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Well, ladies and gentlemen, it’s that time of year again — that time when people without access to theaters that play movies with projected box office takes of less than $100 million finally get to compile their year-end lists!

So, what did I think about 2014 in cinema?

It was…okay.

I didn’t expect I would be saying that; neither did you, probably. Around August 2014, I was already calling it one of the best years in cinema I could remember. The year had already given us a myriad of good-to-great films, and if that was what Hollywood thought wasn’t going to contend for awards, I could only imagine what the coming months held.

But it turned out to be a weirdly lopsided year. Normally, any given year in movies starts out bad and keeps getting better until the holiday season hits us with what the industry considers the cream of the crop. In 2014, it was almost directly reversed — a few of the year’s best films were in theaters before we even got to summer blockbuster season, which itself had a lot of quality offerings. But then, we got into awards season. That’s a time of year that always produces some transparent Oscar bait, but normally, there’s a lot of great stuff sandwiched in between. Not so in 2014. The awards bait was clearer and more cynical than ever; the majority of the art films were stale and unadventurous; and even the usually reliable Christmas blockbusters mostly didn’t deliver. It led to one of the weakest Best Picture fields in a while — left up to me, I think I’d only have nominated two of the films that made it. The year started with a bang and ended with a whimper — one letdown after another as the year’s most hyped projects collapsed right in front of us.

And in the end, while the films from the first half of the year were surprisingly good, they weren’t enough to counterbalance the disappointment of the second half. Overall, for me, the year emerges as somewhat mediocre.

Which is not to say that there wasn’t some good stuff — there absolutely was! I’ll say this for 2014: There might not have been as many truly great films as there have been in past years, but there seemed to be a lot more really, really good ones. Other years may have registered more 9s or 10s, but no year in recent memory registered as many 8s. That’s the paradox behind this list — my feeling toward the year as a whole is one of disappointment, but my feeling toward my Top 20 is that way too many films got left out that would’ve made it in any other field. I agonized over this list like none other I’ve compiled. I’m actually hurting over some of the movies that didn’t make it.

So, for the first time since I started doing this, I’m going to kick this off with a complete list of honorable mentions. Starting with…

Movies That Were in Consideration for the Top 20 But Were Eliminated Fairly Early On and May or May Not Have Made the List in a “Weaker” Year: The Babadook, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, The Guest, How to Train Your Dragon 2, Joe, Mr. Turner, The Theory of Everything

Movies That Fought Really, Really Hard and Just Barely Didn’t Make It; They Would Almost Certainly Be on the List Any Other Year: Force Majeure, Inherent Vice, We Are the Best!

Movies That I’m Physically in Pain Over and Not Entirely Sure Why They Didn’t Make This List, Much Less Any Other Year’s: Fury, because if it wasn’t for that clumsy third act, it’d not only be on the list but probably somewhere in the top five; and Pride, because it’s absolutely the most fun I’ve ever had watching a sermonizing special issues movie.

Movie I May or May Not Regret Excluding Depending on How Well It Ages: Interstellar. I saw it a second time and was surprised to find that my estimation of it improved. Who knows how I’ll feel after a few more viewings? Unfortunately, it’s too late for the list, but maybe I’ll be kicking myself over its exclusion a few years down the line.

Movie I Didn’t Get to See Yet: Two Days, One Night. Fun fact: The reason I waited so long to do this list is that Netflix said this movie would be available for streaming on June 16. On the morning of June 16, I logged in, and it was like, “Whoops, sorry, we meant August 16.” I figured that was too long to wait, so I decided to just post this and if Two Days, One Night ends up competing, it ends up competing.

Anyway, I’ve skated around this long enough. Without further ado, I give you… My Top 20 Favorite Films of 2014!

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20. A Most Violent Year — There was a hard-fought battle for the last slot on this list, and even now, I’m glancing at Fury and Pride and wondering if I made the right call after all. But I’m sticking with my guns here. I think A Most Violent Year is J.C. Chandor’s strongest film yet, taking the best of both worlds from his previous projects and fusing them into a cerebral, atmospheric crime drama. I like its perspective — it’s essentially The Godfather told from the point of view of one of the ordinary people on the street, caught in the middle. And I love how organically it develops its characters through that — I’m fascinated by stories that force their protagonists to make tough decisions and moral compromises and then examine the consequences of those actions. A Most Violent Year is a good one. Also, I can’t wait for Star Wars: The Force Awakens to make Oscar Isaac a star; honestly, I have no idea how it hasn’t happened already. Dude is the real deal.

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19. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes — If 2014 was the year when the “serious art” — the biopics, the historical films, even a lot of the art scene — let us down, at least it was also a year when the big, silly, fun blockbusters stepped their game right up. American Sniper got nominated for Best Picture, but Dawn of the Planet of the Apes was the year’s best — and smartest — war movie. Yes, I’m serious. No film in recent memory has explored the root causes of war and violence as intelligently as this goofy movie about chimpanzees with machine guns. That intelligence also allows it to tell an emotionally engaging story on the way to making those points: There’s a clear sense of cause and effect in the events of the story, there’s strong character development, and it governs the ebb and flow of its plot based on its emotional needs rather than an action sequence quota. I’ve seen a lot of great blockbusters over the last few years, but I can’t remember the last one where I went into the climax feeling like none of the characters were safe. The only reason this isn’t higher on the list is that, like its predecessor (though not to the same extent), the human half of the story isn’t as strong as the ape half. Everything else is shockingly well done. In any other year, it’d make the Top 10.

18. 22 Jump Street — Like I said…the mainstream cinema of 2014 was inordinately strong. The year as a whole may have been a disappointment for me personally, but I’m nevertheless thrilled that it allowed me to compile a Top 20 as eclectic as this one. 22 Jump Street is the funniest and smartest comedy in a long time. The script is multilayered enough to be worthy of Oscar consideration. I’m still somewhat at a loss for words to describe it — it goes so deep with its relentless self-parody that it becomes a parody of a parody of a parody that mocks itself, you, society, the people who made the movie, the people who greenlit the movie, and everybody in between. And yet, it’s not hateful or posturing like it’s smarter than you. It’s still just as hilarious on the surface level as it is beneath all those layers. It’s possibly the first comedy sequel in history to be better than its predecessor. Of course it’s going to make the list!

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17. A Most Wanted Man — It’s Philip Seymour Hoffman’s last film (apart from his supporting role in the upcoming Hunger Games finale) and a powerful testament to what we lost with his passing. It’s one of the first movies, in my opinion, to meaningfully wrestle with the emerging post-9/11 security state — albeit less in the omnipresent technological espionage and more in the complex political realities. Ultimately, there are no simple answers — it’s a film that’s constantly weighing justice against security needs and never providing a simple out on the question. It’s a realistic spy thriller — slow-moving and largely unembellished — but it makes its routine plot absolutely riveting through its sense of character and consequence. It’s anchored by another one of Hoffman’s genius performances — one whose last five minutes have a permanent place on his highlight reel.

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16. Frank — What a wonderfully bizarre film. I love it. On one hand, it’s a comedy, and it appeals very directly to my taste with its dry, dark, straight-faced, absurd sense of humor. On the other hand, it’s a surprisingly stirring tribute to great art and the weirdos who make it. Despite its darkness, it’s sweet and warm — never cloying, though. It’s effectively critical of negative attitudes toward the creative process and how it works. And its portrait of mental illness may be slight, but it’s well handled, ultimately about how we all need each other and how sometimes a great thing should just be allowed to be great, whatever that means. Also, the music, bizarre as it is, is actually pretty fantastic.

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15. Calvary — If you’d attached bigger names and a bigger studio to this film, there’s no doubt in my mind it would’ve cleaned up at the Oscars — especially for Brendan Gleeson, who does some of the best work of his career in this one. In fairness, it’s not something well positioned to appeal to a wide audience — it’s a character-driven drama lacking in clear, precise plotting and shot through with a wry, almost imperceptible sense of humor that’s guaranteed to be off-putting to some. If you can get through that — or if you find those elements personally appealing — what you’ll find is one of the most nuanced portraits of religious faith in modern cinema. Calvary’s Father James struggles against the comfort of modern religion; he strives to determine what it means to follow Jesus Christ and to represent his example in the culture that surrounds him. The film offers no easy answers but plenty worth discussing — for the religious and non-religious alike.

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14. Whiplash — A breathless, relentless, incredible ride of a motion picture — not normally something you’d call a movie about students practicing at a prestigious music academy, but that’s just what makes Whiplash so special. It’s easy enough to appreciate the film’s surface level — namely, J.K. Simmons’ insane, over-the-top performance as the academy’s drill sergeant of a jazz band director. But what really gets me about the film is how it picks apart the concept of greatness in art and wonders what it truly is — pure technical skill, or something deeper? I love conversations like that, and I love where Whiplash ultimately seems to end up on the subject. The film has so much life after the credits roll — it’s so easy to speculate about where the characters end up and what the consequences of their actions will evolve into long-term. It’s a short, simple film but one that’s jam-packed with detail, insight, and yes, pure entertainment value.

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13. Under the Skin — That this type of film ordinarily isn’t up my alley whatsoever is a testament to how great Under the Skin ultimately is. It’s oblique, abstract, suggestive sci-fi, telling its strange story almost exclusively through visuals, what dialogue there is feeling improvised (it often was) and more part of the atmosphere than anything. And yet, on every level, it’s incredibly skillful — despite its silence and abstraction, it isn’t difficult to make emotional sense of it. You won’t leave it understanding everything about it — not in the literal, concrete details, anyway — but you don’t need to. It’s an exercise in tone, in pure emotion, in visual storytelling. It’s beautifully constructed and haunting. And Scarlett Johansson’s absence from the 2015 Academy Awards was one of the year’s worst snubs — her work in Under the Skin is unquestionably one of 2014’s best performances.

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12. Blue Ruin — One of the strongest directorial debuts in quite a long time, and one of the best films of the year more generally, Blue Ruin is one of those movies that’s just plain good. Everything it sets out to do, it does well, with very few exceptions. What’s fascinating about it is the way it drifts between so many different tones and styles without ever compromising itself. It’s a film that genuinely has its own voice. It’s part bloody revenge film, part drama, part indie thriller, part crime film, and part black comedy. Every tonal diversion arrives organically from the movements of the story and characters. The revenge film part of it is self-aware and effectively explores the consequences of violence and other bad decisions — another movie that’s interested, as I am, in the little moral compromises that inevitably lead us to bigger ones. It’s a story that brings its characters to a point where there no longer is a right decision — they simply have to pick their victim. That’s the kind of ambiguity I adore in a movie like this. The drama and indie thriller components of the film are natural extensions of the characters and their motivations, sketched gracefully through a combination of dialogue and effective visual storytelling. And the comedy stems from the general awkwardness of life. It pulls everything together beautifully and proves that you don’t need millions of dollars to tell an involving story. I’m excited to see what Jeremy Saulnier does next.

