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 Mokri

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.

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 (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)

2010 Glennies, Part 5: Best Picture (Top 10 Films of 2010)

#11: Splice

Directed by Vincenzo Natali, screenplay by Vincenzo Natali, Antoinette Terry Bryant, and Doug Taylor

There are films I enjoyed more than Splice this year, but it earns a place on this list for the sheer audacity of its premise and execution. Vincenzo Natali’s shocking portrayal of the creation and upbringing of a human-animal hybrid strikes a tone that falls somewhere between Gattaca and Jurassic Park, raising the former’s complex bioethical questions while striving for the latter’s excitement amid the uncontrollable chaos of the natural world. While it never quite reaches the heights of either of these films, I can safely say that it is one of the most unforgettable and shocking films I’ve ever seen. It boasts a trio of mostly strong performances, including a disturbing and utterly fearless performance from French model/actress Delphine Chanéac as the adult creature.

#10: Inception

Written/directed by Christopher Nolan

In 2008, when I named Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight my #3 film of the year, I simply (and lazily) wrote, “You either already know why, or you probably don’t care. See this film. If you already have, see it again.”

Nolan’s latest film, Inception, seems to provoke the opposite reaction on both counts. Its fans and detractors alike have written volumes on the subject, and most casual viewers are compelled to see it again if only to make sense of the entire mind-bending spectacle. I can’t praise the film quite as dismissively as I did The Dark Knight, but while Inception is not a perfect film, it is certainly one of the most complex visual and technical spectacles ever put to screen, and for that much alone, it must be recognized. While the film’s action descends into slightly shallower video-game territory by the end, it still manages to offer one of the finest deconstructions of reality and consciousness since The Matrix.

#9: Never Let Me Go

Directed by Mark Romanek, screenplay by Alex Garland, novel by Kazuo Ishiguro

The appeal of this film is difficult to describe without spoiling its intriguing alternate-reality premise and fantastic worldbuilding, but this is a film that succeeds masterfully at building an atmosphere that makes the audience care deeply about its characters. The film was not without its hiccups – the resolution of the love triangle seemed almost deliberately anti-cathartic – but the performances of the core cast (Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley, and Andrew Garfield) are more than enough to make up for any of the film’s relational shortcomings.

Adam Kimmel’s cinematography makes every frame of this film look gorgeous, even with an utterly bleak color pallette (à la Children of Men), and Rachel Portman’s atmospheric score struck just the right balance to resonate with the film’s emotional beats without overwhelming them. I was not prepared for how this film would affect me, not sure exactly how to feel when it was over, and still haunted by it several days later.

#8: Winter’s Bone

Directed by Debra Granik, screenplay by Debra Granik and Anne Rosellini, novel by Daniel Woodrell

“You’ve always scared me,” says Ree (Jennifer Lawrence), a tough-as-nails 17-year-old girl who searches desperately for her meth-cooking, bail-jumping father in the Missouri Ozarks.

“That’s because you’re smart,” retorts Teardrop, in a stunningly intimidating performance from John Hawkes. Apart from a pair of brilliant performances (and an impressive supporting cast), this film’s success is in its simple, high-stakes premise – an unlikely detective story in a masterfully realized Southern Goth environment. What’s more, this is a film that keeps the audience fearing for its characters at every turn – a surprisingly rare achievement for modern cinema.

(Debra Granik’s “Winter’s Bone” – A masterful dose of guns, guts, and gloom)

#7: The Fighter

Directed by David O. Russell, screenplay by Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, and Eric Johnson, add’l story by Keith Dorrington

This is a crowd-pleaser, plain and simple. A formulaic film can still be an effective one, and I can offer no better evidence than The Fighter. While Mark Wahlberg’s performance as boxer “Irish” Micky Ward is perfectly solid for the subject matter, the real star of this film is Christian Bale, who gives his best performance in years as the boxer’s crackhead brother, Dicky Eklund. This is a film I can safely recommend to anyone (even, surprisingly, those who don’t care about boxing).

(FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #7: David O’Russell’s “The Fighter”)

#6: How to Train Your Dragon

From Dreamworks Animation, directed by Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders, screenplay by William Davies, Dean DeBlois, and Chris Sanders, novel by Cressida Cowell

This is, hands down, the most impressive and immersive 3D animation experience that I’ve had in theaters since Avatar, and its dragon flight sequences were even more impressive than the latter film. This 3D managed to not only convey a well-defined sense of scale and distance, but also the sheer speed at which its characters were ripping through the air. As a silent, but nonetheless fully realized character, Toothless the Dragon far surpasses Stitch (DeBlois and Sanders’ last such creation) – the character falls somewhere between pet and trusted companion, but the facial animation and voice work manage to convey an impressive degree of personality.

While the film still falls prey to some of Dreamworks’ usual casting largesse (did Jonah Hill and Christopher Mintz-Plasse really need to be in this movie?), the core cast – Jay Baruchel, Gerard Butler, America Ferrera, and Craig Ferguson – all give impressive voice work. And finally… John Powell’s score is easily one of my favorites of all time.

#5: Exit Through the Gift Shop

Directed by Banksy

Banksy is a force of nature, and I mean that in a good way. This is one of the most informative, engaging, and hilarious documentaries I’ve had the pleasure of seeing. Right from its masterful opening credits sequence, it managed to immediately rope me into the heretofore unknown world of street art – a world in which I had absolutely no interest prior to this film.

