Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room: The Best, the Worst — and the In-Between

Here at last is the anxiously awaited (you were waiting anxiously, weren’t you?) honest-to-Lubitsch complete, in-depth, in detail, in all its debatable glory full list of the best and worse the movies of 2011 offered. At least, it’s such a list as things looked to Justin Souther and me. You may have seen our lists in the print edition a little while back. This expands on (and in one case at least alters) those earlier ones. Sit back and let’s see who we can please and who we can annoy this year.

I spent the better part of 2011 it seems complaining about how lame 2011 was in terms of movies. Well, in a lot of respects I still feel that way—mostly, I think, as concerns independent films and the tepid quality of so many of the Big Budget Blockbusters. This became the year where the term “perfectly fine” came to be the catchphrase between Justin Souther and myself for so many movies being not bad, but wholly unexciting. For the most part, they simply weren’t taking me anywhere I hadn’t been before, and worse, they weren’t doing it any better than I’d seen it done before. There was a sense of malaise, a lack of the feeling of the pure joy of making a movie.

Take for example the “perfectly fine” latest version of Jane Eyre from Cary Fukunaga. There’s really nothing wrong with the movie (well, maybe one thing). I gave it four stars and it deserved them well enough, but it was all in all a bit like Roman Polanski’s Oliver Twist (2005) — another “perfectly fine” movie that had the cumulative effect of being just another version of a much-filmed story. The argument, of course, can be lodged that not everyone has seen these earlier versions and I won’t dispute that. However, it was a better argument in the days before home video made such versions so accessible.

But I think that really it was the art-house stuff of the indie film variety that most dismayed me. This year we had such titles as Biutiful, Blue Valentine, Another Earth, The Future, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Take Shelter, and Tiny Furniture. Of those, the only one I can actually call bad is Tiny Furniture (I’ll get to that), but,frankly, I’m just over seeing movies about people I’d move to the other side of the street to avoid bumping into in real life. All this downbeat dreariness is wearing me down and the frequently ugly, murky photography isn’t helping. The race to praise performances by people who simply never change expression (yes, I am looking at you, Michael Shannon) has simply gotten out of hand to me. And the whole indie thing is, in general, becoming just as much a formula cliche as the worst of Hollywood at its most Hollywooden. I realize that in some circles (you know who you are) this makes me a middle-brow philistine. Actually, I’m good with that.

But enough with the negatives about 2011 (for now at least). There were several very bright moments in the year to me. And one of those moments strikes me as perhaps the brightest moment of this century. So let’s move into the more positive realm—for a while.

The Best

1. Hugo — Martin Scorsese moved into new territory (at least in terms of subject matter) with this one and ended up making what I firmly feel is his best film. (OK, I concede that a lot of my reservations on many Scorsese films lies not in the quality of the filmmaking, but in a lack of interest in their subject matter.) I remain astonished by Hugo on every level — just as I remain astonished by the dissenting voices on it. I was equally surprised by hearing about an appreciative audience last week where nearly everyone there had no idea who George Melies was and thought he was a fictional character. In itself, that tells me that the film needed to be made. Beyond everything else it is — and it’s a good many things — it stands as sharp rebuke to the mania for the Flavor of the Week, and the overuse of that hateful term “irrelevant,” which gets slapped willy-nilly on whatever and whoever isn’t being discussed this week.

2. Midnight in Paris — Woody Allen’s biggest hit ever also turned out to be one of the year’s most charming delights. It also proved that Owen Wilson could be good in something other than Wes Anderson pictures. The question, to me, arises of whether or not it’s that much better than a lot of late period Allen. Now, I admit I’ve supported nearly every film Allen has made in recent years — starting with Curse of the Jade Scorpion, flawed though it is, in 2001. The exceptions have been the bizarrely over-praised Match Point (2005) and Casandra’s Dream (2007) — the latter I haven’t seen (I’ll catch up with it some day). For me, Allen generally falls into the area of “even the worst thing he might ever make is better than a lot of people on their best day.” Not to sell Midnight in Paris short — it is truly a wonderful film — but in many respects, it was the right movie at the right time.

3. The Skin I Live In — Pedro Almodóvar at his darkest and most perverse — to the degree that even some Almodóvar fans thought it was too much. I see where they’re coming from, but I don’t agree, and I love the fact that it actually paves the way for the possibility of the strangest happy ending ever. I’ve had more arguments over this one than on any other Almodóvar film. One friend of mine thought the film was simply appalling because it used rape as a plot device. At the same time, he praised Talk to Her (2002) as Almodovar’s best film. While I agree with that, Talk to Her is about a man who has sexual relations with a comatose woman — and that’s also rape, no matter how you slice it.