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11. Snowpiercer — Speaking of films that navigate an insane tonal quagmire and somehow emerge on the other side unscathed…Snowpiercer is the uber-example. I’m obviously not prepared to call it the year’s best film, but it’s certainly the most…singular. It’s storytelling as pure metaphor — it’s not interested in the science or the world or the facts of its characters’ lives day to day. Instead, it outlines a situation, defines the characters’ motivations relative to it, and spends the remainder of its time developing that into a statement about revolution, systemic injustice, and power structures. It uses its tone and style as a tool in that arsenal — as the characters move from scene to scene, they seemingly encounter different genres, ranging from action to horror to outright comedy. The feeling of each scene informs us about its position in the central metaphor. Somehow, it comes out feeling cohesive — mainly because it does such a good job of anchoring its characters in the middle of the satire. They’re the consistent thread, the element that doesn’t change even as everything else in the film rockets from one extreme to the next. Snowpiercer isn’t perfect, but it’s smart, stylish, and somehow both fun and disturbing in equal measure. I suspect it’s destined to become a cult favorite.
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10. Selma — This is how you do historical films. In terms of its premise, release date, cast, and presentation, it’s certainly very awards friendly, but it is not awards bait — and those are the films I most hope for when Oscar season rolls around. The difference, of course, is simple — Selma is dangerous, Selma is risky, Selma has real thematic depth, Selma has a point and a perspective, Selma is not trying to please everyone. In short, Selma is good. I like its limited take on the civil rights movement — most films would try to capture the bigger picture, but Selma is content to pull out this one moment in time and express itself through that story. Martin Luther King Jr. — insert obligatory praise of David Oyelowo’s performance here — certainly commands the most screen-time, but Selma truly feels like a story about the movement, one where all the characters are unique and interesting and have a role to play. The storytelling is focused but rich, using its limited scope to bring out as much detail as possible. I don’t love Ava Duvernay’s direction quite as much as everyone else — a few too many scenes came off as stagey, and I got tired of her placing the camera behind people’s heads rather quickly — but she gets the biggest moments exactly right; the Bloody Sunday march is one of the most harrowing scenes in 2014. I also love the film’s focus on the political causes, effects, and implications of the civil rights movement; not only does it capture the interconnected, systemic nature of the events, it also takes the opportunity to recast them as a sly parallel to the modern world. It’s not necessarily the most groundbreaking film ever made, but it is really, really good and puts a rich and vital new face on an important piece of American history.

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9. Ida — I wouldn’t say that I’m a fan of minimalist cinema; it would be more accurate to say that I could take or leave most of it but would die for the best of it. Ida rates among the best of it. It’s such a masterful exercise in visual storytelling. There’s very little dialogue, not because it’s forcing silence but because it isolates its characters so often. That puts a lot on the shoulders of the actors, and they deliver some of the year’s best performances. The two women at the center of this story are detailed and wholly understandable human beings, and that’s expressed almost entirely through the acting — you see changes in behavior and demeanor, you see their reactions to events in their eyes, you read it in their bearing. The characters themselves provide an interesting contrast in the titular character’s youthful naivete and her aunt Wanda’s haunted weariness; they deal with their respective situations in surprising but logical ways. They play off one another really, really well; their detailed and lived-in relationship is the film’s strongest point by far. But it’s also very well made on nearly every other level as well. It’s meticulously constructed, deliberate, and beautiful.

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8. The Immigrant — There’s something wonderfully old-fashioned about The Immigrant. It isn’t flashy, it isn’t pretentious. It’s a return to the drawing board — a story told with the most basic elements and the most standardized means. And it proves that not only can it be done well, but extraordinarily — it breathes fresh life into the familiar. There’s little to be said about it other than that it’s just plain a good story, but that’s all it needs in order to achieve greatness. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have Marion Cotillard and Joaquin Phoenix in the lead roles — both of them are in the conversation when we start talking about the best actors of our generation. And they both do predictably stellar work in The Immigrant. Everyone does stellar work in The Immigrant. The Immigrant is, itself, stellar.

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7. Song of the Sea — The fact that I don’t like Song of the Sea as much as Cartoon Saloon’s first, The Secret of Kells, says a lot more about The Secret of Kells than Song of the Sea, which is beautiful, unique, and thoroughly amazing. The storytelling here may be a step down from The Secret of Kells, but it’s still stunning and welcome to see a children’s film with such thematic depth, such emotional ambition, such wonder and awe. And, of course, the studio’s animation is only getting better — here, they further refined their style, and it’s gorgeous. I want to cut out every frame of this film and hang it on my wall. The animation is detailed, fluid, colorful, and textured; the world it conveys is unique and imaginative. Cartoon Saloon stands a good chance of filling the void left in the wake of Studio Ghibli closing its doors — its films a spiritual, original, and rich with both real-world and invented mythology. I am so excited to see where the studio goes from here.

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6. Locke — Can someone please explain to me why Tom Hardy isn’t the most famous person in the world already? He is idiotically good. No movie asked more of its star than Locke, and Hardy more than met the challenge. It truly is a one-man show — a story set exclusively inside a moving vehicle, presented almost in real time, and focused on a single character. No one other than Hardy so much as walks across the screen. He’s the most vital element in ensuring the film works — no amount of directorial flair or storytelling depth is going to matter if the only character in your movie isn’t believable. Fortunately, Hardy took the material and crafted what is certainly the most fully rounded character of his career. Whether he says it out loud or not, you will know absolutely everything about Ivan Locke by the time the credits roll. Hardy fully inhabits the part; there are no seams. Of course, it helps that he is working with a great script. It’s a smart and incisive film, and it explores the moral gray areas of its story very evenly and very well. As I’ve said in the past, I love films about consequences and how we deal with them. Ivan Locke has done one dumb thing; the movie shows us the hour and a half of his life where everything comes to a head. There isn’t really a “win” scenario for him, nor one where he can truly be said to have done the right thing. He just has to pick his poison. Watching him deal with that is fascinating. Locke in general is fascinating. Unquestionably one of the best movies of the year.

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5. Guardians of the Galaxy — Ah, you know, just one of those boring art films I love so much. This is one of those entries where personal taste has an important influence — the last few films on this list are almost certainly “better,” but none of them are pop sci-fi/space operas, so Guardians of the Galaxy it is! And it’s also a great movie — please don’t take that last sentence as me trying to ghettoize it. It’s extremely well made and a ton of fun. It’s formula, sure, but its characters and emotional beats are built into that so well. The characters, especially, are fantastic — this movie is as much comedy as sci-fi, maybe even more so, and each of the actors gets to play into that dynamic. The members of the cast have great chemistry, and the comedic interplay arises so organically — and hilariously — out of that. Yeah, there’s no commentary on the human condition here or anything, but occasionally, everybody needs to eat a nice, big bowl of ice cream. Guardians of the Galaxy is one great bowl of ice cream.

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4. Nightcrawler — I was always going to love Nightcrawler. I love great movies, and I work in the media, so any story about that is inherently going to appeal to me. I didn’t expect exactly how much I was going to love it, though. The cast is great, especially Jake Gyllenhaal; the themes are surprisingly well realized; the film is well engineered emotionally; and I’ve even come to appreciate the look of it with repeat viewings. Gyllenhaal’s Lou Bloom was, for me, one of the year’s most memorable characters — one of the most purely loathsome film protagonists of all time, a character who seems to get more and more awful with each passing scene. I love the way the film is structured around that; I love the way it builds its arc into the audience rather than its characters. I love the commentary on the state of our sensational and narrative-driven news media. I love the tone — it sometimes teeters on the edge of black comedy but never quite falls in. It’s wry but quite sincere. It exists in a heightened version of reality, constructed to act as satire on the real-world state of affairs, but it also feels like a logical extension of our own culture — something that maybe isn’t happening right now but certainly could happen. I love everything about Nightcrawler. It’s absolutely fantastic.

3. Noah — Does everyone recognize this as a classic unfairly overlooked in its time yet? No? Then my task remains incomplete. I wasn’t entirely sure how to feel about Noah on my first viewing; I knew that I liked it but was struggling to piece certain things together. Repeat viewings have settled it — Noah is great and even has flashes of outright genius here and there. The surface elements are all excellent, from the production design to the effects to the score to the cinematography to the editing and even to the acting — Russell Crowe is still playing an emblem of stoic, embattled masculinity, but it comes off as more textured here, something that emerges very naturally from the established traits and motives of the character. It’s what’s under the surface that makes the film soar; despite the marketing, it’s no mere blockbuster. The more I watch the film, the more I think Noah’s character arc is its strongest element; he wrestles with so many questions regarding man’s relationship to God, the nature of morality with or without a higher power, the darkness and light inherent to human nature, and quite a lot more, all of which resonated with me because of how closely they mirrored some of my own experiences. The film expresses these questions beautifully, telling its story not as an adaptation of the source material but as a commentary on its spiritual and cultural significance. Like I’ve said time and time again — if I get my way, this is going to be the Blade Runner of the early 2010s. History needs to remember this one.

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2. The LEGO Movie — Believe me, this shocks me as much as it shocks you. If you’d told me — and most other reviewers, for that matter — in 2013 that, in 2014, I’d declare The LEGO Movie one of the best films of the year, I’d either have laughed you out of the room or assumed that 2014 was set to be a legendarily awful time for cinema. But here we are — The LEGO Movie is one of the best films of 2014, and not for lack of competition. It’s just that good. If nothing else, 2014 is going to be remembered as the year that Phil Lord and Chris Miller arrived — their previous projects had been good enough, but the one-two punch of 22 Jump Street and The LEGO Movie proved they were genuine talents (with, apparently, an exclusive interest in making great movies out of unlikely premises). The LEGO Movie isn’t just a well-made piece of entertainment (though it’s super fun all the same); it’s dense and complex in its storytelling, its humor, and even its themes. On one hand, it’s a fun, funny little movie about plastic toy people having an adventure; on the other, it’s a deconstruction of the “chosen one” archetype and a commentary on childhood and family. Of course, I can’t conclude without mentioning that the animation is absolutely resplendent; Lord and Miller went the extra mile in filling out the absurd little world they created and making sure every corner of every frame was packed with detail and imagination. The LEGO Movie absolutely should not be as good as it is; in the hands of any other studio and any other director, it’d almost definitely be a soulless piece of cinematic merchandising. Instead, it’s a really great…piece of cinematic merchandising. Hey, it is a LEGO movie. Honestly, I’m grateful we got something so wonderful out of this unlikely setup. This is a movie the kids of today will be showing to their own children 20 years from now.

