The Best Movies I Saw in 2017, by The Movie Snob

Welcome to the Movie Snob’s Best of 2017 column!  Alas, circumstances conspired against me this year, and I saw a paltry 39 movies in the theater last year.  And, sadly, I haven’t yet seen some lauded late releases like Darkest Hour and Molly’s Game.  Still, I will give you my opinions, and you can take them for what they are worth!

Best Movie of the Year.   Can the year’s best really be a comic-book movie??  Yes, but not a typically flippant Marvel creation or gloomy DC downer.  My top honor goes to Logan, in which Hugh Jackman shines as an aging and ailing Wolverine.  Maybe the gory violence and R rating should knock it out of my top spot, but if you can see past that, this movie had as much heart as anything I saw this year.  Wolverine’s relationships with the broken-down Professor X and a mysterious little girl mutant are really wonderful.

Runner-Up.  My runner-up is usually something completely different from my top pick, and 2017 is no exception.  I’ll award the silver medal to Lady Bird, starring the incomparable Saoirse Ronan as a misfit high-school senior trying to find her way.  Laurie Metcalf also shines as the hard-working mother who loves her daughter ferociously but just can’t avoid butting heads with her.  Expect Ronan and Metcalf to contend for Oscars™!

Best Action/Adventure Flick.  The aforementioned Logan would win this category hands-down this year.  After that . . . let’s go with War for the Planet of the Apes.  This film wraps up a trilogy that is of consistently high quality.  Be warned that it’s pretty dark—Woody Harrelson is excellent as a sadistic military commander who actually has some logic behind his madness.  And Steve Zahn shines with a few moments of much-needed comic relief as Bad Ape.

Best Animated Movie.  Sorry, but I’ve got nothing in this category this year.  The LEGO Batman Movie left me cold, and Coco was only slightly better.  Thanks to my goddaughter, I saw 2016’s Moana several more times, and it has gone way up in my estimation.  Check it out!

Best Comedy or Musical.  Amazing—a comedy that actually made me laugh out loud!  And what’s even weirder, it’s based on a true story!  Yes, I’m talking about The Disaster Artist, a quasi-biopic about an eccentric amateur film-maker named Tommy Wiseau and the making of his amazingly, incredibly bad movie called The Room.  Can you enjoy The Disaster Artist even if you haven’t seen The Room?  My wager is yes, but I’m unsure.  James Franco and the movie have picked up Golden Globe© nominations, so I say take your chances and give it a watch.

Best Documentary.  I didn’t see any really great documentaries this year, but I’ll go ahead and give a shout-out to Disney’s nature special Born in China.  Who doesn’t love pandas?  The only other documentary I saw in 2017 was California Typewriter, and I’m sorry to say it was pretty mediocre.

Best Drama.  Maybe this one really belongs in the Action/Adventure category, but at any rate Dunkirk is certainly among the very best movies I saw this year.  Kind of like Fury did a couple of years ago, Dunkirk drops you right into the action and (I’m speculating) gives you a little taste of what it might be like to be lost in the terrifying fog of war.  By coincidence I also want to heap some praise on another WWII drama, Their Finest, about some brave Brits trying to keep morale high on the home front.  Too bad I didn’t make it out to see Darkest Hour, or this could have been a WWII trifecta!

Best Foreign Film.  If we include English-language foreign films, this category goes to Their Finest, mentioned just above under Best Drama.  But let’s set that one aside for a moment.  I’ll give a mention to The Salesman, an Iranian/French production directed by Asghar Farhadi.  But I must say, I liked his previous films A Separation and The Past noticeably more.  I also liked a 2014 release I just saw this year, the black-and-white vampire pic A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night.  IMDB lists its country as USA, but the movie is in Farsi, so I’m calling it a foreign film.

Best Science-Fiction Film.  This was a 2016 release, and the critics generally didn’t love it (Metacritic score 41), but I rather liked Passengers—probably because it starred the generally awesome Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt.  (Let’s don’t talk about Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.)  I can understand the folks who didn’t like Passengers, but I say give it a chance.

Honorable Mentions.  Here’s a handful of other 2017 (and 2016) releases that I would say are worth your time and attention.  First, how about a Nicole Kidman double-header?  She got an Oscar® nomination for the tear-jerking drama Lion, and she also starred in a decent little Civil War drama called The Beguiled.  DC did manage to give us an above-average comic-book movie with Wonder Woman.  Or maybe just a far-above-average movie star named Gal Gadot?  For a romantic dramedy, you could do much worse than The Big Sick.  I may just be predisposed to like anything by Kenneth Branagh, but I enjoyed his take on Murder on the Orient Express.  And I also liked the quirky independent flick Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, although not as much as its 86 Metacritic score and six Golden Globe™ nominations might suggest.  I’ll wrap this section with soft shout-outs to The Edge of Seventeen, The Hero, Baby Driver, Brad’s Status, Thor: Ragnarok, and a little movie called The Last Jedi.

And one classic.  I saw Gaslight (1942) as part of a local theater’s ongoing classic film series, and I quite enjoyed it.  Ingrid Bergman shines as a sweet young woman who thinks she’s slipping into madness after she marries a fellow who seems to be the man of her dreams.  Definitely worth looking up!

That’s a wrap!  Happy movie-going in 2018!

The Best Movies I Saw in 2016, by The Movie Snob

It’s time once again for my annual “best of” column.  I am really slowing down in my old age; I saw only 44 movies in the theaters in 2016.  Nevertheless, I hope this column may be of some assistance to you as you look for films worth your time to downstream or netload or do whatever tech-savvy people do nowadays in order to watch movies at home.

Best Movie of the Year.  I don’t think I have ever picked an animated movie as my movie of the year before.  But here it goes: My favorite movie of 2016 was Zootopia, an animated feature about prejudices and stereotypes and an adorable little rabbit who just wants to be a police officer.  Good fun for the whole family.

Runner Up.  A totally different kind of movie gets my nod for second place—the quiet drama 45 Years.  (It was released in 2015, but I didn’t see it until 2016.)  A British couple prepares to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary, but their marriage is suddenly shaken by unexpected news concerning a long-ago tragedy.  It’s no feel-good movie, but I found it compelling.

Best Action/Adventure Flick.  Marvel never ceases to surprise me.  I thought the previous Captain America movie was a bit of a drag, but I enjoyed Captain America: Civil War a lot.  If comic-book mayhem is your cup of tea, Civil War is for you.  I will also give a shout-out to 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi as an exciting war movie in the vein of American Sniper.

Best Animated Movie.  Obviously Zootopia takes top honors in this category.  But Moana was also an enjoyable romp in an unusual setting.  I will also mention a very different sort of animated movie, Anomalisa, in which the filmmaker uses puppets to bring modern alienation and isolation to life (so to speak).

Best Comedy or Musical.  I rarely have occasion to put a musical in my year-end list, so I have to tinker with the name of this category to make it fit.  I give top honors to the musical La La Land, which is still in the theaters so you can catch it!  I predict it will get lots of love from Oscar® this year.  I’ll list two comedies as runners up.  First is director Whit Stillman’s newest movie Love & Friendship.  Of course, it had an unfair advantage because it’s based on a story by Jane Austen, but Stillman did a good job bringing it to life, and Kate Beckinsale excels as the hilariously conniving and insincere Lady Susan.  If you like it, I urge you to check out Stillman’s other films, which are personal favorites of mine.  Second, I also enjoyed the quirky little indie comedy Maggie’s Plan, starring indie queen Greta Gerwig.

Best Documentary.  I saw only one in 2016, and it was pretty good.  Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict, taught me a little something about 20th century art history.  I have forgotten it all since then, but I do remember enjoying the movie.

Best Drama.  This would be 45 Years, which I have already mentioned as my runner-up for Movie of the Year.  After that, I would pick the modern-day Western Hell or High Water, starring Chris “Captain Kirk” Pine and Jeff “the Dude” Bridges.  It’s a tight little crime drama with some nice Texas scenery that Bridges gives a vigorous chewing.  I also enjoyed the Jennifer Lawrence vehicle Joy, which I’m pretty sure was a 2015 release.

Best Foreign Film45 Years was a British production, so I guess it belongs in this category too.  But the best foreign-language movie I saw in 2016 was The Innocents.  Based on a true story, this movie is set in post-WWII Poland and depicts a French doctor’s efforts to help a convent of Polish nuns who were victimized by the Red Army in the waning days of the war.  I thought it was a really interesting and suspenseful movie.

Best Science-Fiction Film.  OK, I haven’t seen Rogue One yet, so there’s a gaping hole in my movie knowledge.  I did see two pretty good sci-fi movies in 2016, though.  The first was 10 Cloverfield Lane, a tense and claustrophobic movie featuring good performances by Mary Elizabeth Winstead and John Goodman.  The other was Midnight Special, which was a suspenseful movie about a dad trying to protect his son from mysterious forces.  I know virtually all the critics loved Arrival, but it just didn’t do it for me.