4. Blackthorn — I’m not sure that you don’t have to be a little on the — well — older side to fully appreciate all the undercurrents of this rethinking of what might have happened if we presume Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid weren’t killed in 1908. But anyone can appreciate the cinematic beauty and Sam Shepard’s performance. This was not a movie I was especially looking forward to, so it came as no little surprise to me that I ended up watching it three times. Some have complained that was inessential and that it somehow devalues its 1969 counterpart by attempting to debunk it. I frankly don’t even understand that second part, since, to me, it seems to only build upon the established mythology.

5. Submarine — Brit TV actor Richard Ayoade made a spectacular writing-directing debut with this film. It’s a coming-of-age story that was understandably touted as being like a Welsh Wes Anderson movie, but it had a vibe and a feel that was also very much its own. There were very few films this year that made me immediately conscious that I had seen something truly different. This was one of them. Sure, they are a few rough edges, but on balance it’s a clear winner that announces a potentially new major player on the film making scene. (I say potentially only because I’ve waited for second films from new filmmakers that were slow to materialize. In some cases, I’m still waiting.)

6. 13 Assassins — Takashi Miike’s very unusual samurai film — unusual in that it suggests the samurai code was always flawed and needed to die off for modern man — is easily the best action film of the year, but its complexity of theme and execution makes it much more than that suggests. The film’s ability to be so completely able to immerse itself in its period and the action genre and still make a trenchant comment on both the period and the genre—and by extension the armchair warriors who romanticize it out of all proportion—is remarkable.

7. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy — Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In) conjures up a frequently downright nightmarish Cold War spy picture (adapted from John le Carre’s novel) for people who prize plot, characterization and atmosphere over “shit blows up neat.” The ensemble cast is perfect. It has the nerve to be methodically paced and the wisdom not to use that pace to over-explain everything. On the contrary, this is a film that actually assumes the viewer is able to think and pay attention. Imagine that! It’s more than a little ironic, I suppose, that a film starring Gary Oldman is in my best list, since there’s another film with him in it down lower in quite another list.

8. Attack the Block — Another astonishing writing-directing debut. This one’s from Joe Cornish, who has connections to Edgar Wright and company—hence the presence of Nick Frost and the attempts to publicize the film as related to Hot Fuzz and Shawn of the Dead. But this explosive alien invasion of “gorilla-wolf-looking motherf***ers” action comedy is in a class by itself. It’s the kind of movie where you can rightly use the phrase, “This much fun ought to be illegal,” and yet it also actually manages to be about something in the bargain. That’s pretty darn remarkable. The accents seem to pose a problem for some people, but as a friend of mine noted, just go with them for a while and it’s like Shakespeare—you get used to the sound.

9. The Artist — It’s the brand new black and white silent movie. I have some issues with the film that would require a lot more space than is available here, but its heart’s in the right place and much of the “look” is right and the movie has undeniable charm. I will say, however, that I’m not as wild about it as a lot of people I know. I’ll wait till I get to actually review it (it will open here sometime) to point out what bothers me in detail, but the biggest concern I have is simply that if this film actually had been made in the era it’s evoking, it would have been considered no more than charming fluff. As it is in 2011, it’s getting bonus points for being a novelty. But, yes, it’s a charming novelty — and in a year of noise and multi-channel explosions, it’s rather a pleasant change. And I find it interesting — and like the fact — that it touches on the same theme of the forgotten artist as Hugo does, though not with the same resonance.

10. Le Havre — In all honesty, the number ten slot is really a four way tie that includes Aki Kaurismaki’s Le Havre, Roman Polanski’s Carnage, Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, and Simon Curtis’ My Week with Marilyn. Indeed, My Week with Marilyn ran in print as my no. 10 film. Fortunately, of course, I don’t have to actually foreswear any of these. So why settle on Le Havre? Well, the battling four are absurd to try to contrast. They aren’t apples and oranges so much as they are apples and quartz crystal rocks. But Le Havre with its humanistic story of a supremely unambitious middle-aged shoe-shine man (Andre Wilms)—and his odd friendship with his community and, especially with a young Sengalese boy (Blondin Miguel) who’s being sought as an illegal alien — is a little film I can’t get out of my mind. How can you not fall in love with a movie where the hero rationalizes that since no one is good enough for his saintly patient wife (Kati Outinen), he’ll do as well as anyone? Or who passes himself off to the authorities as related to the boy by claiming to be from the albino side of the family?

In the also rans we have the aforemetioned Carnage, My Week with Marilyn and Sherlock Homes: A Game of Shadows. But also there were J.Edgar, The Guard, The Descendants, Drive, Rango, Restless, Super, Hobo with a Shotgun, Insidious, Win Win, Queen to Play, Incendies, Beginners, Friends with Benefits, Point Blank, and Melancholia. And there were others that I certainly liked, but were never even near the best of the year list.

