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It is late December and thus naturally thoughts turn to top-ten lists.  I’m always interested in the lists of top ten films of the year, although I usually find myself vehemently disagreeing with the creators of said lists.

DISCLAIMER: The following two paragraphs include generalizations about entertainment critics.  I’m sure they’re very nice people with well-intentioned, if sometimes jaded, appetites for films.

To get back to my point. I have big problems with most top-ten lists for film (I’d probably have the same problems with other top ten lists for, say, songs, if I paid attention to that aspect of entertainment. But I don’t. So, film.).  While I can’t claim to have done exhaustive research, I’ve paid attention over the past several years and I’ve noticed a trend or two.  First, it seems to me that top-ten lists are created by people overwhelmed with the movie experience, and consequently their views are often jaded and a bit cynical.  I listened to a long discussion of the year’s films on my local public radio station yesterday morning and was not impressed by the sense that all their experts were doing that thing where “critique” and “assess” mean “find the Achilles heel.”  It happens all the time in my classes, too, and it really bugs me!

The second trend I’ve noticed is probably a result of the first one.  Lists seem to fall into two categories: those based on box office numbers and those pointedly NOT based in box office numbers.  While there is nothing fundamentally wrong with taking income into account or trying to break away from the most commonly mentioned titles, I take issue with the Grand Canyon-sized trench between the two options.  Most of the lists I’ve found take the second option, and as a result I looked over them with a sinking sensation in my stomach.  Not only have I not seen most of the movies listed, I have not heard of them.  It is one thing to pick a movie that was released in limited theaters or, by one’s own opinion, did not get the attention it deserved.  It is another thing to go so far to the obscurity side of the scale that the readers have only heard of one title on your list.  I get that you’re trying to inspire us off the beaten path, I really do.  But surely popular likeability should be taken into account?  Movies are a product, after all. They’re designed to make money as much as tell a story or make a statement.

With these curmudgeonly thoughts in mind, I have taken it upon myself to list the seven movies I have seen that were released this year and my thoughts about them (hush. There are tons on my list from this year, but I’m on a grad student budget. If you feel like buying me a ticket to Hugo, Tintin, My Week With Marilyn, J. Edgar, The Artist, The Descendants, Shame, etc. I won’t argue! And Bridesmaids will arrive from Netflix any day now.)…

Rango: It started off a little odd, but come on. It’s Johnny Depp.  Odd is an unavoidable part of the package.  I loved Rango, and not just because it has a mariachi band composed of guitar-playing owls.  Now that I think about it, though, mariachi owls are a good reason to like any movie. Anyways, Rango has the quirkiness and whimsy that suits animation, Depp, and director Gore Verbinski so well.  Furthermore, by including slapstick humor (surprisingly not stupid or gratuitous!) as well as subtle references to the best Western pictures, it can appeal to all ages.  The peril feels real – how does Bill Nighy manage to sound so sinister? – and the lessons are neither saccharine nor heavy-handed.  The chameleon Rango, voiced by Johnny Depp, has two surreal dream sequences involving an armadillo named Roadkill seeking the Spirit of the West, a shadowy cowboy figure who tells Rango that “No man can walk out on his own story.” And, of course, Good wins while Evil is punished. Most satisfying.

Certified Copy: I have no idea how this film is so popular with critics and, seemingly, audiences.  Perhaps my mind is hopelessly mundane, but I like my movies to have a) a story and b) a point. Not to mention c) a conclusion.  To me, this was like the worst kind of modern art or ultra-modern theater and novels.  The story wanders, full of existential angst and boring but apparently loaded conversations, and yet goes nowhere.  One review I read says the film is an unsolvable puzzle that comments on the unsolvable puzzle of love.  Maybe it does.  However, I watch movies to escape, to be entertained.  I know the world can be horrible. I know that relationships are difficult and that it is easy to cross the line from blissful love to tortured, obsessive semi-heartbreak.  I hated the movie, but I cannot say it is a bad film because here it is, months later, and I’m still thinking about it. If you like the kind of movie that discusses nebulous ideas without resolution and that forces contemplation without pleasure, this is for you. Me, I’ll go back to watching stuff that’s actually fun.

