10 Films Not On My Top 10

In any given year there are bound to be a few critical darlings that you don’t quite agree with, but seemingly never more than this year. So before posting My Favorite Films of 2011, I thought I should acknowledge some movies that won’t be making an appearance on my list. These films have been so critically adored - making appearances on virtually every Top 10 except, well, my own - that I feel like I have to address their absence. Yes, I’ve seen them and though they all had admirable qualities, in one way or another, all fell short for me. That’s not to say that these are the worst films by any means, (those are coming soon), I actually liked most of these but didn’t feel any quite deserved the praise heaped upon it. The following films have been ranked according to the disparity between the critical consensus and my own, or to put it simply, most to least overrated.

1. The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick)
The most ambitious studio release of the year is regrettably also the most overrated. For the most part, “The Tree of Life” is a brilliant act of misdirection: admire the stunning photography and sweeping ambition but try to ignore the overbearing New Age narration and overreaching finale. No film this year has received more praise while being so seemingly unloved by anyone. (Have you heard anyone ramble on about this film the same way they did about “Drive”? Or “The Muppets” even?) It’s like every critic and film snob collectively agreed to give it a pass simply because they felt obligated to. I know I’ve said it before but this is one case where the Emperor is no longer wearing any clothes.

2. Hugo (Martin Scorsese)
Look, I admired the 3D too and absolutely loved the George Melies section that has so many reviewers breathlessly declaring the film “a love letter to cinema.” But dear God, how could no one else acknowledge how lifeless and awkward the first hour of the film was? Or how dull Hugo himself was? As far as I can tell, the central character in this film has not been singled out by a single review as being anything resembling “interesting.” And those aren’t the kinds of things you can just overlook, no matter how much I love Scorsese or his storybook concoction of Paris.

3. The Descendants (Alexander Payne)
As a big fan of Payne’s work (“About Schmidt” is a personal favorite), it pains me to admit that this is his weakest film to date, which makes it absolutely mystifying that it’s receiving so much praise. Adapted from a novel by other screenwriters (then rewritten by Payne), the film is missing the bite of his earlier work, neither as funny or heartfelt as many would have you believe. Even Clooney has been better in Payne disciple Jason Reitman’s “Up In The Air.” The relaxed Hawaiian setting has had an effect on the film and not in a good way. This is what it looks like when a director shifts into neutral.

4. Martha Marcy May Marlene (Sean Durkin)
Having seen this at Sundance earlier this year, at the very birth of the buzz, I’ve spent nearly a year in the vocal minority for this film. This film suffers from Sundance Syndrome, it’s all atmopshere and no development. Flashback-present day-repeat without the central character (Elizabeth Olsen, deserving of the praise) ever doing anything proactive. Isn’t that what a protagonist is for? I began intrigued but left frustrated. Olsen and Durkin may be talents to watch but ‘Martha’ will likely be remembered more as a launching pad than a singular achievement.

5. A Separation (Asghar Farhadi)
Every film geek has a blind spot and I’m not sure anyone would be surprised to find out that World Cinema is definitely mine. That said, regardless of the country of origin there are certain things I look for in a film - to move me in some way, make me feel something for the characters, or at a base level, just entertain me - and “A Separation,” the leisurely paced Iranian melodrama, did not do those things. There are people out there who love this film and I absolutely cannot relate to those people.


6. Margaret (Kenneth Lonergan)
I get it, film critics. The film deserved better than its unceremonious dumping by Fox Searchlight a half decade after it was filmed. But let’s not get carried away here, folks. There are as many good scenes here as bad ones and adding another 30 minutes isn’t going to fix the film’s issues any more than pretending that this was one of the 10 best films to be released this year. (It isn’t.) While “Margaret” undoubtedly has its charms, its champions have gone more than a little overboard in extolling its virtues partially to prove their own influence.