Regardless of the veracity of the film’s premise and events, it raises some very real questions about the nature of art and its relationship to commerce, and explores them through both the wry wit of Bansky and the bizarre life and outlook of subject Thierry Guetta, a fascinating character unto himself. If you have a Netflix streaming subscription, you can watch this film right now.

#4: Animal Kingdom

Written/directed by David Michôd

This Australian gangster film is a slow burn, but a complete pleasure, and boasts a cast of strong performances (including Jacki Weaver as the most stunningly creepy and effective villain since Heath Ledger’s Joker). Daniel and I couldn’t stop raving about this film – hear more below.

(FilmWonk Podcast – David Michôd’s “Animal Kingdom”)

#3: Mother

Directed and story by Bong Joon-ho, screenplay by Park Eun-kyo and Bong Joon-ho

In the past few years, Korean cinema has excelled in producing films that defy categorization, at least in Western terms of genre. At its core, Mother is about a relationship between a mother (Kim Hye-Ja) and her mentally disabled adult son (Won Bin), with a murder mystery thrown in for good measure. I’ve already raved at length about Kim’s masterful performance, but I must also praise the film for its effectiveness and innovation. This film had me from the very beginning, and I was happy to come along for the ride, even as I had no idea where it was going.

#2: The Social Network

Directed by David Fincher, screenplay by Aaron Sorkin, book by Ben Mezrich

I know Mark Zuckerberg. Every time I start to write about this film, I keep coming back to this simple sentence. Certainly, I can’t be sure I’ve seen an accurate rendition of his life based on the events of this film. As I subsequently read both Ben Mezrich’s “The Accidental Billionaires” and David Kirkpatrick’s “The Facebook Effect”, I slowly began to get a picture of the man through wildly divergent (and self-serving) accounts of his life, and I was forced to the same conclusion I had when the film ended.

The film’s accuracy with regard to Mark Zuckerberg is irrelevant. We all know Mark Zuckerberg, or at least recognize the character. This film proffers an astounding look at a period of substantial change to society and internet culture, and it does so by crafting one of the most fascinating characters in cinema history and running him through the paces of age-old themes – friendship, desire, and betrayal. As expected with a David Fincher film, The Social Network is technically perfect filmmaking, and brings Sorkin’s rapid-fire script and dialogue to stunning life while showing remarkable restraint with many of Fincher’s typical visual flourishes (although there was still the obligatory “camera passes through balcony rails” shot).

This is a film that everyone will take away something from, even if it’s completely different from person to person. And for a film about the disputed origins of a website, it manages to be completely engaging from start to finish. I’ve said plenty about the performances, but I have to also mention Trent Reznor’s score, which builds a intense and ominous atmosphere from the film’s first scene.

#1: Toy Story 3

From Disney/Pixar, directed by Lee Unkrich, screenplay by Michael Arndt, story by John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton , and Lee Unkrich

From my 10/10 review:
In the 15 years since the first Toy Story, Pixar’s animation has progressed immeasurably, but time and again, they have proven that their greatest strength is their understanding of character and story. Pixar has crafted an absolutely gorgeous film here, but it is not about plastic toys – the soulless, lifeless, disposable pleasures of youth. It is a film about life, love, friendship, and loss; hope, despair, and finding one’s purpose. It is funny, exciting, surprisingly poignant, and easily Pixar’s finest film. I’m a little wary of giving this film a perfect score, since I may well have handicapped myself by revisiting the first two films immediately beforehand. This might better be considered a rating for the entire trilogy, and not just its brilliant send-off – but I can’t help it. I’ve seen this movie twice and I wouldn’t change a thing.

Honorable Mentions:

  • 127 Hours (directed by Danny Boyle, screenplay by Danny Boyle and Simon Beaufoy, book by Aron Ralston)
  • Kick-Ass (directed by Matthew Vaughn, screenplay by Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman, comic by Mark Millar and John Romita, Jr.)
  • Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (directed by Edgar Wright, screenplay by Edgar Wright and Michael Bacall, graphic novel by Bryan Lee O’Malley)
  • Buried (directed by Rodrigo Cortés, written by Chris Sparling)
  • True Grit (directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, screenplay by Joel and Ethan Coen, novel by Charles Portis)
  • Catfish (documentary, directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman)
  • Black Swan (directed by Darren Aronofsky, screenplay by Mark Heyman, Andrés Heinz, and John J. McLaughlin)
  • Shutter Island (directed by Martin Scorsese, screenplay by Laeta Kalogridis, novel by Dennis Lehane)
  • The Town (directed by Ben Affleck, screenplay by Peter Craig, Ben Affleck, and Aaron Stockard, novel by Chuck Hogan)
  • Restrepo (documentary, directed by Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger)
  • Greenberg (written/directed by Noah Baumbach, story by Noah Baumbach and Jennifer Jason Leigh)
  • Get Him to the Greek (written/directed by Nicholas Stoller, characters by Jason Segel)

Click here to see the rest of the 2010 Glennies.

2010 Glennies Roundup

It’s that time again… 2010 is over, and it was a surprisingly great year for cinema, especially given the rocky start and franchise-laden middle. I’ve seen movies great and terrible this past year, as well as some fantastic performances.

