Black Sea


Yo ho, yo ho, a pirate's life for me!

Yo ho, yo ho, a pirate’s life for me!

(2014) Adventure (Focus) Jude Law, Scoot McNairy, Tobias Menzies, Ben Mendelsohn, Grigoriy Dobrygin, Karl Davies, Jodie Whittaker, Konstantin Khabenskiy, Bobby Schofield, Daniel Ryan, Branwell Donaghey, Sergey Puskepalis, Paul Terry, Sergey Kolesnikov, Sergey Veksler, Yuri Klimov, David Threlfall, Gus Barry, Paulina Boneva, June Smith. Directed by Kevin Macdonald

For ratcheting up the suspense, few venues rival that of a submarine. A handful of submariners, trapped in a metal tube below the sea where one tiny mistake, one critical bad break can quickly turn things into a bad day for those aboard.

Captain Robinson (Law) has been cashiered for the underwater salvage company he has worked for nearly 20 years, a victim of robotics. As it turns out, sending unmanned drone subs to the bottom is far less dangerous and far more practical – and economical – than sending humans to investigate wrecks. For his service, they give him a parting sum of 8,000 pounds. That’s just over $12,000 U.S. That isn’t a whole lot of gratitude.

Robinson has no family; they left him because he essentially was never home. His ex-wife Chrissy (Whittaker) and his son Martin (Barry) have lives much better than the one he could have provided them. He misses them both terribly.

So he does what any good red-blooded Scottish man would do; he finds the nearest pub and drags a couple of his fellow unemployed mates to drown their sorrows in a pint or six. And then, he hears something interesting from one of his fellow captains (Ryan): that shortly before being terminated, he located the wreck of a World War II Nazi U-Boat in the Black Sea in Georgian waters. That wreck is very likely the one that sank in 1940 carrying an enormous amount of Nazi gold that Hitler had been sending to Stalin to keep his then-ally in the fight. Because of certain geo-political realities, the salvage company hasn’t been given permission to bring the treasure up yet, but if it is what they think it is the prize is worth many millions of dollars.

So Robinson hits on the nutty scheme of salvaging the wreck himself with a crew of others. Daniels (McNairy), an accounting sort who was also let go from the salvage company, thinks that he can get financing from the mysterious Mr. Lewis (Menzies) so that they can rent and refit an old Soviet attack sub and go grab the treasure waiting on the bottom.

Aiding him are some of his mates as well as a few Russian submariners who know how to run the Russian sub; there’s also the son of a friend, Tobin (Schofield) who Robinson takes a fatherly interest in and the unstable Aussie diver Fraser (Mendelsohn) who is like a loaded gun in a crowded room but the best when it comes to salvage.

Taking the rickety boat down to the bottom is dangerous in and of itself but with the Russian fleet above due to the dubious legality of what they’re doing, things are a lot more dicey. What’s worse that as things start to get more real, some of the men begin to crack. They will have to work together just to make it back home, let alone get the gold which if they do find it, well, you can add greed to the equation that no matter how you write it means that not everyone is going to get out of this alive.

This is a reasonably taut and well-made thriller. Law makes for a pretty solid lead here, making Robinson a believable leader that would inspire most anyone to have confidence in him – when he’s not taking insane risks to get all the gold to the surface. Law has been making some interesting choices of late in the roles he’s been choosing, and this is a very good thing. He’s been challenging himself, playing a Cockney safe cracker, a manic Internet blogger, an ethically challenged doctor and an officious Russian military man along with this somewhat angry sub captain with a “Screw the Man” attitude and an access from deepest darkest Aberdeen.

Macdonald, who has directed such fine films as The Last King of Scotland shows he knows how to keep the tension nice and high. Once the sub sets sail, the movie really hits its stride although there are a few too many scenes of sailors sitting around and reminiscing about their lives. I don’t have a problem with character development which these sorts of scenes often provide but it needs to be more concise given the very tense atmosphere. Some of the information that you get about the background of the characters isn’t really germane to the plot and quite frankly, not all of it is all that interesting. We get that sailor A is lonely, or having financial difficulties, or loves the sea. We just don’t need to have a ten minute conversation about it.

There are a lot of twists and turns and while the plot twist isn’t necessarily innovative, it is nonetheless a big game changer and very welcome when it kicks in near the end of the movie. The script is well-written, giving very logical reasons to why certain things happen the way they do without having totally random events occur, or turn the captain into Superman. This is an example of a good sub thriller that is intelligent, well-written and still tense as all get out. This hasn’t gotten a whole lot of attention or support but it is certainly worth checking out. It’s no Das Boot – then again, what is? – but it is a satisfactory new entry into the genre.

REASONS TO GO: Some nice tension. Doesn’t always go the way you expect it will.
REASONS TO STAY: Should have trimmed about 20 minutes. Too many conversations about personal lives that add little value to the plot.
FAMILY VALUES: Lots of foul language, some fairly gruesome images and a bit of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The sub used in the film is an authentic Soviet-era submarine which is normally moored in the river Medway in Kent.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/10/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: U-571
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Paddington

Penguins of Madagascar


Skipper and company, sneakin' around.

Skipper and company, sneakin’ around.

(2014) Animated Feature (DreamWorks Animation) Starring the voices of Tom McGrath, Chris Miller, Christopher Knights, Conrad Vernon, John Malkovich, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ken Jeong, Annet Mahendru, Peter Stormare, Andy Richter, Danny Jacobs, Sean Charmatz, Werner Herzog, Stephen Kearin, Nicholas Guest, Angie Wu, Ava Acres. Directed by Eric Darnell and Simon J. Smith

There seems to be a trend in animated features these days to put in a group of support characters that are almost more popular than the main characters. You’ve got Skrat in the Ice Age series, the Minions in Despicable Me and the slugs in Flushed Away. In the Madagascar series, there are the Penguins.

The four feathered friends have been popular enough to spin off a successful animated TV series of their own. It has allowed further development of the characters who while funny were always a bit lacking in the personality department. Now we have a good idea of who they are. Thanks to this movie, we’ll have a better idea of where they came from.

