy with a capital T (and both Humphrey Bogart and Ronald Reagan in small contract-player parts (Reagan plays a perfectly serviceable playboy drunk but the less said about Bogart’s jodphurs and Irish brogue the better)) and if you give yourself over to all that, it’s simply fabulous.

50/50 (2011)

This is a medium-funny romantic comedy and/or cancer melodrama that has a lot of entertaining moments but also has too many too-long mellow music montages. However, in addition to Seth Rogen making it his own movie every time he’s on screen and a way-too-cute Anna Kendrick nailing her role, the way-too-cute Joseph Gordon-Levitt facing mortality (though without ever looking especially sick), and becoming in the process even more adorable than he is when he’s just standing still, is this film’s biggest draw, so I guess see it if you say to yourself a lot “I want to marry Joseph Gordon-Levitt” (not that there’s nothing wrong with that). I suppose it’s no more unrealistic re: the cancer parts than any other romantic comedy is re: whatever part of the real world is its milieu, but the glossing over there was often distractingly noticeable.

Only Angels Have Wings (1939)

I like this macho Howard Hawks melodrama about an air-freight company in South America partly because Cary Grant isn’t playing his usual type, and the woman he falls for isn’t the one wearing the figure-revealing dresses, but it’s not at the very top of my classic movie favorites list. (And it’s not the best movie to show people who’ve never seen a Cary Grant movie before.) But if you’re partial to Howard Hawks’ heady energy, overlapping dialogue, screwball plot moments, and star-worthy character actor sidekick roles, it’s a must-see.

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

Humphrey Bogart’s ruthless fun as Sam Spade is simply great. The rest of the characters, from Peter Lorre’s Joel Cairo to the Fat Man to Effie the secretary, to of course the high-strung knockout femme fatale who starts it all, make this movie one you want to watch over again on a regular basis. With a tight story, sharp dialogue (almost all lifted directly from Dashiell Hammet’s book), and riveting actors, well, that’s the definition of a classic isn’t it?