Brooks, Buzzell, Freudenthal, Matzdorff, McKay

Best Foot Forward (Edward Buzzell, 1943). Less than a decade before a certain TV series elevated Lucille Ball to the stratosphere of stardom, she was merely the “Queen of the Bs,” which makes it a little odd to see her playing herself in this film about a cadet at a military academy who convinces the redhead to come be his date for a big dance. She’s also far removed from the ditzy whirligig persona that she’d soon be known for, playing scenes instead as the smartest person in the room with a disdainful, withering comment for everyone and everything she encounters. Novelty aside, the film is a rather clumsy affair, mixing strained farce with out-of-nowhere musical numbers and squeaky clean teen romance. It has little apparent ambition beyond being diversionary entertainment, and it doesn’t even really pull that off.

Feed the Fish (Michael Matzdorff, 2009). The feature directorial debut from Matzdorff is the sort of mild, genial independent comedy that seems to have no home in the current clearly-rendered atlas of film distribution. It’s not slick and noisy enough to nab a screen in the local multiplex or edgy enough to garner showings in the art house. It’s sweet enough and fairly unassuming, probably far more ingratiating to anyone who can relate to it’s depiction of a small town Wisconsin winter. Matzdorff is from Green Bay, and the film emanates a keen understanding of and appreciation for the peculiarities of his home state. There’s not much else to the film, though. The story of a miserable children’s book writer who finds himself in the unfamiliar provincial setting, including a tender romance with a local, is as predictable as can be. One of these days, someone should make a movie about a big city resident who is adamantly not transformed positively by small town charms.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid (Thor Freudenthal, 2010). An adaptation of the sensationally popular book series by Jeff Kinney, Diary of a Wimpy Kid rarely demonstrates the sort of verve or imagination that presumably contributed to the success of the original work. The travails of young Greg Heffley–who comes across as more bratty and selfish in this rendering than wimpy–as he enters middle school, the film is a perfunctory glide through social indignities and mild familial strife. Its literary pedigree aside, this seems only marginally different from any number of frenetic assemblages of incident that passed for live action kiddie entertainment back when I was charged with reviewing everything that came through the small college town where I lived. In other words, it’s completely forgettable. I will add this, though: I think it’s an indication of my enduring appreciation of Matt Reeves’ Let Me In that I’m currently helpless with delight any time Chloe Moretz shows up, as she does her as a tough, smart, helpful 7th grader.

How Do You Know (James L. Brooks, 2010). James L. Brooks doesn’t work quickly, and his tendency for second-guessing and the anxiety that naturally accompanies it increasingly shows up in his work. His previous feature, Spanglish, was essentially undone by Brooks having no real sense of what he wanted it to be, and his long-gestating follow-up has a similar sort of tentativeness about it. It also represents a sort of retreat since its plot–a love triangle involving a complicated woman, a friendly but dim guy and a neurotic potential suitor–has distinct echoes of Broadcast News, the last complete success Brooks had as a filmmaker (no, I’m not forgetting about As Good As It Gets). Despite these expressions of disgruntlement, the film is fairly successful, certainly better than it’s reputation as one of last year’s most damaging bombs would indicate. Brooks still has an evident talent for sharp, artful dialogue, and he gets nice performances out his principal actors, especially Reese Witherspoon, who is at her best here. She plays a washed-up softball star just beginning to set a new path without the well-established patterns of her training and competition schedules. The character is prickly, shrewd, instinctive and wonderfully complicated, and Witherspoon responds with more nuanced work than I’ve seen from her before. The film may seem like little more than passable entertainment, especially when measured again the peaks of Brooks’ work, but it’s also nicely ingratiating.

The Other Guys (Adam McKay, 2010). The extensive (and generally admirable) background Adam McKay and Will Ferrell have in sketch comedy, especially Saturday Night Live style sketch comedy, is in full evidence in The Other Guys, and it’s to the film’s detriment. There’s every indication that McKay and his cohorts are well-versed in the tactic of returning to a funny premise until it’s entirely worn out. That’s bad enough in a bit meant to last five or six minutes. Spread to feature-length, it’s brutal. Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg play a couple middle-of-the-road cops who wind up pursuing justice in a dully complicated scheme involving Wall Street chicanery. McKay is going for the same spirited mix of action and comedy that’s been pursued by filmmakers at least since Walter Hill’s 48 Hrs., but he has no knack for the action sequences and often seems flatly disinterested in the comedy. In fact, the only portion of the film that really works is the biting breakdown of corrupt capitalism that accompanies the closing credits.

