2016 Glennies: Best Picture (Top 10 Films of 2016)

#10: Trifecta:
Weirdos in the Wilderness

Combined

Written and directed by Matt Ross (Captain Fantastic)
Written for the screen and directed by Taiki Waititi (Hunt for the Wilderpeople)
Written and directed by Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (Swiss Army Man)

Don’t worry; the rest will be individual films. I don’t know if Wes Anderson slipped something into the water supply last year, but it became clear to me during my December catch-up that “weirdos in the wilderness” were having a cultural moment in 2016 (although the less said about The Legend of Tarzan, the better). I’ve grouped these three together because they all hit a similar level of quality, I went around in circles trying to decide which one to include, and cheating the Top 10 format is a tradition as old as the Glennies. So here we go.

Captain Fantastic is about a man (Viggo Mortensen) raising his children with physical and intellectual rigor in the wilderness of my home state of Washington, jogging them up and down a mountain every morning, quizzing them on string theory and math and literature every afternoon, and answering any question and discussing any topic that they wish, no matter how conventionally inappropriate it might be. This is an odd family forced to confront its oddness as a family crisis sends them onto a road trip, much in the darkly funny, whimsical, and well-acted vein of Little Miss Sunshine.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople is about the bond that forms between a weird kid (Julian Dennison) and his cantankerous adoptive uncle (Sam Neill) as they wander through the backcountry of New Zealand and become outlaw folk heroes. Does exactly what it says on the tin.

And finally, Swiss Army Man is about the bond of friendship that forms between a shipwrecked man (Paul Dano) and a talking, farting corpse with superpowers (Daniel Radcliffe). I feel as if I’ve given you plenty to go on with those first two, so let’s talk about Swiss Army Man for a moment. Mary Elizabeth Winstead makes a brief appearance, and her final line of the film (“What the fuck?!”) just about sums this up, and loses nothing in delivery. This is a film like no other, it is alternately heartwarming and horrifying, incredibly well-acted by Dano and Radcliffe, and utterly bizarre in every scene. It is a film about love, friendship, and the meaning of life (all explained in detail to a corpse who has no memory and no verbal filter). And also farts. Mortensen may talk a big game in Captain Fantastic about wanting to live away from civilization, but Swiss Army Man is about a man who might rightfully be drummed out of civilization with torches and pitchforks for being just a bit too weird, and he knows it. And then he and the film examine what exactly it means to be so weird. Each of these films is touching, and inspiring in its own way, but if you want the one that’ll alter your mind (for weal or woe), go with Swiss Army Man.

#9: Under the Shadow

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Written and directed by Babak Anvari

Shideh (Narges Rashidi) is a mother stuck with her daughter (Avin Manshadi) inside an apartment building in Tehran during the War of the Cities, a series of bomb and missile attacks between Iran and Iraq during the 1980s. This is, on the surface, an outstanding horror film dealing with the Islamic and Arabian legend of Djinn, and Shideh’s struggle to protect her daughter from these vengeful demons as their relationship strains in the process is quite fascinating on its own (see also: The Babadook). But the background elements of this film amp up the stakes even higher. Most horror films deal with the threat of imminent death, but this is seldom rendered quite so literally as, “This building may get hit by a missile and explode at any second.” War is the horror that hangs over this film, and will continue to do so even if the supernatural terror is defeated. The other demon is inside Shideh herself, whose doctor husband is up at the front lines of the war. She simultaneously struggles with fear of his imminent death, and jealousy at the injustice that she was barred from resuming her medical studies after the Islamic Revolution of 1979, due to her involvement with student groups (later deemed to be counterrevolutionary) at her university. Her husband is now on the front lines doing the job that she has been barred from ever doing, and she’s stuck in one terrible situation feeling jealous of another. This is a deep and fascinating twist on the horror genre, and essential viewing when it eventually hits Netflix (the service apparently acquired it at Sundance).

#8: Kubo and the Two Strings

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Directed by Travis Knight, written by Marc Haimes and Chris Butler

Laika delivers another dark and fascinating stop-motion journey, pushing the medium beyond any limit I could’ve imagined previously, this time through Japanese legend. Kubo (Art Parkinson) is a one-eyed boy with the power to magically move origami figures by playing his guitar, and he uses his supernatural busking to raise money to take care of his ailing sorceress mother Sariatu (Charlize Theron). She warns him that he must never stay out at night, or her sisters (both voiced by Rooney Mara) and father, the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes) will come back to steal his other eye, having taken his first eye when he was a baby. And that is one hell of an origin story. This quickly escalates into an active chase, Kubo on the run with his burgeoning magical powers, with only his companions Monkey (also Charlize Theron) and Beetle (Matthew McConaughey) to guide him. Theron’s vocal performance is easily the strongest of the three, and Monkey is a fierce and terrifying screen presence, even as she is under siege by Sariatu’s bone-chilling sisters (seriously, these things are so creepy). My only beef with this film isn’t really a beef at all – it’s a bit predictable. It’s clear where this film is going, and what steps it must take to get there. But this is a clear instance where the journey, the stuff of Japanese myth and imagery, is quite satisfying. If Laika didn’t have such a distinctive visual style, I would’ve expected this story to emerge from the workshop of Studio Ghibli. It is a rousing adventure and a visual triumph. And it really doesn’t want you messing with your phone while you watch it. You’ll know what I mean with literally the first line of the film.

#7: Last Days in the Desert

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Written and directed by Rodrigo García

“But I’ll stay as long as it takes, forever…to witness the end. The final sunset. If there is one. Maybe on that day, late in the afternoon, seconds away, He’ll want to start it all over again…from the beginning. He’s done it before. Recreated the whole thing, retold the whole thing. On a whim. With little differences that must mean the world to Him – a branch that crooks in a different direction, one egg more or less in the nest of a flea. What a self-centered, self-indulgent creature He is. Isn’t He? Deaf-mute. Insatiable. These things He expects of you. Do you think anyone will care? Men of 1,000 years from now?”

Whether you follow them or not, there are few figures as essential or fascinating to western civilization as Jesus Christ and Satan, and this film features Ewan McGregor in a fascinating dual performance as both, wandering the desert for 40 days and 40 nights during the Biblical “Temptation of Christ“. This is an event spelled out in vague detail in three of the four Gospels, and the essential elements of the tale are: Jesus gets baptized, wanders through the desert fasting, and during that time, Satan offers to help (and make him a powerful human) in exchange for a bit of good ol’ devil-worship. Jesus tells him to sit and spin, then returns to his ministry and eventual execution for humanity’s sins. This film is García’s imagining of what that these two might have discussed in human form for 40 days, and the result is quite psychologically and theologically fascinating. The framing device is a family drama, featuring an unnamed father (Ciarán Hinds), son (Tye Sheridan), and dying mother (Ayelet Zurer). Satan bets that Jesus can’t solve their problems to everyone’s satisfaction. Jesus – unlike his Father – refuses to take the bet, but tries to help the family anyway, and Satan sticks around to see how it goes.

The two have a fascinating relationship, with Jesus acting as a divine man apart, and Satan acting like his put-upon older brother who’s angry to see which one has their parent’s favor. McGregor’s performance is outstanding, making it quite plain which of them is in frame at each moment, even when he has nothing to say. And the ensuing dialogue is what makes this film worth seeing. These two know each other well, and that prior relationship is plain in all of their interactions. When Satan is attempting to trick Jesus, it always falls flat, and Satan seemingly knows it in advance.

“You think you are his only child?,” Satan asks, “There are others.”
“No,” says Christ, without hesitation, “There is only Me.”

This is some stilted dialogue, seemingly written exclusively for the Biblical page (or the trailer). And given Satan’s unending knowledge of past and future events, he surely must know it, because the scenes where the two are talking plainly about destiny (of specific humans, and broader humanity) are much more electrifying. Hinds and Sheridan also work well, even if their family struggle isn’t quite as interesting as the one happening over their heads. This is a fascinating little gem, shot with great visual splendor in the Colorado Desert by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who continues to demonstrate his talent (he shot two of my previous #1 films, Birdman and Gravity).

#6: Moana

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Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker, screenplay by Jared Bush

Lin-Manuel Miranda is a musical genius, newcomer Auli’i Cravalho has a marvelous and powerful voice, and that’s only the start of this film’s appeal. This is a deceptively simple and high-stakes journey about a Polynesian princess brokering a peace between warring demigods amid stunning animation. I like to think that when Tamatoa (Jemaine Clement), the giant villainous coconut crab, sings, “Fish are dumb, dumb, dumb; they’ll chase anything that glitters” – before devouring several – that it’s a good-natured shot across the bow of Pixar’s 2016 sequel, Finding Dory. And indeed, Moana‘s water and sand animation – particularly the fine details of how translucent blue waves crash on the shore, and how sand sticks to (and then unevenly sloughs off) wet human skin, etc. – are as much a triumph of physics simulation as a work of art, and certainly push the visual envelope further than Pixar did this year.

Maui (Dwayne Johnson) is quite a fun character, with his song, “You’re Welcome” being the closest thing this film has to an instant classic (is there anything The Rock can’t do likably?). This is perhaps a missed opportunity, not finding such a moment for the film’s heroine, because while Cravalho’s climactic solo reprisal “I Am Moana” is both musically and narratively satisfying, Moana’s portion of the song is essentially just a list of character attributes (“I’m a girl who loves my island; I’m a girl who loves the sea…”), so it doesn’t stick in the mind nearly as well. Don’t get me wrong; Cravalho plays this ambiguity and mixed motivation for her sea jaunt quite well, but if there’s anything approaching the memorability of Frozen‘s “Let It Go” in this film, it’s Johnson’s chipper cockiness as he explains that Maui created their entire island existence as a lark (with his tattoos – in some impressive hand-drawn animation – performing matching dance choreography on his skin). Moana, who had sought Maui out in order to kidnap him (since he also caused the film’s central conflict), is noticeably taken in by his godly charm in spite of herself, which gives this song the dual purpose of a marvelous character and relationship introduction, since Maui is really just peacocking so that he can con Moana out of her boat – not realizing that she literally has the ocean working for her by this point.

This is what I mean when I say that the songs – co-written by Miranda, Opetaia Foa’i, and Mark Mancina – and Cravalho’s voice are just the beginning of Moana‘s appeal, even if they’re the part that I’ve been consuming non-stop since I saw it. There’s a lot more going on in this film, with Moana herself being the agent of a major political change, as she decides to return her society to their former ways as ocean voyagers. Just because she wants to, and because their island is on the verge of an ecological collapse. First, she just needs to make the ocean safe by resolving a world-ending divine conflict. This princess contains multitudes – and is a badass.

#5: Arrival

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Directed by Denis Villeneuve, screenplay by Eric Heisserer, based on short story by Ted Chiang

Arrival is smart and well-rendered hard sci-fi, in the “competence porn” vein of The Andromeda Strain or Apollo 13, in which we get to see what it looks like when experts take a credible, multidisciplinary approach to such an intractable problem as a deciphering a completely unknown language from the ships of a silent alien invasion. I don’t want to say too much here, but Amy Adams in particular is outstanding as linguist Louise Banks, and her arc (both practically and emotionally) is what ties the entire film together. All of the linguistic details are quite clever – I particularly liked the scene in which Banks diagrams the sentence that the US government wants the aliens to answer: “What is your purpose on Earth?”. She explains all of the linguistic and conceptual precursors that are necessary for the aliens to even reach the point of comprehending this question, and that’s before we decide what their response means, whether they think of “purpose” in the same way that we do, or whether we believe them.

Bradford Young‘s bleakly gorgeous cinematography tells a compelling visual story of the cordons, ad-hoc bases and perimeters, and other minutiae that would inevitably accompany an alien invasion, as the global situation is laid out at a slow, deliberate pace. We explore two of the alien landing sites in the greatest detail – the first in the US (in an incomprehensibly vast field in Montana), and the other over Chinese territorial waters, surrounded by a naval blockade. In the vein of Soderbergh, Villeneuve does an outstanding job of selling the alien invasion as a worldwide crisis through background details alone (the war/comms room on the Montana base was a particularly nice touch). This is also a good place to mention – I was glad to see China put to good use in this film. After several years of dubious Hollywood pandering in which China’s biggest actors are put to token and pointless use so that the film will either qualify for, or entirely skirt, the foreign film importation limits, surely China itself must be as tired of this sort of condescending inclusion as I am. So when I see such a strong example of Chinese inclusion in American cinema, it seems worth calling out, even if they managed to torpedo their chances of a Chinese release in other ways. Tzi Ma appears as a Chinese military leader, and forms an essential part of the plot as the film goes on, as much of the world follows China’s lead when deciding what to do with the aliens. China is a perfect choice for this role, given the film’s focus on linguistics, as it feels entirely plausible (and supports the film’s underlying use of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis) that American and Chinese linguistic experts could see the same message from their respective spacecraft and come to slightly different conclusions about it.

And…that’s about all I want to say, because this is definitely a film where spoilers matter. While I haven’t yet read Ted Chiang‘s “Story of Your Life”, it is now on my reading list, and I’m told that it makes a better digestif than aperitif. That is to say, see Arrival, then read the short story.

#4: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

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Directed by Gareth Edwards, written by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy

I mocked the very concept of this film. I questioned the need for it. I pointed out how hilarious the hordes of online fans were for fearing spoilers for a film that would unquestionably end with the team of unlikely heroes retrieving the Death Star plans (with one or more of them probably dying in the process), paving the way for its direct and immediate sequel, the original Star Wars. I plan to continue this advance mockery for the Boba Fett movie (didn’t we already see his crappy origin story?), if it really does end up happening. And since Disney’s plans for the foreseeable future include a Star Wars film every single year, I will definitely need to be a bit more discriminating when it comes to evaluating them. Now that my nerd bonafides are out of the way: Rogue One is incredible. It knocked my socks off.

Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) is about as compelling a Star Wars protagonist as Luke Skywalker – which is to say, not very. This may be due to her instantaneous transformation from an unresponsive, hiding child to a nondescript adult in imperial custody, with little regard for what might’ve happened in-between – but this doesn’t make her actions in the service of the Rebellion any less interesting or heroic. Her scrappy, militant upbringing is perhaps most similar to that of rebel Captain Cassian Andor (Diego Luna). Erso worked for a separatist Rebel fringe led by Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) before ditching him at the age of 16, and Andor has fought for the “official” Rebel Alliance since he was 6 years old. The distinction between these two factions is never quite made precise, but this feels like a deliberate choice on the film’s part. Rebellions are built on hope, the movie tells us aloud repeatedly, but more than that, they are built on coalescence – disparate military and aristocratic and populist elements coming together to accomplish a shared goal. This is certainly the first time the Rebel Alliance has felt this nebulous, long-term, or real. Andor is introduced in a conversation with a panicked imperial officer on the moon Jedha, and he ends the conversation by shooting the man in the back to keep him quiet. While this is an undeniable spy trope (looking at you, Tony Gilroy), Luna’s performance perhaps carries off this ambiguity better than Jones’ – no matter which faction he identifies with, he’s been at this fight for too long, and doesn’t know anymore whether he’s truly on the side of the angels.

And that’s just the first two members of the ensemble. This group is headed off onto what’s most likely a suicide mission to counter an Imperial weapon of mass destruction, and this film not only gave me just enough time with each character (and a few preexisting relationships) to make me care about them, but it really managed to make the Death Star, the planet-killing weapon of the original trilogy, seem incredibly scary. I can’t overstate how well the film pulled this off. The Force Awakens turned an entire planet into a Death Star, and while it was undeniably…larger…it was nowhere near this terrifying. Ben Mendelsohn and CGI Peter Cushing make solid villains, even if I’m ill-equipped to evaluate the second one, having known the actor was dead for 20 years prior to this film. My wife and several of my coworkers, for what it’s worth, never noticed that Grand Moff Tarkin, the commander of the Death Star, was a computerized amalgam, and for my part, I was far more dubious about the noticeably older-sounding James Earl Jones coming back for a fun, but superfluous Darth Vader cameo.