7. Tinker Tailor Solider Spy (Tomas Alfredson)
As I said in my review, “never has a film I was so looking forward to made so little of an impression on me.” From the opening frames through the end credits, Alfredson’s admittedly gorgeous looking but hermetically sealed spy un-thriller never gave me a reason to care about what was going on. The cast is fantastic and cinematography is some of the finest I’ve seen all year but an emotional connection? Nothing. Confused I can deal with but excluded is a deal breaker.

8. Melancholia (Lars Von Trier)
I’ve never been a fan of Von Trier’s films, (to me he’s always seemed like a juvenile Michael Haneke), but I have to admit I did enjoy “Melancholia.” The audacious opening alone ranks as one of the cinematic highlights of the year which is, I suspect, in part why people have fallen for the film. While it was probably my favorite of the provocateur’s work to date, it’s lopsided and occasionally silly. The first half is exponentially more interesting than the second, though that too, contains its fair share of ridiculous moments. “Justine, I need that tagline!”

9. Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols)
Like Sundance brethren ‘Martha Marcy,’ “Take Shelter” is another case of a great premise with nowhere to go. Certain critics have complained about the ending which took away the film’s ambiguity but my problem was that it took so long to get there. With a two hour running time, the film is deadly repetitive, drawing out familiar scenes without illuminating or expanding what you already know. Essentially a mood piece (and that mood is very effective) it would have been much more successful had they trimmed 20 minutes and not given the audience (me) a chance to realize the filmmakers were treading water.

10. We Need To Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay)
Impeccably shot and acted, this is the third film on this list (along with ‘Martha Marcy’ and “Take Shelter”) that is tediously repetitive. Though I liked ‘Kevin’ quite a bit, it’s one of those films you could check out after the first 15 minutes and tune back in during the last 5 without missing a single beat of essential character or story. Which, quite frankly, when it’s all over feels like a waste of my time. Unlike the frustrating ‘MMMM,’ the central character here at least tries to do something about her situation. I admire Ramsay’s style but wish she had pushed it further.

Stay tuned for my actual Top 10.

I didn’t at all find on the screen the emotion of the script, which is the most magnificent one that I’ve ever read. A clearer and more conventional narrative would have helped the film without, in my opinion, lessening its beauty and its impact. Frankly, I’m still trying to figure out what I’m doing there and what I was supposed to add in that context! What’s more, Terry himself never managed to explain it to me clearly.
Sean Penn on the impenetrable “Tree Of Life” (via The New Yorker)

The Tree Of Life review

I thought about a lot of things during “The Tree of Life.” Because there is so much to look at but so little to draw you in narratively your mind is free to wander for the first hour or so of the film. It takes about that long for writer/director Terrence Malick to actually give you a scene where dialogue is spoken onscreen that starts at A and ends at B. The hour previous is filled with endless snapshots of life, starting with the O’Brien family (Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain & sons) growing up in 1950s Texas. All words here are spoken with a whisper, overtop of the film as it skips from one scene to the next you keep waiting for it to touch down long enough to give you a chance to hold onto something. But instead of landing there the film skips back to the creation of the universe.

On first viewing, “The Tree of Life” is a frustrating experience as you wrestle with your own disappointment. For all the breathtaking shots included in the film, how many of them actually meant something? So many scenes in the film seem to be included only because they’re pretty to look at and not because they have any impact on the story, it’s characters or how it might affect the overall narrative. If Malick wants to make a nature documentary, he should go ahead and do it so he can get it out of his system. The film wallows in beautiful images to the detriment of feeling. I wondered what the crew who worked on the film must have thought watching it for the first time, “All that footage we got and this is the the best you could do?”

Because the film is filled with such beautiful imagery and like very few films, manages to capture moments of true beauty, fans of the director will find plenty to like. The films gaps will be filled in by the viewer who wants this to be a great film. For most people though it will be an impossible slog, a shapeless mess with almost nothing tying the two threads together. I find myself somewhere in the middle. During the first act of the film I found myself hopelessly checked out (save a few gorgeous wordless moments that brought up the music) and then the film settles in for a while, maybe 45 minutes or so and shows you it’s not so impossible after all. It focuses on the O’Briens, particularly their son Jack who grows angry and resentful at his hard-ass father. For me, this is the section that works best.