And my favorite movie of 2014 is…

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1. Boyhood — Don’t lie; you all saw that coming. It might not have been as obvious as Her taking the top slot in 2013 was, but I’ve still spent the better part of a year raving about this one. Honestly, I never considered it an outright guarantee for the top slot; it struck me, upon my first viewing, as the sort of thing that might not play as well the second time. Fortunately, it did — better, in fact. I think of Richard Linklater as being not so much a great storyteller (though he can be, when it suits him) but a great cultural documentarian. No one is better than him at capturing the feeling of a certain time and place and age. Boyhood feels like the movie to which his entire career has been building, weaving together his fascinations with time and culture and people’s relationship to both into a singular epic that captures the evolution of a generation through the eyes of one kid. What’s so striking to me about Boyhood is the way it’s simultaneously so broad and so specific. It adopts a lot of nuance — in the characters, in the relationships, in the generational shifts, in the cultural trivia — so that the film always feels like it belongs to a specific point in human history, but it also captures, perhaps because rather than in spite of that, the feeling of growing up and moving on, something universal to all of us, regardless of age. I don’t always find myself in the characters; their experiences diverge from mine. But I do watch the scenes where the kids are fighting for their parents’ attention or their dad has taken everyone bowling or the family’s first camping trip or those first crushes or those post-high-school anxieties and find that the feeling of them is immediately recognizable to me. Boyhood is the story of one person’s life, but it’s also the story of all our lives. It was great the first time I watched it but absolutely transcendent the second time. It’s well written, well directed, well acted, insightful, emotionally involving, and honest. I can’t think of a worthier film to name the year’s best.

Recently, I published a review of The Imitation Game. It was the 400th review I’ve written since I started this site in 2009. Every 200 reviews, I write a retrospective, recapping my experience thus far. Last week, you got to see the negative side of that — the Top 20 Worst Films I’ve Reviewed. This week, we’re looking at the silver lining — The Top 20 Best Films I’ve Reviewed. Needless to say, this was much more rewarding to write.

I’ll recap the qualifications. For a film to be on this list, I have to have reviewed it. There are a few films released in the relevant timeframe that I saw but not until well after a new cinematic year had set in, so I neglected to write about them. Those aren’t contenders for this list.

This article also applies solely to my first 400 reviews, so anything published after The Imitation Game will have to wait until my 600th review to merit consideration.

I’ll also include my standard disclaimer here: I’m using the word “best” in the title of this article, but I really mean “favorite.” I’m trying to measure my personal reaction here, not satisfy some objective checklist of quality. A movie’s ranking on this list is not indicative of its quality relative to the other films appearing — and even not appearing — here.

I’ll also mention that this list was actually challenging. My article for the first 200 reviews was pretty simple — it had room for all of my absolute favorites with a couple of spaces left over to devote to movies that I thought were okay but not brilliant. Not so here. I had to make some painful cuts in order to get this list together. There are a few movies I’m shocked didn’t make it.

But enough stalling. Without further ado… The Top 20 Best Films I’ve Reviewed!

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20. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 — Holding up the rear of this list is the capstone — and arguable best film — of one of cinema’s longest-running and most successful franchises. As you might guess based on its position here compared to the rank it held among my first 200 reviews, my estimation of it has decreased somewhat, largely because of its weaknesses as a standalone film. It owes a lot of its power to the fact that it has seven predecessors building up your connection with these characters and this world. Simultaneously, it deserves a ton of credit for sticking the landing — even if it’s not quite a great film, it is a great final act, and that is, after all, what it’s supposed to be. It’s atmospheric and emotionally potent and the installment where it feels the most like director David Yates was cut loose to truly give it its own voice. Despite its flaws, it’s stellar and involving fantasy and a fitting end to a cultural juggernaut.

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19. Captain Phillips — That this film barely made it onto the list is a testament to how many great films there have been over the past six years. You could make a strong argument that it’s Paul Greengrass’s best film and one of Tom Hanks’s best performances — and there’s a lot of competition for that title in both categories. As real-life thrillers go, there isn’t much to its tone or presentation that strikes you as particularly unique; it’s in the storytelling that it truly starts to take interesting and mostly successful risks. It hardly deviates from the true story at all but still somehow manages to twist the whole thing into a clever metaphor for international relations in the modern world. It also does a great job making everyone — protagonist and antagonist alike — sympathetic and understandable. It forgoes bending the story into a straightforward thriller format so that it can spend time with its characters and properly develop its themes. It makes the most of that extra space. 2013 was a strong year for cinema, and Captain Phillips ranks among its best offerings.

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18. Noah — This may simply be false hope on my part, but if I get my way, this will be the Blade Runner of its times — an unfairly overlooked film that goes on to become a major cultural force and universally recognized as great. Whenever a movie gets stamped as “love it or hate it,” I normally don’t develop strong feelings one way or the other. This is the exception. Noah is absolutely great, and I like it more every time I see it. Beyond the quality film craft on display here — the cinematography, the direction, the locations, the effects, the design, a few underrated performances — this movie is ridiculously smart and knows how to repurpose its well-known story into a piece of art that both commentates on its source material and explores significant questions of faith and morality with grace and intelligence. It’s not perfect, but what it does well, it does so, so well. I really need this to be that movie someday where everyone watches it and wonders how it didn’t get nominated for a single Oscar. I badly need for this to happen. It’s too unique and incredible to be forgotten.

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17. The Avengers — There is a part of me, deep inside, that is still eight years old, and three years later, The Avengers appeals to that part of me in exactly the same way it did when it first released. I’ve seen it a lot of times since it came out — more, probably, than a lot of other films on this list. I’ve become more familiar with its flaws, but I’ve also come to appreciate its strengths still more. It’s a well-executed piece of spectacle, a movie that knows exactly what it is and isn’t ashamed of it. It’s silly. It’s cheerful. It’s fun. And it doesn’t feel the need to keep satirizing itself in order to remind viewers that it was made by adults. This is what superhero movies and summer blockbusters in general ought to be. I hope it remains the template for many years to come.

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16. True Grit — I remain fairly certain that this is the best thing the Coen Brothers have done in the last six years, which should not be taken as a slight against the other films they’ve made. True Grit is just that good. Recently, I had the opportunity to see the original for the first time since I was a kid, and it only deepened my appreciation for this — not that the original is bad, but the Coen take is so much better. Not only does it go farther in developing the themes and establishing its own distinct tone and style, it also, to some extent, commentates on the Western genre with the trademark Coen Brothers wit and cynicism. You see that in the way it takes some of the darker elements that were glossed over in the original and plays them for black comedy in this installment. On top of that… Well, it’s a Coen Brothers movie, so of course the dialogue and acting are great, and of course it’s smart and funny and extremely entertaining.

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15. The LEGO Movie — If you’d showed me this article a few years ago and pointed at this entry, I’d have called you insane. I can’t think of a stranger property for Hollywood to put actual effort into, but great movies are great movies regardless of what they’re about, so I can hardly stand to complain. I already basically enjoyed Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s work before, but seeing this movie solidified them as some of the major talents to watch right now. These guys really, really love movies and will absolutely never join a project that they don’t intend to give their all. Give them a movie based on freaking LEGOs, and they’ll come back with one of the best-looking, most stylistically unique animated films ever made. Tell them to make a movie designed solely to sell toys, and they’ll give you one of the year’s most intelligent scripts. Tell them to pitch it at kids, and they’ll make sure that every single joke sticks, regardless of the viewer’s age. The LEGO Movie is pure joy. Mark my words — the kids of today will be showing this to their own children 20 years from now.

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14. The Illusionist — This is another movie that has only deepened my appreciation of it with repeat viewings. More and more, I admire its simplicity — how straightforward and understandable the characters and story are. And yet, it’s possibly the most emotionally rich film I’ve seen in the entirety of my six years writing reviews. This movie fills my soul each and every time I watch it — with wonder, with nostalgia, with joy, with sadness, each feeling deep and lasting. It’s a surprisingly powerful little film. Time doesn’t seem to mitigate its effects. We shouldn’t forget what wonders we can accomplish with traditional, hand-drawn animation. We can’t lose this resplendent little art form. The Illusionist is a testament to why — it’s everything an animated film could possibly hope to be.

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13. Boyhood — The last time I wrote about Richard Linklater, I insinuated that he was on the pathway to becoming one of my favorite directors. That ship has since sailed; he’ll be comfortably near the top of my list for as long as he continues to make movies. Boyhood isn’t quite his masterpiece, but it’s the film that best encapsulates everything that’s great about him as an artist. He’s a tinkerer, a guy who’s less interested in making grand statements and more in experimenting with the form, searching for new ways to tell stories and explore characters and ideas. These days, it seems that time is what fascinates him. Inevitably, that would culminate in an ambitious undertaking like this — 12 years to make a single film. And it’s cohesive and immediately recognizable as something he made. Other filmmakers might use this premise to trot out the biggest, most important moments. Only Linklater would decide that the actual story is in the space between those moments. As a result, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a film better emphasize the importance of the here and now — and so very many have tried.

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12. Lincoln — I don’t know that I have much to add about this film that I didn’t say on my list for the first 200 reviews. It’s still great. I don’t have any new light to shed on why its great — my reasoning is the same. Repeat viewings haven’t showed me anything that I didn’t see before — yet — but the film still manages to get better with every single one. At first glance, it isn’t all that different from your average biopic; fortunately, Steven Spielberg knows what he’s doing like few others who would take on a prestigious project like this. It’s smart enough to be structurally contained, personable enough to make each of its historical figures so interesting that you leave wanting to learn more about them, and fun enough to remember to maintain its sense of humor and engage its audience’s emotions. Its ending is a foregone conclusion, but the climax is still tense. I can think of few movies I’ve seen over these last six years that pack quite as much pure uplift as this one. Lincoln is one of the best historical films ever made.