I have many nits to pick with this film, but here’s where it ended for me – the last half-hour of this film, a balls-to-the-wall space and ground battle – is some of the best Star Wars I’ve ever seen. Unlike the prequel trilogy, this fight didn’t seem like a mere byproduct of modern technology. That is to say, this battle didn’t feel like it was being fought with this level of visual splendor just because we can do that now. This battle served the story on an epic scale. It’s easy to imagine the Rebellion reminiscing about Rogue One as fervently as the Alamo. This isn’t a story whose impact is reduced by knowing where it’s headed. It’s the sort of conflict that lends the ensuing trilogy even greater weight in retrospect. Remember Rogue One. Remember this team. They fought long odds and delivered – on the human side – what was needed for the Jedi to save the galaxy.

#3: Zootopia

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Directed by Byron Howard and Rich Moore, screenplay by Jared Bush and Phil Johnston

This has been an outstanding year for animated films, and Zootopia was far and away the most memorable one I experienced. This film’s backdrop – a city of realistically-sized anthropomorphic animals all living together, predators and prey alike, is just the sort of impossible nonsense that the animated medium was made to tell. The entire film is a colorful metaphor for the fragile human experiment we call civilization, but the film expends a great deal of visual energy (and a significant number of adorable sight gags) explaining to me exactly how it all works. And all of the details – from the different environmental zones, to the variably-sized infrastructure, to the de facto caste system between predators and prey (which correspond to specific jobs in the city, with the police being almost all from predator species) – make this an incredibly well-realized world. Indeed, it’s of the caliber that Pixar might’ve created a decade ago, and Disney Animation is really giving them a run for their money this year.

With this stunning backdrop as a starting point, Zootopia shocked me even further by engaging in some rather mature storytelling. Rookie bunny cop Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) and civilian con-fox Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman) make an outstanding team, with Hopps as the eager, career-driven upstart looking to buck tradition by becoming the first of her species to be a cop in the city, and Wilde engaging in some clever (and occasionally disgusting) food arbitrage in the city’s various animal-sized trade-zones (in what seems to be the latest of many hustles for the character). These are outstanding voice performances, and this burgeoning friendship forms the backdrop of a far more compelling mystery than any of the similar – and usually R-rated – buddy detective stories I saw this year (lookin’ at you, The Nice Guys). This is a story about police and civic corruption, prejudice and stereotyping, and – ultimately – the long arc of the moral universe bending toward justice, even if a cartoon water buffalo is jumping up and down on it. And that’s exactly what a classic children’s film should be.

#2: How to Let Go of the World and Love All the Things Climate Can’t Change

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Written and directed by Josh Fox

I referred to this film when it came out as “group therapy for climate realists”. And given recent events, this riveting documentary may prove essential viewing for anyone who is inspired to make a difference on climate change against seemingly insurmountable practical and political obstacles. This documentary, from Gasland director Josh Fox, initially put me on my guard, and ran a serious risk of coming off as manipulative or self-indulgent. But the film strikes just the right balance, spending a brief first act with its director learning about the stark reality of climate change, and then promptly and deliberately pulling himself out of the limelight, pointing his camera instead at the most vulnerable people around the world who will be affected by it. This globe-trotting story goes a lot of unexpected places, including into the heart of a protest attempting to blockade an Australian coal port. This sequence is exciting and lighthearted as presented, but the stakes feel no less real.

Incidentally, one of the producers of this film, Deia Schlosberg, was arrested in October for filming a similar act of civil disobedience at a TransCanada Keystone pipeline in North Dakota. Schlosberg is – as of this writing – facing multiple felony charges that could lead to up to 45 years in prison, and this is a stark reminder that even if all we get to see is an exciting documentary sequence, the risk required to get it, to life, limb, and freedom, is very real. This sort of advocacy journalism is a public service, and How to Let Go of the World is a fine example of it.

Check out my review here:
“How to Let Go of the World” (dir. Josh Fox) – Group therapy for climate realists

#1: The Lobster

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Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, written by Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou.

As I mentioned in my review (which lays out the plot in a bit more detail), I love short films in which all of the characters share a commonly skewed moral sensibility. That is to say, they see the world in the same bizarre way, and noticeably filter all possible acceptable actions and words through that lens. The Lobster is a feature which contains not one, but two simple, but fully-realized dystopias along these lines, those of single and attached people. No stragglers, no variants, and absolutely no one who falls into the middle (or variable points on) the Kinsey scale. Pick a side, and obey its bizarre rules.

From my review:

“This is Lanthimos’ cruel satire at its very best – it paints both relationships and singlehood as oppressive, shallow, inauthentic institutions, issuing strict, two-faced codes of behavior and exacting devastating consequences for those who inevitably fail to abide by them. You’ll find people in each institution who will support you – but only if you meet their precise expectations. Trip up, or attempt to live somewhere besides the precise extremes that they delineate – and they’ll throw you to the wolves. Or turn you into one.”

And if you can believe it, this same film tells quite a striking and sweet love story. This is nearly as bizarre a film as Swiss Army Man, and it is definitely not for everyone. But if you stick with its seemingly deliberate attempts to annoy and disturb you, you may find it quite rewarding.

Check out my review here:
Yorgos Lanthimos’ “The Lobster” – When competing dystopias fall in love

Honorable Mentions:

  • Doctor Strange (directed by Scott Derrickson)
  • The Birth of a Nation (directed by Nate Parker)
  • Don’t Think Twice (directed by Mike Birbiglia)
  • Captain America: Civil War (directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo)
  • Angry Indian Goddesses (directed by Pan Nalin)
  • Loving and Midnight Special (both directed by Jeff Nichols)

Biggest Disappointments:

High expectations, low results.

  • Ghostbusters (directed by Paul Feig)
    This fucking movie. Like The Interview before it, the Ghostbusters remake took on far greater importance than it ever deserved, due to factors that were completely external to the film itself. Let’s get the easy stuff out of the way first: It is a sad and continuing generational struggle that little girls didn’t have 50 or 100 different female-led action-adventure films to watch growing up, like I did. Their own blockbusters – their Indiana Joneses and James Bonds or anything else where a heroine is credibly driving the plot on the backdrop of [what would now be] a $150M+ budget. And this thoroughly middling and passable action film is no better or worse than most of the escapist adventures I immersed myself in as a boy, because you love everything as a kid, and when everything’s written for your demographic, it’s easier to pick and choose. I can plainly see that I’m not the target audience for the film. But to those girls, as an honest film critic, I still have to say – you deserve better. You deserve Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (which is utterly packed with strong and well-realized women driving the plot). You deserve the next generation of Star Wars, led by the outstanding Daisy Ridley (inheriting the torch from Carrie Fisher, RIP), hopefully the first of many interesting and capable women to inhabit this universe. You deserve Moana and Zootopia and Rogue One. You deserve the far more representative film world that is slowly but surely coming.For my part, I had high expectations going into Ghostbusters, because two of these actresses (and this director) had made me laugh many times before, and this reboot (of a film I absolutely adore) was really a quasi-sequel, telling a new story for a new generation of paranormal investigators. But with the exception of McKinnon, these four bored me as an ensemble nearly as much as the villain (whose plan and motivation I still can’t actually explain), even if they seemed to be having a fun time together – I never took the threat seriously, because neither did they, and their lack of seriousness never particularly amused me. And that rambling sentence, right there, is the worst that any of them deserve: my dispassionate assessment that this comedy didn’t make me, personally, laugh all that much. I can’t change that reaction no matter how despicable some of its bedfellows are. And here’s the other easy observation: those same little girls I mentioned above also deserve better than to see how the internet excoriated this thoroughly inoffensive film and its cast (particularly Leslie Jones, who received a torrent of disgusting racist and sexist garbage). This movie flopped, and kinda deserved to. But that should’ve been the end of it.Now, let’s fiddle while Twitter burns. Let the punishing, racist, misogynistic dystopia that is the Twitterverse die an overdue death and crush our President-elect’s masturbating, mendacious, nonsensical “Dear Diary” of a Twitter-feed along with it. 95% of it was already a bunch of harmless people (and bots) howling into the void to be read by no one, so let the rest of it become a ghetto of white supremacy and hatred like Stormfront, isolated, mocked, and ignored. And let us all go back to heaping bullshit where it belongs – on the actual people who make bad decisions. Like whoever at Sony Pictures thought it was a good idea to re-use their lousy CGI Times Square from The Amazing Spider-Man 2 for another lifeless lightshow of an action climax.
  • Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (directed by Zach Snyder)
    In Man of Steel, a film I inexplicably enjoyed despite having major problems with, Superman does a terrible job of saving lives. Metropolis is almost completely destroyed, thousands die, and the chickens come home to roost in this film, as a bitter Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) – one of whose skyscrapers was apparently destroyed in MoS – tools up with Kryptonite and a robo-suit to eliminate the alien threat for good. Okay, I’m sorta lying, calling this a disappointment – my expectations were rather low going into this film. Although I find the premise of Superman facing consequences for his superheroic destruction to be legitimately fascinating, that does not add up to a convincing reason for Batman and Superman to want to murder each other.Bruce Wayne citing Dick Cheney‘s “one-percent doctrine” as a rationale for his murder spree in pursuit of a racially-motivated assassination was an abject betrayal of the character, and mostly (mostly) a non-sequitur to the Dark Knight trilogy that we’ve just seen. And on top of that, there’s no compelling reason for Superman to show up for this fight at all, which is why the film had to use Lex Luthor to unconvincingly manipulate them into it. I referred to Ghostbusters as “inoffensive” above, and this one (as surely as Passengers) meets my definition of “offensive”. This film is, conceptually and in execution, utter nonsense. It shouldn’t exist. And it doesn’t deserve any more commentary than that.
  • Allied (directed by Robert Zemeckis)
    This film had the great misfortune to be viewed in the same year in which I saw Casablanca for the first time. As such, when watching a pale imitator of a deservedly well-regarded classic, I couldn’t help but get the feeling that I was just watching some talented Hollywood actors (including the irresistible and reliably spooky Marion Cotillard) amid a technically well-rendered backdrop…playing dress-up. This film is replete with modern-sounding dialogue (and F-bombs) and some pretty uninspiring spy drama. Even Valkyrie had more of a reason to exist than this film – or at least, it sold me on the real-world stakes of the thing in a meaningful way. If you’re going to set a film against the scourge of World War II, you have to remember – they don’t know how the war is going to end, or if any of them are going to survive. In the case of Casablanca, which was released in 1940, this was literally true, as much for the characters as for the actors and filmmakers. This sort of tale can deliver life-or-death stakes on a silver platter, and all it has to do is not ignore them. Instead, we get a first-season Alias arc that could just as easily have been set in the modern day.

Pleasant Surprises:

Low expectations, high results.

  • The Accountant (directed by Gavin O’Connor)
    The thing about Autistic Murder Batman – the informal title that I use for this film – is that it’s a solid and engrossing action thriller whose myriad twists and turns are grounded in a central, character-based question of, “What drives this guy to do what he does?” that is answered continuously through the actor’s performance, and gives me a reason to care about the rest of the film. And to see Ben Affleck pull that off while kicking innumerable quantities of ass really sold me on the actor coming back as a genuine big-budget superhero. As such, I have reluctantly high hopes for his far-from-certain turn in the creative seat.
  • Finding Dory (directed by Andrew Stanton)
    I’m not sure who was clamoring for this sequel 12 years on, and it does violate one of Pixar’s cardinal rules of storytelling by relying on coincidence to get its characters out of trouble (lots of convenient water for these fish to dive between on land!). But it’s also lovely, well-made, and touching. Ed O’Neill‘s octopus ninja is quite fun, as is Ellen DeGeneres‘ return performance as Dory. It’s worth seeing, even if it’s a bit inessential (see also: Monsters University) (or don’t).
  • Snowden (directed by Oliver Stone)
    After Laura Poitras‘ documentary Citizenfour, whose subject matter I found fascinating, but whose documentary craft I did not, I was not expecting to find much to enjoy in this film, a dramatization of Edward Snowden‘s rise and fall in the service of US intelligence, and his decision to leak classified information about NSA surveillance programs and flee the country. I’ll be blunt – I treated all of the details of Snowden’s rise through the intelligence ranks as speculative fiction (and this was apparently a good choice, as the bulk of the film was based on a novel by Snowden’s lawyer, whose protagonist might as well be called Bredward Browden). Joseph Gordon-Levitt absolutely nails Snowden’s voice, cadence, and physicality, Rhys Ifans plays an utterly chilling mentor, and Nicolas Cage presumably allowed a few cameras to film him speaking unscripted in his basement for a bit. While some of this is a bit cheesy (Snowden’s one alleged experience as a field agent alongside a fun and superfluous Timothy Olyphant felt totally out of place), this film did an excellent job of what Citizenfour couldn’t quite manage: explaining technically, logistically, and ethically complex surveillance programs to an audience that is mostly unfamiliar with them, in an entertaining fashion.

2015 Glennies: Best Picture (Top 10 Films of 2015)

#11: Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens

Poster for Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens

Directed by J.J. Abrams, written by Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan, and Michael Arndt

As always, the #11 spot in my Top 10 goes to a film that I liked, but had reservations about. You can listen to these [many] reservations in detail on the podcast below (one of them rhymes with “Schmeth Schtar”), but the triumphs of this film are almost innumerable. Every design element of this film was spot-on, vintage, 1970s Star Wars. This is every bit the dirty, analog, physical world on the ragged edges of the frontier that it needs to be, and director J.J. Abrams clearly understands the Campbellian story beats as well now as when he first rehearsed making a Star Wars film back in 2009. Finn (John Boyega) and Rey (Daisy Ridley) are both outstanding additions to the franchise, and deep and interesting enough characters that I’m eager to see what happens to them next (especially when guided by the able writing and directorial hand of Rian Johnson for Episode VIII). Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), and Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) all have potential. But my biggest reaction is that we now live in a world in which the most recent Star Wars film isn’t the subject of constant bitching and lamentations and fan-edits about what could have been, and Disney and Abrams deserve firm credit for making this happen.

Check out our podcast discussion here:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #81 – “Sisters” (dir. Jason Moore), “Star Wars VII” (dir. J.J. Abrams)

#10: Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation

Still from
Written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie, story by McQuarrie and Drew Pearce

Brad Bird‘s 2011 film, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, won a three-way tie for my #11 spot in 2011, as “The Big, Dumb, Occasionally Smart Action Movie”. Christopher McQuarrie takes this trend up a notch by delivering a film that was far and away the best spy film of the year, changing up the Mission: Impossible formula in a novel fashion, and severely outperforming this year’s Bond film (which felt like an apologetic retread of Quantum of Solace) for spy action and glorious spectacle. When Benji (Simon Pegg) takes a weekend trip to Vienna, then receives a dead-drop from his fugitive spy-buddy Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise), which promptly sends him to the opera to avert an attempt on the life of the Austrian Chancellor… Even before an awesomely staged series of fights and a sniper duel break out, there comes a moment as we’re waiting in the wings at the opera and hear these men arguing over comms about their arcane plans that I just thought, “This is what a spy movie is supposed to be.” People out in the world, sneaking around, averting disaster. And while the format has had to evolve after the end of the Cold War and the dawn of 21st-century cyberwarfare (sometimes quite disastrously), it’s exhilarating to see that many of the old cinematic tricks still work so well. No matter how geopolitically or technologically complex a world we live in, we’ll always need brave men and women to go places and get shit done, and this film is a glorious showcase of how much fun and potential these stories still possess.

