Sunday, December 29, 2013

Megastore movie round-up.

The annual event!

Here are the movies I saw this year--most of them with the historian, a couple by myself, a few others with friends or family. I keep thinking that I missed a lot of movies this year, and I did, but this is fifty seven movies...not too bad. It was a pretty good year, all told.

[NOTE on the stars: basically, if I put stars at all by the movies, they are worth seeing in my estimation, for the reasons stipulated in the comments. Zero stars just means I don't find the movie particularly noteworthy--if the notes say so, sometimes zero stars means the movie was terrible, or silly, or something like that. If I gave a movie three stars, it means I think it was one of the best of the year, but (to reiterate) any stars at all means noteworthy and worth seeing, probably.]

 Django Unchained: My son said, when I was trying to decide if I was up for this film, "Mom, for a person who wants to see all the movies [interruptive note: I do! I do want to see all the movies!], it would be a shame for you to miss this one. Also, I really want you to see Christoph Walz." And then, because he is a champ, my son volunteered to be my Django Unchained spirit guide, and went with me to the movie to alert me when there were scenes that might be very intense. It was a great kindness, and he was right: it would have been a shame to miss this film. I loved it and I thought it was pretty great. Each and every performance was wonderful, the structure was wonderful, and just when it needed to get serious, it really, really did. I do recommend this film.

Gangster Squad: I saw this movie with my friend, because we needed to see a movie (a), and (b) because it had lots of movie stars in it, and (c) we needed to see a movie. Verdict: too pointlessly violent, Sean Penn can do wrong, I heart Josh Brolin, and oh, right, Ryan Gosling. Cannot recommend, sorry, although I do recommend seeing a movie with your friend. Just maybe not this one.

Broken City: Another movie in the Gangster Squad vein, this time with Mark Wahlberg whom I always love. Russell Crowe hammed it up like a big old ham. Not all that great, really, sorry to say.

★ 20 Feet from Stardom: On the other hand, I adored this movie. Beyond. There is a moment when Lisa Fischer, who has a truly spectacular voice, sings with Mick Jagger on "Gimme Shelter." She is wearing this short leather dress and singing with him--it's just  a shot away, it's just a shot away-- and it is electrifying. Seriously. The movie is full of wonderful portraits and amazing music and terrific stories. It must be seen.

Beautiful Creatures: I admit we saw this because there was almost nothing else and because of Emma Thompson and a host of super-campy performances (Emmy Rossum, Jeremy Irons, Viola Davis, Margo Martindale, Eileen Atkins). It's pretty awful, but we had a good time. Good enough, anyway. Cannot recommend because of excessive silliness.

 Side Effects: Soderbergh in his chilly, sly thriller mode. I thought this was quite wonderful--sharp, sexy, unpredictable. Everyone is good, too. One of my favorite things right now is Jude Law as a character actor rather than as a heartthrob. He is so good at it. This would make an excellent rental.

Warm Bodies: Charming and funny, but no great shakes. Nicholas Hoult as a zombie who gets a heart/life back, which is sweet. The film does feature a funny John Malkovich as the girl (who the zombie has a crush on)'s dad. He is also a military commander, which seems to me to be inherently hilarious. That's maybe worth the viewing.

Oz, the Great and Powerful: Ugh, why? I was prepared to enjoy this. I loved the 1985 Return to Oz so much, and love the enterprise of reinterpreting an iconic story (which, of course, had built-in sequels in the Baum books). This--not to put too fine a point on it--was not good. Wildly fluctuating tone, some truly terrible acting, a talking monkey. Blah.

Admission: I enjoyed this more than a little bit. Tina Fey is always okay with me, and so is Paul Rudd. One excellent prize in this movie was Wallace Shawn as Tina's boss. Also, Michael Sheen is quite hilarious as the Princeton professor, who is--guess. No, seriously.--pretentious and a pompous jerk. An English professor. In the movies, there are no nice ones. This movie was probably a little soft, but I found it pleasingly so. So, okay then: a perfectly serviceable comedy, which sometimes is all we need.

