July 5, 2010

2010 at the Movies: The Best and the Worst So Far

The first half of the year is up, so it is the perfect time to look back on 2010's first six months and think about what movies worked, what movies didn't, and which ones failed to live up to their potential. That is what this column is all about, I will share with you what movies you need to see and what you should avoid.

It is funny, as I do not feel this year has been a particularly strong one, but it has still turned out some very good movies. Some of them were completely surprising, at least to me. There is nothing better than going into a movie and being completely surprised by what appears on that big screen. Now, remember that any lists like this are relative and can change on a moment's notice and also the fact there are movies that I have not seen for whatever reason. This is the ordering that fell in line while being put together but could change by the time the end of the year rolls around. Heck, this list could be different tomorrow.

NOTE: to be eligible for this list, I had to see the movie prior to the end of June making 48 movies eligible (I subtract multiple viewings and 2009 films seen this year). That number seems pretty low as there have been years where I was averaging 10 per month. Whether that is me being a bit pickier or just not as many films, I am not sure although I suspect it is a combination.

Let's start with the positives and count down my top ten so far in reverse order:

10. Get Him to the Greek. There is something about this movie that is quite beautiful. Yes, you read that right. Wrapped up in the trappings of a raunchy comedy is a surprisingly touching story of two men growing into themselves and realizing what the important things are. Two men on the same journey, only coming from very different directions. While one is realizing the mistakes of his past, the other is confronted with adulthood for the first time. They learn from each other while also delivering some big laughs.

9. Green Zone. This is a very good film that is not the Bourne-style film it was advertised as. It is a fictional take on factual elements that look at and question the events leading up to the invasion of Iraq and how people looking out for their own best interests led to a major mishandling of the invasion. Matt Damon stars as the focal point of the story, the man who recognizes something is wrong. There is also a very good  action setpiece late in the film.

8. The Karate Kid. Here is a complete surprise. I was not exactly behind the project when I first heard about it, but the finished film speaks for itself. It is essentially a shot for shot remake of the original film. all they really did was transplant it to China and make the titular kid a little younger. The updated script is quite good and the lead performances from Jaden Smith and Jackie Chan are really quite strong and have nice emotional arcs. All things considered, this is a really good film that exceeded expectations and shows how remakes can be done right.

7. Iron Man 2. This is a movie that everyone had high hopes for and while I do not feel it quite achieved the heights of success that its predecessor had, it is hard to deny how good this one is. It furthers the elements of the first one, added in a few layers of daddy issues and amped up the action a little bit. There are many layers to the story, friendship, love, betrayal, revenge, everything coming together to make an exciting cinematic tapestry.

6. Kick Ass. I did not love it nearly as much as I had hoped to, but that in no way diminishes the accomplishment. It is a post-modern deconstruction of the superhero genre. It explores the idea of being a hero in the real world and the repercussions thereof. It also turns into that which it is deconstructing while remaining an interesting exploration of th would-be heroes, there reasons, and how being a hero is not necessarily actually being a hero. It is funny, violent, exciting, and dark.

5. Toy Story 3. Here you have a perfect closing to a fantastic trilogy from the mighty house of Pixar. I am not quite sure it matches the first two, although I suspect admiration will grow over time and with multiple viewings. This time out the toys find themselves at a crossroads of their existence with Andy heading off to college. They are left to their own devices, worried about their futures. This is the darkest of the three films, although it offers some of the biggest laughs of the series, although sometimes at the expense of character. Still, there is no denying the entertainment value of this film that is a must see.

4. The Book of Eli. On the surface, this is a very simple story of a lone man on a mission and the evil men with guns who wish to stop him from achieving his goal. So, on that level, the film is right in line with what I was expecting. Fortunately, the Hughes Brothers and screenwriter Gary Whitta were not content to merely create a post-apocalyptic bad ass samurai movie. Oh no. While the movie is entertaining enough as is, they have given our characters an unexpected depth and nuance. Yes, that's right. There is more to the characters than meets the eye. Just watch as Washington's Eli deals with what he steadfastly believes and the ordeal that results because of it. Look at Oldman's Carnegie and what he is trying to do, is he purely evil? I don't think so.The simple-seeming narrative allows whatever other meaning to be discovered and interpreted by the audience. If you watch long enough the details will reveal themselves to you, thus making this world more fully fledged than anticipated. This is a deceptively good film.

3. The Joneses. This is a movie that came out of nowhere. It snuck up and truly surprised me. This comic drama focuses on a family that moves into an affluent neighborhood. The problem is that they are not a real family but a selling unit intent on stealth marketing. It is a fascinating and focused effort for a first time filmmaker. It is amazing how dull it sounds as I describe it, but it is actually quite fantastic. Strong performances from all involved and a story that is more than just marketing, it hits on a more personal level.  It did not get much theatrical love, so keep an eye out for it.

