The year in film, reviewed
Rick Kisonak: The more things change, as they say, the more they stay the same. What strikes me when I look at this year’s award-season front-runners is that so many were in the group I was looking at this time last year: The Coens are back with True Grit. And Jeff Bridges. And Matt Damon — all 2010 Oscar nominees. Ditto Colin Firth, Carey Mulligan and George Clooney. Each has generated 2011 buzz. Randy Newman is a lock for yet another Best Song nod (who’s going to vote against Toy Story 3?). Speaking of which, Disney (Up) is looking at likely back-to-back Best Animated Feature statuettes, thanks to the success of that little animated afterthought. What do you think — coincidence, or simply a case of talent rising to the top?
Margot Harrison: How about inertia — as in, people don’t want to leave their couches to try something new? Then again, maybe they’re finding more exciting new stuff from their couches. For me, this year proves we’re approaching the day when 3-D spectacles will have sole occupancy of the multiplexes. When they aren’t bringing kids to the movies or channeling their inner kid, adults will stay home and watch shows such as “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad” and “The Walking Dead,” which inspired more enthusiasm than most of the movies getting awards buzz this year.
RK: This is a tight one. Jennifer Lawrence was uncanny in Winter’s Bone. Bridges made the role of Rooster Cogburn his own. Ryan Gosling reinvented himself in All Good Things. Then again in Blue Valentine. Christian Bale was crazy good as a crackhead in The Fighter. And, of course, Jesse Eisenberg, James Franco and Colin Firth were mesmerizing in The Social Network, 127 Hours and The King’s Speech, respectively. But I’ve got to go with Robert Duvall. In the past 12 months, I didn’t see a more inventive, multidimensional performance than the one he gave in Get Low. Twenty-eight years later, it’s time he got a second Oscar. In a related story: Bill Murray really ought to take home Best Supporting Actor hardware for his understatedly hilarious work in the same film.
MH: As you pointed out in your Greenberg review, Rick, Ben Stiller and Jesse Eisenberg can seem like the same twitchy misanthrope at different stages of life. Therefore I jointly award them the honor this year for their performances in Greenberg and The Social Network, respectively. The Angry Smart Guy Who Can’t Handle Face-to-Face Communication is fast becoming America’s national archetype, and they both incarnated him brilliantly.
RK: A tie: John Travolta hit a new career low with From Paris With Love, basically a Bourne movie minus the brains. You know the guy’s in iffy form when you find yourself wistfully recalling the glories of Battlefield Earth and Old Dogs. Every bit as annoying, though, was Julia Roberts in the stunningly unnecessary Eat Pray Love. Journeys of self-discovery don’t get more insipid and self-serious than this.
MH: Christina Aguilera in Burlesque. It’s not that the songstress can’t act; we’re not in Taylor Lautner territory. It’s more that she chose to do her acting with her hair. Then again, when it comes to letting the wig or weave do the work of character building, Cher and Angelina Jolie are also guilty.
RK: I’m excluding Get Low from contention here because it’s so much more than a comedy. There’s some really dark stuff in there. Which, to my mind, leaves Please Give as the year’s crowning comic achievement. The fourth release from independent filmmaker Nicole Holofcener is that rarest of big-screen birds — a comedy for grown-ups. A close second: I Love You Phillip Morris. Jim Carrey as you’ve never seen him before.
MH: I also loved the dark wit of Please Give, but for no-holds-barred absurdity I’m going with Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. I’m not sure Werner Herzog knew he was turning to comedy when he invented the “iguana cam,” but I suspect he had an inkling where things were headed when he gave Nicolas Cage free rein.
RK: No contest: Death at a Funeral. The latest nail in the coffin of once promising playwright and filmmaker Neil LaBute’s career, this mindless remake of a British farce was so strained, noisy, desperate and mirthlessly scatological, it was hard to believe it featured talents like Chris Rock and Tracy Morgan, as opposed to a cast of latex cartoons with Eddie Murphy inside them.
MH: While it’s not down there in the same category with witless romantic “comedies” such as The Switch, I was most depressed by the unfunniness of Hot Tub Time Machine. A great title and loopy premise fizzled into a series of tired ’80s jokes.
RK: Gladiator is one of the greatest movies of all time. I can — and do — watch it at least once a month. Also jolly good film fun: Body of Lies and American Gangster. What do these pictures have in common? The collaboration of Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe. So, hopes were high when the pair teamed up again. And then dashed by what they did. If it were possible to surgically extract virtually everything that made Gladiator movie magic, you’d wind up with a lifeless, long-winded anti-epic very much along the lines of Robin Hood. Talk about missing the mark.
Also jaw-droppingly disappointing in my book was Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky’s follow-up to 2008’s The Wrestler. It’s already earned Best Picture nominations from the Critics Choice Awards and Golden Globes, and I’m wondering when the madness will stop. It’s like direct-to-video David Lynch, only without the inspired loopiness.