And then there’s Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. I do not know exactly what I think about this one. I admire the attempt. I do not think it really succeeds.  But I admit it’s fascinating in some strange way. I’ve seen it three times, but I still don’t exactly like it—even though I like things it. I’m amused that the DVD advises you to crank up the volume -—likes it’s Lennon’s “Instant Karma” single (“Play loud”) or Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust album (“To be played at maximum volume”). If nothing else, this will make sure you get “The Moldau” stuck in your head for several days. I do not think—as someone said—that it’s an “entirely new kind of film.” It’s really the kind of new kind of film that’s been a new kind of film for some considerable time.


The Damndest Movie I Saw All Year!

The Last Circus — This is actually a Spanish film called Balada Triste de Trompeta (Ballad of a Sad Trumpet), which is actually nearer the mark. Neither title, however, offers even the first clue as to just how deliriously twisted this film from writer-director Alex de la Iglesia is. Let me put it this way: The Last Circus makes The Skin I Live In look reasonably tame. It might, in fact, be closer in outrages to Jodorowski’s Sante Sangre (1989)—though in a more realistic context, which probably makes it just that much more demented. The only film of Iglesia’s that I’d seen was El Crimen Ferpecto (not El Crimen Perfecto as a lot of places — including the DVD case — have it). Now that film — with its helpful ghost — is odd, but this is a completely new level of odd.

It is neither practical, nor particularly advisable, to try to offer a detailed plot synopsis of The Last Circus. It starts during the Spanish Civil War—in fact, like many Spanish films, the war and the Franco regime hangs over it heavily in both a literal and metaphorical manner.  A circus troupe find themselves—well, they dispense with the bearded lady — dragooned into fighting against Franco. This includes “happy” clown Andres (Enrique Villen)—who at the time of his conscription is in drag to boot. He wants to change clothes, but is told, “A clown with a machete? You’ll scare the shit out of them.” That proves more or less true and Andres manages to slash his way through a whole regiment before being caught and imprisoned.

This, however, is merely the overture since the bulk of the film concerns his son, Javier (Carlos Areces), who years later becomes a “sad” clown in a rundown circus where he draws laughs by being brutalized by “happy” clown Sergio (Antonio de la Torre). Sergio also brutalizes his wife, the aerialist Natalia (Carolina Bang, whose name appears to actually be just that), with whom, of course, Javier falls in love. As a set-up, it’s as old as the hills — or at the least as old as a Tod Browning picture — but, oh my, the blood-drenched lengths to which it goes are hard to overstate. This film didn’t play locally — and I may have to do something about that — but it was lying in a package of year-end screeners from Magnolia Pictures, just waiting to ensnare me.

The Worst

Oh, there’s no shortage of these (is there ever?), though I really thought I’d fobbed off the worst of the lot on Mr. Souther. Good heavens, if his worst were worse than my worst, it’s a wonder the lad is still among the living.

1. Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked — Really, doesn’t the title say it all? I couldn’t believe that audiences — presumably those with easily amused very young children—flocked to the first of these unnecessary rehashes of the already unnecessary novelty characters from the late 1950s. That they are still doing it for this third—and even worse—film must surely be a sign of the apocalypse. On a comparative basis, I enjoyed The Smurfs. That is saying plenty.

2. Atlas Shrugged Part One — OK, sure, it was a given that I wouldn’t like this, since every fiber of my being loathes Ayn Rand’s crackpot bullshit “philosophy” — which I find somewhere between ill-conceived and repellent. That said, I’ve read her overheated major novels, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. I even like King Vidor’s utterly stylized 1949 film of The Fountainhead, which Rand herself scripted. It captures the lunacy of her impossibly arch prose (people neither act, nor talk like that) and realizes that it’s impossibly arch by simply embracing it. It also doesn’t sell Rand’s peculiarities short and, in fact, plays up her manly man rape fantasies. This latest cheap-jack attempt to turn Rand into the poster girl for the Tea Party movement isn’t just bad filmmaking, but it’s bad Rand. Her views have been watered-down, made even more simplistic than they already were, and, goodness knows, her sex fantasies and hardcore atheism are nowhere to be found. The faithful largely ignored both its slights to Rand and blandly accepted a film where people are castigated for insisting on being paid a living wage. I actually suspect that one thing Ms. Rand and I might agree on is that this is a bad movie. It’s a lot like one of those bargain-basement faith-based movies — with the faith in a different place. (Naturally — and like those for a lot of faith-based movies — the review became the most commented on of the year, or maybe ever.) There are threats of a Part Two being ready in time for the election season.

