Feb 27

My favorite films of 2013

Well, this puts a period on the sentence that was my last big paragraph of filmgoing for a while.

Now that I’m working for the Dodgers, my years of going to movies by the bushel will take a break. I saw nearly 60 of 2013′s films, but that number is going to come crashing down in 2014.

So for perhaps the last time for a while, here is my annual ranking of the films, using the system I designed long ago.

As I’ve said before, it’s a system that is decidedly personal, because film is decidedly personal.  I don’t think there’s any such thing as a “best” film, but only a “favorite” film, because what we bring to a film and what we desire from it is so idiosyncratic.  Here’s the boilerplate explanation:

Ambition (1-7): How much the film is taking on, in subject matter and in filming challenges?

Quality (1-10): As objective as I can be, how well do I think the film succeeds in achieving its ambitions?

Emotional resonance (1-13): How much did the film affect me personally. This category gets the most weight because it’s the most important – I’d rather see a flawed film that touches me than a technically perfect but emotionally stultifying picture.

Two last quick points: I wouldn’t get caught up in single-point distinctions – those don’t amount to a significant difference between films. I could tinker with the grades every time I revisit the list.

If you want to look back, here are four past charts: my favorite films of 201220112010 and 2006.

I will say this – I’m less enchanted with my system than I have been in the past. I don’t tend to award much variance in ambition, and I’m having more trouble distinguishing between objective quality and emotional resonance. But this isn’t the time I’m going to change things up, so here we go …

2013 A O ER T Comment
Blue Is the Warmest Color 3.5 9.5 10.5 23.5 Loved the deep, patient exploration of the arc of a relationship – it at once had an intimate and epic feel.
Gravity* 5 8.5 10 23.5 No film mixes cinematic and spiritual ambition better this year. A thriller in more ways than one.
Short Term 12 4 9.5 10 23.5 Spot-on great storytelling of both a character and a place.
Much Ado About Nothing 4 8.5 10.5 23 A movie that I found easy to cherish – a loving and lovable homage with its own originality.
12 Years a Slave* 4.5 9 9 22.5 Unassailable in its worth and inner integrity. I can’t explain why at times I felt numb. “Roots” had more impact.
Her 4 8.5 10 22.5 Takes what could have been a sitcom story and turns it into something extraordinary and moving.
Saving Mr. Banks 4 8.5 10 22.5 Strong movie throughout, and the stuff about the flawed fathers got to me.
Captain Phillips 4 8.5 8.5 22 Intense. Hanks builds to some phenomenal moments. Somali parts well-played.
Dallas Buyers Club* 4 9 9 22 Legitimately strong story that should transcend qualms about who the protagonist is. Leto is amazing in it.
The Way Way Back 4 8.5 9 22 Touching and sincere.
August: Osage County* 4 8.5 9 21.5 Adeptly juggles numerous stories and got at the true contradictions of family life and love. Underrated at Toronto.
Mud 3.5 9 9 21.5 Really engrossing story, superbly acted by the kids. Troubled somewhat by the ending.
The Past 4 9 8.5 21.5 Another complex multi-person relationship drama. Tough but good.
The Place Beyond the Pines 3.5 9 8 21.5 Very strong, though Mendes’ character would have benefited from more development.
All Is Lost 4 8 9 21 Taut and nearly silent, but the main question was, why wasn’t their cursing in every minute?
Inside Llewyn Davis 4 8 9 21 A good personal journey movie, that maybe stops short of the knockout punch its ending should have.
Frozen 4 8 8.5 20.5 Definitely more depth than advertised, but also strong in humor and music. Didn’t quite get why secret had to be a secret.
The Wolf of Wall Street 4 8.5 8 20.5 As a comedy, very ambitious with some great moments, but also lagged for me in places.
What Maisie Wants 4 7.5 7.5 20.5 A rough story to tell but it works.
The Iceman 3 9 8 20 Rock solid, with Michael Shannon giving dominant performance.
Blue Jasmine 4 7.5 8 19.5 Hits some great notes – liked even if I didn’t love.
Despicable Me 2 3.5 8 8 19.5 Worked very well – I think I liked it more than the original.
Enough Said 3.5 7.5 8.5 19.5 Loved the exploration of a mature relationship, just wish big reveal hadn’t been so delayed and sitcommy. I miss Gandolfini.
Prisoners 4 8.5 7 19.5 Strong, gritty movie, a little slow-paced in first half but pays off.
Stories We Tell 3.5 8 8 19.5 A really interesting film if a bit rough around the edges.
The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby* 4 7 8.5 19.5 Liked the material overall and the two-part experiment, but not convinced it wouldn’t be better as one piece.
Fruitvale Station 3.5 7.5 8 19 Narrowly focused but important and heartbreaking.
How I Live Now* 4 7 8 19 The quest is a weird one, but it’s a beguiling fantasy.
Labor Day* 3.5 7.5 8 19 Liked this maybe more than I should – kind of a indie-spirit Hallmark movie.
The Armstrong Lie 3.5 8.5 7 19 The crazy denial comes to life.
The Short Game 3 8 8 19 Funny to see this at around the same time as “Bad Words.”
42 3 7.5 8 18.5 Liked the acting more than the script – mostly a paint-by-numbers telling of a great story.
Nebraska 3 8 7.5 18.5 Might be selling short its ambition, but though I enjoyed it, not sure what it adds up to.
Philomena 3 8 7.5 18.5 Pretty intimate and well-told story.
The Spectacular Now 3.5 8 8 18.5 Touching. Liked that drinking was key element but not central. Shailene Woodley too adorable to be an outcast, though.
Admission 3.5 6.5 8 18 Underrated – didn’t all ring true, but hard not to notice the attempt.
Bad Words* 3 7 8 18 At times profane for the sake of it, but among the most fun films of the year.
Can a Song Save a Life* 4 7 7 18 The joy of making music. Even its darkness is kind of bright. Tremendously likeable.
Casting By 3 8 7 18 Nice piece of work on an area that deserves attention.
In a World … 3 8 7 18 Fun story and a nice showcase for Lake Bell.
Picture Day 3.5 7.5 7 18 Tatiana Maslany expectedly adorable, and it was an interesting (and slightly strange) ride.
The Invisible Woman 3 8 7 18 Solid period piece, with Fiennes beguiling as Dickens.
To the Wonder 3.5 6.5 8 18 Eloquent, beautiful love story sandbagged by inexplicable lack of attention to Affleck’s character.
Out of the Furnace 3.5 7 7 17.5 More true grit, a la Prisoners, which perhaps was better because its antagonist was better.
Lee Daniels’ The Butler 4 6 7 17 Worthy subject and occasionally moving but far too on the nose in places.
Night Moves* 3.5 7 6.5 17 Low, low-key film struggles toward the end after it all goes down.
Rush* 4 7 6 17 Beautifully shot with good lead performances, but fairly conventional storytelling for a sports film.
The Croods 3 7 7 17 Ends on a good note but kind of tedious in the midsection.
Turbo 3 7 7 17 No great leap but a likable enough tale.
American Hustle 3.5 7 6 16.5 I’m probably being harsh on it, but was not involved in the story until the final hour, and it didn’t stick with me after.
Austenland 3.5 6.5 6 16 Points for the ambiguity in the love story, points against for its clumsiness.
Oz the Great and Powerful 4 5.5 5 15.5 Uninvolving script and really questionable casting.
Monsters University 3 7 5 15 Harmless but pointless for me.
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone 3 5 6 14 Gross miscalculations about Carell, Carrey and Wilde characters undermined what might’ve been a really good comedy.
Spring Breakers 3.5 5 5 13.5 Certainly not your typical Spring Break movie, certainly stylish, but did not make me care at all. This year’s emperor with no clothes.
Planes 3 5 4 13 A sorrowful rehash of past aspirational animations.
Before Midnight 3 5.5 4 12.5 Pretentious as ever in the first half, hardly groundbreaking in the big fight in the second. The love for these films remains mystifying.
Dom Hemingway* 3 4 3 10 Aside from a couple good moments, thought this was pretty much flatulent.
You Are Here* 3 3.5 3.5 10 Matthew Weiner’s feature was the biggest disappointment of the year.

