Grizzled U.S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) helps headstrong 14-year old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) track down her father’s killer in this touching adventure. You read that right. The film is at once a coming-of-age movie and a Western, neither of which you’d expect from the Coen Brothers, and there’s hardly anything Coen-like about its straightforward tone of sepia Americana. But dropping most of the sardonic, ironic shtick that characterized their career, they made one of their best movies.
What links this remake of a much-loved John Wayne feature to the Coens’ oeuvre is a favorite and old-fashioned theme: murder and revenge—as well as stunning visuals of the Old West. The Coen’s script was adapted from the novel by Charles Portis, and is largely faithful to its source; a gallows moment when an American Indian being hanged for murder has a bag thrown over his head before he can lament the plight of his people is one of the few Coen-like touches in the film. The Dude is the marquee star, and he redeems his drunken and semi-moral character in typical Hollywood fashion. But the film is told through the eyes of Mattie, the determined young woman looking back at the time she avenged her father’s death. Steinfeld is pitch-perfect as a 14-year old wise and strong beyond her years. With a strong supporting cast that includes Matt Damon and undervalued character actor Barry Pepper, the Coens for once inhabit a film with real people, not just caricatures. The movie reaches its climax with a storybook race under the stars, a symbol of American idealism. Such idealism may well have been gone in 1968, when Portis wrote his novel; in 2010, the Coens suggested a glimmer of hope. – Pat Padua
“You always hurt/ The one you love/ The one/ You shouldn’t hurt at all.” Sung by a ukulele-strumming Ryan Gosling to a dancing Michelle Williams in the film’s most memorable scene, that line from a 1957 Mills’ Brothers song sums up the theme of Blue Valentine. Throughout the course of the film, we see a love affair bloom between pre-med student Cindy (Williams) and furniture mover Dean (Gosling), despite a pregnancy that is most likely caused by Cindy’s ex-boyfriend. Intercut between their burgeoning romance (Dean doesn’t care whose baby it is, he just wants to start a family with Cindy) are scenes of the couple five years later, married and at each other’s’ throats. What is meant as an escape from the daily grind, the couples’ attempt at a steamy weekend away at a romantic motel goes awry when they fight during sex. Cindy is called away to her nursing job early the next morning and leaves without waking Dean. From there, tempers flare and the relationship comes apart at the seams, despite a little girl who loves them both.
By utilizing this back-and-forth between the dreamy courtship and ugly falling out, Blue Valentine may be one of the more realistic romantic dramas out there. Relationships aren’t all singing and dancing on the sidewalk, after all, but the eventual hard times that are often bound to befall any long-term union only make those whimsical early moments all the more vibrant. Named after a Tom Waits album of the same name, Blue Valentine captures those moments when a new couple feels like the only two people in the world while also illustrating how love often fades. These themes are timeless, and in the last five years there may not have been a better showcase of the complexities of love. – Josh Goller
Animated features have long portrayed the specter of death. A hunter shot Bambi’s mother. A stampede trampled Simba’s father. A barracuda ate most of Nemo’s family. But in Toy Story 3, maybe the finest installment of Pixar’s flagship series, obsolescence haunts every character from the start. Andy, the toys’ owner, is now a young adult heading off to college. Whether thrown to the curb or stowed in an attic, his playthings have few happy options. Though Woody and Buzz remain stubborn optimists, the rest of the toys, from Mr. Potato Head on down, fret about mortality. A diabolical pink bear may be Toy Story 3’s villain, but even he isn’t exempt from bouts of existential dread.
Matt Damon’s astronaut in The Martian would be in good company with this motley gang. Our heroes treat every problem as a logistical puzzle with a clear solution. When, after a series of mishaps, the toys find themselves trapped in a totalitarian nightmare named Sunnyside Daycare, they concoct an elaborate escape plan. The stakes couldn’t be higher with no happy ending in sight. Say they find their way back to Andy—what then? No amount of Mission: Impossible-style jujitsu can change the fundamental fact that their owner, a deity of sorts, has outgrown them. And yet, with sharp zingers and high spirits, the toys rage against the dying of the light. What else can they, or we, do?