3. Tiny Furniture — The poster for this excruciating indie/art house/mumblecore-ish bout of navel gazing reads (in all caps), “AURA WOULD LIKE YOU TO KNOW SHE’S HAVING A VERY, VERY HARD TIME.” Yeah? Well, screw Aura and the ennui-fest she’s fobbed off as a movie in her post-grad outburst of self-pity. It’s this sort of semi-autobiographical goop by Lena Dunham — who also plays Aura — about some spoiled very upper middle-class girl just out of college and trying (not very hard, it seems) to figure out what to do with her life. Long before the film finally ended I had plenty of suggestions for Aura. None of the included being a filmmaker.

4. Sanctum — What is there to say about this water-logged suspenser about a bunch of people it’s impossible to care about trying to find a way out of some underwater caves? Well, it’s boring, it’s tedious, and it’s no end of dumb. There is some unintentional humor to be found late in the day—the more suspenseful it tries to be, the funnier it gets. And it has perhaps my second favorite accidentally great line of the year — “I’m not wearing a dead woman’s wet suit.” So there.

5. Big Mommas: Like Father, Like Son — Unlike our previous entry, this third in the series of Martin Lawrence in fat-suit drag movies is supposed to be funny. It isn’t. OK, it has one funny line, but it lasts a lot longer than one line. In fact, it inexcusably drags out its 30 minutes worth of sitcom story for a punishing, butt-numbing 107 minutes.  Sadly, its production budget of $32 million and its worldwide box office take of $82 million suggest a possible sequel. If so, it will not be my turn in the barrel on that one.

6. Red Riding Hood — The cosmically inept Catherine Hardwicke (she of Twilight infamy) suckered a bunch of folks who, in the main, ought to have known better into being in this inane re-imagining of the fairy tale. The idea, of course, was that she would once again tap into a rich vein of angsty teen bucks at the box office. It didn’t pan out so well. I suspect that angsty teens found it hard to relate to gussied up fairy book characters who live in Lincoln Log hovels in the midst of woods where all the trees have inexplicable dangerous spikes protruding from their trunks. It’s actually so embarrassing that it’s kind of funny—and it does have my favorite dumb line of the year with Gary Oldman instructing his minion, “Lock him up — in the elephant!”

7. Hop — There’s bad and then there’s bad. Well, Hop is a whole new kind of bad. It’s creepy bad. The creepy factor comes from 37-year-old James Marsden playing a seemingly sexless, friendless guy who still lives at home. Why? Because he has some Easter Bunny fixation. And the resolution of it all only makes it that much worse. Now, on top of this there’s the manic, computer-animated, up-and-coming Easter Bunny — voiced by Russell Brand — running through the whole thing, adding annoyance to the creepiness.

8. Transformers: Dark of the Moon — It appears that I was supposed to cut this latest outburst of Michael Bay-hem some kind of slack because it wasn’t as bad as his last Transformers opus. Maybe it’s just me, but “not as bad as” is a few accolades shy of a ringing endorsement. Its major accomplishment was perhaps finding an actress — former underwear model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley —who is actually less talented than Megan Fox. That it drags on for two-and-a-half hours is in the adding insult to injury category.

9. The Smurfs — As long as parents (I assume it’s parents, since I cannot honestly believe that adults are going to these things by themselves) keep taking the kids to this kind of movie, such films will continue to rake in an appalling amount of money and will continue to be cranked out. In the case of The Smurfs that meant a worldwide take of over $562 million — and, for those who think America is culturally inferior to the rest of the world, I’d like to note that about $420 million of that was in foreign receipts. As Oscar Wilde once observed, paying tradesmen only encourages them. Yes, this movie was mind-bogglingly bad, but I’m more blaming the audiences that broke loose with the spondulicks to see it more than the film itself. I’m also trying to figure out why I saw this at all, since I watched Yogi Bear last year as a trade-off for Justin watching this one.

10. Apollo 18 — With the possible exception of mumblecore—which gets a little slack (of a sort) for not becoming popular — I can think of no (relatively) recent cinematic development more artistically bankrupt than the found-footage sub-genre. I thought the original Blair Witch Project (1999) was crap and nothing has happened to really change my feelings about the whole thing. This, however, may be the dumbest of the lot. Almost nothing in this conspiracy-theory nonsense about why we really stopped going to the moon makes a lick of sense. But I wouldn’t mind that so much if it wasn’t for the fact that the film is simply soul-killingly boring. The worst thing about all this is that the films cost almost nothing to make, so they almost invariably make money, meaning that we haven’t seen the last of them.The latest of them, The Devil Inside, is all set to take this weekend’s box office. Horror fans never seem to learn that supporting crap just because it’s a horror film is not really doing the genre any favors.

