The Sound of Music (Robert Wise, 1965)

How do you solve a problem like Maria?

The hills are alive with the sound of tradition. The Sound of Music (a rather enigmatic title by any standard) is not so much a lively musical as it is a piece of western culture. It comes by annually, near the turn of the year, to liven up the heart and vocal range of many a fan. It strikes, if you’ll pardon the pun, a chord.

Shrek The Third (Chris Miller, Raman Hui, 2007)

Keeping up appearances with a filthy ogre

The motor that powers the Shrek movies is subversion. The first film was a surprise as it put everything about fairytales on its head: the brutish ogre was the hero, his sidekick an annoying donkey and in the end even the princess turned out to be a monster. The follow-up proved equally entertaining, providing a magical kingdom built on the ideals of Hollywood and run by an industrious, corrupt fairy. At this point Shrek himself has become the norm. He is a hero just like any other. Can Shrek The Third really provide the same subversive qualities as the others, or is it just a thin veneer underneath which runs a standard fantasy comedy?

The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigalow, 2008)

Sergeant James can’t stop disarming bombs

No one is sane in this portrait of soldiers in the second Gulf War. No one unscarred. But each of the three bomb squad members carries the horror in their own way. Their job is to locate and dismantle explosives in the streets of Iraq. Every day in their lives brings new painful trauma, near-death experiences and seeing innocent people blow up.

Battleship (Peter Berg, 2012)

Please get a physics teacher involved next time

Battleship has a Flying Snowman right at the beginning. The Flying Snowman is a concept pioneered by author John Scalzi that symbolizes the breaking point of a fictional universe. When his wife once read a bedtime tale to their young daughter about a snowman coming to life, the fact that it could fly took her out of the story. Scalzi was surprised: surely it was equally curious when the snowman ate hot soup earlier?

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Gary Trousdale, Kirk Wise, 1996)

Disney’s most troubling animated film to date (spoiler notice)

I paid The Hunchback of Notre Dame little heed when it came out in 1996. At the time I was getting a little too old for Disney sing-alongs, or rather I was reaching that childish period, C.S. Lewis so nicely put, where you’re concerned with things being childish. Eventually, you grow out of that and you’re free to enjoy everything.

Jesus Christ Superstar (Norman Jewison, 1973)

The end is just a little harder, when brought about by friends

I hesitate to write this review. Jesus Christ Superstar has for a long time been my favorite movie. How do I explain this? Where to start? Let me begin by saying this: if you think it’s strange for a pronounced atheist like myself to have this film at number one, read on.

20th Century Boys (Yukihiko Tsutsumi, 2008-2009)

The end of the world as thought up by children

It can be equal parts exciting and confusing when films escape genre definitions. Take the Japanese 20th Century Boys trilogy, based on the successful manga series. What is it? A cult thriller? Dystopian science fiction? Drama about trauma’s incurred in youth? It’s all of these things at the same time, mixed into an experience that is as disjointed as it is triumphant. It’s a trick the Japanese have mastered almost exclusively.

Quiz (Dick Maas, 2012)

Let’s meet our contestants

Director Dick Maas deals in schlock. Over the decades he has painted a consistently satirical version of the Netherlands to serve as backdrop for his films. Whether it’s horror (Amsterdamned, Sint, De Lift) or farcical comedy (the Flodder series, Moordwijven), his oeuvre oozes deliberate pulp. Maas steps outside his comfort zone in Quiz, a film that he himself confesses is unusual in that it’s basically just two men talking to each other in a restaurant. For once, no gross zombies, no gratuitous nudity included.

Skyfall (Sam Mendes, 2012)

Bond comes full circle (spoiler notice)

“We can’t keep working in the shadows,” says MI6 chairman Gareth Mallory to M, “there are no more shadows.” But he’s proved wrong by her, by circumstance, by reality. Now more than ever the world needs secret agents like Bond. A man unafraid to pull the trigger on enemies without allegiance, without a flag. Skyfall is an affidavit to that effect, and so much more.

The Golden Compass (Chris Weitz, 2007)

 Shakespearean polar bears would raise up any movie

The world of The Golden Compass cowers under the yoke of an authoritarian rule of religious zealots called the Magisterium. Scientists are poisoned, children kidnapped for experimentation and free thinking hindered at every step of the way. Real world religious [christian] groups have rallied against the series of books this film is based on, claiming it made them look bad. In the Netherlands we have a saying for that: ‘Wie de schoen past, trekke hem aan.’ Whom the cap fits, let him wear it.