Arnold, Coppola, Nadel, Smight, Wallace

Fish Tank (Andrea Arnold, 2009). At it’s strongest, Arnold’s film is as scrappy as its protagonist, a teenage girl in lower class Britain who pushes against what little disinterested authority exists in her life. The film expertly gets at the way passion burns to the surface so quickly at that age, while also considering how simple, inelegant endeavors like hip hop dancing can fuel dreams of escape. As an observant, uncompromising character study, the film is sharp and sensational. As it gets more plot driven, especially in a misguided third act, it falters terribly. The one thing that’s consistent throughout is the performance of total newcomer Kate Jarvis in the lead role. Reportedly plucked from a railway platform where she was delivering a verbal pummeling to her boyfriend, Jarvis invests her headstrong character with the sort of impudent strength that’s all but impossible to fake. She may only have this one performance in her, but it’s a damn good one.

Clambake (Arthur H. Nadel, 1967). Maybe there are lazier movies than those built around Elvis Presley, but finding them would require dedicated efforts in an exceedingly well-stocked film library. Time and again, they just took The King and plopped him in the middle of some insignificant plot, taking great care to make sure he has some cool pastime to indulge in like racecar driving or boxing. Then toss in a few wan songs and make sure the rest of the cast is filled with actors bland enough to be sure they won’t expose the star’s thespian shortcomings and the finished product is all but done. In Clambake, Presley plays the scion of a wealthy oil family who trades identities with a water-skiing instructor on a trip to Florida so he can try to find that elusive groovy gal who likes him for more than his money. For some reason, he still spends all his time pining after lovely beach bunny, played by Shelly Fabares, who does nothing but talk about her desire to land a rich husband. Amidst the songs, Presley’s character also preps for a big speedboat race, so there are all sort of inanities built into that. Not all movies need to have grand aspirations, but those with more modest goals should at least be entertaining. It does include a surprise appearance by the greatest outdoor playset of all time. (Okay, maybe there’s been one that was better.)

A Girl, A Guy, and a Gob (Richard Wallace, 1941). This romantic comedy casts Lucille Ball as a strong-willed woman with an eccentric family who is engaged to a sailor, but she’s also caught the eye of her new boss. There’s nothing especially inspired in the film, although there’s a pleasing rambunctiousness to it, a sense of throwing all sorts of playful goofiness out there and somehow letting it accumulate without ever reaching the point of unchecked hysteria. Ball is especially good in the film, displaying a sharp-minded self-assurance that’s all but unrecognizable given the way that her far more scattered and needy television persona is drilled into the shared pop consciousness. There’s probably plenty of subtext that can be found in weighing the unpredictability of a military spouse versus the stability of the entrenched business upper class, especially given that release date, but I prefer to look at it as a mere pleasurable diversion.

Harper (Jack Smight, 1966). Paul Newman plays a charmingly weary and sardonic southern California private detective in this sun-basked stab at the sort of noirish shuffles that made Bogart’s career. Lauren Bacall even turns up, radiating whipsmart disdain as the woman who recruits Newman’s gumshoe to find her missing wealthy husband. Based on a Ross McDonald novel, the film has a screenplay by William Goldman penned at exactly the point when he could drop ingenious lines of dialogue as easily as someone shaking stray coffee beans out of a burlap sack. Smight’s direction is less riveting. It’s capable but bland, with occasional hints of the TV movie plainness that plagued productions of the day before the cinematic lessons of the French New Wave really started to insinuate themselves into American efforts. Newman is solid, though operating with disaffected cool was never his strongest mode. Without much anguished vulnerability to play around with, he sometimes seems a little bored.

