It’s the halfway point in the year, and though I’m reluctant to do it this year because my choices are bound to piss off a lot of people (that’s why I’m burying it late on a Friday before a long holiday weekend), I will follow precedent of past years and offer up my favorite five at the midway point. And despite what many of you might believe, as much as I like defying the popular American consensus, I’m not overly fond of going against the overall grain of our own readership. Our readership is a lot more creative with its insults than the average American.
That is in part why you should note that the selection of the five best films of the year, so far, was not a staff selection (don’t yell at them, for God’s sake). This is my own personal selection, and it may not align perfectly with the Pajiba reviews, though the blurbs themselves are pulled from those reviews. And while you may want to take me out back and shoot me in the head, I am not of the opinion that Toy Story 3 belongs on the top five, either (top ten, yes, right ahead of Iron Man 2). The omission is honestly not meant to piss anyone off (though no doubt it will) or stir the hornet’s nest. I honestly agreed with Dan’s review, more or less, while conceding that the third act was very emotionally powerful. I also apologize that the top five are films most of you have not seen. It wasn’t intentional, I’m not trying to be a pretentious douche. I just happen to think they were better than the studio offerings so far this year (and I’d likely add Kick-Ass at number six, with apologies to my colleagues who disagree with me vehemently. I thought Hit Girl was the most fun character of the year so far). The next ten would likely all be studio efforts, but it’s a mid-year list, and mid-year lists deserve neither 10 spots or a ranking. That’d be awfully dilutive.
Note, also, that I have not seen How to Train Your Dragon, which might have competed for a spot.
Please Give: Most newbie filmmakers might have felt compelled to beat you in the face with the vulturic greed and symbolism, but Holofcener acknowledges it and lets it ride. It’s the difference between a master chef who has to explain every complex layer of their seven layer cake and the one who has the confidence to just let someone taste it and know. Holofcener lets her characters drift together and come apart so organically, interacting beautifully and naturally. Every fight, every fuck, every conversation comes out of moments that make so much perfect sense the film practically feels unstructured, but never in a sloppy or disorganized way. Moments of humor that would be shoved in your face in a more conventional film are played for their harmonic beauty. Everything — from the feisty grandma to the miserable daughter — would normally come off as a cliché in anything else, but Holofcener manages to play everything just slightly left of center to wonderful results. — Brian Prisco
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, as is often the case with imported foreign works, is best understood through the lens of its original title: Män som hatar kvinnor, or “Men who hate women.” Based on the first novel in Stieg Larsson’s Millenium trilogy, the Swedish film is an engrossing look at the allure of obsession, but it’s also a brutal, uncompromising experience meant to vividly explore the depths to which some men go to own and ultimately destroy women. There are scenes of sexual violence as uncomfortable as anything you will see in mainstream cinema, and I would be lying to say that I did anything other than suffer through them. But there’s a point to such suffering, even at a fictional remove, and director Niels Arden Oplev knows it. Those dark moments aren’t designed to engender pity for the women in question, or to shock the viewer, or even to provide motive for the victims — though they do all of that — but to ultimately illuminate the bitter truth that, like it or not, these things happen all the time. Larsson was a journalist by trade, and as such, his crime stories couldn’t be about anything other than the duty of forcing truth on the reader. The film adaptation of his novel is a gut-wrenching, propulsive thriller, packed with emotion, horror, and fascinating characters. And running through it all, like a slender thread, is a harrowing sense of reality. — Daniel Carlson
Solitary Man: Written and directed by Brian Kopelman, who also wrote Rounders and Ocean’s 13, Solitary Man is frustrating and emotionally unsatisfying in all the right ways. It doesn’t offer an easy resolution, but it’s an honest, bittersweet and unflinching film about human weakness and the alpha-male battle between pride and mortality. Simply put: Solitary Man is outstanding. — Dustin Rowles
MicMacs: In lesser hands, the execution could come across as just plain silly. But the cast of unknowns (unless you’re a fan of French flicks or know the wonderful Dominique Pinon from Jeunet’s previous films) manage to portray these odd and quirky characters wrapped up in their shenanigans without coming off as absurd. Boon was particularly good as Bazil, especially in the early scenes, where he’s essentially tasked with pulling off a silent film. Naturally, the film is visually stunning, firmly planted in that dream-like reality that Jeunet does so well, and saturated with yellows and golds that help to emphasize the underlying brightness of the film. Micmacs is not a particularly emotionally resonant film, but it’s not intended to be. Rather, it’s meant to be a light and upbeat affair, with the heart of Amelie and the soul of a kid’s cartoon. And Jeunet hits the mark squarely. If I sound effusive about the film, it’s because I not only dug the movie, but I truly enjoyed the experience of watching it. It’s hard to describe, but it was almost like being a kid again, watching the hijinx and shenanigans of Mssrs. Tom and Jerry. Only with much better animation. — Seth Freilich
Cyrus: Cyrus is the perfect indie execution of a studio high-concept. I was troubled by that concept initially; the Duplasses find the honesty in the relationship triangle, but I had some difficulties with the honesty of the setup: What were the Duplass Brothers trying to say about the over-affection between mothers and their sons? Does a dynamic like the one between Molly and Cyrus really exist in the world, outside of hillbilly trailer homes or that episode of “The X-Files”? But that’s not the dynamic the Duplasses were really trying to explore, it’s just the studio hook. The more honest dynamic is one that so many of us have faced: step-fathers honing in on the existing bond between a single-mother and her children. In that context, Cyrus feels genuine. His behavior is typical of those relationships; it’s just that the son is usually 11 instead of 22. But it is a delicate situation for any new partner, who has to win the affection of the mom without alienating the son, an alienation that could ultimately doom the relationship. In the end, that premise backs the Duplass Brothers into a corner I never thought they could extract themselves from, but they eventually drive it toward the most honest ending for which you could possibly hope. — Dustin Rowles
The five worst selections were much easier to choose.
