Monday, February 8, 2016

The Big Short


The Big Short had a lot of stuff working against it as I entered the theater. I'd not been excited by the trailers. It was directed by Adam McKay, whose previous films were all Will Ferrell vehicles, and as much as I like those movies he was obviously going to be out of his depth when trying to tackle a drama about the recent housing and world financial crisis. McKay had assembled a terrific cast: Steve Carell, Christian Bale, Brad Pitt, Ryan Gosling, I even saw the ageless Marisa Tomei in the trailer. Yet I wasn't excited to see the movie. But when it came out, it inexplicably got really good reviews and was nominated for a handful of Oscars, including big ones like Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor, Best Director, and even Best Picture. That's not an immediate indication of quality, but it at least makes me want to check out a movie if it gets that kind of awards love. I was blown away by what I saw. This movie is intelligent, irreverent, entertaining as hell, righteously angry, and ultimately tragic and thoroughly disgusted in our system.

A bestseller by Michael Lewis (also the author of bestsellers Moneyball and The Blind Side), The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine has been adapted for the screen by Charles Randolph and re-written by McKay (credited as co-writers) and it's a very tricky adaptation. The movie shares plenty of similarities with Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street, but where that movie cared little for the details of how common people got screwed over by Wall Street and instead focused on the monstrous (and often hilariously entertaining) behavior of its drug addled main characters, McKay wants to explain to you as best he can just exactly what happened and how. This may make it sounded dry and boring, but it isn't at all, it's quietly exhilarating. McKay wants us to understand the terms the banks and investors use, terms we think we don't understand simply because the system is designed to keep us thinking the banks are the only ones who understand what all that shit means. But as the crisis, and this movie, point out: the banks and investors often didn't really understand what the fuck any of it meant either. They just wanted you to sign on the dotted line and get out of their office. You're just a number in their own bank account.

There's really no point in trying to recap the plot, as the explanations become labyrinthine quickly. But the movie follows a handful of guys betting against the housing market when that seemed an insane investment. The housing market has always been one of the most stable in America, and these guys are investing millions of dollars betting that it will fail. This is all based on the work of Dr. Michael Burry (Bale), who simply sees an investment opportunity because he's crunched the numbers no one else has bothered to even really look at. Then guys like Jared Vennett (Gosling), Mark Baum (Carell), Ben Rickert (Pitt) and others are pulled into the crazy idea of making upwards of 200 to 1 returns on their investments.

Eventually, as we know, the market did collapse. It takes a while though, as McKay furiously shows us that Wall Street was propped up by the American system. It's almost too depressing to even break down how these banks lied to us, cheated us out of untold billions of dollars (or more), took people's homes, and yet the government did nothing but give them more money. Not even a fucking slap on the wrist. Not the breaking down of the banks, not letting them fail in the real capitalist free market way they should've failed, not taken over by the government, or even better regulated by the government. Just a disgusting hemorrhaging of money to save these people that wasted money over and over again.
Again, this is a tricky subject for a movie to tackle, and even trickier to do it well. There's humor here, but also anger and a ton of specialized terminology designed to keep people stupid (or at least feeling that way). McKay deserves a lot of credit for managing this large amount of information as well as it could've been managed. It's a dense movie, but he teaches us what some things mean, gives us metaphors for understanding other things better, and never insults our intelligence. Also, as a narrative storyteller, he never gets bogged down in too much talking, always keeps us going going going, in the best way possible. The movie is very talky, but it's made so engaging in the writing and acting that we welcome the dialog.

McKay doesn't let us off either. The movie is set up so that the big banks and Wall Street become the villains, so that we're almost glad when they start to fail. We have monsters to root against, and we and the heroes will benefit from the monster's death. McKay gives one of the key moral speeches of the movie to Brad Pitt's Ben Rickert. Ben helps two young investors, Charlie and Jamie (terrifically played by John Magaro and Finn Whitrock), make deals that will make them millionaires when the banks fail, the two kids start celebrating (and we celebrate with them). Ben unleashes his revulsion on the boys, pointing out that they're celebrating what is ultimately people losing their homes and lives, telling them about how much higher the death rates become during economic crisis times. He points out that they're cheering for the demise of the lives of others, simply because it will make them rich. Afterwards, Charlie and Jamie, admirably, take it upon themselves to try and use the media to then warn the public about what is going to happen, only to get stonewalled by the same system that allowed the banks to do what they did in the first place.