*Seen at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival

Feb 21

My favorite films of 2012

Thanks to my new duties last year as awards editor at Variety, I saw by far the most films I’ve ever seen in a year. Including documentaries and a smidgen of 2013 films that I got a sneak preview of, I took in 84 in all. And it was a good year to take a deep dive, with lots of interesting, quality offerings.

So here is my annual ranking of the films, using the system I designed long ago. (Important clarifications, for work purposes: I am obviously not a professional critic, and these rankings are my own and completely unaffiliated with Variety.)

As I’ve said before, it’s a system that is decidedly personal, because film is decidedly personal.  I don’t think there’s any such thing as a “best” film, but only a “favorite” film, because what we bring to a film and what we desire from it is so idiosyncratic.  Here’s the boilerplate explanation:

Ambition (1-7): How much the film is taking on, in subject matter and in filming challenges? For example, is it offering both a romantic story and social commentary at once? How difficult was the film to make technically? This allows one to distinguish between two equally well-made films when one is Casablanca and the other is Animal House. Ambition isn’t the be-all and end-all, but it allows some extra credit to be given where it is due.

Quality (1-10): This is essentially how most films are graded – simply, how good are they. As objective as I can be, how well do I think the film succeeds in achieving its ambitions?

Emotional resonance (1-13): How much did the film affect me personally. This category gets the most weight because it’s the most important – I’d rather see a flawed film that touches me than a technically perfect but emotionally stultifying picture.

Just to give you a quick idea of how this works, here are the scores of my favorite films of all time.

The Misfits: Ambition 5, Quality 9.5, Resonance 13, Total 27.5
Casablanca: Ambition 6, Quality 10, Resonance 11.5, Total 27.5

Both are great movies in my mind, with Casablanca being objectively better and The Misfits being the most powerful to me emotionally. Now, there probably aren’t 10 people in the world who would consider these films equals, but that’s the whole point, isn’t it? This system helps us rank our favorites without trying to say that they’re definitively the best.

And, for comparison, down near the bottom of the scale …

The Bad News Bears Go To Japan: Ambition 1.5, Quality 2, Resonance 2, Total 5.5.

Two last quick points: I wouldn’t get caught up in single-point distinctions – those don’t amount to a significant difference between films. In fact, each time I look at the list, I feel like tinkering with some of the grades.

