(Photo by Peter Iovino/©Universal Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection)
Anna Kendrick’s first film was 2003’s Camp, a musical set at a camp for performing artists in upstate New York, a fitting extension of Kendrick’s childhood start in theater around her birthplace of Portland, Maine. The first of many Certified Fresh awards came with her next movie, Rocket Science; being cast as Jessica in the Twilight franchise meant Kendrick would have a high-profile job waiting for her for years to come.
Her career would soon become defined by steady versatility, appearing in a wide range of films like End of Watch, Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates, and Cake. Kendrick is particularly adept in comedy hybrids, as seen in in The Voices, A Simple Favor, 50/50, and Up in the Air, the last of which garnered her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nom. Meanwhile, she’s been one of the 2010s most reliable musical stars – just look at Into the Woods, Trolls and, of course, the Pitch Perfect series.
Her latest films were Stowaway and the Trolls sequel, World Tour. And now, we’re ranking all Anna Kendrick movies by Tomatometer!
In 2007, director David Fincher teamed up with Robert Downey Jr., Mark Ruffalo, and Jake Gyllenhaal on Zodiac, a potent murder mystery about the manhunt for the real life serial killer who terrorized northern California during the 1960s and 1970s. Gyllenhaal earned well-deserved praise for his portrayal of Robert Graysmith, the San Francisco Chronicle political cartoonist who helped decipher the Zodiac’s cryptic letters, but despite the film’s overwhelmingly positive critical reception, it was completely overlooked by the Academy Awards. Now that the film is officially 10 years old to the day, we thought it was the perfect time to look back at star Gyllenhaal’s best-reviewed films… including Zodiac.
Gyllenhaal ventured into romance — of a sort — with 2002’s The Good Girl, a small-town drama from Chuck & Buck screenwriter Mike White that starred Jennifer Aniston as a morose department store clerk struggling to choose between her unsatisfying marriage and her affair with the unstable, Catcher in the Rye-obsessed co-worker played by Gyllenhaal. Infidelity, dead-end jobs, and small towns are nothing new for the movies — indie films in particular — but however familiar its premise, The Good Girl earned praise from critics thanks to the finely wrought honesty of White’s script and strong performances from Aniston, Gyllenhaal, and their supporting cast (including John C. Reilly, Tim Blake Nelson, and Zooey Deschanel). Taking the cliche of a frustrated young man buried in Holden Caulfield and imbuing it with genuine depth, Gyllenhaal was a major part of why the Hollywood Reporter’s Duane Byrge called it “An absorbing, slice-of-depression life that touches nerves and rings true.”
After his 2011 film Incendies earned a heap of acclaim — including a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nod — French Canadian director Denis Villeneuve made his Hollywood debut with a gripping psychological thriller about a desperate man (Hugh Jackman) driven to extreme measures when his young daughter is abducted with her best friend. While much of the film rested on Jackman’s shoulders, he was supported by a stellar cast that included Viola Davis, Paul Dano, Melissa Leo, and Jake Gyllenhaal as the skeptical detective whose investigation into the disappearance is beset by false leads and a father obsessed with vigilante justice. The end result was a twisty, twisted mystery that impressed more than a few critics, like USA Today’s Claudia Puig, who noted that “the plot raises complicated moral questions about how far an anguished person will go for the love of a child. At the same time, it sets up an intricate, horrifying mystery with breathtaking skill.”
Most critics — and more than a few filmgoers — would agree that the found-footage gimmick has been more than played out since rising to prominence with The Blair Witch Project in the late 1990s. Still, it’s a powerful tool when used in the right way, as demonstrated by writer/director David Ayer’s End of Watch, which follows a cop/film student (Gyllenhaal) and his partner (Michael Pena) on patrol in the mean streets of South Central Los Angeles. While Ayer’s use of the found footage technique certainly proved divisive among critics, End of Watch earned a healthy $51 million at the box office, picked up a pair of Independent Spirit Award nominations, and enjoyed the respect of scribes such as Amy Biancolli of the San Francisco Chronicle, who wrote, “The best scenes are filmed inside the cruiser, dashboard shots that face inward instead of out, catching Gyllenhaal and Peña in moments so playful and true they make all other buddy cops look bogus by comparison.”
