A lot of terrible things have been said about director Brett Ratner, most of them true, but give the man credit for one thing: He’s eager to please. And with Tower Heist (Universal), he pleases most by bringing back the old, funny, semi-edgy Eddie Murphy of 48 Hrs. and Trading Places, who’d been missing for two decades plus. Murphy’s combustible performance as a small-time crook who’s coaxed into a daring apartment heist is by far the best element of Tower Heist, which otherwise collapses during the harebrained criminal scheme that dominates the second half…

In a great year for movies, Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene (Fox) stood out as the strongest debut feature, a harrowing tale of a cult escapee (Elizabeth Olsen) who’s haunted by the past, yet incapable of adjusting to “normal” bourgeois life. Her identity problems are reflected both in the title and in a structure that drifts freely back and forth in time, detailing her experiences with an agrarian Catskills cult—led by John Hawkes, who projects a sinister charisma—and her difficulties living with her sister and brother-in-law in their seemingly idyllic lake house. The final shot enraged many, but it couldn’t have ended more brilliantly…

The Shrek spin-off/prequel Puss In Boots (DreamWorks) is up for a Best Animated Feature Oscar this year, which it strangely almost deserves, even though it’s a narratively empty series of pointless chases and meaningless confrontations. For all that, it’s still visually inventive and energetic. The camera tears around DreamWorks’ oft-explored fairy-tale world like a demented kitten, running up walls and diving into spaces with a verve the story entirely lacks…

2011 was a middling year for high-profile, prestige biopics, with The Iron Lady, My Week With Marilyn, and Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar (Warner) all bringing in so-so reviews and disappointing box office. J. Edgar did best in ticket sales, but it’s less creative than Iron Lady in its storytelling, and less dynamic than Marilyn in its surface-level portrayal of a public figure with a complicated reputation. Leonardo DiCaprio plays 50-year FBI veteran J. Edgar Hoover as a prim, repressed, barking martinet, but the film hits a few random highlights of his career without making a single cogent statement about him beyond “He had serious mommy issues”…

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Emilio Estevez’ self-produced-and-distributed road movie The Way (Arc), starring his father Martin Sheen, starts off predictable and drippy, as Sheen’s fuddy-duddy character loses his adult son, decides to honor his memory with a traditional pilgrimage across Spain, and starts meeting quirky foreigners with life lessons to convey. Then it gradually matures, turning those quirky foreigners into real characters and giving them space to make their own life discoveries. What looks programmatic becomes touchingly authentic at its own pace.