Mr. Movie

2011's best, worst and a few observations on 20 years as a film critic

First some observations: If you're just interested in my best and worst of the year picks, scroll down. They're easy to find.

Two remarkable things about 2011.

No. 1: As I write this, I am wrapping up 20 years as the Tri-City Herald's film critic. No. 2: Last year I cried at a movie. Actually, I cry at a lot of movies but for a much different reason than you suspect. But more on that in a bit.

In February, I caught How to Die in Oregon at the Portland International Film Festival. In 20 years, I've only cried at one other and for the life of me, I cannot explain why the end of Koyla brought tears to my eyes.

How to Die in Oregon is a different story; an easier explanation. It's about physician-assisted suicide and choices people make to die rather than endure a long, painful, terminal illness.

It has gut-wrenching after gut-wrenching scene.

How to Die in Oregon never made it to wide release or even to that many theaters when it was in release. Until February, when it comes out on DVD, the film is available only for non-theatrical release. The festival folks provided me with a DVD of the film so I didn't have to catch it in a theater.

Knowing now what it did to me, that's a relief. I bawled like a baby all the way through.

Back to me crying at movies. I often kid around about crying at movies more than most. In a way, it's true. The tears are from the pain of too much sitting. I spend five to 15 hours a week on hard theater seats. To sit through one dreary, recycled plot, sequel or remake after another can be painful to the point of tears.

The reasons that make me want to cry are the same three reasons movie attendance continues to drop. Some insiders say 2011 will be the lowest attendance we've seen in 16 years. Income will be around $1.3 billion, down from $1.6 billion at the industry's peak in 2002.

The price of tickets continues to rise, and the quality of movies continues to drop. That much hasn't changed in the 20 years spent in theaters. After that length of time, it's just more noticeable.

A couple of changes are worth noting. The prevalence and use of cell phones during movies is the first. I mention this nearly every year. The whole idea blows my mind. I can't understand shelling out the kind of money it takes to see a movie these days, then spend the entire time texting.

Are you that desperate to stay in touch? Can anything being texted, a practice that disturbs all of those around you, be that important? I now even see critics -- who used to complain the loudest about the practice -- peeking at their phones during screenings.

Ticket prices are now at least $10 in most cases. The growing number of 3D films is adding to the cost. An extra charge is levied for the glasses. Put some high-priced snacks onto the bill and taking a family of four to a film can hit $75 to $100.

That's a lot of money to spend and then be distracted by texting.

Here's what hasn't changed in 20 years. Movies should be seen in a theater. That's where they're meant to be seen and not on a TV's small screen. To point that out, Regal Cinemas has started a campaign that deserves accolades. Before it starts the previews of upcoming attractions, Regal shows a short advertisement with large, well-shot movie scenes with sound that shakes the theater. The advertisement's graphics talk about living large, adventure, action, living in other worlds, going places only the imagination can go, etc.

As the scenes change, the picture gets smaller and smaller. The sound gets softer and more tinny. The piece ends with you learning that all of the clips just viewed are on a TV. Regal then blows up the TV and you see the line, "Go Big or Go Home."

My feelings exactly.

People are always asking me about my DVD collection and what I see on Netflix. I don't have a DVD collection, was the last person on the planet to actually purchase a DVD player, and I don't do Netflix. I just don't watch much TV and rarely see a movie on a television. Movies on TV just aren't that much fun. I want the whole enchilada.

But that's me.

As for the 20 years, thanks and kudos to patient editors and a newsroom staff that have helped make this such a great job. A special thanks to former Tri-City Herald Managing Editor Rick Larson and Executive Editor Ken Robertson. Both retired this year.

And thanks, too, to Eric Degerman who patiently takes care of me here and from time to time shares insights and news tips that make my life easier and better.

Ken made my life a whole lot easier in 2000 when I moved first to Seattle and later to Portland. When I went in to resign as the newspaper's critic, Ken pointed out that it's easier to do the critic thing in a metro area than in the Tri-Cities and told me to keep writing.

What makes that true is screenings. When I lived in Tri-Cities, I had to drive to Portland or Seattle to screen a movie and then drive back the same day or night. It got to be a real grind.

Ken's decision helped me step up my game and made me a better, more informed critic. I am able to see films that normally don't make it to Tri-Cities yet are important to movies. Some I have been able to convince Carmike or Regal to book because I know Tri-City movie fans will love them.