Out in the Antarctic, the penguins are marching. A documentary film crew led by an unscrupulous director (Herzog) is filming. However, three penguins aren’t like the others. They march to their own tune. One is loquacious, one is voracious and one is sagacious. Skipper (McGrath) is their leader, who believes in a military-like precision. Kowalski (Miller) is the brains of the outfit, Rico (Vernon) the demolition expert who uses his stomach as a storage locker. The three of them chase after an egg that has gotten loose and is rolling away. The other penguins refuse to go after it because, after all, they’re marching. Skipper and cohorts chase after it and in doing so are put in a situation where they are separated from the others permanently on a floating iceberg. The egg hatches, revealing the terminally cute Private (Knights).

Years go by. The Penguins become mainstays at zoos around the world but they’re more about escaping and going on missions. However, those missions can be dangerous. As it turns out, there’s a megalomaniac out there trying to kill them – Dr. Octavius Brine (Malkovich) who has a personal axe to grind with them. The Penguins fall under the protection of the North Wind, an elite fighting force dedicated to saving defenseless animals. They are led by Classified (Cumberbatch), a wolf. The rest of his team includes Corporal (Stormare), a bear; Eva (Mahendru), an owl and Short Fuse (Jeong), a puffin.

However, Dr. Brine has some very nefarious plans for the Penguins. Skipper doesn’t tend to work well with authority figures and the North Wind in turn disdain the Penguins as rank amateurs, although to be honest Kowalski thinks the gadgets the North Wind employs are pretty cool and let’s face it, he has a bit of a crush on Eva while Corporal thinks Private is the cutest thing ever. Can the two work together to stop the maniacal Dr. Brine?

I think it’s fair to say that the Madagascar series hasn’t really impressed me much to date. However, the penguins were always a highlight of their movies. I confess I haven’t seen the TV show but then again, I’m not a big fan of modern animated kids shows. Based on the trailers and my enjoyment of the Penguins in the Madagascar movies I was hopeful that this would be that rare spin-off that improves on the original.

To a degree, it is. Spy spoofs when done right can be way fun. Kids seem to appreciate that genre given the Spy Kids movies and the Bond elements in Pixar’s The Incredibles. Kids, apparently, love spies and why not? They can be tons of fun when they’re done right.

Most animated features are intended for the entertainment of children and most critics, myself included, have a hard time getting into the right mindset. Children, after all, have a different set of standards than most adults. Therefore I tend to write my reviews for the parents who will inevitably accompany the kids to the multiplex. Kids will generally have a good time as long as the movie isn’t boring and keeps on moving at an appropriate pace because kids, as those of us who have them or have been around them for any length of time, have virtually no attention span whatsoever.

Adults require a little bit more than that and for the most part, Penguins of Madagascar delivers. There are some genuinely funny moments and a few that will fly over the heads of the wee ones in the audience. There are also a few groaners which aren’t in and of themselves a bad thing. The movie does drag a little bit in a few places but for the most part maintains a pretty good pace.

Other than Malkovich and Cumberbatch (which sounds like a European law firm) there isn’t a lot of star power here which is unusual for studio animated features these days which seem to rely on celebrity voice work more and more. That can sometimes be distracting when you hear a distinctive voice coming out of a cartoon character’s mouth.

Still in all, this is solid entertainment for all ages and in a year that has been a box office disappointment for family films – and this one hasn’t been pulling particularly high numbers – it stands out somewhat amid a fairly unspectacular bunch.

REASONS TO GO: Really funny in places. A decent enough spy spoof.
REASONS TO STAY: A bit lackluster in places.
FAMILY VALUES: A little bit of rude humor and some mild action scenes; acceptable essentially for all ages.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In both the previous Madagascar films and in the television series John DiMaggio voiced Rico. This movie, with Conrad Vernon voicing the role, is the first appearance of Rico with a different actor voicing him.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/12/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 71% positive reviews. Metacritic: 53/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cars 2
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Theory of Everything

The World is Not Enough


Sophie Marceau thinks Pierce Brosnan looks fetching in this choker.

Sophie Marceau thinks Pierce Brosnan looks fetching in this choker.

(1999) Spy Thriller (MGM) Pierce Brosnan, Sophie Marceau, Robert Carlyle, Judi Dench, Denise Richards, Robbie Coltrane, Desmond Llewelyn, John Cleese, Maria Grazia Cucinotta, Samantha Bond, Michael Kitchen, Colin Salmon, Goldie, David Calder, Serena Scott Thomas, Ulrich Thomsen, Claude-Oliver Rudolph, Omid Djalili, Daisy Beaumont, Nina Muschalik. Directed by Michael Apted

Nifty gadgets. That’s why we see Bond movies. That and the outrageous stunts, fabulous action sequences, droll witticisms … and oh yes, the babes.

The 19th Bond movie finds our man James (Brosnan) looking out for a wealthy heiress by the name of Elektra King (Marceau). Bond feels responsible for the death of her father at the hands of a crazed terrorist named Renard (Carlyle). As “M” (Dench) was a personal friend of her father and that the murder took place at MI6 headquarters, she sends all the dogs after Renard.

Renard is unique in that a bullet fired by an MI6 agent has entered his brain and is slowly killing him. At the same time, it renders him impervious to sensation of all sorts, making him stronger with each passing day. Renard is out to steal a nuclear weapon from one of those pesky ex-Soviet republics. I won’t tell you how everything turns out; suffice to say that there follows mayhem of all shapes, sizes and description.

Bond gets lucky with a number of buxom women that would keep most of us awake nights just considering. And, of course, he saves the day after a final battle with Renard, while aboard a sinking submarine.

If you like Bond movies, this one isn’t going to disappoint. Pierce Brosnan is more comfortable than ever here in the role, and he proved why many thought that he should have been the one to replace Roger Moore. There’s more sexual tension between him and Moneypenny than there’s been in the Brosnan Bond movies, which is welcome, and we get to see a LOT more of M, which is a great thing. Dench makes a formidable M.