Honorable Mentions.  I handed out a few “B” grades to movies that I haven’t mentioned yet, so I’ll rattle them off here, in the order I saw them.  For a decent Western, check out Forsaken, which stars two Sutherlands for the price of one.  I’m not much into horror movies, but I saw and liked the very spooky film The Witch: A New-England Folktale.  Maggie Smith is a force of nature in The Lady in the Van.  Tina Fey gives a nice performance as a journalist in over her head in Afghanistan in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.  Maybe the presence of Nicole Kidman sparked a little grade inflation, but I quite enjoyed Genius, also starring Jude Law and Colin Firth.  Finally, I enjoyed Woody Allen’s latest movie, Café Society.

And a couple of classics.  I saw a couple of old movies for the first time this year that I’d recommend.  One is the 1944 film noir Laura, which is a heck of a lot of fun and features the beautiful Gene Tierney.  The other is the 1967 shoot-em-up Bonnie and Clyde, starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway.  I thought that was a really interesting and entertaining movie, even though you know how it’s going to end.

That’s a wrap!  I’ll see you at the cinema!

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The Best Movies I Saw in 2015, by The Movie Snob

Greetings, Gentle Reader, and welcome to The Movie Snob’s annual “best of column.”  2015 was a bit of a slow year for me; I saw only 50 movies in the theater, plus four more on DVD.  But, looking back over my notes, I still find it easy to identify lots of good and even great movies for your viewing pleasure.  As always, every movie I saw in a theater last year is eligible for consideration, even if it was technically a 2014 release.

Best Movie of the Year.  I think this is the first time I have ever picked a science-fiction movie as the top movie of the year.  For me, The Martian was hands-down the best movie of 2015.  It’s like a cross between Gravity and Robinson Crusoe.  Matt Damon gives a fine performance as the marooned astronaut.  I see the movie has gotten some love from the Golden Globes, so let’s hope the Academy follows suit.

Runner Up.  Coming in a close second is a very different movie: Spotlight, about the newspaper investigation that finally exposed the Catholic clergy scandal in Boston back in 2002.  It’s a low-key, just-the-facts kind of movie, but that didn’t make it any less effective.  My guess is that Spotlight will win the best-picture Oscar™ this year.

Best Action/Adventure Flick.  I can’t say I saw this coming.  I had about given up on the James Bond franchise, when along comes Spectre.  Sure, it’s a little goofy in parts, but I thought Spectre was a thoroughly enjoyable thrill ride regardless.  I’m not sure where to put the drug-war epic Sicario, starring Emily Blunt and Benicio Del Toro, so I’ll put it in this category too.  It has some explosions and shoot-outs, so I think it qualifies.

Best Animated Movie.  It had very little competition this year, but no matter—Inside Out richly deserves the honor as best animated movie of the year.

Best Comedy.  I usually have trouble coming up with a strong pick for best comedy, but not this time.  Mistress America, directed by Noah Baumbach, was laugh-out-loud funny.  It’s way quirky, and it’s apparently getting no attention from the award-givers, but I say ignore the critics and give it a try.  Were any other 2015 comedies actually funny?  Well, I’ll give three-quarters of a thumbs-up to Trainwreck.  You gotta have a very high tolerance for vulgarity to enjoy it, but I can’t deny that it made me laugh.  Some.

Best Documentary.  I think Best of Enemies was the only documentary I saw in 2015.  Happily, it was a good one.  It’s a look at the televised “debates” between William F. Buckley, Jr. and Gore Vidal during the 1968 nominating conventions, and I thought it was very interesting.

Best Quasi-Documentaries.  Okay, I just made up this category because I just didn’t know what to do with two reality-based movies I saw last year: American Sniper and The Big Short.  They’re both really, really good movies.  I don’t want them to get lost in the “best action” or “best drama” categories, so I’m pulling them out and putting them here so you won’t forget to see them.

Best Drama.  There are a few strong contenders in this category beyond the obvious choice of Spotlight.  I think I’m going to go with Boyhood, even though I know it was a 2014 release.  Any movie that can hold my attention for 2 hours and 45 minutes has something going on.  Among 2015 releases, I will single out Mr. Holmes, with its excellent performance by Ian “Gandalf” McKellan, and Bridge of Spies, for keeping me on the edge of my seat even though we all know how the U-2 crisis ended.  And, at some risk to my reputation as a tough-minded critic, I will also give a shout-out to Danny Collins, starring a scenery-chewing Al Pacino as a cheesy, washed-up rock singer.

Best Foreign Film.  I think I saw four foreign films in 2015, and my pick for the best is the only foreign-language film in the bunch, the post-WWII film noir Phoenix.  It’s a taut, twisty piece of work.  I’ll also give a mention to the romantic little Irish movie Brooklyn, starring Saoirse Ronan.

Best Science-Fiction Film.  Obviously it’s The Martian.  But I also want to recommend another sci-fi flick from the past year, the suspenseful artificial-intelligence tale Ex Machina.  Remember the cute little artificially intelligent robot boy from A.I.Ex Machina’s Eve is pretty much nothing like him…

Honorable Mentions.  It was a good year for sci-fi/action flicks.  I gave thumbs-up to Mad Max: Fury Road (starring the awesome guy with the flame-throwing guitar), Jurassic World (starring the eminently likable Chris Pratt and a tightly wound Dallas Bryce Howard), and the amiable Ant-Man (starring the amiable Paul Rudd).  For striking visuals, check out the family-friendly live-action Cinderella or the decidedly not family-friendly horror film Crimson Peak.  For drama, I recommend the adultery tale 5 to 7.  In the dramedy category, we have another film from director Noah Baumbach, While We’re Young.  And although it’s a bit on the “after-school-special” side, I thought A Girl Like Her was a pretty effective little movie about teen bullying.

And a few oldies…  Finally, I’ll tell you about a few classics that I saw for the first time this past year and really enjoyed.  Witness for the Prosecution, being a legal drama, goes to the head of the class here on The Movie Court.  I also saw and liked two Hitchcock movies I had never seen before, namely Rebecca and Strangers on a Train.  The delightful Shirley Jones made for a delightful musical in The Music Man.  And I got a kick out of the quirky old Veronica Lake vehicle I Married a Witch.

Will the Academy choose as wisely as I have?  Only time will tell!

The Best Movies I Saw in 2014, by The Movie Snob

Welcome to The Movie Snob’s “Best of 2014” column.  I will look back over the 71 movies I saw in the theater last year and tell you which movies you need to see if you haven’t already done so.  As happens every year, some of the movies mentioned will be releases from the previous year (2013), just because I didn’t get around to seeing them until 2014.

Movie of the Year.  I gave out seven “A-“ grades this year, which seems like a pretty high number for a tough grader like me.  It’s tough to single one out, but I’m going to go with Fury, an intense WWII combat movie starring Brad Pitt as a seasoned tank commander in the vanguard of the final American charge to Berlin.  It had me on the edge of my seat from start to finish.  Not for the squeamish, to be sure, but it’s a great adventure if you have the stomach for it.

Runners-Up.  I’m going to pick two this year.  One is a sentimental little movie called St. Vincent, starring a decidedly unsentimental Bill Murray as a cantankerous and boozy geezer who just might have a heart of gold.  Maybe.  The other is Jersey Boys, a biopic about the rise of pop music sensations Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons.  I think it was considered a bit of an underperformer, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Best Action/Adventure Flick.  Hands down, my pick for this category is Edge of Tomorrow, a twisty time-travel/sci-fi story starring Tom Cruise and the delightful Emily Blunt.  This movie totally underperformed at the box office, and it deserved much better.  They’re trying to re-brand it on DVD by essentially renaming it “Live. Die. Repeat.,” so don’t be confused when you rush down to the Redbox to rent it.  As runner-up in this category, I’ll give a nod to The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, which I thought was the best movie in the Hobbit trilogy.  For lack of anywhere else to put it, I will also recommend Noah, starring Russell Crowe as the biblical patriarch himself.  As long as you don’t insist on a literal retelling of the Genesis story, you should like it fine.

Best Animated Movie.  I think it was a 2013 release, but Frozen was the best of the few animated features I saw in 2014.  Enough said; Elsa doesn’t need any promotion from me.

Best Comedy.  This is always a tough category.  I enjoyed The Grand Budapest Hotel quite a bit, but it is hardly a straight comedy.  The same goes for the Woody Allen flick Magic in the Moonlight, which is a bit of a romantic comedy but has a little philosophical steel to it.  As for the new movies I saw that were straight comedies (e.g., 22 Jump Street, Neighbors)—forget about them.  They were terrible.

Best Documentary.  For sci-fi geeks like me, it would be hard to beat Jodorowsky’s Dune, a documentary about a visionary science-fiction movie that never got made.  I also enjoyed Tim’s Vermeer, about an inventor who tries to figure out how Vermeer painted such awesome paintings, and Life Itself, a biopic about my late colleague Roger Ebert.  Particle Fever, about the superconducting supercollider in Europe, was also interesting and enjoyable.