Plus, Tom Cruise strapped himself to a damn plane.

#9: Circle

Poster for
Written and directed by Aaron Hann and Mario Miscione

From my review:

Many high-concept horror films have striven for the strong, minimalistic dissection of the value of a human life that is on display in Circle. And yet all of them, whether Saws or Purges, have gotten lost in the weeds either going for audience-pleasing gore or on-the-nose class warfare. Circle…is the apotheosis of the concept – placing 50 participants in a room and murdering one of them every two minutes with a simple bolt of CGI lightning. The body is immediately shuffled from the room by an unseen force, and the remaining participants are momentarily insulated from the horrific truth and consequences of their predicament. With simple (and completely secretive) motions of their hands and fingers, they are choosing the next person who will die.

What makes Circle so clever is its subtle and incisive satire of the political process. At its highest levels, politics delineates who should hold absolute power over life and death. Even in the real world, a vote for a chief executive is a vote for someone who will kill others on your behalf. Circle renders this concept with a staggering level of immediacy, and through a filter of lightning-paced direct democracy.

Who should live? Me.
Who should die? Somebody else.

See the full review here:
“Circle” (#SIFF2015 review) – The allegory of the grave

#8: Beasts of No Nation

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Written for the screen and directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, based on the novel by Uzodinma Iweala

This is a difficult film to watch, owing to its subject matter about the trials and tribulations of a boy named Agu (Abraham Attah) who is abducted and turned into a child soldier in an unnamed West African nation. But more than this, this story struck me as one that I’ve seen before, but never in this much detail, and never as anything more than the B-plot that adds a bit of depth to a white Westerner’s story line in a mainstream Hollywood film. Whether in Blood Diamond or Lord of War, Agu is the sort of tragic character who’s usually little more than a background player – perhaps one that will be graphically killed in order to add weight to whatever the white person is going through. This film wants to tell that story, in its entirety, without any distractions or pretense of self-importance. At one point, we see a handful of white UN peacekeepers visible for a moment in the background, as if to emphasize the degree to which this is not their story.

The Commandant (Idris Elba) is a terrifying villain, both for his insistent self-righteousness and his effectiveness at recruiting, grooming, and maintaining child soldiers. His training is equal parts military discipline and psychological torture, with drugs and sexual abuse added in for good measure. No component of this framework feels excessive or unrealistic, so much as a procedural for creating the sort of hollowed-out child that should never have to exist in the modern world. But Agu is far more than a martyr construct as the film goes on. And the Ghanian newcomer Attah brings an array of personality and complexity to the character that is remarkable for such a young and first-time actor. The film deftly conveys Agu’s constant struggle not to lose his humanity, even as he is compelled to perform monstrous acts.

This is an important film that is worth watching just once if you can stomach it. I’m glad to see that resources were devoted to telling this particular story as a part of Netflix’s expanding library of original films, even as Adam Sandler‘s The Ridiculous 6 dropped in the same year.

#7: Sleeping With Other People

Still from
Written and directed by Leslye Headland

Between this film and 2012’s Bachelorette, writer/director Leslye Headland is really starting to remind me of 1990s Kevin Smith in the best way. This romantic sex comedy, which Headland herself pitched as “When Harry Met Sally for assholes,” actually reminds me more of Chasing Amy. It is a film which combines unrelenting crassness of dialogue with human characters and a profound sense of heart throughout the proceedings. Sleeping With Other People begins with a pair of students, Jake (Jason Sudeikis) and Lainey (Alison Brie) bonding over a night of collective heartbreak and loneliness in a college dorm room and ultimately losing their virginity to one another. Smash cut to 12 years later, and a series of romantic failures (thanks to womanizing and serial cheating respectively) lead the pair back into each other’s lives, causing them to strike up an intense – but deliberately unromantic – friendship. What makes this work so well (apart from the film’s reliably amusing repartée) is that Sudeikis and Brie have otherworldly great chemistry as we watch them explore their fractured love lives against the backdrop of New York City.

I rewatched both this and Trainwreck in the final week of the year, and ultimately settled on this as the superior film (although they are both quite good). The reason for this is that Sleeping With Other People feels most like it takes place in the real world. This is as opposed to Trainwreck, which has at least one foot firmly situated in Comedy World, where people occasionally stop acting like humans and start acting like comedy characters (Sisters has both feet firmly in Comedy World). Sleeping ventures out of the real world only a handful of times (when the pair take ecstasy and attend a child’s birthday party, for instance), and instead, relies on character and relationship for the majority of its laughs. This permits perennial zany side-players Jason Mantzoukas, Andrea Savage, and to a lesser extent Natasha Lyonne to shine as actual members of the ensemble, rather than just being the reliably funny friends who show up to riff on-camera for a minute at a time when the movie feels like it’s dragging (although Billy Eichner briefly shows up as one of those). I haven’t even reached the end of the list of strong characters here – Amanda Peet is particularly enjoyable as Paula, Jake’s boss (and potential love interest) at his digital media company.

And finally, there is Adam Scott as Lainey’s on-again, off-again hookup, Matthew. This character has maybe a dozen lines of dialogue in the entire film, and yet he hangs over it as one of the most effective romantic villains ever put to screen. Matthew treats Lainey quite monstrously, and she maintains a long-standing romantic obsession with him. What makes him such a thoroughly well-drawn and loathsome rival is both his casual cruelty and his genuine inability to see himself as a bad guy. This character is best summed up with a moment late in the film when Lainey drops an obscure literary reference, and Matthew ignores it, before acknowledging that “Just because I don’t applaud your intellect doesn’t mean I don’t notice it.” This is such a specifically disturbing thing to say to someone, it struck me as perhaps a line gleaned from real life – and that may be what makes Matthew so unnerving. If there’s any part of this film that was almost certainly culled from the real world, it’s this asshole.

#6: Mad Max: Fury Road

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Directed by George Miller, written by Miller, Brendan McCarthy, and Nico Lathouris

Like my #4 pick below (along with another barely-speaking Tom Hardy), the appeal of this unrelenting action-adventure is largely in the big-screen viewing. The subtly CGI-enhanced desert vistas, the preposterously spike-armored death-cars, the stunts, the explosive-tipped spears, the blood-bags, the harnessed, flamethrowing electric guitar player – this feature-length car-chase film is relentless in blasting forth its detailed post-apocalyptic world, and quickly proves itself as one of the finest action films of the year. And that’s before writer/director George Miller proves, via Charlize Theron’s stellar performance as the fierce, capable, and humanly vulnerable Imperator Furiosa, that men of a certain age are quite capable of bringing bad-ass, well-drawn female characters to the big screen if they simply choose to do so. Furiosa is essentially the film’s lead, leading a rebellion against warlord Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), and driving nearly all of its action and only relying tangentially on the titular Max at any point. The credits of this film read like the band roster at a GWAR show, featuring such absurdly theatrical names as Rictus Erectus, Toast the Knowing, The People Eater, The Bullet Farmer, The Splended Angharad, and one woman known simply as “Capable”. Apart from featuring some of the most splendid practical vehicle action outside of the Fast and Furious saga, this film just has an outstanding sense of fun and imagination. Who broke the world? We don’t find out here. But the one they rebuilt is breathtaking.

#5: 3 1/2 Minutes, Ten Bullets

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Written and directed by Marc Silver

This HBO documentary about the shooting death of Jordan Davis, a young, unarmed African-American teenager, is a timely film- and what’s more, it seems wholly aware of this. The film’s trailer uses “Black Lives Matter” quite brazenly as a marketing slogan, and the film is about as politically one-sided as the works of Michael Moore. But what makes this film work so well is twofold. First, Davis was shot by a private citizen, rather than a police officer, which means this story avoids many of the needlessly polarizing political questions about whether or not the public “supports the police” when they object to a specific police-involved shooting. And second, unlike other recent cases involving Florida menstanding their ground“, this one had witnesses. The facts of the case: 45-year-old Michael Dunn and his fiancée pulled up at the Gate Gas Station where 17-year-old Davis and his teenage friends were listening to loud music in a car nearby. Dunn, who was on the way home from his son’s wedding, remained in the car while his fiancée went inside to buy a bottle of wine. At a certain point, an argument ensued between them over the volume of Davis’ music, and Dunn started firing into their car, killing Davis.

And as the film meticulously spells out: The relevant legal question is not whether this is an uncomplicated case of a grown man murdering a child for petty and circumstantial reasons. Not in Florida. No, the question is: Did Michael Dunn think that Davis or his friends had a gun? Because if the answer is yes, he has no duty to retreat under Florida law, and he is permitted to fire in preemptive self-defense. Whether or not there turns out to actually be a gun, Dunn still has a positive legal defense that is effectively irrefutable. And this is what the film does so well. In addition to telling a stunning true crime story (whose outcome I was genuinely on the edge of my seat for, since I couldn’t quite recall how it had ended), the film effectively lays bare the legal absurdity of the Florida statute, which amounts to a license to kill for any gun-toting Floridian who can convincingly make a pretense afterward that they were in fear for their life. And this is true even in cases where the gun-toting person was the clear instigator of an argument over nothing – teenagers playing loud music. With a flick of the legal wrist, the victim is suddenly on trial along with their alleged killer. In this way, the film is equal parts legal procedural and emotional gut-punch. We get to know Davis’ friends, as well as his mother and father, witness their pain as they await legal closure, and hear in stark contrast the terms in which the media describes their beloved lost son and friend. “Thug” is the most popular term, acting as both noun and thinly veiled racist adjective to describe the type of music the boys had been listening to. Prior to this, they had been hanging out at the mall, snacking, talking to girls- all things that teenage boys are wont to do. This is a captivating legal thriller, but it also succeeds in humanizing one of so many innocent boys that have had their humanity stripped away post-mortem by the national media. This film will make you pity the back-talking child who had the misfortune to run into a self-appointed vigilante in America’s longest-tolerated failed state, when the latter took it upon himself to lethally punish a group of boys being boys.

Remember how I described the film as politically one-sided? I fear I’m venturing down a similar path letting my outrage at this case color my review, but it must also be said that the film does not skimp on presenting Michael Dunn as a fascinating (and chilling) criminal persona. We see everything from police interrogations, to witness stand footage, to audio from jailhouse phone calls with his fiancée. While these items are presented in such a way that makes it quite possible they were cherrypicked to make Dunn look as unsympathetic as possible, the film does not shy away from depicting the Rashomon effect that is evidently at work in Dunn’s recollection and perspective on the shooting. As his legal proceedings go on, he speaks of the incident in increasingly self-righteous terms. With each retelling, details are added to bolster his fear for his life. By the time his legal proceedings are over, he has repeated the refrain that he saw “a gun barrel” so many times that he almost certainly must believe it himself. Cory Strolla, Dunn’s attorney, is also a captivating figure, wriggling his client gingerly into the barest crevices of “reasonable doubt”. I’ll defer to my co-host’s colorful description of Strolla: “He was working the law like a two-bit whore”. This does not imply any legal malfeasance on Strolla’s part (nor does the film make such an argument). But if nothing else, Strolla’s deft campaigning for his client’s rights is the quintessential illustration of the flawed state of the Florida statute today.

“Michael Dunn had every right not to be a victim,” said Strolla.
Davis, not so much.

Check out our podcast discussion here:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #73 – “The Chinese Mayor”, “3 1/2 Minutes, Ten Bullets” (#SIFF2015 review)

#4: The Revenant

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Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, written by Iñárritu and Mark L. Smith

The best way to describe this raw, rip-roaring, frontier adventure and revenge tale is to identify its various prior pretenders. Joe Carnahan‘s The Grey strove to tell a story of wild, burly men on the ragged edges of civilization in a dire, wintry survival situation (and utterly failed). Quentin Tarantino‘s The Hateful Eight presented its own set of wintry frontier landscapes, swearing by its “Glorious 70mm” film presentation as the superior format (before spending 95% of its runtime in a dark, static, indoor location). The Revenant is one of the most gorgeous films I’ve ever seen, with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki continuing his run as one of the premier artists in the new frontier of digital cinema (following my two previous #1 films of the year, Gravity, and Iñárritu’s own Birdman). The film was apparently shot entirely with natural light, and each beautifully painted frame provides a stunning backdrop while the film renders frontier warfare and animalistic survival in raw and unflinching terms. Domhnall Gleeson makes his second of three appearances on this list as Captain Andrew Henry, who deftly leads this pack of fur-traders as they decide whether or not to leave Leonardo DiCaprio‘s Hugh Glass for dead after he is severely mauled by a bear. In the end, Glass is left behind with his son (Forrest Goodluck), legendary mountain man (now, mere mountain boy) Jim Bridger (Will Poulter), and two-bit, penny-pinching criminal John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy). What ensues is a staggering and epic journey through the pain and muck and blood of the frontier, through thick snow, dense woods, mountain peaks, and raging rivers. And there’s little more I can say about it without using every one of those thousand words to describe such a beautiful picture. See this in a theater while you can.

#3: Ex Machina

Poster for
Written and directed by Alex Garland

Alex Garland continues to be one of the most impressive voices in cinematic sci-fi with this meta-Turing test of android/fembot Ava (Alicia Vikander) by her tech-bro billionaire inventor Nathan (Oscar Isaac) and his employee programmer Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson). The setup is quite simple, taking place almost entirely at Nathan’s underground high-tech residence/research facility where the two men will drink and hang out for the weekend, ostensibly due to Caleb winning an employee contest at his Google-analogue employer, Bluebook. After a quick and thorough non-disclosure agreement, Nathan reveals to Caleb the true reason for his invitation. He has invented an artificially intelligent android named Ava, and he wants Caleb to present his opinion as to whether or not she is truly intelligent, conscious, self-aware, etc. – or merely giving an effective impression of it. Oscar Isaac continues to excel playing characters that simultaneously own the room and creep the hell out of me, playing Nathan somewhere between your new billionaire best-bro Hank Scorpio, and Isaac’s own sadistic emo pimp from Sucker Punch. There is much to be said about how the design of Ava reflects the institutional sexism in tech culture, because it seems to be no significant leap in plausibility that this newly self-aware A.I., rather than simply being a voice on a speaker (like Her, for instance), possesses a human face, curves, and, according to Nathan, something resembling a fully functional vagina. These human touches must have taken nearly as much time and research to develop as Ava’s A.I., but hell – what’s the point of creating consciousness if it’s not in a form you can fuck?

I don’t mean to belabor this point, but Ava’s affected femininity is central to the question of whether or not she is truly conscious, since Caleb’s level of attraction to her has clear and deliberate potential to muddy his judgment on the issue. And to the film’s credit, Caleb himself realizes this, asking whether Ava’s body is the equivalent of a magician’s sexy assistant – misdirection to prevent him from seeing the real trickery involved. The answer to this question, as well as whether or not Ava is truly intelligent, is something that will inspire great debate among anyone who watches the film. Garland’s script could come down on one side or the other, but it seems content to simply present a series of events and allow the viewer to interpret their meaning, placing us in the same boat as Caleb himself. Gleeson has carved out a wonderful niche for himself playing sci-fi characters with a streak of darkness, maturely and unflinchingly rendering each one of them from the towering Naziesque General Hux from the new Star Wars, to Ash on Black Mirror (the latter being a curiously appropriate pairing with this film). As for Vikander, this relative newcomer’s performance as Ava is nothing short of outstanding. This complex and multi-layered performance is essential to the film’s appeal, since the viewer will be left interpreting the meaning behind Ava’s every word and action, and Vikander successfully imbues those words and deeds with a dense array of potential meanings.

