(*homocinematically inclined)

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Reel Thoughts: The 2011 Neelys!

2010 has yielded a bumper crop of amazing performances, such as Natalie Portman’s crazed dancer in Black Swan, Christian Bale’s quivering crackhead in The Fighter, Julianne Moore and Annette Bening’s utterly normal but lovably crazy moms in The Kids Are All Right and breakout turns by youthful Chloe Grace Moretz in Kick-Ass and Let Me In and Hailee Steinfeld in True Grit. The films themselves, by and large, may not have cracked the top ten in other years. For that reason, any "Best of" lists you’re likely to read are completely valid but totally subjective. Except for the Neelys, which truly do recognize the best and worst Hollywood had to offer, named for the unfortunately boozy, pill-popping starlet played by Patty Duke in Valley of the Dolls.

10. I Love You Phillip Morris: This wildly offensive and hilarious love story between a sociopath and his Southern prison squeeze gave Jim Carrey and Ewan MacGregor free reign to have a ball. It would have ranked higher, but the flippant tone robbed the men’s relationship of real chemistry, and MacGregor’s phony accent grates.

9. The Town: Testosterone alert! Maybe Good Will Hunting wasn’t a fluke. Director Ben Affleck crafted a smart, exciting heist movie where his beloved Charlestown, Boston is a starring character itself. Affleck, Jon Hamm and especially Jeremy Renner give powerful, rough-edged and ridiculously sexy performances. Plus, those wrinkly nun masks are super creepy!

8. Winter’s Bone: Jennifer Lawrence bursts onto the scene in a tough, unsentimental performance as a girl who goes on a grueling quest to find her no-good father and save her family before they lose their home. Director Debra Granik creates a world of lawlessness, poverty and violence so real, you need a shower after watching it.

7. Please Give: Nicole Holofcener’s latest tale of upper class social guilt is smart, funny and features a priceless performance by Catherine Keener. She plays a mid-century modern furniture dealer who gets her best stuff by raiding estate sales of unsuspecting next-of-kin. Look for The Dick Van Dyke Show’s Millie Helper, Ann Guilbert, as Keener’s ancient and cranky neighbor.

6. The King’s Speech: A veddy British drama about King George VI (Colin Firth), Queen Elizabeth’s father, and his debilitating struggle with stuttering. Geoffrey Rush plays the speech therapist that saved the King, and Helena Bonham Carter gives a richly funny performance as the Queen Mum. Firth will surely earn the Oscar he was denied last year.

5. Toy Story 3: The third time is a charm indeed, as reality intrudes on the sunny lives of Woody, Buzz Lightyear and the gang. Andy is off to college, and he intended to store his toys in the attic, but a mix-up sends them to a hellish prison disguised as a daycare center. The filmmakers explore every human emotion possible in the form of lovable playthings, and Barbie’s Ken nearly pirouettes out of the closet; being Disney, it’s only implied, but come on... he wears an ascot!

4. The Social Network: David Fincher creates an endlessly fascinating film that Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg probably doesn’t “Like”. Jesse Eisenberg plays Zuckerberg as an anti-social narcissist who created Facebook after being dumped by his girlfriend.

3. Black Swan: The wildest mind trip of the year, Darren Aronofsky’s ballet thriller is part Roman Polanski meltdown, part Showgirls-style sex and seduction. Natalie Portman plays the role of her life as a mentally fragile ballerina who cracks under the pressure of playing the two-sided Swan Queen in Swan Lake. Mila Kunis sizzles as Portman’s rival who may or may not want to be her lover.

2. The Kids Are All Right: A backlash has developed against Lisa Cholodenko’s unconventional family dramedy, but I still find it fresh, funny and full of wise and witty performances. Julianne Moore glows as earthy Jules, and Annette Bening sparkles as her brittle doctor wife who has to face the ugly truth of infidelity. Mia Wasikowska (Alice in Wonderland) and Josh Hutcherson shine as the titular kids who find more than they bargained for when they locate their sperm donor dad (sexy Mark Ruffalo). Is it a slap in audiences’ faces that Moore fools around with Ruffalo? Not if she was just responding to his attention and passion to reawaken her own dormant sexuality. She’s still gay and the two women still love each other, but Cholodenko doesn’t really care if people are offended. It’s the film she wanted to make, based on elements she and co-writer Stuart Blumberg actually lived through.