That last point is so true – I really find myself wanting to change the point totals again and again, and finally told myself I just had to stop.

If you want to look back, here are three past charts: my favorite films of 2011, of 2010 and of 2006.

Here we go …

A O ER T Comment
A Late Quartet 4.0 9.5 11.0 24.5 This movie has everything (that I need, anyway).
Beasts of the Southern Wild 4.5 9.0 10.0 23.5 Stunning. Unlike anything I’ve seen, but so much more than that.
Seven Psychopaths 3.5 9.5 10.0 23.0 Loved this. Funny, clever, meta, and also thoughtful and sensitive.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower 4.0 9.0 10.0 23.0 They should make more movies like this about adults. A few quibbles but really well done.
Zero Dark Thirty 4.0 9.0 10.0 23.0 Like United 93, doesn’t mess around – and grips on multiple levels.
Argo 4.0 9.0 9.5 22.5 Riveting entertainment and great mix of humor and terror.
Django Unchained 4.0 9.0 9.5 22.5 Features style and substance, earns being provocative, and fun on top of it all.
Dangerous Liaisons 3.5 9.0 9.5 22.0 Spot-on adaptation, luminous and enjoyable and with no wasted moments.
Ginger & Rosa 4.0 9.0 9.0 22.0 Very believable mix of political and personal in a coming-of-age story; Fanning’s perf peaks in amazing ways.
Les Miserables 4.5 8.0 9.5 22.0 Bit of a bumpy journey for the otherwise transcendent material. Hathaway soars, Crowe sinks.
Mea Maxima Culpa 3.0 9.5 9.5 22.0 Thorough, impactful indictment of the blindness to horror.
Moonrise Kingdom 3.0 9.0 10.0 22.0 Sincerity of the story undermines any potential problems with preciousness.
No 4.0 9.0 9.0 22.0 Really interesting, sincere and important storytelling.
Looper 4.0 8.5 9.0 21.5 Cool mix of Terminator, Logan’s Run and Inception. Felt a little long but still strong.
Quartet 3.5 8.5 9.5 21.5 A bit of a sluggish start but ultimately a lovely journey in performance and aging.
Rust and Bone 3.5 8.5 9.5 21.5 Strong story with rough edges – plot gets forced a bit toward ending, but very compelling.
The Secret World of Arrietty 3.5 9.0 9.0 21.5 Lovely, earnest film – slow-paced but completely justified in being so
Wreck-It Ralph 3.5 8.5 9.5 21.5 Great ride and really inventive, even as it was grounded in familiar.
Any Day Now 4.0 8.5 8.5 21.0 Significant yet unpretentious, with key perf from actor with Downs Syndrome.
Brave 3.5 8.5 9.0 21.0 The mother-daughter relationship evolves in a way I’ve never seen in an animated film.
End of Watch 3.5 8.5 9.0 21.0 Gritty police drama in the absolute best sense – not cliché. Gyllenhaal shines.
Searching for Sugar Man 3.5 9.0 8.5 21.0 Modest start yields great rewards – earns its smiles.
How To Survive a Plague 3.0 9.0 8.5 20.5 Some amazing historical footage highlights thorough history of HIV treatment battles.
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen 3.5 8.0 9.0 20.5 Cuts some corners but knows where its bread is buttered. Charming.
The Intouchables 3.0 8.5 9.0 20.5 A really entertaining and warm film, even as it risks relying on the conceit of the magical black healer.
Amour 3.0 8.5 8.5 20.0 Tender, well-told story but takes you exactly where you’d think it would, in a very insular world.
Central Park Five 3.0 9.0 8.0 20.0 Utterly persuasive and compelling, ranks with the best work of the Burns family.
Life of Pi 4.0 8.0 8.0 20.0 Powerful visually and the narrative mostly matches up. Not sure it achieves all it set out to, but worth seeing.
Ruby Sparks 3.5 7.5 9.0 20.0 Some contrivance early on is mitigated by really strong and thought-provoking finish.
Smashed 3.0 8.5 8.5 20.0 Really strong, human-yet-unsentimental portrayal of dealing with alcoholism
The Grey 3.5 8.5 8.0 20.0 As harsh and beautiful as the world around it, with one of the best-written endings of the year.
The Iceman 3.0 9.0 8.0 20.0 Rock solid, with Michael Shannon giving dominant performance.
Lincoln 4.0 8.0 8.0 20.0 Solid but not quite moving or natural. Day-Lewis great but almost not in same world as others.
War Witch 4.0 8.5 7.5 20.0 Can’t argue with intense story in this dark companion to “Beasts of the Southern Wild.”
Bully 3.0 7.5 9.0 19.5 Indispensable message but with some frustration at lack of insight into the causes.
Flight 4.0 7.5 8.0 19.5 Some Hollywood elements but otherwise pretty unflinching, plane stuff was good.
Promised Land 3.5 8.0 8.0 19.5 You wonder how Damon’s character ever got ahead in the business, otherwise fine.
Safety Not Guaranteed 3.0 7.5 9.0 19.5 A couple of loose plot issues don’t undermine the overall sincerity and charm.
Silver Linings Playbook 3.5 8.0 8.0 19.5 Appropriately manic, I suppose, and energetic – good but storytelling had its hiccups.
Chimpanzee 3.0 8.0 8.0 19.0 Satisfying journey into the chimps’ world.
Frankenweenie 3.0 8.0 8.0 19.0 Good, atmospheric, but doesn’t really deal with its central theme.
Head Games 3.0 8.0 8.0 19.0 Straightforward and convincing.
Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted 3.0 7.5 8.5 19.0 Defies logic but it was fun.
Middle of Nowhere 3.0 8.0 8.0 19.0 Solid story about love and life on hold with a mesmerizing lead.
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel 3.5 7.0 8.5 19.0 A little tidy in the storytelling but very warm and enjoyable.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey 3.5 7.5 8.0 19.0 Entertaining but long, 48 fps is cool even though it gives it a Teletubbies feel.
The Impossible 3.5 7.5 8.0 19.0 Incredible story, epic tsunami but simplistic outside of action.
The Sessions 3.5 7.5 8.0 19.0 Saccharine to a large extent, with a distracting outing by Helen Hunt, but strong finish.
To Rome with Love 3.5 7.5 8.0 19.0 Silly and a little padded but fun.
West of Memphis 3.0 8.5 7.5 19.0 Powerful stuff, of course, but troubled by the partisan production team.
Your Sister’s Sister 3.0 7.5 8.5 19.0 Sweet, sincere, meaningful if a bit light on what made characters the way they are.
Peace, Love and Misunderstanding 3.5 7.0 8.0 18.5 Servicable movie; I enjoyed Fonda, Olson and Keener.
This Is 40 3.5 7.0 8.0 18.5 A good amount of hardcore reality and some fun, interrupted by phony moments.
Bernie 3.0 7.5 7.5 18.0 Fun, if a bit slight. Role was simply made for Jack Black.
Killing Them Softly 3.0 7.5 7.5 18.0 Ending makes sense of it all. Solid with good performances but not transcendent in any way.
Rise of the Guardians 3.5 7.5 7.0 18.0 Actually a fun story, though it doesn’t really make its theme of defeating fear anything more than a fantasy.
Skyfall 4.0 6.5 7.5 18.0 Bardem wonderful, rest of the movie uneven – good moments and turgid ones.
The Gatekeepers 3.0 8.0 7.0 18.0 Enlightening. Didn’t give much reason for optimism on Israel.
To the Wonder 3.5 6.5 8.0 18.0 Eloquent, beautiful love story sandbagged by inexplicable lack of attention to Affleck’s character.
Holy Motors 4.0 7.0 6.5 17.5 The most unique movie of the year by a factor of 1,000, but it didn’t affect me.
Paranorman 3.5 7.0 7.0 17.5 Felt that I should have liked it more than I did. Story just never grabbed me. “Coraline” superior.
The Master 3.5 6.5 7.5 17.5 Impressive performances and visuals but a story that doesn’t take you anywhere.
The Waiting Room 2.5 8.0 7.0 17.5 Visceral window into ER nightmares and heroic health-care pros, but was there much insight?
Damsels in Distress 3.0 6.0 8.0 17.0 If you don’t like Stillman’s style, this film has no chance with you. Hard one to buy into.
Ethel 3.0 7.0 7.0 17.0 Completely adequate but seemed mistitled and unsure of its purpose.
Hitchcock 3.5 6.5 7.0 17.0 Has good moments but left me shrugging. Narrow.
Samsara 3.0 7.0 7.0 17.0 No shortage of interesting images, but don’t know what else to say about it.
The Company You Keep 3.0 7.0 7.0 17.0 Kind of fine, kind of fun (always with Julie Christie), but nothing standout.
Trouble with the Curve 3.5 6.5 7.0 17.0 Terrible start and a horrible baseball movie, but nice father-daughter stuff.
Not Fade Away 3.5 6.0 7.0 16.5 Some good elements but doesn’t come together in a useful way.
The Lorax 3.5 6.0 7.0 16.5 Fine for kids but definitely felt the adaptation was a bit brash and strained.
The Deep Blue Sea 3.0 6.5 6.5 16.0 Weisz strong but the film seemed thin and the ending forced. What was special about her heartbreak?
The Five-Year Engagement 3.0 6.5 6.5 16.0 Several funny moments but overall just long and kind of slow. Just inconsistent.
Arbitrage 3.0 6.0 6.0 15.0 Rich, handsome lout gets away with stuff. Well-acted but pretty pointless.
The Dark Knight Rises 4.0 6.5 4.0 14.5 I’m sure it’s very good despite its flaws, but mostly bored me to virtual tears.
Celeste and Jesse Forever 3.0 5.0 6.0 14.0 Some redemption but mostly misfires in its attempt to be instructive about relationships
On the Road 3.5 5.0 5.5 14.0 Craziness does not equal insight. Whole is less than the sum of its parts.
Anna Karenina 3.5 5.0 5.0 13.5 Outside-the-box approach spottily executed, and key character utterly useless. A long haul.
Compliance 3.0 5.5 5.0 13.5 For all its true-story basis, the film never convinces you to buy in to its outlandish reality.
Magic Mike 3.0 5.5 5.0 13.5 Harmless but almost fascinatingly dull outside the dancing. Character arcs like anthills.
Cloud Atlas 4.0 4.5 4.0 12.5 Trite, corny, doesn’t justify its expanse.
The Paperboy 4.0 4.5 4.0 12.5 Tries stuff, but really never feels anything but silly.
Hyde Park on Hudson 3.0 5.0 4.0 12.0 Pointless, with Laura Linney’s weird desperation disguised as meaningful emotion.
Cosmopolis 4.0 3.0 3.0 10.0 Sound and fury, signifying nothing new.
Jan 23

My favorite films of 2011

The other day, Molly Knight and I were chatting on Twitter when we both realized how much each other loved the films of 2006. That happened to be my first fall working full-time at Variety, and it was a spectacular one for the movies, led by “Little Children,” “United 93″ and “The Last King of Scotland.”