Of course, I’d be remiss if I overlooked such “OFF THE HOOK GOOD” trash as Beastly, Something Borrowed, The Change-Up, I Don’t Know How She Does It, Paranormal Activity 3, Human Centipede II (Full Sequence), Mars Needs Moms, and Zookeeper. And The Beaver deserves a mention as the worst idea for a movie this year that resulted in a genuinely underwhelming movie. Plus, no rundown of filmic follies of 2011 can afford to overlook the so-incredibly-wrong-headed-it’s-mermerizing Sucker Punch—or as it might be called “visionary director” Zack Snyder’s folly. It’s certainly awful, but, wow, is it ever uniquely awful.

Yes, I know that we discussed instituting an “OFF THE HOOK GOOD” category in honor of last year’s internet dust-up over Justin saying mean things about Takers. Actually, I only know that because Jeremy Dyland reminded me, but too late to incorporate it.

Now, let’s turn this over to Justin Souther.

The Best

1. Hugo — I always worry about having the same top film as Ken. It’s happened a few times since I’ve been doing these lists, and I fret that readers will tire of that sort of homogeny. For a good chunk of 2011, I thought this wasn’t going to be an issue — that is, until Martin Scorsese came along with Hugo and threw a wrench in that. After a career making hardboiled crime dramas, Scorsese came out with his most personal film, a movie that tells the story of every cinema lover (we all have our own George Melies to champion), and the most magical, inviting movie to come out this year. It still has Scorsese’s master craftmanship, but also the biggest heart of any movie he’s ever made. And sure, it’s tailor-made for critics and film buffs, but it’s so genuinely a part of the director that this should hardly be considered a drawback.

2. Drive — I won’t disagree that Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive is mostly an exercise in style. It in fact might just be completely pretentious hogwash. I, for one, am perfectly fine with that, since all that style is at the sake of unabashed filmmaking, the kind of singular, self-indulgent vision that still makes me astonished it ever got a wide release. Taking a ton of disparate influences (David Lynch, Grimm’s fairy tales, and others), Refn was nevertheless able to make a crime thriller that looked and felt like nothing else to come out in quite awhile.

3. 13 Assassins — Takashi Miike’s samurai epic is the kind of grand spectacle that so many movies attempt, but so rarely accomplish. With its bloody, 45-minute climax, 13 Assassins is an astonishing piece of filmmaking. But all that blood and thunder would be negligible if it weren’t for Miike’s human side. Corralling all of this action into something innately tragic — not just in the death of the samurai era the film documents, but in the sacrifices these men made for that era to exist — makes Miike’s movie surprisingly heady stuff. The climax, however, is what makes 13 Assassins one of the year’s most purely entertaining, satisfying pieces of filmmaking.

4. Midnight in Paris — Though there are us Woody Allen fans who’ve always gotten something out of the man’s films no matter the era or the critical consensus, it’s a relief to see one of his films catch on with audiences. Not so much as a means of saying he’s still got it, but rather to show people what they’ve been missing out on for so long. With Midnight in Paris — which is technically the biggest financial success in Allen’s long career—we get the writer at his most whimsical, yet perfectly balances the bitter and the truly romantic.

5. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy — The antithesis of the gadget-driven, big budget spy thriller, Tomas Alfredson’s understated spy thriller is an exercise in atmosphere. Alfredson has crafted a classy mystery centering around Cold War espionage, yet his main concern are the people tangled up in the entire mess. Containing what might be the year’s best cast, the film is dense, and shaded in by subtle touches, and refreshing in its desire to never spoon feed its audience.

6. Submarine — The Wes Anderson comparisons are obvious, but you’d be selling Richard Ayoade’s debut feature short by stopping there. An often painful look at the awkward nature of growing up — and the lack of control and bad decisions that come along with it—Submarine is nevertheless bitterly funny and occasionally heartbreaking. As far as directorial debuts go in 2011, it’s hard to find one more promising.

7. Attack the Block — Speaking of debuts, Joe Cornish made the most entertaining movie of 2011 with Attack the Block. Taking the shtick of teens staving off an alien invasion out of the suburbs of Spielberg and into the projects, Cornish made a film that both reinvents a sub-genre while being something entirely its own. The well drawn characters and Cornish’s sense of humor—not to mention some aliens that are actually memorably designed (yes, that includes you, Super 8)—don’t hurt a thing, either.

8. The Skin I Live In — Pedro Almodóvar has made a career out of making quirky melodramas. The Skin I Live In, however, takes that Almodóvarian sense of soap opera to another level by being the year’s most f**ked up film. Without getting into the details of the plot, it’s an honestly shocking movie (and I’m a hard one to shock) that somehow manages to be sweet-natured by the final scene. Not an easy accomplishment, but Almodóvar pulls it off.