Time travel, a falling jet engine, and a dude in a bunny suit: From these disparate ingredients, writer-director Richard Kelly wove the tale of Donnie Darko, a suburban teenager (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) charged with repairing a rift in the fabric of our dimension. Or something. To call Darko “open to interpretation” would be understating the case a bit — it’s been alternately confounding and delighting audiences since it was released in 2001 — but its dense, ambiguous plot found stronger purchase with critics, who cared less about what it all meant than about simply having the chance to see an American movie that took some substantial risks. Though a few reviewers were confused and/or unimpressed (Staci Lynne Wilson of Fantastica Daily called it “derivative,” and Joe Leydon dismissed it as “a discombobulating muddle” in his writeup for the San Francisco Examiner), overall critical opinion proved a harbinger of the cult status the film would eventually enjoy on the home video market; as Thomas Delapa wrote for the Boulder Weekly, “If the sum total of Donnie Darko is hard to figure, there’s no questioning that its separate scenes add up to breathtaking filmmaking.” Despite a paltry $4.1 million gross during its original limited run, Darko returned to theaters in 2004 with a director’s cut — one whose 91 percent Tomatometer actually improved upon the original’s.
Years before he challenged taboos with Brokeback Mountain, Jake Gyllenhaal proved his versatility with script choices like the ones he made in 2001, which found him starring in Donnie Darko, Bubble Boy, and Nicole Holofcener’s Lovely & Amazing. Though Bubble Boy saw the widest release of the three (and some of the harshest reviews of Gyllenhaal’s career), Lovely & Amazing proved he could hold his own with a stellar cast that included Catherine Keener, Emily Mortimer, and Dermot Mulroney — and it proved that he was capable of rising to the challenge of a writer-director known for getting the best out of her actors. Here, Gyllenhaal stars as Jordan, a teenaged one-hour photo developer who earns the adulterous affection of his frustrated (and significantly older) co-worker, played by Catherine Keener. Holofcener’s films are known for focusing on women — and rightly so — but smart dramas need smart performances, and with his empathetic supporting turn here, Gyllenhaal more than held his own. Though it wasn’t a major commercial success, grossing only just over $4.2 million in limited release, Lovely & Amazing enjoyed a number of awards and nominations from critics’ associations, as well as acclaim from scribes such as Terry Lawson of the Detroit Free Press, who wrote, “For all its dirty talk and up-frontness, this is a family film — it’s about one family and the extended family of females. Any woman who sees it will recognize that, and any man who sees it will be better for it.”
Take a heart-wrenching short story by Annie Proulx, give it to award-winning director Ang Lee, and surround him with a rock-solid cast including Heath Ledger, Michelle Williams, Anne Hathaway, and — of course — Jake Gyllenhaal, and you’ve got Brokeback Mountain, one of the most talked-about (and award-winning) movies of 2005. Gyllenhaal and Ledger starred as Jack Twist and Ennis del Mar, a pair of Wyoming ranch hands whose tortured, almost completely unspoken affair has a profound impact on their lives — and the lives of their wives and children — over a period of several decades. Not your everyday Hollywood love story, to put it mildly — and to no one’s surprise, Gyllenhaal and Ledger earned more attention for their characters’ sexuality than for their performances in the roles, with a wide variety of pundits accusing the filmmakers of using Brokeback to further a political agenda; famously, one Utah theater owner canceled his engagement just hours before the first scheduled screening. Underneath all the hubbub, however, shone a beautifully acted love story with uncommon depth and intensity, and both Gyllenhaal and Ledger were richly rewarded for their work with an impressive number of awards and nominations, not to mention a $178 million worldwide gross and reams of critical praise from critics including Colin Covert of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, who wrote, “It has become shorthand to call Brokeback Mountain the ‘gay cowboy movie,’ but it is much more than that glib description implies. This is a human story, a haunting film in the tradition of the great Hollywood romantic melodramas.”