Best Drama.  Well, the two best dramas I saw last year were foreign films, so I’ll save them for that category.  Instead, I’ll give this honor to a 2013 release, Philomena (which was apparently an American-British-French co-production).  It’s a sad movie, based on a true story about an Irish woman trying to find her son, who was taken away from her and adopted out decades earlier because she was an unwed mother.  Judi Dench is great in it, but then she’s always great, pretty much.  I also liked The Fault in Our Stars pretty well.

Best Foreign Film.  The Polish film Ida was one of my absolute favorite films of the year.  It’s a beautiful movie about a young woman—an aspiring nun—in 1960s Poland who must learn about her family’s mysterious and tragic past before she can decide how to move forward with her own life.  Close behind is The Past, a French/Iranian movie about some Iranians in Paris who are trying to sort out their very complicated domestic relations and move on with their lives.  And I’ll mention a third very good foreign film, the Swedish movie We Are the Best!, about a trio of teenaged girls who try to form a punk band in 1982.

Best Science-Fiction MovieEdge of Tomorrow is the clear winner here, but I already used it for Best Action/Adventure Flick.  Setting that film aside, I would pick Interstellar, starring Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway as intrepid astronauts trying to find a new home for humanity as Earth gradually becomes uninhabitable.  I also recommend the goofy Guardians of the Galaxy as a fun romp through space.  With a talking raccoon.

Honorable Mentions.  Here’s where I dump the best of the rest—movies that are worth your time and attention when you’re looking for something to “stream” on your fancy television.  In the drama category, consider The Railway Man, starring Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman.  Based on the trailers for the recently released Unbroken, the two movies have a lot in common, but The Railway Man also has Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman.  I also recommend Heaven Is For Real, based on the true story of a little boy’s account of a near-death experience.  Begin Again is a nice little story about music and musicians, and it has Keira Knightley in it.  I also enjoyed the similar movies Tracks and Wild, based on true stories about women hiking alone through the wilderness.  The Hundred-Foot Journey is a pleasant dramedy, while The Skeleton Twins is a rather darker look at family, and specifically sibling, dysfunction.  For your Amy Adams fix, watch the current Tim Burton release Big Eyes.  If action is more your cup of tea, check out Maleficent, X-Men: Days of Future Past, the truly original Snowpiercer, or the more familiar comforts of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.  And if you can handle a truly cheesy B-movie, give Pompeii a try.  Kiefer Sutherland makes a truly ridiculous evil ancient Roman senator, let me tell you.

And a few more oldies.  Thanks to the Magnolia Theater, I enjoyed several other classic movies in re-release that I had never seen before.  Robert Altman’s Nashville is an interesting slice of 1970s Americana.  The French Connection is a cop movie starring Gene Hackman that stands the test of time.  For an old-fashioned nail-biter, see Sorcerer, starring Roy Scheider.  I liked the old comedy Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, starring Marilyn Monroe.  I enjoyed Soylent Green, starring Charlton Heston as a corrupt cop in a dystopian future America, and Scarface, starring Al Pacino as a ruthless Cuban crime lord.  Double Indemnity is a solid film noir, and Harold and Maude is . . . well, it’s kind of hard to describe, but if you like quirky you should give it a try.

Happy New Year!

The Best Movies I Saw in 2013, by The Movie Snob

Once again, it is time for The Movie Snob’s annual “best of” column.  As always, the only rule is that I limit the list to films I saw for the first time during the last calendar year.  Thus, you can be sure some 2012 releases will be sprinkled in among the 2013 releases.

Movie of the Year.  It’s another tough call this year.  I gave three movies a straight “A” grade this year, but one of them was a 1949 release, so I’ll temporarily disqualify that one.  As between the other two, I’ll give top honors to 12 Years a Slave.  You’ve already heard all about this movie, if you haven’t seen it already, so I’ll just say it was an amazing, harrowing experience.  It’s a fitting companion to Lincoln, which was my pick for movie of the year last year.

Runner-Up.  If I had managed to see it in 2012, when it was released, I would have picked Zero Dark Thirty as my movie of the year in last year’s column.  If you missed this movie, correct your mistake and see it!  Jessica Chastain gives a fine performance as a CIA analyst consumed with the hunt for Osama bin Laden, and the final act of the movie depicting the raid on bin Laden’s compound is a tour de force.

Old-school runner-up.  The third movie I gave a straight “A” to in 2013 was the 1949 classic The Third Man.  It’s just a great, great movie.  Look it up.

Best Action/Adventure Flick.  I’ll pick Man of Steel as last year’s best action movie.  This Superman origin story held my interest from beginning to end.  Plus it featured Amy Adams, which is a plus even though she was kind of miscast as Lois Lane.  I still haven’t seen the new Hobbit movie, so we’ll see if it can give Superman a run for his money.  I also liked World War Z, and I think most zombie fans will too.

Best Animated Movie.  I saw and liked two last year.  Top honors go to Wreck-It Ralph, an entertaining and heart-warming story about the lives of a bunch of video-game characters “after hours.”  I also liked The Croods.  I didn’t have high hopes for that one, but the emotional ending really got to me.

Best Comedy.  This is always a tough category, and last year was no exception.  I didn’t think any of the comedies I saw were great, and the ones I thought were pretty good generally weren’t straight comedies.  I guess the best straight comedy I saw was In a World…, about a woman who is trying to grow up while also trying to break into the very male field of movie voice-over work.  Judd Apatow’s This Is 40 had some good moments, but it’s got a lot of very serious stretches amongst the amusing bits.  And I liked Warm Bodies, which is kind of a zombie romantic comedy, or zom-rom-com, but it is certainly not going to be to everyone’s taste.

Best Documentary.  Hands down, my favorite of the year was 56 Up.  But don’t watch it until you’ve seen all the previous installments in this long-running British series of documentaries.  The series follows a double-handful of British kids from different social classes from their childhoods until now, when they are 56 years old.  Find the first one, 7 Up!, and watch them all.  You’ll thank me.  I saw a couple of other good ones in 2013 as well.  Twenty Feet From Stardom was an interesting look at the careers of some rock-and-roll back-up singers.  Blackfish is a grim, if one-sided, look at Sea World’s mistreatment of its captive killer whales.

Best Drama.  I’ll give top honors to The Spectacular Now, an effective dramedy about a high-school senior who needs to come to grips with his burgeoning alcohol problem, fast.  Another very good dramedy is The Way Way Back, about a young teenaged boy trying to come to grips with his mom’s relationship with a new, unpleasant boyfriend, played unpleasantly by Steve Carell.  I also urge you not to miss Woody Allen’s last movie, Blue Jasmine, starring the sure-to-be-Oscar-nominated Cate Blanchett, and Alexander Payne’s last movie, Nebraska, which may produce an Oscar nominee or two of its own.  Finally, Baz Luhrmann is not for all tastes, but I enjoyed his new version of The Great Gatsby quite a bit.

Best Foreign Film.  Setting aside the British documentary 56 Up, mentioned above, I’ll go with the Italian film The Great Beauty.  The movie is languid and episodic, but it’s still an interesting look at the life of an aging hedonist living among the splendors of modern Rome.  I also saw and enjoyed a couple of older Italian movies—Fellini’s 8 ½ and the post-war classic Bicycle Thieves.

Best Science-Fiction Movie.  Here’s another clear winner: Gravity, starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney.  Look for some Oscar nominations for this special-effects extravaganza about a couple of astronauts marooned in space.  I also liked the latest Star Trek movie, Into Darkness, but it doesn’t hold a candle to Gravity.

Honorable Mentions.  What else should you put in your Netflix queue or your streaming list?  Here are a few suggestions.  For drama, you could go with the 2012 release The Impossible, about the devastating tsunami in Southeast Asia, or the recent remake of Les Miserables.  The Steven Soderbergh movie Side Effects is a pretty effective and twisty little thriller.  So is Mud, starring Matthew McConaughey.  At the risk of making myself a laughing stock among critics, I’m going to come right out and say I didn’t think The Lone Ranger, starring Johnny Depp as Tonto, was half bad.  Just give it a chance!  Frances Ha is a decent little movie about a young woman trying to figure out what she wants to do with her life.  Short Term 12 is a decent little movie about a home for troubled teenagers and the twentysomethings who try to watch out for them.  I liked American Hustle decently well, and you may still have time to catch that one in the movie theater.  Finally, I finally got around to seeing Kubrick’s The Shining, which is a pretty effective and entertaining chiller.  And I don’t usually like horror movies.

And that’s a wrap!

The Best Movies I Saw in 2012, by The Movie Snob

Happy New Year to all the readers of The Movie Court.  It’s time for my annual round-up of the best movies I saw in 2012 (which may, and in fact does, include some 2011 releases that I saw for the first time in 2012).  I saw 63 movies at the theater in 2012, and a few of them are probably still out there if you hurry!