9. The Guard — John Michael McDonagh—in another of 2011’s strong directorial debuts — takes the buddy cop formula and turns it into something both bitterly — and often offensively — funny, but never loses a sense of care and respect for its characters. Brendan Gleeson’s gives an outstanding performance as a degenerate, foul-mouthed — but somehow likable — cop that holds the entire film together.

10. Rango — After lots of tussling with my list, I’m still not sure what should get the final spot. Part of me wants to give it to Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows simply for being the one big-budget piece of entertainment that wasn’t simply mediocre. But instead, I’ll go with Gore Verbinski’s Rango, if for no reason more than it was the first film in 2011 that truly impressed me. Wonderfully odd and eccentric in the best way possible.

The Worst

1. Bucky Larson: Born to Be a Star — Nick Swardson in buck teeth and Prince Valiant haircut. Adam Sandler produced. A cameo by Pauly Shore. The worst movie of 2011.

2. Jack and Jill — Starring Adam Sandler and Adam Sandler in drag, Jack and Jill dares you not to think it’s not a blight on humanity.

3. Decisions — Being Corey Haim’s final screen appearance, some of our more gullible theater chains were bamboozled into running this amateurish, absurd crime drama. Besides using the final, bloated visage of Haim used as a money-making opportunity, this is a movie with a magic crackhead, which should let you know the wavelength this movie is running on.

4. Your Highness — Some studio spent almost $50 million on a movie that hands a big chunk of its runtime to jokes centering around a minotaur’s jumbly bits.

5. Courageous — Sherwood Baptist Church returns for 129 minutes of grown men blubbering and proselytizing, and just enough gun violence to keep you from nodding off.

6. Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer — The kind of shrill, obnoxious preteen pap that can turn ordinary people into spiteful curmudgeons.

7. New Year’s Eve — Wait, these people are still considered famous?

8. Johnny English Reborn — Wait, the rest of the world still considers Rowan Atkinson famous?

9. The Darkest Hour — In a year full of good, intelligent sci-fi (Attack the Block, Source Code, hell, even Real Steel), this dumb thing had to come in on the final weekend of the year and muck up the works.

10. Shark Night — A movie that can’t decide if it wants to be fun schlock or legit horror, and ends up just being neither.


About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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34 thoughts on “Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room: The Best, the Worst — and the In-Between

  1. Xanadon't

    Ah yes, here at last! Happy to say I haven’t seen a single film on either Worst list. Times like these that the fact really hits home that your jobs aren’t all daisies and gumdrops.

    Well, I really hadn’t planned on rushing out to see TTSS but you two have convinced me otherwise.

    Not much I would argue on this list, though I didn’t find Midnight in Paris to be a unqualified delightful winner or borderline great film. But I realize that puts me very much in the minority.

    Just watched the trailer for The Last Circus. I’ll be seeking it out.

    Oh, and I like your take on The Tree of Life. I’ve always thought that it fails in too many ways that great films or even really good films don’t. No matter how much else might be in it to admire.

  2. Me

    Im with you Xanadont the more i think about it the less i like Midnight In Paris.

    Glad to see Le Harve on the list looking forward to its showing.

  3. Ken Hanke

    I didn’t find Midnight in Paris to be a unqualified delightful winner or borderline great film.

    Well, I don’t understand that in your case. I am not surprised by it in others.

    • Xanadon't

      Thanks, I’ll take the compliment happily! There were many things I liked about the film, from the magic-realism to the set-design to Owen Wilson’s very strong performance that rounded out the neurotic-ism present in the characters Woody himself generally plays with a more down-to-earth, sort of.. warmly human core.

      But I was disappointed with what I felt was lazy, one-dimensional character writing- to the point of almost feeling cartoonish- going on with too many of the other players. McAdam’s character especially, but also her parents to an extent. And certainly Dali and Hemingway. Now of course some of this was good fun, and it may be that I’m just being difficult. But I could never figure out if Allen reveres and idolizes these 1920’s artist, or just the opposite. They seem to be given a kind of mundane, condescending treatment too often. It caused a sort of empty name-dropping effect at times, and maybe it’s just that the script was too busy to flesh everything out as much as I’d have liked.

      But I did love Bates’ portrayal of Stein and could’ve done with some more Zelda. Gosh, and now I’m remembering how enchanting Marion C. was all along. Hmm. Maybe I do like this movie a bit more than I think. I’d be willing to sit down with it again to find out.

  4. Ken Hanke

    Just watched the trailer for The Last Circus. I’ll be seeking it out.

    I plan — at the very least — on getting it a Thursday Horror Picture Show viewing, but I’m actually inclined to see about booking it theatrically for a single show.