In the hands of an ordinary filmmaker, any attempt to tell the story of the Zodiac Killer might have been equal parts conjecture and garden-variety gore — after all, the serial murderer who terrorized the San Francisco Bay Area for years in the 1960s and 1970s, taunting the police with a series of cryptic letters, eventually disappeared, never to be identified. For director David Fincher, though, the truly interesting story didn’t lie so much with the Zodiac as it did with the men and women who devoted themselves to apprehending him — particularly Robert Graysmith, the San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist who broke the Zodiac’s code and eventually became an asset to the investigation. As the increasingly driven Graysmith, Gyllenhaal led the viewer on a darkening spiral of dead ends, wild goose chases, and grim obsession — and he anchored a showy cast that included Robert Downey, Jr., Mark Ruffalo, Chloe Sevigny, and Anthony Edwards. Unfortunately, the words “David Fincher” and “serial killer drama” sparked hopes that Fincher was returning to his Se7en roots, and the studio’s marketing campaign did nothing to set filmgoers straight; ultimately, despite a strongly positive reaction from critics, Zodiac was a non-starter at the box office, and by the time awards season arrived, this March release was all but forgotten. It deserved better, according to writers like the Toronto Star’s Geoff Pevere, who argued, “It makes you want to study it even more closely, in search of things you might have missed, trailing after leads that flash by in the relentless momentum of going nowhere fast. If you’re not careful, it might make you obsessed.”
It isn’t often that NASA engineers get their own biopics — but then, most of them don’t have life stories as inspiring as Homer Hickam, the West Virginia native whose Sputnik-fueled fascination with rockets turned him into a teen science fair sensation (and, more importantly, helped him avoid working in the local coalmine). Based on Hickam’s autobiographical novel Rocket Boys, Joe Johnston’s 1999 drama October Sky gave audiences a rare slice of critically acclaimed drama during the cold winter months — and it provided a breakout role for Gyllenhaal, whose biggest credits to that point came through parts in a pair of his father Stephen’s movies and minor appearances in City Slickers and Josh and S.A.M. Though he was surrounded with talented co-stars, it fell to Gyllenhaal to carry the movie as the young Hickam and make audiences believe in not only his wide-eyed wonder at the stars, but his struggles with his distant, unsupportive father (played by Chris Cooper); his success was noted by critics such as Jeff Vice of the Deseret News, who correctly predicted that “Even if October Sky was a complete dud, the drama would still get points for being the movie that launched the career of a new star, Jake Gyllenhaal.”
It’s a common complaint that there isn’t any room for original ideas in Hollywood anymore, but every so often, we’re treated to a movie like Source Code that proves an exception to the rule. Helmed by Moon director Duncan Jones from a script by Ben Ripley, this twisty sci-fi thriller follows the adventures of a U.S. Army captain (Gyllenhaal) whose latest mission — to prevent a catastrophic bombing on board a moving train — masks a horrible personal tragedy that his support team is keeping from him. Bolstered by a strong support cast that included Vera Farmiga, Michelle Monaghan, and Jeffrey Wright, and topped off by a thought-provoking ending, Source Code earned the applause of critics like the New Yorker’s David Denby, who wrote, “The movie is a formally disciplined piece of work, a triumph of movie syntax, made with a sense of rhythm and pace, and Gyllenhaal, who is always good at conveying anxiety, gives [his] desperation a comic edge.”
After cutting his teeth writing screenplays for films like The Fall and The Bourne Legacy, Dan Gilroy made his feature directorial debut with Nightcrawler, an uncomfortably tense thriller about a socially awkward man (Gyllenhaal) who finds his calling as an ambulance-chasing freelance videographer. Gilroy spent years reworking his script around the character of Lou Bloom and found a perfect partner in Gyllenhaal, who played an active part in the production of the film, lost nearly 30 pounds for the role, and turned in a powerhouse performance. With help from outstanding supporting players like Rene Russo, Bill Paxton, and Riz Ahmed, Nightcrawler went on to become one of the best-reviewd films of the year and earned Gilroy a Best Original Screenplay nod at the Academy Awards in the process. As Christopher Orr of The Atlantic pointed out, “Gyllenhaal is the same age that De Niro was in Taxi Driver and, like him, he is learning to channel an eerie, inner charisma, offering it up in glimpses and glimmers rather than all at once.”
This weekend’s Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates uses real-life events as the loose inspiration for some R-rated fun with a pair of clueless bros and the hard-partying women who hoodwink them into a date to their little sister’s nuptials. And since one of the young ladies in question is played by the ever-charming Anna Kendrick, we decided this would be a great time to take a fond look back at some of the brightest critical highlights from her career thus far. Hold on to your cups — it’s time for Total Recall!
