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Best of 2016: Movies February 19, 2017

Posted by David Card in Media.
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Photo credit: flickr user Hans Splinter

It was a good year.

I gave out my first 4-star Rotten Tomatoes score in years, and saw five 3.5-star movies and ten 3-stars. That compares with three 3.5’s and 14 3’s in 2015. Per Box Office Mojo, U.S. theater ticket sales were up a couple of percentage points from a big 2015, and the spoils were more evenly distributed.

Before we get to my favorites, I’ll talk a little about the box office stats.

  • You can’t be a successful studio without big hits, and big hits come from franchise properties. Three movies broke $400 million in sales: Finding Dory, Captain America 3, and Star Wars spinoff 1. (Rogue One will go way over $500M, as it continues into 2017.)
  • I saw about half of the top 20, but few made my “Best of” list. Superhero movies were a mixed bag, even as they propped up the box office as usual. They comprised four of the top 10, though Warner Bros./DC’s offerings look like shaky franchises at best. Fourteen of the top 20 were superheroes, cartoon franchises, and/or sequels or remakes. Lord, help us.
  • Disney crushed it. It soaked up over a quarter of domestic sales, due to its Pixar, Star Wars, and Marvel acquisitions, with a little help from its own animation studio.
  • I hold out hope for scrappy little guys making movies for grownups, as Hidden Figures (Fox) and La La Land (Lionsgate) cracked the top 20. But that market is increasingly looking like it will be hybrid limited release/simultaneous direct to on-demand Internet delivery. Amazon just might be doing better than Netflix on that front. Keep your eye on what happens with A24, that’s cranking out good films that make money.

I enjoy blockbusters and genre flicks as much as art films. This year, I’m pretty amazed how many of my favorites got nominated for Oscars. I haven’t seen Lion or Hidden Figures, even though the latter takes place at Langley Research Center, where my dad worked for 30+ years. Yay, NASA! I expect the actual Academy Awards outcome will be a mix of La La Land sweep and #oscarsowhite reversals.

The best movie of the year was:

  • Hell or High Water. Sad, funny, tense, twisted valentine to West Texas. Very, very good cast, terrific script, and killer soundtrack and score. Reminded me of the best of the Coen siblings.

The movies I gave three and a half stars were, in rough order of preference:

  • Manchester-by-the-Sea. You can’t go home again. Stunningly good cast.
  • La La Land. Charmingly un-ironic, yet self-aware. Bravura opening and closing scenes. Will win many awards and will deserve the ones for art direction and Emma Stone.
  • Hacksaw Ridge. Old-school corny and cliche’d….and then they hit Okinawa. Mel does violence and faith and heroism well; is he redeemable?
  • Train to Busan. Zombies on a Train FTW. Everything World War Z wasn’t: exquisite tension, likable heroes, hissable villains, good stunts, minimal CGI.
  • Shin Godzilla. Believe it or not, the rubber suit style approach can still shock and awe. Make no mistake, this is not goofy Godzilla, but an often chilling Gojira with some political satire around the edges.

I’m having a hard time narrowing the list to a top ten, so let’s make it a baker’s dozen. The best of the 3-star movies:

  • The Witch. Who knew the Salem witchhunters got it right? Moments of real horror – not terror or suspense, but actual horror. It’s a little dull in between, but it sticks to its vision almost to a fault.
  • A Bigger Splash. Sexy, sensuous, sensual – and I’m just talking about the scenery and SWINTON’s couture. I’m becoming a big fan of director Guadagnino, even if he lets Fiennes steal most of the scenes.
  • Weiner. “Because I lied to them, I have a funny name, and the media don’t do nuance.” Well, two out of three. I’m baffled why it wasn’t nominated for best documentary.
  • Moonlight. This small – in a good way – movie gracefully turns stereotypes on their ear. Superb cast.
  • The Accountant. A pleasant surprise. Its nutty mood swings and plot-twist reveals make it feel fresh compared with most recent thrillers.
  • Silence. Eloquent. Thoughtful. Marty’s Jesuit teachers should be proud.
  • April and the Extraordinary World (Avril et le Monde Truque). The steampunkery animation is gorgeous and witty. The story loses control in the third act, or it might have been a classic. Inspired me to buy some Tardi collections.
  • Captain America: Civil War. “Underoos!” And the Cap movies always have the best Marvel fight scenes.