A note on exclusions… As I round up the films I’ve seen this year, there are always a few I meant to see, but didn’t get around to it. As of this writing, I have not had a chance to see the following films. I don’t know (and in some cases, doubt) if they would have made the top 10, but naturally they are ineligible:

  • The King’s Speech – An award-fodder period drama featuring Colin Firth’s usual awesomeness and a surprisingly chipper Helena Bonham Carter (watched since)
  • Four Lions – a terrorist comedic satire, perhaps this year’s True Lies or In The Loop? (watched since)
  • A Prophet – an epic crime drama
  • The Greatest – a somber romance
  • Micmacs – Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s whimsical take on Lord of War
  • The Lottery – a documentary on charter schools (watched since)
  • Valhalla Rising – Nicolas Winding Refn’s viking romp
  • Centurion – the latest from horror director Neil Marshall, who made a turn for the sword-and-sandals (watched since)
  • Dogtooth – A disturbing Greek drama (watched since)
  • The Tillman Story – A look back at the life and representations of famed American soldier, Pat Tillman
  • Let Me In – An unnecessary, but nonetheless good-looking remake of 2008 fave, Let the Right One In from Cloverfield director Matt Reeves.
  • Nice Guy Johnny – A straight-to-iTunes release from actor/director Ed Burns.
  • Blue Valentine – A strangely controversy-fueled romantic drama.
  • The Illusionist – An French animated film from a 55-year-old Jacques Tati script? I’m intrigued.
  • Monsters – First-time director and visual effects artist Gareth Edwards takes low-budget filmmaking ambition to shocking heights. By all accounts, this film was at least gorgeous-looking, despite not being this year’s District 9.

Also, Trash Humpers.

In the ensuing year, I sought to find a new symbol for the Glennies, but the blue Egyptian hippo began invoking ancient curses, so I’ll just have to leave him be. His name is Roger, and he is the official statuette of the 2010 Glennies. Enjoy!

2010 Glennie Awards

Egyptian Blue Hippo

Best Supporting Actress
Best Supporting Actor
Best Actor
Best Actress
Top 10 Films of 2010

2009 Glennies Roundup

It’s that time again… 2009 is over, and it was a great year for cinema (if a bit less so for the box office). I’ve seen movies great and terrible this year, as well as some fantastic performances. A note on exclusions… As of this writing, I have not had a chance to see the following films. I don’t know if they would have made the top 10, but naturally they are ineligible:

  • Where the Wild Things Are (watched since)
  • An Education (watched since)
  • The Fantastic Mr. Fox (watched since)
  • Precious
  • The Road
  • The Box (watched since)
  • A Serious Man (watched since)

Oh, and Hannah Montana: The Movie, of course.

I don’t have a statuette at the moment, so the symbol of the 2009 Glennies will be a blue Egyptian hippo.

2009 Glennie Awards

Egyptian Blue Hippo

Best Supporting Actor
Best Supporting Actress
Best Actress
Best Actor
Top 10 Films of 2009

2009 Glennies, Part 5: Best Picture (Top 10 Films of 2009)

#11: Avatar

(written/directed by James Cameron)

Last year, I cheated my Top 10 list a bit because a numbering error in Word caused me to accidentally type an extra description. This year, I’ve opted to include James Cameron’s Avatar for a wholly different reason. You can read my full review of the film, in which I fully acknowledge a number of serious plot, character, and storytelling problems with this film. By any of these measures, Avatar was not worthy of my Top 10. And yet, I am compelled to include it, because I had an absolutely marvelous time with this film. My first viewing was on a miniscule screen, from a seat crammed into the right front section of the auditorium, but I still couldn’t take my eyes off a single frame. This film is a grand and wondrous spectacle. Even as piracy, obnoxious advertising, and a constant barrage of texting diminish and devalue the theatrical film experience, James Cameron has given us a new reason to adore it. And beyond that, the film has proven provocative enough to spawn some of the most in-depth and fascinating film writing I’ve ever seen in print or online. Avatar absolutely piles on its message, but whether you love it or hate it, you will certainly have something to talk about afterward.

#10: The Boys Are Back

(directed by Scott Hicks, screenplay by Allan Cubitt, novel by Simon Carr)

Scott Hicks’ The Boys Are Back accomplished something remarkable… It managed to take a rather somber premise – a husband and father dealing with his wife’s untimely death – and turn it into a downright cheerful film. The film is shot in Hicks’ native Adelaide, Australia, and Greig Fraser’s cinematography (complimented by Hal Lindes’ delightful score) give this film an absolutely gorgeous backdrop. The film excels in its tone and pacing. It deals with some weighty issues, but the story moves right along when it needs to, and never veers too far into somber territory without coming back to show us something genuinely delightful. This variable emotional curve could easily have come off as jarring, bipolar, and seemingly not serious enough for the film’s subject matter, but it manages to avoid these problems. The result is a joyous portrait of family and fatherhood, featuring a trio of strong performances from Clive Owen and his cinematic sons.

#9: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

(directed by David Yates, screenplay by Steve Kloves, novel by J.K. Rowling)

When I first read J.K. Rowling’s sixth Harry Potter book, I thought it was a fascinating middle chapter, but easily the least cinematic in the franchise. I held a similar view of the fifth book, so imagine my surprise in 2007 when director David Yates and screenwriter Michael Goldenberg turned it into one of the best films in the franchise. And with the sixth film, Yates and returning HP screenwriter Steve Kloves have done it again.