The actors really help elevate this great movie. Christian Bale is the one up for an Oscar, and he's quite good in the role of the one eyed, Asperger's having Dr. Burry. But it's also the showiest, tic-iest role of the bunch. To me the kicker is Steve Carell. He's outspoken, angry, glad the banks are going to fail after years of lying to everyone and happy to make a profit off of their demise. But he also has years of pain inside of him, and he has a good heart. Carell holds the tragedy of the situation for us in the audience. There's a scene at the end, where he's talking to his lead analyst Vinnie (the also tremendous Jeremy Strong) that brought tears to my eyes with the disgust in the system that Carell displays wordlessly on his face and in his voice. This is the face and image I remember most days later. It's a powerful and important movie, thankfully, also very entertaining. But don't be surprised if you come out much angrier and maybe a little nauseous at what you now know.

Top 50 movies: 21-25

21. The Apartment
Year: 1960
Country: USA
Language: English
Director: Billy Wilder

One of the loneliest movies I've ever seen, The Apartment is often labeled a comedy. It is funny, I suppose, but not a laugh riot. Jack Lemmon gives his best performance in the role of corporate climber CC Baxter who focuses on his career to distract him from how alone he is. Fred MacMurray is hateable but completely real as the empty boss who takes up with whatever pretty young thing will have him to keep him away from the unhappy marriage he's been trapped in for years. And Shirley McLaine is wonderful as the depressed elevator operator who is currently hooking up with MacMurray while being pined for by Lemmon. This portrait of these 3 isolated people is surprisingly effective, I think because it looks at loneliness in different ways, because these people aren't lonely in the same way or for the same reasons. Add onto that that Billy Wilder was a tremendous and entertaining filmmaker and so this movie is as well, and you have one of the best movies I've ever seen, and one that really blew me away when I saw it. It felt like the kind of movie people complain that Hollywood never makes or that doesn't win awards or that doesn't connect with audiences. This movie did all of those things and easily deserves its place in the popular canon of films.




22. Aguirre, the Wrath of God
Year: 1973
Country: Germany
Language: German (though shot in English for financial/contractual reasons, Herzog considers the German language version truer, and I agree)
Director: Werner Herzog

Werner Herzog's first movie with the towering talent and even larger ego and just plain insanity that was Klaus Kinski, Aguirre was an obvious influence on Coppola's later Apocalypse Now. Poetic, horrific, hallucinatory, and nightmarish in its descent into madness alongside its title character, Kinski's Aguirre. Like all Herzog movies, the images it contains are wondrous and occasionally overwhelming in their impact. The opening shot of thousands of people walking down one hill only to be walking up another (where the camera is) while on a steep hill with gorgeous (yet ominous) fog collecting to the side of the screen. The final moments of Aguirre, alone and surrounded by chattering monkeys while he mutters to himself of his greatness. These by themselves would make for a tremendous movie, but when contrasted against each other, and separated by many other brilliant scenes (including one darkly comical moment when a man is beheaded and his head, laying in the dirt, finishes its sentence anyway) make this the master filmmaker's highest achievement, one of the great movies ever made.




23. Singin' in the Rain
Year: 1955
Country: USA
Language: English
Director: Stanley Donnen, Gene Kelly

I don't love musicals. I grew up watching them with my mom, who loved them, but I generally just thought "meh." But when it comes to Singin' in the Rain, what's not to love? Gene Kelly is as charming as he can be, Donald O'Connor is like a walking cartoon, Debbie Reynolds is as plucky as anyone has ever been, Jean Hagen is hilarious and hissable, the script is light hearted and fun, it's gorgeously made, and the songs are pretty good too. As usual, the only negative was the big dance number Kelly threw in at the end of the movie, killing the narrative momentum and unnecessarily padding the runtime. Still, when Debbie Reynolds tries running away and Gene Kelly shouts to the audience "stop that girl, that girl running up the aisle. Stop her! That's the girl whose voice you heard and loved tonight. She's the real star of the picture. Kathy Selden!" the way it's staged and filmed is simply as perfect a moment in movie history as has ever existed.




24. Monty Python and the Holy Grail
Year: 1973
Country: England
Language: English
Director: Terry Jones, Terry Gilliam

I just wrote about this one in the Top Comedy films list, so I won't bother writing much more. I will just say that it's one of my most viewed movies and yet it still makes me laugh every time.