On the down side, this is the last appearance of Desmond Llewellyn as Q, making him the last of the original cast to depart. Llewellyn exits gracefully, but not before bringing aboard ex-Python Cleese to replace him – sadly, they never really utilized Cleese properly.

As is typical for Bond movies, great casting in the recurring roles. Marceau is a lustrous, otherworldly beauty who carries the right mix of innocence and steel necessary to carry out a complex role. She has a fascinating character and while Elektra is no Pussy Galore, she is memorable notwithstanding. Carlyle makes a terrific Bond villain, one who at the end turns out to be flawed and human, making him one of the better villains to come down the pike in a long time. Guest appearances by Coltrane as a Russian mobster (previously seen in Goldeneye) and musician Goldie as a bodyguard are memorable. Richards is unfortunately miscast as a buxom nuclear scientist. She, like Marceau, is pleasant on the eyes but unlike Marceau the former Mrs. Charlie Sheen is given little depth with which to work.

The World Is Not Enough suffers like most post-1985 Bond movies from the lack of a cold war. There is no evil empire to oppose; consequently, the movies lack the world-shattering urgency of such classic movies as Goldfinger, You Only Live Twice, Thunderball and Diamonds are Forever. Still, Bond soldiers on in an era when spies seem to be anachronistic. Bond’s anachronisms hold up, however, which is why the series continues today.

As sheer entertainment, the Bond movies are among the best bets on a continuing basis, as dependable as our own mortality and the inevitability of April 15th. It’s truly amazing that the series, now half a century and lots of different Bonds into the fray, is as consistently good as it is. The fact is, we need that kind of dependability in our lives. Presidents may come, monarchs may go, but Bond lives in a world that we remember and long for; one in which virile men can seduce gorgeous women by virtue of their sheer manliness, where bad guys always get their just desserts and a well-chosen witticism can deflect a bullet from its path.

WHY RENT THIS: Solid Bond entertainment. Carlyle a formidable villain and Marceau an excellent Bond girl. Brosnan at the height of his game.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Denise Richards totally miscast. Over-reliance on gadgets. Needs a SPECTRE or SMERSH.

FAMILY MATTERS: Some action violence and plenty of sexual innuendo.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The boat sequence is the longest opening pre-title sequence of all the Bond films to date.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There is a music video of the title song by Garbage as well as the ability to play featurettes at appropriate times during the playing of the movie.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $361.8M on a $135M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Bourne Supremacy

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Mao’s Last Dancer

Resident Evil: Retribution


Go ask Alice.

Go ask Alice.

(2012) Horror Action (Screen Gems) Milla Jovovich, Michelle Rodriguez, Sienna Guillory, Kevin Durand, Shawn Roberts, Colin Salmon, Johann Urb, Boris Kodjoe, Li Bingbing, Aryana Engineer, Robin Kasyanov, Ofilio Portillo, Oded Fehr, Megan Charpentier, Mika Nakashima, Ray Olubowale, Toshio Oki, Takato Yamashito, Ali Larter. Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson

6 Days of Darkness 2013

Some fights you can’t run away from. Sooner or later you have to take the fight to your enemy because otherwise you’ll be running until you’re caught and/or killed. Sometimes those fights will cost you more than you know.

After the events of Resident Evil: Afterlife Alice (Jovovich) has been taken prisoner by the evil Umbrella Corporation and is being interrogated by former ally turned enemy (thanks to a parasite buried in her chest) Jill Valentine (Guillory). She escapes with the help of Ada Wong (Bingbing) who is one of the chief operatives of Albert Wesker (Roberts), the evil head of the Umbrella Corporation. However, he is no longer in charge; the computer program Red Queen, activated after the fall of The Hive has taken over and is at war with humanity – and she is winning.

Alice and Ada are in an Umbrella cloning facility where several environments were created to work out different scenarios to T-Virus infection protocols. Wesker sends in a strike team to retrieve Alice and Ada and also Becky (Engineer), a cloned little girl who operated as a daughter to a cloned Alice in a Raccoon City scenario. Make sense? Don’t sweat it.

Anyway the strike team along with Alice and Ada are up against hordes of mutants, Jill Valentine as well as clones of Rain Ocampo (Rodriguez) and Carlos Olivera (Fehr). They will have to fight their way through simulations of Moscow, Tokyo and Raccoon City. The now-fully human Alice will have to rely on her wits and her indomitable will to survive in order to get out of the base alive and once they do, a final battle on the surface awaits in which friend becomes foe, foe becomes friend and the world prepares for a last stand in the most unlikely of places.

The thing that has made this series so spectacular is not just the videogame franchise it’s based on but on Milla Jovovich’s interpretation of Alice. Jovovich, because of her appearances in a lot of sci-fi, horror and action movies, is sometimes underrated as an actress (much like Kate Beckinsale is) but she really has a great deal of screen presence and the focus is entirely on her, which gives the filmmakers smart points. Then again, Anderson is married to her so he probably knows her abilities better than any other.

The movie is like a non-stop chase scene, beginning with the spectacular opening sequence in which Alice’s capture is done in reverse sequence going back to the final moments of Afterlife. It’s imaginative, far more so than one would have expected from a franchise that’s supposed to play to a less-discerning crowd. While the sequence following that opening which consists of cloned Alice, cloned Carlos and Becky playing house is a bit confusing, the rest of the movie takes off at warp speed. Non-stop battles between humans with a seemingly inexhaustible supply of ammo and increasingly grotesque mutants will more than satisfy the entertainment quotient.

The Resident Evil film series has been the only successful franchise (or standalone film for that matter) to capture the nature of the videogame that inspired it. While it doesn’t compare to playing the game and having that interactive element that is missing in a film, it is as close as film is going to come to that element simply because of the frenetic pacing and touches that less attentive directors might miss. One gets a sense that Anderson plays a lot of videogames.