I will throw in a caveat… This is definitely not a film for newcomers to the franchise. It’s crammed with back story and setup for the final chapters. It relies on an existing interest in and affection for the characters, their relationships, and a rich and elaborate world that deftly raise the stakes for this entry. And yet, this is one of the film’s most persistent strengths. We’ve watched these kids grow up in the joyous halls of Hogwarts, but this time around, the school feels strangely empty and somber. DP Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography makes the grounds look absolutely gorgeous, and provide a brilliant “underwater” look for the film’s many flashback sequences (I was quite pleased to see the Academy take notice). Nicholas Hooper’s score is hauntingly beautiful at times, but keeps the same cheery flourishes that I so enjoyed from the fifth film (particularly the Weasley twins’ theme).

I already singled out Jim Broadbent’s fantastic supporting role, but there were too many strong performances in this film to even mention. The character work and storytelling were effective, and the adaptation showed remarkable restraint in omitting an entire battle sequence from the end of the film. In print, this sequence always played like a lighter version of the next book’s final battle (minor spoiler – there’s a final battle), and cutting it out of the film was definitely the right choice.

#8: Up

(written/directed by Pete Docter and Bob Peterson)

The latest Disney/Pixar film from Pete Docter (Monsters, Inc) definitely fell prey to what I would call “WALL-E syndrome” – the first half hour is absolutely the best part of the film. It tells the poignant love story of childhood sweethearts Carl and Ellie Fredricksen in a matter of minutes, and is one of the most beautiful and heartbreaking montages I’ve ever seen put to film. It is also a taut piece of visual storytelling, effectively conveying such weighty adult issues as infertility and broken dreams with only the briefest of glimpses and zero dialogue. By the time we meet Ed Asner’s cantankerous old man, he is thoroughly endearing, and finds an excellent partner in crime in Russell (Jordan Nagai), a Wilderness Explorer who is just the right blend of cute and annoying. The ensuing adventure film is immensely fun, and features the hilarious motif of a talking dog with the intelligence and personality of…a dog (with a great voice performance by co-writer/director Bob Peterson). Up certainly takes place in a heightened reality, but it tells a very down-to-earth and touching story.

#7: Adventureland

(written/directed by Greg Mottola)

As I said in my original review, Greg Mottola’s Adventureland defied my expectations on every level. I went in expecting a comedy akin to Superbad – and the film’s marketing certainly encouraged this image of the film. Instead, I was presented with a mature, poignant drama that presented a brilliant portrait of the twentysomething post-college experience, and the sudden, reluctant thrust into adulthood.

The film boasts some brilliant performances… Jesse Eisenberg plays a great everyman, and was just shy of my Top 5 for Best Actor. Ryan Reynolds and Kristen Stewart were both surprisingly effective (each of them having lowered my expectations at some point), and Martin Starr – whom I’ve adored since “Freaks and Geeks” – continues to show his prowess here.

Adventureland is both an effective coming-of-age tale and a touching romance, whose conciliatory message (“You can’t just avoid all the people you’ve screwed up with!”) will likely resonate as much with this generation as it did in the 1980s, when a young Greg Mottola was working at the real Adventureland. Whether this indicates the film’s timelessness or simply Mottola’s understanding of modern twentysomethings, the result is well worth seeing.

#6: Coraline

(written for the screen and directed by Henry Selick, novel by Neil Gaiman)

The best use of 3D animation I’ve seen this year was not in James Cameron’s Avatar, but in Henry Selick’s stop-motion adaptation of Coraline, a children’s novel by Neil Gaiman. Equal parts Nightmare Before Christmas and Alice in Wonderland, this film is a fantastically creepy exploration of a child’s desire to escape boredom. The voice cast is enjoyable, with effective performances by Dakota Fanning and Teri Hatcher, and a fantastic use of Keith David as a talking cat. The plot does get a bit too much like a video game in the third act (use your special scope, go here, retrieve one item from each location, BOSS FIGHT!), but it balances this with an absolutely stunning mixture of stop motion and CG animation as the fantasy world starts to crumble – and I’d be hard pressed to tell you where one stops and the other begins. Everyone has a film from their childhood that is as beloved as it is nightmare-inducing. Coraline absolutely deserves the title for today’s kids.

#5: Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs

(written for the screen and directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller, novel by Judi and Ron Barrett)

Sony Pictures Animation has only made a few films, they got off to a fantastic start with Gil Kenan’s 2006 film Monster House. Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs had an atrocious marketing campaign, and hardly looked like it would be a worthy followup. Imagine my surprise when it turned out to be the best comedy of the year.

Flint Lockwood (Bill Hader) is a crackpot inventor whose latest invention is a machine that can turn water into food. The science in this film is very much in the Calvin and Hobbes aesthetic – immensely fun and borderline magical. The character design is deliberately cartoonish, in stark contrast to the rest of the animation, which looks gorgeous and practically photorealistic. The film’s North Atlantic island locale feels every bit like a real place, from its initial shroud of gloomy gray mist to its eventual golden glow amid a shower of falling cheeseburgers. The weather and atmospheric effects are incredible, and the food looks delicious.