Movie of the Year.  It’s a tough call this year.  I gave an A- to four movies this year (no A’s or A+’s), and each was very different from the others.  Maybe I’m just picking it because it was the one I saw most recently, but I’ll give top honors to Lincoln, starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Tommy Lee Jones, and a host of others.  It’s two and a half hours long, but the time flies by.  It’s hard to imagine Day-Lewis not winning the Oscar for best actor, and I have to think Jones has a solid shot at best supporting actor as well.

Runner-Up.  Second honors go to Ben Affleck’s based-on-true-events thriller Argo.  I was around 12 during the Iranian hostage crisis, so I have some memory of it, but I have no recollection that several Americans managed to escape from the American embassy, avoid capture, and leave the country with fake Canadian passports.  Even though you know how it comes out, Affleck somehow generates plenty of suspense along the way.  Alan Arkin and John Goodman shine as two crusty old Hollywood hands who help the CIA put together a truly crazy escape plan.

Best Action/Adventure Flick.  I didn’t see the last Bourne movie, and I still haven’t seen Skyfall, but even if I had I bet I would still pick End of Watch, a cop-buddy movie that had me engrossed from beginning to end.  Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena are outstanding as Los Angeles police officers who unwittingly cross a major drug cartel.  Personally, I thought it was refreshing to see a movie in which the cops—all the cops—are actually the good guys.  Oh yeah, there was a little summer movie called The Avengers that I liked pretty well too, and The Hobbit wasn’t bad.  But superheroes and hobbits are no match for End of Watch’s men in blue.

Best Animated Movie.  I didn’t see very many of these this year, but I thoroughly enjoyed the Pixar production Brave.  It’s about a Scottish princess who prefers running around in the woods with her bow and arrow over the pomp and circumstance of the royal lifestyle.  Naturally she wants nothing to do with the lame suitors who want to become king by winning her hand in marriage.  Girl power!

Best Comedy.  Like most years, 2012 was a tough year for comedy as far as I’m concerned.  My three picks are certainly not straight comedies.  First, I’ll take a chance and recommend the little-seen Jeff, Who Lives at Home.  It’s an odd movie in which the always-shlubby Jason Segel plays a slacker who lives in his mother’s basement and can’t be trusted to handle a simple project like fixing a broken shutter.  Instead he wanders off on a quixotic quest of his own, and by the end I was really enjoying it.  Second, I’ll recommend the more widely seen and widely praised movie Bernie.  It’s also an odd movie—half documentary, half dramatization, based on a real-life murder committed by an east Texas funeral director.  But the characters involved are so outlandish that IMDb.com does indeed call it a comedy.  Jack Black delivers a terrific performance.  Finally, I’ll mention Safety Not Guaranteed, a quirky movie in which a young investigative reporter befriends a man who claims he is building a time machine and wants a companion to accompany him on a trip into the past.  Again, it’s not a straight comedy, but it has some droll moments.

Best Documentary.  I didn’t see any great documentaries this year, but I saw a couple of decent ones.  Disney’s Chimpanzee is a generally upbeat movie about an orphaned chimp who is surprisingly “adopted” by an older and apparently unrelated male.  Too bad they didn’t rein in Tim Allen’s over-the-top narration.  Katy Perry: Part of Me was an interesting look behind the scenes of the superstar’s recent world tour, with a few glimpses of her short-lived marriage to sleazy Russell Brand thrown in for good measure.  On DVD, I enjoyed my kid could paint that, a movie about a four-year-old girl who allegedly paints these fabulous abstract paintings.  Or is her dad helping her on the sly?  It’s a real art-world who-done-it.

Best Drama.  Setting Lincoln aside, I saw a few more contemporary dramas that I really liked.  One was the underrated and underseen Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, starring Steve Carrell and Keira Knightley.  How would you spend your last days if you knew beyond doubt that the world was coming to an end?  Not everything in the movie was completely plausible, but I thought Carrell and Knightley created a couple of believable characters trying to keep their sanity amid the chaos.  The Perks of Being a Wallflower was also very good, although very dark indeed.  For these kids, high school really is tough.  And finally I’ll mention, with some misgivings, Silver Linings Playbook.  The more I think about it, the phonier it seems.  But Jennifer Lawrence’s performance is so amazing, I have to include it in my list anyway.

Best Foreign FilmThe Kid with a Bike really struck a chord with me.  Although it’s a French film, the story could have played out anywhere.  A single father can’t or won’t take care of his son, so he packs him off to an orphanage.  After a chance encounter, a good-hearted woman agrees to be the boy’s foster mother, but the boy’s pain and anger threaten to overwhelm her gentle love.  A very well-done movie.  I’ll give a second-place mention to A Separation, which is a pretty interesting tale of marital discord and its unfortunate consequences in modern Iran.

Best Science-Fiction Movie.  Science fiction doesn’t usually deserve its own category, but this year it really does.  I thought The Hunger Games was really top notch, so I’ll give it first place in this category.  Jennifer Lawrence can do no wrong.  Men in Black 3 defied all my expectations and breathed life and freshness into a franchise that, in my view, never really had much of either.  It was a time-travel story, and so was the twisty and fairly gruesome Looper, in which Joseph Gordon-Levitt is given the mission of assassinating the 30-years-older version of himself played by Bruce Willis.  Finally, I’ll say that I really enjoyed Prometheus, even though the Alien prequel didn’t explain much of anything and was pretty gross at times.

Best Silent Movie.  I don’t think I’ve ever needed this category, but I have to acknowledge The Artist, which I saw way back at the beginning of 2012.  It is really an excellent movie.  I know, you have no desire to see a silent movie, but go ahead and watch it anyway.  I think you’ll enjoy it.

Honorable Mentions.  It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but I liked Young Adult, a darkish movie in which Charlize Theron plays an unhappy woman who decides she can cure her unhappiness by stealing her old high-school boyfriend away from his newly pregnant wife.  For a less bitter drama, try Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, which features nice performances from Emily Blunt, Ewan McGregor, and Kristin Scott Thomas.  I also liked the very independent drama Beasts of the Southern Wild, about survival in an impoverished Louisiana bayou, and the drama Smashed, starring scream-queen Mary Elizabeth Winstead as a recovering alcoholic.  It certainly won’t be to everyone’s taste, but I liked the pro-life movie October Baby.  In the world of comedy, I got a kick out of Will Ferrell’s odd Spanish movie Casa de mi Padre, and 21 Jump Street was decently funny as well.  I’m not a horror-movie fan, but The Cabin in the Woods, co-written by Joss Whedon, takes the genre in a whole new direction that I found quite entertaining.  Finally, I’ll give an honorable mention to Ruby Sparks, a quirky romance in which a blocked writer starts writing a story about a woman, and then thinks he has gone crazy when she suddenly materializes and behaves exactly the way he writes about her.  It could have been really stupid and predictable, but it wasn’t.

That’s it, and I’ll see you at the box office in 2013!

The Best of 2011 Column by The Movie Snob

Happy New Year, faithful reader!  And welcome to the Movie Snob’s annual Year in Review.  If I saw a movie on the big screen in 2011, I may include it in this column, even if it was technically a 2010 release.  I saw 64 movies this year, and I hope you find something in here worth renting some time.  Although if you’re looking for horror movies, you’ve come to the wrong place.

Movie of the Year.  Well, my pick this year is actually a 2010 release: True Grit, by the Coen Brothers.  I have not yet seen the John Wayne original, but I can’t imagine it was any better than this rough-and-tumble Western about a young girl on a quest for revenge against her father’s murderer.  Excellent performances from Jeff Bridges as the broken-down old marshal who helps her, Matt Damon as the Texas Ranger who’s pursing the same man for a different crime, and of course newcomer Hailee Steinfeld as the intrepid Mattie Ross.

Runner-Up.  I know it has caught plenty of flak, but I thought The Help was a tremendously moving story about life in the pre-civil-rights-era South.  Emma Stone proves her acting chops once again, and Bryce Dallas Howard does a fine job as well, but Viola Davis owns this movie as the long-suffering but dignified maid Aibileen Clark.

Best Action/Adventure Flick.  I give the nod to Rise of the Planet of the Apes, starring James Franco as a scientist desperately trying to find a cure for Alzheimer’s and Andy Serkis (in his usual motion-capture capacity) as Caesar, the first of the intelligent apes.  Maybe it was my imagination, but it just felt more intelligent than your average action flick.  Coming in a close second was Thor.  It was Apes’ opposite on the intelligence-o-meter, but I got a big kick out of this cheesy comic-book tale about familial dysfunction among the Norse gods.  Two smaller productions that I really enjoyed were Limitless, starring Bradley Cooper as a guy who gets into a lot of trouble after messing around with an experimental drug that makes him super-smart, and Source Code, in which Jake Gyllenhaal plays a soldier on a weird mission to stop a terrorist attack by going back in time—and becoming somebody else.