I’m not sure how much farther they can take this franchise. There are after all only so many ways you can go here until it starts to get repetitive and it is absolute death for a franchise such as this to repeat itself – even the Friday the 13th franchise fell into that trap. They do seem to be leading to a climactic battle and the next movie, scheduled for release on September 12, 2014 may be the climax of the series. If so, they’ll have a fairly high bar set for them in order to make the series go out with a bang, which I sure hope it does rather than the fizzle that it could easily go out with.

WHY RENT THIS: Mindless fun. Jovovich has made the role of Alice iconic in horror films.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Kind of been there, done that.

FAMILY VALUES:  Lots and lots and lots of violence. And I mean lots.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jovovich is the only actor to appear in every Resident Evil film to date.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: Along with outtakes, there’s a nifty interactive database that allows viewers to explore the world of the franchise through bios, video clips and more. There’s also a look at Nakashima, the lead Japanese zombie and a reunion of cast members from previous installments in the series.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $240.2M on a $65M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Silent Hill

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Six Days of Darkness 2013 concludes!

Act of Valor


Act of Valor

An unusual sighting of the rare Flying Seal.

(2012) Action (Relativity) Active Duty U.S. Navy Seals, Roselyn Sanchez, Nestor Serrano, Alex Veadov, Jason Cottle, Artie Malesci, Marc Margulies, Dimeter Marinov, Ailsa Marshall, Gonzalo Menendez, Emilio Rivera, Dan Southworth. Directed by Mike “Mouse” McCoy and Scott Waugh

 

We owe so much to our men and women in uniform. Say what you will about the reasons we send them out to risk their lives for us, they still serve with the knowledge that they may be called upon to die for their country and yet they still do it. There’s no doubt that our military personnel should be given the highest respect and honors by all of us and for the most part, most of us feel that way about them.

We can be proud that our service people are some of the most highly trained badasses on the face of the Earth. From the Army Rangers to the Air Force fighter pilots to the entire God Damn U.S. Marine Corps, these are guys (and gals) you should be VERY thankful are on our side.

Some of the badassest guys and gals in our military are the Navy SEALs. These are the same guys who got Bin Laden and rescued the Captain of that merchant vessel from Somali pirates. When they are given a mission, they execute it – and sometimes the cost is tragically high.

A group of SEALs led by Chief Dave and Lt. Cmmdr. Rorke (both first names only – which apparently is also the names of the real-life SEALs that portray them) have been given the task of rescuing a female CIA agent (Sanchez) who has been kidnapped by a Ukrainian arms dealer who supplies to the Chechnyans (Veadov). She is being tortured in some central American hell hole but the SEALs come in and against a well-armed numerically superior force pick up the woman (who has been brutally tortured) and take her to safety.

Except their work isn’t done quite yet. It turns out that the arms dealer has a link to a jihadist (Cottle) who is smuggling in suicide bombers using high-tech vests with porcelain ball bearings that can take out an entire city block, which in those numbers would bring our economy to its knees. The SEALs must find the jihadist and stop him before his plan comes to fruition.

Doubtlessly you have heard by now that the SEALs in the movie are played by real life SEALs who are on active military duty. It sounds a bit gimmicky – and it is. It also plays a lot like a recruitment video, which isn’t surprising since it supposedly started out life as one but became more of a traditional movie in which SEAL tactics and personnel were used to illustrate just what they do.

I don’t have any objection to that. I don’t mind learning what life is like from the perspective of someone like the men here, who actually put their lives on the line on a regular basis. I don’t mind being educated, but I do object to propaganda…which this, thankfully, isn’t (although some critics seem to think it is). This isn’t some Fox News rant about how great the military is and how the liberals of our nation are killing our freedoms yadda yadda yadda; this is meant to realistically portray conditions in the field and the kind of things our fighting men and women have to go through.

Is it Hollywoodized? Sure, at least just a bit. The dialogue is heavy on the pound-your-chest macho aphorisms. The situations resolve themselves far more neatly than they do in real life – or even in the field. I may be no military man but I’ve enough common sense to realize that few missions this complicated end up as cut and dried as this one does – there are always curveballs and snafus. In fact lest we forget, the term “snafu” itself is military in origin.

The directors, who go by the name of the Bandido Brothers, prove to be very capable directors of action sequences. They boast that live ammo was used in many of the sequences and while that does add to the realism quotient, it makes me uncomfortable. No matter how many precautions you can take, you don’t mess with live ammo. Nobody’s life is worth shooting a movie for.

I wound up liking the movie and Da Queen had a good catharsis of her own by the movie’s end (she comes from a military family so it hit home with her a bit deeper than it did with me). In fact, those who do have any sort of military connection will find something that resonates here, from the goodbyes to loved ones being deployed into harm’s way to the hasty phone calls from God-knows-where that only make you miss them more.

I wound up appreciating the movie and admiring it from a technical standpoint, but still I couldn’t get over the feeling that it was a bit gimmicky with the literal stunt casting. For my money, I’d rather have these men out in the field doing what they do best or better still, home with their families  rather than in front of the cameras. Still, the movie was much more entertaining than I anticipated so it’s definitely worth a look-see.

REASONS TO GO: Great kinetic action sequences.  

REASONS TO STAY: More recruitment film than film. SEALs are not necessarily good actors and the sometimes stiff jingoistic dialogue doesn’t help them much. A little gimmicky in the end.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some fairly graphic torture sequences as well as military violence. There are also some bad words here and there but probably nothing compared to the language SEALS use during actual operations.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Initially the plan was for the SEALs to be portrayed by actors but when several SEALs who were asked to consult for accuracy complained that the SEALs in the film weren’t being portrayed accurately, it was decided to have actual active duty military in the cast portraying those roles.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/5/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 29% positive reviews. Metacritic: 42/100. The reviews are poor.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Top Gun

MILITARY LOVERS: The equipment used here is all currently in use by the U.S. Military, giving those who are into military things a reason to drool.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Vampires

Top 10 of 2011


The annual ritual of choosing the movies that thrilled, chilled, affected and otherwise dug into the critical consciousness with hooks of steel during 2011 is upon Cinema365 and while our list is posted a bit later than most others, think of it as being a labor of love rather than a necessary evil, a particularly unliked chore.

