Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Post-Oscar Thoughts

When talking about an Oscar telecast, you’re really talking about two things: The show and the awards. So let’s do it that way…

Thoughts on The Show

I thought Billy Crystal was good, considering we knew what we were in for. This was a throwback Oscars, which was appropriate for a year in which the top two contenders were about what movies were like in the early 20th century. Everything about the show was designed to be about “remembering the movies,” and given that not-so-lofty goal, the producers did a good job. Crystal was his usual, engaging self. The jokes weren’t edgy, but they were reliable, and after the James Franco debacle last year, reliable was a welcome step in the right direction. And Billy’s old intro tactic where he jumps through all of the nominated movies was pulled off just as well as ever.

As with every Oscar ceremony, some of the set pieces worked and some didn’t. The Focus Group bit was a fun idea but somewhat boring in execution. The Cirque Du Soleil performance was incredibly well done and entertaining, but you have to wonder what it was doing there. It’s like Hollywood and The Oscars are so panicked about putting on a good show that it no longer matters how they do it. And the early montage about going to the movies seemed forced and honestly a bit pathetic, as though the MPAA mandated it. I’m as big an advocate as anyone for seeing things on the big screen, but trying to manipulate beg people into theaters isn’t the right way.

I generally liked the way the nominees were presented, and I always appreciate when the technical categories show a little of what the nominees did instead of blankly reading the names and expecting the audience to care who wins. I also really liked what they did with Best Actress/Actor this year. It used to always be that the nominees were named and a short clip of the performance was shown. Then a few years ago, the ceremony got rid of the clips and replaced them with fellow actors speaking about the nominees. This was a nice idea, but most people haven’t seen all of the nominated films, so getting rid of the clips was a noticeable loss. This year, we got the best of both worlds—the presenter spoke about each nominee, and then we saw the clips. My only regret was that when Natalie Portman spoke about Gary Oldman, she didn’t mention how they worked together on her first movie (The Professional), and she tried to kill him.

I was very pleased that the presenters were all of some discernible talent level. Over the last few years, the Oscars have been so desperate to get young viewers that they turned to people like Taylor Lautner and Miley Cyrus to be presenters. The Oscars are supposed to be a celebration of great movies, and even if Cameron Diaz might not be the greatest actress in the world, she has been in some great movies (Being John Malkovich, Gangs of New York, etc.). The same can’t be said for Miley Cyrus. And some of the presenters, like Chris Rock, Emma Stone, Zach Galifianakis, and the Bridesmaids crew were really fantastic. Honestly, the Bridesmaids cast was so good that I wonder why they weren’t hosting. If you want your youth viewership, that’s how you get it. Every year, get the cast of the previous summer’s biggest & best comedy to host the Oscars. We could have had Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson host the year after Wedding Crashers, The Hangover crew host in 2010, and Kristen Wiig & co. to host this year. Would that be so bad? I mean, who knows, maybe they tried. Maybe Kristen Wiig couldn’t get the time off from SNL, or maybe she just turned it down. But it feels like a missed opportunity—for both ratings and hilarity. Is there a funnier person on the planet right now than Kristen Wiig?

There were only two places I thought the ceremony really went wrong. The first was in having Adam Sandler appear in the “talk about your movie memories” clip series on the same day he received a record-shattering eleven Razzie nominations. And the second was the egregious omission of Michael Gough (Alfred from the earlier Batman movies; died March 11, 2011) from the In Memoriam sequence. But flaws aside, I’m getting sick of people bashing the Oscars every year for being boring and underwhelming. If you consistently feel that way, either stop watching or recalibrate your standards for being whelmed. The Oscars make an effort to be entertaining, but that isn't what they're there for. If their raison d'etre isn't compelling enough for you, then don't watch.

Thoughts on The Awards

I only went 12-12 on my predictions, a pretty embarrassing showing. There were three reasons I got twelve of them wrong: In some cases, I went against the conventional wisdom and predicted upsets that didn’t happen (Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Costume Design). In some cases the conventional wisdom wound up being surprisingly wrong (Best Actress, Best Documentary, Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Visual Effects). And in some categories, there simply is no conventional wisdom and it’s a shot in the dark every time you try to predict them (Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, Best Animated Short, Best Live Action Short).

With the glorious power of hindsight, none of these outcomes really feels too surprising, except for Best Actress. The degree to which this was thought to be Viola Davis’s year makes it impossible not to think about race. Sometimes people win Oscars for the merits of the specific role, and sometimes people win because they were “due,” and it’s understood that their career is Oscar-worthy. The last four African-American actresses to win Oscars (Halle Berry, Jennifer Hudson, Mo’Nique, and Octavia Spencer) did so purely on the strength of the performance, with little or no career worthiness. What made Viola Davis such a seemingly obvious winner was that she deserved an Oscar on both fronts—her performance was arguably the best of the year, and she was a highly respected actress with a previous nomination under her belt. Combine that with the fact that The Help was by far and away the most successful of the nominees, and none of the other nominees felt like obvious winners, it was Davis’s Oscar to lose. And lose it she did.

The narrative for Meryl Streep winning isn’t difficult to grasp; after all, she is Meryl Streep. She was on her 17th nomination, and even though she’d already won twice, she was riding a 12 nomination/29-year losing streak. But, The Iron Lady was poorly reviewed, many people didn’t think it was her best work, and whatever voter logic prevented her from winning the last several times she was nominated surely applied again. Plus, there was an alleged shoo-in candidate in Viola Davis. Maybe there’s nothing to read into here. Maybe voters simply thought Davis’s performance wasn’t that great, or that Streep’s performance was. Maybe voters finally got sick of not checking the Meryl Streep box on the ballot, and it was just Davis’s bad luck. Maybe it’s wildly unfair to think about race here, and the Oscars are past all of that, with eight African-American actors winning Oscars since 2001. None of that alters the feeling that something seems amiss here. But, as Meryl said in her wonderful acceptance speech, “Ehh, whatever.”

But personally, what I don’t like about Meryl winning this Oscar is that I feel like it vindicates the Harvey Weinstein school of thought in which making movies that will be good matters less than making movies that will win awards. And those aren’t necessarily the same thing. There was minimal effort put into The Iron Lady to make it a great movie. It had a crap script and a crap director. And I can just picture Harvey Weinstein puffing from his cigar and looking at the pitch for the movie, and muttering something like “If we get Meryl Streep, that’s all we need to sell this as an Oscar Picture. Nothing else maters.” And he was right. And that kind of makes me sick.