You might think I’d have loved Arrival. Well I did love the first half – real, thoughtful science fiction, with interesting stuff on linguistics and non-action-heroes. But the resolution, which I won’t spoil, kind of wrecked it for me. Fences was well-acted, but stagey – in a bad way – though it reminded me of O’Neill, who wrote about the same themes 50 years earlier.

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Best of 2015: Movies February 24, 2016

Posted by David Card in Media.
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Regular readers know I like to preface my list of faves with some box office stats, courtesy of the indispensable Box Office Mojo. A casual observer might think Hollywood had a good year in the U.S., with ticket sales a record, and up 7% from 2014. But two colossal hits, the Star Wars and Jurassic Park reboots, did not represent a tide that lifted leakier boats.

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Photo credit: flickr user Hans Splinter

While their success hammers home the message that hits rule – does anyone mis-interpret the long tail phenomenon any more? – as my colleague Paul Sweeting writes, movies outside of the Top Five performed relatively poorly. Click through on his analysis; it’s worth a read. Studios can’t rely on the inertia of their old release and marketing tactics.

Meanwhile, in 2015:

  • Star Wars, practically a remake rather than just a re-start, collected nearly $1 billion in domestic box office, making it the biggest hit ever in current dollars. Gone with the Wind and the original Star Wars did better by other accounting. The $650 million that the dinos raked in was way, way better than recent years’ top-performers, which were lucky to crack $300 million. The disappointing Avengers 2 was the only pure superhero Top 10 flick, and wonder of wonders, an original property, The Martian, made it onto that list. Too bad it’s not particularly sequel-friendly.
  • Disney’s acquisitiveness paid off: it scored with Star Wars, Marvel, and Pixar. Universal was a more surprising star via the fairly risky Jurassic move and the demographics-friendly continued success of the Fast ‘n Furious franchise, as well as those still-kicking Minions. There were just under 30 $100+ movies this year, which is about par for recent history. What really matters is how much one spends to make and market ’em.

I saw – and enjoyed – about half of the Top 20 movies last year. But only The Martian made my “best of” list. What else did? Proving I’m not a complete snob, but also not much of a reflector of popularity if a fair-to-middling predictor of Oscar-nom worthiness, last year I saw three 3.5-star movies. That was half as many as 2014. Here’s my take from my Rotten Tomato/Flixster reviews, Best Picture nominations in bold:

  • Spotlight. Shamelessly hits all the newsroom cliches and features some mannered performances – I’m looking at you Ruffalo and Keaton – but the riveting script builds to a big, emotional payoff. Makes the case why we’d better save a few #$%@ newspapers.
  • Mad Max: Fury Road – Oh yeah, Miller still has it. Totally metal.
  • Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck – This TV-funded documentary makes creative and enlightening use of rich archival material, and should be seen on a big screen with the volume turned up. God, I miss troubled-genius rockstars.

To round out my Top 10, these are my favorite  3-star movies:

  • The Big Short – So close. Righteous anger and daring approach just falls short of satirically nailing the greedy b@stards properly.
  • The Martian – Science heroes FTW! Go, NASA!
  • Creed – It’s probably a bad idea to do a feel-good boxing movie in 2015, but what the hey, this is a really good one. Sly is amazing – touchingly so – and Jordan should be a huge movie star based on charisma alone. And then there’s the shadow boxing with YouTube scene and the the mid-movie single-take fight scene….
  • Jauja – Remember I have a very high tolerance for slow-moving, so naturalistic they’re surreal, trippy head movies that take place on the Edge of the Great Unknown, where Civilization Loses its Way.
  • Steve Jobs – In Hollywood, genius @ssholes get happy endings. Sorkin’s three-act structure is daring but not completely successful: it’s stagey and a bit static, and Fassbender is the slightly too-cold center of a stellar cast. Way better than Isaacson’s biography, Steve Jobs at least has a theory of why he was who he was.
  • Sicario – Until the script loses its cojones and the third act turns it into just another revenge thriller, this is a tense, visually stunning, action flick that also has something serious to say about the ambiguity and futility of the War on Drugs. The slightly over-the-top score heightens the sense of dread, Del Toro and Brolin are solid, but Blunt is underwritten and wasted.
  • Mr. Holmes – Yes, the pace is stately, but Sir Ian adds a marvelous interpretation to the Canon. True fans will be forgiven for getting a little weepy.