 The Place Beyond the Pines: I felt pretty impassioned about this movie when I saw it, and when I think back to it, I realize I've kept a candle burning for it. I love its formal quality--there are three clear acts--and I love a performance in each of the acts. Ryan Gosling is perhaps perfect in his part. The young Dane DeHaan is splendid. This is worth searching out. It's not perfect, but its imperfection is soulful and searching. 

 Oblivion: Aside from its silly ending, this was good. I believe that Tom Cruise can be a rather brilliant movie star actor in the right vehicle. He was good in this, and the premise of the plot was very interesting and engrossing. 

 42: Are biopics all one-note? Of course not, but they all seem to risk it. This movie risks it, but it does pretty well at staying on the better side of the simplistic/complex divide. For one, it dramatizes in a fairly searing way the racism Robinson experienced on the job and off it, in some great scenes, including one with Alan Tudyk playing the manager of the Reds, Ben Chapman, that was unforgettable. Also with a thoroughly enjoyable portrayal of Leo Durocher by the always excellent Christopher Meloni.

★ Mud: Yep, part of the Grand Re-Invention Tour being mounted by Matthew McConaughey, long may he wave. I liked this--it felt like it had real dirt in it--but I didn't think it was amazing. Still, worth a view. 

 What Maisie Knew: A quite wonderful adaptation of maybe my favorite Henry James novel. I liked Julianne Moore as the narcissist mother a lot (omg, her clothes, I'm sorry, I was filled with envy); Steve Coogan as the narcissist father was so awful he was worthy of actual hissing on the part of the audience. The ending of the movie was quite a bit happier than that of the novel, which was disappointing. Nonetheless. Again: worth a view, even if you've never read Henry James at all.

 The Great Gatsby: Well, I know I am not supposed to, but I quite loved this. To me, the excess of it spoke to our moment in what I thought was a pretty canny way. I saw it before I flew to Scotland; I reread the novel on the plane home. Then I saw it again with my oldest, darling friend. There are many flaws. But I thought the core of it was real enough, true enough, to still breathe and sing. [Insert aria here about Leonardo DiCaprio.]

★ Frances Ha: I loved this without reservation, a film about friendship and being true to oneself. I saw it twice--once with the historian and once with my oldest, darling friend. Greta Gerwig gives a beautiful performance that is, to my mind, the equal of some great Dietrich or Garbo--it's shot in lustrous black and white, and her face and physicality are completely mesmerizing.  I couldn't have loved this more. See it!

Now You See Me: Nonsense of the heist/con variety. A bunch of fun performances in the most nonsensical--no other word will do it justice--plot of all the con/heist plots in the universe. The performer who was the most fun to watch, for me, was Woody Harrelson. But still: nonsense on toast, covered in nonsense sauce, finished with a grating of nonsense.

★ The Kings of Summer: Real good. Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman) as a bitter dad who is worth the price of admission all by himself. The boys are all swell, and there's a sly, dangerous reptile (spoiler alert!) that figures in the denouement. A lovely thing, a kind of perfect summer movie.

★ Much Ado About Nothing: Such a pleasure. A friend points out that the chastity plot makes literally no sense in 21st century Malibu...and of course she is right. Even so, the wonderful way these actors have with Shakespeare's words and plot make this film a total joy, or an almost total joy...that chastity plot is a bitch, actually. But that's not Joss Whedon's fault. Nathan Fillion deserves special mention as Dogberry. He was perfect.

This is the End: I watched this with a mix of pleasure and discomfort. I love the project and the guys, and they totally went huge with the effects, in a way that was pretty hysterical. That said: I pretty much never enjoy comic violence, it never sits right with me. All, or almost all, was redeemed, by the ending. I will not say more than "aesthetically joyful application of a boy band." Also: "in heaven." Since, after all, it is the end.

The Bling Ring: Cool, suave, good. It is a satire and it is also true, in the way that real life seems to satirize itself these days. In these dark times. These are the kinds of thoughts and feelings you will leave the film with, after you've watched these rich (mostly) kids steal stuff from even richer people. It's a dis-ease Sofia Coppola wishes you to have, and it's, I suppose, salutary. Rather dispiriting. Talking about this movie makes me want to shop online. Moving on.

