Saturday, July 23, 2011

Best and Worst Movies of the Year ... So Far

As a whole, so far, 2011 has been a pretty lame year for movies. If you don't include Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the box office is down, people are not making much effort to go, and plenty of media outlets have been running articles on how the novelty of 3-D has worn off as the public has gotten wise to what seems now to be no more than a cheap gimmick by studios to charge extra money.

This does not mean that the year has been all bad. There have been several good, and even a couple great films worth seeing. So, here's my list of the 5 best films of the year up to this point (in alphabetical order):


Kristen Wiig has written and starred in the best overall comedy of the year with Bridesmaids. She plays a woman whose life has been in free fall since her bakery became a casualty of the economy, only to become even more devastated by the announcement that her best friend is about to be married. When she discovers that there's competition to become the maid of honor in the wedding, she loses her cool and the wheels come off, leading to some remarkable comedic moments. What separates this comedy from others is its willingness to present us with female characters that act like women, talk like women, and -- most importantly -- think like women. The humor never feels contrived, and Wiig's performance is outstanding.

Midnight in Paris

Because Woody Allen has made a movie a year since the late 60s, he has made a lot of crap (Celebrity, Curse of the Jade Scorpion, etc.). Yet, his batting average overall is quite good when you consider his home runs (Annie Hall, Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters, Crimes and Misdemeanors). Well, Midnight in Paris is another home run. Owen Wilson plays Gil, a screenwriter on vacation in Paris with his fiance. He's a romantic, nostalgic sort who wishes it were still the 1920s when F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Salvador Dali, and Luis Buñel hung out, partied, and created some of the great art of the 20th century. Well, in a magical twist, at the stroke of midnight Gil finds himself transported back to 1920s Paris where he gets the chance to hobknob with his artistic heroes and find a new love in the beautiful form of Adriana (Marion Cotillard). Midnight in Paris is charming, beautifully shot, and for 90 minutes makes you believe in magic.


Gore Verbinski's animated tribute to spaghetti westerns is the most inventive animated film this year. It gives us a main character that is at once unorthodox as he is unattractive in the form of the identity challenged Rango (Johnny Depp). Rango finds himself, after a road trip accident, stranded in the desert searching for water. This leads him to the town of Dirt, where he bullshits his way into the role of Sheriff. There are strange characters, scary monsters, a conspiracy, and plenty of hijinks to make this movie both fun and engaging. Verbinski apparently shot this film in live action with the actors together at the same time, and had the animators work with the footage. It shows, as the characters' movements and personalities take on a liveliness that only Pixar films seem to generate.

Super 8

With Super 8, director JJ Abrams channels the spirit of early Spielberg, creating this sci-fi classic about growing up, friendship, and forgiveness. Joe, after the death of his mother, dives into work as the make-up artist in his best friend's zombie movie. One night, while filming, they witness a train accident that unleashes something evil and alien on their small town. Joe's father, Jackson (Kyle Chandler), is the Sheriff's Deputy who tries to get to the bottom of the chaos, which he fears is being covered up by the US military. Super 8 feels familiar, but it's Abrams' flair for style and his ability to find the heart and emotion at the core of his story that make this movie special. The performances of his young cast are honest and captivating, especially those of Joel Courtney and Elle Fanning as Alice, the troubled, beautiful girl-next-door with whom both Joe and Charles are in love. This is a film that fills you with wonder at the same time it tugs at your heart.

Tree of Life

An exploration of grand themes such as growing up, dealing with loss, and the origin of the universe, Terrence Malick's breathtaking film is not short on ambition. Somehow he manages to bring together the frustrations of youth, the dilemmas of parenthood and dinosaurs in a seamless manner that feels more like a tone poem than a narrative. The film begins with the death of a child and evolves into a meditation on the origin of life and the promises of death. It is not an easy viewing, especially for moviegoers used to Hollywood films with traditional screenplays and structure, but it is rewarding. I doubt any other film this year will challenge me as much as this one did, or get me thinking about it as much after it is finished.

Here are my submissions for worst films of the year so far. If these are not nominated for Razzies next year, it will be for one of two reasons: 1) far worse films will be released between now and December 31, or 2) the Razzie voters don't actually watch movies.