This is a screwball comedy driven by a non-stop barrage of surprisingly thoughtful gags. The casting is fantastic, with great performances by Hader, Anna Faris, Andy Samberg, James Caan, and even Mr. freaking T (whose character actually sports an inverse mohawk). This supports some very believable relationships and effective character work. The film even tackles the implications and consequences of a society steeped in overconsumption, but keeps this to a very basic level. It’s one of many ways the film shows respect for its audience, kids and adults alike. The running gags all pay off fantastically, lending the film extremely well to repeat viewings.

This is about as preachy as I’ll get during my top 10… This is a film for everyone. It’s the best character-driven animation since The Incredibles, and one of my all-time favorite comedies. See this movie!

#4: Moon

(directed by Duncan Jones, written by Nathan Parker, story by Duncan Jones)

I’ll keep this one brief, since I’ve already raved about Sam Rockwell’s performance, and this is basically his one-man show (you can check out my full review here). Duncan Jones’ Moon does a lot with very little, creating a compelling moon base environment on a downright meager budget. It’s helped along by an absolutely beautiful score (I have yet to hear a Mansell score I haven’t loved). It’s a fantastic character piece, and a welcome return to true sci-fi. Check it out if you love big ideas.

#3: The Hurt Locker

(directed by Kathryn Bigelow, written by Mark Boal)

Kathryn Bigelow’sThe Hurt Locker doesn’t exactly have a conventional plot, but feels rather like a series of carefully constructed action set-pieces. Nonetheless, it is an incredibly effective thriller, owing largely to the action direction – that sense of spatial relationships that is that is absent from so many action films today. From my original review:

Every scene in this film is well established, and the audience always has an excellent sense of what’s going on. Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner) dons his protective suit (a relative misnomer) and marches through the blazing sun toward his objective. Civilians watch from every surrounding building, and bustle through the adjacent streets and alleys. The soldiers behind him take cover behind a Humvee and survey the crowd. Anyone with a cell phone could be trying to detonate the bomb. And all the while, the audience understands exactly where everything is in relation to everything else. And when all hell breaks loose, they can still understand what’s going on.

The rest of the film’s effectiveness is due to the three leads. Renner, Mackie, and Geraghty are just fantastic, and present a fascinating psychological profile of these characters, even as the film’s plot and dialogue exhibit utter contempt for anyone trying to analyze them. The film’s greatest strength is in crafting a palpable sense of urgency and danger – when it’s over, you’ll have to forcibly pry yourself loose from the edge of your seat.

#2: Up in the Air

(directed by Jason Reitman, screenplay by Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner, novel by Walter Kirn)

Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air bears a few similarities to Reitman’s last bit of corporate satire, Thank You For Smoking (including another great soundtrack), but has a much more somber tone. In my original review, I called it a brilliant and timely character piece, and I can’t stress this point enough. Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) is a doubly fascinating character, between his constant air travel and his job as a professional hatchet-man. This may be the best performance of Clooney’s career, amid a trio of fantastic acting. The film takes a great number of risks, but stops just short of spreading its characters too thin. What’s more, it contains some of the richest dialogue and most effective scenes I’ve had the pleasure of seeing this year. And while it may be timely, this does nothing to diminish its rewatch value (three times and counting for me).

#1: Inglourious Basterds

(written/directed by Quentin Tarantino)

This film’s brilliantly deceptive trailer made it look like the Basterds (and their commander’s awful and hilarious scenery-chewing) would be the stars of the show. While I actually ended up liking Brad Pitt’s performance in the end, the Basterds feel more like a backdrop for the main revenge plot, which featured powerhouse performances from costars Christoph Waltz, Mélanie Laurent, and Diane Kruger.

In my original review, I noted some minor similarities to Bryan Singer’s 2008 World War II film, Valkyrie. In that film’s insistence upon historical accuracy, it demanded a great deal of its audience – namely, to root for a plot whose failure was a matter of historical record. With Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino makes no such demands on the audience. He doesn’t strain or even test your historical knowledge. He simply asks you to live in his world for a while.

And what a world it is. A world of fantastic performances and increasingly tense 15-minute dialogue scenes. These scenes stop just short of being self-indulgent, and ultimately, Tarantino earns every moment in this film. It feels like a teaser for a much larger story, and yet we are still privy to enough brilliantly crafted character moments that it simultaneously feels complete.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Anvil! The Story of Anvil (fantastic documentary by Sacha Gervasi – omitted because I only just saw it)
  • In the Loop (directed by Armando Ianucci, written by Jesse Armstrong)
  • Drag Me To Hell (directed by Sam Raimi, written by Sam Raimi and Ivan Raimi)
  • The House of the Devil (written/directed by Ti West)
  • The Brothers Bloom (written/directed by Rian Johnson)
  • Trick ‘r Treat (written/directed by Michael Dougherty)
  • District 9 (directed by Neill Blomkamp, written by Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell)
  • (500) Days of Summer (directed by Marc Webb, written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber)
  • Observe and Report (written/directed by Jody Hill)
  • Star Trek (directed by J.J. Abrams, written by Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci)

Click here to see the rest of the 2009 Glennies.

