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!