Review: Iron Man 2 (B-)

•May 7, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Directed by Jon Favreau
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Scarlett Johansson, Don Cheadle, Sam Rockwell, Mickey Rourke, Garry Shandling, Samuel L. Jackson, John Slattery, Clark Gregg, Kate Mara, Jon Favreau, Olivia Munn, Leslie Bibb, Adam “DJ AM” Goldstein, Christine Amanpour, Bill O’Reilly
Voice Cast: Paul Bettany
2010–124 minutes
PG-13 (intense sci-fi/action violence)

In 2008, Jon Favreau rejuvenated Robert Downey Jr.’s career with the excellent superhero blockbuster “Iron Man.”  Having seen it just before this new sequel, I recognize the few flaws it has, but overall, it was a standard origin film told with chronological innovation and true style.  The real success story was the psychological journey that sarcastic billionaire Tony Stark goes through to become a scarred man who simply cannot believe that his own weapons product would be used for terroristic purposes.  It wasn’t simply an origin story, it was a character drama with action elements.  Now that “Iron Man 2” has been released, the simple question is: does it live up to the undeniable charm and energetic zip of the original?  The simple three-word answer is: yes, and no.

First and foremost, “Iron Man 2” is a silly action picture.  Yes, there are moments of clear, unforced truth, but the film has mostly dispensed with character-centric drama and focused more heavily on the action elements.  This works most of the time, so let’s talk about the action right now, i.e. what is good about the movie.  The action sequences are, in a word, awesome, save for a ridiculous, out-of-place, awkward scuffle between Stark and Army friend and protege James “Rhodey” Rhodes (Don Cheadle).  The early encounter between Stark and Russian villain Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) is thrilling and suspenseful–sadly, it’s the best action scene in the film, but it contains such style and visual wonderment, I suppose it isn’t much of a bad thing to say.  The big finale is a lot of explosive fun, but it ends a little abruptly to reach full imagination.

Next, the plot, which I somehow haven’t covered yet.  Set six months after the original “Iron Man,” Tony Stark has already revealed his superhero alter ego Iron Man to the general public and is a huge celebrity and philanthropist.  Not responding well is slimy Senator Stern (Garry Shandling), who believes Iron Man is a weapon and poses a threat to the country’s sense of self-defense, especially since other countries have every opportunity to steal his technology for themselves.  Confirming this hypothesis is a villain in the form of Ivan Vanko, a Russian with a taste for vengeance after Tony’s father Howard gypped Vanko’s father out of the fame he claimed to deserve. After Vanko attacks Tony at a French drag race, the heat is on between hero and villain, as well as Vanko’s benefactor and Stark Industries rival Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell).  Also on Tony’s tail is the ever-present and ever-enigmatic S.H.I.E.L.D. recruiter Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Natalie Rushman (Scarlett Johansson).

The storyline of “Iron Man 2” is rather simplistic, presented in a startlingly ordinary fashion that doesn’t feature anything on the level of the slam-bang opener or the back-and-forth style of “Iron Man.”  Normally the straightforward style works (such as in the infinitely more impressive “Spider-Man 2”), but here it comes off as stale.  None of the characters are as interesting as they were the first time around, and even the notable chemistry between Tony and Rhodey and between Tony and love interest Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) is considerably lacking in the pep it had the first go-around.

One thing that must be mentioned is Robert Downey Jr.’s performance, which here is just as quirky and riveting performance that is the one constant through both films.  Downey Jr. hits all the right notes as Tony Stark/Iron Man, now so completely comfortable with this role that he fits like a glove and makes it impossible to envision anyone else playing him.  Also making strong impressions are Mickey Rourke, fittingly pompous and deliciously devilish as Ivan Vanko/Whiplash, Sam Rockwell, having tons of fun as untrustworthy arms dealer Justin Hammer, and Gwyneth Paltrow, embuing Pepper Potts with heart, soul, and–when need be–anger. Mention must be given to the brilliant extended cameos by Samuel L. Jackson, as Nick Fury, and Garry Shandling, lapping it up as Senator Stern.

Less successful is the recasting of James “Rhodey” Rhodes/War Machine, originally played by Terrence Howard as a loyal companion and played here by Don Cheadle as…well…nothing, really.  Cheadle brings nothing to the role that Howard didn’t already bring, and the writing of the character seems to have dwindled down to almost nothingness. Also boring is Scarlett Johansson, who emotes not once throughout the entire picture, as the enigmatic and one-note Natalie Rushman/Agent Romanoff.

“Iron Man 2” is a success, and if I’ve made it seem not so, I apologize.  The blunt truth is, it is an imperfect creature, a film so bogged down in its own coolness that it sometimes forgets to really soar.  The film’s style is an empty one, but it’s sometimes a lot of fun.  Its missteps are of the conceptual sort, one that a lot of its audience is not really looking at, so I suppose this is one of the few movies I have liked despite my own reservations.  It’s a muted success, flawed and full of miscalculation, obviously attentive only to spectacle and not really on substance.  But I enjoyed the lunacy and silliness of it, and there we are.

The Best Films of Spring 2010

•May 7, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Yeah, so finally some A-grade films in 2010. Only four though, which is perhaps a bit depressing.

Some of these will probably be pretty controversial choices, but I stand by them, particularly my choice for #1, which will probably remain on the top ten for the entire year.  Here we have a wide array of five exceptional films that I’ll be buying once their DVD’s roll around.

