This Shrek spin-off is another strong showing from Dreamworks Animation who, until last year’s How to Train Your Dragon, was churning out a lot of well made but more or less stupid movies. Puss hearkens back to the playful energy of Shrek 2, the fairy tale mash-ups of Shrek (which the sequel had little of at the narrative level), and the classical swashbuckling excitement of The Mask of Zorro. It’s loads of silly fun, and funny to boot. And did I mention it has kitties? Lots and lots of cuddly, mischievous cats and cat accessories and cat jokes? I have an alternate title suggestion: I Can Haz Fairy Tail Adventurz.
8) Captain America
|It's what's on the inside that counts.|
Like Iron Man in 2008, Captain America exudes stylishly muscular energy. It’s part snappy 30’s period piece, a la director Joe Johnston’s The Rocketeer with a bigger budget, and it apes Raiders of the Lost Ark—successfully. A sinister German general (Hugo Weaving) has taken the fuhrer’s supposed obsession with the occult to it’s logical conclusion: he is building an invincible army by way of an ancient mystical artifact. Something more than the average soldier is needed to stop him. For Steve Rogers, a scrawny idealist played by a CG-altered Chris Evans, all he can dream of is serving his country. He is spied out by a government scientist who understands that it is the values—not the strength—that makes the man, and the scrawny boy is transformed by science into a beefed-up hero. The rest of the film is exciting and great and of course good wins, but I think that this movie was noteworthy (and stands out among the Marvel canon) for taking the best of classical American ideals about self-sacrifice and personal nobility and embodying them so un-ironically in the person of Steve Rogers. I don’t consider Captain America propaganda, but it made even this skeptic feel a little patriotic.
7) The Muppets
|The lovers, the dreamers...|
A passion project of the lovable man-child Jason Segel, The Muppets is a warm, snarky nostagia trip through the days when children’s films weren’t dominated by pop-abusing CG rodents. Segel and his muppet brother search out Kermit once they learn Muppet Studios is to be demolished, meaning of course that everyone has to get back together to sing songs, tell jokes and be flummoxed with each other so it doesn’t get torn down. But the journey is the destination here, and the songs are wondrously joyous and winking, sparkling with the witty verve of Kiwi folk-comedy lyricist Brett Mckenzie of Flight of the Conchords. It brings heart back into the stale contemporary mix of prat falls and meta humor, affirming friendship, loyalty and family even among the most ragtag of misfits.
6) Source Code
If you can imagine Groundhog Day and The Matrix having a love-child, that begins to get at what Source Code is like. Jake Gyllenhal plays an army veteran recruited without consent to relive the last eight minutes of another man’s life, which was ended by a train bombing that killed him and hundreds of others. Each iteration of the events is exactly the same except for how Gyllenhal’s character chooses to influence them, using his past experiences of that same eight minutes to his advantage in order to ferret out clues about the bomb and bomber. Unlike The Matrix, it wears its sci-fi conceits lightly, focusing on the brisk action of the investigation and Gyllenhal’s interest in the friend of his surrogate body played by Michelle Monaghan. It’s a smart, fun movie.
5) Attack the Block
|"This is MY house. I have to defend it!"|
Attack comes from one of the minds (Joe Cornish) closely involved with the Britain-born genre mash-ups Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. Here the setting isn’t suburban (Shaun) or country (Fuzz), but the block—i.e., the London projects. It’s a wickedly sly turn on E.T.—rather than strike up a friendship with a strange creature, these kids just kill the first alien when it gets aggressive, inciting the wrath of its cohorts and setting up the rest of the film. On the block, aliens don’t bear the Spielbergian hope of Close Encounters, but the Spielbergian splatter of Jaws and Jurassic Park. It's an exciting but grim movie. Writer/Director Cornish labors to root the proceedings in an almost anthropological sense of place and dialogue—my friend and I didn’t always understand what these poor kids from the block were saying—yet finds nobility and strength in these scrappy survivors for whom an alien invasion is just another setback in an already too cruel world.
4) Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows, Pt. 2
|Only a true heir of Godric Gryffindor could have received it.|
Either the Harry Potter series took six films (and director Yates 2) before it found its cinematic vocabulary (Prisoner of Azkaban notwithstanding), or Rowling wrote Deathly Hallows in a more classically cinematic-epic style. I don’t think any of the Harry Potter films are Great, capital G, before Deathly Hallows, Pt. 1—a chilling, harrowing and lonely film carrying the emotional freight of its several predecessors. In Part 2, All the dark undercurrents of the series explode in a fantastic cataclysm of good and evil. The villains are primal and terrifying, the heroes desperate and noble. It’s visually fantastic and a satisfying conclusion to the series in terms of emotional closure with the beloved characters.
3) Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol
Animation auteur Brad Bird (The Incredibles, Ratatouille) has worked a marvelous kind of magic with the fourth installment of the Mission: Impossible franchise. Its pure escapist fluff, but it’s the crème brulee of fluff. While the Bourne series had a stark, verite vibe (which the Bond revivals attempted to reproduce), Bird lets none of the post-9/11 spy seriousness weigh down the flat out awesomeness of the action. The plot is, as always disposable, but the set pieces are engrossing, multilayered, kinetic, yet never confusing. This was the most fun I had at the movies this year.
2) Midnight in Paris
Owen Wilson stars as yet another stand-in for writer-director Woody Allen’s trademark persona of nervous hand-wringing, vulnerability and literary intellect. He’s a hack Hollywood script-writer vacationing in Paris with his bracing fiancee (Rachel McAdams) and her in-laws. He's also attempting to write a novel.* Needing escape from the blunt pragmatism of his co-travelers (who also include the trademark Allen foil: a pontificating pseudo-intellectual who doubles as an apparent romantic competitor) he starts taking midnight walks in the city of love where he is magically transported to the golden era of his imagination: 1920’s Paris and the Lost Generation. He rubs elbows with Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Stein, Picasso, Matisse, Dali—and falls for a sweet but wounded French girl played by the beautiful Marion Cotillard. The movie critiques Wilson’s romanticist escapism, but ultimately celebrates romantic adventure: deep feeling and authenticity empowering one to take responsibility and face life, as Hemingway would have it, with grace and courage.
1) Certified Copy
Certified Copy depicts a vulnerable woman (Juliette Binoche) eager to love a cerebral and reserved academic (William Shimell) lecturing in the small Italian town where she runs an antiques shop. He preaches post-values aesthetics like an artless Oscar Wilde, and has written a book about collapsing the distance between original art and copies. But his heady hedonism seems untenable to Binoche’s single mom, and as their conflict increases over the course of one day in Italy (as their conversation spills from Italian into French into English and back to Italian over and over again), it becomes unclear whether they’re in a tentative courtship or a struggling marriage. The film takes on a moebius strip like quality, and the viewer’s perspective determines the meaning of their relationship. It sounds like a ponderous mess, but on screen the performances are fully, wonderfully human.
Filmmaking legend Martin Scorsese’s first “family” film, Hugo is a dazzling picture nostalgic for the same time and place Owen Wilson pined for in Midnight in Paris. It has the all the chilling misery of a Dickensian fable, but the cathartic levity is missing. You’ll see no other film like it from the last year, and few as technically amazing. However, whereas the best family films have big-hearted uplift, Scorsese identifies overmuch with the lonely orphan of the streets. The film’s focus on the movie magic of George Melies is a pale comfort to the boy’s palpable losses.
Most visually spectacular
Spielberg and Weta Digital have outdone their motion capture forebears (moreso Zemeckis than Cameron) and created a living, breathing world that has merged human and cartoon while somehow skipping the uncanny valley altogether. Yet I didn’t love the film because, though it was spectacular and entertaining, the whole show felt thin. Perhaps in working so hard to digitally simulate the appearance of human characters, the filmmakers forgot to actually write human characters.
Juliette Binoche steals the show with a nuanced and vulnerable character without seeming to be acting at all. Her co-star, Shimell, who shares almost all of his screen time with her, achieves the difficult task of crafting an equally enfleshed character alongside her. Without their performances the film would be a cute, Tarantino-wannabe narrative game.
Midnight in Paris
Classical, winsome and romantic.
Most Obtuse (and overrated?)
Tree of Life
This is the film on everyone’s top ten this year (along, mostly, with Certified Copy), but I’m not of the opinion that filmwatching means I have to labor diligently to piece together what a film is about. Tree of Life has some strong performances from Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain. The vignettes showing mid-century life in the Texan suburbs are fascinating and deftly realized. And I’ll concede the film’s beauty and ambition—it showed me some things I’d never quite seen in a movie before (contemplative dinosaurs, for a start). Ultimately, though, the film was lost on me. There’s something to be said for the narratival directness of a movie like War Horse, which isn’t a great film but is certainly a good one. But hey, sometimes it’s go big or go home.
Most wanted (to see)
Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Cave of Forgotten Dreams
*The novel he's working on is about a man running an antique shop like the one Juliette Binoche is in Certified Copy. And Hugo is wistful for early 1900s Paris just like Marion Cotillard's character in Midnight in Paris. I guess Paris was hot at the producers' pitch meetings a year or two ago.