#2: Spotlight

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Directed by Tom McCarthy, screenplay by McCarthy and Josh Singer

Spotlight, which chronicles the Boston Globe’s 2001-2002 investigation of sexual abuse of children in the Catholic Church, is a stunning look at the hard problem of institutional guilt. In my double-header review of the film below, I contrast the various ways in which this film and Peter Landesman’s Concussion explore the guilt of their respective institutions, and while I found these different approaches fascinating, Spotlight clearly treaded the more difficult path with greater success.

From the review:

Meanwhile, Spotlight meticulously catalogs the varied and sprawling investigative threads of its Boston Globe reporters – Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton), Sacha Pfieffer (Rachel McAdams) – we see clergy, attorneys, reporters, therapists, parents, teachers, administrators, and parishioners, all of whom had some level of knowledge about the situation, and all of whom were complicit on at least a minimal level in allowing it to continue. As lawyer Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci) says halfway through the film, “If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one.” This is a damning quote because the film so convincingly makes the case that the abuse was widespread, widely known, and only came to light when people (including victims) were willing to come together and put a stop to it.

[T]he Globe reporters…are clearly affected by every moment of Spotlight‘s investigation. All of them are lapsed Catholics, most of them are native Bostonians, and they have no desire to eviscerate the institutions that have comprised the fabric and background of their entire lives, and will continue to surround them after the story breaks. They’re certain of the rightness of what they’re doing, and they’re also frightened, angry, and unsure what the right approach to the story really is. Is it just a few bad apples, or is it the entire institution that’s corrupt? Which is worse – perpetrating these monstrous acts, or conspiring to cover them up, enabling further victimization? And at what point do you have a level of certainty that allows you to tell this story publicly? And when Rezendes finally loses his temper and demands that the Globe print the story immediately, Ruffalo has thoroughly sold his personal stakes in the matter, and the reactions of the rest of the Spotlight team clearly indicate that he’s just screaming aloud what all of them are struggling with internally. This struggle, with how to tell the right story at the right time, is the essence of good journalism, and Spotlight depicts it as well as it has ever been put to film.

Check out the full double-header review here:
“Spotlight” vs. “Concussion” – The Hard Problem of Institutional Guilt

#1: It Follows

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Written and directed by David Robert Mitchell

I normally deliberate a bit about my #1 choice of the year, but this has been my unwavering pick ever since I saw it twice back in April. This horror film is, simply put, a complete original and a modern classic. Its premise, featuring an invisible demon curse that is transmitted through intimate relations, is an insidiously clever hook for several reasons. First off, simply finding someone to have sex with in order to pass on the curse is not enough. That person will be killed without ever knowing why, and then the demon will be right back after you. And after you, the person who gave it to you. All the way back to the beginning, whenever that was. The ingenuity of this setup is obvious – most cinematic monsters, if you take them down, you know you’re safe, at least until the higher-budget sequel comes along. This monster – even if you defeat it, or pass it along to someone that you give adequate knowledge to fight, hide, and pass it along further – will never truly leave your heart or mind. Because for the rest of your life, you’ll never, ever know if you’re truly and finally safe from it. Call it a metaphor for heartbreak, herpes, infidelity, abuse, or any number of other relationship poisons that tend to be paid forward, but what I call it is a terrifying curse and concept. Its various powers – slow, unrelenting movement toward the camera in the form of an alternately normal (or creepy) looking human loved-one of yours is put to especially good use in the film’s various wide-angled vistas, with a single figure in the deep background often narrowly visible venturing toward the camera. And what’s more, the demon is invisible to everyone else besides the person it is following around, leading to many beautifully-staged showdowns in which none but the victim are able to completely understand what’s happening.

The film’s visuals and production design are stunning, from the elaborate interior color palettes to the film’s forcible lack of a definable era and constant sense of anachronism. The film takes place in a velveteen pastiche of the 1970s, peppered with 50s cinema and unrecognizable 21st century tech (a clam-shell compact that’s also an e-reader?). Every design element of this film feels deliberate and clever. Maika Monroe carries the film as both a sympathetic and capable heroine and victim, and also the rare cinematic horror character who acts like a human being. And Disasterpeace’s marvelously saturating electronic score is rhythmic, evoking the likes of Cliff Martinez in Drive, but also slow, echoic, and bizarrely old-timey, seemingly belonging in a 70s sci-fi film. It Follows proceeds in the manner of an unyielding dream, seizing the imagination and refusing to let go.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Racing Extinction (directed by Louie Psihoyos)
  • Trainwreck (directed by Judd Apatow)
  • Room (directed by Lenny Abrahamson)
  • The Martian (directed by Ridley Scott)
  • The Little Death (directed by Josh Lawson)
  • The Primary Instinct (directed by David Chen)
  • Steve Jobs (directed by Danny Boyle)
  • Inside Out (directed by Pete Docter and Ronnie Del Carmen)
  • Jurassic World (directed by Colin Trevorrow)

Biggest Disappointments:

High expectations, low and/or psychologically complicated results.

  • Crimson Peak (directed by Guillermo del Toro, written by del Toro and Matthew Robbins)
    Crimson Peak is as beautiful a period-piece horror film as I’ve come to expect from Guillermo del Toro. And it’s also rather boring and telegraphed, with a mystery whose resolution is obvious in the first 45 minutes of a two-hour film. As we put it on Facebook, “The glorious crumbling facade of CRIMSON PEAK is proof positive that an elaborate story is no guarantee of a good one, and a dull mystery is no more compelling when revealed in three parts through a gramophone cylinder.”
  • Avengers: Age of Ultron (written/directed by Joss Whedon)
    I know what you’re thinking. Glenn, you produced two reviews (one written, one audible), in which you rated this film 8 out of 10. How can it be in your Biggest Disappointments, much less not in the Top 10 above? Let me explain. This is not a bad film, and I do stand by my review as an accurate reflection of what I felt right after watching it. But as I’ve had more time to digest this film, and had myriad other globe-trotting adventure films (and well-drawn female characters) to compare it to, I find that it has aged poorly in my memory. And while the 2012 Avengers film still holds up to repeated viewings, I don’t feel much desire to revisit this film, and as I think back upon it, it all feels a bit slight and inconsequential, like the real story is still yet to come. Avengers: Week And A Half, Tops, of Ultron had a lot to live up to, and it’s possible that its own hype-train derailed in my mind about three weeks after I saw the film. Will I still hand Marvel my money for whatever the Avengers are up to next? Certainly. But I suspect I’ll need a bit more convincing that any of it matters next time.
  • The Martian (directed by Ridley Scott, written by Drew Goddard)
    This is why I can’t have nice things. The Martian is not a bad movie (it even appears in my Honorable Mentions above), but I’m going to call this one a firm case of “Would’ve liked it better if I hadn’t read the book first”. Matt Damon was never my dream casting for Mars-stranded astronaut Mark Watney (Sam Rockwell seems the obvious choice), but after all the money America has spent bringing Matt Damon home in fiction, I figured he would be acceptable. The thing is, everything else about the film somehow inspired me to nitpick it to death. Some details omitted from page-to-screen left me in an understanding mood. The complicated, days-long scientific process by which Watney figures out that he’s in the middle of a slow-moving, hundred-mile-wide Martian dust storm, for instance, would never have worked on screen. But other changes from the book just struck me as bizarre and unnecessary. Example: At one point, Watney patches a hole in the side of his habitat with what appears to be clear plastic and duct tape. And it looked dumb and implausible, and immediately took me out of the film. In the book, this feat was done with spare canvas and epoxy, which could’ve been communicated quite simply with a slightly-modified visual in the film. Many of the film’s performances also felt minimalistic and lazy (looking at Jeff Daniels and Kristen Wiig), and as capable an actor as Chiwetel Ejiofor may be, I did not need Dr. Venkat Kapoor’s name simplified for my fragile American ears into “Vincent Kapoor”. For a film that seeks to inspire its audience to care about the grand exploration of human knowledge, this was a surprisingly condescending choice. This film was gorgeous, made perhaps the best use of David Bowie‘s “Starman” ever, and I would probably watch it again. But I might just re-read the book instead.

Pleasant Surprises:

Low expectations, high results.

  • Ant-Man (directed by Peyton Reed)
    A perfectly serviceable beat-for-beat remake of Iron Man with absolutely no surprises except that it turned out to be the Marvel film I ended up liking better than Avengers: Age of Ultron this year. This film felt like a second-rate MCU property in every possible way (even bringing in one of the most recently added Avengers for an utterly perfunctory guest appearance), but Paul Rudd and the supporting cast conspired to make this film a fun, goofy superhero romp that I find myself shocked that I’m eager for more.
  • Jurassic World (directed by Colin Trevorrow)
    Check out our podcast for our full (and fairly complicated) thoughts on this film, but I’ll first defer to the reaction we had on the night:
    Dinosaur captioned with
  • Furious 7 (directed by James Wan)
    Furious 7 was a solid introduction of a new director to the franchise, with Wan doing his very best mash-up of Justin Lin and Michael Bay to solid action effect. But the real stunner is that this film did such a good job glossing over the untimely death of lead actor Paul Walker, it almost felt like an indictment of the role of an actor in a modern action franchise. It’s not to say his absence in the film wasn’t noticeable, but there were a number of action scenes that – had they featured a living actor – I would’ve simply assumed were shot by an middling cinematographer. Middling, but not bad. They’re comprehensible – they just don’t show his face as much as they should.
    But you can do a lot these days with stunt doubles, dim lighting, CGI face replacement, and quick camera movements (just ask Natalie Portman in Black Swan), and as far as the action scenes were concerned, it felt like Walker was present for the entire film. The acting and character work – which has always reliably lent weight to the otherwise ridiculous action in this franchise – only suffered a bit. Watching Jordana Brewster share a tender familial dialogue scene with the back of an obviously-different actor’s head actually made me a bit sad watching it. The action was ridiculous and fun as usual, even if it felt a lot more episodic with the thinly-justified globetrotting this time around. And James Wan‘s directorial style, while noticeably different from Justin Lin, was mostly adequate, at least when it wasn’t doing its best superfluous-ass-shaking impression of Michael Bay. All in all, I’d say this film falls firmly in the category of “As good as could be reasonably expected.”

Daniel’s Top 10 Most Hated Films of 2015

FilmWonk Podcast co-host Daniel also saw a lot of films this year, and decided that he’d prefer to make a “Bottom 10” list for the year. Here are Daniel’s Most Hated films of 2015.

  1. True Story
  2. Inherent Vice
  3. Avengers: Age of Ultron
  4. Blackhat
  5. The Transporter Refueled
  6. The Visit
  7. When Animals Dream
  8. Fifty Shades of Grey
  9. Self/less
  10. The Hateful Eight

2014 Glennies: Best Picture (Top 10 Films of 2014)

#11: The Wind Rises

Poster for "The Wind Rises"

Directed by Hiyao Miyazaki, written by Miyazaki based on his comic book, English adaptation by Mike Jones

As always, #11 goes to a film that must be seen, but that I’m reluctant to include in my Top 10. The Wind Rises is a powerful and provocative film, since it comes from a Japanese man arguing that the 20th century progress in aviation was worth the wars that were largely responsible for it. Which is an overtly horrifying position, even if the evidence of war-induced technological progress is undeniable. But the film broaches this theme with depth and beauty that I wouldn’t have thought possible, and interlaces it with a touching and tragic romance. If the film has a technological thesis, it is that invention is morally neutral at worst, and glorious at best, regardless of its eventual purpose – and given that this is allegedly Miyazaki’s last film, it feels like a classical apology of his own career.

Check out my full review here:
Hiyao Miyazaki’s “The Wind Rises” – Dream, invention, and responsibility

#10: Fish & Cat

Poster for "Fish & Cat"

Written and directed by Shahram Mohri

This Iranian film is one of two on this list that are apparently shot in a single continuous shot, but this is the more tantalizingly ambiguous of the two. Fish & Cat is a drama that takes place at a lakeside kite festival outside of Tehran. Several dozen college students camp along the lake or in the nearby woods, and are intermittently visited by the creepy dudes who run a nearby restaurant, which may or may not serve human meat. This film is fascinating on several levels. First, it takes a totally free hand at manipulating its own timeline, showing the same scene multiple times, each time following a different character while the remainder of the scene plays out in the background. This allows much of the film’s subtext to reveal itself very gradually as we’re getting to know the ensemble, even as we’re not sure of the precise nature of the threat they face. Second, because this film was shot and takes place in the Islamic Republic of Iran, this American had no way of knowing what sort of content would be permitted in the film. Which makes the film’s insistence on its place in the horror genre that much more interesting. The US had the Hays code, and Iran has its own regime of censorship, and I don’t know if it specifically prohibits this sort of content or not. But the fact remains, this is a horror film that doesn’t show any actual violence, and in the absence of such content, it uses many clever workarounds to evoke a persistent sense of dread that lurks just off camera.

Check out our podcast discussion here:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #49 – “Age of Uprising”, “Fish & Cat”, ” Remote Control” (#SIFF2014).

#9: The One I Love

Poster for "The One I Love"
Directed by Charlie McDowell, written by Justin Lader

There’s generally at least one film on this list whose exact premise I can’t discuss in detail, and this is one of them. Suffice to say, Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss star in an engrossing exploration of the nature of marriage and romance through a clever sci-fi/fantasy filter that remains riveting throughout the film. One of the best things about The One I Love is that these two characters have the conversation that no two characters ever have in a genre film once the Big Weird Thing starts happening. One says to the other, “Hey, a Big Weird Thing just happened to me. I think a Big Weird Thing might be happening to you too. Let’s discuss the Big Weird Thing.” Once the [married] pair teams up to figure out what’s going on (which is quite early in the film), it really gets interesting, as they each gain their own fresh understanding of their relationship through their respective explorations. If this ambiguous description isn’t selling you on the film, I’d urge you to check out the trailer, which doesn’t give away its premise.

#8: Top Five

Poster for "Top Five"
Written and directed by Chris Rock

I really hoped Top Five would be in my top 5, but alas, it didn’t work out. But Chris Rock‘s quite successful revival of the romantic comedy genre does have one odd bit of synchronicity – it has a staggering number of plot similarities with another film on this list, Birdman. It’s almost certainly coincidental, but both of these films deal with stars playing fictionalized versions of themselves, who previously starred in a trio of costumed hero movies, and who now wish to be taken seriously by way of an ill-advised dramatic vanity project. In New York City. Oh, and both films feature a complex relationship with a NY Times critic. But this is where their (vast!) similarities end – in Top Five, Andre Allen (Chris Rock)’s project is little more than a backdrop for a stirring romance with film-writer Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson). Not only is the dialogue in this film beautifully naturalistic and authentic, but it’s also one of the most reliably funny comedies of the year. As director and star, Rock shows a deft hand managing the tone of this movie, jumping seemlessly between brief moments of gross-out comedy and genuine sentimentality without ever dwelling too long on either one. At its best, Top Five is clearly influenced by Louie CK‘s Louie, even finding its way to the Comedy Cellar for an impromptu set late in the film.