But Best Picture was the total opposite. Why did The Artist win Best Picture? It reminded me of something I heard last week. Cultural critic Chuck Klosterman was talking on a podcast for Grantland about Jeremy Lin, the new point guard sensation on the Knicks. Klosterman theorized that a large part of why people love his story and can’t get enough of him is because nothing takes us by surprise anymore. In an era where virtually everything is analyzed ad nauseam and we have data sets to predict all walks of life, quality in unexpected places is virtually non-existent. So the fact that scouts were so wrong about Jeremy Lin enthuses people with the idea that the great unknown can still exist, even when we take every precautionary measure to ensure that it doesn’t.

If there’s one thing that the last four Best Picture winners (Slumdog Millionaire, The Hurt Locker, The King’s Speech, and The Artist) have in common, it’s that they all flew in under the radar. And in an era where people start trying to predict the Best Picture nominees eight months before the ceremony, taking people by surprise can be a powerful commodity. Every year, studios make movies that they think can compete for Best Picture. Most of these movies are bad. But the way it used to be, one of them would inevitably rise to the top of the pack and actually win Best Picture. Movies like Titanic, The English Patient, Schindler’s List, Forrest Gump, A Beautiful Mind, and several others were all supposed to conquer the Oscars. They weren’t little movies that could; they simply met expectations. But lately it seems, the Academy has gotten sick of that trajectory. Now voters seem to flock to the movies that come out of nowhere, emerge out of film festivals with audience fervor in tow, and ignore the process. And that’s exactly what The Artist did. I have absolutely no doubt that director Michel Hazanavicius wanted to make a great and successful film that people would see, but success is a relative concept. And for a black & white, silent film starring two unknown French actors and made by an unknown French director, success probably meant finding decent word of mouth in the American art house circuit. There is absolutely no way Hazanavicius entertained the idea of being in the Best Picture race when he was making it (unless he’s the sort of director who imagines winning Best Picture even when he’s shooting a commercial).

I saw The Artist at its Toronto premiere last September, and I loved it. But I even wrote at the time that the prospect of Oscar nominations seemed too premature, and I was just hoping that people would actually see the movie. But lately, that’s the exact kind of thing voters have gone for. The last four Best Picture winners came with virtually no pedigree and no expectation, but they conquered the film festival circuit and rode waves of momentum and word of mouth that slowly became unstoppable. And the narrative to be gained from this trend is that voters might be sick of narratives. Voters might be sick of feeling like the Best Picture nominees are preordained, or the notion that movies would be made with Best Picture in mind. Instead, movies should just be made to be good, and if that happens, then anything else can happen too.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Predicting the Oscar Winners

Click here to read this post on Detroit's Metro Times.

This was a strange year for the Best Picture nominees. Seven and a half of the nine nominees are period pieces, with only The Descendants and half of Midnight in Paris taking place in the present. Two of the movies are about silent cinema (Hugo and The Artist), two of the movies take place in Paris during the 1920s (Hugo and Midnight in Paris), and, bizarrely, two of the movies take place in 2002 (Moneyball and Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close), which is something that can’t even be said about any of the Best Picture nominees from 2002. Hugo and The Artist are interesting mirror images of each other: One is a French movie that takes place in Hollywood of the late 1920s, and the other is a Hollywood movie that takes place in France of the late 1920s; One is a silent film about the birth of the sound era, the other is a sound film about the death of silent film history; One makes every effort to feel like it was made eighty years ago, while the other embraces 3-D technology arguably better than any other movie ever has; And, perhaps most differently, one will win Best Picture and the other won’t. And Hugo and Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close both appear to have the exact same plot outline: A young boy goes on a search involving a missing lock/key in the hopes that it can help reveal a secret message from his recently deceased father. Of course, that’s where the similarities end between those two, as Hugo was the year’s best film, while Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close was extremely awful and incredibly annoying. Even typing the movie’s title is annoying.

In my predictions, I always get somewhere between 15-19 of the 24 awards correct, but the dream is to go 20 for 24. I haven’t done it yet, but maybe this will be the year.

Best Picture

The Artist

The Descendants

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

The Help


Midnight in Paris


Tree of Life

War Horse

What Should Win? To me, Hugo was very clearly the best film of 2011, and nothing else was even close. Unfortunately, it won’t win Best Picture because it cost 150 million dollars to make, and to date it’s only brought in 66.7 million at the box office. Recent Oscar history has shown that a movie can win Best Picture even if it doesn’t make much money, a la The Hurt Locker, which took the big prize in 2009 despite making only 15.7 million domestically. But The Hurt Locker made back it’s budget, so it wasn’t seen as a box office failure. And regardless of artistic merit, a lot of Academy members don’t like voting for a box office failure.

What Will Win? The Artist is the front-runner, but audiences haven’t totally embraced it and there’s a bit of a backlash against it for being too simple to win Best Picture. Of course, simplicity didn’t stop Chicago or Shakespeare in Love from winning, so I don’t put a lot of stock into that theory. But audience reception really does mean a lot to some voters, and especially with older members that remember the Hollywood of the 50s and 60s when mega-hits like Ben-Hur and My Fair Lady routinely won Best Picture. Given that (and it pains me to say this), I think The Help has a decent chance, and if anything were to beat The Artist, it would be that. But even still, this reminds me of one of those NFL playoff games where people talk themselves into the underdog having a shot just because they don’t like the favorite, and then the favorite wins big anyway.

What Got Screwed? I had six of these nominees in my own top 15 of 2011, which is close enough of an overlap that they deserve their spot. I thought The Help was an exceedingly average movie with good performances, and I hated Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, which I found to be just awful filmmaking. I also hated Tree of Life, because I found it to be nothing more than an overly pretentious series of images set to music and alleged to have deep meanings about life, but which failed to coalesce into an actual “movie.” I think it would have worked better as a visual arts project for a museum. But even still, I’m weirdly okay with Tree of Life being here, because it was ambitious, audacious, and will probably be highly influential, and it inspired as much passion from its supporters as anything else this year. And I’d rather see the Academy recognize failed art than average commercialism. But if I could take out The Help and Extremely Loud & incredibly Close and swap in two more deserving movies, it would have to be Drive and Beginners, two fully realized movies that wore their styles on their sleeve and didn’t get the attention they deserved.

Best Director

Woody Allen – Midnight in Paris

Michel Hazanavicius – The Artist

Terrence Malick – Tree of Life

Alexander Payne – The Descendants

Martin Scorsese – Hugo

Who Should Win? In making Hugo, Scorsese didn’t just craft a wonderful movie, but he also made a love letter to the history of cinema, and something that is sure to be one of the most treasured works by arguably the greatest filmmaker of the last forty years.

