A Serious Man: After the Coens won their Oscar adapting No Country for Old Men, it sounded like their career might take the now-inevitable turn toward more movies made from other people's material. Granted, these announcements yielded some excellent matches (please let them actually go through with The Yiddish Policemen's Union!), but a part of me dies a little every time a delightfully original filmmaker, especially with a strong writing voice, forgoes self-created material, and it's happening more every year. Almost as if to reassure me, though, the Coens followed No Country with two original screenplays: last year's nutty all-star Burn After Reading, and this year's star-free A Serious Man, which has the best trailer of the year and which I am anticipating like nobody's business. I'm totally making it my birthday party movie, just like Eric did with Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves back in '91. Heady times.
Zombieland: In an apocalyptic bookend to Jesse Eisenberg's charming performance in this year's charming Adventureland, Eisenberg does his lil' Woody Allen schtick on a zombie-heavy road trip with Woody Harrelson and Superbad fox Emma Stone. Abigail Breslin is there, too, but let's not dwell on that, because right now lots of people are super excited to see this movie. As such, this seems pretty commercial, but every time I think that about a horror movie that turns out to be good and/or funny, it also bombs pretty hard at the ol' box office.
Whip It: Drew Barrymore's directorial debut about Ellen Page entering the wild world of roller derby garnered some appreciative Toronto Film Festival notices; it's also a mainstream movie written, directed by, and starring a bunch of ladies, yet is not remotely about brides declaring some sort of war on each other. The only drawback: it has Marcia Gay Harden, apparently doing her Marcia Gay Harden thing, playing a stock part with cartoony, twitchy uptightness. Lots of people love her and maybe she's better in Pollock, the movie I skipped that won her an Oscar, but I've hardly ever seen a Harden performance that didn't feature the most obvious take on the character with lots of tics dialed up. Even in a movie like The Mist, where you're supposed to hate her character, I wind up hating her performance more, undermining its effects in the movie I'm supposed to be watching. But if I can ignore Imelda Staunton enough to dig Taking Woodstock, surely Harden doesn't have to spoil Whip It for me.
The Invention of Lying: Just grit your teeth and don't think about how the perfectly lovely title This Side of the Truth was jettisoned for the on-the-nose's-nose The Invention of Lying. I guess someone thought better of calling it Only This Guy Can Tell the Truth or Get a Load of This. Ricky Gervais co-wrote, co-directed, and stars in this fable-ish comedy about a world without lying. Even if you find Gervais overrated (someone must, right?), you can get a load of the comedy buddies who respect him enough to make appearances here: Jonah Hill, Tina Fey, Louis CK, Martin Starr, John Hodgman, Jason Bateman, and Christopher Guest are all somewhere between supporting and cameos here. It kinda makes you wonder why non-comedian Jennifer Garner is the female lead, but then again, she was pretty good when she hosted SNL a bunch of years ago. Anyway, if Gervais can help turn a potentially piffly rom-com like Ghost Town into something worth watching, his own project ought to join Groundhog Day in the realm of speculative philosophy comedy. It probably won't, mind, but it ought to.
Toy Story/Toy Story 2: Fun fact: Toy Story 2 has long been one of my go-to answers to "what's your favorite movie?" Toy Story is all well and good, first computer-animated movie, first Pixar, instant classic, blah blah blah, but Toy Story 2 is an insanely great movie. Later Pixar releases would create more immersive worlds, or tell stories with more logistical challenges, but on a gag-by-gag, piece-by-piece, moment-by-moment level, Toy Story 2 features some of their most delightful, most inventive, just plain best writing. Allow me some decade-old spoilers by way of example: one of the movie's most satisfying (and potentially gimmicky) twists is the introduction of a second Buzz Lightyear, Space Ranger, as unaware of his toy status as the "original" Buzz was in the first movie. And lo, the second Buzz leads to the introduction of a living Emperor Zurg, the ranger's nemesis in videogames and other ancillaries; and of course, Zurg and Second Buzz must engage in deadly-serious combat with each other while the more self-aware toys try to rescue their friends. During their final confrontation, with a perfectly implied but never explained backstory, Second Buzz accuses Zurg: "you killed my father!" to which Zurg must, naturally, reply: "No, Buzz; I am your father!" followed by an anguished "noooooo!" from Second Buzz. Fine, a Star Wars reference, very funny on its own. Here's the kicker: when Zurg is dispatched down an elevator shaft, Second Buzz pops into the frame, looking mournfully down the shaft and murmuring, hand outstretched, for his "daddy." Here's the double-kicker: a few minutes later, when the rest of the toys reach the ground floor, Zurg and Second Buzz have—again, with perfectly omitted/implied—formed a father-son bond, playing catch in the yard. This might sound simple on paper, but put on screen, whipping by while the movie still deals with more emotional and/or thrilling story turns, it's a goddamned marvel of silly joke-writing. That's how you can tell Pixar are the real deal: they even made the business of sequelizing into an art. This 3-D re-release, a warm-up for the all-new Toy Story 3 (probably the 2010 summer movie I am most honestly anticipating), seems unnecessary only because there is no conceivable way to improve Toy Story 2.