#7: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Poster for "The Grand Budapest Hotel"

Written and directed by Wes Anderson

Wes Anderson is on a roll. Moonrise Kingdom was a delightful coming-of-age tale, but this film has reached full maturity. It utilizes every cinematic trick Anderson has picked up, including some impressive use of models and stop-motion animation for the film’s high-stakes mountainside action around the titular hotel. Veteran Ralph Fiennes and newcomer Tony Revolori carry the film marvelously through comedy, drama, and some surprisingly dark and violent material (“This is the first death squad I’ve personally encountered!”). The film’s fictitious pre-fascist European country is a compelling backdrop, even if it feels at times like little more than a Tarantinoesque historical playground, or perhaps a setting that merely serves salacious and nostalgic interest above all else (e.g. Southern Gothic). But for all its tricks, The Grand Budapest Hotel never once feels slight or trifling. It is a deeply affecting comedic film about an era that was bygone even when the film takes place (hence the nested flashbacks). And it is thoroughly entertaining.

Check out our podcast discussion here:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #43 – “The Grand Budapest Hotel” (dir. Wes Anderson)”

#6: Edge of Tomorrow

Still from "Edge of Tomorrow"
Directed by Doug Liman, written by Christopher McQuarrie, Jez Butterworth, and John-Henry Butterworth, based on the novel by Hiroshi Sakurazaka

I’ll lead off with the line I said to everyone else about this film – Edge of Tomorrow* is an instant-classic action film on par with Paul Verhoeven‘s cult classic, Starship Troopers. The aliens are top-notch and terrifying, and the film’s use of practical effects to reinforce its battle scenes made mechanized combat look cooler than Elysium or Oblivion ever could. Everything about this film works, whether the clever sci-fi rehash of Groundhog Day, the gradual arc of Tom Cruise going from executive PR flack to seasoned and capable soldier (in his 50s no less – bravo!), or the instantly capable action-presence of Emily Blunt, who spends nearly the entire film as a ruthless alien-killing badass with a Final Fantasy-tinged buster sword. Seriously, if you’re not watching this movie right now, get on it. Also – this film’s end credits introduced me to the powerhouse vocal stylings of British singer-songwriter John Newman, which was just the icing on the cake.

*Now stylized as Live, Die Repeat: Edge of Tomorrow

Check out our podcast discussion here:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #50 – “22 Jump Street”, “Edge of Tomorrow”

#5: I Origins

Poster for "I Origins"

Written and directed by Mike Cahill

Mike Cahill‘s latest sci-fi collaboration with actress Brit Marling was controversial on the FilmWonk Podcast, with Daniel dismissing the film as the same sort of superficial treatment of science vs. religion that I specifically thought this film transcended. Love it or hate it, you will walk out of this film with a strong opinion.

From my review:

That’s the scientific process in a nutshell – we find a piece of evidence that contradicts prior theories, so we test on and develop new ones. I Origins sets itself apart from other half-hearted Hollywood dalliances in science and religion by presenting scientists who really act like scientists. In the face of an anomaly that challenges their prior understanding, their reaction is…let’s do more science. This is a superlative point made in a subtle enough manner that I’m genuinely concerned about the audience taking the wrong idea away from the film.

A warning, if this premise intrigues you: Do not watch the trailer for this film – it spoils virtually every plot detail in advance. If you’re interested in further plot details, check out my [spoiler-free] review below.

Review:
Mike Cahill’s “I Origins” – A faithful rendition of the scientific method
As well as our podcast discussion:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #54 – “Lucy”, “I Origins”

#4: The Case Against 8

Poster for "The Case Against 8"

Directed by Ben Cotner and Ryan White

The Case Against 8 is a stunningly executed legal and political procedural, and this is just the beginning of its appeal. It features behind-the-scenes footage from the case preparation of the legal team that fought to overturn California’s Prop-8 ban on same-sex marriage – footage that reveals so much detail about their trial strategy that it had to remain locked in a safe deposit box until the case was disposed in the Supreme Court in 2013. You already know the outcome of this case (and indeed, the possible outcome of this issue in 2015!), but what’s so fascinating here is all the personal details that went into making this case happen. The two couples who became plaintiffs in the lawsuit against California were carefully vetted, treated essentially like political candidates. The two attorneys behind the case, David Boies and Ted Olsen, were previously on opposite sides in Bush v. Gore (2000) – one a liberal, the other a conservative, united in friendship and determination to cast same-sex marriage as a non-partisan Constitutional issue. The result is both a thoroughly engrossing and emotional drama – both familial and political – and an utterly fascinating treatise on how things really get done in American politics.

Check out my review here:
SIFF Roundup: “The Case Against 8”, “Desert Cathedral”, “In Order of Disappearance”

#3: Gone Girl

Poster for "Gone Girl"

Directed by David Fincher, written for the screen by Gillian Flynn, based on her novel

I can think of no greater advertisement for Gone Girl than to link to author and screenwriter Gillian Flynn‘s passage on “cool girls“, which appears in a slight variation in the film. Give that passage a read, and you’ll start to have an idea of just what’s going on with the missing character of Amazing Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike), even if the bulk of the film’s focus is on her husband Nick (Ben Affleck), a tabloid archetype who is doomed to be blamed for his wife’s disappearance and possible murder regardless of what he does next (even if he does plenty to sabotage himself). Affleck so thoroughly embodies this role that I can scarcely imagine anyone else filling it. Carrie Coon, Kim Dickens, and a hilarious, high-powered attorney in the form of Tyler Perry give one strong contribution after another to the film’s cast – and Neil Patrick Harris feels like the inevitable extreme of Barney Stinson. This is a gripping film – and if you’ve somehow managed to avoid the big spoiler, one that will certainly keep you guessing.

Check out our podcast discussion here:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #57 – “Gone Girl” (dir. David Fincher)

#2: Foxcatcher

Poster for "Foxcatcher"

Directed by Bennett Miller, screenplay by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman

There is no levity in this film, and that’s probably the only reason why it ended up as my #2 – like 12 Years a Slave, it’s certainly the finest film I saw in its year, and I would likely never watch it again. The film depicts Olympian wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) being taken under the wing of billionaire heir John E. Du Pont (Steve Carell), who wishes to set up a world-class wrestling facility on Foxcatcher (his rural Pennsylvania farm). The film is based on a true story – and a story whose outcome, involving Mark’s brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo) – also an Olympic wrestler – I knew in advance. This didn’t really color my enjoyment of the film, as the complex, slow-burn, paranoid relationship that develops between Mark and John is the primary focus of the film. Mark willingly becomes a kept man, and John clearly has strong expectations for him. Tatum and Carell each offer a fascinating and transformative performance, with Tatum looking slumped, dejected, and walking like a caveman with a persistent scowl for the entire film. Tatum has described this film as his greatest acting challenge, and while his characterization took some getting used to, it is certainly a success. Steve Carell, on the other hand, gives nothing short of the performance of a lifetime. His face is disfigured not only with prosthetics, but also with a persistently awkward and menacing demeanor. This is a wondrous and terrifying performance, on par with Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs. This is a strange man who doesn’t enjoy life (despite his vast opportunities to do so), and whose expectations and promise willfully engulf as many lives as he is willing to take under his control. The film also features a brief and chilling turn by Vanessa Redgrave, whom I was pleased to see on-screen once again, even if she’s apparently been keeping busy out of my sight.

Check out the film’s trailer, which gives an excellent idea of the film’s appeal and ambiance without giving away too much.

Check out our podcast discussion here:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #62 – “Unbroken” (dir. Angelina Jolie), “Foxcatcher” (dir. Bennett Miller)

#1: Birdman

Poster for "Birdman"

Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, written by Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, and Armando Bo

Here it is – the film that I saw multiple times in theaters without hesitation, whose wonderful Mark Woolen trailer I watched over and over again, and which I haven’t stopped thinking about since. By the usual standards of Iñárritu, Birdman is a downright chipper film, featuring the backstage relationship between Broadway actors (Edward Norton, Andrea Riseborough, and Naomi Watts), as well as the “Hollywood clown in a Lycra bird-suit” who wishes to take his place in their midst, Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton). The film is shot in a self-identified “hyper-realistic” fashion, seemingly taking place in a single, continuous shot. And as Mike Ryan at ScreenCrush deftly points out, Keaton is not a perfect match for this character’s career, but he’s certainly close enough to inspire the comparison, and Keaton’s performance feels incredibly personal either way (when his gruff Birdman persona informs him in voiceover that “60 is the new 30”, for instance). Thomson’s costar, Broadway diva Mike Shiner (Norton) makes superlative use of the charm and (alleged real-life) tendency to creatively take over whatever production he’s on. Emma Stone is marvelously and deliberately unlikable as Thomson’s acerbic, recovering-addict daughter, Sam, and Zach Galifianakis proves once again that his best comic acting involves being a crying straight-man. In the tradition of Ratatouille (and Cloud Atlas, kinda), this film directly puts its critics in the crosshairs, in the form of NY Times theatre snob Tabitha (Lindsay Duncan).

Tabitha is, in many ways, an appallingly unprofessional critic, but what the film gets right is that criticism, at its worst, is just tossing out meaningless adjectives (or in my case, adverbs), and at its best, is merely an appeal to authority. And what can I say? The film’s not wrong, and you should see it because I’m telling you to do so. Criticism is a competing force to fanaticism, despite their mutually incestuous relationship with acts of creativity. But an act of creativity is not necessarily an intrinsic good, and Birdman is happy to confront that dour reality in the most entertaining way possible.

Check out our podcast discussion here:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #58 – “Birdman” (dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu)

Honorable Mentions:

  • Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (directed by Matt Reeves)
  • The Imitation Game (directed by Morten Tyldum)
  • Boyhood (written/directed by Richard Linklater)
  • Force Majeure (written/directed by Ruben Östlund)
  • The Babadook (written/directed by Jennifer Kent)
  • Night Moves (directed by Kelly Reichardt)
  • Interstellar (directed by Christopher Nolan)
  • White Bird in a Blizzard (directed by Gregg Araki)
  • Guardians of the Galaxy (directed by James Gunn)
  • Captain America: The Winter Soldier (directed by the Russo Brothers)
  • The Lego Movie (directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller)

Biggest Disappointments:

High expectations, low results.

  • The Interview (directed by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg)
    You know why. In every conceivable way, including factors unrelated to the film itself, this was a massive letdown.
  • Citizenfour (written/directed by Laura Poitras)
    This film’s subject matter is compelling – global surveillance and information security are perhaps the most important subjects in the world right now. But when it comes down to it, this just isn’t a very well-made documentary. This film couldn’t decide whether its audience was cutting-edge tech espionage nerds who already knew every detail and technical term of this story from their own reading (including Poitras’ own articles), or the uninformed masses whose eyes will almost certainly glaze over as one ugly intelligence or encryption-based term or initialism after another is revealed. And it’s downright boring for much of its runtime.
  • 22 Jump Street (directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller)
    Lord and Miller have made quite a career out of making good movies out of seemingly terrible ideas. But their bar was rather high with this R-rated comedy sequel. I adored 21 Jump Street, and while I should have known that it was impossible to strike gold in this particular mine twice, the most frustrating part of this film is that it contains some of my favorite comedy scenes of the year (a late scene between Jonah Hill and Jillian Bell certainly counts). If it hadn’t spent so much time trying to make me hate its self-awareness, I might have enjoyed it more.
  • The Amazing Spider-Man 2
    At the time, I referred to this as a “tedious, aggressively stupid piece of disposable, commercial tripe”. I stand by it. I’m cheating a bit here, since my expectations were rather low from the “first” film, but this sequel actually managed to plumb new depths of pointlessness. At least Sony appears to be considering handing the Spidey-reins back to Marvel, since they clearly don’t know what to do with them.

Pleasant Surprises:

Low expectations, high results.

  • The Fault in Our Stars (directed by Josh Boone)
    Despite the Neustadter/Weber script, my expectations for this film were roughly at “teen romantic melodrama” levels, but it ended up hitting me on many comparable emotional notes to Jonathan Levine’s 50/50. Trust me when I say – that’s high praise. And the leads are so charming.
  • The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 (directed by Francis Lawrence)
    As a grown-up, I understand that the reason this film exists is because $2 billion is cooler than $1 billion. But while the first needlessly split Harry Potter film was a resounding thud, Mockingjay – Part 1 gives itself plenty of raison d’être. Despite the occasional contrived action beat, this film really brought home the realities of warfare in a world with a substantially reduced human population and grievous inequality in its population. At its best, the film brought Julianne Moore and Philip Seymour Hoffman (RIP) into a bunker under aerial bombardment by the Capitol, and reminded me favorably of the Battlestar Galactica reboot. What that gobbledygook should tell you is that everything old and adapted can be made fresh and new again, as well as the fact that an economic property can also be artful. That point may seem obvious, but without the occasional reminder, we might just have to stop watching studio films. And this song is nothing if not artful. This is a film that telegraphs its every artful[ly constructed] moment [of propaganda], then delivers fully on each promise.
  • X-Men: Days of Future Past (directed by Bryan Singer)
    I’m not thrilled about the insane jumble of IP rights surrounding Marvel properties, but this film is proof positive that a comic book movie can try doing something completely different from The Avengers, and mostly succeed. Sony learned the exact inverse of this lesson with one of my disappointments above.
  • Neighbors (directed by Nicholas Stoller)
    Another slight cheat here, since Stoller has pretty much never disappointed me with his comedies, but this one looked rather dubious going in. What it delivered was the right kind of comic warfare – one in which both sides have legitimate grievances, and they each take turns going too far with it. And I stand by my bizarre statement that this is the Game of Thrones of R-rated college comedies.
  • John Wick (directed by Chad Stahelski and David Leitch)
    Turns out I missed Keanu Reeves performing awesome stunts and killing bad guys. Who knew?

Daniel’s Top 10 Films of 2014

Everything above represents Glenn’s top (and bottom) picks for the year – but FilmWonk Podcast co-host Daniel also saw a lot of films this year, and we often disagreed! Here are Daniel’s Top 10 films of 2014.

  1. Guardians of the Galaxy
  2. The Imitation Game
  3. The Grand Budapest Hotel
  4. The Theory of Everything
  5. Edge of Tomorrow
  6. Gone Girl
  7. Force Majeure
  8. Fish & Cat
  9. Birdman
  10. Foxcatcher

Honorable Mentions:

  • Lucy
  • The Lego Movie
  • Interstellar

2013 Glennies: Best Picture (Top 10 Films of 2013)

#11: The Wolf of Wall Street

Poster for "The Wolf of Wall Street"

Directed by Martin Scorsese, written by Terence Winter, based on the book by Jordan Belfort

As always, the #11 slot goes to a film that I thoroughly enjoyed, but have reservations about including in the Top 10. As expected from Scorsese, The Wolf of Wall Street is well-made, well-acted, and a bit overlong. Following his turn in 2011’s Moneyball alongside Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill proves once again that he is capable of staggering acting quality when paired with an A-list star. The star in question is Leonardo DiCaprio, who is basically playing a drugged-out, misogynistic, and ultimately more honest version of the rich tycoon that he played earlier this year in The Great Gatsby. Like Lord of War, this is a chronicle of an unsympathetic character’s rise to power, and like Observe & Report, it is an unabashed celebration of bad people doing bad things. Make no mistake – this is a film about, by, and for – terrible people. And that’s okay. Nobody’s a single thing, and you have to be a certain amount of terrible to partake in the kind of debauchery on display here. Apart from that, this is certainly one of the best comedies of the year.

#10: Blackfish

Poster for "Blackfish"

Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, written by Cowperthwaite and Eli B. Despres

This documentary is best summed up by a quote from a former SeaWorld trainer that appears in an on-screen interview:

“I can’t imagine a society that values marine mammals as we do…without parks like SeaWorld.”