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11. 12 Years a Slave — I think this movie basically dropped the mic on films about slavery. It’s hard to imagine anyone ever making a better one. Like so many others on this list, this is a film that I appreciate more with each viewing. I had a few reservations about it the first time I saw it, but nearly all of those have since been satisfied. It’s that rare film about injustice that manages to incorporate both the large, blatant abuses and the smaller prejudices into a greater whole that effectively communicates how dehumanizing the experience of oppression is for all who are forced into that system. This is a film that is perfectly attuned to the facts of human nature and is gut-wrenching in the tragedy it pulls out of that examination. Its characters are rich and lifelike, in large part because of the brilliance of its performances. It’s also structured its story very uniquely to make its point as well as it can. Cinema has never produced anything quite like it. It’s a powerful and heart-breaking film and hopefully one we’ll still be talking about many years from now.

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10. Gravity — This movie is an incredible reminder of what cinema, in its most basic form, can accomplish. I’m still in love with its quiet efficiency, the way it reduces its story to the absolute bare bones but still manages to make it work. And naturally, I’m more in love with the technical genius Alfonso Cuaron brought to this. As I’ve said before, he’s made better, more interesting films, but visually, this is his masterpiece. I’m not saying that because of the effects (which are great) but because of how precise and masterful the direction is. Cuaron has every shot, every camera movement, every edit down to a science; he seems to know exactly what to do with each to wrest the maximum amount of tension and beauty out of each moment. No movie has ever looked or felt quite like this one. It’s almost machine-like in how perfectly it has been engineered, but it’s never soulless — quite the opposite, actually. It finds the emotions at the heart of its spectacle and weaves them together beautifully. I hope this becomes the sort of film that screens in theaters perennially — it truly must be seen that way at least once.

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9. Toy Story 3 — I am an adult male, and I am in complete shambles at the end of this movie, every single time I watch it. It manages to feel like a seamless continuation of the story that began in the original film while also breaking enough ground to stand alone as a great movie in its own right. Compared to the other two, it’s much more adventurous with its tone — it rockets from loose comedy to intense drama relatively quickly. It begins as a reserved, wistful nostalgia piece, then becomes a ludicrous prison break movie, then turns into an extremely emotive drama, then wraps it all up in a surprisingly cohesive statement about growing up and getting older and letting go. Throughout all the tonal shifts, it almost never loses sight of itself — it’s still the Toy Story you know and love, just filtered through a different context. All three of these films have been very personal for me, and I feel lucky to have been born at exactly the right time to grow up alongside them — I was a child when the first was released and in college when this hit theaters. Each film in this series always found me at the exact moment in life that it wanted to say something about, and that’s allowed all of them to speak to me in incredible ways. This was the perfect ending to the story. *glares at Disney*

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8. Inception — For my money, this is in a close race with The Prestige for the title of Christopher Nolan’s best film. It’s also probably a competitor to be the best action movie of the last decade. I love movies that are pure fun and movies that are focused more on themes and ideas, but nothing gets me quite like those movies that exist at the confluence of the two. Those are the ones that make my all-time list, and Inception is very much among their number. Too often, high-concept sci-fi doesn’t sustain its originality beyond its premise; Inception, on the other hand, always feels fresh and inventive. It’s constantly exploring the idea and its rules. More importantly, it attends to its human consequences. You come for the wild action sequences but very definitely stay for the themes and the ideas. Inception is a relentless ride, but it’s also wrought with surprising feeling. This is one of the few films — and perhaps the only original film — from the last several years to have already carved out a seemingly permanent cultural niche, and it’s easy to see why. There simply isn’t anything else quite like it.

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7. Up — Hey, Pixar again! It turns out we still aren’t so far removed from the time when their storytellers were among our best and brightest — and hopefully, they’re poised to regain that status with two original films in 2015. Up is a poignant reminder of what they’re capable of doing when they’re firing on all cylinders — it’s not only one of the best of its year but one of the best animated films ever made. This is a movie that notoriously had half its audience in tears within the first 10 minutes, but there isn’t a single scene in it that isn’t attending to one’s emotions. It has the trademark Pixar touch — it’s sweet but not saccharine, sad but not melodramatic, meaningful but not Important, hilarious but not juvenile, fun but not stupid. It defies classification. It was only the second animated movie in history to be nominated for Best Picture, and I’d like to think there was more reason for that than the expanded playing field. It’s a powerful, beautifully animated, unforgettable story.

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6. The Secret of Kells — I think there was a moment, around 2009-2010, where we nearly entered a new renaissance era for animation. With Pixar leading the charge, animated movies were suddenly becoming the smartest, most original, and best films of the year. It seems, sadly, to have petered out since — The LEGO Movie was the only animated film post-2010 that even came close to consideration for this list. But I was glad for it while it lasted, and as far as I’m concerned, The Secret of Kells was the best of the best. It’s my personal favorite of its year and remains one of my favorites of all time. It was a spectacular way for Cartoon Saloon — well on its way to becoming a spiritual cousin to Studio Ghibli — to make its cinematic debut. The animation is absolutely gorgeous — rich watercolors; fluid, well-integrated computer animation; resplendent, complex, hand-drawn backgrounds. And it isn’t all visuals and no substance — the story is original and exists in complete defiance of formula, even while borrowing heavily from Irish history, culture, and mythology. It also isn’t afraid of ambiguity and abstraction and works as well on a metaphorical level as on the literal. It’s just a smart, beautiful film, and it needs so much more recognition than it’s thus far received.

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5. Short Term 12 — Yeah, that’s the kind of list this is, one where Short Term 12 only clocks in at fifth place, despite my early predictions that it would be sitting pretty at the top. This is easily one of the best indie dramas in recent memory. It’s the sort of film that hits so close to home that it starts to seem more like a documentary than fiction. It gains a lot from writer/director Destin Cretton having actually worked in a facility like the one portrayed here. He’s able to bring so much detail to the story he’s telling, in so doing shedding a lot of light on a frequently misunderstood societal problem. It’s that rare film that left me feeling as though I had become wiser because I had seen it — it allowed me to understand people who had previously existed as stereotypes. It isn’t a straightforward, heavy-handed Message Movie, though — it’s drama, and its structure and themes are governed by its emotional needs. Simultaneously, it isn’t manipulative or melodramatic. It’s a story of real people dealing with real problems. It’s intimate, well written, and features some of the young decade’s best performances.

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4. A Separation — For what it’s worth, I spent forever debating whether or not I preferred this to Short Term 12, and I’m still not comfortable with my decision. Honestly, I think I’m only defaulting to this because I’ve had more time to re-watch it and familiarize myself with it. Either way, it’s still absolutely brilliant. It’s intimate, detailed, well told, well acted, realistic drama — one review of his follow-up, The Past, called Asghar Farhadi our foremost teller of domestic truths, and that’s certainly an excellent summation of A Separation. It’s a complex and morally ambiguous picture of family relationships and how one bad decision, in tandem with our own human imperfections, can lead to an inescapable quagmire of loss. It sets up an entirely believable situation that allows no easy escape for its characters; it’s story is a slow, painful experience in watching them slowly realize that their happy ending is impossible. It’s a film that grabs you by the heart and never stops twisting. It’s an unforgettable emotional tour de force, shot through with compassion and wisdom. It’s absolutely one of the best films of its year and, indeed, ever made.

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3. Take Shelter — It’s been four years since this came out, and Jeff Nichols still isn’t the most famous name in Hollywood. I have a serious problem with that. He has yet to make a bad movie — scratch that, he has yet to make a not-great movie — but he’s still a niche filmmaker working on projects seen mainly by people like me. I love everything he’s done thus far, but I still think Take Shelter is his best film by a comfortable mile. Part of that’s personal; anything that’s tackling religious themes (or, in this case, religion-adjacent themes) is automatically going to be right up my alley. But a much larger part of that is that this movie is just fantastic. Nichols’ has perfect control over the mood, atmosphere, and look of the film, which is important, since this is a much more psychological and haunting movie than is the norm for him. More importantly, it is, to date, the standard-bearer for his remarkable talent in writing and developing characters. Curtis LaForche is one of the most fully three-dimensional characters this side of the new millennium; you come to understand him so well that you begin to predict his decisions as easily as if they were your own. I can’t recall a movie ever getting me into its protagonist’s headspace as thoroughly as this one. Of course, having Michael Shannon in the lead role doesn’t hurt anything — he, too, needs to be considerably more famous than he already is. Take Shelter is fantastic from top to bottom.

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2. The Social Network — You’ll notice there was a bit of an order change here. When I compiled the list for my retrospective on the first 200 reviews, I opted to declare Take Shelter the best of the bunch and award second place to The Social Network — admittedly, after considerable hand-wringing. The reason for my change of heart? To be honest, part of me, 200 reviews ago, suspected that, eventually, I was going to make it to that viewing of The Social Network where it finally stopped working for me. Now, five years after its release, that viewing hasn’t come, and I’m pretty sure it never will. Every time I see it, I like it even more. Of course, I still love the parts of it I always thought were great. On a technical level, this might be David Fincher’s best-looking film; there’s something so precise and intense about the editing and something so fluid and graceful about the composition and camera movement. Only a director like him could find so much fantastic imagery in a movie about guys messing around on computers. The script is some of Aaron Sorkin’s finest work — partly for the tight and effective story but especially for the sharp, witty dialogue. The actors get a lot to work with, and given their relative youth, it probably doesn’t mean a lot to say that most of them turned in career-best work, but it’s the truth nonetheless. I find that even some of my initial reservations about it have since begun to subside — I didn’t like Justin Timberlake’s performance at first, finding it artificial, but increasingly, I think it works perfectly for the character, who is a fake person presenting a manufactured image for personal benefit. It’s getting to where I outright love nearly everything about it. I think it might be one of my all-time favorites. So, what could possibly beat that?

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1. Her — Oh, don’t act like you didn’t immediately know the answer to that question. When I did this column for my first 200 reviews, I agonized over what would be getting the top slot. This time, I knew immediately. Nothing has come close. It may be some time before anything else successfully does. This isn’t just my favorite movie of 2013; it’s a strong contender for my Top 10 favorites ever. I have gone on about this movie at such length that I don’t even know what’s left to say about it anymore. The acting is perfect? Check. The direction is perfect? Check. The production design is perfect? Check. The characters are perfect? Check. The themes are perfect? Check. The world-building is perfect? Check. The freaking score is perfect? Check. There isn’t anything about this movie that doesn’t completely amaze me; it’s everything I want to experience when I sit down in a theater. It’s intelligent, emotional, beautiful, well constructed, compassionate. It’s story- and ideas-driven sci-fi of the variety that barely gets made anymore — heck, of a variety that barely got made ever. The best movies — the absolute best — are rare, but they’re easy to identify because they’re the only ones that have me completely walking on air when they’re over. That was Her, the second the credits rolled. It’s absolutely fantastic. If you haven’t seen it yet, I really don’t understand what you’re waiting for.

