SEE: The Descendants
It’s been seven whole years since the great Alexander Payne’s last film, Sideways. Now, one of America’s finest directors is back with another poignant portrait of the male midlife crisis. The Descendants stars George Clooney—in a career-best performance—as a neglectful father who’s forced to reconnect with his two young daughters, played by Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller, when their mother falls into a coma after a boating accident. Then, after the father learns that his comatose wife cheated on him, the family is compelled to go on an adventure across Hawaii in search of her paramour. In typical Payne fashion, the film provides a beautiful ballet of emotions, transitioning effortlessly from tragedy to comedy, all the while dripping with pathos. The film, which has received near-universal critical acclaim, will be a force to be reckoned with come Oscar time—in particular Clooney, who is a shoo-in for a Best Actor nod, and Woodley, who wows audiences with a star-making performance, positioning her as the next go-to young all-American actress, a la Anna Kendrick.
SKIP: Jack and Jill
On the flip side of familial dysfunction, there’s Adam Sandler’s recent catastrophe Jack and Jill. Sandler plays Jack Sadelstein, a successful advertising exec and family man, who must endure a visit from his annoying twin sister, Jill (also Sandler), every Thanksgiving. Needless to say, Jill disrupts Jack’s life, teaching him some lessons about family in the process, yada, yada, yada. This Razzie-bait film is Adam Sandler’s Norbit, and, despite cameos by Al Pacino and Johnny Depp, and poor Katie Holmes playing Sandler’s wife, is a complete disaster. “More than 24 hours has passed since I watched the new Adam Sandler movie Jack and Jill and I am still dead inside,” wrote Time. “It made me feel as if comedy itself were a dirty thing.”
Martin Scorsese isn’t exactly the first guy you’d think of when it comes to family films, but his magical 3D adventure, Hugo, is nothing short of a masterpiece. Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) is a young orphan/inventor living within the walls of a Paris train station in the 1930s. When he comes across a broken automaton, an adventure-seeking young girl (Chloe Moretz), and an old, disgruntled toy shop owner (Ben Kingsley), it sets him off a wild ride through the pages of film history. It is a lovely snow globe of a film, using beautiful CGI to render the train station and city of Paris, and is one enchanting love letter to filmmaking (and the work of Georges Méliès). Expect to hear about this crowd-pleaser again come Oscar time.
SKIP: J. Edgar
Unlike Scorsese, the Oscar-bait film from another legendary director, Clint Eastwood, doesn’t go over so well. Based on the life of controversial FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, J. Edgar stars Leonardo DiCaprio as the titular government official, tracing his career from the Palmer Raids to spying on the country’s politicians, as well as his life-long, quasi-sexual relationship with Clyde Tolson, played by Armie Hammer. While the “grumpy old gay men” scenes between J. Edgar and Tolson toward the end of the film are touching, and DiCaprio and Hammer give it their all, unlike the DiCaprio-starring Howard Hughes biopic, The Aviator, this film’s subject still remains an enigma, and the film, bathed in a drab gray tint, is a bit of a snooze. This is more Changeling than Invictus, as far as director Eastwood is concerned.
It’s incredibly unfortunate that Danish auteur Lars von Trier made those bone-headed “I’m a Nazi” comments at Cannes, because Melancholia is his finest film. After the wedding of Justine, played by Kirsten Dunst, goes completely awry, the story focuses on the deteriorating relationship between two sisters—the depressed Justine and fearful Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg)—all while a hidden planet emerges and threatens to collide with Earth. Seemingly von Trier’s take on The Deer Hunter, this beautifully-shot, tonally masterful film is one of the best of the year, anchored by an Oscar-worthy performance from Dunst, as well as the best work to date from Alexander Skarsgard, who plays Justine’s doting fiancé.
SKIP: The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part 1
Like Jane Eyre meets Rosemary’s Baby, the fourth film in the Twilight franchise, adapted from Stephenie Meyer’s series of teen vampire novels, scraps the prior film’s self-referential, fun tone in favor of stark melodrama. In The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part 1, Bella (Kristen Stewart) marries her vampire love Edward (Robert Pattinson), and the two go off on a honeymoon where they finally—gasp!—have sex, and she gets pregnant. The vampire baby turns out to be hell on her body, and our heroine spends a good chunk of the film struggling with her pregnancy. While Bella’s gruesome birth scene is expertly handled by director Bill Condon (Dreamgirls), the film is just too deadly serious, which makes some of the more camp scenes—talking werewolves, “imprinting”—make you laugh in sheer disbelief.