Rick made me a better writer. Early in my tenure with the newspaper, we had sometimes heated debates over space. Space cuts required shorter columns. He pushed me to write shorter and tighter. While I resented the word count cut and argued with him a lot, it made me a better writer and a better critic. These are skills that continue to serve me well. I cannot thank him enough for his patience and support.

This is but one of the ways I make my living. It is also the most satisfying. Your support of my column and now my online blog has kept me doing this for 20 very enjoyable years. I always look forward to your comments -- positive or negative -- and enjoy exchanging thoughts about my all-time favorite subject -- movies.

A last reflection on 20-years. People are always asking me about my favorite movies. There are too many to pick one. If pushed I always fall back to the inspiring It's a Wonderful Life and its three-hanky ending.

At the beginning of this year, I posted a blog talking about my favorite movies since joining this organization. Here's a link if you're interested: http://www.tri-cityherald.com/2011/01/07/1317619/20-years-at-the-herald-20-years.html

If you have comments on my list, post them on this post so we can all discuss them.

Looking at 2011

My biggest concern from 2011 is that fewer of you hated me than in 2010. Major pans of flicks like The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn had readers agreeing with me. Normally, I'm skewered for even suggesting the sacred series sucks.

It had me wondering: Did hordes of fans suddenly notice that the whole Twilight thing is crap? A good thing to notice, by the way. Or is this the first film of the series they thought sucked? Probably a more likely scenario.

I called the thing Breaking Wind. It was a title that readers not only laughed at but also agreed with. The film made my worst of the year list. It also -- not surprisingly -- was No. 3 in the year's biggest-grossing films and so far has taken in a cool $259.4 million.

Here's the rest of the list:

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 -- $378.2 million

Transformers: Dark of the Moon -- $352 million

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn -- Part 1 $259.4 million

The Hangover II -- $252 million

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides -- $237.4 million

Rounding out the top 10: Fast Five, Cars 2, Thor, Captain America, Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

Not so ironically, other than Fast Five, Rise of the Planet of the Apes and -- reluctantly -- Harry Potter none of the top 10 are particularly good. The boy wizard's finale gets recommended only because it wrapped up a mostly very good series of movies.

Another change and one that is -- unfortunately -- gaining popularity is called View on Demand or VOD. Independent studios have been doing this with marginal movies or films that don't have a prayer of major release. VOD lets you view a movie at home while it is in release in theaters. Saves you a trip to the theater, the high cost of tickets and an even higher cost for all the goodies we gobble when going to movies.

It's also one more step toward the destruction of the traditional way we view movies.

This year, two great films ended up on VOD. Both got released in small art houses but should have been released to the bigger chains instead. Most theater chains refuse to book films that are VOD, so they aren't going to be seen by the masses. The two films are:

Margin Call -- a great flick about a fictional firm crashing at the beginning of the Great Recession and an intelligent discussion as to why. It stars Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons and others.

Melancholia -- Lars von Trier's heavy duty sci-fi piece about a planet passing by the Earth and the possibility it will hit us. A hit at Cannes, Von Trier's film is a slow but absorbing character study with superb performances from Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg.

Had it been a standard theater release, Melancholia would have been in my top-10 best. Great movie. Catch it when it comes out on DVD.

That takes us to my picks for the best flicks of the year. Some have not made it to Tri-Cities yet but will. Others have been here but many of you didn't notice.

The Best of 2011

1. Win Win -- it's been here, now out on DVD -- A terrific character study featuring practically perfect acting from Paul Giamatti who was ignored -- as was the film -- by the award-giving groups like the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild (SAG). No one creates deeper, richer, more interesting characters than writer/director Tom McCarthy. What makes them deep, rich and interesting is an oxymoron. Like you and me, they are very ordinary. Ordinary, done by McCarthy, is extraordinary.

2. The Artist -- look for it soon -- Brilliant piece of work that is -- with the exception of a scene or two -- a real silent movie. And in electrifying black and white.

3. Buck -- it's been here, now out on DVD -- the year's best documentary about a real-life horse whisperer is as uplifting as a movie can get. Usually average moviegoers -- that's you -- don't flock to documentaries. Spend the money. Buck Brannaman is not just inspiring, he's entertaining. This 88-minute lesson in horse sense is worth triple the price of a rental or purchase.