★ Man of Steel: Aside from the way it ended, like, three different times, each one stupider than the last, I entirely enjoyed this film. I especially enjoyed it as a meditation on dads. (Are all superhero movies meditations on fathers? Make a note of this. Maybe not.) Superman was so beautiful it was hard to concentrate sometimes, but I did like Russell Crowe as Dad Number One, and Kevin Costner, entirely believable as Mr. Midwesterner, as Dad Number Two. I got to see this with my two sons, a daughter-in-law, and my daughter-in-law's mom. We all had a blast. I know some Super-philes hated this, but I did not. I loved it.

★ Monsters University: Adorable. I liked the first one and I liked this one. Kudos to the genius who thought of monsters going to college to become scary. That concept will make me smile, like, forever.

★ The Heat: (a) I saw this with my friend, and ergo (b) it was suffused with girlfriend power. But I think I can deconstruct that scenario enough to say that (c) it was funny in its own right--righteous girlfriend chemistry (the Sandra Bullock/Melissa McCarthy reaction) and funny writing, explosions, good cop/bad cop action, etcetera. I took the historian. There may have been too many explosions for his taste, but I laughed again the second time. 

★ The Way Way Back: The other wonderful summer movie about summer. Another nearly perfect movie in this category (there are so many, going back to Say Anything and Adventureland and Stand By Me and Dirty Dancing)--this one features good/bad times at a water park, a terrible almost-stepdad, and the wonderful and adorable Sam Rockwell who just can do no wrong, really. No wrong.

Red 2: I saw this with my aunt. What can I say? Helen Mirren has a way with a gun. We had popcorn and enjoyed ourselves. That is all.

The World’s End: Boy, I was so excited about this movie, and it did have many, many delights, including very witty camerawork and a great Nick Frost performance (they were all good) and a funny voiceover by Bill Nighy...but it was no Shaun of the Dead, nor was it Hot Fuzz. I wish I could report otherwise. Your mileage may, however, vary.

Blue Jasmine: This was fine but not great, even though Cate Blanchett had some of the best clothing in movies maybe ever. I liked Sally Hawkins a lot, and like lots of people, I thought Andrew "Dice" Clay was great in his part. Alec Baldwin was great as always. Etcetera, etcetera--it just felt claustrophobic and not all that revelatory, at the end of the day. Moral of the story: be nicer and make your own money, ladies? Don't marry a bad guy, aka financial con man? 

★ The Spectacular Now: This is the third in a trifecta of summer movies about summer, and I loved it. Sweet performances by the two leads, and a devastating Kyle Chandler as the boozy dad of the boy. Really lovely film.

★ About Time: Here's what's great about this movie: Bill Nighy. Really, just lovely and so moving in this (yet another) meditation on fathers and mortality. It's explicitly didactic, but I just didn't care. I cried like a child at it and wanted to recommend it to everyone. My daughter texted me a couple of days later and said, "I saw the best movie!" and I was all "About Time? I KNOW!" and we gushed a little more, because that's how it makes you feel.  Then I saw it again last week with my youngest daughter, cried like a child at it, and wanted to recommend it all over again. So I am recommending it to you. It is sentimental but it's beautiful even so. Just see it already. See it and cry and love all of humanity, okay?

★ Rush: A pleasure. Two terrific performances in the leads Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Bruhl, playing James Hunt and Niki Lauda, who were Formula One racers back in the 1970s. Loud cars, fast living, good times.

★ Enough Said: I loved this. Beautiful heartbreaking performances. I was thrilled to see Julia Louis Dreyfuss be so great. I have seen almost all of the Nicole Holofcener movies and they are all good. This one is no exception. Catherine Keener (as a poet) is wonderful and awful. I loved seeing James Gandolfini in this vulnerable, touching performance.

 Don Jon: My daughter saw this first. I was waffling about whether I would see it or not because the reviews were not that good. She liked it, so I decided to go, and I liked it too. Possibly a little preachy there at the end, but still very good. You know who's pretty darn good? Scarlett Johanssen. You know who else I love, really really love? Julianne Moore. And of course JGL, whose charms have not diminished. Plus I liked that the film took up this topic. It was like a public service announcement, but with movie stars. 

ACOD: I had to re-consult a plot summary to remember some of the things that were good about this film (all performances): Amy Poehler as an awful second wife; Richard Jenkins and Catherine O'Hara as awful divorced parents; Jane Lynch as a truly hilarious writer. Not a great film and yet it had its charms. If you happen to be a divorced parent, you can see this to feel an extra booster shot of guilt.