Honorable mention: Date Night

5. Edge of Darkness

While not a perfect film, Martin Campbell’s powerful thriller from way back in January is the year’s best adult-targeted slow-burn (even better than Scorsese’s mild letdown “Shutter Island” and certainly far more thrilling than Paul Greengrass’s confused “Green Zone”).  Mel Gibson gave a searing performance of both grit and heart as a man simply trying to get to the bottom of his estranged, but beloved, daughter’s murder.  The direction by Campbell was visceral and hugely appealing and the writing by Scorsese veteran William Monahan dug deeply into the Gibson’s character and his psyche for a good two-thirds of the film. The last act  reverts to revenge thriller cliches, but is hugely entertaining still.

4. Diary of a Wimpy Kid

Take a moment to remember what 5th grade felt like: “cooties” were the strange disease that girls give boys when they touch each other, those first little crushes happen, friendships fade in and out due to rivalries and misunderstandings, and life itself is basically a huge cesspool of confusion.  All of it is capture in Thor Freudenthal’s savvy and intelligent “Diary of a Wimpy Kid,” the first adaptation in a planned series of five about a young boy caught in the middle of 5th grade. Freudenthal cut his teeth on the inoffensively average “Hotel for Dogs,” which had the makings of a soon-to-be-cult-classic but dwelled too much on the scatological and not enough on the kids. “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” luckily doesn’t fall into that trap, and develops one of the most likable children of the last few years.

3. Kick-Ass

A knowledgeable and thrilling satire of the superhero genre, “Kick-Ass” features some of 2010’s most spot-on writing and direction, and even if it feels derivative of the plot trajectory of “Spider-Man,” perhaps that’s the point. At the center of “Kick-Ass” is the hugely capable Aaron Johnson, fleshing out our title hero’s alter ego Dave Lizewski into multiple dimensions. Christopher Mintz-Plasse and a brilliant Nicolas Cage support Johnson well, but it’s little Chloe Grace Moretz, killing grown men and cussing like a sailor all the way through, that becomes the life-blood of the film; hers is a ballsy, one-of-a-kind, lightning-in-a-bottle performance. To describe it properly in one phrase, here goes: It’s as if Quentin Tarantino and Judd Apatow made “Spider-Man” and sprinkled a little bit of Christopher Nolan’s haunting “The Dark Knight” for good measure.

2. How to Train Your Dragon

The story has indeed been done before, most recently in last year’s box office phenomenon “Avatar.”  But “How to Train Your Dragon” is a refreshing and riveting retelling of the same plot thread: an outcast proves that a persecuted species is much gentler and more humane than its attackers realize and sets out to prove this.  The animation is stunning, the voice acting is assured and memorable, and the result is destined to be a new classic of the genre.  The most astounding aspect, however, is how utterly involving it all is. After the increasingly milder success of the likes of “Kung Fu Panda” and “Monsters vs. Aliens,” as well as the failures of “Madagascar” and “Shrek the Third,”  the studio has reached a new height of brilliance that they haven’t quite reached since the heyday of “Shrek 2” in 2004.  In a word: wondrous.

1. Remember Me

Yeah, I said it. I’m on the bandwagon of Robert Pattinson’s fans, simply because he plays Edward Cullen of the “Twilight” films with the correct amount of stilted aplomb and reserved swagger, but his breakthrough role as Tyler Hawkins in “Remember Me,” from director Allen Coulter (whose “Hollywoodland” was an overwrought mess), will silence Pattinson’s naysayers completely. That is, if they see it, and they should.  The film is your standard romantic drama stuff for all but the last ten minutes, a period of time I’ll get to in a bit. The romantic chemistry between Pattinson and costar Emilie de Ravin is superior to any so far in ’10, but the film would be nothing if not for their committed, sad-eyed performances. The dialog between them is perfectly honed. Pierce Brosnan (busy this year) is remarkable as Tyler’s disconnected father, and Chris Cooper is a quiet powerhouse as the overprotective cop father to de Ravin’s Ally.

The last ten minutes are when the film completely transforms into something much greater and much more thematically relevant to the specific time period that the film is set in.  There is something the film must say in these last moments, and while some took issue with the potentially ruinous decision at the end (I cannot and will not give it away) for being a “gimmick,” I do not. Is the denouement necessary? Yes, it is. Because of what happens, we are allowed to peer into the consciences of the surrounding characters.  It is a kick in the stomach, yes, but for me, it made for a richer experience, especially in the second time I saw it.

Second Rundown of 2010

•February 15, 2010 • 1 Comment

Oh, 2010. You disappoint me so much.

So, I’ve liked quite a few movies since I last updated this, but still nothing has touched the “A” range.  The year’s grade is still a failing one, considering that I’ve only liked six films and have seen seventeen.  Even films by renowned directors had problems.  Martin Scorsese could make a classic, as his solid but highly uneven psychological thriller “Shutter Island” had almost too many problems in its first half to count.  Paul Greengrass, on the other hand, had flaws strewn all throughout his newest flick, “Green Zone,” which is uneven and choppy until the infuriatingly simple-minded finale.  And the ever-weird Tim Burton cranked out his worst film since “Batman Returns” with the stodgy and emotionally mechanical flop “Alice in Wonderland.”  I’m seeing a load of films this Spring Break week and weekend, as well as the last week-and-a-half of the month, including “The Bounty Hunter,” “Diary of a Wimpy Kid,” “The Ghost Writer” (finally), “Greenberg,” “Hot Tub Time Machine,” “How to Train Your Dragon,” “The Last Song,” “Our Family Wedding,” “Remember Me,” “Repo Men,” and “She’s Out of My League.”  Here’s hoping at least one or two of these will find success.