This is the part where I mention that like any other list, this one is completely arbitrary. There’s no scientific basis, nothing quantitative that I can point to and say “this movie deserved to be on this list because of this.” No, it’s completely from the gut my friends and like any gut this big change is constant. The list you see here today is not the list I would make tomorrow. That’s why it always takes me so long; I hem, I haw, I prevaricate. At last, I assign.

Generally speaking, this list reflects my tastes as I saw the movie. I take all the movies I gave an 8 or greater score to, put the 10s at the top, the 9s below and so on. The half points I generally don’t take into consideration. Therefore you might see an 8 ranked above an 8.5. See what I mean about arbitrary?

So this is all about whether I liked the movie or not. 2011 didn’t see any real game changers in terms of movies that will rank as all-time bests. It is somewhat telling that perhaps the most critically acclaimed movie of the year was a silent movie whose style harkened back to the films of that era. Still, even if none of them may end up as classics that withstand the test of time (and I think a few of them will), all ten of these and the honorable mentions as well, should provide at least a good starting point if you want to take a cinematic  year in review viewing party and stock it up with really good movies instead of just really popular ones.

Some of these movies remain in general release even as we speak; you can head right out to a theater and see them the way they were meant to be seen. Some are already out on DVD/Blu-Ray and you can enjoy them in the comfort of your own home – or they soon will be. Lag time between theatrical release and home video release has been shrinking of late. There are two films on this list that you may find difficult to find either in home video or theaters. Check your local film festival to see if they will be around, or the websites that I have included with the original reviews – you can access those by clicking on the movie title and you can read what I wrote about them way back when.

This is meant to invite discussion or perhaps a heated argument or two. Feel free to submit your own top ten, or harangue me about mine. My skin is thick and I don’t bruise easily. I welcome hearing why my list is full of crap and yours is so much better. That’s why lists are fun.  

HONORABLE MENTION

There are a number of movies that didn’t quite make the cut of the top ten. I thought I’d add them here so you can get an idea of which ones came close, were considered and ultimately not chosen. Again, I will stress that all of these are quality films worth seeking out if you’re looking for entertainment, enlightenment or insight. I didn’t include links here but if you want to read my reviews of any of these, simply type in the title into the search field and have at it. So,  in no particular order;

In a Better World, Hugo, War Horse, Midnight in Paris, Moneyball, The Company Men, The Descendants, Margin Call, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, I Saw the Devil, Thor, J. Edgar, The Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Holy Wars, Captain America: The First Avenger, The Double Hour, Win Win, Bridesmaids, Young Goethe in Love, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Adventures of Tintin, The Happy Poet, The Whistleblower, In Time, Apollo 18, Submarine, Drive.

And with no further ado, let us get on with the countdown:

10.  HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS PART 2

(Warner Brothers) Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Ralph Fiennes, Helena Bonham Carter, Tom Felton, Alan Rickman, David Thewlis, Everyone in England. Directed by David Yates

Released July 15, 2011 The end of an era finally came to pass as nearly a decade of Pottermania had its final moments and the series went out with a glorious bang. Harry and his friends Hermione and Ron would take on the forces of evil in an epic battle that would shake the very foundations of magic itself as Harry and Lord Voldemort finally had the face-off that everyone had been waiting for.

WHY IT IS HERE: There are those who proclaimed it the best film in the series and in many ways they weren’t wrong. This was an emotional rollercoaster that had heroism, villainy, pathos and even a hint of comedy here and there. After the first part of the last book seemed to be all exposition and no action, this movie made for a wonderful payoff. Not everyone would survive but this was a more than satisfactory ending to a series many people grew up with. There were a lot of misty eyes in the theater when the final credits rolled, not the least of which were the Warner Brothers accountants who would see their biggest moneymaking series ever fade into history.

HIGHLIGHT SCENE: Harry prepares for certain death as he goes into the black forest to compose himself. There he meets the shades of his parents as well as those in the series who had passed on. It was remarkably moving and I for one had tears literally streaming down my face when I saw it. In fact, I’m a bit misty right now just writing about it.

BOX OFFICE RESULTS: $381 million domestic (as of 1/17/12), $1.3 billion total.

BUDGET: Not available.

STATUS: Currently available on home video. Available on HBO/Cinemax. Download/stream from iTunes/Amazon. Rent DVD/Blu-Ray from Netflix/Blockbuster. Stream from Blockbuster.

9. INCENDIES

(Sony Classics) Lubna Azabal, Melissa Desormeaux-Poulim, Maxim Gaudette, Remy Girard, Abdelghafour Elaaziz, Allan Altman, Mohamed Majd, Nabil Sawalha, Baya Belal, Yousef Shweihat. Directed by Denis Villanueve

Released April 22, 2011 This was nominated for a Foreign Language Film Oscar, representing Canada but very little of it was set in the Great White North. It didn’t win but many thought it should have. A woman follows the path of her mother as she makes a search for the man who is her father, starting in the small village her mother came from in the Middle East. The more she looks the deeper the mystery becomes as she discovers her mother was caught in a vicious civil war between Christian and Muslim factions in that country, leading to a shocking revelation that turns her daughter’s life upside down.

WHY IT IS HERE: There is no movie on this list that will grab your guts quite as much as this one does. While many explore the depths of man’s cruelty to man, here is a movie that takes that cruelty head-on and exposes the ugliness for all to see. Yet even with all this ugliness, there is still lingering hope that tinges the entire film and makes it ultimately an uplifting experience, despite the horror. Forgiveness trumps hatred every time.

HIGHLIGHT SCENE: A scene in which a busload of Muslim women meet a horrible end is one that will stay with you for a very long time.

BOX OFFICE RESULTS: $2.1 million domestic (as of 1/17/12), $3.6M total.