25. Rio Bravo
Year: 1959
Country: USA
Language: English
Director: Howard Hawks

Despite its nearly 2 1/2 hour runtime, Rio Bravo just flies by when I'm watching it. Howard Hawks famously said the secret to a great movie was "3 good scenes and no bad scenes." That's exactly what he gave us over and over again, but Rio Bravo is his masterpiece. John Wayne's best performance is still in The Searchers, but this is his best movie too. But to me, the standout of this movie is Dean Martin. Martin, as the recovering drunk deputy Dude, gives a performance of pain, danger, humor, warmth, and intelligence. He should've had an Oscar for it. Wayne is as good as he always was, and this is one of the few times he had really good writing to work with. Of course, at its core it's a "John Wayne movie" and he carries it like few other stars in Hollywood history could've. Angie Dickinson, Walter Brennan, and even Ricky Nelson give good supporting work. Even the scenes of Nelson and Martin singing, during the "calm before the storm" section, don't feel shoehorned in. These characters would need to occupy themselves somehow, and this seems a perfectly fine way to pass the times. Hawks liked the movie and Leigh Brackett's script so much he loosely remade it twice, in his last two movies El Dorado and Rio Lobo. Reportedly, when Hawks asked Wayne if he wanted him to send over the script of Rio Lobo for approval, Wayne responded "Why? We've already made the movie twice." But, obviously, Rio Bravo is the crown jewel.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Top 10 Favorite Comedy Films

So here's my top comedies list! Don't forget to check out my list partner Clint's top comedies over at Guy with a Movie Blog


1. Monty Python and the Holy Grail

My funniest movie ever made is the same as a lot of people's. I first saw it in high school when my dad got the movie on VHS for Christmas and wanted to share it with me and my brother. We proceeded to laugh hysterically for the next 91 minutes so hard that I missed half the jokes and (gleefully) watched the movie again immediately after and probably twice a day for the next few weeks. I even wrote a two page poem in English class in iambic pentameter titled "The Ballad of Python" which scored me a near perfect grade from the toughest teacher in school. There's no point rehashing any of the bits here, nearly the whole movie has entered into the pop culture consciousness. I'll just say that my favorite bit changes each time I watch the movie. Much like the next movie on the list...


2. This is Spinal Tap

Unlike Holy Grail, Spinal Tap didn't hit me right away. I liked it well enough, but it didn't make much of an impression. I saw it again not too long after and really connected to the real life and occasionally subtle ridiculousness of it. The interplay between the band members, the zucchini in the pants, Stonehenge, and the DVD commentary helped me appreciate it even more. The commentary is done by Harry Shearer, Michael McKean, and Christopher Guest in character as Spinal Tap, commentating as though they were watching the "real documentary" that was made of them. This kind of meta approach to it brought my love for it to the fore and it's stayed there ever since. Again, I can't pick a favorite part or bit because it changes each time, but "these amps go to 11" and "it's like, how much more black could this be? And the answer is none. None more black" have gotten me every time.


3. Coming to America

One of the first comedies I was obsessed with, Eddie Murphy's best overall movie is also his funniest. While many of us remember and revere his (and Arsenio Hall and Clint Smith's) work as the barbershop characters, which is amazing, the last time I watched it I was really taken in by Murphy's work as Akeem, the prince. The chemistry he shares with Arsenio's Semmi is what really drives the movie. Akeem's naivete, his stiffness, and his heart is what rounds the character out, but he's also very subtly funny. The movie also, of course, does highlight Murphy's ability to play different characters, whether it's Akeem, Randy Watson ("give it up for my band, Sexual Chocolate!"), or Clarence and Saul the old Jewish man in the barbershop, Murphy is as brilliant as any comedian has ever been at inhabiting the different people and getting us to laugh.


4. Annie Hall

Woody Allen's masterpiece, I recently wrote about it when I placed it as my all-time #41 movie. Though many prefer the "earlier, funnier movies" from Allen, I don't. Though there are definitely some gem bits in them, Allen's pre-Annie Hall work is obviously that of a gag writer. With Annie Hall, Allen for the first time created real characters and let the humor come from behavior as well as some crazy one liners and whatnot. It was his first mature comedy, and in my mind still his best.