2. Shutter Island. Atmospheric, creepy, mysterious, haunting, all words that can be used to describe Martin Scorsese's latest film. It is a twisty, turny mind-bender that will keep you off kilter until the end. However, it is more than that, it is a trip inside the mind of the main character, a man built on the confidence of his convictions despite the curveballs outside influences throw him. It is Scorsese in fine form and he has brought a strong cast with him. Leonardo Dicaprio is in fine form carrying the emotional weight on his shoulders. It is a movie you will want to watch over again as soon as it ends.

1. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo I walked into the film rather unsure of what to expect. I knew the basic set up that a rich man hires a disgraced journalist and computer hacker to investigate the disappearance of his niece forty years prior when she was just 16-years-old. The uncle is convinced it was murder committed by a family member. the investigation takes them into the family's dark history that some would rather see keep secret. To tell the plot is to give away the secrets, to describe what happens in even a roundabout manner risks giving you the pieces to put it together too soon. Let me say that the film has a few mysteries going on. The primary thread is not terribly complex, but it will keep you guessing until the final moments. The other mysteries center on our characters and are even more interesting, well, one of them in particular. Lisbeth herself is a walking mystery, a riddle that is difficult to pierce. She can and will only be known on her terms. The movie ran two and a half hours but it goes by so fast you scarcely notice. It is fascinating as it is not a terribly fast paced film. There are explosions of shocking violence and sexual abuse (which never falls into exploitation territory) that effectively punctuate the mystery they are investigating and highlighting our characters personal damages. It is all gorgeously shot and exquisitely paced. This will hold your attention until the final frame.

Now, as for the worst of the first half, do they really need an explanation? Here they are, also in reverse order to build suspense:

10. Clash of the Titans.  Boring, uninspired, cheap-looking. Yes, they all apply to this remake of the 1981 fantasy film. It just fails to deliver anything of interest. Who knew the Greek gods are actually petulant children? Skip this, watch the original.

9. Legion. This movie just did not work. Bad dialogue, uninspired action, boring visuals, and lackluster direction. I preferred the tale of angels and their war better when it was called The Prophecy.

8. Remember Me. This tale of doomed lovers is not all that bad. It is a touch angsty and we know it isn't going to end well. The problem is the ending that it did not earn, does not deserve, and just pushed the wrong buttons. Some people loved it. It made me angry, made me turn on the movie. Do not see this.

7. The Last Airbender. What a frustrating experience. A bad script fueling bad performances directed by a man of obvious talent and a very good eye. Nothing comes together, and this is before getting into fans' complaints of the characters race. This is a movie that can make you angry thinking about what might have been.

6. Jonah Hex. The movie just does not hold water. The focus of the plot is misguided, none of the characters feel like they are in the same movie. The scenes just stop as new ones begin, there is little connective tissue to lead you along. It has a bizarre dream sequence with a fit on red sand. There is an appearance by an Indian tribe that has nothing to do with anything else. The bad guy tells Hex he wants him to watch his family die and then closes the door. What is going on here? Damned if I know.

5. Grown Ups. This is what happens when friends go on vacation and bring a camera with them, everyone thinks they can make a movie with the footage they shot. This is not funny, often mean spirited, and just fails t tell a story of any sort.

4. The Black Waters of Echo's Pond. An unlikely group of friends visit an old house for a weekend getaway, find an old board game and then bad things happen. Ugh. Not good on any level. I'm still wondering where the black waters are.

3. Shrek Forever After. Gone are the fairy tale trappings that made this once enjoyable series fun, replacing it is a troubled marriage, annoying friends, unwanted kids, and a desire for the old days. Yeah, fun....

2. The Bounty Hunter. This is a dull, laugh-less, lifeless affair that really was not necessary. Granted, the majority of films made are not necessary, but this pushes it to the next level. It is a romantic comedy with some action that is built out of all the cliches of the genre. At no point does it make any attempt to bust free of the cliche. There is no ambition in the screenplay by Sarah Thorp. It feels almost like she took a mad-lib of common genre cliches, filled in the blanks and let the studio take over. Quite frankly, I was bored with the whole thing and would have just as happy to have taken a nap.

1. Cop Out. Not funny, no exciting, not silly, not worth watching. I hate writing those words knowing I wanted to like this. I am a Kevin Smith fan, I like many in the cast, but it is just an absolute mess. Please skip this and watch any of Smith's other films.



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