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Published: Sunday, 12/26/2010

The Year in Movies: From clunky to inspired, lousy to spellbinding

2010 gave us these films and enough interesting storylines to fill a dozen blockbusters.

In January there was career comeback No. 1 of Mel Gibson as a cop willing to do just about anything to solve his daughter's murder in Edge of Darkness. His comeback stalled with audiences, and that was months before his PR fiasco with his estranged wife, which delayed the release of his second comeback film, Jodie Foster's comedy-drama The Beaver, until this spring.

The same month also gave us clunkers like the vampire tale Daybreakers — which posited a world run by vampires (in our world they're called CEOs) — and the angel Armageddon tale, Legion, featuring Toledo's own Adrianne Palicki. Then there was The Book of Eli, with Denzel Washington going Road Warrior for God, and a Harrison Ford pairing with Brendan Frasier in the true search-for-a-cure medical drama Extraordinary Measures, that did less-than-ordinary box-office business. Adding insult to those movies' financial misery, the comedy-fantasy The Tooth Fairy starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson made its money back at theaters and then some.

The “f” in February might as well have stood for failure, as in John Travolta as a spy in From Paris with Love, a new children's fantasy franchise in Percy Jackson & the Olympians: the Lightning Thief, and the resurrection of a horror franchise in The Wolfman. On a bright note, moviegoers did turn out for the romantic comedy featuring an all-star cast, Valentine's Day. February also gave us Shutter Island, Martin Scorcese's twisty, psychological thrill ride that had been pushed back from October (no one seemed to notice), and Kevin Smith's Cop Out comedy, which made you wonder if the filmmaker can still make good movies anymore.

Moving into March, theater owners were quite pleased with the year's first blockbuster, Alice in Wonderland. Tim Burton's take on Lewis Carroll was itself a sequel of sorts to Alice in Wonderland.

Then came a second hit, How to Train Your Dragon, a funny, smart, and emotionally engaging film from DreamWorks Animation that proves that another studio is capable of Disney-Pixar magic.

Clash of the Titans unofficially kicked off the summer movie season extra early -- April 1 -- to underwhelmed audiences and ferocious critics. The film proved that not all 3D movies are created equal, especially films that weren't filmed in 3D but later converted to the format by a studio looking to capitalize on a craze.

Date Night was a mostly uninspired comedy featuring two of the smartest comic-actors going, Tina Fey and Steve Carell. Chris Rock's all-star comedy Death at a Funeral died at the box office, while Exit Through the Gift Shop became an early favorite for Best Documentary winner. And then there was New Line's A Nightmare on Elm Street remake with Jackie Earle Haley, which slashed its way to a meager profit.

Iron Man 2, a worthy sequel to the original blockbuster, got the summer officially going with a box-office bang, nearly matching its predecessor's $318 million gross. Robin Hood gave team Russell Crow and Ridley Scott another flop; MacGruber joined a long line of Saturday Night Live sketches-turned-movie failures, Shrek Forever After promised to be the final installment in the series (based on ticket sales, audiences are hoping for the same thing); Sex and the City 2 worked hard to ensure there is no Sex and the City 3, and Prince of Persia: the Sands of Time is yet another reason why Disney is launching a fourth Pirates of the Caribbean film this summer.

June movies were mostly forgettable -- Killers, Marmaduke, The A-Team, Knight and Day, Jonah Hex, Grown Ups -- a few memorable -- Winter's Bone, Joan Rivers: a Piece of Work, Toy Story 3 -- and some that were neither, but made a lot of money just the same -- The Karate Kid and The Twilight Saga: Eclipse.

July marked the 234th birthday of our nation, and the death of M. Night Shyamalan's career with his monumentally awful The Last Airbender, most critics' pick (including me) for worst film of the year. The lovable sidekick minions in Despicable Me stole the show from Carell as a super villain-gone good, and made the computer-generated-animated film a big hit with kids and parents. Speaking of kids, The Kids Are All Right was all that and more with critics and even generated some Oscar buzz for its actors. Predators put some respectability back into the flailing franchise, though that didn't translate into a giant profit, and The Sorcerer's Apprentice and Salt both aimed at creating franchises, though it's doubtful there will be sequels to either. The comedy Dinner for Schmucks was a quick meal and disappointing at that.