SEE: The Artist
Michel Hazanavicius’ wondrous black-and-white silent film, The Artist, is a sure-fire contender and, along with Hugo, is one of the most feel-good movies of the year. George Valentin, played by the magnificent Jean Dujardin, is the world’s biggest silent film star in 1927. However, as the movie industry makes the switch from silent movies to talkies, he falls out of fashion, paving the way for the rise of Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), a former Valentin fan, who replaces him atop the marquee. Hazanavicius’ film features stellar art direction and set design, and, like Haneke’s The White Ribbon, is rendered in rich black-and-white. But it’s Dujardin’s outstanding performance that makes the film work. His Valentin is a mixture of Clark Gable and Gene Kelly, and Dujardin pulls off the role with a wink, a smile, and some serious tap-dancing to boot.
SKIP: A Dangerous Method
Renowned auteur David Cronenberg’s latest film is his most disciplined to date. Based on Christopher Hampton’s play The Talking Cure, the film centers on Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), a fledgling psychiatrist who engages in a bizarre, psychosexual relationship with his sexually-abused Russian patient, Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley). The tryst causes a professional fissure between Jung and his psychiatrist mentor, Sigmund Freud, played by Viggo Mortensen. While Fassbender and Mortensen are solid as usual, Knightley’s frantic, jaw-jutting turn is plenty grating, and in taking a clinical, academic approach to story—devoid of typical Cronenbergian bouts of craziness—the film, despite its handsome look, comes off as rigid and unengaging.
SEE: The Muppets
Its been 12 years since Jim Henson’s The Muppets last graced a cinema, but in stepped Jason Segel, whose hilarious vampire puppeteering you may remember from Forgetting Sarah Marshall, to rescue the franchise. The Muppets centers on Gary (Segel), the world’s biggest Muppet fan who, along with his girlfriend (Amy Adams) and the Muppets, must save the Muppet Theater and Studio from a greedy oilman, after oil is found beneath them. Kermit, Miss Piggy, and the gang are all back in top form, in this feel-good film replete with musical numbers and goodwill galore. “I've never seen a movie so perfectly balanced between unabashed nerdiness and hipness,” wrote The Boston Globe.
SKIP: Happy Feet Two
Whereas Segel’s The Muppets is a delightful return to form for the lovable puppets, the 3D computer-animated family film, Happy Feet Two, a sequel to the Oscar-winning film again directed by George Miller, is just more of the same. Mumble the Penguin’s son is “choreophobic” and refuses to dance, so he flees the penguin kingdom, all while a new force threatens their wing-flapping harmony. The film’s plot is a complete mess, and “the movie has absolutely everything except the light touch required for unaffected charm—the mugging is savage—a single piece of memorable original music, or a production number that's celebratory rather than trampling,” according to The Village Voice. If it’s dancing penguins you want, rent the first Happy Feet on Netflix.
If the Academy had any sense, Olivia Colman’s riveting performance in Tyrannosaur as a pious, abused woman in northern England, would be getting major Oscar notice. Paddy Considine’s (In America) feature directorial debut centers on Joseph (Peter Mullan), a widower and recovering abusive alcoholic who, after killing his dog in a fit of rage, forms an unlikely bond with Hannah (Colman), a sweet charity-shop worker whose husband (Eddie Marsan) beats and rapes her. While the film might seem like miserable British fare to some, it’s a gripping tale of redemption and romance. The performances—especially Colman’s, which is a revelation—are all top-notch, and Considine proves to be a director to watch out for.
SKIP: My Week with Marilyn
Marilyn Monroe had a hard time managing her “real” self, Norma Jeane Baker, and her Hollywood Monroe persona. She had a string of tough marriages, wasn’t the greatest actress but a great movie star, had amazing presence, and popped pills—a habit that ultimately took her life. All of this is touched on in My Week with Marilyn, featuring Michelle Williams as the busty Hollywood icon who feels marginalized while shooting the U.K. film The Prince and the Showgirl, and seeks relief in the arms of a young production assistant, Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne). While Redmayne is good, as is Kenneth Branagh’s cartoonish turn as the film’s director, Sir Laurence Olivier, Williams’s pouty, affected turn as Monroe only works some of the time, and you’re never convinced for a moment that you’re not watching an actress—whose specialty is “woe is me” roles—playing a cinema icon. It’s a near-impossible task, but like the subject of J. Edgar, Monroe still remains a complete mystery in this trifle of a film.