Who Will Win? Only four times in the last forty years has the person who won the Director’s Guild award then lost the Academy Award, and 2002 was the last time it happened, when Rob Marshall won the DGA for Chicago but lost the Oscar to Roman Polanski, for The Pianist. But I really believe this could be one of those years. Hazanavicius won the DGA, but Scorsese is so beloved that it’s not difficult to imagine people voting for him over “the unknown French guy,” and it’s hard to picture a scenario where Martin Scorsese will ever deserve a second Oscar more than he does for Hugo.

Who Got Screwed? Arguably, the two most important things for a director are creating the style and drawing the best work out of their actors. Given that, I don’t think Woody Allen deserves to be here. I loved Midnight in Paris, but its strength was in its script. The movie wasn’t particularly interesting visually, and the acting was very good but unremarkable. That spot should have gone to Bennett Miller for Moneyball, a movie with impeccable craft and style, and the best ever acting by its stars, Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill.

Best Actor

Demian Bichir – A Better Life

George Clooney – The Descendants

Jean Dujardin – The Artist

Gary Oldman – Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Brad Pitt – Moneyball

Who Should Win? Part of me thinks Gary Oldman should win, because he’s such a criminally underrated and underappreciated actor that this is his first nomination. But if we’re going strictly by the performance, Oldman’s is a bit too restrained. I’d give it to Brad Pitt. Pitt is an actor who consistently gets a little better every year, and Moneyball is his best job yet. He nails every nuance, every subtle tick of emotion, every face tilt, smirk, shift of tone, and knowing smile. It’s one of those performances that you really don’t notice how great it is until you see it a second time, and the belief in the character completely sinks in.

Who Will Win? This is the first year in a long time where there’s A) no performance that towers in quality over the others, and B) no obvious frontrunner. I could actually imagine each person winning. Clooney and Dujardin are the favorites, having picked up the most precursor awards. Pitt is respected, due, and arguably the most deserving. Oldman is seen as heavily past due. And Bichir is the only nominee that really has a true showcase scene in his film, with the closing scene between he and his son in A Better Life practically screaming the words “For Your Consideration.” But even though I think everyone here has a puncher’s chance, it still probably comes down to Clooney and Dujardin. Clooney may have given his best performance, but I think Dujardin’s work had the higher degree of difficulty. Acting is easier with great dialogue; Dujardin did his work with no dialogue at all. And even though everyone loves George Clooney, I wonder if people might be a little sick of all of his accolades. Are we really ready for him to have two acting Oscars? Here’s a complete list of the living actors with two Oscars: Jack Nicholson, Dustin Hoffman, Tom Hanks, Robert DeNiro, Sean Penn, Daniel Day Lewis, Denzel Washington, Michael Caine, Kevin Spacey, and Gene Hackman. I love Clooney as much as anyone, but he doesn’t strike me as someone that needs to join that list quite yet. I think Jean Dujardin will win.

Who Got Screwed? As much as I believe Gary Oldman is a great actor who should have been nominated long ago, I don’t think his work in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was one of the five best lead actor performances of 2011. That spot should have gone to Michael Fassbender for Shame, where he flawlessly displayed all of the pain, anguish, and lack of control that define addiction.

Best Actress

Glenn Close – Albert Nobbs

Viola Davis – The Help

Rooney Mara – The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Meryl Streep – The Iron Lady

Michelle Williams – My Week With Marilyn

Who Should Win? Keira Knightley, for A Dangerous Method. What’s that you say? She wasn’t nominated? Well, of the nominees, and if we’re eliminating politics or career from the discussion and just focusing on the performance, I think it should be Rooney Mara by a landslide. Mara absorbed herself so deeply into the role that she truly became Lizbeth Salander, and she totally stole Noomi Rapace’s thunder after Rapace won raves for her portrayal of Lizbeth in the Swedish version of the film. Mara created a dangerous mixture of toughness and vulnerability that really deserves more than just the nomination.

Who Will Win? It’s effectively down to Davis and Streep. The argument for Streep seems to be “she was really good and she hasn’t won an Oscar in nearly thirty years,” while the argument for Davis seems to be “she was really good and only one African American has won Best Actress in Oscar history” (Halle Berry in 2001 for Monster’s Ball). While counting out Streep always seems a bit risky, betting against her has been the right move 14 out of 16 times. And with things relatively equal, it might be hard for voters to give Streep a third Oscar at the expense of giving Viola Davis her first.

Who Got Screwed? In some years, it’s difficult to even find five performances to nominate. But 2011 was an extraordinarily fruitful year for lead actresses, and this category could have been filled with five completely different names without a difficult search. Keira Knightley (A Dangerous Method), Charlize Theron (Young Adult), Kirsten Dunst (Melancholia), Tilda Swinton (We Need to Talk About Kevin), and Elizabeth Olsen (Martha Marcy May Marlene) were all worthy, and their absence just has to be chalked up to “in any other year, they could’ve been nominated.” But Knightley is the one that can legitimately say she got screwed. I saw A Dangerous Method at its premiere in Toronto last fall, and I walked away from the movie thinking it was Knightley’s Oscar to lose. I’m still amazed her performance couldn’t overcome disappointing reviews for the movie to snag a nomination. I would have given her Glenn Close’s spot.

Best Supporting Actor

Kenneth Branagh – My Week With Marilyn

Jonah Hill – Moneyball

Nick Nolte – Warrior

Christopher Plummer – Beginners

Max Von Sydow – Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

Who Should Win? Christopher Plummer gave a career-best performance as the newly out of the closet gay man in Beginners, and he filled the role with a joy and vibrancy that’s contagious when watching the movie.

Who Will Win? Plummer is the closest we have to a sure thing in the acting races this year; it should be his award to lose. But Max Von Sydow has a chance for an upset based mostly on the same reasoning as Plummer—old, respected, great career, never won anything. The problem with the case for Von Sydow is that his role wasn’t as good as Plummer’s, and he’s nominated for a movie that most people strongly dislike. Christopher Plummer should spend Sunday morning practicing his acceptance speech.

Who Got Screwed? I’m one of the people that was shocked Albert Brooks wasn’t nominated for Drive, and not just because he was expected to be. He was also really good, playing a deliciously creepy villain whose ruthlessness manages to consistently feel unexpected. And his omission from the category was especially surprising given the recent Oscar precedent of this award going to the year’s best villain, which happened three years in a row before Christian Bale broke the trend last year for The Fighter. (Those three winners were Javier Bardem for No Country for Old Men, Heath Ledger for The Dark Knight, and Christoph Waltz for Inglourious Basterds.) I think Von Sydow’s nomination should have gone to Brooks, and I also think Ben Kingsley was unfairly overlooked for his portrayal of director Georges Melies in Hugo.