The Godfather Part II (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974). It is, of course, the height of heresy to impugn either of the first two installments of Francis Ford Coppola’s extended epic about the Corleone crime family (I assume no concerted revisionism has kicked in, and Part III remains fair game for mockery), so I may as well get my complaints out of the way immediately, letting those who agree wholeheartedly with its cemented place in the canon get to the business of dismissing my viewpoint without delay. The last third of the film simply doesn’t work for me, beginning with the long, dull grind of Michael Corleone called to testify before a Senate committee about the alleged criminal actions of his family. These scenes are presented with numbing detail and are no more interesting that if Coppola had dredged up some actual footage of dry legislative inquiry and presented it without an edit. That same blanket of languor covers the whole end of the film, which can’t even quicken its pulse with the sharpest scenes of family turmoil. Even the emotional turning point of Michael’s wife leaving has little impact, in part because Kay has been such a non-factor through the film, even with the always creative Diane Keaton returning to the role. Al Pacino is terrific as Michael, and the two film arc of his performance arguably stands as his finest overall work. The first two-thirds of the film is sensational in all the same ways as its duly exalted predecessor: mixing the quietly, resolutely epic with a burrowed-in attention to the inner lives of all the characters. In The Godfather Part II, all that is heightened by Coppola’s artful swinging back and forth in time, alternating between Michael’s increasing command of the empire his father built and a consideration of how the foundation was set in the first place, with Robert De Niro giving a nice performance as Vito Corleone, albeit one that is connected to the work Marlon Brando did as the older version of the don in the first film in only the most superficial ways. The Godfather Part II is good, not great; the echo of a masterpiece rather than its ideal continuation.

Affleck, Curtis, Ford, Jarecki, Thompson

Cape Fear (J. Lee Thompson, 1962). This beloved film classic only had its notoriety bolstered when Martin Scorsese remade it in 1991. Though my helpless affection for Scorsese is well-documented by now, I must concede that the the original is far superior, largely due to the performance of spectacularly relaxed menace by Robert Mitchum as recently sprung convict Max Cady, who decides to terrorize the prosecutor whose testimony was instrumental to his incarceration. Mitchum is so good developing a fearsome quality out of little more than the way he glares across a room or strolls into a scene that the film becomes paradoxically less gripping as it escalates. When the tension ratchets up in the last act as the family takes refuge on the titular waterway and Cady’s threats become more overt, the film starts to drag, feeling conventional instead of inspired.

The Lost Patrol (John Ford, 1934). This World War I drama follows a platoon of British soldiers wandering the Mesopotamian desert after a sniper guns down the one member of their group familiar with the terrain and the mission they were supposed to carry out. Ford directs with a wholly characteristic easy command of visual storytelling, keeping the film bounding along even though the squabbling and disparate band of brothers now looks as timeworn as can be. There’s an appealing offhand grittiness to most of the performances, although Boris Karloff’s turn as a bible-thumping soldier who goes mad in the heat is a few notches too intense, even for the era.

The Town (Ben Affleck, 2010). Affleck’s second feature as a director is much like his first one: sturdy, serious, a little pedestrian and dominated by an unyielding affection for the working class culture of Boston. Much as he clearly respects the downtrodden, rough-edged characters, Affleck sometimes unconsciously adopts the benevolent condescension of a social tourist. He’s like the white, suburban kids who longs to have the survivalist cachet that comes from rapping about a hard life on urban streets. His real talent as a director lies less in his empathy and more in his command of the physicality of individual scenes. The movie is about heists, and Affleck stages those sequences with a focus on the pounding relentlessness of the work needed to pull them off. These aren’t empty action sequences, designed for kinetic glamor; they’re manifestations of the characters’ collective drive and effort. The sweat and strain of these scenes feels real. Each of the actors is afforded a nice moment or two. Surprisingly, it’s Blake Lively who delivers the fullest performance of the film, investing her character with an aura of perpetual disappointment that makes the steps she takes to keep herself numb to the world acutely poignant.

Pirate Radio (Richard Curtis, 2009). This really should be a movie that I find difficult to resist given the way it romanticizes radio DJs as heroic rebels roughly on par with the beautifully haggard souls who strap on guitars to make gloriously ear-splitting rock ‘n’ roll in the first place. Unfortunately, Richard Curtis is such a haphazard writer and director that the film becomes an incoherent mess. As he did with his previous directorial effort, the dreadful Love Actually, he assembles a batch of insipid short stories and trundles them off in search of a unifying narrative spine, demonstrating little to no interest in imposing it himself. So this story about a floating radio station that runs afoul of the British government in the turbulent nineteen-sixties drifts along, swamped by its own quirky comedy and ugly self-aggrandizement. Based on actual events, Curtis seems to have convinced himself that this ship of single-spinning seamen basically invented rock radio, a conceit he tiresomely drives home with repeated images of listeners sitting rapt before their receivers. Curtis may believe it, but the film he made to prove his point isn’t convincing in the slightest.

