The Most Ambitious: The Tree of Life– The goal of Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life is no less than to funnel the creation of the universe through a child. That that child and his family closely resembles the director’s own makes this his most personal film to date as well. With some of the most stunning cinematography you’ll ever see in a movie, Malick captures something elemental in this movie. You may not have liked it, but you’ll never forget it.
The Most Laughs: Bridesmaids– With one of the best comedic ensembles in recent memory, writers Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumalo paired up with director Paul Feig and producer Judd Apatow to create this hilarious, raunchy comedy about the bond among women. Bridesmaids proves that an ensemble of females can spit vomit and shit just as well as men, which is something Hollywood needed to be force-fed.
The Biggest Cash-in: The Hangover Part II- As many have remarked, this follow-up to the hugely popular original is more of a half-sequel than a real one. It has the same plot, but is moved to Thailand. It’s more outrageous and less funny, which is to say it’s like almost every other comedy sequel.
The Most Sincere: Midnight in Paris- Woody Allen makes his best movie in years with this bizarre, funny and touching movie. It starts out like many Woody Allen films: Allen stand-in (Owen Wilson) struggles to cope with his art, his fiance and existence. (Spoiler!) Then it embarks into a wonderful fantasy where Gil (Wilson) meets famous writers, poets, painters and other artists who have lived and thrived in Paris during their careers. It’s another great film in an already-legendary career.
Breakout Star: Jessica Chastain– With memorable roles in The Tree of Life, The Help and The Debt, this until-now unknown actress blazed onto the movie scene like few do. Whether it’s a coincidence that all these films came out at the same time or if her career just caught fire, Chastain is an exceptional new talent with a bright career ahead of her.
The Biggest Disappointment: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides– Somehow the disappearance of Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom’s overwrought love story gave hope to the Pirates franchise. Add in Penelope Cruz and Ian McShane, and this movie had the potential to reboot a hurting franchise. Instead, mediocrity abounded as Depp returned to his most famous role to do something involving mermaids and the Fountain of Youth.
The Biggest Surprise: Rise of the Planet of the Apes–After a couple pretty awful trailers, this reboot of The Planet of the Apes franchise ended up delivering the best action sequence of the summer. Add to that some surprisingly thoughtful meditation on free will and the root causes of violence and a terrific motion-captured performance from Andy Serkis and you’ve got a movie revolution worth signing up for.
The Most Forgettable: Thor– In addition to Captain America, Marvel produced two average-not-awful entries in its super hero lore. Thor may have kicked off the summer movie season, but in the coming weeks people laughed at Bridesmaids and got swept up in Super 8. Movies at the beginning often get forgotten, especially when there’s nothing really worth remembering.
The Best Escapism: Super 8– Steven Spielberg helped finance this tribute to his earlier films from director J.J. Abrams. Ego aside, Abrams has crafted a wonderful homage. The first half in particular is nearly perfect, with a spectacular train crash, a low-budget zombie movie and a terrific young cast that strikes the perfect balance of humor and emotional sincerity.
King of the Garbage Heap: Transformers: Dark of the Moon- Nothing depicts the excess and emptiness of Hollywood like the latest from Michael Bay. Sure, big studios always have their share of successes in the big movie seasons, but this wasn’t one of them. The third and (hopefully) final installment throws explosions, yelling and misogyny at a rate so fast and punishing you won’t realize it until after. Bay uses the latest modern technology to say nothing worth hearing. If you watched it in IMAX, you may never hear anything again.