Here’s how the year looks so far:

Martin Campbell’s “Edge of Darkness” (B+)
Tom Vaughan’s “Extraordinary Measures” (B)
Chris Columbus’ “Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief” (B-)
Anand Tucker’s “Leap Year” (B-)
Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island” (B-)
Joe Johnston’s “The Wolfman” (B-)
Lasse Hallstrom’s “Dear John” (C+)
Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland” (C)
Breck Eisner’s “The Crazies” (C)
Michael Spierig and Peter Spierig’s “Daybreakers” (C)

Paul Greengrass’s “Green Zone” (C)
Brian Levant’s “The Spy Next Door” (C-)
Scott Stewart’s “Legion” (C-)
Pierre Morel’s “From Paris with Love” (C-)
Albert Hughes and Allen Hughes’ “The Book of Eli” (D)
Kevin Smith’s “Cop Out” (D)
Garry Marshall’s “Valentine’s Day” (F)

The 2010 Oscar Nominations: An Analysis

•February 2, 2010 • Leave a Comment

This year is a bit different for Oscar nominations, because of the decision to nix the Honorary Award, as well as that ten-nominees-for-Best-Picture thing.  The nominees were announced this morning, and as such, they were wildly impressive. I have a few nitpicks here and there, but for the most part, I like what I see.  Here are my thoughts on the main categories (but not predictions…yet).  Later will come the tech award thoughts.

Best Picture:

“The Blind Side”
“District 9”
“An Education”
“The Hurt Locker”
“Inglourious Basterds”
“A Serious Man”
“Up in the Air”

The very obvious frontrunners in this list include “Avatar,” “The Hurt Locker” (which will win the whole thing), “Inglourious Basterds,” “Precious,” and “Up in the Air,” all excellent films.  I can’t speak for “A Serious Man,” as I have not seen it, but the Coens should be glad they got a nod here, especially after the shutout at the Globes.  “District 9” and “Up” are nice semi-surprises, the former because it was a summer blockbuster and the latter because it’s the current frontrunner in another Picture-type category.  “An Education” would’ve been a frontrunner had it not been for the five films listed above, but it’s nice to see, as it was indeed one of this year’s ten best movies.  The odd one out, then, is “The Blind Side.”  I am astounded that something so quality-deficient was nominated in this category, while critical darlings and audience favorites like “The Hangover,” “(500) Days of Summer,” and “Star Trek” were glossed over.

Best Director:

Kathryn Bigelow, “Up in the Air”
James Cameron, “Avatar”
Lee Daniels, “Precious”
Jason Reitman, “Up in the Air”
Quentin Tarantino, “Inglourious Basterds”

One of the more obvious categories this season, it’s obviously a battle of the exes, with Bigelow and Cameron duking it out.  Daniels hasn’t gotten the precursors he needs (or deserves), while Reitman is the current dark horse of the group.  The AMPAS loves Tarantino, but the film is more like the 3rd choice on everybody’s list of what will win, after “The Hurt Locker” and “Avatar,” so he doesn’t have that huge of a chance here.

Best Actor in a Leading Role:

Jeff Bridges, “Crazy Heart”
George Clooney, “Up in the Air”
Colin Firth, “A Single Man”
Morgan Freeman, “Invictus”
Jeremy Renner, “The Hurt Locker”

Jeff Bridges probably has this in the bag, what with his list of fellow nominees.  I have not seen “Crazy Heart” just yet, but he’s the most lauded of the group.  Clooney, Firth, and Renner (again of the nominees) are right behind Bridges.  Freeman, on the other hand, should not be nominated.  He gave a good performance in a mild movie, and I could and will name five others that would’ve been more interesting choices.  Sharlto Copley gave a brave, demanding performance in apocalyptic sci-fi thrillers “District 9,” and even though I haven’t seen him, Viggo Mortensen is said to have been haunting in “The Road.”  Meanwhile, comedically, Matt Damon and Robert Downey Jr. were incendiary in, respectively, “The Informant!” and “Sherlock Holmes,” two of the best performances this year (plus, Downey won the Golden Globe), and Michael Stuhlbarg was lauded for his work in “A Serious Man.”  An argument could also be made for Daniel Day-Lewis in “Nine.” Replace Freeman with any one of those, and you have an infinitely more interesting race.

Best Actress in a Leading Role:

Sandra Bullock, “The Blind Side”
Helen Mirren, “The Last Station”
Carey Mulligan, “An Education”
Gabourey Sidibe, “Precious”
Meryl Streep, “Julie & Julia”

Right now, though it shouldn’t be, the race is between Bullock and Streep.  Considering that Sidibe topples both of them in my opinion is beside the point, but Bullock was indeed quite good in a very bad movie, and Streep embodied the spirit of Julia Child.  Mirren and Mulligan sort of exist as dark horses in the background of this list, because the other three have better shots at winning.