★ Gravity: Exquisitely beautiful, very controlled piece of filmmaking. There is one scene that was almost breathtakingly well-made, which for me is the recommendation for the whole film--I appreciated how beautiful the film is, how well-crafted, but the scene in the middle was so intimate and human-scaled, it made me love the film instead of only admire it. 

★ Captain Phillips: Sharp performances and deeply scary. I am currently fascinated by what movies do with real stories. One of the best parts in the movie is when Phillips (Tom Hanks) is finally rescued by Navy SEALs, he is in shock; the folks on the boat keep him calm and take care of him. In the book this film was based on, apparently the real-life Captain Phillips asked for a beer at this point. Well. Could this film have done a little more to show the situation of these Somali pirates? Yes, I think it could have. That, perhaps, is its moral flaw. As a movie, it's riveting.

★ Kill Your Darlings: Of COURSE we were going to see this. Quite glad we did. Full of lovely performances, including a vulnerable and touching Daniel Radcliffe as the young Allen Ginsberg. Again Dane DeHaan was mesmerizing as Lucien Carr. I loved Ben Foster as William Burroughs, and especially when his banker dad came to tell him to quit all his shenanigans. Good.

★ All Is Lost: I am in the "this was a disciplined, beautiful film" camp, and I guess I'm not alone. I am pleased to revise my recent, slightly derisory remarks about Redford's acting, based on The Company You Keep (see below). I was literally in love with the Redford of The Way We Were (that was the crying in the movies heyday!) and thereafter. Sometimes I hear him talk and think, dude you are not all that articulate, maybe? And then I feel unkind. But this performance, almost entirely physical and wholly present, was great. Legitimately great. So I recommend that you see it, even if you're afraid of a movie with only one actor who says, like, one paragraph the whole movie. It's good enough to transcend your fear..

Ender’s Game: Gee, my son hates this movie. I have heard him explain why: "No character development. They got stuff about the settings all wrong." Etcetera. Did I mention no character development? I read this novel, finally, which both of my sons love, because they urged/browbeat me into it in light of the fact of the coming film adaptation. I liked it. The difference is, they have loved the book forever, hence the film was almost certain to be a grievous disappointment. I thought it was fine. The end.

★ Dallas Buyers Club: Matthew McConaughey again, very good again. I'm not sure what movies Jennifer Garner should be starring in, but not this, probably. But Jared Leto, on the other hand: wonderful. McConaughey: wonderful. Some people have what are no doubt legitimate criticisms to make of this film. For instance, on Cinemania, the writer says that the film "is a movie you have to be grateful to Hollywood for making, but you still wish was a film made not by Hollywood.  Point being, it is based on a true story that morally and politically needs to be told, but morally and politically it needs to be told in a way Hollywood can/will not do." That's fair. Still, I'm glad this film was made and I'm glad I saw it.

★ Philomena: Loved. Another film based on true events. The crux of the matter is that a woman is forced to give up her child (conceived out of wedlock) by the Irish church in collusion with Irish society. She doesn't stop thinking of him and, late in life, decides she wants to try to find him, to tell him she didn't abandon him. It is a heartrending story, well told for the most part, and both Judi Dench and Steve Coogan give terrific performances. The scene in which Coogan's BBC reporter discovers what has become of the son is brilliant. 

★ Nebraska: Loved. Two sons have to contend with a  cantankerous mother and a cantankerous-to-the-second-power dad (or maybe it's the reverse). The dad has received a Publisher's Clearinghouse "you may have won a million dollars" letter, which he believes means he has won a million dollars. One of the sons, played by Will Forte, agrees to take him to Nebraska to pick up his dollars. Which are not really waiting for him. Everyone is great. Are the relatives and townspeople of the Nebraska hometown caricatures? Maybe yes, some of them. And yet Stacy Keach gives a great, sly performance as Bruce Dern's old business partner. Who owes who what? is one of the questions this film asks, and the fact that there isn't a definite answer doesn't mean that it wasn't a worthwhile question. See it. 

