This is arranged alphabetically because picking just 10 movies is hard enough, without trying to decide which is better than the others.
Confession: Kristen Stewart is my #1 girlcrush. She’s the ultimate anti-starlet, the pretty girl who refuses to play pretty. And as the uber-famous face of the Twilight franchise, she’d be easy to dismiss, except for work such as Adventureland. This is a wonderful ensemble piece, a period film that does not make a big deal out of the 1980’s. It’s an era that’s easy to caricaturize, but writer/director Greg Mottola (Superbad) actually lived this story, so everything feels authentic. Stewart is joined by Jesse Eisenberg, Ryan Reynolds, and Martin Starr as the core of the movie. For a coming of age tale, it’s not saccharine and hardly nostalgic. Despite the “Superbad in a theme park!” ad campaign, this film is kind of depressing and dark and times—these characters have problems, especially Stewart’s troubled, promiscuous Em Lewin—but excellent comic turns from Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig, and Matt Bush keep things from dragging down too far. And the running gag featuring Rock Me Amadeus is priceless.
I Love You, Man
This is basically a romantic comedy for straight dudes. I don’t even count this as a “bromance” movie, even though that is the central relationship, because what makes this flick so genius is how it takes rom-com clichés and recasts them in a straight-guy friendship. Result? Hilariosity. As great as Jason Segel is, and he is always great, it’s Paul Rudd that runs away with this movie. He’s got the sarcastic everyman routine down, but what comes through in this film more than his previous ones is his charm. It’s not just sarcasm for sarcasm’s sake, Rudd has real likeability, which isn’t always utilized since he so often plays a wacky supporting character. And Segel, who does Dumpy Funny Dude so well, shows he can go wild and crazy as well as anyone in Judd Apatow’s troupe of comedic players.
Bromance of the year goes to Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law in Sherlock Holmes. Guy Ritchie is one of those directors who has enormous style and technical ability, but for every good movie he’s made, he’s made a genuine pile of crap (for instance, Snatch and Swept Away), and generally he lays those piles of crap when he tries to work within the studio system. So hiring him to direct the $80M potential-franchise flick was a gutsy move. It paid off. Sherlock Holmes is as stylish as you could hope from Ritchie, and RDJ and Law are perfectly cast as Holmes and Watson. I have added RDJ to my very short list of Actors Who Can Play Any Character And Be Entirely Convincing Every Time. As for Law, I find him much more tolerable in roles like this, where he’s part of an ensemble rather than carrying a film alone. Rachel McAdams is wonderful as Irene Adler, and Mark Strong—suddenly the go-to British bad guy—gives a campy sinister performance as the evil Lord Blackwood. As per Ritchie’s standard, the fight scenes are sharp and frenetic, and his set pieces are super elaborate but he utilizes space well. I can’t wait for a DVD to pause and examine Holmes’s apartment.
The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call—New Orleans
I’m always trying to take away Nicolas Cage’s Oscar (more on that later), but The Bad Lieutenant is a reminder that somewhere under the deadpan-to-the-point-of-lifeless façade, is a really good actor. I was skeptical of this movie because generally Cage is in shitty movies, but this was surprisingly good. Werner Herzog is the sort of director you can never dismiss, and here he brings out the crazy in Cage. The definitive moment comes when Cage’s Lt. McDonagh points to his dead nemesis and says, “His soul’s still dancing,” with obligatory hallucinated iguana looking on.
The Hurt Locker
I don’t like war movies, and this is the first Iraq-war movie I’ve seen that I have actually liked. Kathryn Bigelow’s achievement is stunning. A war movie that doesn’t preach, in fact, barely gets political at all, but instead focuses on the men drawn to one of the most dangerous jobs in the military. The Hurt Locker examines the daily routines of Bravo Company’s bomb-defusing squad and how they each cope with the stress and danger of that job. Bigelow’s style is flawless here—it looks and feels like a documentary—and her technical mastery of the 16mm cameras is combined with a single digital camera to add that “handy-cam” effect. Some of the documentary feel is owed to screenwriter Mark Boal, who was embedded in Iraq for Playboy, but for my money, it’s Bigelow’s direction that does most the work. Well that, and a spectacular performance from Jeremy Renner as Staff Sgt. William James. Renner probably won’t win any hardware for this, but this was my favorite lead-actor performance of the year.