Bad Teacher

With a premise full of promise, Bad Teacher had the chance to be a good movie. But it jumped off the rails as soon as it began with a title sequence that looked haphazard and cliche. In this movie, Diaz plays a gold digging teacher whose fiance gets wise to her plans and dumps her before they make it to the altar. She's forced to go back to the classroom to survive and immediately finds a new sugar daddy in a rich substitute teacher with a heart of gold played by Justin Timberlake. Part of what makes this movie so awful is the way it uses the real life relationship past between Diaz and Timberlake to create tension between the characters. But mostly, it's the cheap jokes that feel like a rip off of better raunchy comedies and a protagonist that is so unlikable she becomes irredeemable.

Just Go With It

Inspired by the terrific late 60s romp Cactus Flower, starring Walter Matthau and Goldie Hawn, the only thing this turd is missing is Kate Hudson. Seriously. Adam Sandler continues a string of awful films with this one, in which he stars as a lovelorn cosmetic surgeon who uses a wedding ring and sob stories about an imaginary abusive wife to woo women into the sack. Things get complicated when he meets the lust -- I mean love -- of his life in Sports Illustrated swimsuit cover model Brooklyn Decker, who finds the ring when he's not wearing it and gets angry at him for being married and sleeping with her. So, Sandler gets his nurse assistant (Jennifer Aniston) and her kids involved on an elaborate lie that eventually takes the gang to Hawaii on an awkward family vacation. This is an uncomfortable movie with shallow performances all around. Only one other movie has made me groan more times in disgust this year.

Sucker Punch

I like Zach Snyder's audacious directing style with its fetishistic imagery, slow-mo, camera whirling and all. Sucker Punch, though, was a major miscalculation. This film is both incomprehensible and pretentious. The story is about  Babydoll, who is thrown into an asylum by her abusive stepfather. The asylum, populated by evil doctors, stern nurses, etc, is eventually transformed into a burlesque club in which Babydoll becomes the new dancing girl. Don't worry, it didn't make much sense to me either. The rest of the movie is a video game mess in which Babydoll dances in order for her group of friends to steal items needed for escape. Snyder wants to make a movie about girl power, female objectification and the like, but his images of hot girls in fetish outfits doesn't prove his point so much as contradicts it. This is a movie for video game obsessed teens needing hot girl images for their spank banks.

Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon

Stupid, thoughtless, misogynist, contradictory, and childish, Michael Bay's Transformers 3 is an lame-brained special-effects extravaganza packaged like an epic adventure in the vein of Lord of the Rings and Saving Private Ryan. Half the movie is spent with unlikable characters talking about the fate of the world at the hands of talking robots. The story involves a US cover-up of the Transformer presence in the late 1960s. In the present day, our intrepid hero, Sam (Shia LeBoeuf) becomes the first Ivy League grad with a hot girlfriend we're supposed to feel sorry for because he can't find a job after saving the world a couple times (a fact he can't help but share in every scene). Eventually Sam is reunited with his Autobot friends, just in time to get involved in yet another epic battle in which he runs, screams, and watches ugly robots fight so he can later tell people how he saved the world. Did I say that this movie is stupid?

The Zookeeper

Had this just been a movie about talking animals, I would have been much nicer to it. After all, kids' films are seldom great entertainment once you reach the age of 13 (with exceptions like Babe and anything in the Pixar canon). But The Zookeeper was particularly offensive because of the way it uses its kid-friendly premise to make a movie about a middle-aged schmuck with relationship problems. The talking animals are always talking about adult things that the target audience for a film like this can't relate to. As a result, everything bad about this movie becomes uncomfortable and offensive, from the PG sex jokes to the stereotypical animal humor, to the blatant product placement (TGI Fridays does not have pool tables!). I hated this movie, and even though Kevin James is a likable star, and Rosario Dawson is a ravishing beauty, they could not save this piece of monkey shit.

Here's hoping we get more wonderful films in the second half of the this year. There are a few titles to look forward to. Here are a few that are on my radar.

Moneyball, starring Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill in the true life story of how stats changed the game of baseball forever.

War Horse, Steven Spielberg's first feature film since 2008, about a boy and his horse during WWI.

30 Minutes or Less with Jesse Eisenberg as a hapless pizza delivery driver who gets caught up in a couple idiots' plans to rob a bank.

The Descendents, Alexander Payne's new film starring George Clooney as a man who has to learn how to raise his family when his wife becomes hospitalized with a terminal illness.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, David Fincher's remake of the hit Swedish film. The trailer looks amazing, and I'm pretty much down to see anything made by the impressive Fincher (Seven, Fight Club, Zodiac, The Social Network).

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