★ Frozen: This was plenty of fun, in my opinion. I love the story of the Snow Queen from Hans Christian Anderson, which this movie resembles not in the least. Let me be clear: the story of the Snow Queen is practically a universe of stories away from this story. Yet this story was delightful, and the idea that someone might have the power to make winter with her own hands? I love that idea. If you have small people in your life, or if you don't but aren't afraid of animated movies with lots of songs and a talking snowman, go. Obviously.

★ No: Awesome. This is about a public campaign, staged in the late 1980s, one that affected the outcome of the plebiscite Pinochet was forced to call when international concern about the legitimacy  of his rule mounted. This film is sharp and smart and really wonderful. Gael Garcia Bernal, who is one of my favorites, plays the adman who comes up with the campaign. It makes people, so the argument goes, hopeful enough to vote NO on Pinochet, and thus to turn Chile around for years and years of repression and brutality and fear. The historian and I had wonderful conversations bout this film--about the ways that such a campaign might build upon a more organized resistance, and so on. It's a smart, engaging film, and you won't forget it. Find a way to see it.

★ Quartet: This movie basically announces its flaws in the premise: three singers who are living at a home for retired musicians (I want to go to there.) find out that their former fourth, who has been a great success as a singer, will be joining them. But she doesn't want to sing in their amateur hour/has-been performance. Not for love nor money because of pride, you guys! What can I say, I am a sucker for this kind of stuff, especially when it's the likes of Billy Connolly and Maggie Smith in question. Dustin Hoffman directed. It is sappy and I liked it.

Promised Land: Uh, this is Gus Van Sant, making a populist issue-driven film, the issue being fracking. And it's pretty good, actually, partly because of a good cast, including Matt Damon, John Krasinski, Frances McDormand, and Hal Holbrook. There's a maybe dumb plot twist in the middle--necessary? I don't think so. I like that movies like this exist--it's not amazing by a long shot, but it's worth making and worth seeing, at least a little. You go, Gus.

★ The Sapphires: Could not have been happier with this movie. First, Chris O'Dowd. Second, singing. Third, an interesting, not-heavy-handed way into the hard story of the theft and subsequent, and forcible, enculturation of Aboriginal children. Entirely watchable and enjoyable for all that.

The Company You Keep: Okay. This was a pretty interesting movie, but it could have been even more so, more pointed, more kinetic, could have made the premise pay (Redford plays a now-legit, once-Weather Undergrounder, who has been living under a fake name and under the radar for decades--he gets outed by an enterprising journalist who's trying to make a name for himself, the name in question being "Shia LaBoeuf"). Well, anyway, we went, it was interesting, Robert Redford can still run up and down a mountain, etc. You know if you want to see this movie already.

★ How to Survive a Plague: Great. Just great. Just see it. Maybe see it and see Dallas Buyers Club in short order. This movie is a corrective for what is maybe wrong with Dallas.

We’re the Millers: Okay, so sometimes you need to see a movie in the summertime with your girlfriends, and what is maybe, possibly, a passable comedy is playing at Brewvies. So you set aside your qualms, i.e., the qualms you had when you saw the trailer in which Jennifer Aniston appears to be doing a striptease in a warehouse in front of some drug lords? And you say to yourself, comedy is in the context! that's maybe funny, in context? and then you go to the movie and you find that you are wrong. Well, at least you had some nachos. #savinggracesnacks

★ In a World: And this is a winner! Original and wonderful. Plus Lake Bell wrote, directed, and starred in it. So that makes it extra satisfying when it is so good. It features the world of voiceover artists, and each and every one of these characters is squirrelly and venal and generous and interesting. Well done, Lake Bell! 

Austenland: I went to this strictly on the local angle--Shannon Hale wrote the novel and Jerusha Hess directed. This film did not get a lot of love, and I can see why, but I have to say, knowing that people didn't much like it going in, I got plenty of enjoyment out of it. It played broad, sure, but there was something about the Keri Russell character (can't stop thinking of her as Felicity) that kind of had some grit to her, something a little sad but a little bit real, too. I loved that her one song, the song she could pull out in the evenings, was "Hot in Herrre" by Nelly. That, my friends, is genius. 

