It's the most wonderful time of the year. No, not Christmas/Hanukkah/Festivus, but Top 10 list time, when a year's worth of cinematic output is condensed into easily digested capsules for consumption by those of you too lazy to do your own research.
I kid, because I know you're busy people who can't afford to waste time on inferior movie choices. And because we live in the city of Houston, our options may be limited to the art house-heavy metropolises on the other two coasts. There's no excuse for missing these movies, though. All either screened in town or are currently available for purchase/rental at the online retail outlet of your choice.
Hey, I can't do all your work for you.
Ben Affleck has come a long way from Phantoms, yo. What sets his third directorial effort apart from his previous films is his successful meshing of a taut espionage thriller (and one in which we're still sweating the ending even though you know how it turns out) with the semi-comic caper behind getting the fictional "Argo" made in the first place. Certain events have been Hollywood-ed up, make no mistake, but it's still a ripping yarn, as the kids say.
The House I Live In
There's a hint of the "white man's burden" at the beginning of Eugene Jarecki's sobering (no pun intended) documentary about America's 40-year war on drugs, but that fades as the breadth of the film is laid out. Drug abuse is certainly a tremendous problem, but through interviews with everyone from street dealers to Harvard professors to The Wire's David Simon, it's made painfully clear that aside from turning the United States into the "jailing-est" country on the planet and costing over a trillion dollars, this war is failing and we're no closer to a solution than we were during the Nixon administration.
You probably won't be getting an NHL season this year, but at least you can watch this unexpected gem about a slightly dim bouncer who rises to stardom as the enforcer for a minor-league hockey team. The movie is, likes Hobbes's depiction of the life of man, nasty, brutish and short. But there's also a great deal of heart pumping all that blood that ends up on the ice, and Michael Dowse takes the story in some unexpected directions. My only wish is that someone would take a swing at Gary Bettman.
If Jack Black had never given us anything besides Tenacious D and that time he played Ben Franklin in Drunk History, we'd have never known he was capable of something like playing Bernie Tiede. The tale of Tiede's murder of his companion, 81-year old Marjorie Nugent of Carthage, Texas, and that community's subsequent rallying around him is so unbelievable it has to be true. And while Skip Hollandsworth's script (based on his Texas Monthly article) and director Richard Linklater are integral to the film's working, it's Black who really brings Bernie to life.
Pixar and Disney need to watch their backs, because right now the folks at Laika, Inc. are making the best animated movies around, and stop-motion (not computer-animated) ones at that. Following 2009's enchanting Coraline comes the story of a boy who sees and talks to ghosts. It's hard to pinpoint what makes ParaNorman so gratifying: the wonderfully realized characters? The surprisingly moving score? Yes and yes, but more than that, it's how Sam Fell and Chris Butler have created a genuinely heartwarming tale of acceptance and coming to grips with the past. Yes, I used "heartwarming" non-ironically. Deal with it.
Killing Then Softly
The central premise of Andrew Dominik's third feature film, "America is a business," isn't exactly original. However, by updating George V. Higgins' 1974 novel in order to set the actions of Brad Pitt's coldly efficient hit man against the backdrop of the recent economic recession and 2008 Presidential election, Dominik has created both a canny deconstruction of the American mob film and as apt a metaphor for the nation's current political climate as you're likely to see on the big screen. Until Coppola decides to make Godfather 4, I guess.
Is there a current director more polarizing than Paul Thomas Anderson? Not counting Lars Von Trier, that is. It's hard to find someone who lacks an opinion on PTA's oeuvre: Boogie Nights, Magnolia and There Will Be Blood made plenty of critics' "best of" lists for their respective years, but also elicited a fair amount of negative backlash. The Master, Anderson's story of an L. Ron Hubbard-esque charismatic leader and one of his more ardent followers, is generating much of the same reaction, but what can't be argued is Anderson's skill, both behind the camera and in drawing out the most from his cast. True, we expect as much from Philip Seymour Hoffman, but the real surprises are Amy Adams and a feral, haunting Joaquin Phoenix.
Don't fall victim to the easy dodge: Oh, it bombed at the box office so it must suck. By that reasoning, Avatar is the greatest movie of all time. (Hint: It's not.) Critics called it "derivative," even though the Edgar Rice Burroughs stories it's based upon predate everything from Lovecraft to Star Wars. They also jumped on Taylor Kitsch's titular performance...well, they may have a point there. But John Carter was that rarest of films: a fun blockbuster. It's worth a second look, if only to satisfy your inner eight-year-old.
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Just to get it out of the way: No, Russell Crowe isn't very good. But what makes his performance really stand out — in a negative way — is the caliber of performance around him. We all expected Hugh Jackman and supporting cast like Colm Wilkinson (the original Jean Valjean) and Frances Ruffelle to stand out, but the biggest surprises in the finished product are the scope of the film's production and a devastating performance by Anne Hathaway as Fantine. It's a truly impressive accomplishment, and I've never really even liked Les Miz.
The Invisible War
More and more, documentaries are forced to serve the function the so-called "legitimate" media once fulfilled, namely, reporting those stories meant to inform and provoke. Kirby Dick's (This Film is Not Yet Rated, Outrage) searing indictment of the U.S. military and its mishandling of the epidemic of sexual assault in its ranks is the latest to provide that call to arms. By the Department of Defense's own estimates, 20 percent of women in the armed services have been sexually assaulted, and a recent lawsuit filed by several survivors of sexual assault against the DoD was dismissed by a federal district court that ruled rape was an "occupational hazard of military service." Next up, Emeril's new jicama coleslaw recipe.