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First guest post in Blue Castle history, by none other than Liz of My Beautiful Bookshelf. Liz was a fellow student in my history MA program in San Francisco, and always had something insightful to add to every conversation.  I’d like to make two disclaimers. 1. She writes better than I do. Try not to get too used to it.  2. I do not personally encourage viewings of “Titanic,” 3-D or otherwise, though I do encourage viewings of “The Avengers!” And go check out her blog – it’s good bookish fun.

“Better than the first one!” – the New York Times. “Michael Bay does it again!” – WPXY Sandusky. Or my favorite, “Just as good as [more popular, more critically acclaimed movie of similar genre]!” – randomnewswireservicethatwatchesmovies.com.

So those are all the backhanded review blurbs that usually warn me to stay away from a movie. But this post is centered around one type of seemingly ambivalent review in particular. “The most fun I’ve had at the movies all year!” Roger Ebert, Joel Siegel, Gene Shalit, et al. It’s not a bad review, per se, but it’s definitely not applicable to almost any Best Picture winner of the last ten years (try applying to: The Hurt Locker, No Country for Old Men, The Departed, and see what I mean).

“Most fun” is usually awarded to the so-called “popcorn movie,” the blockbuster, the opposite of arthouse, meant not to stimulate the intellect but the senses, to satisfy some animal need in all of us to see things blow up and hear accompanying (loud) noises.

I’ve always been a little bit of an elitist, when it comes to films, music, books—anything– but I am also very quick to concede the merits of the popcorn movie: suspending disbelief, succumbing to spectacle and, most importantly, submitting ourselves to the age-oldest trappings of storytelling: plots we recognize, characters we understand instantaneously, tropes endlessly reproduced, good versus evil and right versus wrong, nothing less and certainly nothing more. It’s necessary, it’s mindless, it’s god dam fun.

Here, my top three popcorn films of the year so far. Disclaimer: I didn’t eat popcorn at all of them.

1) The Avengers. Easy one. The weekend it opened, a very loud chorus of social media voices united in praise of this movie and it wasn’t hard to see why. Though I’m occasionally skeptical of superhero movies, which often seem only like attempts to capitalize on a breakout genre (did we really need a Ghost Rider 2?), this one was pretty much a sure thing from the start: supernova production values, all-star cast, superhero superteam, and, most importantly, (writer-director) Joss Whedon.

Joss Whedon made this movie spectacular, where it could have just been another Iron Man 2 (read: eh). The pace is quick, the characters well-drawn, the dialogue endlessly snappy. This latter point is something of Whedon’s hallmark, and while certain reviewers pointed out the lesser ability of some actors to handle his writing, a big part of the movie’s success was the fact that it is punctuated, perfectly, with moments of humor that keep it from getting too unwieldy or overblown.

Example (recorded imperfectly from memory):

Thor: passionately defending Loki to the others, he’s my brother! blah blah etc

Someone: He killed [large number] people in the last [small number] days.

Thor: He’s adopted.

Second example:

The shawerma scene.

Stuff like that kind of puts the whole ridiculous over-dramatic superhero setting into its proper perspective. Plus, Chris Evans boxing in khakis. Plus, Mark Ruffalo as a damaged but still wry Bruce Banner. Plus, Robert Downey reprise.

Plus, freakin HULK. I could analyze the ways in which the Hulk’s physical manifestation and his delayed but grandiose delivery of the monstrous promise of his reputation satisfies some tortured part of the audience’s collective psyche, in which his actions in the melee scenes involve a cathartic, vicarious, simultaneous (and hence heightened) emotional release. But instead I’d rather say: Hulk Smashing Things Is Cool.

2) Titanic 3-D

I know I’m gonna lose some people with this one. I myself have a serious love-hate relationship with Titanic and, also, James Cameron. Love to hate, hate to love, hate-watching, love-hating, however you want to spin it, I genuinely enjoy a lot of his mindless overblown crap and that’s that. (See: Avatar, Aliens.) But Titanic had that extra allure of 1997 nostalgia that meant, even as I mocked the idea along with Lindy West, I was also beyond excited to go see its 3-D re-release. And it did not disappoint!

The 3-D aspect, like with most 3-D movies, was cool at first, until I forgot I was wearing the glasses and stopped noticing the 3-D. But the 1-D characters (irredeemably evil, unbalanced Cal! cold, hardened Mrs. DeWitt! down-home, generous rich-person-ally Molly Brown!) and the silly, silly love story were about 10x more captivating on the big screen than they were when played on the small screen using my two-tape VHS set.

But the best part, of course, is the sinking of the ship. It’s big, it’s dramatic, it’s tragic, it’s disaster spectacle at its best and it looks fantastic in the theater. Even 15 years of technology later, it’s pretty mind-blowing, not least because the protracted scene kills about a thousand people via methods variously creative, gruesome, tragic, and noble. Star-crossed class-transcending love story, okay. People in period costume dangling from perpendicular ship’s railings over a 1000-foot drop into the freezing ocean, sold.

3) Sherlock Holmes & the Game of Shadows. Okay so this was technically in 2011, but I’m still stuck on academic-year time so it feels like “this year” to me. I liked the first Sherlock, but Game of Shadows just proved, beyond a doubt, how incredibly engaging and enjoyable the franchise is and the fact that they should keep making them (something that can be said about very few franchises).

Robert Downey and Jude Law as Sherlock and Watson are, again, fantastic. They’re both incredibly attractive, and of course when Guy Ritchie’s first film came out I was like, Sherlock being hot is one thing, but Watson? Nevertheless… it just works. It’s completely unfaithful to the source material but retains enough of an essence that we buy it being branded as “Sherlock Holmes: based on characters created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.” They banter and have a charming bromance. Watson is frequently exasperated with Holmes but still puts up with all his crap. Because he loves him!

And I’m not a steampunk nerd but there is something really exciting about that genre’s reinvention of the staid Victorian era, and I think the Sherlock movies capture that spirit perfectly. Seeing two action-comic heroes traipsing around 1890s European capitals with steampunk technology trying to prevent (or delay as it were) all-out European war masterminded by a diabolical professor is pretty much a can’t-lose situation.

Plus, awesome camera work (particularly in the scene when our heroes are running away from gun-toting baddies in the forest, with cameras attached to their bodies to produce a frenetic-motion effect where the landscape jerks back and forth around their static heads). Plus, Robert Downey. As usual, again.

***

That’s my list. Avengers and Sherlock Holmes have the advantage of being popcorn movies that don’t take themselves too seriously, which is always attractive. Titanic actually had the nerve to go win a record number of Oscars (including Best Picture) but I think enough time has passed that we can love-hate-watch it with impunity, especially when it goes so far as to put itself in 3-D, that tawdriest of film upgrades.

Thoughts? Any others I’ve missed?