Best Animated Movie.  Well, I had never seen The Lion King before, so I made sure to see it during its recent theatrical re-release.  And sure enough, I thought it was a great movie, and the best animated feature I’ve seen in a long while.  Among first-run movies, I will happily pick Tangled, which I thought was a very enjoyable telling of the story of Rapunzel.  The animation was first-rate, and so was the tale’s creepy villain, Mother Gothel.

Best Comedy.  This category is always a struggle, and I didn’t give any comedy a B+ or higher this year.  A few did qualify for a straight B, such as Cedar Rapids, starring Ed Helms as a wide-eyed small-town guy who cuts loose at a convention in the “big city” of Cedar Rapids.  Paul was an entertaining comic riff on the extraterrestrial-come-to-earth genre.  Bridesmaids is more than a little crude, but still pretty darned funny.  Crazy, Stupid, Love is more of a dramedy, I guess, but I think it had enough decent laughs to include it in this category.

Best Documentary.  There were several good ones this year.  I’ll give top honors to Disney’s African Cats, which follows two mothers (a lion and a cheetah) as they go about the business of raising some little ones.  I thought the cheetah’s story was especially amazing.  But I have to mention four other documentaries that I thought were very worthy.  Born to be Wild 3D, about habitats run by people who save and raise orphaned elephants and orangutans.  Project Nim, which is basically a biopic about a chimpanzee who was raised like a human child for the first few years of his life, followed by some sad years of being shuffled around and mistreated after the experiment was shut down.  Cave of Forgotten Dreams, a very interesting look at some ancient cave paintings in southern France that I had never even heard of before.  And finally Page One: Inside the New York Times, which raises but cannot answer the question of whether the Gray Lady can survive in the Age of the Internet.

Best Drama.  Setting aside this year’s runner-up for Best Picture, The Help, I’ll pick the winner of the 2011 Best Picture Academy Award—The King’s Speech, starring Colin Firth.  It’s a touching story of friendship between the tongue-tied monarch and his unorthodox speech therapist.  Among 2011 releases, I really liked Of Gods and Men, the based-on-true-events story of a Catholic monastery trying to survive in war-torn Algeria.

Best Foreign Film.  I usually have a few to choose from in this category, but not this year.  The only notable movie that more or less fits this category is Carmen 3D, which is a film of a performance of the opera Carmen at the Royal Opera House in London.  I had never seen an opera and know nothing about it, but I really enjoyed this, my first exposure to the form.  And the songs are so catchy!

Honorable Mentions.    In the action category, I’ll give one thumb up to both Super 8 (which includes some really nice acting by Elle Fanning) and X-Men: First Class.  In the mood for a road trip?  Try The Way, or perhaps The Way Back.  The former is a labor of love by Emilio Estevez, about a handful of pilgrims walking the El Camino de Santiago across northern Spain.  The latter is the supposedly, but apparently not really, true story of some guys who break out of a Stalinist concentration camp during a Siberian winter and attempt to walk thousands of miles to freedom.  And I have several more dramas for you if you are in a dramatic mood.  50/50 is about a young man who suddenly has to face the Big C—potentially terminal cancer.  It’s based on a true story.  Another Year is a 2010 character study about an older British couple, their grown son, and a sad single woman who is their friend.  If you’re in the mood for romance, check out Like Crazy.  The story is simple—two young lovers face a serious obstacle in the form of the immigration service—but the actors do a great job of conveying passion and heartache.  Another 2010 release I saw in 2011 was Rabbit Hole, a study of parental grief after the death of a child, and starring Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart.  And before I sign off, I’ll give a quick shout-out to Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, the remake of Footloose, and Martin Scorsese’s latest, Hugo, which you may still be able to find in theaters.  The 3D version of Hugo is probably worth it, in my humble opinion.

That’s it!  Best wishes for happy moviegoing in 2012!

The Movie Snob’s 2010 Year in Review!

Welcome to The Movie Snob’s annual list of the best movies of the year. As usual, if I saw a movie in the theater in 2010, I may include it in this column even if it was technically a 2009 release. For the record, I saw 58 movies at the theater in 2010, and these are the ones you should try to see if you haven’t seen them yet.

Movie of the Year. This was not a tough decision — the year’s highlight for me was The Social Network, the popular and critically acclaimed dramatization of the invention of Facebook. It’s an engrossing story about how a bunch of greedy nerds built an empire — and then sued the pants off each other. I just saw a news item that the Winklevoss twins are trying to undo their $65 million settlement because they think they’re entitled to even more. Or maybe they’re just trying to lay the groundwork for a sequel.

Runner Up. It didn’t do so well at the box office, but I thought Never Let Me Go was an excellent adaption of a phenomenal book. I can’t say much about the plot, but it’s a sad tale set in a dystopian alternative reality. Thought-provoking without being (in my opinion) preachy. Put it in your Netflix queue. Wait — read the book first. Then put it in your Netflix queue.

Best Action/Adventure Flick. Will I lose my license to critique if I pick the remake of Clash of the Titans? As a kid, I loved the original, and I enjoyed the remake enough to see it twice in the theater — NOT the 3D version, which was brutally panned by the critics. It’s just good, stupid fun with mythology. Oh, I should mention Inception, because it was a fun, roller-coaster ride of a movie, even though I didn’t know what was going on half the time. And even though I’ll look like an idiot for preferring Clash of the Titans. Alice in Wonderland was pretty good too, and Alice’s duel with the Jabberwocky at the end was pretty action-y, so I’ll mention it in this category too.

Best Animated Movie. Unlike 2009, 2010 featured a bumper crop in this category. I’d give top honors to Toy Story 3, which had more exciting action and adventure than anything in the preceding category. But the quirky Fantastic Mr. Fox was also excellent, if a little offbeat. I also liked The Princess and the Frog quite a bit. But in addition to those films, I’d also recommend Megamind, Despicable Me, and How to Train Your Dragon as being well worth your time.

Best Comedy. I’m always hard-pressed to label any comedy “good,” much less recommend it as worth seeing. But I really, really liked a little-seen movie called City Island, starring Andy Garcia as an ordinary, blue-collar guy — a prison guard no less — who starts taking acting lessons on the sly. His wife thinks he’s having an affair; his teenage kids are complete mysteries to him; and then he inexplicably volunteers to take an ex-convict into his home. The plot clicks along very nicely, and I just enjoyed the heck out of it. The few other comedies I saw were wretched and don’t deserve a mention.

Best Documentary. I’ll go with the Johnny Depp-narrated When You’re Strange, which is about the short, strange career of the rock band The Doors. Nipping at its heels are the space documentary Hubble 3D (narrated by Leonardo DiCaprio, I believe), and nature documentary Oceans (narrated by Pierce Brosnan).

Best Drama. Lots of strong contenders in this category this year. Maybe it’s just because I saw it very recently, but I’ll pick The Fighter, starring Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, and Amy Adams. It’s just a solid boxing movie with an underdog hero you can’t help rooting for. Too cliched for your taste? I understand. Turn the clock back and go with An Education, a dark tale about a bright but naive British girl on the verge of womanhood who gets seduced by a sleazy cad. Or stay closer to home with the even darker Winter’s Bone, about a courageous teenage girl (Jennifer Lawrence, in her breakout performance) who has to stand up to her seriously dangerous, meth-cooking relatives in the Missouri Ozarks if she wants to save her family’s farm. One last honorable mention: I really liked The Young Victoria. You don’t have to be an Anglophile to empathize with a spirited young woman born into the straitjacket of royalty.

Best Foreign Film. I would like to pick The Concert, a moving melodrama about a blacklisted Soviet music conductor who schemes his way into a comeback concert. I really enjoyed it at the time. But it did resort to an unpleasant Jewish stereotype to get a cheap laugh once or twice, and I have a hard time recommending it unreservedly. I also really enjoyed Kisses, an Irish movie about a couple of poor kids with bad home situations who decide to empty their piggy banks and run away from home. Honorable mention to the Italian movie Mid-August Lunch, which is a short, sweet little movie about a basically decent guy who is strapped for cash and agrees to take in a few elderly women for the weekend while their own children go away on holiday.

Honorable Mentions. I’ve already mentioned most of the worthwhile films of the year as honorable mentions in the specific categories above, but I can rattle off a few more that are worth a look. Michael Douglas turns in a good performance in Solitary Man. He plays a shallow, Gordon Gekko-like character, but on a much smaller scale. I didn’t see the Wall Street sequel, but this movie had to be much better than that. I liked The Kids Are All Right, about a very unusual family situation that develops when a couple of kids being raised by lesbians look for and find their sperm-donor father. Although it’s not the action movie it was purported to be, I liked The American, starring George Clooney as a world-weary hit man. (Be warned, it’s got some pretty graphic sex scenes in it.) Ben Affleck’s latest movie, The Town, is an entertaining film about a gang of Boston bank robbers. And still in current release you can catch Natalie Portman as a ballerina who’s not-so-slowly losing her marbles in Black Swan.

