10 | Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World
directed by || Edgar Wright
I should have hated this.
I’m bored with 8-bit nostalgia. I’m over ADD editing. I wanted to strangle the too-twee-for-its-own-good comic. If I never see a fourth wall broken again, it’ll be too soon. And don’t even get me started on Michael Cera’s never-ending ability to withdraw goodwill from the same old aw-shucks account he’s milked from the get-go. And yet…
I gotta give it to Edgar Wright. He took a bunch of elements that I can’t run fast enough away from and jumbled them up in such a charming way I forgot I ever hated them. Sure, it’s candy, but what’s wrong with that? Candy is delicious. I wouldn’t want every movie to be the equivalent of a Reese’s Cup, but I’m sure glad this one is. If you’ve got this much style, who needs substance?
9 | The Kids Are All Right
directed by || Lisa Cholodenko
Depending on your perspective, Lisa Cholodenko’s fourth feature is either a brave take on alternative families or a crass Hollywood attempt to shoehorn those families into the same white upper-middle-class context it puts everyone in. And apparently there are some people who think it’s a “despicable” attempt to humanize the homos, but who really cares what they think?
I just thought it was a damn funny movie. And that’s much needed at a time when Hollywood is finding comedy to be a chore somewhere between triggering cold fusion and finding Hoffa’s body on the difficulty scale. Refusing to make the movie about gay parents, Cholodenko settled for just doing a movie about gay parents. The pressure of being a poster child relieved, Kids is free to focus on the story and the characters. And Ruffalo, Moore, and Benning are in fine form navigating an awkward road of fallibility and forgiveness.
8 | A Prophet
directed by || Jacques Audiard
This is the miseducation of Malik, a young Arab youth thrown into a world where he has little power and few friends. Forced to be confidant, courier, and occasional hitman for the brutal prison crime boss César, Malik is a quick study in matters legal and less-than. A careful study of ambition and power, the film lives in details and gestures. If you’re wanting a shoot-em-up, keep looking. But if you like a little character with your crime yarns, you could do a lot worse.
7 | Red Riding : In the Year of Our Lord 1974
directed by || Julian Jarrold
“This is the North—we do what we want…”
What’s a crime trilogy that aired on British TV last year doing on a list of best movies of this year? Well, the short answer is that it got an American theatrical release in February. The long answer requires explaining what it is and why it’s so good. Patience, please.
Each film is a stand-alone work that has a different protagonist and director, with an overlapping set of villains and victims in Northern England and a consistently bleak tone serving as common thread. Very loosely based on the Yorkshire Ripper case of the 1970’s, the films are ostensibly about a set of grisly murders and police and journalistic attempts to find the perpetrator. But they’re really about a kind of moral rot and corruption that somehow makes serial killing seem like amateur hour.
Greed and grift and the repeated defeat of good by evil will wear down even the most jaded viewer by series end, to be sure. And the plotting alternates between gripping and confusingly complex. But an exquisite sense of place and mood temper the nihilistic thrust enough to make it an easy recommendation. Even though it’s not technically necessary, start with the first and best in the series, 1974, and work your way down the rabbit hole.
6 | The Black Swan
directed by || Darren Aronofsky
I’ll admit it – I like my Aronofsky unsubtle. The Wrestler may have catapulted the director to fame and acclaim, but I found it to be by far his least interesting work. The unrestrained passion of his early work was giving way to predictable, Academy-pleasing “realist” redemption hokum. Was one of the most original visionaries of the last decade turning into a terminally tasteful middlebrow award-whore? When I heard he was doing a ballet movie with Natalie Portman, I thought for sure we’d lost him.
My worries were unfounded. The Black Swan is anything but subdued. It’s high-camp body horror filtered through fairy tale logic, Grand Guignol hysterics, and frenetic direction. By design, it’s not for everyone. But faulting the movie for being unsubtle is like knocking an opera for having over-the-top emotions or a fable for having implausible plotting. That’s not what it’s about. Take it on its terms and you’ll have a much better time.