Best Actor in a Supporting Role:

Matt Damon, “Invictus”
Woody Harrelson, “The Messenger”
Christopher Plummer, “The Last Station”
Stanley Tucci, “The Lovely Bones”
Christoph Waltz, “Inglourious Basterds”

The obvious locks here are Harrelson, whose nomination for “The Messenger” was practically unstoppable, and Waltz, who has already kind of walked away with the award.  Damon was great in “Invictus” (better than Freeman, for my money), but he’s nominated for the wrong movie in the wrong category.  Plummer’s film was barely noticed, and Tucci’s work is lauded while the film he’s in is most certainly not.

Best Supporting Actress:

Penélope Cruz, “Nine”
Vera Farmiga, “Up in the Air”
Maggie Gyllenhaal, “Crazy Heart”
Anna Kendrick, “Up in the Air”
Mo’Nique, “Precious”

Mo’Nique is the winner here, and I’m not even giving predictions.  She should just clear her mantel.  Nevertheless, Farmiga and Kendrick were both stunning in Reitman’s film, and Gyllenhaal has indeed been critically acclaimed.  But Cruz, as InContention’s Guy Lodge recently Tweeted, was in a film that no one loves (and indeed is not very good) but wasn’t even the best in show; that would’ve been Marion Cotillard, injecting soul where there was none.

Best Adapted Screenplay:

“District 9”
“An Education”
“In the Loop”
“Up in the Air”

I like the out-of-the-box thinking in regards to the nominations for “District 9” and “In the Loop,” even if the latter is unseen by me.  The former nomination is very well-deserved, as the writers juggled three different major aspects of film in one screenplay, and the latter reminds of the ballsy move to nominate the fantastic comedic writing of “In Bruges” last year.  The winner will be “Up in the Air,” that much is certain, but “An Education” has a good chance here.  “Precious” is more remembered, even by me, for its direction, tonality, and acting than the writing, which is brilliant in and of itself, but it has no chance.

Best Original Screenplay:

“The Hurt Locker”
“Inglourious Basterds”
“The Messenger”
“A Serious Man”

One can’t go terribly wrong in predicting a win for Pixar in this category, even if they rarely do win, but I think Mark Boal’s sparse, gritty, honest screenplay for “The Hurt Locker” is nothing but a lock.  The Coens have a good chance, as do the four people nominated for “The Messenger,” while Tarantino looms in the background for “Inglourious Basterds.”

Best Animated Feature Film:

“Fantastic Mr. Fox”
“The Princess and the Frog”
“The Secret of Kells”

“Up” has no chance to lose here, what with its Best Picture nomination, but I have to say I’d laugh if it lost to “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” which for me was the better film.  “Coraline” came out too early to win, while “The Secret of Kells” suffers from being completely unknown to the general population (including me).  “The Princess and the Frog” is the dark horse here.

Best Foreign Language Film:

“Ajami” (Israel)
“The Milk of Sorrow” (Peru)
“A Prophet” (France)
“The Secret in Their Eyes” (Argentina)
“The White Ribbon” (Germany)

There are only two clear-cut winners here: “A Prophet” and “The White Ribbon.” Both have gotten raves, and feature excellent directors.  “Ajami” and “The Secret in Their Eyes” are more crowd-pleasers than anything, while “The Milk of Sorrow” is easily the dark horse, with excellent acclaim all around. Still, the bigger the director, the better shot his film has of winning.  Michael Haneke (of “The White Ribbon”) directed the acclaimed “Caché” from 2006, while Jacques Audiard (of “A Prophet”) has been around for years and whose “The Beat That My Heart Skipped” is one of the best films of the decade.

Final: A Rundown of 2009

•January 24, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Lee Daniels’s “Precious” (A)
Jason Reitman’s “Up in the Air” (A)
Spike Jonze’s “Where the Wild Things Are” (A)
Neill Blomkamp’s “District 9” (A)
Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker” (A)
James Cameron’s “Avatar” (A)
J.J. Abrams’s “Star Trek” (A)
Wes Anderson’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox” (A)
Marc Webb’s “(500) Days of Summer” (A)
Lone Scherfig’s “An Education” (A)

Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” (A)
Oren Peli’s “Paranormal Activity” (A)
Steven Soderbergh’s “The Informant!” (A)
Pete Docter’s “Up” (A)
Zack Snyder’s “Watchmen” (A)
David Yates’ “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” (A)
Nora Ephron’s “Julie & Julia” (A)
Henry Selick’s “Coraline” (A)
Michael Bay’s “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” (A)
Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor’s “Gamer” (A)

Alex Proyas’ “Knowing” (A)
Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs” (A)
Nick Cassavetes’ “My Sister’s Keeper” (A)
Ruben Fleischer’s “Zombieland” (A)
Joe Wright’s “The Soloist” (A-)
Roland Emmerich’s “2012” (A-)
Sam Raimi’s “Drag Me to Hell” (A-)
Guy Ritchie’s “Sherlock Holmes” (A-)
Robert Zemeckis’ “A Christmas Carol” (A-)
Rian Johnson’s “The Brothers Bloom” (A-)

Nancy Meyers’s “It’s Complicated” (A-)
Pierre Morel’s “Taken” (A-)
Rob Letterman and Conrad Vernon’s “Monsters vs. Aliens” (A-)
Tony Scott’s “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3” (A-)
Hoyt Yeatman Jr.’s “G-Force” (A-)
Todd Graff’s “Bandslam” (B+)
Gavin Hood’s “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” (B+)
Chris Weitz’s “New Moon” (B+)
Ricky Gervais and Matthew Robinson’s “The Invention of Lying” (B+)
Michael Mann’s “Public Enemies” (B+)