 Catching Fire: Otherwise known as The Hunger Games 2. I thought this was quite good. I saw it twice, which is only fitting, since it was the second installment? Once with the historian who had no patience for it, and once with friends, who liked it as did I. Some great second novel characters and actors, and it's fun to watch Donald Sutherland practically twirl his evil mustache. I am in for the long haul. This was better than the first, and I liked the first. 

★ Is the Man Who is Tall Happy?: Michel Gondry's entirely idiosyncratic documentary of a conversation, or series of conversations, with Noam Chomsky. It's great for so many reasons: because Gondry uses a very old-style camera that means you'll hear the camera when it's filming. Because he illustrates the conversations to illuminate his developing understandings as well as his confusions--his dialogue with the conversations. Because he wants us to see the seams that most documentarians want to make disappear--so we can see that there's a narrative being formed by the filmmaker. And because it focuses on Chomsky's thinking about language and science and cognition. Very interesting and entirely worthwhile. Like nothing else, really, that you've ever seen.

★ American Hustle: I could not have been one tiny bit happier than during every single minute of this film. It never seemed predictable, for one. And it shows how shoddy and weird and freaky the idea of the ABSCAM sting was. Interesting characters and some truly inspired writing. Amy Adams looks utterly incredible in each and every scene, and she gives a flawless performance. I wish I could see a movie like this every time I see a movie. Loved. I can't wait to see it again.

★ Saving Mr. Banks: We rushed right home and started looking stuff up about P.L. Travers the minute we got there. The story in the film is so interesting and seems so compelling that we wanted to know: was it true? Well, yes and no. Emma Thompson is great, of course, but I found the team of writers and musicians she worked with to be wonderful as well: B. J. Novak, Jason Schwartzman, whom I adore, and Bradley Whitford. And I loved that they played Disney as a very canny fellow. They showed at least a few of his sharp edges, and that was excellent. I recommend this to you, but you must promise to do your homework, too.

★ Inside Llewyn Davis: Wow, I loved this. It was a little baggy in the middle, maybe, and it was bleak. But I loved the music, I loved--really loved--the main character and the performance of him by Oscar Isaacs. I loved the story of this failed guy, all his efforts and all his flaws. I loved how he was not his own friend in trying to put together a career out of an art (what kind of foolishness is that!)(she says with bitter irony). I loved how the passion and tenderness of the music always, always gave way to something real and for the most part unpleasant--because art doesn't always sweeten life, especially not for the artist. 

We will probably see The Wolf of Wall Street on New Year's Eve. Other 2013 movies I hope to see, or maybe want to see, some of which I will have to stream or rent: Her; 47 Ronin (judge me, I just don't care); August: Osage County, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, the Wolf of Wall Street, Labor Day; Ain’t Them Bodies Saints; 12 years a slave; Big Sur; The Great Beauty; A Dark Truth; The Grandmaster; To the Wonder; Stoker; Spring Breakers; Upstream Color; At Any Price; Black Rock; Before Midnight; World War Z; Fruitvale Station; The Gatekeepers; Sound City; Stories We Tell; Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus; Thanks for Sharing; The Counselor; Leviathan. 

I also, of course, want to hear what your favorites were, and what I missed, and what I must see that I didn't.


  1. HT, I heart your movie reviews -- thank you for this honest commentary. Oh, and I also heart Josh Brolin (I recently saw a young Joshua in an early episode of "21 Jump Street" which was my present-wrapping background noise). Happy New Year!!!

  2. Lisa, add Battle of the Year to your list right now! in fact, watch it right now. Or maybe you have already seen it and are just too embarrassed to admit it. The worst dance movie plot ever! But some pretty great dancing. Added bonus: at least 3 solemn, life-changing speeches from Sawyer from Lost. It's sort of like the Hoop Dreams of dance movies.

  3. I look forward to this review of yours every year. You, my brilliant HT, never disappoint.

  4. As always love reading your reviews. Strange, though, because I've seen almost all of your top pics (still need to see Django and Inside Llewyn)--much more money spent this past year at movie theaters. Also: So glad you gave Enough Said top billing--now I can tell those who didn't like it that they were simply wrong.

    As far as your to see list: DEFINITELY see Fruitvale Station before you bother with World War Z.

  5. I should have known you'd love 20 Feet from Stardom. I've been looking forward to seeing it for months!



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