I did like Pixar’s Inside Out, that deftly blends gags and themes for grownups and for kids. But its animation is fairly uninspired, except for one art-gag that will be waaaayyy over the heads of the target audience. The Revenant was a cold, Epic Folly without any real meaning that certainly was no Fitzcarraldo or Aguirre, let alone Apocalypse Now. Bridge of Spies was classy but suspense-free. I haven’t seen Brooklyn or Room yet.

I’m still working on my Oscars hypotheses, but I don’t think they’ll give it to Iñárritu two years in a row.

 

 

Best of 2014: Movies March 13, 2015

Posted by David Card in Media.
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After my humiliating defeat at the hands of my sister in the family Oscars pool, it’s finally time for this post. But first, the usual stats, courtesy of Box Office Mojo.

  • Last year’s domestic box office gross was down 5 percent, after two pretty good years in a row. And Box Office Mojo is counting sales from Number One film American Sniper as 2014, even though most occurred in January 2015 and beyond. Last year, nothing cracked $400 million; three movies have $300+ million so far: Sniper, Hunger Games 3A, and Guardians of the Galaxy. Recent big years had multiple $400-million releases, topped by a monster like The Avengers with $600 million or Avatar at $750 million.
  • As usual, almost all of last year’s Top 10 were either cartoons or superheroes. Katniss and Chris Kyle pretty much qualify as superheroes, and the phenomenally crappy Transformers movie might as well be a cartoon. Guardians and The LEGO Movie did just fine as as franchise-starters at over $330 million and $250 million, respectively. Disney and Warners are in good shape, and while Fox may be gnashing its teeth over fading franchises, no studio had a huge-budget flop.

Among those big hits, Sniper was solid, but Guardians got more critical love than it deserved, because it felt fresher than most played-straight superheroics. But come on, who makes a mix tape with “Pina Colada” and “Cherry Bomb?” Most of my favorites of the year fell well below the Top 10 earners.

Source: flickr user Llaunes i cel·luloide 03

Source: flickr user Llaunes i cel·luloide 03

Which is not to say I’m a complete snob. I go to the movies weekly, and love blockbusters as well as indies. I’m a hard grader who reserves 5 stars in Rotten Tomatoes or Flixster for true classics. Last year I saw seven 3.5-star movies – not a bad tally. My personal Top 10 were:

  • Boyhood – This exercise in Texas slackerealism is a stunt, but an effective one. Just about the entire cast is so good – esp. the chemistry between Hawke and Coltrane – you actually care what happens to them. Why is that so rare?
  • Only Lovers Left Alive – Hiddleston and SWINTON are the coolest vampire couple since Bowie and Deneuve.
  • Whiplash – DI meets the drummer. The two leads are terrific, it’s superbly shot and edited, exciting, and will actually provoke discussion. Whiplash has little to do with jazz – it’s more like a corny sports movie – but I love corny sports movies.
  • The Babadook – The best classic horror movie in years. Two great performances (Davis and Wiseman), a good look and sound design, and just as scary thematically as “literally.” Can’t wait to see what Jennifer Kent does next.
  • Stalingrad – Old-fashioned, sentimental, propagandistic? But also epic. Great Russian cast overcomes under-written parts and matches the 3D spectacle.
  • Mr. Turner – One wonders if the eccentric bloke really grunted that much, but some of the vignettes are brilliant, most of the cast is very, very good, and the cinematography really does hint at the sublime.
  • American Sniper – Largely apolitical and super-patriotic, it’s still gripping and troubling. Cooper’s superb, un-flashy performance wasn’t completely ignored by the major awards nominators. Glad he was on our side – hoohyah!

To get to 10, the 3-star movies that will hold up best included:

  • The Grand Budapest Hotel – For once, Anderson’s fussy art direction works wonders, Fiennes is a marvel, and there’s even a hint of heart. A sad and nostalgic one.
  • Fury – Old-fashioned nearly to the point of cliche, but delivers some powerful scenes. Pitt is charismatic and the tanks look authentic, even if the tracers don’t. Three good war movies in one year?
  • John Wick – Lean and mean. Exciting choreographed violence shot coherently FTW.