The Last Airbender: From the opening moments, you know you are fucking doomed. Replicated from the cartoon’s introductory sequence, we see four shadowy figures each summon the prospective elements: earth, water, fire, and air. This should be exciting — seeing what up to now has only been pen and ink brought to life in stunning 3D. And yet, there is no life. It feels half-speed like a dry run of the production. In fact, Shyamalan went out of his way to suck any and all life out of the original material, like a Twihard horking feathers as she chews through her Cullenpillow. The entire movie is played out like a test-audience screening, hastily assembled scenes of actors explaining every element of the story as if it was a placeholder for an amazing action sequence that hasn’t been shot yet. Like a shoddy contractor building a dream home piecemeal, Shyamalan throws up the barest sketch of a foundation with the cheapest materials possible, and then adds elements as time and money allow. Only this motherfucker clearly doesn’t understand how to read blueprints, and has no idea which end of the hammer does the hitting. — Brian Prisco
Jonah Hex: Yippie-kai-lame, motherfucker. I’m not sure what the fuck Jonah Hex was supposed to be. Rather than a tight-fisted western popcorn flick about a vigilante bounty hunter trying to track down the outlaw who murdered his family and scarred his face, we’re left with a cowboyed-up mash-up of pseudo-westerns, as gazed through a heady dose of peyote. Not a single frame doesn’t feel derived from something else, whether it’s Wild Wild West, Sherlock Holmes, Back to the Future III, or Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. The titular character growls and snarls his way through a rammy, stilted Ramboner, gunning through the flimsiest sketches of characters until the film abruptly skids to a whinnying cliff-edged halt. At a paltry 81-minute run time, you don’t have time to enjoy yourself. It’s like the studio gave up halfway through, which was about a half-hour past when the cast stopped caring. It’s a terrible cowpat minefield of a film, but what do you really expect when you get a flick scribbled haphazardly by the verbal equivalent of 5-hour Energy Drink, Neveldine and Taylor. The script reads like someone tried to make a movie out of the lyrics to Kid Rock and Big & Rich songs. If this were a horse, you’d shoot it. — Brian Prisco
Leap Year: People who subject themselves to romantic comedies (and I’d be one of them even if it weren’t my job) know to expect and accept a certain amount of formulism and a few standard contrivances when they step into the theater. But Leap Year is wholly unacceptable. It’s an appallingly bad movie, painfully dull and achingly false. There’s not a low enough expectation that you could set before viewing Leap Year that would allow you to avoid disappointment. If you go in expecting to have your bowels punctured with a rusty blade, you’ll still walk out wondering why they used a pitchfork. — Dustin Rowles
Valentine’s Day: New Line’s latest assembly-line romantic ensemble creation is every bit as bad as you’d expect it to be — maybe worse. The 16 percent it’s currently rating over on Rotten Tomatoes is more generous than a bashful virgin leaving a tip at Hooters. It’s a lot of very pretty faces haphazardly glued together with aged Elmers, lit with a sun lamp, and scored by a drunk who couldn’t keep his finger off the SWELL button. It’s as commercially crass as Valentine’s Day itself; it’s cheap; ineffectively manipulative; and emptier than a single man’s nightstand Kleenex box the morning after binging on microwave pizza and pay-per-porn. It’s slathered in processed American cheese, melted into a wet gooey marshmallow-y mess, and then strained, leaving only a wine glass of grease. It’s emptier than Taylor Swift’s head, who — along with Taylor Lautner — turn in what has to be the worst on-screen performances since Tom Brady hosted “Saturday Night Live.” Taylor Swift looked like a blind special-ed kid hopped up on pixie stix trying to shake off flies, while Lautner looked like a brain-dead Bambi dumb enough to get caught in a fog light. — Dustin Rowles
Grown Ups: Congratulations, Adam Sandler! After a decade or so of trying in earnest, you’ve finally achieved what must be your ultimate goal: to make a completely unwatchable movie. The problems in the past — and the reasons that your movies have been mostly unwatchable instead of completely unwatchable — have finally been eradicated. Turns out that before you were trying too hard. In Grown Ups, you’ve finally figured out the formula: Don’t try at all! It’s brilliant! All that effort is what’s been holding you back all these years. As it turns out, laziness really is the best way accomplish the lifelong pursuit that has eluded you until now. — Dustin Rowles