Year-End Roundup: What to See (and Skip) Before the Ball Drops


The latest calcified bore by Sofia Coppola is less pretentious than Marie Antoinette but every bit as inertly stupefying as Lost in Translation. She has a thing about lost souls wandering catatonically through cavernous hotels looking for their souls. This time it’s Stephen Dorff, a good actor who has devoted his entire career to choosing lousy movies. He plays a brain-dead, drugged-out, bleary-eyed movie star holed up at the funky Chateau Marmont above the Sunset Strip.

Life in the fast lane doesn’t look like much fun. Endless profile shots of his unshaved face in the window of his moving $45,000 Ferrari, of him chain-smoking and swigging beer in an interminable wardrobe of ugly T-shirts, make you wonder who his fans are.

Maybe this is the creepy New Hollywood, but director Coppola doesn’t have a clue how to film it in a way that holds attention. Paced at the speed of a praying mantis sniffing a Wheat Thin, it begins with Mr. Dorff driving his car around in circles five times for no reason before it comes to a halt. After the credits, he falls down a flight of stairs and lies in bed with a broken arm while a pair of trashy blondes do a pole dance dressed like hotel maids. He runs into Benicio Del Toro in the elevator. He falls asleep in the middle of oral sex. And you still want to be in pictures?

Enter his 11-year-old daughter, Cleo (Elle Fanning, sister of Dakota), whose neurotic mother leaves town indefinitely and drops her off in his custody. A child with two irresponsible parents, Cleo is 11 going on 55. Mr. Dorff takes her to Italy for the weekend, and there’s a long, tedious and utterly loopy scene where they lie in bed eating gelato and watching an episode of Friends in Italian. Everywhere they go, she tries to rehabilitate her sorry dad, but eventually he dumps her at camp and leaves her there. He goes back to his bevy of trashy, meaningless one-night stands, but this time he feels bad about it. Maybe fatherhood beats winning an Oscar. We’ll never know, and I, for one, couldn’t care less. Ms. Coppola, who has learned nothing from father Francis, doesn’t have the slightest concern about boring her audience to death. Deluded critics praise her style of moment-to-moment realism with a stripped-bare minimum of action, plot, camera movement and character development. Trouble is, the moments she chooses to show are not the moments worth watching. Somewhere should be called Nowhere, because that’s where it starts, that’s where it’s heading and that’s where it lands. Bring No-Doz. (Opens Dec. 22)



If there’s one thing I don’t need in my Christmas stocking this year, it’s a sorry, lumbering and unasked-for remake of the 1969 sagebrush saga True Grit. Stick it into the one reserved for thorns and thistles. The original western won John Wayne a puzzling and undeserved Oscar for finally falling off his horse. Don’t expect the same miracle for Jeff Bridges. In the numbing hands of pretentious filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen, history does not repeat itself in any way whatsoever.

It’s still based on the Charles Portis novel about a 14-year-old girl named Mattie Ross (memorably played 40 years ago by Kim Darby) who recruits a one-eyed spittoon relic and grizzly old drunken has-been bounty hunter named Rooster Cogburn (Mr. Bridges) and a skanky Texas Ranger (a hopelessly miscast Matt Damon) to track down and bring to justice a no-good outlaw drifter named Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), the varmint who murdered her father. Back in the day, veteran director Henry Hathaway knew how to whittle down a long-winded novel and prune away the chips for maximum entertainment value. Despite an occasional surprise like Fargo and No Country for Old Men, the Coen brothers have never met a comma, period or semicolon they didn’t like. Their movies ramble through open space like rail fences on a cattle ranch. Now we get all the detritus from the novel-endless shootouts in log cabins, blood splattering across saddles, fingers chopped off, birds pecking out the eyeballs of a man in a noose, horses beaten until they drop dead, Mattie losing her arm after falling into a den of rattlesnakes-for no reason except to make the audience retch. Mere distractions, folks, to divert attention from the fact that nothing is going on elsewhere. Oh, well. At least, for reasons you’ll learn if you mosey into this shoot-’em-up without warning, there won’t be a retread of the sequel, Rooster Cogburn, which starred Duke Wayne and Katharine Hepburn. 

Newcomer Hailee Steinfeld is a passable Mattie, but she’s no Kim Darby. The really appalling thing here is Jeff Bridges. Last year, he won an Oscar. This year, he gives the worst performance of 2010, grunting and growling with a throat full of gravel that renders any rational assessment of the screenplay pointless. (Maybe the Coens planned it that way. What I did hear between burps, flatulence and snoring is not worth repeating.) Incoherent mumbling has become his trademark, substituting bloated self-indulgence for what used to be acting. Mr. Bridges does everything to out-wobble, out-drawl, out-screech and outdo John Wayne, hoping his meandering tirade will make everyone forget the original and forgo comparisons. The result is just the opposite: This violent, boring and unnecessary re-shoeing of an old mare that ain’t what she used to be only reminds you of how much you forgot you cared about John Wayne in the first place. (Opens Dec. 22) 



Movie intimacy reaches groundbreaking new heights in this shocking story of a young marriage on the rocks, thanks to the charisma and range of two of the screen’s most appealing new stars. Blue Valentine juxtaposes two narratives, set in the present and past, about love found and lost with uncompromising honesty. In two no-frills performances, Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams play a blue-collar couple from Brooklyn who learn the meaning of unconditional love and then crash to the depths of despairing bitterness.

     Scruffy, overweight and balding, the appealing Mr. Gosling is at first unrecognizable. Then, as the film moves backwards, we see him, a house painter, meet her, a nurse, while visiting patients in a retirement home. He saves her from an abortion before he fully understands the responsibility of marriage and parenthood. She fails to meet her potential as a career girl. He drinks on the job. In a last effort to rekindle their early passion, they book a room in a sordid motel, but the damage is done. Naked in the shower and trying out pornographic sex positions, they finally collapse in confusion and cruelty. The dedicated performers throw themselves into the intense love scenes with such embarrassing intimacy that you feel guilty for watching. The naturalistic acting gives the movie an improvisational quality, like an invasion of privacy. And director Derek Cianfrance juggles multiple chronologies to shed light on two sides of a love story that begins with tenderness and pain, then ends in rage and more pain. This is not a feel-good movie, but I took it away with me, racked by feelings of emotional intensity that still linger. Blue Valentine is about real life, warts and all, over narrative conventions like action and plot mechanics. It is brutal, compassionate, beautiful in its ugliness and one of the bravest films of the year. (Opens Dec. 31)