In the based-on-a-true-story category, I liked Get on Up a little better than Foxcatcher, which was a little too cold, and far more than Selma, which had some effective scenes but was really only a few cuts above Movie-of-the-Week material. The best animated movie I saw was Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises (I didn’t see LEGO yet). It felt three dimensional with no need for 3D glasses. Birdman was overheated and thematically shallow.

Possibly that affected my Oscar picks, though I try to predict, not cheer. I had Keaton for Best Actor, but only went 14 for 24, my worst in a few years, with only three of the big six. Boyhood was robbed.

Best of 2013: Movies February 17, 2014

Posted by David Card in Media.
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I like to kick these posts off with some box office stats, courtesy Box Office Mojo.

  • The money spent in U.S. movie theaters was flat versus last year (and tickets sold down), when The Avengers set some records with over $600 million in sales at the same time that Hunger Games and The Dark Knight Rises broke $400 million. This year, only the Hunger Games sequel and Iron Man 3 cracked the $400 million mark.
  • The top 10, as usual, comprised sequels, cartoons, and superheroes, sometimes in combination. How did Gravity sneak in? By being a really good movie that was also a crowd-pleaser, and worth seeing in Imax or 3D. I’m still baffled by the Oz movie (which I didn’t see). Does it qualify as a franchise? Pixar made it into the top 10, but didn’t get an Oscar nomination. Can we blame Disney?

Let me disagree with the critics who say it was a good year. I go to the movies in theaters just about once a week. I like blockbusters and genre films as much as serious movies for grown-ups, and I’m a hard grader. I reserve the 5s on a 5-star scale for all-time classics like Casablanca, Chinatown, and Duck Soup. I rated fewer 3s this year than in 2011 and 2012. I saw a lot of 2.5-star movies this year.

My two favorites of the year earned 3.5 stars each:

  • Gravity – It’s uncharitable to wish Gravity were actually about something. Its visuals inspire awe and panic, its physics is totally convincing, it’s superbly cast, and the creators apparently invented some new movie technology.
  • Inside Llewyn Davis – The rare Coen Brothers movie with a heart, and all the better for it. Is it a little depressing? So is trying to make a living while making art.

To round out a top ten list, here are the best of the 3-star movies I saw this year:

  • Mud – An endearing, meandering, Southern shaggy dog story. Tremendous cast and atmosphere. It’s a “triple-six real-deal.”
  • The Great Gatsby –  Leo nailed it, even if Carey Mulligan was mis-cast. The hip hop worked, and everyone looked fabulous.
  • American Hustle – Audacious, but only partly successful. You’ve got to be Scorsese to pull off voice-over narration, the pacing’s inconsistent, and the comedy and satire are, uh, uneven. Lots of great performances, but what is Russell’s point? American Bullsh!t was the original title…
  • Rush – Cliched? Macho? Hans Zimmer? Well, yeah, it’s a Formula 1 movie. And it was the funnest summer flick. The leads radiate charisma and it’s got a great ’70s look. See it on a big screen.
  • Fruitvale Station – I wanted more outrage, but in the long run maybe its almost too low-key approach was the way to go. Superb cast empowered by the very assured first-time director and screenwriter.
  • Captain Phillips – Taut and thoughtful. Hanks and Abdi are terrific and I’ll forgive the shakycam because Greengrass is one of the few active directors that shoot action scenes where you always know what’s going on. Ends with a real kick in the chest.
  • All Is Lost – Truly harrowing, and I only saw it on an airplane’s small screen.
  • The Grandmaster – Kung fu isn’t better in rain, smoke, snow, or slowmo, but it sure is prettier. This one actually takes off when it turns into a romance, but, oh, man, that fight scene by the train…

As for some of the other big movies of the year? While Luhrmann was seduced by – and seductive on – the romance of Amuhrican capitalism, I’m pretty sure Scorsese was not. But consider the source material. Wolf of Wall Street was at least a half an hour too long to justify its 2-3 great scenes. While the romance in Her worked, the dialogue did not. 12 Years a Slave was beautifully shot, and mostly well-acted, but it’s about as subtle and thoughtful as Mandingo. Worse, it’s oddly unfeeling. In Blue Jasmine, Blanchett out-Blanches Blanche, but the class and wealth commentary loses its sting because it’s set in some timeless, out-of-touch Woodyland where Brooklyn is an undesirable place to live, people take computer classes to learn about “operating systems,” and mooks from Queens comprise the San Francisco working class.