Best Supporting Actress

Berenice Bejo – The Artist

Jessica Chastain – The Help

Melissa McCarthy – Bridesmaids

Janet McTeer – Albert Nobbs

Octavia Spencer – The Help

Who Should Win? If you agree with the idea that a great supporting performance is about scene stealing, then it’s hard to say the award shouldn’t go to McCarthy. Every time she leaves the screen in Bridesmaids, you just can’t wait for her to get back. And her performance vaulted her from an unknown sitcom actress to a household name in a matter of weeks.

Who Will Win? I do think McCarthy has a very legit chance to upset, but Octavia Spencer has pretty well swept the precursor awards. Plus The Help was an even bigger box office success than Bridesmaids, and it’s seen as a triumph of acting (proven by it’s Best Ensemble Cast award from the Screen Actors Guild). But the huge support for The Help might be what costs Spencer the Oscar, as her costar, Jessica Chastain, could steal some of her votes. But will it be enough for McCarthy to swoop in for the win? Doubtful.

Who Got Screwed? I’m still a bit confused as to why Shailene Woodley wasn’t nominated for The Descendants. I thought she was just as good as George Clooney, and nearly as essential to the movie’s emotional resonance. Janet McTeer’s spot should have gone to her. And even though the role was completely unheralded and never in discussion for a nomination, I thought Melanie Laurent did a wonderful job in Beginners.

Best Adapted Screenplay

The Descendants – Alexander Payne and Nat Faxon & Jim Rash

Hugo – John Logan

The Ides of March – George Clooney & Grant Heslov and Beau Willimon

Moneyball – Stan Chervin and Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – Bridget O’Connor & Peter Straughan

Who Should Win? Moneyball and The Descendants were the two best adapted scripts of the year, and a lot of people think The Descendants will win because it was the better film (which is debatable, but that’s beside the point). But the Adapted Screenplay Oscar should also be about degree of difficulty. Did your source material easily lend itself to a film script? How much needed to be changed to create a viable film? With The Descendants, by all accounts the script captured the novel pretty closely. But Moneyball is another matter entirely. The book Moneyball doesn’t have a narrative. It doesn’t really tell a story or have a plot. The book is about new ways of analyzing statistics and using them to economic advantage. In choosing to turn that into a film, the screenwriters had to forge an angle for the story, find a beginning and an ending, and create all the dialogue from scratch. The fact that they did it so well, and the movie worked precisely on the strength of its script, is why Moneyball deserves the Oscar.

Who Will Win? It’s neck and neck between The Descendants and Moneyball, but I think Moneyball will win for the same reasons listed above, and because people love Aaron Sorkin.

Who Got Screwed? I really have a hard time understanding why The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo wasn’t recognized in this category, as its writer, Steven Zaillian, had the unenviable task of distilling an immensely popular 500-page novel about a murder investigation down to a 2-½ hour movie. A huge amount of detail inevitably had to be left out, but the movie comes across quite clearly, and the plot is without holes. I irrationally love Hugo more than anyone, but it was adapted from an illustrated novel, which is practically a rough draft of a screenplay. Its nomination should have gone to Dragon Tattoo.

Best Original Screenplay

The Artist – Michel Hazanavicius

Bridesmaids – Annie Mumolo & Kristen Wiig

Margin Call – J.C. Chandor

Midnight in Paris – Woody Allen

A Separation – Asghar Farhadi

Who Should Win? Midnight in Paris is the most original story of the year, and it succeeds with dialogue and structure just as much as it does in concept.

Who Will Win? A lot of people are predicting The Artist here, but I just don’t see it. Not only is there no dialogue (the obvious hindrance for a win in this category), but the story is also very basic. I loved The Artist and don’t wish to discredit it’s screenplay, which certainly didn’t write itself, but I think there’s a big difference between a very good screenplay, and an Oscar winning screenplay. Midnight in Paris is an Oscar winning screenplay. But having said that, it still has one major voter hurdle to overcome, namely the public knowledge that Woody Allen doesn’t attend the Oscars. Not only is it a bit of a drag to award someone who won’t be there to give a speech, but it can also be construed as disrespectful to the institution of the Oscars. Will that perception be enough to cost Woody the Oscar? No, I don’t think it will be.

Who Got Screwed? This was the category that I really think got it wrong in the nomination process. I haven’t seen A Separation, and it’s supposed to be phenomenal, so I’ll leave it out of my complaining. But I really don’t think The Artist and Margin Call deserve to be here. For those two slots, I can think of four very deserving movies: Beginners, Win Win, Crazy Stupid Love, and 50/50. Beginners and Win Win are the two that I really think belonged here, and especially Win Win, which ended up completely shut out of the Oscar nominations despite being one of the year’s best films.

Best Animated Feature Film

A Cat in Paris

Chico & Rita

Kung Fu Panda 2

Puss in Boots


Pixar began releasing a movie every year in 2006, and since that happened, it’s been pretty difficult to fathom this category without their participation. But Cars 2 sucked just enough to not get nominated, leaving the category open in what may be an increasingly rare occasion. Of the nominees, I haven’t seen Chico & Rita or A Cat in Paris, and I thought Kung Fu Panda 2 was clearly the strongest of the other three. But every Oscar predictor seems to unanimously agree that Rango will win, so it seems foolish to bet against it.

Best Documentary Feature

Hell and Back Again

If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front

Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory



If this were simply a popular vote, Undefeated would win. It’s a classic, crowd-pleasing sports tearjerker, and there was barely a dry eye in the theater when I attended the Toronto premiere. But Best Documentary is one of the categories that an Academy member may only vote for if they verify that they’ve seen all of the nominees. And because the only people who do that are documentary enthusiasts, popularity won’t mean anything here. Pina, a 3-D dance film by legendary German director Wim Wenders, has a decent shot because of its success in theaters and its artistic pedigree, but the likely winner is Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory. The story of a wrongly incarcerated trio called the West Memphis Three, the directors spent the better part of two decades making the three films that tell their story, and led to their eventual release. The film is now showing on HBO On Demand, and it’s supposed to be outstanding.

Best Foreign Language Film

Bullhead – Belgium

Footnote – Israel

In Darkness – Poland

Monsieur Lazhar – Canada

A Separation – Iran

From what I saw, my favorite foreign film of the year was Le Havre, but unfortunately it wasn’t nominated. Of the nominees, the only one I’ve seen is Footnote, which I saw in Toronto and is quite good. Monsieur Lazhar is also very well regarded, while I haven’t heard anything about Bullhead. But I think it comes down to in Darkness versus A Separation. In Darkness is a holocaust story, and apparently a very good one, so it goes without saying that it will receive plenty of support from a voting body that skews very old and very Jewish. But even still, the overwhelming love and accolades for A Separation are simply too loud and numerous to ignore. Even though I haven’t seen the film yet, A Separation sounds like it just can’t lose.