All three of those films would rank ahead of my favorite film of 2011, using the system I designed long ago. It’s a system that is decidedly personal, because film is decidedly personal.  I don’t think there’s any such thing as a “best” film, but only a “favorite” film, because what we bring to a film and what we desire from it is so idiosyncratic.  Here’s how I explained the system back then:

Ambition (1-7): How much the film is taking on, in subject matter and in filming challenges? For example, is it offering both a romantic story and social commentary at once? How difficult was the film to make technically? This allows one to distinguish between two equally well-made films when one is Casablanca and the other is Animal House. Ambition isn’t the be-all and end-all, but it allows some extra credit to be given where it is due.

Quality (1-10): This is essentially how most films are graded – simply, how good are they. As objective as I can be, how well do I think the film succeeds in achieving its ambitions?

Emotional resonance (1-13)
: How much did the film affect me personally. This category gets the most weight because it’s the most important – I’d rather see a flawed film that touches me than a technically perfect but emotionally stultifying picture.

Just to give you a quick idea of how this works, here are the scores of my favorite films of all time.

The Misfits: Ambition 5, Quality 9.5, Resonance 13, Total 27.5
Casablanca: Ambition 6, Quality 10, Resonance 11.5, Total 27.5

Both are great movies in my mind, with Casablanca being objectively better and The Misfits being the most powerful to me emotionally. Now, there probably aren’t 10 people in the world who would consider these films equals, but that’s the whole point, isn’t it? This system helps us rank our favorites without trying to say that they’re definitively the best.

And, for comparison, down near the bottom of the scale …

The Bad News Bears Go To Japan: Ambition 1.5, Quality 2, Resonance 2, Total 5.5.

During my single days, I rated nearly 600 films using this system before it fell by the wayside. But I decided to hurriedly resurrect it to knock out the films I saw that were released in 2006. You’ll see that list below.

Two last quick points: I wouldn’t get caught up in single-point distinctions – those don’t amount to a significant difference between films. In fact, each time I look at the list, I feel like tinkering with some of the grades.

The other thing is that in the past, an average film totaled about 16 points, which means that I did pretty well in what I saw this year. I honestly didn’t feel that I saw a truly awful movie from 2006.

Now while I didn’t see a movie in 2011 that I would rank ahead of the best of 2006, I did see plenty of good ones in a year that matched up well with 2010 – along with one truly awful, despicable one. So here, the day before the Oscar nominations are revealed, is my list for the past year …