4. The Descendants -- coming in January -- George Clooney's performance is as close to perfect as perfect gets. Great writing, great story. Ultimately heart warming. Take a hanky. Or two.

5. The Tree of Life -- been here, now on DVD -- This is one that should have been seen in a theater to get the full impact. On a smaller screen, it won't be as impressive. As the title suggests, Terrence Malick's movie starts at the tree of life. It mixes God, the source of all life, with grace, forgiveness and love. It is difficult to follow. Some may think impossible. It's either brilliant or boring. I vote brilliant but you have to decide.

6. Hugo -- here now, see it in 3D if you can -- On the surface, it is about a boy just trying to survive and people that grow to love him. Dig deeper and it's about the love of movies. Probe farther and it's an ode to the dawn of the making of movies, and the sacred art of turning dreams into reality.

7. The Adventures of Tintin -- here now, see it in 3D if you can -- Shots of the battle with the pirates at sea, fights and chases on motorcycles, airplanes and at sea, a sword fight with cranes, a spectacular ship in the desert and ordinary scenes shot from extraordinary angles will blow your mind. The most fun Steven Spielberg has given us since Jurassic Park.

8. Source Code -- been here, now out on DVD -- Mixing the slick sci-fi style of TV's excellent Quantum Leap with a dash of the humor and foundation of the Bill Murray classic Groundhog Day, director Duncan Jones and writer Ben Ripley manage to explore the time travel genre better than anyone has in a couple of decades.

9. The Ides of March -- been here, out on DVD sometime next year -- The message of actor and director George Clooney's film is how political power is sought and the high stakes have even those with high ideals doing whatever it takes to win. That passion leads to the question, does the end justify the means? In the case of Ides of March it does.

10. Moneyball -- been here, out on DVD soon -- It's a baseball movie and a good one. Brad Pitt -- who has always been a great actor -- rips through the dialogue in one of the easiest, funniest and most natural performances of the year. He's electrifying and -- if you'll allow a bit of wordplay -- Pitt and this movie knock it out of the park.

Films that might make the best list that I haven't seen yet:

We Need to Talk About Kevin

Iron Maiden

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Albert Nobbs

W.E.

Guilty pleasure and close to making the best list:

Young Adult

Crazy, Stupid, Love.

Trollhunter

Horrible Bosses

Limitless

Midnight in Paris

The Guard

50/50

Bad Teacher

Bridesmaids

The Rise of the Planet of the Apes

X-Men: First Class

So many bad movies -- so little space. 2011's Worst

1. Jack and Jill -- Adam Sandler has been making really bad movies for a really long time. None worse than this one. For a guy who has been making consistently awful movies from early in his career until now, Jack and Jill has the distinction of being the worst Sandler movie ever.

2. The Hangover II -- As bad and unfunny as the first one was good and very funny.

3. What's Your Number -- What's What's Your Number's? number? An algebraic formula explains it best. BE (bad editing)+ BS (perfect initials for bad script. You can use your imagination a bit. The initials beg for that kind of conclusion) - BM (Bad movie -- or even more perfect initials for you to play with) = MMR (Mr. Movie rating). Total: Zero.

4. I Don't Know How She Does It -- I not only have nothing nice to say about this Sarah Jessica Parker movie but I find it hard to have anything to say about it at all. A better title: I Don't Know Why She Did It and why the talentless Parker continues to do movies?

5. The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn -- Part 1 -- As noted earlier, I jokingly call it "Breaking Wind." Need I say more?

6. The Smurfs -- Is it possible that a film could have even less substance than the Saturday morning cartoon series? Heavy sigh. I saw this one so you don't have to.

7. Battle: Los Angeles -- A high-priced, high-tech clone of a video game where the characters move a pixel at a time to this dead-end or that.

8. Your Highness -- Billed as a "comedy," what passes for humor hits an all-time low.

9. Hop -- A regular guy ends up as the Easter Bunny. Brain death.

10. The Change Up -- It's Freaky Friday for adults. If you want to get a little more specific, adult males. Lots of nudity and language. And it's boring.

A dishonorable mention: Something Borrowed. This Kate Hudson star vehicle borrowed from every badly done eternal triangle love story ever done. Heavily. And it's so badly done.

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