Well, that’s the end of it. Four hundred reviews down, hopefully many hundreds more to go. I’ve enjoyed this immensely, and I’ll keep doing it until it becomes impossible. So, you might as well share my site so I can make some money while I’m at it, right? Please do.

But seriously — it’s been a fantastic six years. Here’s hoping the next six will be even better.

Well, this week, we struck another milestone — my 400th review posted on this website!

(And I still only get, like, 10 hits per review, yaaaaaaaaaaaay.)

As those 10 readers know, I’ve promised to put together a little retrospective every time I hit another 200 reviews. I posted my first almost exactly two years ago, Spring 2013, counting off the Top 20 Best and Worst movies I’ve reviewed since I started doing this in 2009. This time around… Well, I’m doing the same thing again, only with a much larger playing field.

And so, today, we’ll be counting off the first half of my First 400 Reviews Retrospective — The Top 20 Worst Films I’ve Reviewed! Next week, we’ll look over the best.

I’ll begin with my usual qualifier — I’m using words like “best” and “worst,” but I mean something closer to “favorite” and “least favorite.” With each passing year, I find I believe even less in the idea of objectivity in the arts. I’ve learned that people can find something of value in just about anything. This is simply a list of 20 films in which I personally found exactly none.

Now, what’s eligible for the list? Well, everything, as long as it counts as one of my first 400 reviews. Obviously, anything released prior to 2009 can’t be included. And since it was my 400th review, anything that I posted after The Imitation Game will have to wait for me to hit 600 of these. I’m also restricting this to movies that I reviewed — there are a couple of films in the eligible timeframe that I saw long after their respective years had passed and opted not to write about. So, sorry, guys, but Twilight isn’t eligible.

Now, how did I compile this list? I made myself a rule early on that I would not be revisiting any of my year-end lists or my First 200 Reviews Retrospective. My opinions about these films have changed, sometimes in minor ways and sometimes significantly, and I didn’t want to be biased by what I’ve written in the past. I wanted these perspectives to be as fresh as possible. So, I’ll tell you in advance — some of these aren’t in the same order they were in the first time. That’s absolutely intentional.

It turned out that compiling the worst list for this retrospective was much harder than compiling the best list. There are two reasons for that. Firstly, you know that old quote about how 90 percent of everything is garbage? I’m not so cynical to believe that entirely, but…yeah, there’s at least a hint of truth somewhere in there. For my Top 20 best, I was working with a field of, like, 35. For my Top 20 worst, I was working with a field of, like, a lot more than that. More significant, however, is this — for rather obvious reasons, I have not revisited the vast majority of the films on this list. As such… I don’t remember some of them too well. I had to think back to my original reaction, which was, in some cases, six years ago. And then, I had to filter that through the ways in which my tastes have evolved since then and try to predict how I’d react now. The result was that…I still didn’t remember them all that well and ended up making a list that’s at least 50 percent political. At least.

So, knowing all that, I give you… The Top 20 Worst Films I’ve Reviewed!

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20. G-Force — Yeah, that’s the kind of list this is, one where a movie like G-Force clocks in at dead last on the scale of awfulness! (I also offer, for your consideration, films like 2012, Battle: Los Angeles, Clash of the Titans, Red Dawn, and even Winter’s Tale, which didn’t make this list at all! I, Frankenstein wasn’t even considered!) Honestly, taking a hammer to a dumb kids’ movie feels a bit beneath my dignity at this point — actually, this all kind of feels a bit beneath my dignity, but I have to do something with my insatiable appetite for bad movies. Anyway, I’m glad the era in kids movies that produced this — the one that was relentlessly crass and dumb, that structured almost all of its humor around lame pop culture references — has mostly started to pass us. Weirdly, that’s in large part because of the studio that produced this anti-gem. Disney has been on the frontlines of ushering a new era of smarter, more graceful family films lately. I’m glad for it, because I couldn’t stand to see another G-Force ever again.

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19. Dragonball: Evolution — This movie just plain got unlucky — I didn’t remember anything about it, so it probably wouldn’t have made the list had I not managed to catch, like, five minutes of it on TV just a few weeks ago. Seeing that was enough to be dumbfounded by the awful special effects, the clumsy direction, the wooden acting, the outright stupid dialogue. And I knew, right then and there, that it would take something special to prevent this from making the list a second time.

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18. Battleship — I’m going to be completely honest — I almost let this one off the hook this time around. I think that, when I originally reviewed it, I was still a little bit concerned about my image and making sure I toed certain critical lines. I was a college kid; what do you expect? That’s not to say I ever liked it even a little bit, just that, maybe, it wasn’t quite as bad as I said it was. Still, it’s pretty bad, and I eventually reached a point where I was making this list and the options I had left were more or less equivalently terrible. I picked this out of the bunch because it’s bad and cynical, a horrible miscalculation of “what’s hot with the kids right now” that has basically no interest in actually being watchable. It’s Transformers except… Actually, it’s just Transformers. The differences are totally negligible.

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17. Contraband — I know I’m in the minority on this — not that everyone else liked it but that most probably wouldn’t even consider it one of the Top 20 worst of its year, let alone the last six. But I just hated this thing with absolutely every fiber of my being, and while time has allowed my rage to subside somewhat and recognize the film itself as mostly mediocre, I still have to carve out space for it. There are bad movies, and there are bad movies that are also offensive. Those are the ones that hold so special a place in my heart.

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16. Wrath of the TitansClash missed the list by a hair, but the series needed representation somehow. It really isn’t any worse than its predecessor, but that one wasn’t a good movie either. Bad movies bother me less than movies that don’t try, and this one is in the latter category. It already had a blueprint of how not to do it, but it still made all the same mistakes as the first one. This is as generic as blockbuster filmmaking gets.

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15. Vampire Academy — There was a five-second period where I considered not putting this on the list because it’s occasionally bad enough to be kind of funny, but I laughed that notion away immediately. There are only a few scenes that are entertainingly terrible, and the rest of it is so bafflingly wrong that this list would be incomplete without it. The movie is 95 percent exposition and still confusing somehow, is so melodramatic that it blurs the line between comedy and seriousness so heavily that it stops existing entirely, and is badly miscast from top to bottom. I’d warn you to skip it, but honestly, it’s kind of fascinating. You should probably see it, if you share my inexplicable taste for terrible movies.

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14. The Legend of Hercules — This is barely even a movie. Honestly, remove some of the effects from the last few scenes, and you’d expect to watch this on television. That it didn’t go direct to video is kind of shocking — it’s bland, lifeless, low-budget product whose biggest star had a bit part in Twilight. That’s practically the prescribed formula for direct to video releases. This isn’t even bad enough to be funny; it’s just boring.

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13. Transformers: Age of Extinction — Oh, hey, speak of the devil! The weirdest thing about Age of Extinction is that it’s terrible in just about every respect, and it’s still the best Transformers movie since the first one by a pretty considerable margin. I don’t even know what to say about this one that hasn’t already been said a thousand times. I think Devin Faraci at Badass Digest put it best when he said, “It’s like binge watching the death of the human spirit.”

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12. Olympus Has Fallen — It’s a modern 80s movie that exemplifies everything that was wrong with the especially bad action movies back then. It’s so dour and humorless that it’s impossible to take the relentless and bloody violence and sadistic torture scenes as anything other than completely sociopathic; it isn’t even a little bit fun. And it’s so loosely plotted that the whole thing collapses — you can’t pace nothing, so instead, you get a two-hour movie where Gerard Butler wanders around aimlessly and sometimes fights people. Throw in some of the worst effects to appear in a mainstream film in recent memory, and you’ve got a recipe for a surefire Top 20 worst contender.

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11. Old Dogs — See G-Force. We reached a point where our family films were just incomprehensibly lazy. There isn’t a single original joke in this entire movie. They couldn’t even be bothered to shoot or direct it into something that at least looked like it belonged on theater screens. Easily one of the most confusingly awful family films of the last decade. I don’t think I could pass a college film course with this monstrosity.

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10. The Last Airbender — This was on TV recently, so I started watching it, thinking it couldn’t possibly be anywhere near as bad as I remembered. Silly me, it’s worse. When it released, I at least managed to praise its effects; a mere five years later, they’re already looking dated. The only thing I still like about it is James Newton Howard’s score. Everything else is…really, really, really bad. So bad that I don’t understand how it even happened. Someone on set had to know the acting was awful. Someone on set had to know the dialogue was redundant and accidentally hilarious. Someone on set had to know the action sequences were so slow and badly staged that they were kind of comical. Someone had to know. Why didn’t anyone say anything? (Sorry. I still like the show this is based on and am kind of sore about this movie.)

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9. God’s Not Dead — I am going to get into so much trouble for putting this on the list. I promised again and again that I wasn’t going to see it, but people wouldn’t stop talking about it, and my curiosity got the better of me — even though I very definitely knew what I was in for. I could harp on the superficial things — how the acting and direction are mostly mediocre, how the production values are on the low side, how the story repeatedly fails to dramatize its most basic needs, etc. But that stuff only helped it make this list. What solidified its position is that a better name for this movie would be Non-Christians Suck. It hardly seems to have any significant M.O. beyond making every last one of its non-Christian characters almost cartoonishly evil. I could overlook even that if I didn’t know that the movie made them that way because it was produced by and for people who believe they actually are that way. It comes off as a complete hate piece. It’s a movie that tackles big subjects with the specific intention of being as un-challenging as possible — an apologetics film that seems not to have researched its topic even a little bit and a social issues film that is either hateful and/or ignorant toward everyone outside of its subculture, a distinction I’m allowing out of what I know might be an excess of grace. Full disclosure — I can’t really think of any Christian movie that I’ve liked, but that usually has more to do with the quality than anything else. This is the only one I’ve seen that was also condescending, hateful, and mean. Honestly, I’m not sure why I didn’t push it higher up the list.