And the 2011 Neely goes to…

1. True Grit: Did the old John Wayne/Kim Darby western really need a remake? With the Coen Brothers at the helm, the answer is a resounding yes. Jeff Bridges is a marvel as drunken, trigger-happy Rooster Cogburn and Hailee Steinfeld is amazingly self-assured as Mattie Ross, a stubborn fourteen year old in the wildest of Wild Wests. Matt Damon is a hilarious foil to Bridges, and the Coens create a vivid old-time world through spot-on dialogue, gorgeous production values and inventive performances.

Of course, I always hear that my Worst Ten List is the readers’ favorite part, so here are the misfires, monstrosities and hot messes of the year:

10. The Tourist: A film that makes Johnny Depp boring and Angelina Jolie frivolous is quite a sad accomplishment. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck lavishes attention on Jolie’s gorgeous clothes, but lets Depp flail listlessly as the most improbable math teacher in the history of film.

9. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time: Why do white people playing Persians all speak with British accents? Jake Gyllenhaal sports a Billy Ray Cyrus wig, but his manly physique is the only saving grace in this noisy, pompous, overblown melodrama. I sure hope the video game this is based on is more entertaining.

8. Clash of the Titans: Hunky but vacant Sam Worthington makes Harry Hamlin look like Olivier, and Liam Neeson seems visibly pained to shout “Release the Kraken!” in this misguided fantasy film only made worse by the addition of cheesy 3-D. Poor Gemma Atherton makes her second appearance on the list after her embarrassing Prince of Persia performance, proving that a Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts education doesn’t give you taste in projects.

7. Dinner for Schmucks: As funny as a plate of dog poop, this unnecessary remake of a French film squandered the talents of Paul Rudd and Steve Carell in the least funny comedy of the year. Carell’s stuffed mice dioramas had more life and energy.

6. The Last Airbender: The Lousy Airblunder is a better name for M. Night Shamalyan’s latest pretentious mess. Dev Patel squanders his Slumdog Millionaire good will glowering through his role of a disgraced prince, while a trio of forgettable child actors pretends to control the four elements. Nothing will control your boredom.

5. The Bounty Hunter: Gerard Butler is the anti-Hugh Jackman, choosing role after role in cinematic stink bombs, and this sour romantic comedy is no exception. Jennifer Aniston tries to charm, but the story is so full of nasty violence and misogynist characters, you won’t get the bad taste out of your mouth for weeks.

4. Splice: A nasty hybrid escaped earlier this year that was cobbled together from the damaged DNA of a dozen better movies. No, I am not talking about “nerd-spelled-backwards” Dren, the monster at the center of the hoot-worthy Splice. The film itself was a sickly retread of many superior films that took the intriguing idea of genetic experimentation and turned it into a cringe-inducing freak show. Sarah Polley and Adrian Brody definitely need new agents.

3. Furry Vengeance: A bloated Brendan Fraser squares off with a bunch of pissed-off woodland creatures in a horrifying comedy that could have been crafted by Sarah Palin and the NRA. The animals are repulsive, the humans are more repulsive and the whole film feels like it was made for pocket change. The whole thing reminds me of a 1973 issue of "House of Mystery" where the forest creatures drowned a little boy to teach man a lesson about respecting the environment. Watching Furry Vengeance made me wish I were that toddler.

2. Eat Pray Love: 2010 was a year filled with natural disasters, but Glee creator Ryan Murphy’s excruciating version of Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir was a pompous, self-congratulatory, insufferably cutesy disaster to rival them all. Not even Julia Roberts, Richard Jenkins and Javier Bardem could elevate this chick flick fiasco.

1. Standing Ovation: Billed as “Junior High School Musical”, this misshapen maelstrom of horrible acting, miserable musical numbers and idiotic writing could single-handedly end funding for the arts in our schools. With dialogue like “I’m Alanna Wannabe, and I’m gonna be!” and a band of mean girls named “The Wiggies”, it’s like From Justin to Kelly, without the charm. So painful, it’s considered a human rights violation in thirty-seven countries.

And the coveted Elizabeth Berkley Award for unfortunate acting goes for the first time to an unknown, who will, we can pray, remain that way. From the truly wretched Standing Ovation, the hilarious low point was, hands-down, little Alanna Palombo. With a foghorn voice and an Elmer Fudd accent, this pint-sized moppet overacts so horrifically, you will swear she’s in 3-D. Those arguing whether Black Swan or Burlesque is the new Showgirls should aim a little lower. Shrill Palombo and her talent-deprived tweens make Standing Ovation the cult classic of the year.

By Neil Cohen, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Phoenix's Echo Magazine.

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