Then comes the resolution, puzzlingly reaching for profundity when the elements haven’t even begun to cohere. Sean Penn appears in a few minutes of the film as grown Jack, he wakes up, he goes to work and he shows up in the finale. Any insight into his character is completely projected by the audience because his role has been stripped bare. Its hard to hate a film this ambitious (and I don’t) but it’s frustrating to see so much talent go to waste on a project like this. Having only seen each of Malick’s films once (and having liked them in descending order “Badlands” best and this least), I realize it may take another viewing of each to see if there is more to be found. Is it beautiful to look at? Absolutely, it’s probably one of the most stunningly shot films I’ve ever seen. But is it engaging emotionally? Only intermittently. And it’s hard to give a pass to a film that’s such a passive experience. Oh well.

13 Films I Am Probably Definitely Going To See This Summer

Summer Movie Season is once again upon us which means for the next 3 months multiplexes will be pummeled with all manner of potential blockbusters. Some of these films I couldn’t be less interested in (“Transformers 3” “Pirates of the Carribbean 4” etc.), some I’m really looking forward to, while some I’m more curious about than anticipating. Alright, May to August here we go!

1. The Tree Of Life (May 27)
Not exactly what you think of when you think of Summer Movie Season but it could end up being a smart bit of counter programming for Fox Searchlight. Terrence Malick’s long in-the-works drama (it was on my Most Anticipated list in January of 2010) stars Brad Pitt, Sean Penn and at least one dinosaur. Watch the trailer.

2. Super 8 (June 10)
J.J. Abrams super secretive tribute to Amblin-era Spielberg. All signs are pointing towards this being the one Summer Blockbuster you wont feel guilty about rewatching come fall.
Watch the trailer.

3. Bridesmaids (May 13)
Paul Feig (“Freaks & Geeks”) directed, Judd Apatow produced (duh), Kristen Wiig co-scripted/starring comedy that got huge buzz from SXSW. I think this is going to be great. Watch the trailer.

4. Beginners(June 3)
Mike Mills semi-autobiographical indie dramedy about a father (Christopher Plummer) coming out to his adult son (Ewan Mcgregor) picked up rave reviews at TIFF and SXSW film festivals. Watch the trailer.

5. Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows Part II (July 15)
The final chapter in the seemingly never-ending Harry Potter series. The films have gotten increasingly interesting as they’ve gotten more adult, and this one should have the one thing all the other installments lacked: a proper ending. Watch the trailer.

6. Haywire (Unknown)
If Steven Soderbergh is true to his word that means he’s only 5 films away from retirement. Regardless of his hits and misses, I always look forward to what he’s doing next and this looks to be something in the fun “Out Of Sight” mode he hasn’t revisited in a while.

7. Cowboys & Aliens (July 29)
I wasn’t the world’s biggest “Iron Man” fan but I recognized it as a pretty good superhero film, (the stuff with RDJ was great, everything that happens after he puts on the suit = Zzzzzzz), but I give director Jon Favreau credit for knowing just how to appeal to fanboys. Watch the trailer.

8. X-Men: First Class (June 3)
I wouldn’t have been interested in this film at all were it not for Matthew Vaughn (“Kick Ass”) in the director’s chair. But the films 60s setting, promising cast and offbeat director made me think this could be something different. However, some of the images from the film have made me a bit worried. Watch the trailer.

9. One Day(August 19)
I don’t know what it is about Anne Hathaway but ever since “Rachel Getting Married” I am drawn to her movies. Even when they are “Love & Other Drugs.” This time she stars in a romantic drama from the director of “An Education” that checks in on a couple on the same day every year for 20 years. Bad wigs ensue. Watch the trailer.

10. The Hangover Part II(May 26)
I liked “The Hangover” but I didn’t think it was nearly as funny as most people seemed to think it was. I was thrilled to see Zach Galifianakis get a launching pad but the film itself was a mixed bag. Regardless of if the sequel is any good, it will make a billion dollars. Watch the trailer.