For a film that’s ostensibly a hit-piece on captive marine mammal shows in general, and SeaWorld specifically, Blackfish approaches an emotional subject with uncommon subtlety. It presents the issue purely in terms of practicality – there is no safe manner in which an orca can be kept safely as a private show animal, therefore it shouldn’t happen. Then it lets its subjects – who are apparently immune to irony – hang themselves with quotes such as the one above. Any moral conclusions about whether it’s “right” or “wrong” to keep orcas captive are left for the audience to draw on their own – even if it’s clear which direction the film is prodding you toward.

This is quite a harrowing and well-made documentary, and given its wide distribution, likely to be an effective one. As of this writing, the title is available on Netflix streaming.

Check out my full review here:
SIFF Roundup: “Blackfish”, “The Kings of Summer”

#9: The Bling Ring

Poster for "The Bling Ring"

Written and directed by Sofia Coppola, based on a Vanity Fair article by Nancy Jo Sales

Color me dumbstruck. This was a film I hadn’t even planned on seeing (after a press screening for a much worse film went awry), and it was about a group of people that I had virtually no interest in. When a group of bored, privileged teenagers go on a burglary spree in Beverly Hills, pilfering goods from the unlocked houses of Hollywood’s TMZ-elite (including Paris Hilton, whom they robbed a half-dozen times before it was even noticed), I was expecting to be bored by their vapid pursuit of overpriced fashion. And yet, this film not only delivered some of the most fascinating characters and performances of the year, but also a thoroughly well-paced, well-edited, and entertaining peek into the lives of this wild bunch of girls (and a couple boys). Relative newcomers Katie Chang and Israel Broussard are riveting, delivering a friendship (with some chilling subtext) that manages to deftly carry the first two thirds of the film. Broussard’s naïveté and Chang’s cold calculation make for an impressive pairing – and are only made better when placed alongside Emma Watson. Watson is handed the last third of the film, as well as several of the most entertaining monologues I’ve seen this year, delivering vapid nonsense with utter sincerity to whichever members of the press will listen. This film is endlessly entertaining, and also thoroughly understands the twisted pursuit of fame and fortune that this ring is indulging in. They are essentially just a lower tier of the class of people that they are stealing from, even to the degree that in the end, their high-level transgressions don’t especially matter (a theme made clear when Watson’s character briefly shares a cell block with one of her victims, locked up for DUI).

See this film and be pleasantly surprised along with us. Listen to our discussion of the film here:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #35 – “The Bling Ring” (dir. Sofia Coppola)

#8: Side Effects

Poster for "Side Effects"

Directed by Steven Soderbergh, written by Scott Z. Burns

Following 2012’s Contagion, director Steven Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns team back up to deliver an impressive thriller of a different sort. Side Effects feels at home alongside the best of Alfred Hitchcock, and regrettably, I can say little else about the film without damaging its appeal, except that I rewatched it this past month, and can confirm that it holds up well to repeat viewing.

As of this writing, Side Effects is available on Netflix streaming. And like last year’s #2 pick, The Imposter (also available), you would do well to watch it without reading anything else in advance.

#7: Celestial Wives of the Meadow Mari

Still from "Celestial Wives of the Meadow Mari"

Directed by Aleksey Fedorchenko, written by Denis Osokin

I feel a bit bad including a film that is unlikely to find distribution in the United States, but I am compelled to include this film because it is nothing less than a master class in short-form storytelling. Taking the form of 22 vignettes about an ethnic and religious group living in a Russian republic east of Moscow, this film is not only beautifully shot, but manages to tell a series of fascinating stories that each deliver a clear beginning, middle, and end – even if you sometimes have to dive deeply into the subtext to find it. This film is alternately funny, touching, and bizarre – and at all times, it remains exhilarating.

Read my full review here:
SIFF Review: “Celestial Wives of the Meadow Mari” (dir. Aleksey Fedorchenko)

#6: Her

Poster for "Her"

Written and directed by Spike Jonze

Spike Jonze‘s Her features a man named Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) falling in love with an artificially intelligent operating system named Samantha (voice of Scarlett Johannson). And I must say, when one of Samantha’s first lines is telling the film’s depressed, antisocial protagonist to “maybe try and get out of bed?”, I was quite nervous that I was about to see Manic Pixie Dream Bot: The Movie. But what the film delivers instead is an impressively mature take on romance. Like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind before it, the film explores romance through the lens of the failed relationship, between Theodore and his soon-to-be-ex-wife Catherine (Rooney Mara). But unlike that film, the relationship merely feels like a backdrop to the well-realized sci-fi love story on display here. And the sci-fi world itself is an equally impressive backdrop. The visual effects (which mostly consist of greatly increasing the number of skyscrapers in Los Angeles) are subtle and well-rendered, and what’s more, the science fiction elements left me walking out of the film asking all kinds of questions about how this world operates. And these were the good kinds of questions – the ones that are provoked by a sci-fi world that feels so lived in that I assume that each of my questions has an answer. And by the end, many of these questions are about the nature of Samantha herself, as well as her relationship with Theodore. This is an always-on girlfriend, who will immediately answer the phone and start a conversation whenever you want – and as such, it would be easy to assume that she has no inner life of her own. But as the film goes on, it becomes clear that Samantha’s inner life is far more elaborate than is immediately apparent. The film’s most impressive theme regarding artificial intelligence is that any entity that is designed to replicate human emotion will be unlikely to end up a perfect match in capability to actual human beings. When an artificial being fails to quite measure up to a human being, we refer to this disparity informally as the Uncanny Valley. But when such a being measures up to the capabilities of a human and then some, what do we call that disparity?

Apparently, we call it romance – and certainly one of the most fascinating ones of the year.

#5: The World’s End

Poster for "The World's End"

Directed by Edgar Wright, written by Wright and Simon Pegg

I saw The World’s End in close proximity to Neill Blomkamp‘s Elysium, and was quite surprised when the former turned out to be the better sci-fi action film. Ostensibly, this is a film about five middle-aged men coming back together to go on a 12-pint pub crawl in their hometown, but coming as it does from the creators of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, there are some genre trappings at work in this film that are not immediately apparent. But what makes this movie work so well is not just the well-rendered frenetic action, but the solid, character-driven comedy at the center of it. Gary King (Simon Pegg) is an immature and infectious partygoer bordering on the sort of serious self-destruction that is rarely seen in comedy (much the same as Russell Brand’s character in Get Him to the Greek), and Andy (Nick Frost) is the straight man and former childhood friend who wants absolutely nothing to do with him. This reversal of the Pegg and Frost dynamic from the rest of the Cornetto trilogy works rather well, particularly with regard to Frost, whose surly demeanor becomes more and more justified as the history between these two characters is made clear. Martin Freeman, Paddy Considine, and Eddie Marsan round out the cast, and it is one of the film’s great strengths that each of these characters (even the latter two, who are definitely the least prominent) have well-established roles, desires, and history within the group. Indeed, the history between the members of this group – particularly Pegg and Frost’s characters, weighs heavily on the proceedings at all times. In much the same way as Shaun of the Dead, this film is a farcical sci-fi comedy that manages to make its characters matter – both to each other and to the audience.

Listen to our discussion of the film here:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #37 – “The World’s End” (dir. Edgar Wright), “Mud” (dir. Jeff Nichols)

#4: Stories We Tell

Still from "Stories We Tell"

Written and directed by Sarah Polley, with narration by Michael Polley

Actress and writer/director Sarah Polley is no stranger to putting personal stories on film (2011’s Take This Waltz had some undeniable connections to her personal life), but this documentary definitely takes it to a new level, turning the cameras upon Polley herself, as well as her family and friends. The mystery of Diane Polley (Sarah’s deceased mother) is at the core of this film – and believe me, it’s a doozy. With this woman dead and gone, all that her loved ones have left are their own memories and perspectives – and the narratives that they construct from them. If this sounds boring and navel-gazing, the film demonstrates an impressive degree of self-awareness about that expectation. It never insists that anyone outside of the Polley family will find this personal story interesting (in fact, several members of the family explicitly question this), but the fact is – the story is interesting, as are the family members themselves. Of particular interest is Michael Polley, Sarah’s father, who is a riveting on-screen presence, and alternates between reading a prepared third-person account of his life experience, and reacting (in an on-camera interview) to the very same events as they appear on-screen through archive footage. Structurally speaking, this is one of the most complex documentaries I’ve ever seen, but it never once feels gimmicky, or fails to maintain interest. In the end, the film is all about the evolving personal narratives that we tell ourselves in order to make sense of our lives – despite our faulty memories and incomplete facts.

Since I haven’t seen this film since May, rather than trusting my memory any further, I’ll just defer to the story I told about it at the time:

This film is nothing short of a masterpiece – hilarious and heartfelt, and brilliantly blurring the lines between documentary and reenactment. It is an act of courage and personal conviction, delivered with an admirable measure of humility.

Read my full review here:
SIFF Roundup: “We Steal Secrets”, “Stories We Tell”

#3: Mud

Poster for "Mud"

Written and directed by Jeff Nichols

Jeff Nichols’ Mud is a coming-of-age adventure story featuring a pair of Arkansas boys, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), who discover a mysterious man named Mud (Matthew McConaughey) living in a fishing boat stranded on an island in the middle of the Mississippi River. Following some drama with his on-again, off-again girlfriend Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), Mud is in hiding, and the boys gradually begin to help him – both to try and make contact with his lady love, and to escape.

It’s a curious footnote that actor Michael Shannon, who plays a small part in Mud as Neckbone’s uncle and legal guardian, was only present for a few days of filming due to his commitment to play the villainous General Zod in Man of Steel. If we’re speaking purely in terms of scale, the latter film certainly has more at stake, with all of the main characters, Metropolis, and indeed, the entire planet, under threat of destruction. And yet, in Mud, wherein ostensibly only the life of the title character is at risk, the stakes feel not only higher, but ultimately more substantial.

If this were simply about saving the life of one character (and one who strains the audience’s sympathy over the course of the film), perhaps it might not seem so important. But what makes Mud feel so weighty is that it is a heartfelt and honest story about romance. What’s at stake are the future romantic notions of the film’s young lead, Ellis, who is in the process of learning a series of dubious lessons in love. Ellis still believes in true love, but if Mud and Juniper (or his divorcing parents) are the best examples of romance that he can muster, his innocence in this regard might just be ruined. Sheridan’s performance certainly carries the emotional weight of the film, even as McConaughey continues his trajectory over the past few years toward becoming one of the best working actors today. This is a stunning adventure film with a fantastic musical score (from previous Nichols collaborator David Wingo), and is chock full of solid performances – both from the actors I’ve mentioned, as well as supporting players such as Ray McKinnon, Sarah Paulson, and Sam Shepard.

Listen to our discussion of the film here:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #37 – “The World’s End” (dir. Edgar Wright), “Mud” (dir. Jeff Nichols)

#2: 12 Years a Slave

Poster for "12 Years a Slave"

Directed by Steve McQueen, screenplay by John Ridley, based on the memoir by Solomon Northup

This film is essential viewing, plain and simple. It offers a critical understanding of an important period in American history, and does so through the lens of a man who was kidnapped into slavery during a time when the only thing that separated a free black man from a slave was a piece of paper – and one that could be snatched away as easily as that person’s life. As is typical for director Steve McQueen, this film looks gorgeous (even in its depiction of disturbing subject matter). And Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender each deliver incredible, career-defining performances.

Beyond that, I’ll defer to our podcast discussion below, and admit that this would probably be swapped with my #1 selection below if not for the fact that I likely will not want to see it again nearly as much. This is essential viewing, and with the exception of a minor gripe about Hans Zimmer‘s score, I consider it an absolute masterpiece. And yet, like Schindler’s List before it, it’s not likely to be a film I’ll want to revisit too often.

Listen to our discussion of the film here:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #38 – “12 Years a Slave” (dir. Steve McQueen)

#1: Gravity

Poster for "Gravity"

Directed by Alfonso Cuarón, written by Alfonso Cuarón and Jonás Cuarón

The opening title card of Alfonso Cuarón‘s Gravity announces, in no uncertain terms, that life in space is impossible. And as hard as that is to believe in the glorious age of information and space exploration in which we live, the film does a marvelous job at conveying just how much we might be kidding ourselves with all this manned space travel nonsense. And yet this film, featuring a simple and small-scale story of astronauts Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) dealing with a crisis in orbit, nonetheless feels huge, significant, and ultimately optimistic. It is a modern day epic myth, full of larger-than-life figures riding chariots in the sky – and also one of the finest hard science fiction films ever made.

Read my full review here:
Alfonso Cuarón’s “Gravity” – Life in space

Honorable Mentions:

  • Captain Phillips (directed by Paul Greengrass, screenplay by Billy Ray, based on an article by Richard Phillips and Stephan Talty)
  • Blue Jasmine (written and directed by Woody Allen)
  • Don Jon (written and directed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt)
  • American Hustle (directed by David O. Russell, screenplay by David O. Russell and Eric Warren Singer)
  • Blue is the Warmest Color (directed by Abdellatif Kechiche, screenplay by Abdellatif Kechiche and Ghalia Lacroix, based on the comic book by Julie Maroh)
  • Dallas Buyers Club (directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, written by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack)
  • The Kings of Summer (directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts, written by Chris Galletta)
  • Iron Man 3 (directed by Shane Black, screenplay by Shane Black and Drew Pearce, based on Marvel comics by a characteristically large number of people)
  • Fast & Furious 6 (directed by Justin Lin, screenplay by Chris Morgan, based on characters by Gary Scott Thompson)
  • We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks (written and directed by Alex Gibney)

2012 Glennies, Part 1: Best Picture (Top 10 Films of 2012)

#11: The Five-Year Engagement

Poster for "The Five-Year Engagement"

Directed by Nicholas Stoller, written by Nicholas Stoller and Jason Segel

Per usual, I’m cheating a bit with my Top 10 and placing a film in the #11 slot that simply begged to be included. What started as a simple numbering error in 2009 has become a means for me to include a film that spoke to me personally in a significant way – to split hairs between the films that are somehow, empirically “the best” (a dubious distinction) vs. simply being the ones I enjoyed or identified with the most. While this is certainly one of the more well-made romantic comedies I’ve seen (almost reaching the level of Nicholas Stoller and Jason Segel‘s previous collaboration, Forgetting Sarah Marshall), the film also benefited from perfect timing. As it happens, I saw it two weeks prior to my wedding, when both my future-wife and I were taking a well-deserved night off from wedding planning (and incidentally, each other’s company). Planning a wedding is a stressful affair, and as happy as you end up on the day, at a certain point you just need to take a break from it all.

And it was on this level that The Five-Year-Engagement spoke to me directly. The film sits firmly in the camp that while everyone probably has someone who can be called the love of their life, it is supremely naive to assume that the person will be 100% perfect for you. Or even close to it. What happens between Segel and Emily Blunt is solid chemistry and believable romance. But it’s not a fairy tale, even if it gets a bit silly in its pursuit of a fairytale ending. Their relationship feels incredibly true-to-life, bumps and all. While Forgetting was primarily about the allure of moving on after a bad relationship, Five-Year is about finding happiness with the closest thing to your soul mate that you can manage. As perspectives on love go, this could come off as incredibly cynical. But Segel manages to bring the same staggering amount of heart and earnestness that he’s done over and over again in his acting roles. Actor and film alike both wear their heart on their sleeve, and the result is both endearing and hilarious.