5. The Big Lebowski

Though I could've easily also chosen the Coen Brothers' great Raising Arizona, I decided to go with Lebowski because I've probably watched it as much as the rest of the Coen's movies combined. Jeff Bridges, Steve Buscemi, and especially John Goodman keep me coming back to this bowling noir movie. Not quite a parody of the old detective noir genre, but more a twisted modern take on it, the movie works even if it doesn't make you laugh. But The Dude, Walter, and Donnie always have me cracking up, and then there's John Turturro's Jesus, Peter Stormare and the nihilists, Philip Seymour Hoffman's awkward Brandt, and of course Sam Elliot's The Stranger narrating the whole thing and occasionally losing his way.


6. Office Space

Although it loses its steam in the last third of the movie, Office Space is a pretty perfect comedy for a good hour of its runtime. Created by Beavis and Butthead's Mike Judge, and failing at the box office upon release, it quickly built up word of mouth and is now one of the most beloved and acclaimed comedies of recent times. The mundanity on display, alongside the ridiculous, has an almost Seinfeld-ian quality to it that help to make it both universal and completely absurd. Of course, in the best ways possible. Maybe even more than Lebowski, Office Space has entered so many new bits to the pop culture comedic landscape it's mind boggling.


7. Superbad

Other than the McLovin storyline, for most of the runtime I think this is the most accurate to life high school movie I've ever seen. The main characters are juvenile, awkward, sex constantly on the brain, girl obsessed but without any communication tools to effectively talk with said girls being obsessed about, and many more painfully accurate traits. Then the ridiculous McLovin storyline is there and might've sank a lesser movie, but instead it helps lift this movie up. The actors are all game and doing great work, you can feel the friendship bonds between Seth and Evan, and McLovin's adventure with the worst cops in the world is hysterical in all its insanity and its break from reality. And the girls (Emma Stone and Martha McIsaacs) are funny, charming, and beautiful in a down to earth way. Also, there's a ton of dick jokes, so the movie pretty much has something for everyone.


8. Blazing Saddles

Another one of those that runs out of steam in the end, there may not be a funnier movie for the first half or even 2/3rds than Blazing Saddles. Crazy slapstick, biting satire, pure idiocy, stereotyping galore, and the most n-words this side of Django Unchained, Blazing Saddles is the ultimate "let's throw everything at the wall and see what sticks" movie from the master of said form, Mel Brooks. This is also one of those great 70's movies that wouldn't even get its script read today, much less be greenlit and actually filmed and released to the public. Thankfully, studios in the New Hollywood era were slightly riskier and we are all the better for it.


9. South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut

One of the craziest major movies ever released, I remember being 16-years-old and sitting in the theater with my dad and brother watching this movie. None of us knew it was a musical, which was kind of a disappointment, but we all loved South Park already, having watched it from the very beginning. I've rarely laughed harder than I did in that theater. I can still remember feeling uncomfortable sitting next to my dad while Saddam Hussein continuously pulls out giant dildos to tempt his lover Satan, only to look over and see my dad laughing his head off and thinking "ahh, cool". In other movies, that would be the most outrageous scene. In this movie, that doesn't even make the top 20, even as hilarious as it is.


10. Bowfinger

The last time Eddie Murphy was truly great in comedy (I think he was extraordinary in his dramatic turn in Dreamgirls) was in his dual roles in the Steve Martin written masterpiece Bowfinger. Though his awkward and scene stealing turn as the dorky Jiff is definitely his best, I think it has overshadowed his amazing work as Kit Ramsey, the biggest (and craziest) star in Hollywood. Steve Martin is low key, and many of the supporting players like Heather Graham, Terrence Stamp, and Christine Baranski get the most truly outrageous lines and scenes, but it's Murphy that makes this movie work. Jiff and Kit are so different, and so hilarious in their own odd ways. Steve Martin the writer definitely did his best work here, as the movie has wild set pieces, big broad comedy, small scenes that crackle with humor, funny throw away lines, and subtle commentary on Hollywood that really stings. Frank Oz does a great job of not letting the movie drag too much, and it's just a great fun time at the movies.


