The Usual Suspects (1995) A friend once told me the true test of a twist ending is if the story still works without it. And while The Usual Suspects features a twist ending so well known it’s pretty much become the reason the film is still discussed today (even if only in parody and/or jokes about spoilers), it’s also arguably the finest example possible of my friend’s rule. Turn the movie off two minutes early – say, just after Kujan gives his solution to the mystery, before he sits down to sip his coffee and stare at the bulletin board – and everything the script offers still adds up, not only in terms of finishing the puzzle, but in terms of a dynamite film noir. The story’s so good, the very notion of an Unreliable Narrator ultimately doesn’t matter, since the very telling is what draws us in. (And while it’s tempting to suggest the very appearance of the Unreliable Narrator negates everything he says, I’m convinced most of he says is true, minus name changes and one or two self-incriminating facts.)
Foreign Correspondent (1940) Speaking of endings, the clumsily tacked-on jingoistic ending seen here is woefully out of place, especially for a Hitchcock film. And this Hitchcock film is one in a string of his early American works to which I never quite warmed. The big Hitchcock set pieces are, as usual, top grade (especially the memorable plane crash sequence), but the in-between bits don’t grab my attention the way a tight spy thriller should. Some of this can be chalked up to a miscast Joel McCrea, who’s quite bland here, leaving the supporting cast to carry the picture (which they do splendidly); some of it can be chalked up to a screenplay that never manages to be more than the sum of its parts.
Marty (1955) Whaddya feel like doing tonight?
A Damsel in Distress (1937) A goofy, hugely entertaining trifle, based on the novel by P.D. Wodehouse (who co-wrote the script!), featuring songs by George Gershwin, and pairing Fred Astaire with Burns and Allen. The three stars turn out to be one heck of a comic team, displaying terrific chemistry while mixing Gracie’s one-liners with Wodehouse’s whip-smart dialogue. And, hot diggity, can they dance, showing their fancy footwork in ingeniously designed routines (choreographed by Hermes Pan) involving fun house mirrors, conveyor belts, and inner city traffic.
Hugo (2011) There’s lots to appreciate here – the performances are uniformly solid; it’s always nice to see a family film with intelligence (and an assumption of intelligence in the viewer); Scorsese’s dip into Spielbergian whimsy suits him surprisingly well, with the director obviously having fun with the visual freedoms the genre provides – but it still left me strangely cold. The problem is that for all the joy and wonder Scorsese brings to celebrating the birth of cinema, the script takes such clunky steps getting us there. It ultimately feels unearned, as if we’ve settled into a charming fantasy about clockwork men and oddball Parisians only to have Uncle Marty crash the picture so he can tell all the kids about how great old stuff is. And while the 3D was good, it often distracted, the characters getting lost in the gimmickry, the visuals ultimately having more layers than the script.
The Help (2011) It’s the sort of smug satisfaction and righteous indignation I can’t stand in Message Movies, a picture built entirely for choir preaching-to. By placing a forward-thinking white woman at the story’s center, the target audience here becomes the type of viewer who’d tsk-tsk the villain while nodding reverently, thinking yes, racism was a bad thing and I certainly would be a better person if I were around back then. And yet! There’s enough done with the characters that the movie almost works in fits and spurts, here and there, whenever the cast can dig past the obvious manipulations and work some emotional truths out of the clichés. Viola Davis especially, but a good chunk of the supporting cast, too, finds an unexpected amount of humanity in the material; if Davis and Octavia Spencer win Oscars tonight, I’ll be perfectly OK with that. And yet again! The script’s inexplicable fixatation on toilets, their usage, and the various things one can deposit within them winds up derailing the entire thing. How many “ha ha she ate poop!” callbacks does a single movie need?
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (2011) Speaking of manipulation! Again, some nice moments from the cast keep things afloat here and there, but what should have been a simple examination of grief became instead a pile of unnecessary quirk (give the kid almost-Asperger’s! make the old guy a mute with a notepad! have a montage of weird New Yorkers being weird!) and national memory shorthand in place of a decently realized story (hey, remember how sad 9/11 was? OK, now just remember that every time we need you to be sad!). By the time the plot wriggles and convulses enough to get us to Jeffrey Wright’s big (and, admittedly, pretty darn good) scene, we start wishing the movie was about him and Viola Davis, not this chatty kid and his wacky family.
The Artist (2011) Ah, The Artist, how I adored you the first time and have grown to love you even more. A second viewing offered a chance to pick up on some sly touches, little rewards sprinkled along the way in the form of clever wink-hint movie titles and cleverer, playful symbolism that’d fit right in with the filmmakers of the silent era. I was also drawn in more by Michel Hazanavicius’ deft style, which not only successfully mimics the look of a late-1920s flick (dig those long takes and inventive camera angles!) but also reveals a brilliant knack for handling the Academy ratio, which favors the sort of vertical imagery now absent from more or less every screen we use these days. Add in the humor, warmth, and earnestness that makes the story so winning, and while I’m not sure if I’d call it the year’s best film, I’d certainly call it my favorite.
Midnight in Paris (2011) I’m fairly convinced the Academy rewarded this with top nominations simply out of gratitude for finally getting a new Woody Allen film that doesn’t stink. And I can’t blame them – it’s nice to see Allen back in, well, if not top form, then at least upper-middle form. The screenplay is witty in all the right spots and passably interesting in all the rest, taking some unanticipated turns in making the case both for and against nostalgia. What better movie to cap this year’s batch of retro-thinking nominees?