BUDGET: $6.8 million.

STATUS:Currently available on home video. Available on Starz. Download from iTunes/Amazon/Blockbuster. Rent DVD/Blu-Ray from Netflix/Blockbuster. Streaming unavailable.

8. BUCK

(Sundance Selects) Buck Brannaman, Mary Brannaman, Reata Brannaman, Betsy Shirley, Robert Redford, Bibb Frazier, Betty Staley, Ali Cornish, Shayne Jackson, Smokie Brannaman, Ray Hunt. Directed by Cindy Meehl

Released June 17, 2011 Buck Brannaman is an archetype, a modern day cowboy who is equal parts Roy Rogers and Dr. Phil. His journey from being a trick roper for an abusive father to one of the top consultants to ranchers about horse behavior and horse training (the character of The Horse Whisperer is largely based on him) is a moving one. One look at the trailer which preceded it convinced me that this was going to be a special film and when I got to see it in San Francisco with Da Queen, I found it to exceed those expectations and Da Queen agreed – if you were to ask her, this would undoubtedly be one of her favorite movies of the year as well.

WHY IT IS HERE: This documentary won the Audience Award at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival last January and it’s easy to see why. Few films – and even fewer documentaries – have as much heart and compassion as this movie does and the reason for it is Brannaman. He is self-effacing, quiet and has a connection to horses that is rare as it is beautiful. He has challenged traditional methods of training for one that is more effective and less traumatic for the horse. These days it can be difficult to be proud to be an American but this movie will allow you to do so, at least for a few hours.

HIGHLIGHT SCENE: Buck comforts a rancher who realizes that her inexperience and poor decisions regarding her horse have led to the injury of one of her hands and the eventual termination of the horse.

BOX OFFICE RESULTS: $4 million domestic (as of 1/18/12), $4M total.

BUDGET: Not available.

STATUS:Currently available on home video. Available on Showtime. Download from Amazon/iTunes. Stream on Netflix. Rent DVD/Blu-Ray from Blockbuster/Netflix.

7. FANNY, ANNIE AND DANNY

(Self-Released) Jill Pixley, Carlye Pollack, Jonathan Leveck, Colette Keen, George Killingsworth, Nick Frangione, Anne Darragh, Suzanna Aguayo, Nancy Carlin, Don Schwantz. Directed by Chris Brown

Released April 16, 2010 There are some movies that you will not see outside of a film festival. They are labors of love, made on shoestring budget by filmmakers who are often just learning their craft. Sometimes those movies are learning experiences for the filmmakers; they will go on to bigger and better things eventually but sometimes, you run into quality that stands on its own merit and doesn’t need any sort of qualifier, be it low-budget or inexperience. These films stand proudly with movies that have studio backing and/or indie distribution to be among the year’s best.  

WHY IT IS HERE: Brown’s third feature is an often poignant, generally funny and entirely too human portrayal of a dysfunctional family imploding over the course of a Christmas dinner. On paper it sounds awkward and uncomfortable and there are a few moments where those emotions are present but for the most part you just saw the damage done by years of digging, disappointment and disability. Well-acted (particularly Pixley, Keen and Killingsworth) and droll when it needs to be, this movie should be sent to every studio mogul and director as a primer in how great films can be done on microscopic budgets.

HIGHLIGHT SCENE: The scene near the end of the film when Danny’s departure brings down the facade from his mother and shows her to be what she truly is. It’s a marvelous piece of acting by Keen.

BOX OFFICE RESULTS: Not available.

BUDGET: Not available.

STATUS:The movie worked the film festival circuit last year, culminating in a brief run at New York’s ReRun Gastropub Theater in December. The film’s website doesn’t mention any plans for the movie to be released on DVD; hopefully someday it will be available in that formula or for digital download somewhere. Check the movie’s website for updates.

6. THE HELP

(DreamWorks/Disney) Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Bryce Dallas Howard, Octavia Spencer, Jessica Chastain, Ahna O’Reilly, Allison Janney, Sissy Spacek, Cicely Tyson, Mike Vogel, Anna Camp, Brian Kerwin, Mary Steenburgen, David Oyelowo, Aunjanue Ellis, Nelsan Ellis. Directed by Tate Taylor

Released August 10, 2011 Based on a bestselling novel by Kathryn Stockett, this movie shot to big box office after its release. The amount of success was a bit of a surprise given the subject matter but the quality wasn’t, given the excellent cast. Spencer has already won a Golden Globe for her performance and has received an Oscar nomination, along with Davis. The movie is also up for Best Picture.

WHY IT IS HERE: Some of the strongest ensemble work of any casts this year, for one thing. The writers and director Taylor could have taken the route in which Emma Stone’s Skeeter character was the brave white girl standing up for the oppressed minority (which has been done in other films) but that isn’t the case here; Stone is portrayed as much a cog in the wheel as the axel turning it. This is clearly Davis’ and Spencer’s movie. It’s funny, heartbreaking in places and insightful throughout.

HIGHLIGHT SCENE: The scene in which Hilly discovers the truth about the “terrible awful.”

BOX OFFICE RESULTS: $169.6 million domestic (as of 1/23/12), $205.3 million total.

BUDGET: $25 million

STATUS: Currently available on home video. Download from Amazon/iTunes. Rent DVD/Blu-Ray from Blockbuster/Netflix.

5. BARNEY’S VERSION

(Sony Classics) Paul Giamatti, Dustin Hoffman, Rosamund Pike, Scott Speedman, Minnie Driver, Bruce Greenwood, Rachelle Lefevre, Saul Rubinek, Mark Addy, Macha Grenon, Paul Gross, Anna Hopkins, Jake Hoffman, Thomas Trabacchi, Cle Bennett. Directed by Richard J. Lewis

Released January 14, 2011 While it’s true Giamatti would win a Golden Globe for his portrayal of the title character, it was at last year’s Golden Globes. This Canadian film was based on a Mordechai Richler, author of The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. For whatever reason it was released in early January instead of late December, effectively ending any shot it had at Oscar contention.