Stephen Sondheim fans were concerned when word got out that Disney was bringing his Tony-winning musical Into the Woods to the big screen — chiefly because it seemed likely that the studio would lop off the less family-friendly elements of its twisted fairy tale story. Like any adaptation, the film version wasn’t exactly the same as its source material, but happily for Sondheim enthusiasts — and those who like a little dark fantasy mixed in with their musicals — Woods survived its journey to theaters largely intact. As Cinderella, Kendrick upped the superstar quotient of the robust ensemble assembled by director Rob Marshall, which also included Meryl Streep as a witch, Emily Blunt as a woman desperate to undo her curse, and Johnny Depp as the Big Bad Wolf. “Some of the musical’s superfans will feel shortchanged by the movie no matter what, but you have to give credit where it’s due,” warned the Washington Post’s Stephanie Merry. “The adaptation is pretty faithful to the original — for better and worse.”
Kendrick reunited with Drinking Buddies writer-director Joe Swanberg for 2014’s Happy Christmas, in which a young woman at an emotional crossroads decides to crash with her older brother — and her arrival triggers an uncomfortable upheaval in his life of domestic bliss. Like a lot of Swanberg pictures, Christmas coalesces around a series of low-key, largely improvised moments, but with enough of a dramatic throughline to elevate the proceedings beyond their familiar narrative underpinnings. “All in all,” wrote the Los Angeles Times’ Betsy Sharkey, “Happy Christmas is a good deal like cartoon Charlie Brown’s classic tree — scraggly, plenty of heart and much to enjoy, especially if you prefer your presents homemade.”
Anna Kendrick can make a hundred movies, but for many filmgoers, she’ll probably always be most strongly identified with the Pitch Perfect series, and it’s easy to understand why. The fizzy charm of the 2012 original, starring Kendrick as a reluctant college freshman who stumbles into harmony with a campus a cappella group, exploded into a surprise $115 million hit — not only at the box office, but on the pop charts, where she scored a Top 10 single with “Cups,” her cover of the Carter Family classic “When I’m Gone.” The 2015 sequel (which added Hailee Steinfeld to an ace ensemble that already included Rebel Wilson) more than doubled its predecessor’s theatrical gross, and a third installment is already scheduled for 2017. Most critics have shared the audience’s evident enthusiasm for the franchise; as Connie Ogle wrote in her review of the original for the Miami Herald, “If you’re not grinning by the end of this light, funny crowd-pleaser, consider yourself tone deaf.”
After catching Hollywood’s eye in Up in the Air — and while she was still popping up in the Twilight franchise — Kendrick played the sister of the title character in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Edgar Wright’s adaptation of the Bryan Lee O’Malley graphic novels about a bass player (Michael Cera) who has to battle, video game style, past his new lady love’s exes in order to win her affection. Stuffed with fun pop culture nods and stacked with a cast that also included Chris Evans, Jason Schwartzman, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Brie Larson, and Aubrey Plaza, Pilgrim opened to surprising critical indifference, but it earned the affection of critics like Slate’s Dana Stevens, who called it “A package of cinematic Pop Rocks, a neon-hued, defiantly non-nutritive confection that nonetheless makes you laugh at its sheer bold novelty.”
The first of several films Kendrick’s made with the incredibly prolific Joe Swanberg, Drinking Buddies centers on the professional and romantic travails of a young Chicago foursome (rounded out by Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson, and Ron Livingston), two of whom are co-workers at a local brewery. It might sound like a slim nail on which to hang a rom-com, but most critics thought it added up to some pretty engaging stuff — particularly since, as per Swanberg custom, the actors improvised their dialogue around the outline of the story. Filmed in a real working brewery (by actors drinking real beer), Drinking Buddies won over critics who’d already seen enough rom-coms for several lifetimes; as Moira MacDonald wrote for the Seattle Times, it “Sneaks up on you…you think it’s going in one direction, and suddenly it goes somewhere much more interesting.”