Toy Story 3 of course finds a way to deliver a satisfying conclusion, one that always leaves me in emotional shambles. During its climatic scene, these beloved characters slide toward what looks like the fires of Mount Doom. With hands clasped, they face the end together. Before a claw plucks them from on high, they shut their eyes and confront death with grace. What a remarkable sequence, one that matches the elegance of a bicycle’s silhouette gliding across a full moon. Hollywood rarely captures a sliver of such bravery with human actors. How funny that ones and zeros, shaped into childhood ephemera, can become timeless. And how sad that what’s trotted out as Oscar bait, year after year, still hasn’t caught up with Toy Story 3. – Peter Tabakis
Yorgos Lanthimos’s dark comedy Dogtooth is an incisive snapshot of a culture in crisis, a nihilistic and slyly structural parable about contemporary Greek society and the hallmark of the Greek Weird Wave, a vital collection of films that explore the country’s economic and sociocultural upheaval. The film scored an unlikely Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film in 2010, and former Greek prime minister George Papandreou claimed the significance extended beyond cinema, saying “[i]t concerns the whole country, its people, the new generation of artists…during difficult times.” Papandreou, of course, was talking about the nomination and the prestige it bestowed the local film industry, but inadvertently, he also described the film perfectly. It does concern the whole country and its people during difficult times, but the film’s vision of these difficult times doesn’t present Papandreou or really anyone in a flattering light. Though not outwardly political, Dogtooth is aggressively and hilariously polemic, a pointedly exaggerated account of traditional cultural systems failing in the light of casual corruption and arbitrary cruelty.
The story follows a nuclear family politely described as dysfunctional. A manipulative mother and father have successfully prevented their three adult-age children from leaving their remote home. Since birth, the children have had their worldviews meticulously molded by their parents, who shaped their perceptions of sex, language, behavior, and the outside world into cartoonish, unstable fantasies. Like Frankenstein’s monster, they equally inspire sympathy and horror. Sometimes their naivete is endearing and absurdly funny, and Lanthimos masterfully mines the black humor from this nightmare scenario. But they’re also adult infants, prone to emotional outbursts and fits of violence. The premise is held together by Lanthimos’s subtle storytelling abilities. He forgoes virtually all manner of backstory and exposition and keeps characterizations ambiguous, ensuring the film’s allegorical qualities while also creating a sort of suspended, dreamlike milieu. We don’t fully get a sense of how this family came to be, and we never understand the parents’ motivation beyond their apparent need to control, but Lanthimos ensures we’re never in the dark. Indeed, the psychological burden passed down through generations—from parents, from governments, from a metaphysical cultural unconscious—tells us everything we need to know. — Drew Hunt
It’s 12 Angry Men of the Internet age. Jesse Eisenberg stars as Mark Zuckerberg, the begrudged nerd who invented “Facemash” one drunken night in 2003. With his hoodie, Addidas flip-flops and physical tics, it’s the role he was born to play. Script by Aaron Sorkin makes computer programming seem like a hotbed of wit, sex and money. Shedding the pathos of The Newsroom, Sorkin’s barbs are cutthroat; tailor-made for the film’s snobbish, Ivy League setting.
David Fincher’s direction creates the foreboding atmosphere of a noir. The Harvard campus is full of shadows, the conference rooms are creepily clean and the Silicon Valley parties are depressing in a bleak, nihilistic way. Combined with Trent Reznor’s masterful score, the whole film manages to evoke a Wagnerian sense of dread.
Justin Timberlake and Andrew Garfield give strong, supporting performances as Sean parker, the party-boy founder of Napster and Eduardo Saverin, Zuckerberg’s Harvard chum and CFO. The Winklevoss twins (both played by Armie Hammer) are the Manga Cum Laude future presidents you love to hate. The only female of note is Rooney Mara, who breaks up with Zuckerberg in the now-famous opening scene, but it’s no matter. She practically steals the show. Zuckerberg tells her, “You don’t have to study…You go to B.U.” and she responds by calling him in “asshole” in the cleverest way imaginable. Unlike The Wolf of Wall Street which is also about men behaving badly and making lots of money, Sorkin is smart enough to implicate his cast for their greed, boardroom treachery and rampant sexism. The Social Network is a modern Macbeth and anyone who doesn’t agree isn’t getting a friend request from me. – Erica Peplin