The Captains: This is a bizarre documentary by William Shatner that mixes together interviews with the other actors who have portrayed Star Trek captains: Sir Patrick Stewart, Avery Brooks, Chris Pine, Kate Mulgrew, and Scott Bakula. I went to it all excited, because I enjoyed watching Star Trek (have seen all but the Animated Series. Shut up, it’s fun.) and I like behind-the-scenes making-of stuff.  I hardly know where to start with this, but none of the actors came off well.  Shatner comes across as an egomaniac that somehow manages to have inordinately high and low self-esteem simultaneously.  Kate Mulgrew is also shown to be full of herself and Chris Pine is a star-struck groupie, while I’m pretty sure Avery Brooks is either completely whacko or smoking something.  Most of his interview was him improvising jazz lines at the piano and Shatner trying to sing along. Very odd.  The only ones to seem even remotely likeable as people were Pine and Bakula.  I suspect this movie would go well with a side of booze.

Gnomeo & Juliet: Simply stated: see it. It’s a wonderful reboot of the Romeo and Juliet story.  It could have been cheesy or tired, but placing the story within warring factions of ceramic garden gnomes gave the creators endless possibilities to play with the plot.  There are also endless subtle and not-so-subtle Shakespeare jokes.  Finally, when else do you get a movie with Patrick Stewart, Dolly Parton, AND Ozzie Osborne? Go see it for that novelty alone!

Jane Eyre: I had such high hopes for this.  I’ve liked Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender in other projects, and the novel Jane Eyre is one of my favorites.  Physically, Wasikowska might be my favorite Jane yet – she is slight, pale, and not a classic beauty, but there is something about her that holds the attention.  In some ways, I didn’t even mind the way the story jumped around, though I know the novel so well that it didn’t throw me.  For a newcomer, it would be confusing in the extreme.  My biggest problem was the ending. I don’t care that they didn’t show the book’s epilogue (though it would be fun, and it includes the ultimate karmic forgiveness of Rochester, regaining his sight enough to see his newborn son).  The whole crime and punishment story for Rochester is fundamental to the novel and Jane’s development as an independent character.  The story in the novel is that Jane comes back to Thornfield in search of Rochester, and comes to the house where he now lives to surprise him.  The following day they go on a walk during which time she tells him what happened since she ran away following the aborted wedding-that-wasn’t.  After that story is finished, Rochester asks forgiveness of her and of God, a sure sign that he has truly repented.  The prayer he offers up in silence shows that he has revived his soul and sense of morality.  The movie has the two of them come together without his plea and forgiveness, without the prayer.  In fact it ended so abruptly that I thought there might be something wrong with the film. This film so greatly failed to live up to expectations that I have to encourage any readers not to watch it.

X-Men: First Class: Yes, I know, it’s not canon. Yes, I know January Jones gave one of the worst performances all year long. But this movie, this reboot of the beloved Marvel Comics franchise, was just plain fun.  James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender do fantastic work to show the backstory for Professor X and Magneto. The concentration camp scenes with the youth Erik and the Mengele-like doctor are shocking and intense, while the egotism of young Charles Xavier is a pleasantly jarring note in the otherwise oppressively saintly character.  Furthermore, Kevin Bacon is a surprisingly vicious and engrossing villain as Sebastian Shaw.  I’d like to put in a good word for another actor who gave increased complexity to a beloved X-Men character: Nicholas Hoult as Hank McCoy/Beast (you may know him as the quirky kid in About a Boy).  His gentle, nerdy approach and accidental transformation into full-blown mutant make him one of the most sympathetic of the X-Men characters. It won’t challenge you, but it’s definitely a worthwhile movie for an evening of easy entertainment.

The Muppets: Let’s face it, you don’t go to a Muppet movie for the plot. You go for the charm, whimsy, and innocently inspirational experience that is Jim Henson’s brilliant legacy.  That said, the plot and the dialogue could use work.  Jason Segel has the right mood, but isn’t quite on the same level with the language.  Still, I love that he was so bothered by the lack of a Muppet movie for this generation that he went out and wrote one.  The new Muppet, Walter, fits right in, and his story of desperate worship for his idols and search for his true talent and courage are perfect Muppet material. The gang, though having clearly gone through a little age-defying magic alongside trials and tribulations, is at heart unchanged.  Kermit is still earnestness personified, while Piggy is a devoted diva.  Fozzie Bear sports greying eyebrows but has a repertoire of heartwarmingly bad jokes, while Gonzo is still accompanied by his loyal chickens, Camilla included.  Amusingly, Animal gets more of a personality than he ever has before: we first find him at a retreat where he’s trying to get control of his rages (do NOT mention D-R-U-M-S).  Also: Jim Parsons FTW!

 So yeah. That’s my take on 2011 in films so far. I’m terribly behind on this year’s pictures – silly school, cramping my style! 🙂

 Any favorites to add?