Film A Q ER Total Comment
1 Beginners 4 9.5 10.5 24 A wonderful grown-up multi-person love-and-loss story, perfect in tone.
2t The Artist 4.5 9 10 23.5 I know some don’t get the fascination with it, but I found it simply winning.
2t Moneyball 4 8.5 11 23.5 Some unnecessary missteps on the baseball side, but a really affecting story of a man at war with himself.
2t 50/50 4 9 10.5 23.5 Sincere and meaningful, with some genuinely brilliant touches
5 Martha Marcy May Marlene 4 9 10 23 They should have gotten her treatment sooner, but otherwise, really strong, intense movie.
6t Hugo 4 9 9 22 An involving, well-executed ride. Got kids interested in origins of film, which was very cool.
6t A Separation 4 9 9 22 “Carnage” for grownups. Serious themes and believable stakes.
8t The Descendants 4 8 9.5 21.5 Too much voiceover and lag early on, but hits home hard in second half.
8t The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo 4 9 8.5 21.5 Pretty riveting, and enjoyed Mara and Craig greatly. Didn’t like the Villain Explains It All ending much.
10t Take Shelter 4 8 9 21 A sincere depiction of the confusion that comes with mental illness, with tremendous work by Michael Shannon
10t Win Win 3.5 8.5 9 21 Good entertainment, fun and unique story.
10t Warrior 4 8 9 21 Except for its detour into conventional ESPN sports movie midway, very well-done.
10t The Guard 3.5 8.5 9 21 Sharp and entertaining, a good companion with “In Bruges.”
14t Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy 3.5 9 8 20.5 Well-executed (though as challenging as anything to follow) and Oldman is amazing.
14t A Better Life 4 7.5 9 20.5 Earnestness is mostly well-earned. Bechir is great. The gang stuff feels a little staged.
14t The Help 3.5 8 9 20.5 Solid storytelling that mostly feels familiar and not groundbreaking. Liked the performances.
17t A Dolphin’s Tale 4 7 9 20 After a somewhat rough start, I got swept up in the film despite (okay, maybe because of) its earnestness.
17t Midnight in Paris 4 8 8 20 Rachel McAdams’ disaster character harms an otherwise smart ride.
17t Rio 3.5 8.5 8 20 Fun. This and “Gnomeo” are underrated as far as this year’s animated movies.
20t Rango 3.5 8 8 19.5 Cool in its way but the story didn’t completely enthrall me.
20t Tyrannosaur 3 8.5 8 19.5 Searingly intense with great lead performances.
22t Higher Ground 4 7.5 7.5 19 Slow-starting but kicks into something kind of unique.
22t Crazy, Stupid, Love 3 7.5 8.5 19 Fun but not special. Feel-good movie.
22t Gnomeo and Juliet 3 8 8 19 See “Rio.”
22t Jane Eyre 3 8 8 19 Few complaints of this adaptation.
22t The Tree of Life 4 7 8 19 The ambition, care and commitment are evident, but I couldn’t make all the connections the movie wants me to.
22t Young Adult 4 7.5 7.5 19 On the edge of too unsympathetic, but overall it succeeded, and performances were great.
28 Hanna 3 8 7.5 18.5 A good exciting ride. Ronan is awesome. Cate Blachett’s Texas accent, not so much.
29 A Dangerous Method 4 7 7 18 Good elements, but didn’t come together as an impactful movie.
30t Carnage 3 7.5 7 17.5 Only partially successful adaptation of the play, with many of its strengths but more of its artificiality.
30t Shame 3 6.5 8 17.5 Didn’t dislike it, but we end up basically where we began.
32t The Muppets 3 6 8 17 You know, the plot wasn’t much, but I enjoyed it.
32t The Adventures of Tintin 3 7 7 17 A good adventure built around a bland, bland central character.
32t Cedar Rapids 3 7 7 17 Lightly fun, mostly unassuming comedy.
35t Cowboys & Aliens 3 6 7 16 Kind of a mess, but I didn’t mind all that much.
35t Kung Fu Panda 2 3 6 7 16 Movie didn’t hold me.
35t We Need To Talk About Kevin 3 6 7 16 Well-meaning, well-acted, but with serious flaws and lack of insight
35t The Iron Lady 3 7 6 16 More strange than entertaining.
39t J. Edgar 3.5 6 6 15.5 Not bad but not reveletory, kind of dull. Not once did I feel the actors disappeared into their roles.
39t Margaret 3 5.5 7 15.5 Promising start derailed by contrived shrillness. Needed much more nuance.
41t Albert Nobbs 4 5 6 15 Well-intentioned but with inexplicable plot and character choices.
41t Bridesmaids 3 6 6 15 Melissa McCarthy as good as advertised, but otherwise almost as overrated as I thought “The Hangover” was.
41t My Week With Marilyn 3 6 6 15 Other than watching Michelle Williams, who is convincing, not much there. Lead male is two-dimensional.
44 The Ides of March 3 5.5 5 13.5 Boy falls in love with politics and an hour later is jilted. That’s all there is?
45 Cars 2 3 5 5 13 Flat and uninvolving – a big drop from the original.
46 Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close 3.5 3 3 9.5 As phony and manipulative as anything you’ll ever see, to the point of being offensive. Garbage plotting.
Dec 23

Extremely loud and incredibly McCourt

Often when you read TV or film criticism, you see the word “manipulative.”  I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what this word means in the two weeks since I saw a screening of “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” which officially opens Christmas Day, because if any film is manipulative, this one is.

What I concluded is that a manipulative film is one crafted to make you feel a certain way in a given moment, with little regard to the film’s own internal logic and sometimes any logic at all. A plotline, a character or a scene doesn’t have to make sense, because if it generates a strong enough feeling, the audience won’t stop and ask questions.

That works except for the audience members who find the whole thing preposterous, as I did with “Extremely Loud.” (And I don’t appear to be alone.) The way the characters behave in this movie, the way the story unfolds, is so obviously phony that I was gritting my teeth through almost the entire enterprise.

For example — trying to avoid spoilers here — there’s a major plot element in the movie that defies belief. And then, in an effort to explain that element, the film introduces an even more insane element. All of this happens so that you can undergo this theoretically cathartic experience, but the minute you question it, the entire film falls apart.

Another word you’ll see in TV and film criticism is “forgivable,” when a viewer is willing to let some things go because the ride is worth it.  Some will feel differently, but for me, what happened in “Extremely Close” was unforgivable. Extremely and incredibly so.

I would say it was calculated, except I don’t doubt the filmmakers’ sincerity. I don’t doubt that it all made sense to director Stephen Daldry and screenwriter Eric Roth, who adapted the novel of the same title. But I think they were suckered by their own emotions. It felt right, so they didn’t really examine whether it made sense. They meant well. Not that I don’t doubt they want their film to succeed financially, but I’m willing to believe they saw their path to financial success depended chiefly on making the best possible film.

I find myself asking whether the same could be said about Frank McCourt. Did he have the best intentions but severe blind spots, as he now would have you believe? Or was he extremely proud but incredibly lame.

I’m not willing to say that McCourt didn’t care at all whether the Dodgers won or lost. His ultimate goal was personal wealth, but that doesn’t make him unique — far from it. However, McCourt’s priorities did conflict in a harmful, cynical way. He didn’t operate as if the Dodgers’ success was a path to his own success. The Dodgers were something to exploit. And he’s always tried to tell us otherwise.