MH: There we disagree (see below). My biggest letdown was The Social Network. Not a terrible movie by any means, but, in my opinion, a hectoring and simplistic one about a complex and fascinating subject. I guess I just can’t agree with Aaron Sorkin that the Internet is destroying America, or that the rise of social networking boils down to sexual frustration. But, hey, at least someone made a movie about people using computers that wasn’t boring.
RK: That the big scene in 127 Hours wasn’t as much of a gagger as I’d read. According to published accounts, audience members have fainted, hurled and even been carried out on stretchers. I thought it was handled with a surprising degree of restraint.
MH: Agreed — but then, I’ve seen lots of surgical photos and the Hostel movies. My biggest surprises were two: 1. Amanda Peet is hilarious (see Please Give) and 2. Paranormal Activity 2 was scary.
RK: The whole point of an update like The Wolfman is to wow audiences with the latest generation of special effects. If Benicio Del Toro’s transmutation had been sufficiently awesome, it would hardly have mattered that the rest is a yawn. But it’s not awesome. It’s a hairy look, but not a remotely scary one.
MH: A Nightmare on Elm Street. This remake of a perfectly good slumber-party staple wasn’t just unnecessary; it was excruciating. However, it did star Rooney Mara, who had a key part in The Social Network and has won the coveted role of Lisbeth Salander in David Fincher’s Stieg Larsson adaptations. If she goes A-list, this film could one day attain the lofty status of 1994’s The Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which introduced the world to Matthew McConaughey and Renée Zellweger.
RK: Let’s see ... Kick-Ass had its moments. Iron Man 2 didn’t quite live up to its predecessor, did it? I kind of liked The Losers, based on the Vertigo comic, but let’s face it; we’re not talking timeless cinema. For me, I guess the award goes to disco-loving, self-adoring Barbie boyfriend Ken, who was voiced by Michael Keaton in the living doll’s big-screen debut and practically stole the Toy Story 3 show. Plastic has seldom been that fantastic.
MH: I decided to turn the category around this year. Adaptations of pop-culture properties came out practically every week in 2010, and most seemed pretty superfluous except to the fan base and the folks who profited from their devotion. Yet this year also brought us a few comic-book movies clever enough to interest people who’d never read the comic. The unjustly neglected Scott Pilgrim vs. the World stands out.
RK: A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma and then wrapped again in a faux-trippy, discombobulated script, Shutter Island (No. 15 on the list of the year’s 150 largest grossers) is a film that leaves the viewer with a lot of questions. Foremost among them is why Martin Scorsese would waste his time on it. A close second: Salt at No. 17!
MH: The unfunny, unromantic ensemble rom com Valentine’s Day managed to make it to No. 20 on the list. Based on anecdotal evidence, I’d say most of the tickets were bought by well-meaning men who wanted to surprise a special lady on Valentine’s Day weekend. They should’ve sprung for a nice brunch instead.
RK: No shortage of these: The Kids Are All Right stalled out at No. 97, The Ghost Writer at No. 108, Greenberg at No. 137 and Please Give at No. 138. But the double whammy went to the highly acclaimed and totally entertaining Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work. Not only is it No. 150 in grosses, but the Academy’s already bumped it from the list of this year’s Best Doc finalists. Something tells me Rivers will say a few choice words on that if she does her red-carpet preshow in February.
MH: I am surprised by the poor take of Furry Vengeance (No. 110). Not saddened, believe me — just surprised. Maybe parents thought it was about the rage of people who like to get it on in animal suits, when in fact the title referred to Brendan Fraser’s battles with CGI raccoons.
RK: Well, again, I’m tempted to say DiCaprio and Scorsese, but I’ve got to go with Damon and Eastwood. Invictus ranked as a lesser contribution to the director’s filmography, but Hereafter was borderline silly. The subject was one any human being would find compelling. Eastwood’s treatment of it, not so much. Let’s hope these two find other playmates before things get downright embarrassing.
MH: I will say DiCaprio and Scorsese. And I wish I could extend the ban to DiCaprio and any A-list director who needs someone to play a guy who hides an abyss of grief and madness beneath a bland exterior. DiCaprio is skilled, but he’s better at the “bland” part than the “crazy” part, as he showed this year in his strikingly similar roles in Shutter Island and Inception. Maybe he should take Matt Damon’s roles for a while.
RK: Of the top 10 films released in the U.S. this year, seven were either sequels or remakes, and four were cartoons. Arguably only a single movie — Inception — was made with grown-up audiences in mind. As I’ve pointed out previously, dozens of thoughtful, masterfully crafted pictures were also released. The problem isn’t that people aren’t making good movies but that people aren’t going to see them. Guess where that’s going to lead.
