There was something in the air in Park City, Utah, as the 2011 Sundance Film Festival picked up steam — and, thankfully, it wasn’t several feet worth of falling snow. In 2010, roads and sidewalks were snarled with one storm after another. This year, the sun shone brightly for all but a few brief, furious flurries. The relative meteorological peace seemed to mirror what evolved as a generally positive sensibility.
Here's why I'm prepared to call the Coen brothers the greatest living American filmmakers: After 25 years, they not only continue to make great movies but they also keep finding new ways to surprise me. In taking on the second adaptation of Charles Portis' novel 'True Grit,' they've subtly crafted what might be their most deeply felt movie yet. Grade: A.
As a story about a scrappy, working-class nobody who gets an unexpected shot at the title, David O. Russell's 'The Fighter' was bound to earn comparisons to 'Rocky.' And the comparisons are justified — not just because of its plot but also because of its concern for quirky characters and a sense of place. Grade: B-plus.
Cinematically speaking, director Tony Scott just doesn't know when to shut up. In this fact-based action drama, he has got an inherently propulsive premise to work with. So what do Scott and screenwriter Mark Bomback do with that story? They throw some utterly pointless background domestic drama at our main characters, played by Denzel Washington and Chris Pine. Grade: C-.
Critics gripe about formulas, but give credit where credit is due: If ever there were a formula that has proven its durability, it's the odd-couple road comedy. Director Todd Phillips brings us the story of Type-A architect Peter (Robert Downey Jr.) and spacey, would-be actor Ethan (Zach Galifianakis) forced by improbable circumstances to share a car ride from Atlanta to Los Angeles in time for the scheduled C-section birth of Peter's first child. Grade: B.
Writer Peter Morgan follows the example of critical darlings like 'Crash' and 'Babel' by combining the mostly-parallel narratives of a San Francisco psychic (Matt Damon) trying to lead a normal life, a French TV journalist (Cécile de France) dealing with a near-death experience and a London schoolboy grieving the death of his twin brother. But Morgan doesn't have anything interesting to say about either grief or the way people confront the question of what happens after death. Grade: C.
Usually when people talk about a movie feeling "European," it isn't exactly a compliment. It's shorthand for languid pacing, character-based drama, maybe a few casually naked boobs and a general lack of Hollywood conventionality. 'The American' feels very much like the product of people who want to make a "European"-style movie, except that they forgot to pay attention to the last word in that equation. Grade: C.
When 'The Blair Witch Project' became an phenomenon more than a decade ago, one of the most startling developments was how few attempts there were to rip it off. It took a long time for copycats to emerge: the Spanish thriller '[REC],' remade in America as 'Quarantine'; 'Cloverfield'; 'The Fourth Kind'; and last year's 'Paranormal Activity.' It's a brilliant formula, but 'The Last Exorcism' shows what happens when you take the basic building blocks but forget to deliver anything, you know, scary. Grade: C.
In Edgar Wright's adaptation of the cult favorite Scott Pilgrim graphic novel series, the visuals pop with jagged panel-break split-screens and straight-outta-Batman illustrations. On the surface, 'Scott Pilgrim vs. the World' seems like a meticulously faithful adaptation — the operative phrase there being "on the surface." Grade: B.
'Inception' finds writer/director Christopher Nolan in familiar territory as his previous reality-bending works ('Memento,' 'The Prestige,' 'The Dark Knight'), and the result is something almost as thrilling to contemplate as it is to watch. Even if you now know a little about what 'Inception' is about, you don’t even know the half of it. Grade: A.