WHY IT IS HERE: Amazing performances from an amazing cast, to be blunt. Giamatti as I mentioned won a Golden Globe and the rest of the cast, from the irrepressible Dustin Hoffman to the breezy Speedman to the gruff Addy to the lustrous Pike all did bang-up jobs. Barney’s journey isn’t an easy one and at times the movie is so heartbreaking you want to run out of the theater – or as the case may be your living room – but staying until the final credits roll is so very worth your while.

HIGHLIGHT SCENE: Basically, the last 20 minutes of the movie is something special. I was very, very moved.

BOX OFFICE RESULTS: $4.4 million domestic (as of 1/23/12), $8.5 million worldwide.

BUDGET: $30 million

STATUS: Currently available on home video. Available on Starz. Download from Amazon/Blockbuster/iTunes. Rent DVD/Blu-Ray from Blockbuster/Netflix.

4. TROLL HUNTER (TROLLJEGEREN)

(Magnet) Otto Jespersen, Hans Morten Hansen, Tomas Alf Larsen, Johanna Morck, Knut Naerum, Robert Stoltenberg, Glenn Erland Tosterud. Directed by Andre Ovredal

Released June 10, 2011 We saw this at the Florida Film Festival and have been a huge fan ever since. While this is one of the “found footage” films subgenre that has been getting overused over the past couple years, it may very well be the best of them, better even than the one that started it – The Blair Witch Project.  

WHY IT IS HERE: Irreverent and fun, this is a theme park ride disguised as a movie. The trolls themselves are obviously CGI but they look exactly how you’d expect them to. Definitely the humor is low-key which some might have trouble with. This is one of those hidden treasures that nobody knows about, but when you get a friend to see it they become instant fans.

HIGHLIGHT SCENE: Hans filling out paperwork after his latest successful troll hunt.

BOX OFFICE RESULTS: $253,444 domestic (as of 1/25/11), $4.2 million total.

BUDGET: Not available.

STATUS: Currently available on home video. Available on Showtime starting February 23rd. Download from Amazon/Blockbuster/iTunes. Rent DVD/Blu-Ray from Blockbuster/Netflix. Stream on Amazon/Netflix.

3. THE ARTIST

(Weinstein) Jean Dujardin, Berenice Bejo, John Goodman, James Cromwell, Malcolm McDowell, Missi Pyle, Penelope Ann Miller, Beth Grant, Ed Lauter, Bitsie Tulloch, Joel Murray, Ken Davitian, Basil Hoffman. Directed by Michael Hazanavicius

Released November 25, 2011 After a good showing at the Golden Globes, The Artist is an odds-on favorite at the Oscars, with ten nominations including Best Picture (which it won at the Globes) and Best Actor for Dujardin (which he also won). This is probably the most critically acclaimed film of the year.

WHY IT IS HERE: This isn’t just an homage to silent cinema but an excellent example of the style of silent films. The humor is a bit broad and the pathos a bit maudlin but the movie works on every level. Even though there is almost no dialogue (there is music on the soundtrack and some sound effects) the acting gets across every nuance of the screenplay without fail. Dujardin, a French comic actor and Bejo, an Argentine actress, make a great team. This is the kind of movie that those who ordinarily wouldn’t choose to go see it are made believers after they’ve given it a shot.

HIGHLIGHT SCENE: George’s suicide attempt is a heartbreaker.

BOX OFFICE RESULTS: $12.4 million domestic (as of 1/25/11), $33.4 million total.

BUDGET: $15 million.

STATUS: Still in wide release.

2.  THE WAY

(ARC Entertainment) Martin Sheen, Yorick von Wageningen, Deborah Kara Unger, James Nesbitt, Emilio Estevez, Tcheky Karyo, Spencer Garrett, Angelina Molina, Carlos Leal, Antonio Gil, Simon Andreu, David Alexanian, Eusebio Lazaro. Directed by Emilio Estevez

Released October 7, 2011 Walking the Camino de Santiago has always held a fascination to me. I’m way too out of shape to do it myself; this is as close as I’m going to come to doing it myself. I wasn’t impressed by the trailer or the concept originally but was blown away when I saw the film. It is insightful, emotionally authentic and yes it will make you laugh and cry.

WHY IT IS HERE: I am not the most Catholic of Catholics, but this movie gave me a nostalgic twinge in my ecumenical muscle. I also must admit that James Michener’s travelogue Iberia is a book that I’ve read and re-read a dozen times in my life; the chapter about the Camino always sung to me. No movie released this year afforded the opportunity for self-discovery as this one did and much of the responsibility for that goes to Martin Sheen’s dignified but realistic performance, making me realize how much I miss President Josiah Bartlett. Movies this powerfully moving should get as much praise as can be heaped on them.

HIGHLIGHT SCENE: The scene where Sara confesses to Tom about her abusive background.

BOX OFFICE RESULTS: $4.4 million domestic (as of 1/26/12), $4.4 million total.

BUDGET: Not available.

STATUS: Scheduled for home video release on February 21.

1. KINYARWANDA

(AFFRM) Edouard Bamporiki, Cassandra Freeman, Marc Gwamaka, Zaninka Hadidja, Mursari Jean, Cleophas Kabasita, Hassan Kabera, Mazimpaka Kennedy, Assumpta Micho, Kena Onyenjekwe, Edouard B. Uwayo. Directed by Alrick Brown

Released December 2, 2011 Some movies aren’t seen so much as experienced. This film tells several stories about the Rwandan genocide, from a teenager girl who comes home after sneaking out to attend a party to find her parents murdered, to a courageous priest who tries to save as many of his Tutsi flock as he can, to a pair of soldiers who have varying reasons to want to put themselves at risk in Rwanda. Each story has an enormous emotional resonance and is based on a survivor’s actual experiences.