2009 Glennies, Part 4: Best Actor

#5: Sharlto Copley – Wikus Van De Merwe, District 9

Sharlto Copley in "District 9"

I can’t remember the last time I saw a film with such a thoroughly despicable protagonist as Wikus Van De Merwe. He is vicious, self-serving, inept, and almost a complete coward. But newcomer Sharlto Copley (a producer and personal friend of director Neill Blomkamp) completely brought this character to life. Wikus begins the film as the consummate corporate stooge, showing obvious enjoyment and aptitude at his middle management job, even as he perpetrates some incredible acts of callousness and destruction in the alien ghetto known as District 9. Copley’s performance in some of these moments is downright giddy, with a thoroughly believable grin on his face as he supervises the abortion – via flamethrower – of an alien breeding shack (“It’s like popcorn!”). Copley’s character and plotline reminded me a great deal of Leonardo DiCaprio in Blood Diamond, and as with that film, if the character had remained the terrible person he was at the start of the film, there would have been little for the audience to connect with. But even as District 9 loses some of its more provocative social themes and becomes more of a big, fun action film, Copley’s emotional transformation becomes as real as Wikus’ physical one. And this is especially remarkable considering that every line of Wikus’ dialogue is improvised! (source). Copley gives a masterful performance that absolutely makes this movie work, and I’m simultaneously eager and a little frightened to see what he does next.

#4: Joseph Gordon-Levitt – Tom Hansen, (500) Days of Summer

In my original review, I noticed that Joseph Gordon-Levitt had once again proven his two central characteristics… He’s one of the finest young actors working today, and he hasn’t aged a day since “Third Rock from the Sun”. He was utterly charming in this film, proving as capable at reckless, romantic zeal as sullen, intractable brooding (as the story’s unconventional breakup narrative demanded). His chemistry with Zooey Deschanel was fantastic, and made this one of the most memorable romances (if not love stories) of the year.

#3: Jeremy Renner – SSgt. William James,
Anthony Mackie – Sgt. JT Sanborn,
Brian Geraghty – Spc. Owen Eldridge, The Hurt Locker

Jeremy Renner and Anthony Mackie in "The Hurt Locker"
Brian Geraghty in "The Hurt Locker"

I’ll admit, this is a total cheat, but as I noted in my original review, I can’t single out any of these performances in Kathryn Bigelow’s fantastic Iraq War action film, The Hurt Locker, as the superlative one. As an ensemble, however, these three work immensely well. Renner’s performance is appropriately intense (and only slightly clichéd, as the new, loose-cannon commander of the squad), but Mackie and Geraghty are just fantastic, and make for ample balance among the three. The film features Bigelow’s typically strong portrayal of male friendship in intense circumstances, when the characters aren’t sure if they want to embrace or murder each other… But thanks to these three performances, the dialogue feels authentic, and the characterization is solid. These men may be considered heroes, but as far as they’re concerned, they’re just doing what they have to do. They’re here, and they’re going to keep doing the job until they go home or get killed.

#2: George Clooney – Ryan Bingham, Up in the Air

George Clooney in "Up in the Air"

Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air is the story of Ryan Bingham (Clooney), a corporate road warrior who spends over 300 days a year flying around the country firing people for a living. Ryan is already a fascinating enough character just from that description, and Clooney’s performance delivers on every bit of promise the character demands. He has remarkable chemistry with both of his co-stars, and his relationships with each of them are completely what make this film work. As I noted in my original review, the film constantly tries to have it both ways with Ryan, granting him semi-omniscient voiceovers that are equal parts self-aware and self-deprecating, but shying away from taking a position on whether he truly believes in what he’s doing. But somehow, Clooney’s performance just makes it all work. He plays with this ambiguity in a way that keeps Ryan’s rhetoric as one of the film’s most important themes, but stops it from becoming didactic. And later on in the film, as the character’s transformation becomes apparent, he completely conveys (but doesn’t overplay) how emotionally shaken Ryan has been by the film’s events. This is surely one of Clooney’s finest performances, and one of the best I’ve seen this year.

#1: Sam Rockwell – Sam Bell/Sam Bell, Moon

In my original review of Duncan Jones’ Moon, I called it a film for people who love big ideas. The film’s “big reveal” comes in the first 15 minutes, as Sam Bell (Rockwell), the solitary worker of a lunar mining base, wanders outside to investigate a crashed lunar rover, and finds an unconscious clone of himself behind the wheel. As the film begins to explore its deeper sci-fi themes, Rockwell imbues each of the Sam Bells with a distinct, but related personality. They both play to familiar territory for Rockwell – unshaven and slightly unhinged, but even as the film skips over the expected tropes of its genre (at no point does one clone chase the other around with a knife), Rockwell’s performance creates a compelling dynamic between the two. The only other character in the film is GERTY, the artificially intelligent base computer, which can only communicate its emotions via on-screen emoticons and the mellifluous voice of Kevin Spacey. But while the relationship between Sam and the computer is one of the most fascinating aspects of Moon, it is Rockwell that carries the weight of the film. Like Tom Hanks in Cast Away before him, this is Rockwell’s one-man show, and he acquits himself masterfully in the role.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Seth Rogen as Ronnie Barnhardt in Observe and Report
  • Mark Ruffalo and Adrian Brody as Stephen and Bloom in The Brothers Bloom
  • Clive Owen as Joe Warr in The Boys Are Back
  • Jesse Eisenberg as James Brennan in Adventureland
  • Robin Williams as Lance Clayton in World’s Greatest Dad

Click here to see the rest of the 2009 Glennies.