All Good Things (Andrew Jarecki, 2010). Jarecki follows up his phenomenal documentary Capturing the Friedmans with a toe-dip into the realm of fiction filmmaking. In some ways, he’s within arm’s reach of the his earlier masterpiece, again examining a New York family wracked by insidious, criminal scandal. In this instance, the story is inspired by the sordid tale of Robert Durst, the scion of a wealthy family who was suspected, though never convicted, of murder, though tweaked enough (and then presumably aggressively vetted by lawyers) for Jarecki and the screenwriters to draw decisive conclusions about their main character’s guilt. Ryan Gosling plays that part, though he never quite gets a handle on the role, stumbling through the film exhibiting a muddled mix of anxiety, wounded charm and poor anger management skills. Kirsten Dunst is much better as his wife, watching her world spin out of control and agonizingly attempting to set it all right.

Audiard, Curtiz, Elliot, Polanski, Vaughn

Mary and Max (Adam Elliot, 2009). A beautifully downbeat stop-motion animation feature about unlikely penpals on the opposite side of the Atlantic who correspond over a number of years, developing a moving, warm, fragile and occasionally fractured relationship. Despite the distance–or, arguably, because of it–they drawn strength and even courage from one another, muddling through the unique challenges of their respective lives in part because they’ve got a lifeline out there somewhere in the world, someone who may not understand them, but at least takes the time to try. Max, voiced by Philip Seymour Hoffman, is an especially wonderful creation, beaten down by his surroundings and almost entirely unable to figure out how to meet the world, a dilemma explained when he reveals he has Asperger syndrome. The movie has a pitch black sense of humor, but also abundant empathy for the characters. In every respect, it’s wonderfully made.

The Ghost Writer (Roman Polanski, 2010). This film is touted as a significant return to form for Polanski, who hasn’t exactly been scuffling given that he picked up a roundly celebrated Best Director Oscar for The Pianist within the last decade. Polanski joins author Robert Harris in adapting his 2007 novel about a ghost writer recruited to punch up the memoirs of a former British Prime Minister. The previous writer has just died under mysterious circumstances, and accusations of a significant international crime perpetrated by the politician are just emerging. It’s well-crafted, but also fairly pedestrian. There are intimations of sensational doings and an open acknowledgment of the thin veneer of unseemliness that comes with power, neither element disguising that the mystery at its core is purely rote, enlivened solely by the brittle and sharp performance by Olivia Williams as the prime minister’s wife. The closing shot amuses in its awkward deliberateness and embrace of arty nineteen-seventies nihilism, but it’s also a bit silly. That’s the dichotomy of the film, distilled to a few seconds of headlong narrative. Forget it Jake, it’s not Chinatown

Young Man with a Horn (Michael Curtiz, 1950). Based ever so loosely on the life of doomed jazz musician Bix Beiderbecke, this film purports to wallow in the glamor and sordidness of a life at the edge of performing genius. Instead it’s drab, dull and woefully stuck in the well-worn groove that moves from hope to sadness to redemption, trailing a hundred other Hollywood movies. Purists may be upset that it discards the far more dire real-life outcome (not to mention the equally dark outcome of the novel on which its based), but the ending is phony for a slew of reasons. Kirk Douglas is mediocre as the trumpet player, seemingly biding his time until the big scenes arrive. Far better is Lauren Bacall in one of her first roles without Bogie to lean on and smolder at. She tears into her role as a sharp-tongued, quick-witted woman who marries the jazzman, and regards his descent with a sullen disregard that’s wholly appropriate. I would have loved for the movie to spin-off and just follow her, leaving the young man alone with his horn.

A Prophet (Jacques Audiard, 2009). A spectacularly ambitious film about a young man of Arab descent who is incarcerated in a French prison, and finds himself almost immediately drawn into the circle of the Corsican mobsters who run the place. Tahar Rahim is outstanding in the leading role, taking the character from the battle-scarred hesitancy to a full command of his life and himself, subtly conveying each gradual step on the journey. Director Jacques Audiard’s previously film was the excellent The Beat That My Heart Skipped, which had a quality of making a small, intense, personal story feel very epic. With A Prophet, he achieves the converse of that, constructing and conducting a story which includes multiple factions jockeying for position, intricate shifts of power and motivations that curl and singe like bacon in a pan that’s too hot. Then it’s all filtered through his devoted attention to this main character; not just his perspective on matters, but the way these things bend and shape him.