Best of 2012: Movies February 17, 2013

Posted by David Card in Media.
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According to Box Office Mojo, the U.S. box office was up 6.5 percent last year, driven by the mega-hit The Avengers (a whopping $620 million in domestic ticket sales) and two pretty big monsters: The Dark Knight Rises ($450 million) and The Hunger Games ($410 million). Nothing broke $400 million in 2011, and both superhero movies did well enough to crack the top 10 all-time. Critical consensus is that it was a pretty good year from a quality perspective, too.

I was prepared to agree, but then I reviewed my ratings on Rotten Tomatoes’ Flixster site. While I gave three movies 3.5 stars on a 5-point scale – one more than last year – I saw a pretty similar number of 3- and 2.5-star movies both years. I go to the movies in the theater a little less than once a week on average, and I’m no highbrow, as you’ll see from my list of favorites. Before we get there, though, let’s take a look at the key takeaways from Box Office Mojo’s yearly tally:

  • In 2011, there was no $400 million blockbuster, and only two movies broke $300 million (Potter 7B and Transformers 3). Ticket prices were up a bit, but 2012 was driven by hits, not 3D.
  • Of 2012’s top 10, only two were cartoons (Brave, Madagascar 3) but all were fantasies and three featured superheros. Sadly, for DC/Warners, Batman’s now done for a while and we all remember what happened to the last Superman re-boot.
  • Twilight has run its course, as has Harry Potter, but it looks like The Hunger Games and The Hobbit , along with Marvel’s refreshed superheros, will carry the franchise load. And James Bond will never die.
  • Lincoln ($176 million, no. 14) and Django Unchained ($156 million, no. 16) were the only grown-up movies in the top 20. DK3 could have been, but after Dark Knight, director/scripter Christopher Nolan only teases big ideas without delivering an intellectual payoff.

My three favorite movies of the year, all scoring 3.5 stars were:

  • Zero Dark Thirty – Way more relevant than the feel-good Argo. It’s hardly morally ambiguous: it takes fascists to beat terrorists. But did it really take a lone Ahab to get this whale?
  • Lincoln – Sure, it’s manipulative, but if you don’t get a few lumps in your throat watching, you’re no true Amuhrican. Day-Lewis is utterly convincing. Too much to hope Lincoln will inspire modern Congressional compromise.
  • The Hunger Games – Nailed the emotional if not visceral impact of the book. Great cast led by a spectacular Jennifer Lawrence. Shakycam effective during games, over-used elsewhere, but overall look worked. This is how to do a franchise.

And to get to a top 10 list, pulling from the 3-star rankings:

  • The Avengers – Hulk smash!
  • Argo – Very well made and highly entertaining. But Argo feels oddly disconnected from current affairs – does that come from its feel-good vibe, or perhaps from its 70s-fetish production design?
  • Wuthering Heights – Effectively taps the cruelty and pagan energy of the novel, and a far more interesting re-visioning than Anna Karenina. The kids smolder more convincingly than the adults.
  • Flight – This only-slightly more ambiguous than usual morality/addiction fable is redeemed by a spectacular opening sequence and Denzel’s best flawed cool guy since Training Day.
  • Lawless – This shaggy dog fable meanders along and then hammers you with ultraviolence. 2/3rds of the cast is terrific, Georgia stands in beautifully for Franklin County VA, and the eclectic score is top-notch.
  • Beasts of the Southern Wild – There’s a little North Eastern liberal white guy (both parents are folklore scholars) noble-savage voyeurism here – okay, there’s a lot of it – but there’s also plenty to think about in this beautifully-shot, no-budget fable. Hushpuppy is ferocious, but her dad – also a non-actor – deservers the Oscar nom.
  • The Master – The story of Amuhrica via Scientology by way of father/son belief/doubt individualist/groupthink. Sadly, great cinematography and production design can’t save a static script that does nothing after the great setup. Hoffman is spectacular; critics will disagree on Phoenix, who I thought went over the top.