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8. X-Men Origins: Wolverine — Oh, right, that’s why. This is still the most fitting example of the terrible things that happened to superhero movies in the immediate wake of The Dark Knight. It’s an arbitrarily gritty and self-serious thing with so much graphic and unconsidered violence that it starts to come off…iffy, at the very least. It’s also incredibly poorly written and acted, just a terrible movie all around. I’m so thankful to the Marvel Cinematic Universe for getting Hollywood off its “dark and gritty” kick. I’d missed summer blockbusters that were actually, you know, fun. (NOTE: In the 600-review retrospective, I will be thanking someone other than Marvel for stopping the soon-to-be-ubiquitous shared universe trend. I wanted to prepare you for this impending hypocrisy.)

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7. Jonah Hex — I’m definitely operating on some vague memories on this one. Predictably, I never watched it again after that first viewing. I probably never will. What I remember of it is this — it was cooked up under the same cultural circumstances that gave us X-Men Origins: Wolverine, but even by the standards of soulless Hollywood product, not a single person making this movie actually tried. This is the sort of movie that had to pad out its end credits in order to achieve theatrical length. That’s how much anyone cared about this. It’s a complete nothing of a dark, nasty, violent movie. Were Josh Brolin and Michael Fassbender really in this? Wow.

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6. A Good Day to Die Hard — Hey, speaking of soulless Hollywood product, here’s the picture that appears next to the dictionary definition of all three of those words. It should be really, really difficult to make a boring Die Hard movie, but there you have it. The filmmakers seem as though they’ve either never seen a Die Hard movie or have no idea why anyone likes them; I don’t have any other way to explain why they stripped out all the humor, put no effort whatsoever into the villain, removed all the stakes, and refused to put even a little imagination into the action sequences. It is one of the most generic and thoughtless action movies of the last decade. It’s not even bad in a way that’s funny or interesting. There is basically no reason whatsoever to see it.

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5. Skyline — I don’t really have much to add to my previous statements on this film. It’s a SyFy Channel movie that got released to theaters somehow. And it’s not one of the fun-bad ones either. It looks extraordinarily cheap, a problem not helped by its total lack of directorial prowess. The acting is flat and uninspired all around. The plot doesn’t really exist. It’s too dark and self-serious to be any fun. The effects are all it has going for it, and even those aren’t good, just good for the budget on which they were made. So, basically, it’s interesting to effects teams and absolutely no one else.

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4. Jack and Jill — I will be 50 years old and compiling more of these lists, and Jack and Jill will still be on them. I certainly hope so, anyway. There can’t possibly be enough movies out there bad enough to displace it entirely, can there? Yeah, if you’re tempted to see this movie, go tell a small child to scream in your ear in a racist impression of a Jewish housewife while hitting yourself over the head with the nearest blunt object. It will approximate the effect. Adam Sandler could spend the rest of his career starring in timeless classics, and I’m still not sure he would overcome my residual ill will from this.

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3. The Starving Games — I almost disqualified this for reasons of “shooting fish in a barrel.” My review of it was basically just a stunt anyway — it’s not a well-known film or something people were clamoring for reviews of. I did it as my first live review solely because I thought it would be funny. And now, it has an automatic claim on this list until the end of time, and that’s boring. Other than that, what do you want me to say? It’s a Seltzerberg movie. It’s crass, sexist, and random. There’s no flair to the direction. The effects are lazy. The jokes are cheap references at best. It’s profoundly and relentlessly unfunny. You feel dumber after watching it. And because no one watches this movie without knowing what it is, the joke is ultimately on you. I knew better.

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2. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen — Don’t. Even.

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1. Transformers: Dark of the Moon — Act. Surprised.

So, that’s the list. And now that I’ve got all that negativity out of my system, it’s time to focus on the positive. For everything that went wrong over the last six years, cinema has also granted us with some pretty great stuff, including a few outright masterpieces and even one or two potential classics. That, to me, has been the defining element of this experience — exploring cinema, from the ages of 17 to, now, 23, deepening my taste, expanding my horizons, and discovering all the greatness I never knew existed. I’d much rather dwell upon that. So, tune in a week from today for the second installment of this retrospective — The Top 20 Best Films I’ve Reviewed.

Well, actually, it would be more accurate to say, “This month, I did a dumb thing.” Movie buffs — hardcore guys like me who watch everything they can get their hands on and casual fans alike — get asked this question a lot: “How many movies do you figure you’ve seen?”

The right answer to this question is to shrug and cough up a rough estimate/complete guess and call it a day. Who cares, right?

Well, I’m famous for two things — only being right about stuff when it’s inconvenient for me, and caring about things that no reasonable human being with a job and a life should care about. So, my response to that question was the worst one possible: insatiable curiosity.

So, instead of guessing at the answer…I tried to find out.

And this whole deal was the result. I have just published a new page — The Pantheon: Matt’s Film Viewing Throughout History. The goal: to document every single thing I have ever seen ever and to continue to do so for as long as I still have eyes to see. Any movie I see, from now on, old and new alike, goes on the list.

It’s subdivided into years. I arbitrary selected 1900 as my starting point. Those years will be listed on separate pages, so click away.

That was another reason I did this. If you have a favorite critic, you’ve probably had that moment where you thought to yourself, “Gee, I really wish I knew what he/she thought about this movie that came out before he/she began writing reviews.”

Well, that’s no longer a problem here (though if I’m your favorite critic, you…probably have reason to be concerned). Now, you get to read my self-important opinions on everything.

The downside is that I’m about to publicly reveal exactly how poorly versed I still am on major portions of film history. Trust me, however low your opinion of me is right now, it’s about to get, like, way lower. However many movies you think I’ve seen, the truth is an order of thousands fewer. And there are some really, really important classics missing. I am doing my best to rectify that. But you should be warned if only so that I can say, “Told you so.”

As for the movies themselves… Well, I began this process earlier this month by going through Wikipedia’s Years in Film lists and marking everything I’ve seen, an effort that took, no lie, probably about six hours in total. My only rule was that I had to be absolutely certain I had seen the film in its entirety (with a handful of exceptions, largely for films that are so outright terrible that I’ve never had the endurance to finish them). If there was any doubt in my mind, I left it off the list. So, yeah, as close as I tried to get, this is never going to be a complete list of everything I’ve seen. I watched dozens upon dozens upon hundreds of kids’ movies when I was little. I have watched about that many terrible horror movies on the SyFy Channel while bored. And there are probably hundreds more movies where I’ve seen substantial portions of them but not the whole thing.

And even human error was a factor. After completing the list, I immediately thought of four or five films that weren’t on there and added them. I also noticed a few sequels without the original listed, so I had to go back for those. I know I missed a few movies while going through the Wikipedia lists. Foreign films or obscure arthouse stuff are also problematic because they’re not always listed on those pages; fortunately, I can count on one hand the number of those I’ve watched outside of the years when I began reviewing, so I hope my memory was able to make up for that absence.

Otherwise, here it is. You probably won’t enjoy it, but whatever. I gave it to you anyway. I’m in charge here.

Just click on the header up there and read away. Or don’t. I guess you’re allowed to do that, too.

Welcome to Part 2 of my first 200 reviews retrospective: my Top 20 least favorite films from my first 200 reviews.

For newcomers, here’s Part 1.

Yeah, yeah, I know — this is what everyone was actually waiting for. To be honest, I actually hesitated a bit on the notion of making a Worst Of list. As much as I do enjoy venting against movies that caused me severe amounts of displeasure, I get far more enjoyment from dwelling on the positive. It wasn’t my intent at first, but honestly, my goal for this site at this point is to let people into my best moments, to give them a picture of what it looks like when I truly love something. I hope that by doing so, I’ll not only get to share in that experience with others but maybe convince a few more people to join me on this artistic journey.

At the same time… These movies really, really deserve it. And heck, I think I can stand to unleash my inner Mystery Science Theater 3000 fan once in a while.
So, without further ado, these are my Top 20 Least Favorite Films of My First 200 Reviews:


20. Battle: Los Angeles
Some movies are devoid of substance; Battle: Los Angeles is devoid of content. Sometimes, I almost start to wonder if people actually think that spectacle would be made worse by good storytelling and characterization; I ordinarily respond by asking them why even bad action movies attempt to have them. Battle: Los Angeles made a fool out of me, because it doesn’t even make that attempt. And yeah, it suffers for it. It’s two hours of indistinguishable, personality-free soldiers shooting at aliens in uninspired and boring action sequences that follow a path of run-shoot-run-shoot-change location.

19. Aliens in the Attic
Pretty much all I remember about this are the terrible special effects. Otherwise, it’s a vacant spot, but I’m pretty sure it was blisteringly awful. Sue me; it was a long time ago.

18. Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian
I remember actually kind of liking the first Night at the Museum, granted that I saw it a very long time ago and that I might think differently now that I’ve been through this whole process. It had some magic and imagination in it, and the storytelling was charmingly small and simple. Sequel, not so much. It has hundreds of characters packed in a meandering story that hasn’t upped the intelligence level since the first one. But the worst part is that the humor is terrible, visibly embarrassing the actors every time they try to pull it off.

17. Happy Feet Two
This one is also a blank space in my memory, but it’s had much less time to accomplish that. I didn’t even like the first one, but it looks like genius compared to the sequel. The movie is 95 percent padding with a predictable plot and no interesting characters to speak of. To be fair, there are a few visually inspiring moments, but that’s all it’s got going on.

16. Race to Witch Mountain
I promise this isn’t going to exclusively be family movies. This was one of the first films I ever reviewed after I started doing so, and it was also one of the first movies in my life that left me with the thought, “Noise, noise, noise.” It’d be far from the last. Between its haphazard visuals, its breakneck pacing, and its general loudness, Race to Witch Mountain is an assault on the senses that almost never lets up and squanders the talents of some skilled and likable actors.

15. Clash of the Titans
One of the more aggressively stupid movies I’ve seen of late, Clash of the Titans suffers from very uneven pacing, leading to a severe anti-climax, as well as disinterested acting, unimaginative point-A-to-point-B storytelling, and attempts at world-building that never once approximate sense. The special effects are quite pretty, though.

14. The Odd Life of Timothy Green
I really was not expecting this to be a contender for a list like this. This is about the only film on this list that I think meant well and actually tried to be a good movie — excepting maybe a few others (certain directors are hard to figure out sometimes). I like the type of movie it wants to be — sentimental and schmaltzy but likable family films like Disney used to make. But it is so constructed on sentimentality and cute moments that it gets to a point where it’s basically about nothing, and the things it has to say about parenting and family actually seem…wrong. The fantastical premise has absolutely nothing to do with the mundane family drama that follows it. And it’s so fixated on sweetness and light that it begins to resemble nothing so much as a television advertisement for perfume.