How phony and manipulative can you get?

If you looked at their past eight seasons as a movie, the McCourt Dodgers are actually worlds better than “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.” But as the man behind the camera, the man who has put the franchise at such a disadvantage, Frank McCourt deserves the figurative tomatoes that are thrown his way.

Sep 13

‘Moneyball’ hits with power


There’s a level of sincere humility to the film version of “Moneyball” that might shock those expecting to see it cloaked in arrogance.

Next to the question about whether the material in Michael Lewis’ book was viable for a movie in the first place, the most common shot I’ve seen taken at the idea of the film, which I saw a screening of Monday, is “what’s the point?” Because Billy Beane’s Oakland A’s have never reached the World Series, much less won it, why would they worthy of the big screen?

Putting aside the fact that this criteria would eliminate about a thousand works of art – “Rocky,” “The Bad News Bears,” “Major League,” the entire history of “Peanuts” – note this well: The Billy Beane of “Moneyball” would share the same question. No one is more acutely aware of the A’s shortcomings than he.

But “Moneyball” does have a story to tell, a worthwhile and engrossing one.  It is not a sermon. “Moneyball” is about faith in a calculated belief, and all the torment that comes when that faith is tested, and the unexpected kind of reward you can get for taking that test, no matter how it comes out. It’s a movie about a pursuit, not a coronation. It’s anything but a coronation.

It’s my belief that, while no movie is universally beloved, this approach opens the door for “Moneyball” to be accepted and enjoyed by those who took the book as a mockery of the game they love, by those who were entertained and embrace what was articulated in Lewis’ book, and by those who have no vested interest in the debate, or even the sport. It’s such a human movie – with Brad Pitt’s Beane a nuanced, multidimensional character, one with many faces  – that it’s not easily dismissed.

You won’t like everything Beane does in this movie – but that’s cool, because the character doesn’t even like himself completely. Yet you will clearly understand where he is coming from, and I find it hard to believe that most filmgoers won’t get on board with his journey. He cares so passionately, and the way he places his faith in a new system doesn’t, contrary to what some might think, mean he has no appreciation for what personalities and romance mean in the game.

Sharing credit with Steven Zallian (“Schindler’s List”), screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (“The West Wing,” “The Social Network”) famously worked on the long-percolating script, but the film doesn’t have what would be considered the classic Sorkin touches – monologues with overflowing words and hyper-articulate speech. Characters in “Moneyball” – most notably Beane himself, who is in nearly every scene – tend to get to the point quickly, often bluntly. Except for some moments, particularly early in the film, when there are talking points disguised as dialogue (“It’s an unfair game,” a paraphrase of the subtitle of Lewis’ book, is spoken), the dialogue is naturalistic.

And yet, as the movie goes on, increasingly electric. There are numerous scenes with very sharp, pointed exchanges – make no mistake, there is a fierce tug o’ war going on in Oakland and in the game – and in particular, the depiction of the July 31 trading deadline maneuverings is really cracking good fun.

The storytelling is formulaic in the strictest sense of what the sports film formula is, but the scenes themselves don’t really feel that way. This is buoyed by the fact that the film, despite whatever liberties it takes here and there, is grounded in what did happen. But there isn’t a dead or cloying scene in the film – there’s a purpose to each and every one.  “Moneyball” isn’t a short movie, coming in at 133 minutes, but its pacing, under the direction of Bennett Miller (“Capote”) is excellent. (I’d add that Mychael Danna’s music, at times minimalist, at times evoking the loveliness of television’s “Friday Night Lights” and at times appropriately grand, is a real boon to the film.)

The film also isn’t a comedy, but there’s plenty of humor, most of it almost catching you almost by surprise. That being said, the thing that might amuse baseball fans the most is the idea of how much life-and-death importance is placed on names like Jeremy Giambi and Ricardo Rincon. (And pity poor Mike Magnante.)

There are brief sidelights into Beane’s personal life – which some might interpret as mere lip service to entice female viewers. I would argue instead that in the best sense, they’re economical (given the film’s existing length, almost necessarily so). They inform the lead character of the movie, leaving for you to infer what you don’t see, while playing a wonderfully unexpected role in the film’s climax.

Evan Agostini/APChris Pratt, Jonah Hill, Brad Pitt, Philip Seymour Hoffman and director Bennett Miller at a panel for “Moneyball” during the Toronto International Film Festival last week.

While Pitt anchors the film, Jonah Hill’s performance as Peter Brand – the character that takes the place of former A’s (and Dodger) executive Paul DePodesta, is the film’s second-most pleasant surprise.

Hill’s casting was the red flare for fans of DePodesta and/or the book, a vexing warning that the advanced analysis underscored in the book would be played for laughs the same way as, say, Hill’s quest for booze and sex in “Superbad.” Instead, Hill plays Brand in reserved, endearing fashion. He’s the twigs and branches for Beane’s fire.

I do think that fans in the know have to let go of the idea that Brand is DePodesta – despite whatever similarities there are, the differences are too obvious to ignore. But whether you think of Brand as Brand or as DePodesta, I think the character works much better than you’d expect, and in ways different than you’d expect. While Philip Seymour Hoffman, as Oakland manager Art Howe, offers an even starker example of what I would call dynamic restraint, it’s Hill who carries the most secondary weight to Pitt.