You’ve probably watched more coming-of-age stories than you can count, but in the right hands, it’s a formula that can pay powerful dividends. Case in point: 2007’s Rocket Science, a teen dramedy about a high school student (Reece Thompson) whose stuttering makes it difficult to feel like he fits in — until he meets the star of the school’s debate team (Kendrick), who convinces him to sign up. Kendrick earned an Independent Spirit Award nomination for her work, which offered an intriguing prelude to the bigger-budget work looming in her future; calling the results “Self-consciously quirky on the outside,” Salon’s Stephanie Zacharek wrote, “this gentle teenage fable has an affecting, openhearted core.”
Cops versus gangbangers on the mean city streets! It’s a story Hollywood’s told countless times, but with End of Watch, director David Ayer still found a way to make it feel somewhat new. His success is due in no small part to this 2012 crime drama’s terrific cast, led by Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña as LAPD partners working the South Central beat. Kendrick, as Gyllenhaal’s significant other, has more of a stock part, but — like her castmates — she infused what could have been a two-dimensional character with new life. “End of Watch is one thriller where the adrenaline rush, considerable as it is, is almost always put in the service of character,” observed NPR’s Bob Mondello. “Happily, the character on display turns out to be considerable, too.”
Kendrick earned an Academy Award nomination for her work in this Jason Reitman dramedy, which put its finger on the pulse of the Great Recession with a story about a corporate downsizer (George Clooney) whose unencumbered, jet-setting lifestyle is thrown off its axis by the arrival of a new HR consultant (Kendrick) whose plans for the company threaten to make him obsolete. Its themes cut uncomfortably close for a number of viewers in uncertain economic times, but Up in the Air leavened the gloom with intelligent observations on modern culture — and even a bit of hope. “Timeliness can be tricky to pull off convincingly in movies,” wrote Claudia Puig for USA Today. “It’s tough to capture an era while it’s still happening, yet Up in the Air does so brilliantly, with wit and humanity.”
Although Seth Rogen and Joseph Gordon-Levitt were unquestionably the leads in 50/50, this 2011 “cancer comedy” — starring Gordon-Levitt as a guy who gets through his cancer diagnosis with a lot of help from his best buddy Rogen — was really rounded out by a pretty stellar ensemble. Kendrick joined the cast as Katherine, a medical therapist who develops a deeply personal relationship with Gordon-Levitt’s character, winsomely lowering the bro quotient in a deceptively thoughtful look at disease that earned nearly universal critical acclaim. “What ensues is Beaches meets Pineapple Express,” wrote Mary Elizabeth Williams for Salon. “Which, I’ve got to tell you, is pretty much what living with cancer is like.”
We recently had the chance to talk to End of Watch director David Ayer. This thriller about two LAPD officers stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena, and was Certified Fresh at 86% on the Tomatometer. This week’s DVD/Blu-ray release of the film contains over 40 minutes of bonus scenes, and Ayer was kind enough to take the time to talk about that bonus material, as well as some of what went into making the film.
RT: I’ve just now watched the bonus material, some of the deleted scenes, and was really surprised that some of that stuff didn’t make it into the final film.
David Ayer: You know, it’s always a tough decision. I’m one of those guys, I just want the story to move, and it’s not exactly a plot-driven movie. So even though there’s these great character moments that, at the time and even through editing, I never thought I’d cut, you know, sometimes you just gotta do it.
RT: Those had to be some tough decisions. The interview scene with both Jake [Gyllenhaal] and Michael [Pena] sitting, talking, and going back through the fire scene, it took me right back to that scene when I had watched it in the movie. You’ve done other movies about LAPD; clearly you must know some guys in the department.
DA: Yeah, I mean, I have friends who work there or who have worked there, and I grew up in LA. I’m a good researcher. I listen, you know? It’s a thing of once you get to know cops, and they’re like, “Okay, this guy’s cool,” you know, they’ll open up to you and then you realize, “Okay, these are just normal people with an unusual job.”
RT: I felt like this was a side of day-to-day police work that we don’t normally see in movies. Is that what you were going for?
DA: Yeah, exactly. Even though a lot of the incidents are pretty incredible, that stuff happens. So even in Newton Division, where the film takes place, there’s a cartel presence, they pull over cartel runners, they take big dope hits off the street, you know, shootings are not that uncommon there, so all the things that these guys experience — guys in that area have experienced some of the human trafficking. I wanted to show how people deal with the daily trench work of policing.