Kick-Ass (Matthew Vaughn, 2010). The original Kick-Ass comic struck is lhme as an amusing premise that couldn’t possibly be sustained across an entire series. Turns out even a two-hour movie stretches it thin to the point of worthlessness. Aaron Johnson plays a high school student who takes his love of comic book superheroes to its logical extreme and dons his own costume to fight crime in the streets. Of course, it’s not as easy as it looks, and the film begins an aggressively frantic sprint through all manner of explosions, gunplay, and crunching fistfights that leaves faces looking like badly bruised fruit. It’s the same joke delivered over and over and over again, its numbing quality only enhanced by the jolting camerawork, crazed editing and a decibel level locked in at mindlessly loud.

Banksy, Jackson, Parker, Scorsese, Wright

The Lovely Bones (Peter Jackson, 2009). So poorly conceived that it borders on tragic. Jackson and his regular collaborators adapt Alice Sebold’s acclaimed and beloved 2002 novel about a murdered teenage girl, demonstrating such a bizarre lack of empathy that whole film takes on an off-putting robotic sheen. The movie is senseless in every definition of the word, over-directed and utterly tone-deaf. The actors all seem to have stumbled in from other movies with Susan Sarandon and Stanley Tucci approaching satire in their broadly drawn roles, Rachel Weisz looking bored and Mark Wahlberg thoroughly perplexed. It is cluttered with garish afterlife landscape and crass emotional manipulation to such a degree that the previous film is most resembles is 1998’s What Dreams May Come, which is about as unkind of an observation as I can make.

Midnight Express (Alan Parker, 1978). Parker’s grimly effective adaptation of the prior year’s nonfiction book by Billy Hayes detailing his harrowing experience in a Turkish prison has a bracing single-mindedness to it. The script by Oliver Stone may be his first, but his penchant for bludgeoning simplicity is already in place. Luckily it works well here, perhaps because Parker has some feel for injecting some humanity and personality into the story. Brad Davis is quite good as Billy, laboring believably through one of those roles that’s about conveying the anguish and endurance of the character as much as showing flickers of inner life. There’s also nice character work by John Hurt as one of Billy’s fellow inmates. The film doesn’t have an especially surprising or engrossing arc to it, but it definitely fulfills its mission of making a Turkish prisoner seem like about the most unpleasant place on the planet.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (Edgar Wright, 2010). Bryan Lee O’Malley’s terrifically successful series of graphic novels about a lovelorn Toronto twentysomething is taken by Edgar Wright and recalibrated into a bright, energetic and ingeniously creative film. As opposed to directors who simply slavishly recreate comic book stories, mistaking their pages for storyboards, Wright uses O’Malley’s original work as inspiration, remaining true to it while also stamping it with his own voice and ideas better suited for the medium he’s working in. The result is a thrillingly kinetic film that employs the syntax of video games, Web-based communications and anything else Wright can think of with notable deftness. It’s not so much a new way to tell a film story as it is the perfect way to tell this film story. Fortunately, all this wonderfully employed technique doesn’t cause Wright to lose sight of the simpler, equally vital parts of his film such as character and performance. The roles are fully realized, and there are especially fine supporting turns by Kieran Culkin as Scott’s roommate, Alison Pill as the perpetually dissatisfied drummer in his band, and especially Ellen Wong as the youthful girlfriend who Scott spurns when his dream woman enters the picture.

Exit Through the Gift Shop (Banksy, 2010). This documentary is credited to the famed guerilla artist, but who knows? The story of an amateur and relentless videographer named Thierry Guetta who becomes obsessed with street artists and then spontaneously becomes one himself, mounting a massive art show in Los Angeles, has generated enormous skepticism about its authenticity since its Sundance debut. That’s partially because the general hostility towards the contrivances of the art world that’s woven through the commentary of Banksy and others interviewed in the film reaches its fitting apotheosis when Terry’s exhibition of derivative and suspect works becomes a roaring success. Despite Banksy’s continued insistence that the film is completely legit, the whole closing third feels has the waft of scam about it. This isn’t especially damaging to the film’s effectiveness, however. If anything, it enhances it, drawing the film’s themes and ideas together into a tight little knot. If there is a dose of surreptitious artistic invention to the film then trying to parse the real from the fake is both engaging in and falling for the joke.