Best Cinematography

Jeff Cronenweth - The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Janusz Kaminski – War Horse

Emmanuel Lubezki – Tree of Life

Robert Richardson - Hugo

Guillaume Schiffman - The Artist

Much as I disliked Tree of Life, its gorgeous imagery is the one quality I freely credit it with, and Emmanuel Lubezki is a five-time nominee who has yet to take home a statue. I thought Sean Bobbitt deserved a nomination for his gorgeous work in Shame, but no dice. Out of the other nominees, War Horse has an outside chance, and Hugo could certainly win given how masterfully it utilized 3-D. But voters should recognize that this is the best chance Tree of Life has to take home an award.

Best Film Editing

The Artist

The Descendants

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo



The Best Editing Oscar usually goes one of two ways: either A) it goes to the film that created the best puzzle or built the best suspense, or B) it goes to the eventual Best Picture winner. Given that, I think we can effectively rule out Hugo and The Descendants. And even though The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo did a great job in crafting it’s puzzle, it was also close to three hours long, which means a lot of people will inevitably think it needed another twenty minutes cut out and they’ll blame that on the editor. I would have liked nominations to go to Beginners for its use of still photos and time jumps, and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy for its slow-burn build-up of information and intensity, but neither made the cut. Personally, I think Moneyball was a major achievement in editing, as it seamlessly mixed in flashback footage of Billy Beane’s playing career, real life voiceovers of play-calling and sports radio, and a nice twist on classic sports movie montages. But the subtly skillful editing in The Artist ably helps it sustain viewer attention without the use of dialogue, and I suspect the lack of an obvious shoo-in candidate will mean this award gets swept up in The Artist’s march towards Best Picture.

Best Music – Original Score

Ludovic Bource – The Artist

Alberto Iglesias – Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Howard Shore – Hugo

John Williams – The Adventures of Tintin

John Williams – War Horse

This is a tough category for me, as my three favorite scores of the year aren’t even here (Trent Reznor’s work in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Howard Shore’s score for A Dangerous Method, and the Chemical Brothers beats that soundtracked Hanna). Given what is here, I think Hugo has the best chance for an upset, and you can never quite count out John Williams even though he’s come up empty on forty (!!) of his previous forty-five nominations. But The Artist should have this race pretty well locked up, and not just because the score is very good, but because it has such a prominent role in an otherwise silent movie. It’s pretty much impossible to miss its quality, though there could be some backlash over the use of Bernard Herrman’s Vertigo score in one sequence, which inspired Kim Novak to tell the press that she felt like Vertigo had been “raped.”

Best Music – Original Song

“Man or Muppet” – The Muppets

“Real in Rio” – Rio

God, what a pathetic boring race. Not even a decade ago, it looked like this category had turned a major corner when Eminem won the Oscar for “Lose Yourself,” the timeless theme song from 8 Mile. False alarm, I guess. Out of 39 eligible songs, the Academy could only get two nominees due to the complicated rules that involve minimum point totals. This category has always had the same credibility problem as the Grammys, which comes from the fact that popular music still has too much of a generation gap for voters in their forties and voters in their eighties to come to any kind of agreement on quality. Which means that the nominees usually end up being bland and inoffensive, because that’s the only stuff that doesn’t lose out on all the points coming from the older voters. I guess the Muppets song will probably win, but who cares? This category needs a major overhaul next year.

Best Visual Effects

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2


Real Steel

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Transformers: Dark of the Moon

There’s a small chance Hugo could win this if it goes on a semi-sweep of the technical categories, but the most impressive special effects of the year were in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and I expect them to be recognized.

Best Art Direction

The Artist

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2


Midnight in Paris

War Horse

Of its eleven nominations, this is the one award that I think Hugo has safely in the bag. Not only did it seamlessly recreate a Paris train station from the late 1920s, but also the magical sets from the films of Georges Melies.

Best Costume Design


The Artist


Jane Eyre


I like Hugo here, too, mostly because of the lobster costumes in one of the flashbacks to the Melies films. Lobster costumes!

Best Makeup

Albert Nobbs

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2

The Iron Lady

I’ve said this in years past, but I think this is a dead category that will disappear from the ceremony within ten years. Almost all creature effects, disfiguring, and aging are now done digitally, so there’s little use for dramatic makeup anymore. But the makeup in The Iron Lady was pretty good, and about as prominent as film makeup gets these days. Unless you count the clay-faces that the actors in J. Edgar were turned into, which thankfully did not earn a nomination.

Best Sound Editing


The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo


Transformers: Dark of the Moon

War Horse

The sound awards typically boil down to pure guesswork for Oscar predictors, but there are a few constants: Bad movies don’t win and war movies often do. So War Horse is as logical a guess as it probably gets.

Best Sound Mixing

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo



Transformers: Dark of the Moon

War Horse

I’m picking War Horse. See above for the (limited) details.

Best Documentary Short

The Barber of Birmingham: Foot Soldier of the Civil Rights Movement

God is the Bigger Elvis

Incident in New Baghdad

Saving Face

The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom

This is the one category that I haven’t seen a single one of the nominees. But my sources tell me that Saving Face is the best one, and my sources don’t like it when I don’t listen to them.

Best Short Film – Animated


The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore

La Luna

A Morning Stroll

Wild Life

La Luna is by Pixar, and it’s very good, which for some people should be all you need to know. But if you can believe it, Pixar has actually lost this category the last six times it was nominated. Voters usually see the five nominees all together as one screening, and in that setting, the Pixar one almost always stands out as actually being the most normal and polished, while the other four can be all over the board in terms of style, tone, technique, and theme. Take A Morning Stroll, for example, which was my favorite. It documents a man walking past a chicken on the sidewalk in three different time periods/styles. In 1959, the art is in newspaper style and the man glances down at the chicken. In 2009, the art is like an iPod commercial, and the man is too busy on his mobile device to notice the chicken. And in the zombie apocalypse of 2059, the man tries to eat the chicken. I loved it, and I’m pulling for it to win even though my sources are predicting The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, which I found boring.