RT: You’ve a really great cast here, and I have to point out the chemistry between Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena. I really believed that they had come up from the academy together. That was a level of chemistry between two guys that, you don’t often see. How did you end up with them specifically for this film?
DA: Jake got ahold of the script and, I guess, read it overnight and just came at me, and he’s like, “Dude, cast me. Dude, cast me. It’s the right thing to do. You know it.”
RT: I can hear him saying that.
DA: [laughs] Right? You know, actually, I made him read, because I’d kind of decided, “Yeah, I’ll cast him,” but I wanted him to read almost as more of a task, in the sense of, “Is this guy willing to go through a lot of rigamarole and headache to make this movie,” you know, because of the training and because of the sort of dedication ahead of time. I had him for five months; I had these guys for five months. And once we had Jake, it became about finding the right “Mike,” and, I mean, Pena’s a sick actor. He’s just sick. He came in and he read, and he did the opposite of kill it, and we were kind of like, “What the hell?” But it’s like, this isn’t a guy who auditions; this is a guy who takes his time to get into character, and once he’s there, he’s insane. So it’s kind of like, “Yeah, this is the right guy. This is the right guy.” We threw them together, put them through a lot of training, a lot of work, and they spent basically five months together, learning how to be cops from cops.
RT: Were there any specific things that ended up in the movie that came out of stories from people that you knew in the LAPD, that you can talk about?
DA: Yeah, a buddy of mine, Jaime FitzSimons, who’s a sheriff’s captain in Colorado now, a lot of this stuff happened to him and his partner. You know, they were in a gang unit back in the day in South Central — or South LA as it’s called now — and like, the kids being duct-taped and things like that, he experienced that. That’s how you deal with something like that as a parent.
RT: One of the other things that occurred to me is that you’re not a native of LA. You actually are from Illinois.
DA: I lived all over the country. I was born there, and moved every few years, and then ended up in LA when I was fourteen. So I went to high school out here in the neighborhood and all that good stuff.
RT: I feel like there’s a certain love for LA that filmmakers who hadn’t grown up here come in and have that I think is different than people who are natives. Especially in the work that you’ve done, I think that there’s definitely an interesting look at LA in especially the more crime-ridden areas, between Training Day and S.W.A.T. and some of the other stuff you’ve written. Is there something there that just keeps you going back to that well?
DA: I mean, I grew up in these neighborhoods, and I’ve seen a lot of stupid stuff go down. My wife’s from South LA, and we’ve got relatives there, so it’s still a world I’m connected to, and you know, the old saying in writing is “write what you know.” So it’s something that’s easy for me in the sense of how familiar I am with the world and the culture. But again, there’s that danger of Hollywood of getting typecast and that’s what I’d like to avoid.
End of Watch is currently available on DVD and Blu-ray.
The Avengers. The Dark Knight Rises. Skyfall. There were plenty of highly-anticipated, critically acclaimed films that wowed moviegoers this year. But you know all about that stuff already, so we at RT decided to give some love to a few of the overlooked, underappreciated, and, in some cases, critically dismissed movies that made an impression on us. Read on for a rundown of lesser-known gems from 2012 that we think deserve another look.
Matt Atchity – Editor in Chief
This was one of my favorite movies of the year (along with The Grey), but it really struggled to find an audience. So I was glad to see if get a recent re-release nationwide, and I really recommend seeing it if you have the chance. This story about two cops in South Central LA is sometimes funny, sometimes terrifying, and sometimes heartbreaking, and this movie caught me completely off-guard. I’m not sure what I’d been expecting, maybe another forgettable cop drama. What I got instead was a riveting ride-along with two cops (played by Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena) that I really believed had been partners for years. They had an easy familiarity that looked like a couple of guys that had gone beyond being partners or friends, and into real brotherhood. You laugh with them when they laugh at each other, and you worry about them when they’re on their own. Anna Kendrick, America Ferrera and David Harbour all put in strong supporting turns, Kendrick as Gyllenhaal’s new girlfriend, and Ferrera and Harbour as fellow cops. As I said before, I strongly recommend this movie, and I’d really like to see some of this cast (especially Pena) get some notice as the awards season heats up.