First Seen on Video This Year. Just one movie I simply must mention: The Big Lebowski. How did I miss seeing this movie? I found it completely ludicrous and utterly hilarious. OK, one more — The King of Kong, about a nice guy who just wants to compete fair and square for the title of Donkey Kong champion of the universe. I defy you not to get hooked on this movie.

So that’s my 2010 in a nutshell. Thanks for reading, and please post a comment!

The Movie Snob’s 2009 Year in Review!

Happy New Year, and welcome to my annual movie round-up. If I saw a movie in the theater in 2009, I consider it fair game for this column, even if it was technically a 2008 release. I saw 62 movies in the theater last year, and these are the most worthy of your attention.

Movie of the Year: My pick is The Hurt Locker, a taut thriller about the Iraq War that has a strong documentary feel to it. The actor who carries the movie, Jeremy Renner, does a heck of a job as a bomb-defusing expert. I think the movie recently came out on DVD, so check it out.

Runner Up: The number 2 spot goes to a 2008 release, The Wrestler, starring Mickey Rourke. He should have won the Oscar for his moving portrayal of a washed-up professional wrestler. The scenes in which he tries to reconnect with his estranged daughter, played by Evan Rachel Wood, are especially moving, but the whole movie is excellent.

Best Action/Adventure Flick: And my pick for the 3d best movie I saw this year would be District 9, the out-of-nowhere sci-fi movie about a shantytown of extraterrestrials living outside of Johannesburg, South Africa, and the clueless bureaucrat whose job is to push all the aliens into an even more remote concentration camp. I’m crossing my fingers for a sequel to this one! Honorable mention goes to J.J. Abrams’s reboot of the Star Trek franchise, even if he rewrote Trek history in the process.

Best Animated Feature: With the caveat that I haven’t seen The Princess and the Frog yet, I’ll go with the obvious choice of Up, in which a grumpy old man ties enough helium balloons to his house to fly all the way to South America. But except for the awesome opening montage that tells the whole story of the man’s life in just a few minutes, I didn’t think Up was really all that great.

Best Comedy: I’ll stretch this category a teensy bit and pick My One and Only, a winsome little movie that is supposedly based on episodes in the life of George Hamilton during his teen years. The redoubtable Renee Zellweger plays George’s mother, a hapless Southern belle searching for love in all the wrong places. I’m probably exaggerating its merits, but I really liked it at the time. Same goes for Management, a romantic comedy starring Steve Zahn and Jennifer Aniston. It involves a totally impossible romance, but the leads are so likable I just had to like the movie. In the category of crude yet funny, I liked I Love You, Man.

Best Documentary: Let’s go with the obvious choice and pick Disney’s Earth. Who doesn’t love a good nature documentary? I love ’em, and I’ll go ahead and mention Under the Sea 3D as being worthwhile too.

Best Drama: Or maybe it belongs in the comedy category, but either way I really enjoyed Up in the Air starring George Clooney and directed by Jason Reitman. It’s still in the theaters, so get out there and see it! Another movie that straddles the dramedy line is the quirky (500) Days of Summer, starring the quirky yet adorable Zooey Deschanel. While you’re at it, check out the CD she sings on, under the name She & Him. I was also grabbed by the 2008 release The Reader, although I still don’t know quite how I feel about that movie. It’s a strange one.

Best Foreign Film: I don’t think I saw too many foreign films this year, but I liked A Woman in Berlin, about the Russian conquest of Berlin in 1945 as seen through the eyes of one German woman. It was brutal without ever feeling exploitative. I also recommend the book, which I think is still listed as authored by “Anonymous” even though the woman’s identity is known. Another good one was The Class, or Entre les murs, about a French teacher trying to deal with a very fractious and multicultural classroom. Also, Summer Hours, a French movie that’s just a simple little family drama, well-told.

Honorable Mentions: I have a bunch of them. There’s Wendy and Lucy, a little movie about a sad, down-on-her-luck young woman played by Michelle Williams, and her beloved dog. Adventureland is a good little coming-of-age story starring Jesse Eisenberg of Zombieland fame. Moon is a thought-provoking little sci-fi movie. In the Loop is a funny look at the run-up to a fictitious (?) war as seen through the eyes of low-to-mid-level American and British government staffers. The Informant! is a straight movie about a bizarre guy; you just can’t help asking, “Is this really based on a true story? No, really?” Ellen Page scores again in the roller derby movie Whip It. The Coen brothers ask unanswerable questions in A Serious Man. And finally I will mention, based solely on the strength of their visual effects, Disney’s A Christmas Carol and Avatar. See them in 3D, I insist!

First seen on video this year: I haven’t done this before, but I’ll go ahead and recommend a few movies I saw on video this year. The animated feature Bolt is a cute one, about a dog who thinks he has super powers — kind of like a canine Buzz Lightyear. The original version of The Day the Earth Stood Still is still surprisingly good, and the 1963 version of The Haunting is still surprisingly scary. I also enjoyed the little-seen Luke Wilson movie Henry Poole Is Here, the classic Western The Gunfighter starring Gregory Peck, and the classics From Here to Eternity and To Have and Have Not.

So that’s my 2009 in a nutshell. Please post your comments and voice your own opinions!

The Movie Snob’s 2008 Year in Review!

Happy New Year, and welcome to The Movie Snob’s Best of 2008 column. As usual, I will consider all movies I saw in a movie theater during calendar year 2008. As usual, this means that a lot of the previous year’s releases will be included, ’cause I didn’t see them until 2008. For the record, I saw 50 movies in theaters in 2008, down slightly from the 58 films that I saw in 2007.

Movie of the Year: My pick is The Savages, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney as siblings who are suddenly and unexpectedly called upon to find end-of-life care for their estranged and Alzheimer’s-stricken father. Hoffman and Linney give fine performances, and the whole movie just rings very true.

Runner Up: I also have to give high marks to Michael Clayton, a legal thriller that kept an iron grip on my attention from beginning to end. George Clooney stars as the title character, a lawyer at a top law firm who specializes in “fixing” things when particularly sticky problems come up. Things get real sticky when another lawyer in the firm, who has been the lead attorney defending some nasty environmental polluter, seems to go crazy and threatens to blow the whistle on the client.

Best Animated Feature: I mention this category next, because the fabulous movie Wall-E would also be my pick for the third-best movie I saw this year—which I think makes it my favorite movie actually released in 2008. Runner-up status goes to Persepolis, a very interesting movie about what it was like to grow up in Iran and to be a child when the Islamic Revolution swept the Shah out of power.

Best Drama: There were several other excellent dramas this year, to go with the four mentioned above. I loved The Visitor, about a lonely widower who is virtually brought back to life by the results of his unexpected discovery that two illegal immigrants are living in the apartment he kept in New York City. I thoroughly enjoyed Charlie Wilson’s War, even though it had Julia Roberts in it. Atonement also cast its spell over me, even though (or perhaps because) I never read the book on which it is based. And last but not least, and despite the mixed critical reaction, I really liked Australia, which just happens to star Nicole Kidman.A sheer coincidence, I am sure.

Best Comedy: No comedies really knocked my socks off this year. Forced to pick one, I’d probably go with Baby Mama, starring the ubiquitous and talented Tina Fey. I also got some decent laughs out of Role Models and Tropic Thunder. But all in all it was not a banner year for comedy.

Best Action/Adventure: The new Chronicles of Narnia movie, Prince Caspian, was a nonstarter for me as for most, and I haven’t yet gotten around to Quantum of Solace. That leaves The Dark Knight and Iron Man, and I enjoyed Iron Man distinctly more than I enjoyed the latest Batman flick. So Iron Man gets the nod in this category, although I liked Dark Knight well enough too.

Best Documentary: I saw a few good ones this year, but my pick for the best is American Teen, which is more than a little reminiscent of MTV’s The Real World set in a wholesome all-American high school in some small Midwestern town. Also getting thumbs up are a couple of IMAX movies I saw, Dolphins and Whales and Amazing Journeys. I think Amazing Journeys originally came out in 1999, though, so it’s probably even more out of place on this list than the 2007 releases I’ve been mentioning.

Best Foreign Film: I think I saw only one, and it was a good one—the French import A Secret, about a French boy who gradually learns about how his (Jewish) parents met, how they survived World War II, and various other dark family secrets. I recommend it. I also liked Happy-Go-Lucky, which was made in England, so I guess it counts as a foreign movie. The ever-happy-go-lucky main character (Sally Hawkins) won’t appeal to everyone, but I liked her.

Honorable Mentions. Other movies I would single out to recommend to you: Enchanted is perfectly enchanting, about the animated princess who is magically transported to real-world Manhattan. If, and only if, you are an ABBA fan, I would recommend Mamma Mia! to you—and then it’s pointless, because you’ve obviously already seen it. City of Ember, starring up-and-comer Saoirse Ronan, is a worthy effort in the science-fiction-for-young-adults category. Rachel Getting Married is a worthy effort in the big-star-plays-drug-addict category—kudos to Anne Hathaway for looking strung out and luminous at the same time. And I liked Hancock for its remarkable plot twist, Slumdog Millionaire for its unabashed celebration of true love, and The Other Boleyn Girl because, well, just because.