Under Suspicion (Stephen Hopkins, 2000)

Hackman has guilt written all over him (spoiler notice)

I once spent a holiday in Barcelona trying to remember Gene Hackman’s name. I could picture his face clearly, having seen it often in movies, but the words eluded me. After days of wrenching my mind, I finally recalled. The rush of endorphins ensured his name is forever etched in my brain.

Chocolat (Lasse Hallström, 2000)

 Bonbons bring catharsis to townswomen

No matter how well-equipped your home cinema, how big your television or how loud your speakers; no place offers a better experience for watching movies than the cinema. It’s not just the size of the screen that matters, it’s the ambience. It’s the dark auditorium, full of (hopefully) quiet people sharing a viewing. It’s the décor of broad staircases, red velvet curtains, rows of pop-down seats, the low-key floor lighting, the creamy scent of popcorn. Your choice of location can mean everything to a film.

The Ides of March (George Clooney, 2011)

For your future’s sake, I’m the candidate (spoiler notice)

The Ides of March shows the power of constraint.

Ryan Gosling stars as an up-and-coming spin doctor working for a Democratic US presidential candidate. In this political drama the smallest misstep can cost one their head and yes, the film’s title proves portentous. Just as Julius Caesar was warned to be wary of the ides of March, so every character in this tale of American politics has multiple daggers aimed at their back – often in the hands of those closest to them.

Night at the Museum (Shawn Levy, 2006)

A treatise on the natural world

Is anyone else tired of that monkey? You know the one, the cute capuchin monkey that all too often features in (children’s) movies to engage in antics such as stealing things, peeing on things, acting contrary and generally being a pain in the butt. For my part, whenever The Monkey pops  up, I start to slap my face, and the face-slapping doesn’t stop until the credits.

Superman Returns (Bryan Singer, 2006)

Perhaps he should’ve stayed in space

Dylan Moran once joked about how silly it was that people were in awe of Arnold Schwarzenegger because he was good at lifting heavy things. The same can be said of Superman – whose entire repertoire here consists of lifting things both heavy and heavier. Shuttles, airplanes, ships, globes, entire continents. In Superman Returns, lifting heavy things is the panacea for all the world’s problems. Is it any wonder it has a hard time holding interest?

I Love You Phillip Morris (Glenn Ficarra, John Requa, 2009)

How far can you take a gay joke?

In a defining moment early in this film we see Jim Carrey’s character Steven Russell pounding into someone from behind with fearful intensity. Surprise: it’s not his wife, but a burly man with a moustache shouting: “Do it! Come in my ass!” Steven howls with joy as he grants the request.

The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans (Werner Herzog, 2009)

In which Nicolas Cage has a few spats with sanity (spoiler notice)

At the end of The Bad Lieutenant, Werner Herzog eats his cake and has it.

The Dark Knight Rises (Christopher Nolan, 2012)

Nolan rises to the occasion and goes for thirds (spoiler notice)

In 2008 I called it: there was no way they’d be able to top The Dark Knight and they should leave it alone. It was a perfect storm of acting talent, writing, theme, characters and timing, and after Heath Ledger’s Joker, the only way was down. My predictions proved spot on. But The Dark Knight Rises does not merely fail to live up to its predecessor: it disappoints with a vengeance.

Rien à Déclarer (‘Nothing to Declare’, Dany Boon, 2010)

Do Belgians dream of waffle-shaped sheep?

It’s easy to forget that only twenty years ago, Europe’s borders were guarded. Crossing from one country to the other was an exciting affair where passports were handed over and suspicious eyes set upon your vehicle. Border guards seem an anachronism nowadays.

The Last Airbender (M. Night Shyamalan, 2010)

Choreography trumps, well, everything else, apparently

Not having seen the original Avatar animated series, which I hear is quite the sensation, I had no point of reference going into M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender.

Voyna i Mir (‘War and Peace’, Sergei Bondarchuk, 1965-67)

War: what is it good for?

Not since Akira Kurosawa’s Kagemusha did I witness a scene of war so utterly filled with despair and destruction. This production, that brims with Soviet willpower to show Hollywood what-for, is for once genuinely deserving of the moniker ‘epic’.