Usually, at this time of the year, I get pretty jazzed about movies. The award screeners have been pouring in for weeks, and I’ve been spending nearly every single night indulging in award-worthy movie after award-worthy movie. I’m excited to talk about what I’ve seen and what I’ve loved and what’s going on in the movie biz.
This year…well…not so much.
I find myself surprisingly indifferent to this year’s big award season race—because, well, there aren’t any clear contenders. The year hasn’t produced any films that truly blew me away—that left me awed and speechless. I’ve seen good movies—but not any truly great movies. And, frankly, it’s a little depressing.
Of course, I’m not the only one who’s feeling a little ho-hum about this year’s cinematic offerings. Without any clear contenders, critic groups are struggling to find their frontrunners, and the big prizes are going to any number of pictures—a big change from last year, when The Social Network swept most groups’ top prizes.
This year, you won’t find a whole lot of people who are really, truly passionate about their favorite film—which makes it pretty tricky to put together top-ten lists. For that reason, you’ll probably find some unexpected picks on my list this year—but, well, that’s just the way 2011 worked out.
Kristin’s Top Ten (Or: The Films About Which I Felt the Least Indifferent)
Midnight in Paris
Every year, Woody Allen cranks out another film. Some are noteworthy; others not so much. But this year’s release was the director’s most magical film in years. Owen Wilson gives a pitch-perfect performance as a struggling novelist who gets his wish to travel back to Paris in the ‘20s. The film is clever and captivating—and just plain fun to watch.
It’s rare that a spring release makes such an impression on me, but I instantly fell in love with this fascinating sci-fi thriller, starring Jake Gyllenhaal as a soldier who’s working on an experimental mission that places him inside another man’s body as he tries to investigate the bombing of a train. It’s exhilarating and well-acted—and substantially smarter than the average thriller.
I was expecting just another sappy summer book club adaptation, but I was pleasantly surprised by this story of life in 1960s Mississippi, as told by hard-working maids. Though it doesn’t delve into issues of racism and civil rights like most award contenders would, you won’t hear me complaining—because the women and their stories speak for themselves. It’s heartwarming, it’s uplifting, and it’s beautifully acted.
The latest collaboration by writer Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman may not have taken audiences by storm like Juno did, but this dramedy about an emotionally stunted author who’s struggling to deal with the past and move on with her life is surprisingly thoughtful and mature. Even better: Charlize Theron’s ability to make a completely reprehensible character so entertaining.
Award season just wouldn’t be award season without a George Clooney or two. In Alexander Payne’s The Descendants, however, Clooney gives a performance unlike any we’ve seen before, playing a Hawaiian lawyer who’s trying to care for his two daughters while his wife is in a coma. Though he’s an old pro at playing suave businessmen and slick politicians (see The Ides of March), he’s never been quite as human as he is in The Descendants. It makes for a moving—and extremely emotional film—though one that, admittedly, I probably won’t ever have the energy to re-watch.
Louder Than a Bomb
Every once in a while, I come across a little-known gem—like this powerful, poetic documentary about a diverse group of teenagers from around Chicago competing in a teen poetry slam. The film’s real-life young stars are unforgettable—and their journey is both moving and uplifting. In the end, this remarkable little doc does an excellent job of exploring the power of the written (or spoken) word.
Winnie the Pooh
Typically, you’ll find a Pixar movie on my top-ten list. But, since I found Cars 2 to be more flashy and spastic than usual Pixar fare, Pixar’s out this year—and Pooh is in. The short and simple hand-drawn animated adventure has all of the classic charm that fans have come to expect from Pooh and his pals. And, as an added bonus, it’s smart and silly and absolutely lovable.
Definitely the artiest, most obscure film to make this year’s list, The Future is a bizarre little indie about a couple whose lives go into a tailspin after they decide to adopt an ailing stray cat. At the time, I said it was “as oddly profound as it is profoundly odd”—all because of its quirky but brilliantly observant look inside the minds of a couple of aimless 30-something hipsters.
The Ides of March
Did I mention that George Clooney is the king of award season? Well, he might want to keep an eye on Ryan Gosling, who gives Clooney’s smooth-talking presidential candidate a run for his money in this Clooney-directed political drama. The film may not be as deep—or as surprising—as it could have been, but it’s just fun to watch Clooney and Gosling going head-to-head.
Certainly one of the year’s most unexpected releases, the sheer novelty of this smart and entertaining silent film alone makes it noteworthy. Still, instead of aiming for a strictly art house crowd, this story about a silent film star who’s struggling with the dawn of talking pictures has plenty of playful comedy to make it fun for a wider audience. It’s a shock to the system for anyone who’s accustomed to 3D and CGI—but it’s a lovable film nonetheless.
Film Festival Honorable Mention:
Your Sister’s Sister: I’ve never been a huge fan of the mumblecore movement—but Lynn Shelton’s Your Sister’s Sister made me a believer. Her film about a lonely young man who finds himself in a cabin with his best friend and her sister is definitely chatty—but it’s also sincere and delightfully entertaining. The film premiered at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival—but be sure to check it out when it hits theaters in 2012.
