The Descendants (2011) – Mark it 9.
Seven years since his last film, Alexander Payne's The Descendants has been well worth the wait; it’s probably even his best effort yet. George Clooney is fantastic as Matt King, an average middle-aged dad, who has had his seemingly normal Hawaiian life completely turned upside down. In the midst of a major financial decision (the trust controlling his family’s huge tract of land is dissolving), Matt’s wife goes into a permanent coma after a boating accident, leaving him to take care of his two troubled daughters on his own. When his older daughter (Shailene Woodley) reveals his wife’s infidelity, the family begins a quest to find closure. By confronting the source of their pain, they are able to finally able to make their peace and say goodbye. The Descendents is easily one of the best films of last year: darkly funny, tearfully poignant, beautifully shot, and filled with powerhouse performances. Clooney has never been better and the actresses playing his two daughters (Woodley and Amara Miller) hit just the right notes every time.
The People vs. George Lucas (2010) – Mark it 5.
This sloppy but entertaining documentary asks an interesting question about who should rightfully take ownership over the Star Wars legacy: the artist who created it or the fans who made it a phenomenon. Of course, this is for the fanboys, by the fanboys and clearly gives only one point of view. It is preaching the choir, but I had fun with it nevertheless. With dozens of Star Wars geeks sharing the quest from idolizing Lucas (the original trilogy) to being mildly irritated (the 1997 special editions) and finally to complete disgust (the dreaded prequels), it is very thorough in explaining what exactly went wrong from the fans’ perspective. When it comes to being a Star Wars fan, I am probably a step above casual (as you can see my Phantom Menace review this past March), so it was quite entertaining to hear the diehards state their case. Overall, I am still a hung jury on The People vs. George Lucas between the artist and the fans. Though it did convince me to put “seeing the real original trilogy” on my bucket list.
Wendy and Lucy (2008) – Mark it 7.
Writer/director Kelly Reichardt (2011’s Meek’s Cutoff) is a unique talent with a distinct style. She tells deliberately paced, simple stories that are steeped in realism yet full of tension. The plot revolves around a young woman, Wendy (Michelle Williams), on a long road trip with her beloved dog, Lucy, from Indiana to Alaska, where the job prospects are supposedly better. But after her car breaks down in a small Oregon town, a small mistake separates the two companions and grinds their trip to a halt. We are left to quietly watch Wendy’s desperate search to find Lucy and somehow pay for her car’s repairs, but this quest is full of hardships. Williams is fantastic as the strong woman who slowly realizes that she is alone and in over her head on this journey. I also loved the friendship she builds with an old security guard (Walter Dalton), the only man in town willing to help. This simple little indie may not be everyone’s thing, but I found its quiet moments beautiful, its subtle performances great, and its small storyline very moving.
Describing In the Loop to a friend, I said it was a zanier and raunchier West Wing. The similarity comes from seeing an inside look at the big decision makers in government (in both Washington and London), whose words and actions reverberate around the world. However, In the Loop is a completely over the top and excellent satire of that world. When a dimwitted British politician’s slip of tongue gets blown out of proportion, it sets off a series of events that lead the U.K. and U.S. toward war in the Middle East. From the generals and diplomats to aides and spin-doctors, these characters are incompetent, arrogant and hilariously powerful, all at once. So many things are fun to watch, like the slimy chairman of the secret war committee (David Rasche) going to toe to toe with a brutish, but peace loving, general (James Gandolfini). But Peter Capaldi steals the show as his British media relations czar, Malcolm Tucker, spits out countless and brilliant obscenities throughout; that alone makes In the Loop worth watching.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011) – Mark it 6.
It is necessary to pay very close attention to every second of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’s two plus hours to understand what is going on as George Smiley (Gary Oldman) tries to unravel who among the high-up spies in Britain’s MI-6 is a mole for the Soviets. It is impossible to deny what a well-crafted film this is, with its 1970s setting being so well done, the tension is always amped, and the performances by its all-star British cast are all top-notch. However, to fully appreciate Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’s dense plotline, it will take a second viewing that I am not planning on attempting in the near future. As usual, Gary Oldman is great but in the quietest and subtlest of performances. He observes first and speaks second, but it fascinating to watch him observe and try to untangle the huge and dangerous mystery that is set up before him. Also, Tom Hardy is in this and he is always awesome (I cannot wait for his Bane!).