The Young Victoria
Two words: Rupert Friend. I know that this is Emily Blunt’s movie, as she plays the titular Victoria, but to me it was Friend’s portrayal of Victoria’s German suitor Prince Albert that made the movie for me. Which is not to say that Blunt wasn’t fantastic—she was. Blunt captures the spirited, flirty Victoria who became queen at only 18. And Albert, only slightly older than her, was the man who fell in love and had to court her through carefully crafted missives read and manipulated by everyone between them. Paul Bettany also gives a solid performance as Victoria’s Prime Minister Lord Melbourne, but Friend seems built for the period piece. The moment that really made this movie for me comes when a man levels a gun at Victoria. The look in Albert’s eyes as he flings himself between the gun and his pregnant wife is harrowing. In that split second they are not queen and prince-husband, but a man and his vulnerable wife.
It’s Pixar, need I say more? The formula shows in this one more than in previous Pixar movies, but it doesn’t mean it’s not still working. The opening sequence will make you cry, and the rest of the movie will uplift you. What makes Pixar so great, and works particularly well in Up, is how these movies do not talk down to kids. Sad things sometimes happen and people aren’t always happy, but at the end of the day friendship and goodwill win out. I thought this was a bit more laugh-out-loud funny than Wall-E (Dug was hilarious), and Pixar continues to develop a distinctly cartoony style of computer animation. These movies are not interested in looking like the real world, and Up’s cartoon roots really show.
Up in the Air
This movie can be almost impossible to watch as it flips through scenes of people getting laid off. George Clooney’s Ryan Bingham is a traveling hatchet man who lives for travel, describing his home as the air. Anna Kendrick gives a phenomenal performance as college-grad Natalie, whom Ryan is teaching the business to before she attempts to revolutionize it with video-conference firings. Vera Farmiga is also very good as Ryan’s traveling love interest, but it’s Kendrick’s nervous, type-A Natalie who steals the show. Jason Reitman is my One To Watch director. He seems to be succeeding in the mainstream where the equally talented Wes Anderson failed.
Where the Wild Things Are
A movie based on a beloved children’s book with only 10 sentences. The last time someone tried this we got the craptastic The Polar Express. But Wild Things looked promising from the beginning. Spike Jonze to direct, and a script written by Jonze and Dave Eggers? Please. Am sold. I grew even more excited when the studio nearly dumped Jonze’s $75M result. To talk about throwing away that much money means the studio was scared of what they were seeing, and that is almost always a good thing. Imaginative, daring, warm without pandering, and, like Up, refusing to talk down to children, Wild Things ended up splitting critics pretty much down the middle. Some wildly loved it, others reviled it, but whatever the reaction, Wild Things created a lot of discussion amongst audiences.
The zombies are coming and they will show us no mercy. Zombieland’s Columbus would counsel us show no mercy back. Jesse Eisenberg makes a second appearance on this list—dude’s got good taste in roles. The “rules” gimmick works surprisingly well (usually such things get old fast), and Woody Harrelson gives a fantastic performance as the unhinged Tallahassee, with Eisenberg’s Columbus along for the ride as his straight-laced Sundance Kid. I know people rave about Harrelson in The Messengers, but I prefer his performance here. Manic, excessive, macho and vulnerable, he ranges through the emotions Columbus refuses to deal with during the zombie onslaught. Bill Murray’s cameo is to die for (literally), and kudos to the folks who did the trailer for not spoiling it a la The Hangover. Also, the zombie kills are creative and original, almost like there was some sort of contest on set for who could come up with the most outrageous kill shot.
Near Misses: (500) Days of Summer, A Serious Man, In The Loop, Public Enemies, Taken
Okay Movies Featuring Stellar Performances: A Single Man (Colin Firth), Coco Avant Chanel (Audrey Tatou), Julie & Julia (Meryl Streep/Stanley Tucci), Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire (Gabourey Sidibe), The Hangover (Zach Galifianakis)
Movies Everyone Else Loved That I Did Not: An Education, Avatar, It’s Complicated, The Road
Terrible Disappointments: 9, Jennifer’s Body, Nine, The Lovely Bones, X-Men Origins: Wolverine