13. Wrath of the Titans
Honestly, it isn’t any worse than its predecessor. But one expects a sequel to improve slightly, not be bad in all of the exact same ways. For that lack of effort, it has to be ranked higher on the list.

12. Battleship
I’m stunned this isn’t higher. It says more about the movies yet to come than it does about this. Honestly, it’s like I said in my review: it’s Transformers without all the racism and annoying comic relief characters but without anything good to replace it. For being based on a board game, it’s an awfully serious affair and one whose spectacle really lacks in variety. And it’s best we don’t talk about how much sense the plot makes because it makes exactly none.

11. Dragonball: Evolution
I also remember nothing about this apart from hammy acting and poorly paced storytelling. The Internet tells me I had a really bad time watching it, and I’m just assuming it’s right about that.

10. G-Force
Oh, my memory had almost deleted this one until I looked through my old reviews to compile this list. But now, it’s coming back over me in a rush. Yeah, as kids’ movies go, this is about as pandering as it gets. It talks down to them and has no interest in engaging them or educating them or sending them a message. It just gives them cute CGI critters and has them fart a lot while referencing pop culture in Seltzer/Friedberg non-jokes.

9. X-Men Origins: Wolverine
I had almost forgotten about this one, too, but now that I’m reminded, all of my hate is sweeping back over me in a rush. Wolverine is the poster boy in the “why superhero movies should’ve stayed silly” discussion. Because it is silly, but it is also so violent and uncaring that it begins to approach gross immorality. It’s the type of movie that will just casually murder a helpful elderly couple before segueing into a dumb action sequence and never referencing that moment again. And it can’t smooth that over with an interesting story or characters. It’s just violent, violent spectacle.

8. Old Dogs
This movie held my Worst of 2009 slot for a while, before the arrival of a film we’ll be discussing in a few moments. And that’s because there’s basically nothing to like about it. The actors are either terrible or don’t care. The script is so cliched it threatens to evaporate into nothingness. The humor is obvious and bland. The editing is bizarrely incomprehensible. There really isn’t much of anything good to say about it. It takes a lot for an inoffensive family film to get a critical rating as low as what it has, and Old Dogs, well, it’s quite a lot.

7. The Last Airbender
I don’t know how much I’d have hated this movie were it not for the fact that I am both a huge fan of the series who is very aware of what an incredible movie you could make from it and a fan of M. Night Shyamalan who stuck with him way longer than most people. Regardless, from every angle that I look at it, The Last Airbender is pretty irredeemable. It’s awful in that special way that even people who don’t study film recognized as awful. The dialogue is some of the worst I’ve ever heard. The story picks and chooses from the show very randomly without developing any of its more interesting through-lines. It reduces the magic of the world. It takes the cool martial arts aspects of the show and turns them into stupid dancing that looks way less effective than just using a sword. The acting… Man. I try not to be too hard on this one either, because I also think it wanted to be a good movie. But it was the last straw for Shyamalan for a reason. I still hope the guy gets better, but this was the film where I stopped expecting it.

6. Contraband
This is certainly not going to make most reviewers’ worst lists, much less as high as this. And that’s because it’s not a terrible film, just a generic, uninteresting, unimaginative, and boring one. But… Look, read my review. This movie made me angry in that special way that only happens once in a blue moon. I can forgive boring, at least in the sense that I’ll write up a negative review and then forget about it. But this one is boring and also…I’m going to use the phrase “morally problematic” and then just walk away.

5. Jonah Hex
Don’t remember it. It was back during my “rating stuff” days (I was so cute back then, thinking I knew stuff — probably the same now, actually), and I only gave it a 1/10, so it must be pretty awful. I do remember it getting bizarrely surreal but having so little idea what it wanted to be that it butchered the source material and still came in at only just over an hour long. Were Josh Brolin and Michael Fassbender really both in this? Yikes.

4. Skyline
This is a SyFy Channel Original Movie that somehow wound up with a wide theatrical release. The production values are low, the effects questionable, the plotting nonexistent, the characters uninteresting, etc., etc. Really not a lot more to say than that.

3. Jack and Jill
Only No. 3? Yeah, I’ll justify that in a moment. But Jack and Jill… I don’t even know where to begin. I think Adam Sandler was testing us with this, seeing what he could get away with while still turning a profit. I shudder to think of what his next test will be, since this one clearly failed. Dudes dressing in drag is already a shaky comedic premise, especially for a full motion picture. But Sandler manages to elevate the shrill annoyingness of it to gargantuan levels. And that’s before you throw in the potty humor and what has got to be the most racist Mexican caricature to have ever appeared in a modern motion picture. It is impossible to watch.

2. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
Yeah, this was inevitable. The most offensive and annoying of the Transformers films, it ups all the noise and chaos and indecipherable direction of its predecessor while at the same time…adding dozens of obnoxious comic relief characters and somehow making what plot it has even more confusing. It’s a movie that needs to have someone sit down and explain to it that making sex jokes all the time is not an aversion of childhood, it is the definition of it. This movie is a kid who learned what sex and swearing are and then did it constantly to prove it’s a grown-up. It’s also ridiculously long, which doesn’t earn it any points. But not as long as…

1. Transformers: Dark of the Moon
I tried really hard not to have these films occupy the first and second spots on this list, but I have to be honest. If I’m asking the question of what two films were the most difficult for me to sit through over the last four years, these two are the answer each and every time. I almost slid Jack and Jill into the second slot, but then, I realized: Jack and Jill is bad in all of the exact same ways Transformers is, but it has the decency to be a full hour shorter. Therefore, hard as it was to watch, it wasn’t as hard. Transformers: Dark of the Moon is exactly as bad as its predecessors. Oh, it tones down the potty humor and also the racism (a little), but it keeps the misogyny, adds a thousand new characters, makes all of them loud, shrieking comic relief and flushes every ounce of plot or pacing right out (but its script is still confusing, because apparently this is a requirement for action movies right now). I also can’t overstate this: the climax is an hour and ten freaking minutes long, and it never varies. “Assault on the senses” doesn’t even begin to cover it; it’s a ceaseless bombardment. I have never been as bored watching a movie as I was while watching this one. But in a way, it was a transcendent experience. I know people think I’m saying this comedically, but I actually mean it as literally and non-hyperbolically as I possibly can: the feeling that passed through me when the credits started was euphoria. It was also fun to watch it with people. When it was over, we all just sat in silence and then started laughing at nothing. In retrospect, it was kind of hilarious. So, I suppose I have to thank Transformers: Dark of the Moon for the post-movie experience. But I won’t thank it for anything else. I argued forever about what movie should occupy the top slot on my favorites list. I have absolutely no doubts about this one coming out on top here. It was made for this position.

Well, thanks for sticking with me through that. Hopefully, we’ll be able to write some more positive stuff in the near future. And in fact, I fully intend to do so, which is why I now have an announcement to make. I’ll be doing a new series for this site, simply called “Favorite Movies.” And that’s exactly what it sounds like — a series where I do extremely in-depth reviews of my favorite movies of all time. And those will cover a broad spectrum — fun movies, thoughtful movies, happy movies, dark movies: all kinds, really.

I don’t know exactly when I’ll get started with that. It’ll take me a while to write them, as most of them will be quite long. I also intend to watch each and every selection multiple times before doing the write-up, to ensure I know exactly what I want to say and because it’ll just be fun to revisit them. But I do plan to roll that out eventually, and I already have a feeling I know what the first installment will be… But you’ll have to wait for that.

In the meantime, I bid you adieu. It’s been a good 200 reviews, and here’s hoping for 200 more.

So, recently, I hit something of a milestone for this site: 200 reviews published. That number is completely insane. It doesn’t feel like that long ago that I started doing this, strictly as a personal exercise and with no intention of publication — shorter since I started posting them online, figuring why not?

And while maybe the site hasn’t changed much, I find it now serves as a somewhat interesting look at the way I’ve changed personally since then. I haven’t really made much secret of the fact that I intensely dislike my older reviews; not only do I write better now, I had nothing in particular to say about movies back then, and yet, I had a whole lot of arrogance and a determination that one could be “right” about artistic expression.

It’s been a while since then, and the journey’s been fun. And with 200 reviews published, I thought I ought to do something special. I wanted to do some kind of retrospective. Alas, I hate every review I wrote before, like, a year ago, so it would be impossible to do a “favorite reviews”-type post.

So, instead, I went for the next most logical step: my favorite films since I started writing reviews. And here’s the first installment: my personal top 20 from the last roughly four years.

I should make two clarifications: firstly, this is not the top 20 “best” films of the last four years. That’s because, A) I don’t necessarily believe in “best” when it comes to this sort of thing, and B) I didn’t really get intentional about watching as many movies as I could get my hands on until two years ago generously speaking.
And secondly, this is my top 20 from the first 200 reviews on my website. So, anything I published after Iron Man 3 was not eligible for this list. (Fortunately, I think only Upstream Color might’ve threatened to get on there, and even then, I’m not certain.)

I should also issue the incredibly self-conscious warning that my first 200 reviews, naturally, includes the ones from my early years — the ones I’m not as proud of. I didn’t know as much back then and didn’t watch even half the amount of movies in a year that I do now. In other words, my experience as of about 2011 onward was a little more thorough, whereas, early on, I have some major gaps, including some pretty celebrated films that I never saw. So, this list should definitely be read with the understanding that, again, this is not a list of the best films of the last two years. Even the movies on the list should not be taken as better or worse than the ones ahead of and behind them; it’s more personal preference than anything (and in fact, slots 14-20 were the subject of a lot of debate; there are a couple films I’m leaving off this list that I think really deserve to be on it and are, in my opinion, “better” than some of the ones that did make it and simply didn’t match my personal preferences to the same extent). I also would say that I don’t think of all of these films as great and actually consider one or two of them more “dumbly enjoyable” than anything — but that’s why we have so many different kinds of movies, isn’t it?

Also, I’m probably going to look back on this list in a few years and disagree with everything on it. All in all, this is actually probably a bad idea.

But enough stalling… Without further ado… My Top 20 Favorite Films of My First 200 Reviews!

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20. The Descendants
I own most of the films on this list and have revisited them multiple times. The ones toward the back, however, I’ve only seen once or twice, so I’m mainly including them on the basis of my remembered reaction to them. So, while I don’t recall it in detail, I do remember The Descendants being a highly effective tear jerker, in that it’s honest and heartfelt and possessed of noteworthy beauty, visual and otherwise. Some great performances and witty writing are just icing on the cake.