2009 Glennies, Part 3: Best Actress

#5: Mélanie Laurent – Shosanna Dreyfus, Inglourious Basterds

Mélanie Laurent in "Inglourious Basterds"

Mélanie Laurent’s character were scarcely even mentioned in the American marketing for this film, so I was quite surprised when her subplot became the most compelling one in the film. Following the deaths of her family at the hands of the SS, Shosanna bides her time incognito as the owner of a Parisian cinema, and plots revenge. As I mentioned in my original review, Shosanna is a familiar character, seemingly drawn from the same well as The Bride from Kill Bill, but Laurent ably makes this character her own, combining a quietly sorrowful demeanor with an unflinching vendetta.

Shosanna is also part of an entirely one-sided “romantic” subplot with a German soldier (Daniel Bruhl)… While his advances aren’t terribly entertaining, her constant rebuffing is occasionally comedic, but mostly downright chilling (“I suggest you try Vichy”). There is also a remarkable scene between Laurent and Christoph Waltz, in which they sit in a Parisian restaurant and eat strudel. As Shosanna faces the SS Colonel, she manages to rein in her terror until he steps out, at which point she immediately starts hyperventilating. Laurent’s performance is ruthless – like so many others in this film – but also quite vulnerable. She brings just the right balance to keep Shosanna sympathetic, even as she commits atrocities on par with the very people she wants to kill. It is a fantastic performance to round out an almost entirely strong cast (I’m lookin at you, Eli Roth), and is certainly one of the most memorable this year.

#4: Zoë Saldaña – Neytiri, Avatar

Zoë Saldaña performance capture in "Avatar"

Zoë Saldaña in "Avatar"This is a performance I really have to take James Cameron’s word on. The various forays into CG characters over the past decade have definitely started to blur the line between animation and live-action, but they were still mostly in the realm of bodily motion capture, with complex facial expressions significantly enhanced in post-production by teams of skilled animators. But while Andy Serkis’ performances as Gollum in Lord of the Rings were not eligible for an acting Oscar, they were a leap forward from the likes of Jar Jar Binks, and Avatar is certainly the next such leap. According to Cameron, the characters in this film were created using performance capture techniques that recorded every nuance of the actor’s performance. Every tic of a facial muscle…every movement of the eyes… They were all made by the real actors. If this is really the case, it is entirely possible that future performances in this vein will be eligible for acting awards. And I would certainly hand one out to Zoë Saldaña.

Neytiri, the Na’vi princess, is just about the only sympathetic (or fully realized) character in this film, and Saldaña plays her with an some surprisingly animalistic ferocity (even baring her teeth and hissing a few times). While the visual spectacle of this film was enough to ensure that I was rapt with attention, it was with Saldaña’s character that I made the greatest emotional connection. She is almost certainly responsible for how well the romance played on-screen, and in light of the complex production process, achieving any believable chemistry could not have been an easy feat.

#3: Anna Kendrick – Natalie Keener, Up in the Air

Anna Kendrick in "Up in the Air"

From my original review:

Natalie is a fascinating character – the consummate young career gal, ruthless and cynical, but with a very human side, full of all the self-imposed deadlines and anxiety about her future that all twenty-somethings tend to have. Anna Kendrick, who I’d only seen previously in a small and ineffectual role in the Twilight films, gives a masterful performance as Natalie, and is surely one of the actresses I’ll be watching for in the future.

This is a performance that grew on me each time I saw the film. The interplay between Natalie and her colleague Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) is simply fantastic. Kendrick plays the character with both a fierce determination and a striking vulnerability, utterly immune to Ryan’s charms (and soundly mocking him for his rhetoric). As their road trip of job terminations goes on, it all becomes more and more personal for Natalie, and Kendrick’s performance completely brings this transformation to life.

#2: Charlotte Gainsbourg – She, Antichrist

Still for Lars von Trier's "Antichrist".

This is a haunting performance in a strange and thoroughly disturbing film. Charlotte Gainsbourg plays the unnamed wife of a couple grieving alone in the woods. Through this unsettling and bewildering performance, Gainsbourg effectively conveys how broken and terrified this character has become. The interplay with her husband (Willem Dafoe) effectively illustrates the disjointed and counterproductive state of their present relationship. Gainsbourg’s performance is utterly fearless, and she maintains it even as her character becomes a paragon of the film’s unrelenting misogyny (“A woman crying is a woman scheming…”). Frankly, I would have a hard time recommending this film to anyone, but if I did, it would be solely because of this performance, which is one of the most effective and frightening I’ve ever seen.

#1: Zooey Deschanel – Summer Finn, (500) Days of Summer

Zooey Deschanel in "500 Days of Summer"

From my original review:

Zooey Deschanel…steals this film. To put it bluntly, this is a character that the audience could easily have ended up despising. And while the character of Summer is mostly well-written, the characterization and non-linear progression of the story demand a great deal from Deschanel. And it is her performance that just manages to make the character sympathetic.

As Tom reflects on his relationship, many of his scenes with Summer are cast in a different light through subsequent flashbacks. On the second run through, the film’s editing calls attention to the slightest glance of the eyes, or twinge of the cheek muscles, or the most minor apathetic tone of voice… In each of these microexpressions, Deschanel’s performance is masterfully subtle. And throughout the film, she brings all the mystery, likeability, and sensuality that the character demands, but couples it with a subtle undertone of cold, mature pragmatism. She manages to force the audience through nearly the same process as Tom, despite our advantages of an outside perspective and sardonic narrator to keep us objective..

