Big Bad Wolves – 8.5

This had everything Quentin Tarantino could want in a movie – suspense, outrageous gore, great characters and humor everywhere – which is presumably why he calls it the best movie of the year. The plot contains just enough ambiguity to keep you guessing, and the shocker of an ending either explains it all or leaves you wanting to ask someone, what just happened? The humorous bits – the villain’s mother calls on his cell phone just as he is about to pull off his victim’s toenails – balance the tension but don’t relieve it. We are told very little about the characters, but we quickly recognize their distinct personalities. And best of all, said the man next to me in the men’s room, the bad guy looked just like Dick Cheney. (How much are foreign films – this one is Israeli – helped by having actors we’ve never seen before, in other roles?)

Lee Daniels’ The Butler – 5

Purest hokum. Every president since Ike and every civil rights moment since Brown v. Board of Education is seen through the eyes of a White House butler, and in order to compress them all, plus the growth of the Black Power movement, into the space of this movie, there’s not much room for subtlety or character development. The depiction of life on the farm pales in comparison to 12 Years A Slave, and the characterization of the butler made me long for Carson. I did cry a couple times, but that was because the historic events were so resonant, not because of anything Lee Daniels did.

Fruitvale Station – 8

This movie crept up on me. Watching on an airplane, I couldn’t make out some dialogue, and nothing much out of the ordinary seemed to be happening. The character of Oscar continued to build. Yes, he was a bit of a fuck-up: he cheated on his girl, he was hotheaded, he was fired from his job – but he had a heart of gold, loved his mom and was quick to help others. Good people, the movie seemed to say, can get in bad situations. The ending literally stunned me, and when I read the postscript – that this was a highly, if locally, publicized true event – I felt the tragedy, and its reflection on our world, even more deeply.

The Wolf of Wall Street – 7.3

I can’t think of a single credible, or logical, scene in the entire movie. So, okay, take it on its own absurdist terms, and it was pretty funny. The trouble, though, for me at least, was that this was based on real events and real people and a real business, which made it hard to accept it as fantasy. This was far and away the most I’ve like Leo DiCaprio in a movie, and Jonah Hill, Jean DuJardin and Kyle Chandler were comparably good. Many others were cardboard cutouts, which is all that was required of them, I guess. At the end, after almost three hours of leisurely pace, watching strippers, doing drugs, the most psychologically interesting developments are presented bang-bang-bang in confusing manner, a finally unconvincing nod to events as they actually happened.

Her – 6

Frankly, I got a little tired of full-screen shots of Joaquin Phoenix’s face. They admirably conveyed his every thought and feeling, but his thoughts and feelings weren’t particularly interesting. What interest there was lay in Scarlett Johansson’s disembodied voice, a personal OS that provided Theodore’s love interest. Hearing Her develop a personality that reflected His input was fun to consider for awhile, but once she lit out on her own – a la 2001’s Hal – the concept lost credibility, and it lost me completely when She announced that she was in 643 other relationships simultaneously. In the end, I took away nothing.

A Touch of Sin – 7.5

A searing portrait of contemporary Chinese society, not always comprehensible to a Westerner, although violence is a fairly universal language. The separate stories are marginally related, enough that you feel it is one society you are seeing; and the protagonists are similarly social misfits or outcasts, who all, in different ways, want a better life for themselves. You can calibrate the degree of justification behind the murders or suicide they commit, but more interesting, in a way, is the wall of mass conformity they each stand out from. Whether intentional or not, the indictment of China as a harsh and soulless place, not to mention corrupt and immoral, is devastating.

Philomena – 5

Dull. A tear-jerker that failed to jerk any tears. Why was this movie of an Irish mother’s search for her lost son in America so unaffecting? Maybe because there was so little drama: finding the son turned out to be easy; so the search became a search for details about his life, which wasn’t very exciting. The potentially explosive story of the convent’s selling off babies to America then covering up the past was botched: other than one benighted sister, we couldn’t tell who was responsible or if anyone was really bad. Maybe it was the lack of chemistry between the two principals: Steve Coogan seemed a detached commentator, not a credible journalist; and while Judi Dench is a remarkable actress, it’s hard for someone so smart to play dumb convincingly without just coming across as cute. This was another example of a movie “based on true events” being less interesting than a story someone devised for the sake of entertainment.