I wanted to like Silver Linings Playbook more than I did; it started strong but ended up just a slightly edgy RomCom. Skyfall was very good Bond – until the third act. And I found Killing Them Softly more fascinating than flawed. As for the rest of the best picture nominees: Django was a lesser Inglourious, I probably wouldn’t like Les Mis on stage and I found it tedious onscreen, and I haven’t seen Life of Pi or Amour yet.

 

Best of 2011: Movies February 20, 2012

Posted by David Card in Media.
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Just in time to mess with your Oscar pool, I present my personal favorites of the year. Nota bene: this list has little to do with my own Oscar picks. Those I’m keeping secret to avoid jinxing my results in the annual Card family pool.

In 2011, I averaged approximately one new movie – in a theater – a week. I can enjoy just about any well-executed flick: I like big-budget summer blockbusters, well-crafted genre pictures, indies made for grown-ups, heartstring-tuggers, etc. I can read subtitles, though I’m not sure if I could through 3D glasses. That said, 2011 was not a good year.

According to the indispensable Box Office Mojo, the US box office for 2011 was down 4 percent vs. 2010, even though there more, expensive-ticket 3D releases. (That’s what boosted 2009 receipts 10 percent. That, and the fact one of ’em was Avatar.) Maybe the 3D boomlet is done. I’m not religiously opposed to the concept – I can barely imagine one of my 2011 faves not in 3D. But it’s an unnecessary burden for most.

Of the top 10 grossing pictures in 2011:

  • Nine out of 10 were remakes or sequels. Dear god.
  • Only one (Cars 2) was a cartoon. Unless you count Transformers.
  • Only one (Thor) was a superhero franchise. Bob Iger is gnawing his fingernails.
  • Two (Harry Potter 7B and Twilight 4A) were bestseller franchises that are now done or ending. Hollywood’s salvation depends on The Hunger Games, since Girl with the Dragon Tattoo didn’t cut it.

My two favorite movies of the year, 3.5 stars on Flixster’s 5-star scale, were:

  • Moneyball. Lots of smart reviewers like this movie, but they vary widely on what it’s actually about. That’s a sign of high art in pop culture. Witty script and great cast. Pitt is terrific in two very different roles this year. And if you were wondering about my interpretation, like all Sorkin, it’s about men at work.
  • Hugo. There’s real magic here. The 3D isn’t remotely realistic, but looks like a pop-up book: a deep series of flats, and that’s just right. For what is really a children’s movie, it’s too long, and so old-fashioned – er, timeless – that I wonder if modern kids will take to it.

To get to a Top Ten list, I have to go to 3-star movies:

  • Meek’s Cutoff. “Chaotic” women and “destructive” men face off against the Other. If you can handle the slow pace and cryptic characters, this is a thoughtful look at alienation, leadership, and faith.
  • Bellflower. This very twisted take on the indie romance has the courage of its own nutty, nihilist convictions. Beautifully shot, occasionally funny, ultimately disturbing.
  • The Descendants. Very human but disappointingly sentimental. Superb cast.
  • The Tree of Life. Malick sets out to justify the ways of God to men, but he has more to say about nostalgic boy/brother/Dad dynamics.
  • 13 Assassins. Slow-burn buildup to maximum carnage. Stately and stylish, with a handful of stars and a great villain.
  • Source Code. No dumber than Inception, and ten times the heart. Twice the fun at one fifth the budget.
  • Kill List. The Brits still know how to make those low-budget horror flicks where the occult leaks into the real world in a most disturbing fashion.

I’m going to cheat, and add a 2.5-star movie to my Top Ten, because it was more memorable than the rest of the ones I gave 3 stars. It will hold up to re-watching better:

  • Higher Ground. Vera Farmiga is very, very good, as usual, and gets solid performances out of her cast. The movie rambles and is uncomfortable in its tonal shifts, and the script is too stacked against the evangelicals for us to believe Farmiga’s character is risking much with her crisis of faith. Except the music, which is surprisingly affective.

The Artist’s gimmick just didn’t work for me, and I was hugely disappointed by Fincher’s Dragon Tattoo, the only part of which that was better than the Swedish version being the credits sequence. They shouldn’t have broken up Potter 7: the slow, sad build-up of part one would have made the payoff of part two that much better. Captain America was the best superhero movie, and although that’s not saying much this year, I’m still looking forward to The Avengers. And Batman, of course.