Best Short Film – Live Action



The Shore

Time Freak

Tuba Atlantic

I’m torn on this one. Raju had the best story, The Shore had the best quality, and Time Freak was the funniest. I would probably choose Time Freak, but I suspect Raju will play better with the voters.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The 25 Best Movies of 2011

2011 was one of those years that had a wealth of good movies but a dearth of great ones. Like 2010, when The Social Network stood alone at the top and everything else was in its shadow, 2011 had exactly one timeless classic. But even if the search for classics might leave one wanting, there was no shortage of quality at the cinemas last year, and I actually had a difficult time getting this list down to 25.

The Timeless Classic

1. Hugo (Directed by Martin Scorsese)

Back in early summer of last year, when the fall/holiday movie slate was beginning to be announced, I recall reading that Martin Scorsese’s new film was a 3-D children’s adventure, and I was disgusted. I couldn’t fathom a worse version of jumping the shark. Scorsese had always been a film classicist and purist (occasionally working in black & white), as well as one of contemporary cinema’s most masculine and adult of directors. A 3-D children’s film could not possibly seem more contrary to the man’s strengths and ideologies. I was dubious and hesitant of Hugo, to say the least. But never have I been more thrilled to be wrong.

Hugo starts out with a young boy’s quest to retrieve what he believes is a message from his dead father (coincidentally, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close featured an identical premise). But midway through, the film pulls a Psycho-like slight-of-hand with the plot, and it becomes about something else entirely. It turns out Hugo might be one of Scorsese’s most passionate statements as a filmmaker, and possibly closer to his heart than any of his previous works. It’s also not a children’s movie in the same way E.T. isn’t a children’s movie. It’s an all ages movie, but just because something is appropriate for children doesn’t mean it’s for them. I struggle to imagine any child liking Hugo as much as I know several adults do.

Hugo is a film about film. It’s about why film matters, why movies resonate with people, and why we devote so much time, energy, and money to capturing our dreams on celluloid. Only someone with Scorsese’s integrity and understanding of film could pull off a tale about the preservation and appreciation of the past by using the most cutting-edge of modern technology and technique. It’s an example of futurism and nostalgia aiding one another in creating a real and genuine sense of timelessness. While The Artist tried to simply recreate the past, Hugo shows us why the past matters, and why the past should always stay with us, even as we continue our eternal move forward.

The Great Movies

2. Drive (Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn)

I read recently that all movies are, by definition, manipulative, and that it’s unfair to hold that against them. Instead, we can only comment about how, why, and with what we’re being manipulated. Drive is a movie that manipulated me in my favorite kind of way. Back in his spaghetti westerns of the 1960s, Sergio Leone pioneered a technique of creating a sense of danger and action by using editing, music, and cinematography instead of really having action. By doing so, he was able to feature long passages where nothing actually happened, because he manufactured an exaggerated level of intensity. In modern cinema, Quentin Tarantino and Michael Mann do this in practically every movie they make. Drive does this too, and it’s a great example of the artistic capabilities that are unique to cinema. The fim features very little action, and probably only has 10-12 minutes of screen-time devoted to car chases. But the intensity, the style, the music, and the lack of dialogue create a weight to the events that’s palpable. It’ a movie that, when thinking back on it, no individual scenes or lines stand out, but you can remember exactly how you felt when you were watching it. Ryan Gosling displays a toughness and intensity that hadn’t been seen before, and the opening credit sequence is sheer perfection.

3. Beginners (Directed by Mike Mills)

The story of a man dealing with his father coming out of the closet after fifty years of marriage, Beginners masquerades itself as a simple and touching indie-comedy, but there’s a lot more to it than that. Like (500) Days of Summer did in 2009, the movie employs a wealth of innovative stylistic techniques to tell its story, but unlike Summer, the style of Beginners never gets in the way or draws too much attention to itself. There’s a fascinating technique of using old Polaroid photographs to convey the realities of life and emotion in different eras, and the movie very subtly shifts back and forth between three different time periods. But what the story veins have in common is that all of us are beginners at something through every stage of life we go through. And the fears and anxieties we experience with these new chapters of ourselves are often more similar than they are different.

4. Bridesmaids (Directed by Paul Feig)

The latest in a recent summer tradition of blockbuster R-rated comedies (it began with Wedding Crashers in 2005), Bridesmaids might be the best one yet. Throwing characters into awkward situations is something comedies have done for decades, but I’ve never seen a movie completely embrace the awkwardness like Bridesmaids does. Each time you think the movie won’t go there, it does. It goes there, it stays there, and it wallows there. And this daringness to constantly portray the characters in their worst moments allows us to really feel for them. I don’t know that I’ve ever been as invested in the emotional well being of the characters in an R-rated comedy. Sure, I wanted Steve Carell to get laid in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and I wanted them to find Doug in The Hangover, but those endings were never in doubt. With Bridesmaids, I can honestly say I had no idea how the movie would end. Each event in the plot consistently surprised me, and they kept finding new and funnier ways to hit rock bottom. A lot of people come away from Bridesmaids saying some variation of “I didn’t know a movie about women could be that funny.” The big surprise to me was that a movie about anything could be that funny.

5. Win Win (Directed by Tom McCarthy)

Win Win is a funny and heart-warming story about making the best of bad choices, and knowing when to own up and start atoning. Paul Giamatti stars as a lawyer stealing the caretaker money he receives from a client in a nursing home, but when the client’s grandson shows up to live with him, things get weird. And there’s a lot of high school wrestling. It’s difficult for a movie to simultaneously succeed as a comedy, a morality play, and a character piece, but Win Win does just that. The funniest moments hold up against any other comedy of the year sans Bridesmaids, and the emotional arc of the characters always feels genuine. But what’s really great is the way the characters deal with real consequences to their actions. Win Win shows us that being a good person doesn’t necessarily mean living a life free of selfish mistakes. Sometimes it’s about what we do after those mistakes have been made.

The Very Good Movies

6. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (Directed by David Fincher)

Comparing 2010’s Swedish film and 2011’s American adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is an easy way to see what a difference a great director can make. The Swedish version was very good, captivating, and felt like it was pretty flawlessly executed. But it didn’t stay with you. The American version, on the other hand, was made by one of the five best directors in the world at the moment, and that skill is all over the screen. The story is more fleshed out, the editing makes the details of the murder investigation easier to grasp, the photography better styles the atmosphere, the music creates more palpable dread… and then there’s the Enya song, which is the moment everything crystallizes and you realize “Wow, this is much better than the Swedish version.” Individually these are all small improvements, but together, they make a huge difference. And Rooney Mara brings everything to the role of Lizbeth that you didn’t even realize was missing with Noomi Rapace’s performance in the Swedish film. But in retrospect, Rapace was too tough. Mara’s waifish portrayal conveys a vulnerability that’s essential to understanding the emotional damage and withdrawal at the heart of the character. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is, at its core, simply a serial killer movie with a compelling story and great characters, and it doesn’t approach the eternal themes and complexity of Fincher’s 2010 masterpiece, The Social Network. But after two previous serial killer movies (1995’s Se7en and 2007’s Zodiac), Fincher said he was attracted to the project because he was “intrigued at the idea of making a franchise movie for adults.” He succeeded.