Tim Ryan – Senior Editor
Nobody makes films like Hungarian director Bela Tarr. His spare, eerie meditations on morality and mortality occupy a bleak, mystical plane that seems to exist outside of time (or any notions of contemporary cinematic influence). The plot of The Turin Horse is simple — a man and his daughter tend to their farm while waiting for an apocalyptic storm to hit — and it’s told with an absolute minimum of artifice: the camera barely moves as our protagonists eat, work, and go about their daily business in near silence. I’m not even going to try to sell you on The Turin Horse; it’s the type of movie experience that will strike some as poetic and evocative, and others as a nifty cure for insomnia. But it casts a hypnotic spell, one that I’ve been unable to shake since seeing it. If you choose to watch it, I’ll give you one piece of advice: wear a sweater, because you can practically feel a wintery chill from the screen.
Grae Drake – Senior Editor
Since I am terrible at remembering actual historical events, I love movies with revisionist history–especially when they involve pirates and claymation. Aardman Studios enlisted the help of Hugh Grant, Imelda Staunton, David Tennant, Jeremy Piven, Salma Hayek, and Martin Freeman to tell the tale of the Pirate Captain, who really isn’t a great leader, and his quest to impress a girl (Queen Victoria). Along the way, he meets Charles Darwin, enters a science contest, tries to win Pirate of the Year, and learns what friendship is really all about. This film is nothing less than what I have come to expect from the Wallace and Gromit folks– it’s hysterical from start to finish, has staggering amounts of charm, and provides phenomenal detail even within the foam on beer. Every time I watch it, I want to give this movie a hug.
Ryan Fujitani – Editor
This critically acclaimed but largely underseen documentary surprised me not so much because it was good, but because I enjoyed it for very different reasons than I expected. Lauren Greenfield’s The Queen of Versailles begins with a portrait of a wealthy family living in excess: time-share mogul David Siegel and his wife Jackie are in the process of building their dream house, a 90,000 sq. ft. mansion modeled after the Palace of Versailles. But then, the 2008 economic crisis hits them hard, and Siegel is forced to make vast cutbacks, both in his corporate empire and within the Siegel home itself; construction on the mansion is halted. At this point, one might expect to be overcome by a sudden rush of gleeful schadenfreude – and certainly, I felt some of this as I watched the beleaguered patriarch agonize over his expenses – but the film begins to reveal the layers behind the glitz and glamour, and this shift is what took me by surprise. Jackie’s been warped by her wealth, sure, but she’s well-meaning, she’s loving, she’s supportive, and she wants so badly for her family to feel like a family; I have to admit, I was kind of touched. The Queen of Versailles is an absolutely fascinating glimpse at the lives of the super rich, but its power is in its portrayal of the Siegels who, at the end of the day, are just another family trying to adapt to changes they’re wholly unprepared for. Never before have I experienced such a mix between my sympathy for and smug satisfaction with the misfortune of others.
Luke Goodsell – International Editor
What can I say, I love movies about messed-up, unpleasant people — and the more messed-up and unpleasant the better, as far as I’m concerned. Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim have been testing the dynamics of audience discomfort for years with their brilliant Awesome Show, and that laugh-or-cringe sensibility manifests in a complex, dramatic way in Heidecker’s character here. Giving easily one of my favorite performances of the year, Heidecker plays a kind of repulsive trust-fund monster whose money allows him to do literally nothing with his life — nothing, that is, apart from drift from situation to situation antagonizing people; as though some kind of slovenly Andy Kaufman had been resurrected for a Noah Baumbach movie. He’s hideous but he’s also hilarious, and The Comedy moves more like a drama — you’re just never sure whether you should be in howls of pain or hysterics. The most impressive thing about both Alverson’s direction and Heidecker’s genius underplaying is not just the truth they locate in this husk of a man-boy, it’s that they nearly make you care about his sad predicament by the movie’s end. It’s the kind of character and film that splits critics down the middle, as well it should — with 40% on the Tomatometer, there’s love and loathing aplenty. The Comedy had a miniature theatrical run, but it’s widely available on VOD. Watch it, and either thank me or despise me afterwards.