11./12./13. Thor/Green Lantern/Captain America: The First Avenger (May 6/June 17/July 22)
The B-Team. While I’m still skeptical of these films as I’m getting pretty exhausted of the superhero origin story, I need something to tide me over until the main attractions next year: “The Dark Knight Rises,” “The Amazing Spider-Man,” “The Man Of Steel,” and “The Avengers.” Now that’s going to be a Summer. (Technically Superman opens in the Fall, whatever.) Watch the trailer(s): [T] [GL] [CA]

Also: 30 Minutes Or Less, Cars 2,Crazy Stupid Love, Horrible Bosses, Midnight In Paris.

Most Anticipated Fall Movies 10

September is here which means the dismal Summer movie season is winding down and it’s time to start looking forward to all the movies coming out between now and the end of the year.  Here we go…

1. TREE OF LIFE (Unknown) Not much more is known about reclusive director Terrence Malick’s fifth film than it was when I wrote about it at the beginning of this year.  Supposedly it "will change the language of cinema" and (even though there is still no release date) will supposedly open by the end of the year.

2. BLACK SWAN (December 1) Watch the trailer and tell me this doesn’t look amazing.  You can’t.  Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis and Winona Ryder star in Darren “Requiem for a Dream” Aronofsky’s psychological thriller about rival ballet dancers. 

3. THE SOCIAL NETWORK (October 1) Yes, “the Facebook movie”.  The trailer is brilliant and early word is that the movie might actually live up to it.  David Fincher shows he isn’t concerned with replicating reality as he magnifies events to near-operatic levels.  It’s a movie about computer nerds but shot like Se7en, what’s not to like?  

4. SOMEWHERE (December 22) Sofia Coppola returns with a film that looks like it could be a spiritual sequel to her breakout Lost In Translation.  Again, a fantastic teaser gives you glimpses of this story about a bad boy actor and his daughter living in the Chateau Marmont. 

(December 25) The Coen Bros, who seem to be alternating between shit movies (Burn After Reading) and great ones (A Serious Man), can hopefully put one more in the “win” column here. Their first western is about a US Marshall helping a young woman track down her fathers murderer.  It reunites them with “The Dude” himself, as well as Josh Brolin and first-timer Matt Damon.

6. NEVER LET ME GO (September 15) Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley and (future Spider-Man) Andrew Garfield star as kids who grow up in a “seemingly idyllic” boarding school.  Unfortunately the trailer gives away a pretty significant twist in the “seemingly boring” setup, but without spoiling I’ll say it’s vaguely sci-fi and you will probably cry.

7. THE FIGHTER (December 10) David O. Russell jumpstarts his comeback with this true-life story about boxer “Irish” Mickey Ward.  Stars Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Amy Adams and Melissa Leo mean the studio is probably counting on some awards here and luckily Russell is one of 3 directors who can direct Wahlberg to a good performances. 

8. HARRY POTTER & THE DEATHLY HALLOWS PART I (November 19) I’ve never read the books but the movies have become consistently entertaining and the trailer for the latest and penultimate Potter film looks like the final installments are going to be EPICI’m probably not the only one excited for this. 

9. TRON: LEGACY (December 17) I’ve never seen the original but am interested in this one for the art direction alone.  CG Jeff Bridges looks worrisome and I’ve heard that lead Garrett Hedlund’s performance might not be exactly award-worthy but Daft Punk did the score and it looks visually stunning so they’re probably getting my money anyway.

10. LET ME IN (October 1) On the surface, remaking one of the best horror films of the last decade would be a huge mistake.  But damn if it doesn’t look like they’ve gotten it right.  Cloverfield director Matt Reeves seems to have a lot of reverence for the novel as well as the original film so maybe it’ll be possible to love both?

11. THE TOWN (September 17) I’m still getting used to the idea of Ben Affleck the director, but Gone Baby Gone was a really good movie.  And he’s assembled an interesting cast for his sophomore effort: Jon Hamm, Rebecca Hall, Jeremy Renner and Blake Lively star in this heist-gone-wrong film.  I’ve actually avoided the trailer because I heard it was too spoilerful so I’m excited to see this one blind.