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19. Midnight in Paris
When I decided I was going to make this list, it didn’t necessarily occur to me that this would be a contender, but in retrospect, it fits. It’s strange, because I’ve come to learn after the fact that Woody Allen’s style grates on me and would probably do so even with his better films. But this one simply tied it all into a package that worked for me. And it wasn’t hurt by the fact that it hit me on a very personal level, giving me a character I related to and a story that felt like my own, delivered honestly and with good humor.

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18. Safety Not Guaranteed
This movie is already becoming my 2012 Honorable Mention. Out of all the films I’d classify as (barely) not-great, it showed the most potential and certainly moved/entertained me the most. It’s an original concept, and it’s wrapped in a package that should be terrible: indie mumblecore. But its characters feel real, and its story is wrought with emotion. Its central romance is simultaneously one of cinema’s most unusual and one of its year’s most effective. It’s fun, funny, moving, and original, despite its flaws.

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17. Star Trek
I am so hesitant to have this one on the list at all, much less ahead of some of the films it beat. But I’ve decided not to care about that on any level. Repeat viewings have simultaneously made me think it’s a much worse film than my original assessment of it, even as they’ve made me somehow like it even more anyway. It achieves a zen of stupidity, where it’s so energetic and gleeful and boyish that any supposed flaws are excused at worst and part of the fun at best. The effects are top notch, the cast is great, the characters are fun. It’s impossibly stupid, but it’s an extremely lovable stupid, and I want to see more.

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16. How to Train Your Dragon
Many of these entries are more functions of the fact that I didn’t see as many movies in years past as I did now. That might be the case here, but at the same time, this is probably DreamWorks Animation’s best movie yet, and it deserves to be recognized as such. It’s shot and edited better than any other computer-animated movie I can think of, and the score is worthy of high fantasy. It captures the thrill of flight better than most live action movies, and not to be cliche, but it’s got heart. Its protagonist is one of my favorite movie heroes, at least on the animation front. He’s the consummate snarky outsider. The animation is great, the scale is huge, and the message is a good one. I don’t like the phrase “fun for the whole family,” but that’s essentially what it is.

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15. Warrior
This movie is stupidly underrated. Yeah, it relies on some contrivance, and it’s a bit top-heavy on the action by the third act. But as sports movies go, the dramatic parts of this are incredibly strong, and they’re what sells it for me. The casting is fantastic; Nick Nolte got an Oscar nomination, and Tom Hardy absolutely deserved one. It’s brutal and tragic but also uplifting — without stooping into cheese and bending characters over backward to fit the Happy Ending mold. It has no clear antagonist and no true hero; everyone’s complex, and everyone learns something. The resolution to Nolte’s character arc is pitch perfect. When I reviewed it, I said it was The Fighter done better. I still think that.

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14. The Artist
Pure cinematic joy. That’s really all I have to say to this one. The Academy Awards debacle elevated it into something it isn’t, something it didn’t ask to be. It’s not deep; there isn’t a lot on its mind. But it’s a glorious celebration of cinema and creativity. It’s bouncy, it’s playful, it’s fun. It’s sincerely in love with movies and giddy with the desire to share that with everyone. Everyone making it has a visibly huge amount of fun on-screen. It’s nearly impossible to hate.

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13. The Avengers
Because screw you, I do what I want. Okay, so, thematically rich and intellectually compelling, it’s not. That hasn’t stopped me from watching it, like, eleventy bajillion times since it came out. And the more I watch it, the more persuaded I am that not only is it the best dumb fun movie of its year, it’s the best dumb fun movie possibly of my entire lifetime. I’m having a hard time thinking of a modern action blockbuster with a more thorough understanding of what it is. Not only does it understand what it is, it has no shame in what it is: silly, bombastic spectacle. It does away with the “dark and gritty” and turns every member of its audience into eight-year-olds for two hours. And I think that’s something special.

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12. Life of Pi
I have raved about this movie at so much length that I’m unsure exactly what there is left for me to say about it. It works as an adventure, as spectacle. And it’s the most visually resplendent thing to hit theaters in ages. But more importantly, it works as a beautiful portrait of the human spiritual journey. It hits so many emotional highs and lows, sometimes all at once, and never once under- or over-sells any of them. It’s beautiful and tragic and heartbreaking and heartfelt, and its undercurrent is one of redemption and the triumph of the human spirit.

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11. Lincoln
Yeah, same story as Life of Pi. I don’t know what elements of its greatness I haven’t already touched upon. It’s Steven Spielberg in the finest form he’s seen in almost a decade. In fact, it seems responsive to his flaws, erasing or moderating them while playing largely to his strengths. The period setting is compelling, more so the characters — there are dozens, but all are distinct and memorable. It’s a historical film that makes you want to learn more about history. It’s layered in moral complexity, every development adding a new dilemma. It never stops asking questions about means and ends, even as it keeps you rooting for its characters to succeed. And when it gets to its emotional highs, it earns every bit of them.

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10. True Grit
It wasn’t my first Coen Brothers movie, but I think it was my first Coen Brothers movie post-me-thinking-about-movies-in-depth, and as such, it occupies a special place in my heart. It carries all of their strengths: unexpected casting choices that nevertheless are pitch perfect the entire way through; witty and poetic dialogue; bizarre, surreal, and never anything less than completely effective humor; and genuine emotion and humanity. It takes a relatively straightforward Western story, keeps it largely that, but adds a self-critical undercurrent that makes it as meaningful and interesting as it is entertaining.

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9. The Illusionist
I watched this again recently thinking it couldn’t possibly be as good as I’d remembered it being. I walked away from that experience feeling quite stupid. The Illusionist is 90 minutes of pure emotion covering every possible spectrum. It is to growing up and growing old what Life of Pi is to the maturation of the spirit — and it does that as an animated film with almost no dialogue. It’s beautifully animated, by the way, and the score is as nostalgic and wistful as the film itself. The ending still makes my soul ache. It’s a thing of beauty.

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8. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2
If you’d told me a few years ago that this was going to end up anywhere near my four-year Top 20, much less in the Top 10, I’d have laughed you out of the room. I’ve always liked the Harry Potter movies, but I’ve never thought a single one was great (possibly Prisoner of Azkaban, but that’s the only one I’ll spot you). Then, this one came directly out of nowhere and changed my mind completely. It finally hit the epic high fantasy for which the series had always seemed destined, wrapping it up with spectacle, tension, emotion, magic and solid storytelling. It was a fitting end to a long journey.

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7. Inception
As cognizant as I’ve become regarding some of its — and Christopher Nolan’s — flaws, I still love this movie, and I feel no shame for it. It’s a big and interesting idea, played for all the spectacle and entertainment value it’s worth, but it’s got little and human notions at its core. To some extent, the action movie half of Inception has become less interesting than the subplot in which the protagonist creates a prison of memories for the things he’s lost and allows them to destroy him and fudge his perception of reality. Nolan doesn’t always execute his grand ideas, but at least he has grand ideas — and I think these ones qualify as being especially so.

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6. Toy Story 3
2010 was a seriously fantastic year for movies. I’m not sure I want to say much about Toy Story 3, as I suspect I’ll be writing about it again at a later date (gee, that wouldn’t be a hint at a new blog series I may or may not be planning, would it?). Suffice to say that this entire trilogy has been so personal for me, so significant in my life, and the third one ends it with complete and utter perfection. The ending still messes me up worse than I think any other movie has ever messed me up.

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5. A Separation
What kind of world do I live in that I made the conscious decision that I liked four films better than this one in the last four years? An awesome one, I guess. Yeah, A Separation is as near to being a perfect film as anything I can think of. It’s observant, compassionate, and honest, throwing a series of characters, all of whom are identifiable and understandable in their motivations and justifications, into a conflict that has no neat resolution. It’s a beautiful, if tragic, call to love and understanding in our dealings with one another.

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4. The Secret of Kells
You guys. I love this movie. Let’s start with the fact that, visually, it’s one of the most spectacular things I’ve ever seen. Why we’re allowing traditional animation to die is beyond me, but I’m glad the art scene is fighting for it right now. On a storytelling level, it’s simple but effective: characters who are more types, but it works due to its fable-like quality. Taken as a religious metaphor, however, it assumes hidden brilliance that I think has appeal to everyone, regardless of belief system. It’s about the way faith and spirituality interact with the world, and it makes a convincing case for the version of it that’s as fearless as it is compassionate. Beautiful film, beautiful story.

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3. Up
It’s weird that I complain about Pixar as much as I do now, because seriously — it was only four years ago that it was churning out this masterpiece (and right on the heels of WALL-E, which is one of my favorite films of all time). Up is so perfect that it almost transcends words. It’s a cartoon for children, and it also has one of the most heartfelt portrayals of old age and lost dreams and the human desire for purpose and meaning I’ve seen in any film. It’s coupled with beautiful animation and surprisingly effective humor (Dug is my soulmate, seriously). If this didn’t win Best Picture, no animated movie is ever going to.

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2. The Social Network
Oh, these top two slots were one heck of a debate. In the end, I think The Social Network is barely more flawed than the movie that got the top slot, but that really doesn’t mean anything. It’s an incredible film, one of the best moral cautionary tales I’ve seen. It walks a difficult tightrope, making its characters’ goals and actions seem cool and revolutionary and fun while also having to make clear that those goals and actions are also unraveling them, but it pulls it off. Fincher’s direction is great, Reznor’s score is great, the acting is mostly great. It’s a master class of filmmaking.

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1. Take Shelter
Jeff Nichols has only made three movies, and I’ve only seen two, and yet, I am already prepared to declare the guy one of my favorite filmmakers. Take Shelter is masterful. Michael Shannon as the protagonist is an incredibly compelling character; his performance combines with the subtleties of the script to create a fully formed individual whose every decision makes sense based on who he is. Like its predecessor, Shotgun Stories (which is also awesome, by the way), it’s extremely slow-moving, and we don’t see a large portion of its most explosive moments, but it’s a slow burn of tension and atmosphere. And it’s an interesting study on a lot of levels — religion, faith, mental illness — wrapped up in Nichols’ typically well-observed rural communities. There really isn’t anything about Take Shelter that isn’t incredible. It doesn’t seem out of place in the slightest to call it my favorite film of the last four years.

Well, there you have it: a nice list full of positivity and good feelings. Of course, the Internet does not thrive on positivity and good feelings, and because of that, I’m going to sell out and betray everything I believe in with the next installment of this series: My Top 20 Least Favorite Films of My First 200 Reviews. That’ll be up next Saturday, so stay tuned.