Tom Tykwer’s “The International” (B+)
Anne Fletcher’s “The Proposal” (B+)
Stewart Hendler’s “Sorority Row” (B+)
Brandon Camp’s “Love Happens” (B)
Andy Fickman’s “Race to Witch Mountain” (B)
David Bowers’s “Astro Boy” (B)
Stephen Sommers’s “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra” (B)
Paul Weitz’s “Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant” (B)
Clint Eastwood’s “Invictus” (B-)
Justin Lin’s “Fast & Furious” (B-)

Carlos Saldanha’s “Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs” (B-)
Robert Schwentke’s “The Time Traveler’s Wife” (C+)
Thor Freudenthal’s “Hotel for Dogs” (C+)
Paul McGuigan’s “Push” (C+)
Dominic Sena’s “Whiteout” (C+)
Peter Chelsom’s “Hannah Montana: The Movie” (C)
F. Gary Gray’s “Law Abiding Citizen” (C)
Mira Nair’s “Amelia” (C)
Olatunde Osansunmi’s “The Fourth Kind” (C-)
John Lee Hancock’s “The Blind Side” (C-)

Shane Acker’s “9” (C-)
Betty Thomas’ “Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel” (D+)
McG’s “Terminator Salvation” (D+)
Brad Silberling’s “Land of the Lost” (F)
Walt Becker’s “Old Dogs” (F)

A Time For Miracles: The Year 2009 in Review

•January 14, 2010 • Leave a Comment

A year in film.

Doesn’t seem like it’s been that long since I saw my first film of the year (“Taken” way back in January), but it’s gone by quickly for me. Simply put, it has been an extraordinary year, much superior to 2008 in total number of “A” grades that I gave out this year (as well as a few A+’s, if I did that sort of thing)–24, as compared to 16 from last year. And what quality is in the output!

Here, I have collected a total of 30 brilliant films, and the layout is thus: 15 of these will be my runners-up, those films that got A’s from me (and a few A-’s, as well). Five more will be included as sort of the Special Jury Prize films, those that almost made it into the top ten, but not quite. Then, the ten best themselves, a group of diverse members. It’s been a terrific year, yes, but I will tell you that possibly nothing will dethrone my number one choice.

The runners-up:

The Brothers Bloom. Rian Johnson’s follow-up to her Sundance phenomenon “Brick” was a terrifically twisty and turny gem of a caper movie. The writing was like some deft balancing act between comedy and drama, quirkiness and searing intensity. The ending is icing on the cake.

A Christmas Carol. Although Robert Zemeckis has not bested his own “The Polar Express,” he easily toppled the self-indulgence of “Beowulf” with this stunning and quite creepy adaptation of Dickens’s tale, still the finest Christmas story (besides the obvious one, of course). Jim Carrey was a force of nature.

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. A surprise hit from September that disappeared from the box office mighty quick and that deals with overconsumption of product, this absolutely delightful and somewhat overlooked animated gem was gorgeous and delicious from one end to the other. Rent this one on BluRay.

Coraline. Already the third animated film on this list, Henry Selick’s first film in nearly a decade was a twisted delight that has deservedly gained traction for an Oscar nomination. Shades of Selick’s own “The Nightmare Before Christmas” are obvious, but there are hints of “Pan’s Labyrinth,” as well.

Drag Me to Hell. Sam Raimi’s glorious return to the types of films he made before the “Spider-Man” films (such as the grotesque masterwork “Evil Dead 2: Dead By Dawn”), the film is pure summer fun all the way through. By far one of the scariest, as well, due to Lorna Raver’s freaky old lady.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. The best of the Potter series takes it in some dark directions. Harry must compete with not only the growing threat of Lord Voldemort but also with the ever-raging teen hormones. The cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel is the best of the year (or very close to it), and the visual effects work is on par with anything from 2009. Perhaps the greatest strength is its humanity and, of course, magic.

Julie & Julia. Nora Ephron’s is one of the best screenplays of the year in how it basically chronicles two lives’ experiences with food in just over two hours. Meryl Streep and Amy Adams are pretty much perfect as two food lovers whose lives are intertwined in more ways than one.

Knowing. Alex Proyas’ film is one of the examples of this year’s excellent batch of sci-fi films. Nicolas Cage has been plagued with less-than-ambitious roles the past few years, but I found his performance here to be complex and almost wearied. The finale is, of course, mildly vague, but played just right. Exquisite.

My Sister’s Keeper. Nick Cassavetes has a gift for taking inherently sappy material and giving them a realistic edge, and he does it beautifully with this adaptation of Jodi Picoult’s bestselling novel. The premise is the stuff of a tearjerker, but the tears are rightfully jerked this time. The manipulation is evident, but you’d never know it.

Sherlock Holmes. Guy Ritchie is a filmmaker I have no history with, but I want to have a history now. This slightly modernized and wholly bettered version of Arthur Conan Doyle’s original character creates a kinetic action picture with stale formula. Robert Downey Jr. is nothing short of magnificent in the title role, and Hans Zimmer’s score is the best of the year.

The Soloist. Joe Wright makes a true comeback with this uplifting true story after the dull, overrated “Atonement,” returning to the modestly enchanting feel of his earlier 2005 Jane Austen adaptation, “Pride & Prejudice.” Has two fantastic lead performances by Robert Downey Jr. and an astounding Jamie Foxx.