Public Speaking (Martin Scorsese, 2010). One of clearest current pleasures of my current movie attentiveness is seeing Martin Scorsese’s status in the entertainment super-structure changed from acknowledged-genius-who-struggles-to-get-his-films-made to acknowledged-genius-who-basically-gets-to-make-whatever-he-wants. That doesn’t mean that everything he stitches together represents masterful filmmaking, especially in the realm of nonfiction work. However, it’s still uniquely satisfying to watching a movie he made about Fran Lebowitz for seemingly no other reason than he thinks sitting and chatting with the caustically funny author for a few hours is a pretty good time. He’s right. It is. It’s also a perilously thin justification for a movie, despite Scorsese’s admirable efforts to mine the video record of Lebowitz’s career to add some context to her various sardonic pronouncements. That doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy it greatly every time I could hear Scorsese cracking up off camera.

Gray, Herzog, Meyers, Mulligan, Ritt

It’s Complicated (Nancy Meyers, 2009). It’s not, really. It is, however, inane, phony and empty-headed. What’s more, it’s borderline offensive in its complete detachment from the problems that most people experience, positing the height of stress that someone could face is planning a wildly expensive addition to the already sizable house. Some of this could be forgivable if the comedy was funny in the slightest, but there’s a barely a laugh to be found in the strained story that wants so desperately to be farce, but no involved wants to sully their hands with such crass entertainment. Meryl Streep may be having fun as the woman who unexpectedly finds herself in a torrid affair with her ex-husband, but there’s nothing whatsoever to her performance besides fluttering and occasionally beaming. Sadder yet is the sight of Steve Martin, completely neutered and bereft of energy as a potential beau.

The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans (Werner Herzog, 2009). So much crazy packed into one little innocent movie, with Nicolas Cage clearly being urged by his director to go bigger and more unhinged at every turn. Much as the escalating over-emoting that characterizes the recent stretch of his career has turned Cage into an easy punchline, can there be any other approach when in a movie that includes vividly hallucinated iguanas and breakdancing spirits? Herzog’s whirling turbine of nutty ideas is unleashed full on in to film as he manages to take the details of William Finkelstein’s dark, dire script and turn them into crashing visual opera. It’s almost a shame that the film doesn’t share the same running commentary of accented narration that Herzog provides to his documentaries, though his voice is all over it anyway. There’s a plot about a murder investigation, but it’s basically negligible. This is a grimy, disjointed nightmare painted by a madman. It may not be fine art, but it’s surely entertaining.

Baby the Rain Must Fall (Robert Mulligan, 1965). Three years after working with Mulligan on the classic To Kill a Mockingbird, Horton Foote adapts his own play, The Traveling Lady, for this drama about a recently released convict unexpectedly reunited with his wife and daughter. Steve McQueen plays the man whose aspirations to develop a music career are compromised jointly by this revived responsibility and the continuing influence of the imposing caretaker who first took him in as a child. The movie is sometimes a little too solemn, lacking the smartly playful spirit of the previous collaboration. McQueen is quite moving, though, showing through a series of haunted expressions shows how the man never totally shakes the boy.

Paris Blues (Martin Ritt, 1961). For some reason, movies never seem to get the naturally seductive world of jazz music right. Could there be anything more romantic than expatriates plying their musical wares in dimly lit basement clubs in Paris in the early sixties? Especially when two of those musicians are played by Paul Newman and Sidney Poitier at the height of their charisma and dazzling handsomeness. There’s no life to the film, though. It’s a dull slog through a predictable story, leaning too much on the built-in charms of French city life. There are even scenes when the actors themselves look a little adrift, as if they’re waiting for something to happen, suspicious that maybe it won’t.

Two Lovers (James Gray, 2008). A troubled young man, played by Joaquin Phoenix, returns to live with his parents in their city apartment, putting on a veneer of happy stability in part to help his father broker the sale of his dry cleaning business. He begins dating the daughter of the prospective buyer at about the same time he’s intrigued by a lovely new neighbor. Gray’s approach is firm and sharp, heightening the anxiety of the situations he presents without every resorting to melodrama. Phoenix is quite good as a man who’s trained himself to approach the world with great care, but can’t help letting himself get caught up in the notion of grabbing reckless freedom the first time its within his reach. Eventually, Gray loses his own grip on the story, and most of the last act feels both false and predictable. The moody character study still works, but the plot falls apart around it.