    • Orbit DVD

      Alex de la Iglesia is the second best director in Spain, and I hope he will eventually get noticed around here. If you haven’t seen 800 BULLETS yet, I highly recommend it.

      And your assessment is spot on. I didn’t know what the hell was going on, but I enjoyed every minute of it.

  5. Jeremy Dylan

    I managed to avoid all but one picture on both Off the Hook Bad lists.

    On the other hand, I’ve also managed to avoid most of the films on the Best of lists, mainly due to them not having opened here yet.

    A quick glance over Aussie release dates reveals the upcoming slate:

    JANUARY 12
    The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
    The Muppets

    JANUARY 19
    Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
    Young Adult

    JANUARY 24

    JANUARY 26
    A Few Best Men
    J Edgar

    The Artist


    My Week With Marilyn

    MARCH 8

    MARCH 22
    The Hunger Games

    MARCH 29
    A Dangerous Method

    Based on this, I should have no trouble keeping up to my New Year’s resolution to see at least one new film in the cinema every week this year.

  6. Jeremy Dylan

    Its been a great year for first time directors.

    One of the year’s best films – MARGIN CALL – was from a first time writer and director, J C Chandor.

  7. Jeremy Dylan

    this is a movie with a magic crackhead

    A transmogrifying crackhead!

  8. Ken Hanke

    One of the year’s best films – MARGIN CALL – was from a first time writer and director, J C Chandor.

    Don’t get me wrong, I liked this film a lot, but I just can’t get as jazzed about it as you are. And unlike Submarine and Attack the Block, I’d have had to resort to checking the credits to remember who made it.

    I can also think of a couple first-timers I’d as soon not encounter again.

  9. Ken Hanke

    But I was disappointed with what I felt was lazy, one-dimensional character writing- to the point of almost feeling cartoonish- going on with too many of the other players. McAdam’s character especially, but also her parents to an extent.

    It’s not their film. For me, they were adequate to the purpose. Allen is here working with an unusually large canvas (for him) of characters.

    And certainly Dali and Hemingway. Now of course some of this was good fun, and it may be that I’m just being difficult.

    Well, yes, in some ways you are. And I might agree with you if the film was about Dali or Hemingway, but it isn’t. For that matter, are they even really so much themselves or are they the images that Wilson’s character has of them?

    But I could never figure out if Allen reveres and idolizes these 1920’s artist, or just the opposite.

    Neither, I think. Instead, I believe he loves them — and treasures the more absurd things about them. That strikes me as much more important and interesting. And entertaining.

    could’ve done with some more Zelda.

    On that point I agree, but I wonder if more would be less satisfying than being left wanting more.

  10. Xanadon't

    It’s not their film. For me, they were adequate to the purpose.

    True. But I felt that Inez could’ve been at least a bit more complex. Some of the dynamic between them felt like something from a dreadful RomCom. “Ssh, I’m listening to Paul right now.” Ugh. That line and others were kind of dreadful.

    For that matter, are they even really so much themselves or are they the images that Wilson’s character has of them?

    Ooo, I like it. Well played, sir!

    Neither, I think. Instead, I believe he loves them — and treasures the more absurd things about them. That strikes me as much more important and interesting. And entertaining.

    You know, as I was typing my earlier comments something similar to this take began nagging at me. Didn’t arrive completely to the way you’ve now articulated here, but now that it’s in front of me I think I can see what you’re saying.

    I’m still learning how to manage my expectations of a film with the way it actually plays out. Ha, or in some ways I feel like I’m always still learning how to watch movies.

    At any rate, this does seem like a good candidate for a rewatch. Truly, I don’t like the fact that it didn’t strike me the way it did most others.

  11. Ken Hanke

    But I felt that Inez could’ve been at least a bit more complex. Some of the dynamic between them felt like something from a dreadful RomCom.

    I may be wrong, but I think it’s supposed to feel that way — that that’s exactly the relationship he’s gotten himself into.

    I feel like I’m always still learning how to watch movies.

    Aren’t we all? And if we aren’t, we ought to be.

  12. Dionysis

    The good news is that regardless of which list of ‘The Worst’ is considered, I’ve not seen a one of them, and that includes all of the ‘honorable mentions’ (or should that be ‘dishonorable mentions’?) too. The bad news is that among both lists of ‘The Best’, I’ve only seen two titles. I have some catching up to do, it seems.

  13. Ken Hanke

    I have some catching up to do, it seems.

    Well, two of my Best — Le Havre and The Artist — have yet to play here.

  14. Ken Hanke

    If you haven’t seen 800 BULLETS yet, I highly recommend it.

    Well, as I said, I’ve only seen the two. I admit I was curious about The Oxford Murders, if only because people seem so split on it as either terrific or awful.