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. I know that I’ll get flak for this, but I loved Michael Bay’s original “Transformers,” and this insanely awesome sequel was even better. Who cares if the characters are cardboard, the dialogue is mostly terrible, and the script is taken from every other action movie there is? That’s part of the fun.

2012. Neither “Avatar” nor “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” can claim to have bigger and more expansive visual effects work than Roland Emmerich’s newest bit of worldwide destruction. Featuring every disaster movie in the book, it goes on for nearly three hours—and that’s because Emmerich’s dealing with the very end of the earth.

Zombieland. This, with “Drag Me to Hell,” accounts for the most devilish amount of fun the horror genre had in 2009.  Gruesome, bloody, sick, and downright hysterical for 95 glorious minutes.  Not to be outdone by his admittedly badly-over-the-top cameo in “2012” weeks later, Woody Harrelson turns in a dazzlingly funny performance in what is the most fun zombie movie since “Shaun of the Dead.”

The Special Jury Prize Winners:

15. Watchmen. Zack Snyder brought the superhero genre to new heights with this visually spectacular experience. The film divided both audiences and critics, but I was on the right side of the fence, drawn to the visceral escapism of Frank Miller’s original graphic novel. The film itself had the look, feel, and tone of a graphic novel, right down the visual sensibility, and in the middle of it all, Billy Crudup brilliantly envisioned Dr. Manhattan (in one of the year’s best performances) as a wounded human soul stuck inside a godlike, disconnected figure.

14.  Up. Pixar’s films are always treasures to behold, and even though “Up” is not their finest hour, it still holds the title of their most uniquely-plotted venture. The opening act is the most moving cinematic montage of 2009, bar none, period. What follows broaches every genre in the book, from screwball comedy to action/adventure to human drama, and director Pete Docter handles all of them beautifully. The film ends on a final note of dramatic transcendence nearly unmatched by an animated film these past few years.

13.  The Informant! Director Steven Soderbergh combines the sly, dark wit of his Danny Ocean trilogy with the intrigue of Michael Mann’s “The Insider” (they would make a great double feature, and not just because of the similar titles). Matt Damon gives his finest performance as a whistleblower for corn-producing company, who may or may not be lying about everything he says. The key is the screenplay by Jason Bourne trilogy alum Scott Z. Burns that never misses a beat. By the end there is some sort of catharsis, giving us one of the most unexpectedly funny movies of 2009.

12.  Paranormal Activity. The year’s most simplistic title gives way for the decade’s most unnerving experimental film. Shot entirely with camcorders and a budget of merely $11,000, the film ratchets up an amount of tension worth six or seven of Shyamalan’s films. The premise is as simplistic as its title, and just as deceptive: a couple believes that unseen forces have penetrated the walls of their home and they set up a camcorder to prove it. What results digs into your skin, stays there, and decides to move in for a few weeks. It is a film to lose sleep over, but what it makes you think is even more surprising.

11.  Inglourious Basterds. Quentin Tarantino’s electric “Pulp Fiction” defined nearly a decade of pop culture and remains one of the five best movies ever made, but “Inglourious Basterds” will probably not have that type of crossover. What it amounts to is sick fun: both a brilliantly realized war picture, and a cinematic love letter to cinema, signed and dated by Tarantino himself. His love for film drips off the screen, evident in the chilling opening twenty minutes, as a hair-raising conversation between bloodthirsty Nazi Col. Hans Landa and a farmer leads to tragedy, shaping the future of a young girl to long-settling revenge. The rest of it is like a novel you can’t stop reading.

The Cream of the Crop:

10. An Education
directed by Lone Scherfig

“An Education” represents a terrific balancing act between drama and comedy, but ultimately it is the characteristic of romance that instills the sense of thrill in the viewer’s mind. It is nothing short of enthralling to watch 24-year-old Carey Mulligan become our heroine Jenny, a naively wise 16-year-old soul in over her head in a relationship with a 30-something eligible bachelor. The film is inherently manipulative, as it tries to make us believe that Jenny’s actions are okay. The stinker is: it works, and we sympathize with her plight, while acknowledging that it’s wrong. As I said, it’s all about the balancing act. 

9. (500) Days of Summer
directed by Marc Webb

As radiantly romantic as “An Education” was, however, it had nothing on “(500) Days of Summer,” which as one critic said, looks you in the eye and tells you the truth. This is one fantastic motion picture romance, inventively told out of chronological order, and why not? If it was told in chronological order, then it would just be your garden variety romance, told simply and conventionally. Instead, director Marc Webb spits in the face of convention, daring to go in different directions near the end; this is certainly not a film in which you can tell what will happen before it happens. And thank goodness for that.

8. Fantastic Mr. Fox
directed by Wes Anderson

While the entire world went gaga (for a good reason) over most of the mainstream animated films of 2009, such as “Up” and “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs,” both quality films that show up in this list, one way or another, here was an under-the-radar charmer that had every bit the dazzle of Pixar’s efforts and more. Wes Anderson’s astounding, hilarious gem of animation was critically acclaimed to the maximum yet made a sad $19 million at the box office. What Anderson accomplished was fresh, character-centric and nothing short of breathtaking, encompassing everything family-oriented cinema is about in 87 glorious minutes. And no one went.