Movie Snob’s Best of 2007

Happy New Year, and welcome to The Movie Snob’s Best of 2007 column. As usual, the films eligible for consideration and inclusion in this prestigious work of film criticism are those that I saw in a movie theater during calendar year 2007. As usual, this means that a lot of 2006 releases will be included. For the record, I saw 58 movies in theaters in 2007, up from 45 in 2006.

Movie of the Year: It won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film —The Lives of Others totally blew me away. Set in Communist East Germany, it is the story of a member of the secret police who is assigned to spy on a playwright. He bugs the playwright’s apartment and spends hours listening to his activities. The playwright starts out a true believer in Communism, but as his faith erodes, so does that of his unseen listener. If you can tolerate subtitles (or know German), rent this movie a.s.a.p.

Best Drama: This was a rich category. Some critics found Amazing Grace, the story of the British parliamentarian who fought and eventually buried the slave trade, too schmaltzy, but I totally enjoyed it. Renee Zellweger impressed again as revered children’s author Beatrix Potter in the charming and moving little film Miss Potter. Into the Wild features lots of great performances, and amazingly got me to sympathize with a protagonist I felt sure I was going to dislike. I have a hard time picking just one, but if forced to choose I would have to give the nod to Into the Wild.

Best Comedy: Like last year’s Little Miss Sunshine, this year’s winner is more of a dramedy, a movie about a serious subject that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Featuring great performances by Ellen Page and Jennifer Garner, among others, the award goes to Juno. First runner-up is Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, the send-up of Walk the Line and similar biopics. It made me laugh from beginning to end. I would also cite the French movie The Valet, in which a hapless car parker is suddenly hired to pose as the boyfriend of a supermodel, in order to conceal an affair she is having with a married tycoon. It’s a very enjoyable romp. Honorable mentions to the Will Ferrell movie Blades of Glory and the overly maligned Evan Almighty.

Best Action/Adventure: There wasn’t much competition for category winner The Bourne Ultimatum, which was just as slick and exciting as when it used to be called The Bourne Supremacy. Seriously, I can’t recall a single difference between the two, except in this last one we find out that Jason Bourne was Catholic before he became a government-programmed assassin. Go figure. Children of Men was not as impressive in the thrills department but was far more thought-provoking. Beowulf was a lot of fun, at least in its IMAX 3-D incarnation. That last Pirates of the Caribbean movie wasn’t bad, although it was awfully long.

Best Documentary: I didn’t see very many this year, but in the short list of contenders is an excellent movie. In the Shadow of the Moon is a very interesting look at the Apollo missions, and it features interviews with lots of the mere handful of men who have actually been to the moon. Alas, Neil Armstrong was not among them, and there is only the slightest allusion to the fact that he has apparently become an odd recluse somewhere.

Best Foreign Film: Setting aside my Movie of the Year (and The Valet, which I put in the Comedy section), there were some other foreign flicks that are well worth your time if you can stand subtitles. Actually, the first one has substantial portions in English. After the Wedding is a Danish film, I think, about the unexpected events that befall a Dane who has returned home from his work at an orphanage in India. Very interesting. I also really liked the Penelope Cruz movie Volver, even though I don’t much care for Ms. Cruz herself. Pan’s Labyrinth is compelling, but it is a very dark film. Brace yourself for lots of cruelty if you see it.

Honorable Mentions. I don’t mind a good chick flick from time to time, and two of this year’s honorable mentions fit that category: Becoming Jane, which is about Jane Austen, and The Jane Austen Book Club, which is about, well, you figure it out. Stardust was an interesting attempt to become this decade’s version of The Princess Bride. It doesn’t quite succeed, but it’s a good effort. Babel was a good movie. Did it win the Oscar? I forget, but it was a good movie nonetheless. And last but not least, check out this year’s little movie that could: Once. It’s a sweet indie film about an Irish street musician and a Czech girl that he chances to meet and make some music with. But don’t get the soundtrack. I did and regretted it. Just see the movie.

The Movie Snob’s Best of 2006

Hello, Gentle Readers! You know the drill — here I will announce my picks for the best movies of 2006. For a movie to be eligible for consideration, I had to see it for the first time in a theater during the calendar year 2006. Yes, that means that some late 2005 releases will be included in my list, but deal with it. For the record, I saw 45 movies in the theater last year, of which nine got a B+ or better. (My track record with DVDs was distinctly worse: 19 first-time views, and only one with a B+. Ben Hur, if you’re wondering.)

Best Drama: And best picture of the year, in my humble opinion, was the riveting United 93. Filmed in documentary style, it grabs you from the start and never lets go. How they persuaded some of the people who were on the ground on 9/11 to play themselves in this movie is beyond me. I would have been way too freaked out to relive those events. The runners up are also excellent films. First I’ll mention The Nativity Story, and I’ll urge you to catch it in the theaters if you still can, before the Christmas season is too faint a memory. I thought it was reverent and sensitive without crossing the line into sentimentality. Even if you’re not Christian, go see it and see part of what makes us tick. And second I’ll cite the outstanding 2005 release Capote. Philip Seymour Hoffman delivers a terrific performance, but there’s not a sour note in this movie about a fascinating 20th century character. And I can’t omit The Queen, starring an outstanding Helen Mirren in a quasi-documentary about the aftermath of Princess Diana’s death.

Best Comedy: I’m not sure it belongs in this category rather than Best Drama, but let’s put it here anyway since good comedies are in short supply — Little Miss Sunshine is a wonderful mix of the absurd and the genuinely sweet. A marvelous depiction of how even the most dysfunctional family can learn that it is, indeed, a family. Watch out for the language, though; this is not a movie the whole family can enjoy. Honorable mention to The Devil Wears Prada, especially the terrific performance by newcomer Emily Blunt as the office assistant that Ann Hathaway unintentionally elbows out of their boss’s favor.

Best Action/Adventure: King Kong takes this one, hands down. The critics didn’t go ape for Peter Jackson’s last effort, but I thought it was a terrific popcorn flick. I’m hard pressed to come up with any other contenders in this category. Let’s put The Illusionist here too, featuring yet another fine performance by Edward Norton, and outstanding supporting work by Paul Giamatti.

Best Documentary: Sorry, Al, I’m going to pass over An Inconvenient Truth in favor of an IMAX movie called Deep Sea 3D. But the Truth wasn’t nearly as hard to swallow as I thought it would be, so that’s something.

Honorable Mentions: Woody Allen’s thought-provoking Match Point, the inimitable Judi Dench in Mrs. Henderson Presents, Scarlett Johansson going Wilde in A Good Woman, architecture documentary Sketches of Frank Gehry, a fabulous performance by Gretchen Mol in The Notorious Bettie Page, suburban angst run amok in Little Children, Daniel Craig’s blond Bondshell in Casino Royale, and Robert Altman’s last film, A Prairie Home Companion. All well worth adding to your Netflix queue.

The Movie Snob 2005 Year in Review

The Movie Snob’s 2005 Year in Review

As usual, I am considering all movies that I saw in theaters for the first time last year. There are assuredly some 2004 releases in this list, but I saw ’em in 2005. So sue me.

Best Drama. I thought 2005 was a good year all the way around, so I’ll be singling out more movies in this list than I usually do. Top honors in this category have to go to Hotel Rwanda, a movie that grabs you by the throat and never lets go. Some scenes are hard to watch, but the Rwandan genocide really happened, and not hundreds of years ago either. It happened in 1994. It may be happening again right now in Sudan. Close second: Pride & Prejudice. It’s hard to make a bad movie out of a Jane Austen story, and this one was terrific. Some critics carped that the movie displays a judgmentalism about the rigid social rules of Austen’s time that is absent from Austen’s own novels. Frankly, I didn’t care. It’s just a great love story. Honorable mentions go to biopics Ray and Walk the Line, as much because of the awesome performances as because of their respective plots.

Best Action Flick. This year’s winner slipped in on the last day of the year–The Chronicles of Narnia blew me away, even though I had never read the books. As a devout Catholic, I am probably biased in the movie’s favor since it’s based on the work of the great apologist C.S. Lewis and it’s a Christian allegory that I wouldn’t say is even thinly disguised. But it has a lot of great action, and a message that probably anyone would find thought-provoking. Coming in a close second is Serenity. Never saw the TV show on which it was based, but loved the movie. If you liked Star Wars, then shame on you for not getting out there and buying tickets to Serenity so they would make a sequel. Honorable mention to Batman Begins, the best of the three Batman movies that I have seen to date. It even beats whichever that one was that had Nicole Kidman in it! (Sorry, Nic.)

Best Comedy. As always, good comedy is hard to come by. I’d give top honors to The 40-Year Old Virgin, but with the caveat that you must have a huge tolerance for coarse, vulgar humor to enjoy this movie. (The equally coarse and vulgar Wedding Crashers just wasn’t that funny.) Equal parts comedy and action movie, Kung Fu Hustle was also a lot of fun. I hope the rumors of a sequel are true. Can’t think of any other comedies really worth a mention here….