Alex Vo – Editor
Of the 6,000 films Jay and Mark Duplass were involved with this year, Jeff, Who Lives at Home stands out. Not that I have any personal identification with a slacker who lives in his mom’s basement and believes he’s getting signs from the universe to do something meaningful, Jeff who (probably) eats too much cereal and (probably) is still hung-up on his ex. No identification at all. Instead, I connected with the movie’s charm and simplicity, from the title all the way down to its surprisingly generous spirit. Jeff (Jason Segel, essentially updating his Freaks and Geeks character for the information age) is presented as a lovable oaf, who could be a real underdog if it weren’t so inconvenient to getting high. And there is exciting depth to his friends and family, which includes people played by Susan Sarandon, Judy Greer, and Ed Helms, all of whom get a few great scenes. Jeff’s adventure is madcap and full of digressions, easing its way into an affecting finale against the backdrop of a setting sun. Mumblecore, aka hipster Dogme, may be fleeting but in considering Jeff’s little heartfelt accomplishment, we can see the signs of life.
Kerr Lordygan – Review Aggregator
Tossing around in my head films such as Smashed (possible Oscar buzz on this anyway) and Bait (2012, funny, silly, exciting with quite creative gore), I ended up opting for El Dedo (“The Finger”). A selection of the Global Film Initiative, the film handles a slightly grotesque premise with lightheartedness and charm. The results are sometimes comical and always endearing. The plot is just ridiculous enough to be true. Based on real events, a few of the real-life subjects co-star, breaking the fourth wall to bring us closer. A beloved townsmen running for mayor in a town’s first election is murdered and his finger is saved for sentimental purposes. The town looks to the severed index finger for guidance, but will it still win the mayoral election? The characters are so likeable, the plot is almost surreal, this one is a winner, even for those who might not ordinarily watch foreign films.
Catherine Pricci – Review Aggregator
This Chris Pine and Elizabeth Banks drama may not necessarily be off the radar, but overall it was poorly received. And that’s unfortunate since this underappreciated film had fantastic performances by its two leads. A lot of critics felt this film lacked depth and was melodramatic, but most agreed that Pine and Banks put in standout performances. And audiences should keep an eye on newcomer Michael Hall D’Addario, who played Banks’s son; he stole most of the scenes he was in and is definitely someone to look out for in the future. If you like films with great performances, and don’t mind a tear or two, this one is worth another look.
Beki Lane – Production Assistant
I’m here to recommend a flick that got crushed on the Tomatometer, but is still tasty if you can handle a little pulp. This Means War is formulaic, but I believe that plot formulas exist because, just often enough, they work. This one really surprised me. If you don’t make the mistake of going in expecting something more than what it is, this film offers a lot of laughs and a really good time. Reese Witherspoon, Chris Pine and Tom Hardy are really funny, and keep it stylish to boot. This film doesn’t fall into the chick flick category, nor does it cater exclusively to the bros. Rather it has great balance, and can be appreciated by all. In the civil unrest that can arise during the debate of what DVD to select for a stay-in date night, This Means War can bring both sides to a suitable accord.
Julio de Oliveira – Project Manager
Dredd is not one of those movies that you never heard about, but it’s probably one you didn’t care to watch when it hit the theaters earlier this year. Let’s face it, its box office was far from great, but – as a comic book fan – I decided to give it a shot, and I’m really glad I got to watch it in all its 3D glory. The guys behind Dredd did a pretty good job giving life to Mega City One, a post-apocalyptic metropolis dominated by crime, where cops enforce the law onto its citizens as judges, jury and executioners. The city looks so overpopulated, chaotic and hopeless that it convinces the audience that the unorthodox methods applied by the judges are the only way to go. Instead of spending a long time introducing this dystopic reality, director Pete Travis let you learn as you go. He basically shows a day in the life of the always-frowning Judge Dredd (Karl Urban) and rookie psychic partner Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), who get trapped in a gigantic residential complex called Peach Tree – more like a vertical concrete slum, dominated by drug lord Ma-Ma (Lena Headey). The movie is packed with action, God-they-are-not-gonna-make-it moments, and loads of gory violence. I also really like its beautiful, dark cinematography and the visual impact of the well-applied slow-motion technology and bullet-time effects. It’s a visual masterpiece. Dredd is still not available on home entertainment, but it will hit 3D Blu-ray, Blu-ray, DVD and digital download on January 8, 2013.
Finally, props to Brian Clarkson and Simon Opitz for coming the closest to guessing Resident Evil: Retribution‘s 29 percent Tomatometer.