WHY IT IS HERE: This is a movie that doesn’t seem like a first feature. Indeed, I have not seen a better film this year. Few films will affect you as deeply as this one; but while it is set during one of the darkest moments in human history, it is not a story of darkness. Rather it is a film about reconciliation and hope, of the extraordinary ability of the human spirit to give the divine gift of forgiveness no matter how heinous the crime, how egregious the transgression. If the Tutsi can forgive the Hutu and move to becoming a single nation after what happened in Rwanda, there is hope for us as a species if we can, as the Rwandans are doing, appeal to our own higher natures. When a movie can provide that for its audience, it is an extraordinary film indeed.

HIGHLIGHT SCENE: A scene where one of the soldiers who committed murder in the genocide realizes what he has participated in and what it has cost his soul – with tragic results.

BOX OFFICE RESULTS: $21,097 domestic (as of 12/4/11), $21,097 total.

BUDGET: Not available.

STATUS: Kinyarwanda has had a limited release mostly in large cities. It is listed on the Netflix site with an as-yet unscheduled DVD release date, indicating that there are plans to release it in that format.

Submarine


Submarine

Oliver Tate, like many teens, is a bit fuzzy on bathing.

(2010) Dramedy (Weinstein) Craig Roberts, Yasmin Paige, Noah Taylor, Sally Hawkins, Paddy Considine, Darren Evans, Osian Cai Dulais, Lily McCann, Otis Lloyd, Elinor Crawley, Steffan Rhodri, Gemma Chan, Melanie Walters, Sion Tudor Owen . Directed by Richard Ayoade

We are for the most part the stars of our own ongoing movie, and often we see ourselves in a different light than how we are actually perceived. The younger we are, often the more pronounced this divide is.

Oliver Tate (Roberts) lives in the Southern Welsh coastal town of Swansea (an amusing note from Oliver preceding the credits on the American release reinforces this) as a 15-year-old boy convinced of his own intelligence and popularity. He imagines a national mourning at his untimely death, and a resurrection to delighted teenage girls, prompting a miasma of hormonal bliss.

When confronted with actual female attraction, in the form of the much cooler and cynical Jordana (Paige) who also has a thing for lighting fires, he adopts a deer in the headlights expression, leading to a kiss which he learns later is meant to make her ex-boyfriend jealous. It backfires and the two are badly bullied with Oliver getting beat up when he gallantly refuses to say publically that his erstwhile lady is a slut. She walks him home and kisses him for real, leading Oliver to determine that she is now, officially, his Girlfriend (capitalized on purpose here).

But all is not sunshine and mince pies. Oliver’s parents are slowly drifting apart, a malaise that has led to a lack of sex (which the ever-spying Oliver determines by the level of the dimmer switch in their bedroom). That malaise is exacerbated by the arrival of new next door neighbor Graham (Considine, in a role that might have gone to Colin Farrell in a bigger budget production) as a would-be new age guru, who also used to be his mom’s Boyfriend. Oliver’s mum Jill (Hawkins) seems disposed towards re-fanning those flames, attending Graham’s lectures slavishly while her husband Lloyd (Taylor) diffidently drowns in depression, a marine biologist sinking into an ocean of emotional dissonance.

Thus Oliver decides he must reverse this trend because a divorce would essentially inconvenience him. However, Jordana is undergoing a crisis of her own – her mum (Walters) is desperately ill and may not survive the surgery she is about to undergo. Oliver decides that Jordana would benefit by his absence (and Oliver is more wrapped up in his own drama in any case) and deserts her at her most crucial moment. Can Oliver reconcile all the relationships around him that are crumbling?

This isn’t your typical teen coming of age movie, at least not by Hollywood standards. Despite being mid-80s set (and with all the pretension that implies), there is an intelligence here that is sorely lacking in the big studio teen movies. The kids here, while they operate essentially independently of their families (as kids that age often do), are still connected with them and are certainly not smarter than their parents although they fancy themselves to be.

Oliver is genuinely fond of his parents and they of him, which is refreshing – the relationship between Oliver and his folks is a complicated one as parent-teen relationships usually are. None of  the protagonists are perfect; they all are flawed in believable ways, from Lloyd’s inertia-challenged existence to Jill’s indecisive neediness to Oliver’s own search for his own niche and his teen-fueled arrogance.

Oliver himself is so prone to doing unintentionally cruel things that at times you get right angry at him until you think “he’s only a boy.” That is the underlying truth about Oliver. His inexperience and his lack of empathy often motivate those cruelties but if you look deep enough, he’s a decent young lad with the potential to be a good man someday. Roberts, whose narration has all the crack-voiced earnestness of a teen trying to fill an adult’s shoes before he is truly ready, is brilliant here.

Hawkins and Taylor, both veterans of English film and television, make a perfect couple. Both on the mousy side, both intellectual and both somewhat permissive in their parental techniques, they seem on the surface to be enabling their spouse’s behaviors but they are in fact well-suited to one another and there is certainly some hope that they’ll work things out (but as the film makes clear, their relationship is on far from stable ground and could go either way). Considine provides comic relief as the libidinous guru who may be self-absorbed but also has a good deal of pain and compassion deep down.

This isn’t a movie for everybody; there are no pat answers and the ending only hints at an uneasy peace; both relationships are fragile and have much work needed to survive, and there are no guarantees that either one will. Still, Oliver for all his posturing is a character you won’t soon forget and perhaps he has enough will to carry both relationships forward. You wind up kind of hoping that he does.

REASONS TO GO: A smart teenage coming-of-age movie blows most of Hollywood’s entries into the subject, not to mention all the smug Disney Channel characters. Directed with an eye towards innovative storytelling.

REASONS TO STAY: Oliver’s incompetency in social situations can be grating at times.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of foul language and some sexuality involved.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ben Stiller, who co-produced the movie (and has championed it throughout its run) cameos as an actor in an American soap opera that Oliver watches early on in the movie.

HOME OR THEATER: This is mostly available in Art Houses in selected locations such as our own beloved Enzian Theater and should be seen there if possible, but at home is certainly ok if it’s not playing anywhere near you.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Resident Evil: Afterlife