You might think that, in a year of mostly mediocre films—a year without many stand-outs—there might not have been many bad films, either. Sadly, though, you’d be wrong. Throughout the year, I saw a lot of movies that were just okay, but I also saw more than my fair share of disasters—the kind of movies that keep my job from being the endless carnival funhouse of delights that so many people assume it is. So here’s my recap of the worst of the worst. In other words:
Kristin’s Bottom Ten (Or: The Films That Stood Out for All the Wrong Reasons)
Kevin James seems to be a regular on this list. Sadly, people keep going to see his movies, so I keep having to see more of them. This summer, I was forced to endure Zookeeper, a not-so-funny, not-so-family-friendly family comedy about a down-on-his-luck zookeeper who takes relationship advice from the zoo’s talking animals. Instead of a family film, it’s really just a boring romantic comedy with talking animals. But don’t take just my word for it. Even my nephew (who still loves Paul Blart: Mall Cop) will reluctantly admit that it was pretty bad.
Jack and Jill
Even those who tend to enjoy Adam Sandler’s bizarre brand of comedy will have a hard time finding the laughs in this humorless mess. The story—about a struggling ad exec who’s dealing with his obnoxious twin sister’s over-long holiday visit—has no real point. And the comedy relies solely on fart jokes and Sandler in drag. The only thing (just barely) saving this one from a failing grade is Al Pacino in a bizarre role as himself.
Fluffy, family-friendly movies about unlikely caretakers are pretty common—but Jonah Hill’s The Sitter isn’t a family-friendly film. It’s a questionable comedy that’s crammed with drug-fueled adventures and other crude clichés—and it’s all topped off by awkward attempts at pep talks about things like identity and self-esteem. The result was one lame and utterly pointless year-end release.
Surprise! It’s Kevin James again! In this January release, James teamed up with Vince Vaughn and director Ron Howard for a strangely touchy-feely, melodramatic film about a businessman (Vaughn) who has to decide whether to tell his best friend and business partner (James) that his wife (Winona Ryder) is cheating on him. It’s a flat bro-mantic comedy that’s about as masculine as an episode of Oprah.
Dante should have reserved a special circle in hell for those who take beloved stories and/or characters from my childhood and turn them into lame movies like this one. When I was a kid, the Smurfs were lovable little cartoon creatures who lived in a magical village, sang a lot of songs, and continually outsmarted the evil wizard Gargamel. Now, thanks to this dim-witted CGI/live-action mess, they’re little more than an animated joke.
Every year, I see more than my share of overused plots—but few this year were more painful than the age-old body-swapping story in The Change-Up. Instead of trying to make the story seem even the slightest bit plausible, the makers of this crude comedy chose to subject the audience to a constant barrage of raunchy humor—apparently in the hopes that they’d be so overwhelmed by poop and porn that they wouldn’t notice the utter lack of story. The film’s worst offense, however: making its typically lovable stars, Jason Bateman and Ryan Reynolds, look awkward and obnoxious.
Conan the Barbarian
Almost 30 years ago, the original Conan the Barbarian launched the career of Arnold “The Governator” Schwarzenegger. This ridiculous reimagining, however, did little more than put audiences to sleep. Brainlessly violent and visually bland, it’s a drab and gloomy adventure with a complicated story that will lose most members of the audience well before the film’s star, Jason Momoa, even arrives on-screen.
Red Riding Hood
In the past, I’ve been generally tolerant of Twilight knockoffs—but Catherine Hardwicke’s Red Riding Hood was the moody teen straw that broke the critic’s back. At least it’s beautifully filmed, but the teen angst radiating out of star Amanda Seyfried and her two leading men—not to mention the fact that the story revolves around a werewolf—is just too much to stomach.
No Strings Attached
Everyone was still basking in the glow of Natalie Portman’s breathtaking performance in Black Swan when she followed it up with this awkwardly flaky chick flick about a young doctor who signs on for a no-strings relationship with an old acquaintance, played by Ashton Kutcher. Somehow, the Academy had mercy on Portman and gave her an Oscar anyway—but I’m sure they had their doubts after seeing this one.
The Tree of Life
I can already hear the cries of outrage: “You must be mistaken! Surely this movie belongs on your Top 10 list—not the Bottom 10!” Nope. While many of my colleagues got caught up in the sheer artiness of Terrence Malick’s latest bloated mess, I saw beyond the pretty pictures to the perplexing pretentiousness of it all. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: If a movie doesn’t make any sense, that doesn’t mean it’s brilliant. It’s entirely possible to make a smart, thoughtful film that audiences can actually follow—but Malick clearly didn’t make this self-indulgent bore for anyone but himself.
Now that we’ve come to the end of another year, it’s time to say goodbye. It’s time to say goodbye to the good (or at least the decent), the bad, and the ugly of 2011. And it’s time to look ahead to the excitement of another year at the movies—wherever it may take us.
Whether 2012 is another mediocre year like this one or Hollywood makes up for one lackluster year with a stellar one, you can rest assured that I’ll be there, in my usual seat in the center of the theater, taking it all in so I can report back to you.