5 | The Social Network
directed by || David Fincher
Widely known as “That damn Facebook movie” before its release, the project was treated with more than a little bit of suspicion by a lot of people, including me. Sure, with Fincher behind the camera and Sorkin on story, it wasn’t lacking for pedigree. And it had the trailer of the year, hands down. But a movie about Facebook? Seriously? Who wants to pay 10 bucks to see some movie about status updates and Farmville?
Of course, The Social Network isn’t about Facebook anymore than Chinatown is about water department policy in Southern California. It’s about friendship, ambition, and betrayal, subjects that were old hat by the time the Bible was written. Sorkin takes these musty motifs, and gives them relevant and contemporary context by adding sex, drugs, and…depositions? Don’t ask me how it works, but it does.
4 | Catfish
directed by || Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman
Both victim and beneficiary of an aggressively misleading marketing campaign (“The best Hitchcock film Hitchcock never directed!”), Catfish is the movie that everyone’s telling you to see while refusing to tell you why. It’s not a thriller, know that going in. But there is a ton of tension here. While actual social networks are really only a small part of the The Social Network is about, it’s front and center here. The creators obviously aren’t in the same league of talent as Sorkin/Fincher, but they’ve stumbled onto a story a lot more profound, relevant, and destined to make you think twice about your online presence. I’d say more, but it is a truly spoilable movie. Rent it and read no more.
3 | Mother
directed by || Bong Joon-Ho
Determination, loyalty, and a mother’s unconditional love for her handicapped son: by the end of Bong Joon-Ho’s fourth feature, these values don’t seem quite so laudable. The terse title is apt; the direction, cinematography, and writing are all superb, but it’s the mom that steals the show. Veteran actress Kim Hye-ja is the face of maternal warmth on Korean TV, a reputation shrewdly exploited here in her film debut. It’s a masterful twist on the whodunit, and yet another reason to keep an eye on Joon-Ho’s career.
2 | Toy Story 3
directed by || Lee Unkrich
In a media world saturated with shiny baubles and distractions, forever looking over its shoulder for the Next New Hotness, creators who are consistently great over long periods can expect to get taken for granted. This is the position Pixar finds itself in. An enviable streak of excellence is seen as inevitable and thus, unworthy of much mention. But a glance at the other options for animated entertainment shows just how unlikely their track record is, and how the company deserves every bit of hype that comes their way.
The latest and last installment in the Woody and Buzz saga is a study in hitting all the right notes. It glides from slick actioner to coming of age chronicle to escape flick with such ease and authority it has to make live-action directors apoplectic with envy. Pixar is truly peerless. But even adding up the clever nods to classic cinema, the exquisitely rendered visuals and pitch-perfect editing, – in short, their all-around expertise – doesn’t do what they do justice. Everything they do in their “kid’s movies” is a testament to children, or at least values we associate with them. They’re a billion dollar company still guided by imagination, wonder, playfulness, and boundless energy. We could use a few more of those.
1 | Exit Through the Gift Shop
directed by || Banksy
Like the pilgrim that Kris Kristofferson sang about, Banksy is a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction. He’s got one of the most famous names in the art world, but good luck picking him out in a lineup. His primary mode of expression is illegally graffitiing public walls in the manner of a disaffected youth, yet his works have sold for six figures and sit next to Van Goghs, Pollacks, and Picassos in private collections. And while many of his pieces have an acerbic political bent, his few public pronouncements don’t reveal much of an ideological stance beyond “We’re all fucked.”
So it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that Banksy’s directorial debut would be such a slippery creature. Pining down exactly what this thing is ends up being half the fun. This
documentary mockumentary prank hoax epic piss-take follows Thierry Guetta, a vintage-store owner on his journey from obsessive street-art enthusiast and chronicler to budding artist himself. Relentlessly self-promoting, hilariously derivative, and utterly absent an iota of shame, Guetta is such a perfect symbol of the trendiness and vapidity of the art world that he seems like he’s little more than Bansky’s latest chain-pull. And he probably he is, but that only makes the whole enterprise that much more impressive.