MH: Here’s how I interpret those numbers: If you want to make audiences ponder stuff like mortality, the fragility of community and the possible futility of love, you need to hide those themes in a cartoon. For my money, Toy Story 3 was every bit as bleak as Greenberg, Please Give or Winter’s Bone — and audiences ate it up! Another encouraging sign for civilization: Moviegoers seem to be rejecting the after-the-fact 3-D conversion process.
But next year a new Transformers movie will be released, possibly in 3-D, and be the mega-grosser. So never mind me.
RK: Winter’s Bone, hands down. Though something tells me we’ll be seeing a lot of these folks again. Jennifer Lawrence has already been tapped for Jodie Foster’s next directorial outing. It’s called The Beaver, and she’ll be costarring with someone every bit as disturbed and potentially dangerous as the characters in Winter’s Bone — Mel Gibson.
MH: The year didn’t give us many great starless films, and I second your pick of Winter’s Bone. For best star-making performance in a film I wasn’t crazy about, though ... Noomi Rapace in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was amazing.
RK: In the medical drama Extraordinary Measures, we observe two human beings in the advanced stages of a generally irreversible condition. That’s right: Brendan Fraser and Harrison Ford. Their careers are so Code Blue they’ve stooped to taking paycheck parts in a disease-of-the-week TV movie.
MH: A tie between Knight and Day and The Tourist: two supernova pairings with zero sparks.
RK: Fitting neatly into this category for completely different reasons are the incendiary Inside Job (the economy didn’t attempt suicide; a bunch of greedy, arrogant jerks milked the system); and Rabbit Hole, a story about yuppies mourning their dead son inside what looks like a giant issue of Martha Stewart Living.
MH: Sex and the City 2 is a shoo-in. But I added this category after seeing Sofia Coppola’s latest, Somewhere, which taught me how very hard it is to be a movie star. Weep for Stephen Dorff with nothing to do but sit in hotels and order room service!
RK: Again, I’ve got to go with Inside Job, quite simply a masterpiece of nonfiction moviemaking. As the title suggests, it’s the story of a heist, of highway robbery on a global scale. But Inside Job differs from a typical heist film in that, while the bad guys get caught, they also get rich. And a free pass from the legal system. Bring your blood-pressure pills.
MH: Restrepo. More than any other war documentary, it’s a gripping, real-time record of ordinary men under extraordinary stress that offers no easy answers.
RK: There’s no way Another Year will get here before next year. The latest from British writer-director Mike (Happy-Go-Lucky, Secrets & Lies) Leigh is well worth the wait. Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen are fabulous in this bittersweet character piece about a happily married London couple who offer safe harbor to a series of friends and relatives whose lives have not gone quite as swimmingly. The Company Men is likewise something to look forward to. Ben Affleck and Tommy Lee Jones star in this downsizing drama that, against all odds, manages to give the economic crisis a feel-good twist. It’s Up in the Air turned inside out.
MH: I haven’t had a chance to see many films in this category, but here are the ones I’m waiting for: Dogtooth, an acclaimed Greek drama about parents who isolate their kids from the world, with unintended results. It’s only hit festivals in the U.S. so far. Buried, the Ryan-Reynolds-in-a-coffin movie, which never got wide release. (Maybe the implausibility of his cellphone signal was too much for viewers to take.) And Enter the Void, a Tokyo-set head trip from Gaspar (Irreversible) Noé.
RK: Ooh, was the competition ever stiff in this category. So many movies disappointed (Dinner for Schmucks, Secretariat, Hereafter), and so many others just plain blew (Prince of Persia, Sex and the City 2, The Last Airbender, Knight and Day, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice — no Worst Picture list would be complete without a contribution from Nicolas Cage), that a picture had to reek on multiple levels to stand out. For me, that film was Blue Valentine. Marital meltdown can make for great art (see Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), but in the hands of director Derek Cianfrance, it just made me sleepy.
MH: Many shoddier movies than Sex and the City 2 were released this year, but none quite as squirm inducing. Escapist fluff has its place. Mocking anyone who doesn’t share the Bergdorf-and-Blahniks lifestyle — including poor Mr. Big, who just wants to stay home and watch old movies — is plain dumb. At least I learned from this film that, as long as fundamentalist Muslim women wear couture under their abayas, they’re just like us.
RK: I don’t know about you, but I honestly can’t recall it ever being this difficult to choose. Not because so many films were outstanding, but because none really stands out from the crowd. This year gave us a lot of really good movies, but I don’t believe it gave us a great one like The Hurt Locker or No Country for Old Men. I’ve narrowed it down to The Fighter, Winter’s Bone and 127 Hours. It’s pretty much a coin toss, but I guess I’ll root for the little guy and go with Winter’s Bone.
MH: I was surprised by Never Let Me Go, a quiet and genuinely heartbreaking little film. Winter’s Bone was excellent. But, though it may reveal I’m demented, my clear pick is Black Swan. Forget Inception: This movie is the real fever dream. It’s operatic camp raised to the level of art, and that’s my favorite combination.