Honorable Mentions:

  • Ellen Page as Bliss Cavender in Whip It
  • Rachel Weisz as Penelope in The Brothers Bloom
  • Isabelle Fuhrman as Esther in Orphan
  • Emma Watson as Hermione Granger in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Click here to see the rest of the 2009 Glennies.

2009 Glennies, Part 2: Best Supporting Actress

#5: Marcia Gay Harden – Brooke Cavendar, Whip It

Marcia Gay Harden in "Whip It"

Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut, Whip It (review), was an adept entry in the sporting genre (in this case, roller derby), made even more effective by some impressive casting and rich characters. The great Marcia Gay Harden plays Brooke Cavendar, an overbearing mother who puts constant pressure on her daughter, Bliss (Ellen Page), to stay pretty and compete in events that are equal parts beauty pageant and debutante ball. Bliss, meanwhile, would rather throw elbows and knock out teeth on the derby track. Brooke is an apt parallel to overeager football dads, but Harden’s performance is far more layered than such a stock character would normally require. Even as she steadfastly refuses to consider her Bliss’ wish to continue with roller derby, her concern for her daughter’s wellbeing shines through. She is stubborn, imperfect, but utterly well-meaning, and Harden’s strong performance contributes to making this one of the most engaging relationships in the film.

#4: Diane Kruger – Bridget von Hammersmark, Inglourious Basterds

Diane Kruger in "Inglourious Basterds"

As I said in my review, I’m seldom disappointed by actresses playing actresses, and German actress Diane Kruger was no exception. As she knocks back champagne and disarms an entire tavern of soldiers with a single laugh or smile, she harkens back to a time in which celebrity meant something altogether different for an actress from what it means today. And as her true role becomes apparent, she portrays her fictitious vintage film-starlet-cum-saboteur with exactly the right blend of elegance and ruthlessness.

#3: Rinko Kikuchi – Bang Bang, The Brothers Bloom

Rinko Kikuchi in "The Brothers Bloom"

Japanese actress Rinko Kikuchi first came onto my radar with her fantastic performance as a deaf student (and nearly the only interesting character) in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s 2006 film Babel. She returns in Rian Johnson’s The Brothers Bloom as another less-than-verbose character… We are told that the brothers’ sidekick and demolitions expert, Bang Bang, speaks about three words of English, and indeed, this is about all we hear from her during the film. Nonetheless, Kikuchi’s brilliance at physical comedy and remarkable range of facial expressions make her one of the most memorable and hilarious characters in the film. If there’s one thing Javier Bardem showed in No Country for Old Men, it’s that a character with very little dialogue can still be quite compelling. With her performance in this film, Kikuchi has proven this true once again, and further proven that such a character doesn’t have to be a daunting psychopath.

#2: Kristen Stewart – Em Lewin, Adventureland

Kristen Stewart in "Adventureland"

Kristen Stewart is either a brilliant actress or a one-time fluke. Here’s what I had to say about her eight months ago when I first saw Adventureland:

As much as it pains me following my experience with the abominable Twilight film, the moment has finally come when I must admit… Kristen Stewart is a damn fine actress. I can only speak to my reaction, but during every moment of Emily’s screen time, I was on the edge of my seat with anticipation. Stewart, in an incredibly nuanced and visual performance, managed to convey such a compelling sense of desperation and longing in every scene (both with and without [Jesse] Eisenberg) that I spent the entire film simultaneously rooting for and pitying her.

As Dave Chen from /Film points out, there is a “massive gulf between her on-screen charisma, and her off-screen persona”. Since Adventureland, all I’ve really seen from Stewart is a considerable foray into celebrity, and an understandable, if unremarkable return to her principal moneymaker. At this point, I must reserve judgment on whether she’ll prove a strong actress after she has left the Twilight franchise behind… Nonetheless, this is one of the most brilliant performances I’ve seen this year, and I have absolutely no qualms about praising it.

#1: Vera Farmiga – Alex Goran, Up in the Air

Vera Farmiga in "Up in the Air"

“Just think of me as yourself, but with a vagina,” says Alex to Ryan (George Clooney), with whom she has just shared a casual hotel fling. In my original review, I said that it is only with the character of Alex that the film comes dangerously close to contrivance. She is almost a total mystery – we know that she lives a similar life to Ryan, spending much of her time flying around the country, but we don’t really know much else. And yet, Farmiga’s performance and chemistry with Clooney completely make this romance work. While we don’t learn much about her profession, we do learn a great deal about her as a person. This character is somewhat of a mirror, acting as both a female version of Ryan and an older version of his colleague Natalie (Anna Kendrick). But in her interactions with the two, she offers some remarkable insights. One of my favorite scenes in the film involves Alex and Natalie swapping their respective versions of the ideal man. Farmiga’s monologue in this scene is just fantastic. Even as she is saying some pretty provocative things (e.g. “Please, let him earn more money than I do”), her delivery includes all the hesitation and reflection that comes with such a deeply personal question as one’s ideal match. On the surface, this scene simply highlights the difference in perspective between women in their 20s and 30s, but it also provides a mountain of subtext for the film’s central romance between Alex and Ryan that gives the film immeasurable rewatch value.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Alia Shawkat as Pash in Whip It
  • Kristen Wiig as Maggie Mayhem in Whip It
  • Lorna Raver as Sylvia Ganush in Drag Me to Hell
  • Marion Cotillard as Billie Frechette in Public Enemies

Click here to see the rest of the 2009 Glennies.