12. 127 HOURS (October 22) I’ve always been a Danny Boyle fan and (barring Sunshine) have enjoyed all his films.  Slumdog Millionaire may have been overrated (certainly it wasn’t Best Picture) but it was cute and enjoyable.  James Franco stars in his latest, about real life mountain climber Aron Ralston’s attempt to save his own life after being trapped for *titular line* 127 hours.

See how last year turned out.

Listomania: My Most Anticipated Films of 2010

I may still be finalizing my Top 10 List for 2009 but that doesn’t mean I can’t start looking forward to all the films coming out this year. For many of these films, very little is known about them so it’s possible by the time they’re released I’ll be much less/more interested in them, and very disappointed/surprised shortly after. But right now any of these could be a masterpiece. Here is 2010.

1. Inception
dir: Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight, The Prestige, Memento)
First, watch the teaser. Mind blown, right? While the exact plot is still a mystery, the film has been described (countless times) as a “contemporary sci-fi actioner set within the architecture of the mind.” Written and directed by Christopher Nolan, who is clearly on a roll with Batman Begins, The Prestige and The Dark Knight, I’m pretty sure I already love this movie, I just have to see it to confirm. Also: if this has anything to do with the film, I’m going to need a fresh pair of underpants.

2. The Tree of Life
dir: Terrence Malick (The New World, Days Of Heaven, Badlands)
Reclusive director Terrence Malick has made 4 movies in the past 37 years, so when he makes one it’s probably time to pay attention. Though I haven’t been a huge fan of his recent films, I have a feeling his latest might be the one to win me over. Also cloaked in mystery this film stars Brad Pitt & Sean Penn in a "cosmic epic, a hymn to life". Also: this might be two movies, they might be shot/shown in IMAX and there might be dinosaurs involved.

3. Black Swan

dir: Darren Aronofsky (The Wrestler, The Fountain, Requiem For A Dream)
I can remember seeing Requiem For A Dream opening night and walking out of the theatre pretty shaken, so as a longtime fan of director Darren Aronofsky I’m pretty interested in anything he does. Coming off his Oscar nominated The Wrestler, so will everyone else. His latest stars my 2 movie crushes Winona Ryder and Natalie Portman (along with Mila Kunis) as rival ballet dancers in a supernatural thriller loosely based on the ballet Swan Lake.

4. Somewhere
dir: Sofia Coppola (Marie Antoinette, Lost In Translation, The Virgin Suicides)
It’s been a long time since Sofia Coppola’s last film Marie Antoinette failed to capture the same attention as her previous films. I was mixed on Marie as well, but as a huge fan of her first two features I think it’s pretty safe to say she’s my favorite female director. In it, Steven Dorff stars as an actor living at the Chateau Marmont whose 11 year old daughter shows up unexpectedly. Described as "brighter, warmer and funnier" than her previous work, I’m hoping for the best.

5. Your Highness
dir: David Gordon Green (Pineapple Express, Snow Angels, All The Real Girls)
Director David Gordon Green has undergone a major career transformation from moody somber dramas (George Washington, Snow Angels) to stoner comedies (Pineapple Express, HBO’s Eastbound & Down). His latest appears to fall into the latter category as a medieval comedy starring James Franco & Danny McBride as two princes on a mission to save their land and two princesses (Natalie Portman (again!) and Zooey Deschanel) who end up saving them. I think they also fight dragons.

6. Never Let Me Go
dir: Mark Romanek (One Hour Photo)
Mark Romanek was my favorite music video director back when there was a such thing as music videos. While he’s only made one film, 2002’s somewhat disappointing One Hour Photo, I still have faith that he will make great long form films. Originally attached to the upcoming Wolf Man remake, (he left over creative differences), instead decided to make this sci-fi film about a trio of boarding school kids who grew up with no knowledge of the outside world. Supposedly footage from this film made Spike Jonze cry.