Where are the movie’s flaws? There are certainly moments where the conversation feels forced, with thinly disguised talking points. But probably for me, the baseball scenes, which were praised for their authenticity by panelists at the Variety Sports Entertainment Summit in July, don’t measure up to that standard. Miller mixes real-life footage with the newly filmed scenes, and it’s not so much that the mix doesn’t work, but that it really highlights how different the re-creations look. In fact, there’s a stylistic approach to some of the baseball scenes that all but removes any pretense of reality. It’s probably the one part of the movie that doesn’t seem to have been executed with authority.

Elsewhere, the script shortcuts some explanations of Beane’s rationale. In general, although the “Moneyball” philosophy is about broader ideas about value in the marketplace – and this is definitely alluded to – some viewers might be left with the impression that it’s only about on-base percentage. In particular, I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that Beane at one point comes down hard against bunting and the stolen base, and Old School fans might think this is where he’s gone mad.  The fights that Beane has with Howe over the Oakland starting lineup struck me as more black-and-white than they probably were in real life. There are other small details that rang a bit false, and some fussing with the real-life timeline, but I would venture to call these quibbles.

In the end, I think “Moneyball” is an important film for baseball fans. Whether you bought into the book or ignored it, “Moneyball” was (next to angst over performance-enhancing drugs) the central conflict of baseball in the past decade. The film puts forth this debate in a richly entertaining way, making it clear why it was such a big deal without falsely overstating its legacy.

I honestly don’t expect I’ll see many better movies than “Moneyball” in 2011, and I think it will get serious consideration for an Oscar nomination – though, appropriate to the team it depicts, it will probably fall short of winning. But the thing is, I’ve been comparing it to “The Social Network” for a long time now, but I’m not sure “Moneyball” is not a better film. I think most will view “Social Network” as having told a more important, more timely story. But the character at the heart of “Moneyball” and his personal story are more compelling, possibly more universal. I told you that Hill was the second-most pleasant surprise in the film – the most pleasant surprise is how much “Moneyball” rang true to me even after you strip all the baseball away.

Mar 07

Dodger Thoughts Oscar chat

With today a total washout, on the field as well as in the trainer’s room, let’s gather everyone who isn’t a New York viewer of Cablevision for an 82nd Annual Academy Awards chat and pick-the-winners pool. The ceremony begins at 5:30 p.m.

Nominees are here. We used do an Oscar pool at my old Screen Jam blog at Baseball Toaster – I don’t know if there’s interest here, but would love to see your picks in the comments. Here are the guidelines – please total your own points when you’re done:

4 points: Picture

3 points: Lead and supporting actor and actress, director, adapted and original screenplay, animated feature, documentary feature, foreign language film

2 points: Art direction, cinematography, costume design, film editing, makeup, original score, original song, sound editing, sound (sound mixing), visual effects

1 point: Documentary short, animated short film and live-action short film

Tiebreaker: Time of day that the telecast ends in Los Angeles.

If you’ve been following the best picture race, you know that it’s considered a tossup between “Avatar” and “The Hurt Locker.”  Neither would have my personal vote. “Avatar” was entertaining (astounding in all the places you’d expect) but had no emotional impact, while “The Hurt Locker” just struck me as a series of well-produced anecdotes without being deeply revelatory. Guy who defuses bombs in hellish spot and is just a little crazy doesn’t break enough new ground for me.

It’s been tough for me to decide what my favorite movie of the year was. There were several that I admired greatly and found affecting, including (but not limited to) nominees “Precious,” “Up in the Air,” “Inglorious Basterds” and “A Serious Man.” The marriage montage in “Up” is probably the single best sequence in the movies of 2009. And I continually found myself frustrated that “Sugar” did not get more attention. This film was absolutely one of the finest of the year – in my top five without a doubt. That it was a baseball movie makes it all the more surprising, since it’s so easy for a baseball movie to fail.  But even with the pedigree of the filmmakers of “Half Nelson,” “Sugar” just couldn’t get off the ground for awards season.

Of the nominees, I find myself more and more coming back to “An Education,” which was deeply moving and engrossing – with a radiant performance from Carey Mulligan, who won’t win the lead actress Oscar but would also get my vote among the nominees I saw.

There are two Oscar favorites that I’m completely on board with. One is Jeff Bridges in “Crazy Heart.”  Outstanding and underrated actor giving just a terrific performance, and I couldn’t have been happier about it. The competition in the category is tough, but the Oscar really has to go to him. Secondly, I don’t know how Mo’Nique wouldn’t get the supporting actress Oscar for her work in “Precious” – I don’t think that race is even close.

Christoph Waltz has won all the pre-Oscar supporting actor honors for “Inglorious Basterds,” but I’d be fine if Woody Harrelson had the out-of-nowhere upset for “The Messenger.” Similarly, I enjoyed “Up,” but would be even happier if “Coraline” won for animated film. (I’m still pouting that “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs” wasn’t nominated.)

I’ll cut off my own thoughts there, but if you want more from an ESPNLosAngeles.com writer – and why wouldn’t you? – check out Steve Mason’s Oscar picks. For following the Oscars online, in addition to chatting here, check out Variety’s coverage, along with the live blog at GreenCine led by Dodger Thoughts commenter CraigUnderdog.