August, as always, marked the transition from blockbusters to Oscar hopefuls. The Other Guys was a surprisingly funny Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg cop comedy (see Kevin Smith, it can be done). Eat, Pray, Love showed that women won't always support chick flicks, and Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World showed that geeks won't always support a video game movie based on a graphic novel series. They missed out. The Expendables gave Dolph Lundgren an appearance in something other than direct-to-DVD, and showed Sylvester Stallone is a shrewd businessman and filmmaker. Pirhana 3D knew its B-movie place and brought the blood and schlock home with style. Meanwhile, we're still waiting for daring documentary The Tillman Story to play in Toledo.

Sept. 1 gave us George Clooney in s-l-o-w character piece The American, former couple Drew Barrymore and Justin Long in the often funny Go the Distance, and the bloody violent drive-in farce with a not-so-covert political message, Machete. From there we had a pseudo-documentary with a twist that had audiences talking, Catfish; Ben Affleck back in Boston in The Town; Michael Douglas and Oliver Stone taking on corrupt CEOs again in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, and a documentary tackling the failed public education system in Waiting for Superman, which never generated the buzz and controversy one thought it would. Lost in the September movie mess was a terrific sci-fi drama about love, life, and humanity, Never Let Me Go, and the thriller Buried, which featured a marvelous turn by Ryan Reynolds about a man kidnapped and buried alive for a ransom, and a studio, Lionsgate, that didn't know how to market such a film. Look for Buried on DVD mid-January.

October delivered the relevant and brilliant The Social Network (my pick, along with many others, as film of the year) and the by-the-numbers feel-good horse story Secretariat. Conviction gave us two strong performances (Hilary Swank and Sam Rockwell), while Clint Eastwood pondered immortality in the flawed but worth-watching Hereafter. The success of Paranormal 2 begat a new annual Halloween series, now that Saw is finished, or so Lionsgate says. Then there was Jackass 3D, which set a record for an October opening with $50.4 million. It went on to gross nearly $170 million worldwide. And that is why there will be a Jackass 4.

November marked the beginning of the end for the Harry Potter franchise, with The Deathly Hallows: Part 1. The month was also about pairings, from Brad Pitt and Will Ferrell in the CG-animated Megamind and Robert Downey, Jr., and Zach Galifanakis in the comedy Due Date, to Denzel Washington and Chris Pine in the runaway train thriller Unstoppable and Christina Aguilerra and Cher in Burlesque. Crowe had another disappointment in the thriller The Next Three Days, and Disney stuck with the princess formula to great success with Tangled, a twist on the classic Rapunzel tale.

And that brings us to December.

The year in films is only days away from taking a final bow, but really, it's these last four weeks that matter most.

That's the way it is with December. As the holidays kick into overdrive, Hollywood puts on its serious face, as visions of Oscar gold dance in their heads. 2010 is no different with several Academy Award contenders, unlike last year when it became apparent by the end of the year it was a two-film race between Avatar and The Hurt Locker.

Most of this year's highlights are December films: The King's Speech, Black Swan, True Grit, Blue Valentine, and All Good Things. The latter two films offer superlative performances by Ryan Gossling, as an alcoholic husband-father desperate to save his crumbling marriage, and as an heir to a family fortune who gets away with murder, respectively.

Blue Valentine was slapped with the dreaded NC-17 rating for its depictions of passion -- though hardly graphic in nature -- but a rare appeal victory by the distributor, the Weinstein Company, got the rating changed to a deserved R. The terrific and ultimately joyous 127 Hours may've seen a few November theaters in New York and L.A., but the bulk of audiences are just now seeing the true story about hiker Aron Ralston, whose arm was trapped underneath a large rock. Toledoans will get their chance sometime next month.

Meanwhile, the collective audience yawn toward The Chronicles of Narnia: the Voyage of the Dawn Treader most likely doomed the seven-book series to three films and out, while Tron: Legacy's good-but-not-great opening proved there may or may not be another film in the 20-year-old-plus movie franchise. The first-time pairing of Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp wasn't as impressive as everyone hoped in The Tourist, and How Do You Know asked a question that no one cared much about, as in how do you know writer-director James L. Brooks is in a major slump?

And while the holiday season wrapped up on a high note with True Grit, Hollywood also doled out some unwanted presents in Yogi Bear and Gulliver's Travels, and then there was another Focker movie, Little Fockers, the franchise that keeps on giving, whether you want it or not.

Contact Kirk Baird at kbaird@theblade.com or 419-724-6734.



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