Best Documentary. The Penguins were fine, but there were plenty of other better documentaries this year, in my humble opinion. In fact, you could get Penguins condensed to about 90 seconds within the excellent ocean-going documentary Deep Blue, if it didn’t sneak by you in its short theatrical run. Also terrific was Mad Hot Ballroom, about the ballroom-dancing program in NYC’s public schools that showed etiquette and beauty to kids who had seen little of either in their lives. Honorable mention to The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, a touching little movie about an eccentric fellow in San Francisco and a flock of wild parrots that he befriends. Be sure to watch until the very end for a pleasant little surprise.

Other Honorable Mentions:

The Aviator — yeah, it’s way old by now, but I didn’t see it until ’05, so I’m mentioning it.

Off the Map — a quiet little independent movie about an eccentric family that really lives as far “off the map” as it can manage. Maybe I’m remembering it being better than it was, but I liked it a lot at the time.

War of the Worlds — I managed to forget all the TomKat craziness and enjoyed Cruise’s turn as an average joe trying to save his kids from evil extraterrestrials. Great special effects.

Dear Frankie — this little independent melodrama deserved a wider audience. I’ve liked Emily Mortimer in every movie I’ve seen her in, so I’m really looking forward to Match Point.

Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride — my favorite animated film this year. Weird for sure, but what do you expect from Tim Burton?

Zathura and The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants — the best family-oriented movies of the year. But be careful. Zathura is a little scary for the littlest ones, and Sisterhood deals with adolescent-girl issues in a pretty frank way. Watch them for yourself before showing them to your kids. Sky High was cute too, come to think of it, and probably doesn’t present any of the concerns that Zathura and Sisterhood do.

Grizzly Man — good, intense documentary. It felt a little exploitative to me (the subject of the film pretty clearly suffered from mental illness), preventing a higher rating, but the story of this guy trying to live with Alaskan grizzly bears is hard to turn away from.

That’s all, folks!

Oscar picks by A View From Mars

Oscar picks by A View From Mars:

It’s a rare occasion where I actually get to see all the movies that are up for best picture given that most of the time, my taste in films is the exact opposite of what the Academy chooses. So with this being said, here’s how I see ’em:

(5) The Aviator — Scorsese lost points with me based on his last feature Gangs of New York, and he didn’t do much to recapture them with this movie. I’m just not sure how interested I was in Howard Hughes and DiCaprio’s portrayal, although a bit young for the sell to completely be there, was Oscar worthy. The same can be said about Cate Blanchett’s role as Katharine Hepburn, but other than this, I wasn’t the biggest fan of this movie nor of it being nominated as one of the 5 best pictures. Clearly, I saw about half a dozen others that could have taken its place.

(4) Ray — Jamie Foxx was tremendous and he will no doubt walk away with the Oscar gold and the movie was good, possibly really good, just not great. I think I was overwhelmed with Foxx’s performance as Ray Charles that it took me out of the movie just a bit. Is it possible that an excellent performance by an actor can actually have a hand in detracting from the greatness of a movie?

(3) Finding Neverland — Loved both Depp and Winslet and the concept to make a movie about Peter Pan without focusing on Peter Pan but rather the creator of Peter Pan (phewww). This is my sentimental favorite and although it may not win best picture, I’m hopeful that it will take something home.

(2) Sideways — I’m not necessarily a huge fan of the buddy road trip movie, but this was about as perfect as it could get for my enjoyment in this genre. Clever writing and good performances all around although it was a shame that Giamatti was snubbed. Maybe I’m so fond of this movie because Giamatti nailed the role of That Guy Named David so well. When David and I were in college, I could have sworn I heard quite a bit of profanities aimed at the Merlot coming from his room.

(1) Million Dollar Baby — I could just go on and on about how darn tooting great this movie was, but it wouldn’t do it any justice. Clint Eastwood really hit this one out of the park (I’m tired of the knocked out, boxing euphemisms). I was also mightily impressed with Hillary Swank and couldn’t help but think that this picture might just stand the test of time . . . and this was just 30 minutes into it. It had the true feel of one of the classics. This is my Best Picture winner by unanimous decision (couldn’t help it).

The Movie Snob’s 2004 Year in Review!

The Movie Snob’s 2004 Year in Review.

I’ll say up front that a couple of these movies probably came out in 2003, but I saw them for the first time in 2004. Thus, they’re on this list. So sue me.

Best Drama: I’ll pick two, in no particular order. First, Friday Night Lights. I am not much of a sports fan, but I found this movie engrossing. It’s the true story of a single season of high school football in a small west Texas town that is consumed with football and demands nothing less than a state championship of its coach. Billy Bob Thornton is fine as the put-upon coach, but the young actors who play the stars of the team are really outstanding. Second, Finding Neverland is an excellent little movie about the life of playwright J.M. Barrie, who wrote Peter Pan. Johnny Depp was perfect for the part. Honorable mention to the comedy/drama Sideways, about two buddies facing down their midlife crises by drinking their way through the California wine country.

Best Action Flick: I’ll pick two again. The thinking man’s action movie would be Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. Russell Crowe delivers another fine performance as the gruff and bluff Captain Jack Aubry, and the director did an amazing job of filming the sea battles between these old wooden sailing ships. For mindless schlock, I thoroughly enjoyed Troy. Sure, they reduced a war that lasted ten years to roughly two weeks, ignored the gods that started the whole thing, and changed Achilles’ motivation for sulking out half the war from timeless honor to [ick] love. But for all that, I enjoyed every minute of it. Honorable mention: Spider-Man 2. But I liked the first one better.

Best Comedy: Slim pickings in this category since the Spinal Tap crew didn’t put anything out this year. Surprise hit Napoleon Dynamite definitely had some laughs, but I felt a little guilty for laughing at people who seem to exist solely to be ridiculed by the rest of creation. Shaun of the Dead was a fun ride for a while, but it ran out of gas before the end. Mean Girls and I Heart Huckabees both had their moments, but were by no means great.

Best Documentary: I was sorry that there was no Winged Migration II this year, but happily another excellent documentary filled the void. No, I’m not talking about the Michael Moore atrocity. I mean the 2003 release My Architect, a fascinating biopic about architect Louis Kahn, who designed the Kimbell Art Museum over in Fort Worth. He lived a strange life, marrying only one woman but leaving children by three. His youngest child made this excellent film to try to understand the father he barely knew.

Best Melodrama: If you blinked, you missed I Am David, the tear-jerking tale of a little boy who escapes from a Communist concentration camp in 1952 Bulgaria. Yeah, it’s syrupy, and the plot has some holes in it, but I still loved it.

In a Class by Itself: The Passion of the Christ. Enough ink has been spilled about this movie to last a lifetime. I won’t add to it here.

Other Honorable Mentions:

The Barbarian Invasions – a French or Canadian or French-Canadian import about a father who is dying and his estranged adult son who reaches out to comfort him in his last months.

Big Fish – not the biggest, best, greatest movie of all time as That Guy Named David would have it, but definitely an enjoyable one.

The Station Agent – a very sweet little movie about friendship. An angry little person moves out to the middle of nowhere to get away from people, but he learns that getting away from people isn’t that easy.

Cold Mountain – good story, beautiful cinematography, fine cast. And Nicole Kidman somehow manages to run a pathetic little dirt farm throughout the whole Civil War without a hair out of place.

The Incredibles – fine movie, just a little long for my taste.

Bubba Ho-Tep – the best Elvis-versus-the-Mummy movie I have ever seen.

The Movie Snob’s 2003 Year in Review

The Movie Snob’s favorites from 2003.

Well, my favorite movie that I saw for the first time in 2003 was actually a 2002 release, The Pianist. None of the 2003 releases I saw can really compare. It is a very powerful film about how one man survives the Holocaust in Warsaw, Poland. Check it out on DVD if you haven’t seen it yet.

Among comedies, A Mighty Wind is my pick for best movie of 2003. Maybe this faux documentary about folk singers from the 60’s getting together for a reunion concert isn’t quite as funny as Spinal Tap or Waiting for Guffman, but it is still very good. Running a close second is the instant classic School of Rock, starring the inimitable Jack Black. Freaky Friday and Finding Nemo get honorable mentions in this category.

For drama, my pick is Dirty Pretty Things, a gritty film about the harsh life of illegal immigrants in London. Mostly decent people, their desperation not to be deported exposes them to all sorts of dangers and indignities. Of course Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King is in a class by itself, but in the end I thought it was just too much of a good thing. I Capture the Castle, an excellent romance and coming-of-age movie, was one of the few movies I saw in the theaters twice. For a slightly darker take on love and attraction, check out the little-seen indie flick xx/xy. And Mystic River was an effective and haunting movie, even if in the end I didn’t completely buy it.