#10: The Raid: Redemption

Poster for "The Raid: Redemption"

Written and directed by Gareth Evans

Congratulations, Gareth Evans, you may have ruined me for other action films. I’m not going to summarize the plot here. See the poster above for an adequate summary. In fact, the plot bears a staggering – and apparently coincidental – similarity to this year’s Dredd, and story is hardly the film’s biggest selling point anyway. This film contains the most intense, balls-to-the-wall martial arts action I have ever seen in a theater. It is immaculately shot, intensely paced, and doesn’t lose steam for an instant.

#9: Bernie

Poster for "Bernie"

Directed by Richard Linklater, screenplay by Richard Linklater and Skip Hollandsworth, based on the article by Skip Hollandsworth

Jack Black gives a bravura comedic performance as mortician’s assistant Bernie Tiede, in this true-life tale of an incident in a small-town in Texas. Because it is based on a true story, Bernie makes the bold choice to reveal very early on in the film that something dire, if not lethal, has happened to both Bernie and wealthy widow Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), using its most persistently hilarious storytelling device: on-camera interviews with the “townspeople”, who constantly refer to the two of them in the past tense. The film sits somewhere between The Office and Best in Show with its sense of realism. This is not the first time I’ve seen this method, but in a straight-laced drama like Frost/Nixon, the technique was a complete distraction, whereas in a dark comedy and portrait of small-town life like Bernie, it actually works rather well. The film abandons its pseudo-documentary format whenever the storytelling requires it, and yet the constant cross-cutting to supposedly real-life townspeople reveals the extent to which they are all involved in each other’s personal business. They gossip constantly about community, church, sex, money, and every combination thereof, and the resulting town feels very lived-in. When the crime finally happens, the townspeople are aghast. Bernie brilliantly portrays the cognitive dissonance that occurs when someone you like has done a bad, bad thing to someone you don’t like. The relationship between Bernie and Marjorie is wonderfully complex and twisted, and what ends up happening between them mingles somewhere between family drama, legal thriller, and hilarious dark comedy.

As of this writing, Bernie is available on Netflix streaming. Check it out today!

#8: The Cabin in the Woods

Poster for "The Cabin in the Woods"

Directed by Drew Goddard, written by Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon

The Cabin in the Woods might well have succeeded as a straight-laced horror film, if only because it features an ensemble of intelligent, likable, and persistently sympathetic characters (played by age-appropriate actors), which already puts it about ten steps ahead of your average backwoods slaughterfest. But Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard take it a step further, placing the entire film into an elaborate Skinner Box whose carefully controlled circumstances manage to elevate the stakes beyond the mere survival of this merry band. On the off-chance you don’t yet know the central premise of this film, I won’t spoil it for you here, but suffice to say, all is not what it seems, and the film’s puppetstrings are pulled brilliantly by Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford. This film exists in a wonderfully dark-comic grey zone, simultaneously reveling in the slaughter that it perpetrates while slowing down just enough to call the audience out for liking it quite so much. This is a film for horror fans who don’t mind seeing the worst parts of their beloved genre dragged to the surface for ritual slaughter. The horror standard has been driven inexorably upward by this film, and while there was at least one other solid contender this year, it has yet to be unseated.

#7: Lincoln

Poster for "Lincoln"

Directed by Steven Spielberg, screenplay by Tony Kushner, based in part on the book by Doris Kearns Goodwin

Politics! That’s what this film delivers, and that should tell you in a word whether you’ll enjoy it or not. There is a scene in this film in which the indispensable Daniel Day-Lewis sits in a chair as President Abraham Lincoln and explains, in detail, exactly what a legal, political, and constitutional clusterbomb the Emancipation Proclamation really was. Freeing all the slaves in the rebelling Confederate states by executive order was an unprecedented act in muddy legal waters, and it is precisely these waters that the film wades into as it explores the backdoor dealings behind the passage of the 13th Amendment in 1865. The specter of the amendment’s passage, the end of the Civil War, and Lincoln’s imminent assassination hang over the film at all times, and it is to the film’s storytelling credit that it manages to present these three events as the high-stakes historical standoff that they really were. Despite the audience knowing full-well how the political fight will be resolved, it’s clear at all times that any of these three events has the potential to derail the others. In Spielberg and Kushner’s vision of history, it could only have happened precisely the way that it did, because anything less would have been disastrous for the nation.

To serve this predestined vision of history, the film lionizes Lincoln to an almost absurd degree, and the illustrious executive is constantly interrupting scenes with quaint little anecdotes about his lawyering past that bear some oblique relevance to the present conflict. He is essentially a Christ figure, always ready with a parable or pearl of wisdom to sate the hungry masses – and ready to be sacrificed for the sins of his beloved Union. I’m at a loss to explain why this works so well. It should have been incredibly heavy-handed, but Day-Lewis’ magnificent performance keeps it grounded in the historical circumstances at all times. Lincoln was neither a flawless politician nor a flawless man, and Lincoln never tries to convince us otherwise. The film is also bolstered by a magnificent ensemble cast. I could end this description by naming at least a dozen outstanding supporting players, but I’ll just mention the strongest here: Tommy Lee Jones gives his finest performance in years as the staunch and ailing abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens.

#6: Looper

Poster for "Looper"

Written and directed by Rian Johnson

Rian Johnson’s Looper sets up a complex (and paradoxical) time travel story in which older and younger versions of the same character (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis) are out to kill each other. Well, kinda. It’s wonderfully elaborate, and it makes just enough sense to comprise the most polished entry in this genre since the Terminator franchise. It also features a brilliantly transformative performance from Gordon-Levitt, who takes his impression of Willis to a staggering degree of authenticity.

From my review:

The film sets up a clever time travel mechanic wherein Future Joe – whose mere presence is altering his own timeline – doesn’t know the outcome of every situation involving his younger self, but he does remember it once it happens. It’s an action-oriented version of Marty McFly fading away from a photograph, and the film explains it with just the right amount of technobabble and disturbing imagery, punctuated by Willis telling his younger self (and perhaps the logic centers of the audience’s brains) to kindly shut the fuck up and stop wasting time slogging through the murky waters of time travel.

This bit of hand waving makes for an extremely haunting and effective ending, as we’re left to consider the full and lasting impact of Future Joe’s presence in this timeline. Looper dares to present us with high personal stakes for both versions of its protagonist, set them in opposition to each other, then force us to consider whether the future of this despicable person should be saved.

#5: Moonrise Kingdom

Poster for "Moonrise Kingdom"

Directed by Wes Anderson, screenplay by Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola

From my review:

Moonrise Kingdom is a triumphant return to form for Wes Anderson (along with co-writer Roman Coppola), meticulously crafting a rich and memorable world in the fictitious island of New Penzance off the Atlantic Coast. The film takes a bit of time to find its footing, owing to the bizarrely precocious dialogue of its young, first-time leads. But as their chaste and cordial romp gets into full swing, the two actors somehow find an accord. These kids are determined to skip ahead to grownup life, bidding farewell to their erstwhile families and making a life for themselves in the wilderness. They are the embodiment of “us against the world”, even if their oppressive world is like something from the mind of Roald Dahl or J.K. Rowling.

This film is a sweet and nostalgic chronicle of the wondrous worlds that we create in childhood, and even manages to delve into the dire consequences of growing up, without ever losing a bit of its charm.

#4: Seven Psychopaths

Poster for "Seven Psychopaths"
Written and directed by Martin McDonagh

I could summarize the plot here, as I often do, but here’s what you need to know. This is the film in which Martin McDonagh thoroughly beat Quentin Tarantino at his own game this year. Seven Psychopaths is pure, bloody-minded, un-PC, hilarious filmmaking, and manages to deconstruct and reflect upon the genre much better than a vapid bloodbath like Django Unchained could manage.

From my review:

Seven Psychopaths seizes on the fundamental truth of storytelling that no idea is completely original. You may think it came from a serendipitous muse that squirted it into your brain from the collective unconscious, but we are the inexorable products of our surroundings, our culture, and most importantly, our stories. Stories we’ve been told, stories we’ve forgotten, and stories we’ve subsequently retold and passed off as our own work. This is a bloody-minded Adaptation. Hugo without the whimsy. It is sickeningly self-aware, and could have felt like a lesser parody of either of those films if not for such a perfect ensemble cast.

#3: Life of Pi

Poster for "Life of Pi"

Directed by Ang Lee, screenplay by David Magee, based on the novel by Yann Martel

Pi Patel (played for most of the film by Suraj Sharma) is a fascinating character, but even more fascinating is how much time the film spends setting up his backstory. The first 20 minutes of Life of Pi are as much of a visual feast as the rest of the film, and yet they feature little more than a series of extended dialogue scenes as we get to know Pi and his family, and more importantly, his various thoughts on religion. Pi dabbles in a variety of faiths, and this character setup pays off marvelously when the film abruptly becomes a one-man show after the first act. Once Pi is stranded on a raft in the South Pacific with a Bengal tiger (I relish the absurdity of those words!), Life of Pi becomes a taut survival thriller, but remains a fascinating character piece. Whether emoting opposite a CGI tiger or trying to defeat the elements and survive, Sharma – who has no prior credits on IMDb – is equal to the task, demonstrating the proficiency of a much more experienced actor (specifically, Tom Hanks in Cast Away). The film tackles a variety of themes with impressive clarity, and unlike my #1 film below, Life of Pi‘s treatment of religion is essential to its appeal. While I tend to think that the film’s liberal, inclusivist take on religion is unlikely to win many converts, it still makes Pi a fascinating and sympathetic character. At times, he seems naive – likely to be disappointed by the imperfect world in which he lives. And yet, by the film’s end, the grownup Pi (played brilliantly by Irrfan Khan) seems far more savvy and wise than the average religious dilettante. The effectiveness of the film’s ending lies in its ability to be interpreted in a variety of ways, with each viewer’s individual experiences and beliefs informing their perception of it. And theists and atheists alike will certainly have a take on one of the film’s most absurdly poignant questions: Can a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker possibly be your friend?

Beyond the absurdity of the film’s premise lies an earnestness and zeal that is so often lacking in the cynical cinematic world we live in these days. Life of Pi is excited to explore the world it inhabits, and every visual detail (including some of the best 3D that I’ve seen since Avatar) bears this out.

Listen to me and Daniel discuss this film on the podcast:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #29 – “Life of Pi” (dir. Ang Lee)

#2: The Imposter

Poster for "The Imposter"

Directed by Bart Layton

I don’t dare reveal too much about The Imposter. But you will not find a more shadowy or charismatic figure this year than Frédéric Bourdin, con-artist extraordinaire, whose machinations comprise the bulk of this documentary. The film cross-cuts between interviews and impeccable reenactments (similarly to Man on Wire), and leaves you constantly wondering what’s going to happen next – or indeed, how we’re even seeing these interviews. What really happened with Bourdin and this small-town Texas family? All I can offer you is my absolute certainty that you will find it much more engaging if you don’t know the full facts in advance. Don’t Google this one. Don’t let anyone jokingly spoil it for you. Like Catfish, you’re better off seeing this magnificent documentary before its subject ends up on CNN.

Listen to me and Daniel discuss this film on the podcast:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #22 – “Safety Not Guaranteed” (dir. Colin Trevorrow), “The Imposter” (dir. Bart Layton) (SIFF)

#1: Cloud Atlas

Poster for "Cloud Atlas"

Written for the screen and directed by Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, and Lana Wachowski, based on the novel by David Mitchell

Cloud Atlas has been the subject of much contention (even on our very own podcast), but dammit if any other film stuck with me as thoroughly as this one did. I saw it twice back in October, and haven’t stopped thinking of it or intermittently listening to Tom Tykwer‘s magnificent score since. You can listen to our podcast for detail on just how thoroughly this film resonated with me, but the gist is this: you don’t need to buy into the film’s relatively simple religious or metaphysical message in order to appreciate the intensely interconnected narrative that is at work here. Basically, you can take the religious aspects or leave them. The most poignant and effective connections between these characters are narrative and thematic above all else. These six parallel storylines are woven precisely in an epic that spans multiple centuries. This film’s ambition is surely to be admired, but only because it delivers so thoroughly on its promise. It’s a tour de force of editing, with editor Alexander Berner brilliantly cross-cutting and completing shots even with hundreds of years and completely different visual styles separating them. A character might begin to turn in one time period, and another character (perhaps – but not always – the same actor) will complete that turn without interruption. An escape sequence in the 22nd Century darts back and forth with a slave leaping through a ship’s sails in the 19th, and at all times, the same level of intensity is maintained, whether it is high or low from moment to moment. By the end, none of the characters (except perhaps that of Tom Hanks in the 1970s) feels shortchanged in the least. In an achievement rarely matched in parallel storytelling, every last character in the film’s sprawling and incestuous cast list is given adequate screentime to establish an emotional connection with the audience.

Even the film’s most batty choices, such as the devilish (and apparently disembodied) Hugo Weaving in the distant future only serve to amp up the stakes. The film even goes so far as to craft a language – a tricky “future-speak” that has enough respect for its audience to force them to pay close attention – even in the very first shot of the film, featuring a grizzled future-Hanks that probably made some viewers wonder if their theater’s sound system was malfunctioning.

And yes, most of the race and age makeup in this film is intolerably bad. But still I marvel that such an elaborate and visually magnificent film managed to emerge from outside of the studio system. This is by far the biggest indie film I’ve ever seen. Despite a few missteps, which I counted as minimal compared to its triumphs, I spent the entire film rapt with attention, respected as an audience member, and exhilarated by the outcome. Whether you’re looking for romance, adventure, sci-fi action, or a thoughtful message, this cinematic feast has something to offer you. While I will readily admit that Cloud Atlas is not for everyone, I look forward to defending this masterpiece for years to come.

Listen to me and Daniel discuss the film on the podcast:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #27 – “Cloud Atlas” (dir. The Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer)

Honorable Mentions:

  • Argo (directed by Ben Affleck, screenplay by Chris Terrio, based on an article by Joshuah Bearman)
  • Compliance (written and directed by Craig Zobel)
  • Silver Linings Playbook (written for the screen and directed by David O. Russell, novel by Matthew Quick)
  • Killer Joe (directed by William Friedkin, screenplay by Tracy Letts based on his play)
  • Les Misérables (directed by Tom Hooper, screenplay/book/lyrics/novel by a lot of people)
  • Sound of My Voice (directed by Zal Batmanglij, written by Zal Batmanglij and Brit Marling)
  • The Avengers (written for the screen and directed by Joss Whedon, story by Zak Penn and Joss Whedon, comic book and characters by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Joe Simon)
  • Fat Kid Rules the World (directed by Matthew Lillard, screenplay by Michael M.B. Galvin and Peter Speakman, based on the novel by K.L. Going)
  • Beasts of the Southern Wild (directed by Benh Zeitlin, screenplay by Benh Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar, based on a play by Lucy Alibar)
  • Promised Land (directed by Gus Van Sant, screenplay by Matt Damon and John Krasinski, story by Dave Eggers)

2012 Glennies, Part 1: Best Picture (Top 10 Films of 2012)
2012 Glennies, Part 2: Best Supporting Actor/Actress (coming soon)
2012 Glennies, Part 3: Best Actor/Actress (coming soon)

2011 Glennies, Part 3: Best Actor/Actress

Best Actress

#5: Michelle Williams – Marilyn Monroe, My Week With Marilyn

Michelle Williams in "My Week With Marilyn"
Warning: This write-up will be chock full of backhanded compliments.