  15. Andy

    Did you get a chance to see [i]A Separation[/i]? I had the chance to see it when I was in New York City. Exceptional film. Lived up to the hype I had been hearing prior to seeing it.

    Hoping it comes to Asheville soon.

  16. Ken Hanke

    Did you get a chance to see A Separation?

    No, I haven’t. It’s slated for the Fine Arts, but things are so clogged up with so much suddenly available that I don’t know when it will be. Generally — unless films come to critics in a year end package — we rarely see movies until about two weeks before they open. Both it and A Dangerous Method are titles that could impact these lists — albeit too late to actually alter them.

  17. Sean Gray

    My wife and I didn’t see any of the worst films but Red Riding Hood, and we completely agree with your assessment. We are big fans of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and chose to see the movie, for fun, because of the dismal reviews (I’m pretty sure many other film buffs would disagree with the MST3K approach and I’m fine with that). It definitely lived up to the hype. It was really, really bad. I’m underwhelmed by most horror movies, but this movie actually had the atmosphere of a decent thriller and ruined it by turning it all into “Twilight on Ice”.

    **I hope this isn’t a duplicate comment but I couldn’t tell because of the actions of the website**

  18. Ken Hanke

    I’m pretty sure many other film buffs would disagree with the MST3K approach and I’m fine with that

    I confess I’m one of them, though I long ago gave up explaining why.

    I hope this isn’t a duplicate comment but I couldn’t tell because of the actions of the website

    If it had been, it wouldn’t have been the first –including some of my own.

  19. The public

    This the most rambling jibberish I have ever read. Why not just write like a normal person.

  20. Jeremy Dylan

    Why not just write like a normal person.

    Normal people are shitty writers.

  21. DrSerizawa

    All this downbeat dreariness is wearing me down and the frequently ugly, murky photography isn’t helping.

    I agree but it’s what wins the various Indie awards these days, does it not?

  22. Ken Hanke

    I agree but it’s what wins the various Indie awards these days, does it not?

    Unfortunately, yes, because the same monkey-see-monkey-do mindset that pervades the studios is also present in the awards realm. Plus, the “taste-makers” are often on the same page — and so are a sizable number of art movie fans who already “know” what’s of merit and what isn’t because it’s been decided for them. The thing is that I have not seen any particular change in indie film in 10 years. The few changes I have seen have largely been ill-advised. What is changing, I think,is that fewer people are turning out for these things. That will ultimately force some kind of change.

  23. Edwin Arnaudin

    Considering the noticeable overlap of your lists, were there any films (other than DRIVE) where your opinions significantly diverged?

  24. Ken Hanke

    Considering the noticeable overlap of your lists, were there any films (other than DRIVE) where your opinions significantly diverged?

    Bear in mind that I actually liked Drive, but not nearly so much. I like The Artist much more than Justin did. And, though it didn’t get brought into play, I liked Drive Angry 3D and Justin didn’t. Similarly, I don’t think he liked Blackthorn anywhere near as much as I did.

  25. Xanadon't

    Okay, so I rewatched Midnight in Paris. Now I’m wondering what kind of ill humours I was affected by first go round. Rarely has my response changed as drastically between a first and second viewing. I’m glad you prompted me to give this movie another look. It really is rather magical. And the bit about Indian bread (“Nan, I guess they call it”) is worth a handful of stars by itself!

  26. Xanadon't

    Considering the noticeable overlap of your lists

    And Scorsese occupying the number one spot, two years running. Anyone ready yet to declare him the best American film-maker working today? Or, okay, at least top three?

  27. Ken Hanke

    I’m glad you prompted me to give this movie another look.

    Then all our hard work ain’t been in vain for nuthin’. (Why do I insist on quoting from a movie I don’t like much?)

    Anyone ready yet to declare him the best American film-maker working today? Or, okay, at least top three?

    I can’t actually come up with a strong argument against that second idea.

  28. Tonberry

    Hmmm, well my own top 10 doesn’t differ too too much from what you’ve listed. There are a few I haven’t seen yet, like “Submarine,” “13 Assassins,” and “Tinker, Tailor…” so I’ll need to catch up on them soon.

    My own list, the movies that made their mark in 2011.

    10.) Insidious
    9.) Moneyball
    8.) Super
    7.) The Guard
    6.) Attack the Block
    5.) Drive
    4.) Incendies
    3.) The Skin I Live In
    2.) Midnight in Paris
    1.) Hugo

  29. Ken Hanke

    You only have one title that utterly perplexes me — and I finally watched it and came away in the “it was perfectly fine” mode. That was actually an accomplish of some note with a movie where the lead carries a spit cup.

    I expect you to fill in the Tinker Tailor gap tomorrow. Otherwise, I damn well better see you at House of Frankenstein/Dracula.

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