If people aren't cocooning already, the upcoming dark, cold months and reduced post-holiday budgets will conspire to keep folks inside. In the interest of increased home-video consumption, here's a recap of some of my favorite films of the year, including edifying features and smaller films you likely never saw an ad for. Schadenfreude never goes out of season, so there's also a list of some of this year's worst. That's one of life's miracles: A stinker movie that is interminable in the theaters is a laugh-a-minute delight at home, surrounded by friends and empties.
Films I Thought I'd Hate But Didn't
How She Move. Not another movie about an underprivileged teen who turns street moves into success! But this Canadian low-budget charmer about a girl torn between academics and step-dance put a fresh spin on a tired genre.
The Bank Job. Starring Jason Statham, so of course I expected a stone-faced hero/villain and lots of explosions. But this bank-heist caper, set in 1971 London, is all low-tech fun: cheery banter, a puzzle of subplots and great moustaches.
WALL*E. I dreaded seeing this film: Disney + cute + toys = a triple-hit of corporately driven over-consumption. Imagine my surprise to find that very evil under attack in WALL*E's unexpected second half! And WALL*E ... sigh. I'm not ashamed to admit that lonely little trash-compactor -- so wonderfully animated -- won my heart.
Taxi to the Dark Side. Yeah, Bush is this close to gone, but Alex Gibney's devastating documentary about how the U.S. lost its soul in Afghanistan, Iraq and at home, is a potent reminder of much damage his administration wreaked. Infuriating, as it should be.
4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. This spare drama pulls few punches as it recounts the attempt of two students to procure an illegal abortion in 1980s Romania. Long, unsettling takes; dreary settings; unflinching and unsentimental -- Cristian Mungiu's film illuminates the no-man's-land between the public and the private in Ceausescu's Romania.
Man on Wire. Exhilarating portrait of Philippe Petit, who wire-walked between the World Trade Center towers in 1974; bittersweet portrait of a now-gone iconic structure, and the last gasp of artistic public spectacle, before we got all lawyered up.
- Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson
Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson: Yeah, it was a hagiography, but Alex Gibney's docu-portrait of the late free-wheelin', no-bullshit journalist made me wish today's complicit, complacent media would just go nuts.
- The Visitor
The Visitor. Richard Jenkins shines as the buttoned-up professor who checks back into life after meeting some illegal immigrants.
Reprise. Tall, beautiful Norwegians have trouble converting adolescent self-absorption into successful adulthood in this stylish dramedy.
At the Edge of Heaven. Generations and cultures intersect in surprising ways in this non-linear drama set in Germany and Turkey.
Starting Out in the Evening. Frank Langella deserves props for his current turn in Frost/Nixon, but he's also fantastic in this small-scale drama about a reinvigorated aging novelist.
OSS 117. This wry French comedy is mid-century spy-spoof, with nods to the consequences of the West meddling in the Middle East.
In Search of a Midnight Kiss. Indie feature about two loners who hang out on New Year's Eve, and -- in a rare depiction -- walk around Los Angeles' old downtown.
Happy-Go-Lucky. An upbeat film from the often downbeat Mike Leigh; the driving-lesson scenes will forever change how you think of your rear-view mirrors.
Those Hazy, Lazy Days
The summer popcorn season was better than average -- or was it just that I spent a lot of it lulled by prescription cough syrup? There was: decent action blockbusters with the upbeat Iron Man and the downbeat Dark Knight; an irony-free ABBA sing-along, Mamma Mia (not one of my faves, but I knew it'd be a hit); Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay (at last, the lighter side of the War on Terror); the kinetic eye-candy of Wanted; the goofy doobie-brothers movie Pineapple Express; and the Re-incarnation of Robert Downey Jr. Part II in Tropic Thunder.
Worst in Their Class
Understandably, the studios often don't do advance screenings of movies that stand little chance of netting any decent reviews -- What's up, Saw V? -- so some of the worst films go unnoticed. But plenty of turkeys flap noisily into theaters hoping to be winners, and of the films I saw, these were my picks. Peruse at your own discretion.
Twisty Crime Thriller: An Al Pacino double-header tie: 88 Minutes and Righteous Kill
Wacky Rom-Com: What Happens in Vegas should have stayed there.
Sci-Fi Dud: Much-hyped The Happening just wasn't. Not to be screened with houseplants present.
Technology Freak-Out J-Horror Remake: One Missed Call was a wrong number.
Torture Porn Goes Mainstream: Untraceable was often unwatchable.
- Love Guru
Vanity Project: Mike Myers is The Love Guru.
Chick Flick: The Women whine and go shopping.
Comics: Max Payne, we hardly knew ye.
Misguided A-List Project: Will Smith will survive losing Seven Pounds.