7. The Artist (Directed by Michel Hazanavicius)

If I hadn’t seen The Artist twice, it would have been much higher on this list (probably number 2), but it suffers quite a bit from a second viewing. The movie feels a bit too slight the second time around, and once the charms have become familiar, they lose their… err… charm. But having said that, there’s a lot here to love. The Artist is a positively joyous movie, well conceived and impeccably pulled off. And as a lover of movies, it’s easy to be thrilled that something like this exists at all. Silent cinema was the Latin of art forms: completely dead, nothing more than a subject people don’t want to study. But The Artist effectively acts as a thesis statement for why that shouldn’t be the case. The best silent movies weren’t stuffy or pretentious; they were crowd pleasers in the truest sense. Chaplin movies found success all over the world because they had universal appeal (and no language barrier). At its best, The Artist is proof that silent movies were and are a great art form capable of real expressiveness and great storytelling.

8. Midnight in Paris (Directed by Woody Allen)

Woody Allen has been in the midst of a career renaissance since 2005’s Matchpoint, when he began setting movies in Europe after over thirty years of exploring New York. Midnight in Paris is the best yet from this era, and it’s about an interesting theme that Woody hasn’t explored much (which is odd considering how similar in ideas so many of his movies are). This time around, Woody tackles the lofty subject of longing for the past and how people romanticize lives that weren’t their own. Owen Wilson is perfectly cast as Woody’s on-screen alter-ego, and he finds himself unwittingly trapped in a time loop by which he can engage with the famous denizens of 1920’s Paris, including Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dali, Picasso, and others. If I have a complaint against the movie, it’s that the famous characters are a bit too defined by their clichés, but that never really feels like a flaw because it’s so much fun to see the interactions with them. By the end, Midnight in Paris has served as its own proof that the best way to see the past is through the movies.

9. The Descendants (Directed by Alexander Payne)

The Descendants has unfortunately become the poster child for how underwhelming 2011’s “best” movies were, but that’s pretty unfair. Getting lofted to the top in a weak year because everything else was underwhelming isn’t the movie’s fault. Removed from the weight of expectation and the perception that it’s a Best Picture contender, The Descendants is a very good and thoughtful movie, with fantastic performances and dialogue. Payne (who also directed Sideways and About Schmidt) is always good at toeing towards the humorous side of weighty subject matter, without ever undermining the emotional punch. Here, that punch comes in a wrenching goodbye at a hospital bed, where George Clooney delivers one of his best moments as an actor.

10. Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (Directed by Brad Bird)

It used to be that action movies routinely embraced the outlandish. But starting in 2004 with The Bourne Supremacy, and culminating with Casino Royale and The Dark Knight, we’ve spent most of the last decade in an era where action movies were graded on their “realness” and “grittiness.” For a while this felt refreshing, and it led to some fantastic cinema, but lately action movies have just gotten too bogged down into darkness (see: Taken). It made me want to pull a Crash Davis and scream at everyone “Hey! This is supposed to be fun, right? We’re supposed to be having fun out here!” Well, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol brought back the fun… and the ridiculous, the outlandish, the gadgets, the world-saving stakes, everything. And it did it with serious panache and style. Writer/director Brad Bird had previously only worked in animation (he helmed The Incredibles and Ratatouille), but that training proved to be the perfect antidote to the action movie malaise of contemporary cinema. In animation, your creativity isn’t constrained by the realities of filming, because the set pieces you conceive of only have to be drawn. So while other directors might have said “Nah, we can’t film that” at the thought of a foot chase through a sandstorm, or dangling a movie star outside of the world’s tallest building, Brad Bird’s brain doesn’t roll like that. And we’re lucky it doesn’t, because MI:GP has some of the best action set pieces you’ll ever see. Oh, and you know what else Bird’s Pixar training taught him? How to make a movie fun. Mission Accomplished.

11. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Directed by Tomas Alfredson)

Under normal circumstances, calling a movie long and slow would be considered a bad thing, but this is the exception. More than anything, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a methodical movie, placing careful emphasis on the subtle things spies would be trained to notice but might slip past the rest of us. I haven’t personally ever been employed as a spy, but if forced to bet, I’d wager this comes far closer to what it’s really like than any action movie ever has. A lot of quiet meetings in sealed off rooms, listening to conversations, logging details, and following hunches down dead-end paths. But the movie is never boring; it slowly absorbs you into its world and lets you linger there, listening to everything, processing the data. The payoff at the end might feel a little underwhelming, but remember, this was the Cold War. Was there even such a thing as a satisfactory conclusion?

12. Warrior (Directed by Gavin O’Connor)

Short of the latest Twilight crap-fest, probably no movie in 2011 inspired less excitement from me than Warrior. I truly hate UFC, and I’m completely opposed to it on moral grounds. Even when Warrior received fantastic reviews upon its release last fall, I stayed the hell away. It wasn’t until Nick Nolte received an Oscar nomination that I forced myself to watch it, because I feel compelled to see all of the nominees in the major categories (which is still the only reason I watched The Blind Side). And what did I find? Only one of the best sports movies of the last decade. The story of two estranged brothers with baggage from their alcoholic father who square off against each other in the UFC championship, Warrior has pretty much everything you could want from a sports movie. Redemptive story arc? Check. Goose-bump inducing competition scenes? Check. Exciting training montage? Check. Ending that feels surprising even as it was completely inevitable? Check. Endearing self-doubt among the main characters? Check. Family drama? Check. Low odds of success for the characters? Check. And the best part for me is that Warrior never feels like a movie about UFC. It feels like a domestic drama about a family battling their past, and just doing it in a ring instead of a living room. And after quality supporting work in Inception and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Tom Hardy proves in Warrior that he’s an actor of serious chops and he’s ready for stardom—which he probably has coming this summer as the villain in The Dark Knight Rises.

13. Crazy Stupid Love (Directed by Glenn Ficarra &

John Requa)

The degree of difficulty in making a great and original romantic comedy is probably higher than just about any other movie genre, but Crazy Stupid Love is a movie for which just about everything goes right. The script by Dan Fogelman, writing his first live action feature movie after years of work in animation, is absolutely note perfect, and the cast brings everything to the table that you could want. The movie manages to wink and poke fun at its genre while also shamelessly embracing it. And the scene where Ryan Gosling reveals that his “Big Move” is mentioning Dirty Dancing is probably the single funniest sequence I’ve ever seen in a romantic comedy.