7. Star Trek
directed by J.J. Abrams

I said it eight months ago, and I’ll say it again: J.J. Abrams did the near-impossible by taking a corny and by-all-accounts dead franchise, enlivened it with massive and impressive special effects work, and then added a killer sense of humor to make one of the most unexpectedly charming motion pictures of the year. It’s also a science-fiction classic-in-the-making, if not quite the best genre effort of the year, then really stinkin’ close. The villain was fantastic in the capable hands of Eric Bana, the chemistry between Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto as Kirk and Spock was unmatched by any two actors this year, and the sense of fun was almost suffocating.

6. Avatar
directed by James Cameron

Just recently, James Cameron’s second greatest science fiction experience (behind “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” of course) topped a billion dollars worldwide, making it his second film to do so after the Film That Everyone Knows About and Has Seen, “Titanic.” The reason: “Avatar” is almost at the level of insanity for how groundbreaking everything about it is. From the photorealistic special effects work that could potentially change the way blockbusters are made to the imaginative storyline that recalls “Star Wars” in the way it makes old material feel new again, it is one of the strongest science-fiction efforts in years.

5. The Hurt Locker
directed by Kathryn Bigelow

Arguably the finest war film since Tom Hanks was sent on a mission to save Private Ryan, “The Hurt Locker” is up there with the likes of “The Bourne Ultimatum” (one of 2007’s very best films) as one of the most visceral pieces of manly cinema I’ve ever seen–yet, it’s directed with keen observation by female filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow.  Don’t count me as sexist, because I’m certainly not saying that a woman couldn’t possibly make this sort of film, but it is blatantly obvious that Bigelow is the female Paul Greengrass.  This is the first film of hers that I’ve seen, and it won’t be the last.  Jeremy Renner owns the lead role of Will James, a titan in the field of manually diffusing bombs in the midst of the ongoing war in Iraq.  Gratefully, Bigelow excludes any sort of politics from the proceedings, making it the most kinetic character-driven thrill rides in years.  Michael Mann had a leg up with the slightly overhyped “Public Enemies” (a film that I like but certainly don’t love), but Bigelow perfected that style in “The Hurt Locker,” which is a fine technical achievement.

4. District 9
directed by Neill Blomkamp

As remarkable of achievements as the showier “Avatar” and “Star Trek” were, however, nothing is likely to change my opinion that the year’s cream-of-the-crop in sci-fi filmmaking was Neill Blomkamp’s debut masterpiece “District 9.” Some argue that the endings to all three films are somewhat repetitive, but for me, the ending to “District 9” is the most involving, both in its action elements and in the ideas its presents. This is a thoughtful and hard-hitting motion picture, both a rousing summer blockbuster and an allegorical drama about how aliens might be treated in these specific surroundings if they invaded. And the performance by Sharlto Copley is still the strongest by a male lead this year.

3. Where the Wild Things Are
directed by Spike Jonze

“Where the Wild Things Are” is a miracle of a motion picture, almost melancholic in tone, which might have confused and ultimately turned off a lot of people in the process. The film was not what you’d call a box-office success, but for me, it’s the strongest family film of the decade and easily the most affecting. Emotionally, the film hits dead-on what it is like to be an eight-year-old, dealing with the psychology of a lonely child with astute grace and surprising darkness. Technically, the film is a marvel, with the best cinematography of the year by Lance Acord, one of the best musical scores by master Carter Burwell with Karen O and the Kids, and seamless visual effects.

2. Up in the Air
directed by Jason Reitman

It’s true that I’m a sucker for Jason Reitman films (“Thank You For Smoking” and “Juno” both made my top ten lists for each year), but “Up in the Air” is a bit of a different venue for Reitman, plunging into some surprisingly dark moments for what could be called a screwball tragicomedy. George Clooney is at his absolute best, even over his performance in “Michael Clayton,” as a corporate downsizer who basically lives on the road, right down to commenting on how all the flight-related things we hate are the things he loves. Equally impressive and even more heartbreaking is the sharp-as-a-tack screenplay, which is the best of the year. Reitman has crafted his masterpiece.

1. Precious
directed by Lee Daniels

No film even comes close this year. Sitting down in my theater seat, I had no idea the journey I was about to take. All I had to go on was the powerhouse of a trailer and glistening reviews from Sundance and Toronto. I did have my doubts, predicting that perhaps the film would be an overrated flop, much like “Atonement” two years before. The film was being made out to be a critical darling, but it wasn’t long before the negative reviews started coming out, and I had even more doubts. Perhaps there is nothing to this buzz, I thought even as I went in. I was wrong. I’m sorry.

“Precious” represents what filmmaking is about and can be. We can say all we want that the trailers make it look like a Tyler Perry movie, or that the film’s depiction of sexual abuse within a lower-class, African-American family in Harlem is bordering on racist, but the sad truth is, the film was co-written by the very person who went through the experience up on the screen. The film sugarcoats absolutely nothing, from the physical abuse that Clareece “Precious” Jones endures to the scenes when she breaks down and cries; all of it seems organic and real, never false. The film is destined for a shutout at the Oscars to the leading frontrunners “The Hurt Locker” and “Up in the Air,” but I believe the big award is deserved by “Precious.”

It is a miracle movie in its blatant unconventionality and purely unsentimental view of a young life gone terribly awry and then possibly fixed for the slightly better. With its frightening, monstrous, and ultimately vulnerable performance by Mo’Nique, the film transforms into one of the most difficult moviegoing experiences of my lifetime—and one of the best. It is the finest directorial effort by an American director since the Coens tackled “No Country for Old Men,” or it would be, if it didn’t leave that film in the dust. I agree with Entertainment Weekly’s claim that, at the end of this blistering masterpiece, we witness the birth of a soul. I would add to that a damaged, imperfect soul, still to be mended from years of heartbreak and turmoil. And that birth is joyous to behold.

