Among end-of-year prestige pics, I found a gem: Lone Scherfig’s An Education (A+) in which surefire Oscar nominee Carey Mulligan plays a determined British schoolgirl who falls topsy turvy for older man Peter Sarsgaard. Film captured young love with timeless, poignant truth as moments of Lolita-ish unease heighten heroine’s struggle with moral ambiguities. Mulligan is a revelation and the film an instant coming-of-age classic.
Todd Phillips’ The Hangover (B+) is vulgar, audacious and altogether winning. Pairing Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms and Zach Galifianakis in a hybrid comedy/mystery, the film follows a gang of groomsmen who must piece together what happened the previous night in a debaucherous Vegas bachelor party where the groom mysteriously disappeared. The episodic antics and misadventures of the so-called “Wolfpack” keep upping the ante, and dark hilarity ensues. These hedonistic Hardy Boys are best when displaying their vulnerabilities, with escalating levels of haplessness. The humor and highjinks add up to a delightful entertainment.
Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine character, such a highlight of the X-Men film series, was bound to get his own movie. Unfortunately it’s Gavin Hood’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine (D+), which plunges a distinctive character into a rather routine action thriller. Hood manages to suck the charm right out of the enterprise as weak effects, tired subplots and less-than-witty retorts doom this ponderous prequel.
Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds (B+) is an audacious piece of revisionist history that imagines what WWII might have been like if a couple of clever factions of bounty hunters, cinephiles and revenge seekers could have tried to kill Hitler at a movie screening. Leave it to Tarantino to take such a high-concept idea to such delicious detail and cast his film with such relish, especially with Christoph Waltz as a particularly menacing Nazi officer and Brad Pitt as a motormouthed mercenary. Some moments are uneven, but overall, this one hits the mark.
Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 (B+) is an amazing hybrid science fiction action film and part dramatic mockumentary that chronicles the ghettoization of alien life forms in Johannesburg. Sharlto Copley holds together most of the scenes with human interactions, spliced with news footage and a series of interviews as illegal experiments are exposed and as a battle ensues. It’s an intriguing metaphor for Apartheid and a whole new way of making an alien movie.
J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek (A-) is a spectacular reboot of the classic franchise with Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto stepping in nicely as Kirk and Spock, respectively. We step back to Starfleet Academy and origin stories and now have a parallel path wormhole device so that new installments can exist in their own universe. On top of the thrilling warp speed action, there was massively funny humor, especially as the chief protagonists both romance Uhura (Zoe Saldona).
Pete Docter’s Up (A-) is a lovely animated film that peaks in its first ten minutes but then opens up to a variety of rich vistas of imagination. The story of an old man and a kid who drift off in a helium balloon bouquet propelled house to a magical world is a true original. I could have done without the talking dogs and some of the stock villains, but it was mostly gorgeous and moving.
In Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air (A+), George Clooney gets his perfect role: a bit of a Br’er Rabbit of the friendly skies. As a job axman on the frequent flier circuit, he falls to earth when paired with spunky Anna Kendrick and affaired with sultry Vera Farmiga. It’s an acerbic, moving film that flawlessly captures the tone of a nation in economic recovery.
Latest Oscar bait update: Colin Firth is heartbreaking as a man grieving the loss of a lover in A Single Man (A-). In his directorial debut, fashion designer Tom Ford tailors a great character study that similar in texture to Gods & Monsters. I finally see why Firth has such a following, and one of my faves Julianne Moore has a wonderful small part.
Suppose you created a gorgeous CGI world with breathtaking 3-D vistas and amazingly life-like aliens, and then you drop in a formulaic story, wooden actors and snooze-worthy dialogue? You get James Cameron’s Avatar (C), and I want my three hours back. Actually much of the action is rousing and many of the creative sci-fi effects engrossing, but the epic polish largely conceals that the emperor of the world is sporting a threadbare ensemble.
Lars von Trier’s Antichrist (C-) is a well acted and supremely disturbing art house horror film ostensibly about the grieving process by a couple for their deceased child and ultimately a bizarre requiem summoning imagery from the Biblical fall from grace at Eden through the mistreatment of women in Salem. Some of the metaphors and mystery are spellbinding and others less revelatory than Trier may have intended. Despite conjuring fearless performances by Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainesbourg and maintaining an eerie slow burn of mounting imagery of dread and isolation, the iconoclast filmmaker can’t get out if his own way to make sense of muddled themes and mixed messages. The NC-17 rated film is full of graphic imagery and is not for the faint of heart.
Marc Webb’s (500) Days of Summer is a charming and sophisticated romantic comedy featuring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel as young people searching for love amidst the iciness and irony of modern Los Angeles. The film is enriched by its nonlinear structure in which the 500 primary days of the central duo’s relationship are told out of order. Gordon-Levitt is the revelation here as the greeting card writer who aspires to put his sunny solicitations to good use and ultimately his actual architecture skills to work in building a legacy. For a debut feature, Webb’s work is remarkably assured. It’s a funny valentine to being young and a bit confused, and the film’s unusual structure ultimately gives it the propulsive force that makes it move in its own distinctive and inspiring way.