I didn’t see that many new movies last year, which is to say that I saw way more than usual and still didn’t even make a dent into most professional critic’s lists. Wanna know why? Because those guys see hundreds of films in 12 months, and I just barely cracked 20 on my own dime and free time. But I still feel grateful to have seen all that I have, and am excited to finally give you a rundown of my thoughts on each, mostly taken from the gross scribbly handwriting in my little blue journal. Obviously, this is super subjective and kind of cobbled together, so don’t take it too seriously. Let’s dive in! Don’t like spoilers? Proceed with caution!
It’s a sign of how cherry-picked this list will be that Noah is at the bottom. I’m sure this was far from the worst film of the year (based on what I’ve heard, it’s got to be a lot more interesting than the new Moses movie, Exodus). In fact, the second half, when the title character and his family finally get on the boat and start moving, heats up some potentially engrossing drama, albeit with a shamefully contrived suspenseful ending. But everything else veers from being overly stiff to eye-rollingly splashy, sometimes literally (sorry), and the centerpiece of the movie is basically one long Biblical tower defense game. Rock people build scaffolds, the bad guys wear denim and Anthony Hopkins somehow lives for centuries without growing more than a five o’clock shadow. All the same, I’d see this a hundred times before any of the many, many other movies that openly pandered to the “faith-based” market this year, except maybe the Nicholas Cage Left Behind. Someone still needs to explain to me what the hell “zohar” is, and why the earth is rich with it.
“Life doesn’t give you bumpers.” Uch. Overrated, overrated, overrated. The first half of this coming-of-age saga is full of great stuff. I love the way it gives us universal scenes that cut right before they get to the part we know is coming. Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette have a great chemistry with the kids, and it’s refreshing that there’s stuff left in the gaps between scenes for us to fill in. Then the child protagonists hit adolescence and start saying dumb teenagery things that the movie either wants us to think are dumb or (and this may be even worse) actually believes are profound. Lots of people saw this as a masterpiece, and for all I know it’s going to win Best Picture: I thought it was condescending and snide, crammed with not-so-hidden cororate logos and veiled contempt for us silly little people who actually listened to Vampire Weekend and voted in the 2008 election. Now if this was rotoscoped, it might have been another story.
18. The Zero Theorem
Whereas Noah was often laughably bad, this was just disappointing and frustrating. The premise is good, as Christoph Waltz attempts to find out the meaning of his life and escape the gamified torture of his soul-crushing office job. The sets are dizzying, the central angst of the hero palpable. All seems well at first. However, like several of Gilliam films, it’s all dressed up with no place to go. Plot points are set up and then abandoned, the story fizzles into a baffling anticlimax, and the character of Bainsley, played gamely by Melanie Thierry, is embarrassingly underdeveloped and spouts dialogue that will make you sink into your chair. Tilda Swinton has an amusing role using the same accent and buckteeth from Snowpiercer, but even she can’t save this pretty-looking mess.
17. The Double
Why is Richard Ayoade holding himself back? The erstwhile Maurice Moss has been involved with some of the most original, hilarious television projects of his generation, yet judging by his recent creative choices, he’d rather play it safe than try something truly worthy of his talent. This very dark riff on retro-dystopia has some funny moments, great art direction, and a well-done double performance from Jesse Eisenberg as both a hapless cubicle dweller and his womanizing twin. Unfortunately, the screenplay is still married to about half a dozen post-1984 tropes, and you’ll probably see the ending coming, only your version will almost certainly be better. It’s a step in the right direction, though, and Ayoade has the makings of a great future director if he starts picking more inspired projects.
Oh hey Snowpiercer, I was just talking about you two entries ago! While I wasn’t bowled over by this when I first saw it, I’m willing to give it another chance at some point in the future. I thought the movie buried its best elements under endless dull action sequences and exposition, with a finale that was supposed to be some grand existential political statement but just came across as kind of self-defeating. I’ll admit there’s enough here to make it worth a watch, though, such as great performances by Tilda Swinton, who steals her scenes, and Octavia Spencer, who really should have been the main character. I maintain that this mostly got as much praise as it did in comparison to other comparatively less “challenging” summer fare, and I’d be interested to see how much it holds up in, say, February.
15. Gone Girl
I dunno. While I liked a lot of things about this movie (particularly the fine supporting cast) I was left more than a little cold in the end. Maybe the film lost me when it gutted the central mystery halfway through and turned a potentially complex character into a one-note cypher. I don’t really want to give anything away, suffice it to say that I came away feeling kind of unclean and unsatisfied. Plus, there was a dangling character motivation thread just begging to be yanked and it wasn’t and I hate it when that happens. Apparently there could possibly be a sequel (Gone Girl 2: Gone Harder), so it’s possible that this is another film that will look better in hindsight.
14. Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie
Anyone who even knows this exists can probably predict exactly where it fits on their own personal scale, and that’s part of the charm of James Rolfe’s “real movie” debut. On the internet, Rolfe has always been one of the best video critics due to his natural savvy and unforced charm. Even though his first big screen romp injects the titular nerd character with some creepy old-school sexism (a little hard to watch post-Gamer Gate, though that’s not his fault), it’s got all the gloriously lo-fi special effects, monster puppets, and profanity you could possibly want, along with an almost folksy no-budget vibe that’s kind of hard to resist. A big step for a guy who makes videos about poop jokes and swearing at old videogames, to be sure.
Oh man, if you think you like hearing J.K. Simmons yelling at people, just you wait until you see him as a manipulative bullying jazz instructor that turns an eager protege into a self-destructive asshole, just like him. Suspend your disbelief a little and bask in the central conflict of this movie, which generates genuine tension despite its formula and raises timeless questions about artistic discipline vs. humanity. It’s like the negative polarity version of every standard “inspiring teacher” movie, except you’ll need a big hug after. Destined to become the go-to movie of every obnoxious “Yeah, I’m In A Band” guy you know. You will almost certainly leave with every tune stuck in your head at the same time.
There’s no earthly reason you should be reading Armond White on a regular basis, but every now and then I check in to see what convoluted reasoning he’s using to hate on anything that gets above a 70% on the Tomatometer, just for larfs. When it comes to Wild, I (kind of) agree with him for once: it’s a potentially strong movie laboring under the weight of its direction and screenplay. The heart of this story is Reese Witherspoon’s brave performance and her character’s tragic relationship with her mother, played by an excellent Laura Dern. Because the screenplay is written by Nick Hornby, this is a movie less about hiking and more about pop music and the endless ways it can be laden onto nature scenes and flashbacks. Scrape away the distracting voiceovers, supposedly accidental product placement and Urban Outfitters-esque philosophizing, and there’s a nice collection of honest and touching moments here. The final message is genuinely uplifting, even if some heavy-handed symbolism (and, I shit you not, a cherubic singing child) almost ruined it. Technically I saw this after the New Year but if I don’t count it I don’t get to an even 20, so deal.
11. Dear White People
Brainy, if uneven, comedy about race relations on a fictional snooty college campus, where the buildings are all named after jazz musicians but racism still percolates. Although Dennis Haysbert aka The Guy From the Allstate Commercials is great as a well-meaning, impotent college official, the real breakout stars are Tessa Thompson and Lionel Higgins, the latter of which gets some of the most memorable lines. Nobody makes it out of this movie innocent, and for once the hyper-aware Juno-speak of so many bad indie comedies actually feels appropriate, given the college setting. The ending is especially cutting.
More coming soon! Like, instantly!