7. The Social Network
dir: David Fincher (Zodiac, Fight Club, Se7en)
Facebook: The Movie. Actually it’s the true story of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and the creation of Facebook, as well as becoming one of the richest men in the world. If David Fincher weren’t attached to this film I’m not sure if I would have any interest at all, but knowing what an odd fit of director to material, (script by Aaron “The West Wing" Sorkin), makes me curious what he sees in it.

8. Toy Story 3 
dir: Lee Unkrich (co-director Finding Nemo, Monsters Inc. Toy Story 2)
I love the Toy Story films, but rewatch them today and you will see a very different Pixar from the studio that released the more adult Up, Ratatouille and The Incredibles. I’m interested in seeing if they attempt to add more depth and subtlety to the new film or to recreate the tone of the first two films (which might put me out of their target audience)? As much as sequels worry me, Pixar have proven themselves once already with Toy Story 2, one of the greatest sequels of all time. I hope they can do it again.

9. Kick-Ass
dir: Matthew Vaughn (Stardust, Layer Cake)
Based on a comic book by Mark Millar about a high school student who decides one day (without any super abilities) to become a super hero. The film premiered at AICN’s Butt-Numb-A-Thon festival last month to a rapturous response from geeks so it shot immediately up on my list. I know I shouldn’t put too much faith in geek-hype, I’ve been burned before, but I’m trying keeping my expectations reasonable. Also: Nic Cage is in this, which is always a good thing.

10. Shutter Island
dir: Martin Scorsese (The Departed, Goodfellas, Taxi Driver)

This was on my list last year, and I’m still excited. I’m hoping the film isn’t made or broken by a twist ending that the trailer seems to be leading towards. Still, the cast is great, the film looks beautifully shot and it looks like this is the closest Martin Scorsese has gotten to making a horror film.

11. The Fighter
dir: David O. Russell (I Heart Huckabees, Three Kings, Flirting With Disaster)
Originally, this was to be Darren Aronofsky’s follow-up to The Wrestler, his shoes have surprisingly been filled by the very different David O. Russell.Christian Bale & Mark Wahlberg star as half-brother boxers. Russell is one of 3 directors who has been able to draw a great performance out of Mark Wahlberg, (PT Anderson & Scorsese are the others), and Christian Bale is always great so this should be one to watch.

12. Greenberg
dir: Noah Baumbach (Margot At The Wedding, The Squid & The Whale, Kicking & Screaming)
I hated Margot At The Wedding, but the trailer for this won me over instantly. LCD Soundsystem contributes new music!

13. Cemetery Junction
dir: Ricky Gervais, Stephen Merchant (co-creators of “The Office”)
(Real) Office is one of the most brilliant television shows of all time. Co-creators Gervais & Merchant direct (but don’t star) in their debut film about a group of friends in 70’s London "joking, drinking, fighting and chasing girls". Please be brilliant.

14. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World

dir: Edgar Wright (Hot Fuzz, Shaun of the Dead)
Shaun of the Dead is one of the best horror-comedies of all time, as well as one of My Top 25 Films of the Decade. Writer/director Wright returns in his first film without Shaun/Hot Fuzz stars Simon Pegg & Nick Frost. Based on a series of comics Michael Cera stars as Scott Pilgrim who meets the girl of his dreams and must fight off her 7 evil ex-boyfriends. I’m trying to wrap my head around what the tone of this will be and I can’t yet.

15. The Green Hornet
dir: Michel Gondry (The Science of Sleep, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind)
Seth Rogen is The Green Hornet. Michael Gondry directs Seth Rogen as The Green Hornet. It’s so crazy it just might work.

Also Released: Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland, Jon Favreau’s Iron Man 2, Greg Mottola’s Paul, Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Micmacs, Todd Phillip’s Due Date, Matt Reeves Let Me In, David Yates Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows Part I, Adam McKay’s The Other Guys, Alexandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Biutiful, Anton Corbijn’s The American, Tron: Legacy, The Wolf Man, A Nightmare On Elm Street and more.