Eastwood, Kusama, Ritchie, Roeg, Vallée

Sherlock Holmes (Guy Ritchie, 2009). I fully expected that Ritchie’s first real stab at crafting a blockbuster entertainment would be an over-directed mess. Instead, it’s fairly drab, a generic exercise in filling the screen with bigger, louder, grander nonsense at every turn. Of course, it’s still a mess, a clumsy attempt at making the most famous detective in literary history relevant for a modern audience that’s more interested in quipping tomfoolery than feats of logic. Robert Downey, Jr. plays the title role with the sort of chomping fussiness that’s too often the defining characteristic of his acting, and Jude Law is downright spiritless as Watson. They still fare better than poor Rachel McAdams as Irene Adler. She’s given practically no character to play, and, in turn, has no seemingly no idea what to do with herself from scene to scene. It’s elementary, all right.

Walkabout (Nicolas Roeg, 1971). A teenage schoolgirl and her youthful brother are left stranded in the Australian outback after their geologist father introduces his temple to the business end of a firearm right after setting their car aflame. Their hard walk towards civilization is helped when they encounter an Aboriginal boy whose naturally more adept at traversing the hostile terrain than they are. Roeg’s directing has a drifting, unreal quality, like a damaged dream quietly infesting a sun-baked mind. All of the relationships carrying a gripping weight, even though (or perhaps because) they’re sketched in with so little dialogue, such a dearth of shared information. Roeg is more interested in the feel of interactions than the details of it, and he allows things to remain mysterious without becoming so inflated as to become actual mysteries. It is about mood more than incident, and has a burrowing, haunting quality.

Invictus (Clint Eastwood, 2009). This well-meaning drama about shared pride in the Rugby World Cup helping to heal wounds in South Africa after the end of Apartheid is a prime example of way artistic nobility can drain all the energy from a film. Eastwood’s workmanlike approach as a director has its uses, but its particularly ill-suited to a driving sports epic. His best attempt at conveying the tension of a tight contest is to present the action more and more slowly as the game clock ticks down, as if the film is approaching the edge of the universe and time is grinding to a halt. Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon do yeoman’s work in roles that are more symbol than character. In fact, Freeman is strong enough as the new installed president Nelson Mandela that it seems a missed opportunity that the film isn’t a biopic more clearly focused on the former political prisoner turned inspiring head of state.

The Young Victoria (Jean-Marc Vallée, 2009). It’s the sort of costume drama filled with castle intrigued that sets certain hearts aflutter. It’s a harder sell for me, I’ll admit. Vallée’s direction is finely structured, luxuriating in the elegant art direction and costume design without getting overburdened by it. He mostly focuses of the woman rising to the throne, played with refinement by Emily Blunt. She manages to make the period dialogue feel nicely natural, playing each moment honestly, keeping even the biggest scenes free of deadening pomposity. However, she doesn’t manage to dig especially deeply into the role either. It’s as much fine presentation as earthy performance. Most of the supporting turns are suitable in a Masterpiece Theatre mold, although it’s quite fun to watch Jim Broadbent pivot from his usual geniality into a thundering declaration of authority as the faltering King William IV.

Jennifer’s Body (Karyn Kusama, 2009). Of course, the primary curiosity is the screenplay by Academy Award winner Diablo Cody, following her breakthrough tale of brightly sarcastic teen pregnancy with a metaphor for high school misery that ups the body count. Megan Fox plays the title character, a posturing wild child whose flirtation with a painfully cool band gigging in her backwater town leads to an unfortunate demonic infestation that has her taking big hearty bites of her classmates. The difficulty many of the actors have with the tumbling dominoes of aggressively slangy dialogue simply proves what a splendid thespian magic act Ellen Page pulled off as Juno MacGuff. Fox actually does fairly well playing Jennifer before the monster movie conventions take over, nicely hinting at the vulnerability and shaky self-esteem behind her mean girl exterior, which unfortunately doesn’t mean that her friendship with the pretty nerd played by Amanda Seyfried makes a bit of sense. It’s a mere contrivance in a movie that eventually is nothing but.