14. Moneyball (Directed by Bennett Miller)

Moneyball is a movie that simultaneously succeeds on two levels, as a sports movie and as a character piece. As a sports movie, it has the worst-to-first story arc that is nearly infallible, and the snappy dialogue (brushed up by Aaron Sorkin) serves it well. But where Moneyball really succeeds is as a character piece, and Brad Pitt’s portrayal of an against-the-wall baseball team president is a fantastic depiction of a man who dares to think outside the box and challenge a system. The big unfortunate flaw of Moneyball is that it’s a movie completely lacking an ending. While Billy Beane’s revolutionary team-building strategies completely turned around the Oakland Athletics and created a winning culture, the team still got bounced out of the playoffs in the first round every year, and that result is so anti-climactic that the movie avoids even showing it. In some ways, it’s unfair to hold against the movie the fact that the A’s didn’t win a World Series under Beane, and the movie should be commended for trying to maintain accuracy. But just because the flaw in the story is the fault of history doesn’t mean the flaw isn’t there. If the 2002 Athletics had won the World Series, Moneyball might have been the greatest sports movie ever made, and would probably win Best Picture. As it is, it’ll have to settle for the achievement of squeezing a B+ film out of a C+ story.

15. War Horse (Directed by Steven Spielberg)

War Horse is a movie that’s so implausible that you have to consciously choose to let go of logic and allow the sweeping emotion of the story to grab hold of you. Because if you don’t do that, then it’s easy for the message of War Horse to come across as the following: The Central goal of World War I was to reunite a boy and his horse, and all soldiers on both sides (even the doctors) were working together towards this end. And if that’s what you take away from the movie, then there’s a very good chance you won’t like it. But if you can allow for a heaping dose of suspension of disbelief, then War Horse is a really wonderful old school epic of movie-making. The score and cinematography are positively beautiful, and this style of movie is almost as much an artifact of the past as The Artist is. Plus there’s a truly touching scene of a British soldier and a German soldier working together to free the horse from barbwire, and discovering that the opposite sides they’ve found themselves on aren’t indicative of much other than circumstance. There aren’t always enemies in war. Sometimes it’s just the guys on the other side.

The Good Movies

16. Shame (Directed by Steve McQueen)

Shame is a very good art film that suffers a bit by going too far in some spots and not far enough in others. But even while being flawed, it’s a film that shouldn’t be missed, and it’s strengths—a gorgeously shot opening sequence, a powerful performance by Michael Fassbender (and his penis), and a beautiful musical number by Carrey Mulligan—are phenomenal. Plus, the movie is practically all sex, so it’s definitely not boring.

17. Le Havre (Directed by Aki Kaurismaki)

A quirky and original French comedy about illegal African immigration in a northern port city, Le Havre is consistently surprising without feeling like the story is betraying reality. And there’s a rock and roll segue in the middle of the film by someone named Little Bob, inspired to play a charity benefit after he’s reunited with his estranged wife, who he calls “the road manager of [his] soul.” What more do you need to know?

18. Ides of March (Directed by George Clooney)

Ides of March succeeds on every level you could want it to except one—the revelation that politics are crooked and dirty no longer has the ability to surprise us. But even if the dramatic punch of the movie is lost to the reality of the era, it’s still a compelling story told with great craftsmanship by Clooney and featuring very good acting and dialogue.

19. Hanna (Directed by Joe Wright)

A fairytale-like story about an adolescent girl assassin raised in arctic seclusion, Hanna has some stunningly realized sequences, and is set to a propulsive score by The Chemical Brothers. There’s even a dazzling 360-degree fight scene shot in one take. But Hanna also feels a bit cheesy at times (especially in the ending), and the Brothers Grimm themes don’t come across as well as they could have.

20. 50/50 (Directed by Jonathan Levine)

50/50 is a funny and touching story about a 27-year-old guy dealing with cancer, and his best friend trying to help him find the brevity in the fact that he might die. It’s based on a true story, but like Moneyball, the reality of the events play against the movie, as ending with the dual triumphs of the lead character surviving and starting a relationship with his hot therapist feels a bit too cute and convenient.

21. Rampart (Directed by Oren Moverman)

What could have been a cliché-ridden movie about a corrupt cop (Woody Harrelson) getting his come-uppance actually manages to be an intense and original character piece by focusing on the inner torture of the lead character. He believes himself to be a good father to his two daughters and an effective cop because of his willingness to break any rule necessary to punish the bad guys. But the realization that the heat his vigilante habits stir up is emotionally damaging to his daughters causes him to reevaluate his actions.

22. Young Adult (Directed by Jason Reitman)

Young Adult was a bit of a letdown for me given the talent involved and an ad campaign that was executed perfectly, but the movie is still good and worth seeing. The real flaw is that it sets up a story premise that doesn’t have anywhere to go, so the ending feels like the characters have just been sort of abandoned. Given what happens in the climactic scene, it might be a good thing that there was no follow-up. But the conclusion still feels a bit empty all the same.

23. Super 8 (Directed by J.J. Abrams)

Even though Super 8 is a science fiction film involving an alien monster terrorizing a small town, it also feels somewhat autobiographical of its director, J.J. Abrams. That’s because Super 8 is also about a group of friends in late 1970’s suburban Ohio making movies on their Super 8 camera and dreaming of becoming the next Steven Spielberg. In that respect, the film really is autobiographical, and Abrams was able to bring it full circle by enlisting Spielberg to help produce the film that’s an homage to his early career. And the movie’s emotional payoff moment features a beautiful image that really pulls the heartstrings.

24. The Debt (Directed by John Madden)

Like The Usual Suspects and Atonement before it, The Debt reminds us that unreliable narrators can be used in films just as well as novels, and just because we see events dramatized on screen doesn’t mean they occurred. Unlike the above films, the revelation in The Debt isn’t quite of the jaw-dropping variety, but it’s still an interesting movie that explores the theme of truth versus perception with dramatic skill.

25. A Better Life (Directed by Chris Weitz)

A Better Life is mostly a remake of the Italian neo-realism classic Bicycle Thieves, updated to reflect the modern social issue of illegal immigration in southern California. And for the bulk of the film’s running time it doesn’t distinguish itself as being anything more than that. But the movie concludes with a stunning powerhouse of a scene and Demian Bichir earned himself a Best Actor nomination for his emotionally affecting delivery. If the whole movie were as good as the last ten minutes, it might have been in my top ten.