With a deeply flawed script and unlikable lead character, the core performances from Michelle Williams and Kenneth Branaugh are basically the only reasons to see this film – and it is a testament to the strength of these performances that the film is actually quite worth seeing. Williams brings a complex vulnerability to the titular icon that I found simultaneously appealing and fascinating, despite not having any previous knowledge of Marilyn Monroe besides her well-known (and highly sexualized) cult of personality. The film relies pretty heavily on the unspoken understanding that Marilyn Monroe is a figure of unquestionable appeal, but Williams’ performance manages to sell this appeal to a much greater extent than the film’s script and story ever does. She presents a difficult, tortured, and uncertain actress in the thrall of a surly acting teacher and under near-instantaneous hostility with her new film’s intense and egotistical director. While her relationship with Branaugh’s character is never much more affecting or complex than a sitcom clash, her romance with Colin Clark owes all of its poignancy to Williams’ performance and chemistry with co-star Eddie Redmayne, whose uneven turn might otherwise have ruined the film.

#4: Rooney Mara – Lisbeth Salander, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

Rooney Mara in "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo"
As I mentioned on our “Ladies’ Night” podcast, I was wary about seeing Rooney Mara in this role, because the only other performance I knew her for was The Social Network, in which she is, for lack of a better description, nice and normal-looking. These were both red flags for ruthless cyberpunk heroine Lisbeth Salander, but Mara completely acquitted herself in this role. The highest praise I can give to this performance is that I didn’t once think of Noomi Rapace while watching it. Mara’s performance is both fearless and original, bringing a tender edge to a character that is subject to some rather horrific abuse and dubious sexualization over the course of the film.

Listen to me and Daniel discuss the film in-depth:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #15: “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”, “Young Adult”

#3: Bérénice Bejo – Peppy Miller, The Artist

Bérénice Bejo in "The Artist"
What can I say? I’m a sucker for actresses playing actresses, and Bejo is a total charmer as up-and-coming talkie actress Peppy Miller. Her chemistry with Dujardin is impressive (even with the film’s silent format to muddy the critical waters), and I found their relationship appealing even as a long-term friendship, despite the film’s half-hearted attempts to paint it as a romance. To see these two friends deal with their competing careers amid the inexorable fall of silent cinema is the heart of this film’s appeal, and is surely the most affecting element of a film that could have been slight and insubstantial otherwise. Bejo’s performance served an essential role, challenging the obstinate artist George Valentin with both the new cinematic medium and the actress’ undeniable charisma within it.

#2: Kristen Wiig – Annie Walker, Bridesmaids

Kristen Wiig in "Bridesmaids"
My description of this performance may skew toward the non-specific (I haven’t seen seen this film since theaters), but I can say this with total certainty: Kristen Wiig is a star. Cinema is dreadfully short on believable depictions of female friendship, and Wiig manages to craft several solid (and starkly contrasting) rapports with co-stars Maya Rudolph, Rose Byrne, and Melissa McCarthy. Her “anti-chemistry” with Byrne is particularly impressive, leading to some of the most striking moments of comedic tension in the film. This is a complicated mess of a character (although not quite as much so as my #1), and surely one of Wiig’s finest creations.

#1: Charlize Theron – Mavis Gary, Young Adult

Charlize Theron in "Young Adult"
Speaking of messes, Mavis Gary is the most fascinating trainwreck of a character I saw this year (and she had some serious competition from Mel Gibson). If there is a female equivalent of a manchild, this is surely it – Gary is nothing short of a delusional and self-destructive alcoholic, and Theron managed to bring a wickedly black sense of humor to the character. Her ruthless give-and-take banter with an equally strong and sarcastic Patton Oswalt is an absolute wonder. This is a character that should be utterly unsympathetic, and yet by the end, she completely drew me in, even as the character learns very, very little from her experience.

Listen to me and Daniel discuss the film in-depth:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #15: “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”, “Young Adult”

Honorable Mentions:

  • Rinko Kikuchi as Naoko in Norwegian Wood
  • Atsuko Okatsuka as Atsuko in Littlerock
  • Mia Wasikowska as Jane Eyre in Jane Eyre

Best Actor

#5: Jean Dujardin – George Valentin, The Artist

Jean Dujardin in "The Artist"
From my review:

Jean Dujardin is forced to convey a great deal of emotional nuance through Valentin’s slightest glance or gesture, and the film resorts to techniques and shots that, in any other film, would have seemed incredibly manipulative. There’s a scene late in the film when Valentin confronts a room full of his old belongings, covered in sheets. As the music swells, he dramatically rips down every sheet, revealing the vestiges of his former success, finally staring heartbroken at a prized full-body portrait of himself in a tuxedo. His tears come forth, and Ludovic Bource’s score swells to overpowering heights, just as it does in many other scenes. But somehow, the tense crescendos of music that punctuate this film manage to craft a believable emotional arc of their own, even lacking the additional tones of a wailing, tormented man’s voice. The score supplements the visible emotion and physicality of Dujardin’s performance. These scenes worked, and in this medium, they seemed entirely appropriate.

#4: Ryan Gosling – Driver, Drive

Ryan Gosling in "Drive"
It would be easy to say that Gosling is doing very little in this performance (and many people have), but this understated performance is exactly what the taciturn unnamed driver needed in this film. The driver is a vision of restrained and intense masculinity, seeing himself as equal parts valiant knight and unattached mercenary. As this veneer starts to crack over the course of the film, the stakes of the story rise palpably. This is completely Gosling’s film, and his overpowering chemistry with Carey Mulligan led to one of the most bizarre and operatic romantic beats I’ve ever seen on film.

#3: Michael Fassbender/James McAvoy – Erik Lehnsherr/Charles Xavier, X-Men: First Class

Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy in "X-Men: First Class"
Each of these performances is individually strong, with Fassbender’s intense and ruthless physicality contrasting nicely with McAvoy’s poise, charm, and control. But what makes this film work is the relationship between the two – the yin and yang that is so central to both the development of Magneto as a character and the film’s powerful climactic moment. This is an intense and complex relationship – utterly unmatched on screen this year, and it owes heavily to both actors’ performances. More on their individual performances in my review.

#2: Mel Gibson – Walter Black, The Beaver

Mel Gibson in "The Beaver"
From my review:

This performance may be hard to write about, but it was even harder to watch. The beaver persona strikes a comedic note at first, but these beats seem increasingly out of place as the film descends further and further into Walter’s insanity. Whenever Walter is forced to speak in his own voice (without the jaunty British accent), Gibson conveys such intractable discomfort and crippling hopelessness with every syllable that you wonder how Walter has managed to stave off suicide thusfar. His mere existence is a punishing chore. At the beginning of the film, I wondered if I would be able to judge this film without pondering Gibson’s real-life persona. By the end, I forgot Gibson entirely and found myself nearly weeping for the increasingly pitiful creature that is Walter Black. This performance may be unpleasant to watch, but it is certainly one of Gibson’s finest.

#1: Joseph Gordon-Levitt – Adam, 50/50

Joseph Gordon-Levitt in "50/50"
There is a precarious balance of tone at work in this film. Adam is a young man who has been struck with cancer, and a performance that hits too many hopeless notes would have easily driven audiences screaming from this film. Gordon-Levitt’s comedic performance is nothing short of remarkable, engaging in both credible friendly banter with co-star Seth Rogen and bringing a constant barrage of levity that the film sorely needed to avoid falling into crippling hopelessness. And yet, when the character is forced to confront the fragility of his present existence, Gordon-Levitt delivered once again. Adam’s confrontation with mortality is one of the most powerful and resonating aspects of this film, and Gordon-Levitt brought an intensity to the struggle that I haven’t seen since Andrew Garfield in Never Let Me Go. He is sympathetic, memorable, and hilarious, and to hit all of these beats in a single performance is an astounding achievement.

Listen to me and Daniel discuss the film in-depth:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #13: Jonathan Levine’s “50/50”

Honorable Mentions:

  • Super-duper-honorable mention: Michael Shannon as Curtis in Take Shelter (saw it too late to qualify)
  • Patton Oswalt as Matt Freehauf in Young Adult
  • Ed Helms as Tim Lippe in Cedar Rapids
  • Ewan McGregor as Oliver Fields in Beginners
  • Michael Fassbender as Brandon Sullivan in Shame


2011 Glennies, Part 1: Best Picture (Top 10 Films of 2011)
2011 Glennies, Part 2: Best Supporting Actor/Actress
2011 Glennies, Part 3: Best Actor/Actress

2011 Glennies, Part 2: Best Supporting Actor/Actress

Best Supporting Actor

#5: Oscar Isaac – Blue Jones, Sucker Punch

Oscar Isaac in "Sucker Punch"
Let it never be said that I hold a mean grudge… I hated virtually everything about this film, including the character of Blue Jones, but this will be one of the few awards where I enforce the nebulous distinction between “the best” and “my favorite” (David Chen posted a great discussion with IFC’s Matt Singer on this topic). Every moment of screen time with villainous burlesque magnate (or possibly psych ward attendant) Blue Jones made me physically uncomfortable. All of the male characters in this film are deplorable predators, but Isaac’s performance brought this one to life in a disturbingly memorable way. Every one of his line readings made my skin crawl, and that is certainly what the villain of such an overwhelmingly fetishistic comic farce needed. I would sooner rewatch Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones than ever revisit this performance, but it was undeniably one of the best of the year.

Honorable mention: He also gave a solid supporting turn in Drive.

#4: Albert Brooks – Bernie Rose, Drive

Albert Brooks in "Drive"
Now that’s more like it – here’s a villainous performance I would gladly revisit. Albert Brooks demonstrates an alarming vicious streak in this film, which would be brilliant even if I didn’t know him primarily as a comic actor.

#3: Ben Kingsley – Papa Georges, Hugo

Ben Kingsley in "Hugo"
There is a solid ensemble cast at work in Hugo, but Ben Kingsley certainly does the heavy lifting. Insofar as this film is primarily about the burden of a forgotten artist, Kingsley manages to elevate even the more cookie-cutter moments surrounding the revelation of his true identity. From my review:

Kingsley’s performance is marvelous, delivering just the right blend of sadness and intrigue. This is a bitter and ancient soul, but his bitterness is richly layered enough to suggest that it is the product of having lived too much rather than too little. This is a man who had everything and lost it; not a man who regrets what he failed to achieve.

#2: Kenneth Branagh – Sir Laurence Olivier, My Week with Marilyn

Kenneth Branagh in "My Week With Marilyn"
This is basically an actor’s dream role, getting to simultaneously ham it up as a beloved cinematic mainstay, and portray him in his prime as a director. If I were a bit more cynical, I might think that Branagh was exorcising some of his own directorial frustration into this performance, but watching him butt heads with Michelle Williams is entertaining regardless of its source. While Olivier’s relationship with Marilyn Monroe is actually one of the less developed aspects of the film, Branagh plays up Olivier’s confrontationalism and dismay to brilliant comedic effect.

#1: Christopher Plummer – Hal Fields, Beginners

Christopher Plummer in "Beginners"
Beginners failed to crack my Top 10 for one simple reason… It wasn’t primarily about Hal Fields. Writer/director Mike Mills based this film loosely on the story of his own father coming out as gay following the death of his wife, and just a few years before his own death, and Plummer’s performance succeeds because he treats a genuinely fascinating character with an overwhelming degree of affection. His chemistry with Ewan McGregor (who plays his son, the Mike Mills surrogate) is stellar, and helps to elevate the less interesting material that McGregor has to work with. Even as the film gets just a little bit bogged down in its own quirkiness, Plummer remains the heart of it, portraying an old man who is exploring his new life with all the fervor and enthusiasm of a much younger man. His portrayal feels entirely authentic, and derives all of its comic effect from the character’s inherent sweetness and earnestness.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Ryan Gosling as Jacob Palmer in Crazy, Stupid, Love.
  • Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, and Paul Bettany as a trio of ruthless financiers in Margin Call
  • Seth Rogen as Kyle in 50/50
  • Michael Parks as Abin Cooper in Red State
  • Colin Farrell as Jerry in Fright Night

Best Supporting Actress

#5: Emma Stone – Hannah, Crazy, Stupid, Love.

Emma Stone in Crazy, Stupid, Love.
Crazy, Stupid, Love. was a surprisingly enjoyable film, taking a fairly conventional romantic comedy premise and amping it up with a masterful sense of humor and charm. And one of the biggest charmers was surely Emma Stone, who is quickly becoming one of my favorite comic actresses (she also had an amusing minor role in Friends With Benefits this year). She plays nicely with co-star Ryan Gosling (who just barely missed out on my list above) both in terms of chemistry and comedic timing, and manages to shine despite her limited screentime.

#4: Chloë Grace Moretz – Isabelle, Hugo

Chloë Grace Moretz in "Hugo"
“Don’t you like books?!”

Chloe Moretz’s reading of this line clinched this as one of my favorite performances of the year. Moretz brought such a sense of joy and adventure to the character that she managed to set herself apart from similarly bookish heroines (such as Hermione Granger) without crossing the well-trod line of irritation that such characters often stumble into. She is, to a large extent, the heart of this film, lighting up the screen with enthusiasm in her every scene, and making an excellent foil for Asa Butterfield and Ben Kingsley’s more somber and subdued roles.

#3: Jodie Foster – Meredith Black, The Beaver

Jodie Foster in "The Beaver"
This film didn’t work as a whole for me, but if there’s one thing that both Foster and co-star Mel Gibson demonstrate, it’s that they understand depression and self-destruction. And this understanding comes through despite the film’s darkly comedic (and frankly absurd) premise of a man talking exclusively through a Cockney-voiced beaver puppet. Gibson’s performance is agonizing to behold, but is made doubly so by how credibly Foster plays his steadfast and equally tormented spouse. Meredith clearly still cares for Walter, even as he makes it harder and harder for her to interact with him in any meaningful way – a theme that plays out marvelously in the restaurant scene pictured above, which was a tour de force for Foster in both acting and direction.

#2: Rose Byrne – Helen Harris, Bridesmaids


This was a film chock full of memorable and fully realized characters, but none quite so effective as Rose Byrne’s villainous would-be maid-of-honor, Helen Harris. Byrne plays up the various conflicts between Helen’s wealth, insecurity, and inherently scheming nature, leading to one of the film’s most memorable confrontations in which (I’ll be vague here) she offers Kristen Wiig a friendly snack. It’s all smiles, and yet both actresses play up the tension brilliantly – a dynamic that persists throughout the film. This villain is the antithesis of Oscar Isaac above – an absolute delight in every scene, and a performance I will happily revisit.

#1: Marion Cotillard – Adriana, Midnight in Paris

Marion Cotillard in "Midnight in Paris"
I had to excise the word “irresistible” from my description of Emma Stone above, lest I squander it in advance of my favorite performance of the year. Marion Cotillard plays Adriana, and without being too specific, let’s just say she has an active social life, chock full of fascinating suitors. Cotillard could have played this character simply as an object of desire, but her charm and vivaciousness are merely the initial layer of a delightfully rich characterization. While this allure nearly puts her out of the league of Owen Wilson’s “Aw shucks” demeanor, as the film goes on, the two characters complement each other nicely, and Adriana’s various interests play well into the film’s exploration of the dangers of nostalgia. While the film itself is a love letter to Paris, Cotillard’s performance seems to encapsulate all of the romance and intrigue that the city itself has to offer. And both the city and the lady are irresistible.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Anne Heche as Joan Ostrowski-Fox in Cedar Rapids
  • Maya Rudolph as Lillian in Bridesmaids
  • Carey Mulligan as Irene in Drive
  • Evan Rachel Wood as Molly Stearns in The Ides of March
  • Anna Kendrick as Katherine in 50/50


2011 Glennies, Part 1: Best Picture (Top 10 Films of 2011)
2011 Glennies, Part 2: Best Supporting Actor/Actress
2011 Glennies, Part 3: Best Actor/Actress