Top Ten Most Anticipated Films of 2010

•January 10, 2010 • Leave a Comment

The title is self-explanatory.

10. The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

2005’s “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” was one of that year’s most dazzling productions, with a truly epic feel.  2008’s “The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian” was solid but somewhat stiff and very much a lesser film.  Nevertheless, I’m a fan of the novels, and both previous films proved that the films can dazzle, if nothing else.  This one has a new director in indie-minded Michael Apted, replacing “Shrek” alum Andrew Adamson.  Count me in for this one, as it could be a late-in-the-year knockout. (December 10)

9. Toy Story 3

How can this not be on the list?  1995’s “Toy Story” and 1999’s “Toy Story 2” are both Pixar masterworks and both are in my personal top five of the company’s output.  The fact of the matter is, you simply can’t do anything but look forward to Pixar films these days, unless your name is Armond White.  This picks up as owner Andy is headed off to college, and Woody, Buzz, Jessie, and the gang are sent to a child’s daycare center.  Let’s face it: this was coming.  The premise sounds as alternately hilarious and poignant as it hopefully will turn out to be. (June 18)

8. The Wolfman

Joe Johnston made a name for himself with 2001’s marvelous “Jurassic Park III,” which was a rare threequel that left its immediate predecessor (1997’s craptastic “The Lost World: Jurassic Park”) in the dust and nearly equaled Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece of an original in tone and certainly in scope.  After that he only made the minor “Hidalgo,” but “The Wolfman” might bring him back to the forefront of those glory days with “Jurassic Park III.”  The R-rating (for “bloody violence and gore”) is a high-point as well. (February 12)

7. Salt

Philip Noyce is a respected director that I’m sadly unfamiliar with and his choice to direct this gender-opposite “Bourne” type actioner starring Angelina Jolie is up there with the very recent directing choice of Sam Mendes for the 23rd James Bond film: curious, indeed.  Nevertheless, the trailer is an absolute joy, and Jolie seems to be channeling a more heroic version of her character in 2008’s electric actioner “Wanted.”  I want to see it already! (July 23)

6. Shutter Island

Martin Scorsese is probably the most noteworthy director in American history, but I’m slowly getting to know why. I still have yet to see all of his movies, but I have seen a couple of key films of his (“GoodFellas” and “Raging Bull”).  He’s going more into the horror/psychological mode with “Shutter Island,” an adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s novel that was curiously moved from Oscar friendly October 2009, to dumpfest era February of this year. Nevertheless, it’s Scorsese, which I gotta see. (February 19)

5. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I

And the end begins. I’m a huge fan of the “Harry Potter” series of books, and the films they made are all excellent thus far.  With David Yates hitting it out of the park with 2007’s “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” and last July’s “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” (the best of the films), and I can’t freakin’ wait to see how the first part of the finale turns out. Nuff said. (November 19)

4. The American

Getting into more Oscar-y type of stuff, this film, directed by rising talent Anton Corbijn of 2007’s indie hit “Control” (which I sadly never saw) regards an assassin played by George Clooney who’s trying to get away from his job but gets sucked back in Jack Bauer-style after befriending an Italian priest. That’s all I know about this picture, other than that I’m dying to see it right this instant. (September 1)

3. Green Zone

Paul Greengrass is an amazing director, much like “The Bourne Supremacy,” “The Bourne Ultimatum,” and “United 93” proved, and his latest, an espionage film set in the midst of the Iraq war and starring Matt Damon, Amy Ryan and Brendan Gleeson, “Green Zone” appeals to the lover of visceral thriller cinema that Greengrass pretty much fully owns.  At least, Christopher Nolan and he are tied for that label. (March 12)

2. Iron Man 2

2008’s “Iron Man” was a fantastic piece of superhero cinema, though not quite the best from that year (Do you have to ask what was? I think not.), and Jon Favreau’s follow-up will hopefully be the series’ bread-and-butter.  With a potentially iconic villain in Mickey Rourke’s Whiplash, “Iron Man 2” is hopefully destined to be a confirmation of Robert Downey Jr.’s talents as an acting maniac; he pours his heart and soul into the character of Tony Stark, making him a complete original, both acidically sarcastic a la Dr. Gregory House and a vulnerable man shaken by a need for justice and peace in the world a la Bruce Wayne. Should be a killer entertainment, and with the cast it has–other than Downey Jr. and Rourke, you got Sam Rockwell, Don Cheadle, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Scarlett Johannsen–it should be one of the year’s most memorable ensemble pieces. (May 7)

1. Inception

No film has me as intrigued or as enthusiastic as Christopher Nolan’s latest bit of head-trip entertainment.  Absolutely nothing is known about the plot other than the fact that it’s a crime drama that takes place completely within the mind.  For Nolan, it’s a comeback to the type of film he made with “Memento” and “The Prestige,” though I suspect it uses more visual effects than those films and seems more artsy than the likes of his Batman films.  I’m hotly anticipating this like no other film this year, and even as appetizing as “Iron Man 2” and “Green Zone” are, my anticipation for “Inception” eats my anticipation for the others pretty much for breakfast. I will be there opening day. (July 16)