The honorable mention list of films that almost made it is long. The shortlist for this list was over 40 movies. While some of these may be better movies, they didn't make me laugh quite as much as those listed above. Or a couple make me laugh a lot but aren't pure comedies, so somehow didn't feel right. But I still wanted to list them in with the big group. A top 10 of the just missed are:


Groundhog Day
Some Like it Hot
Pulp Fiction
In Bruges
Our Hospitality (or The General or Sherlock, Jr.)
Swingers
Defending Your Life
Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery
High Fidelity
The Blues Brothers

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Top 50 movies: 26-30

26. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Year: 2004
Country: USA
Language: English
Director: Michel Gondry

"Is there any chance of brain damage?"
"Well, technically speaking, the procedure is brain damage."


Another of writer Charlie Kaufman's crazy ideas (Being John Malkovich and Adaptation being his most famous other ones) Eternal Sunshine is a movie I wish I'd have seen on the big screen. One of the most visually masterful films ever made, but also one of the most emotionally affecting for me. This movie deals with almost every human emotion, and our relationship to them. There's such a beautiful ache as the movie goes along. The fresher, more negative memories in Joel's mind give way to the good ones he's suppressed a little about Clementine. We tend to remember the bad more easily than the good, and it's only during the erasing that Joel really appreciates what Clem meant to him. This is the journey through the mind and emotions and memories that many other movies have tried to be, but can't really touch. Charlie Kaufman's work has always had dazzling ideas, but none have ever had the heart that this movie has. Of course, on top of all that it also contains a wonderful score by Jon Brion, the best work of Jim Carrey's career and a performance from Kate Winslet I just recently listed as the 9th best performance from an actress ever.


27. Upstream Color
Year: 2013
Country: USA
Language: English
Director: Shane Carruth

The newest movie on the list is also, maybe, the most complex and mesmerizing. By far the lowest budgeted movie on the list, reportedly only around $50,000, it's told in an almost abstract manner that somehow still plays like a narratively driven movie. Upstream Color is one that I could see being much higher on this list if I do it again in a few years. I've seen it 3 times now, and each time has revealed a more satisfying and emotional viewing. Writer/director/leading man Shane Carruth (who is also credited as producer, editor, director of photography, sound designer, and music composer) gives a terrific performance as the confused Jeff, but the star is Amy Seimetz as Kris. Seimetz (who soon has herself has some Carruth-ian credits as writer/director/executive producer/co-star of Starz's series The Girlfriend Experience) is the one that carries our emotional investment in the movie and her work was on the shortlist for my recent all-time top ten actress performances. If you haven't seen it yet, when you do (and you should), don't try to figure out what's going on. Let the movie play on you like music, you don't have to figure out every plot detail the first time around. Just let it play. It's a gorgeously made, thematically deep, emotionally rewarding movie that will only disappoint if you can't see the forest for the trees.


28. Cloud Atlas
Year: 2012
Country: Germany/USA
Language: English
Director: Andy and Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer

I only said Upstream Color was "maybe, the most complex" because Cloud Atlas is a stunningly complex and deep movie as well. It has multiple stories told over hundreds of years across the world that link together in unexpected ways. It has actors recurring in different roles throughout those stories across ages, races, and even genders. The cast is amazing, Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugh Grant, Jim Sturgess, Ben Wishaw, Susan Sarandon, Hugo Weaving, Jim Broadbent, and the one that was my favorite, Korean actress Doona Bae. It's thrilling, tragic, funny, ridiculous, amazing, and nearly any other descriptive you can think of. This is probably the most ambitious movie ever made, adapted from the "unfilmable" best-selling novel by David Mitchell. It has maybe the most impressive use of budget I've seen (it's listed at $100 million, raised independently, but I wouldn't have been surprised if it was $400 million the movie looks so good). I haven't always been a fan of the Wachowski's, in fact the only movie of theirs that I even liked was their pre-The Matrix thriller Bound, which I only thought was good. But this, this is something entirely different. This is one of the great movies ever made.


Viewing note though, I would recommend watching it with subtitles on, as the dialog often has a certain slang to it that could be confusing if you're not able to see the words.


29. Miracle on 34th Street
Year: 1947
Country: USA
Language: English
Director: George Seaton

My favorite holiday movie, but it wouldn't be on this list, much less this high, if I didn't think it was a great movie, period. It has everything you could want in a movie, a great script, characters, terrific actors like Natalie Wood and Maureen O'Hara, beautiful cinematography, and all that. It's a big classic studio movie, and one that I find myself affected by more and more as the years go by. A look at the struggle between logic and faith, between hope and reality, between optimism and pessimism, between believing in magic or not. One could easily see it as a retelling of the story of Jesus, with believers and non-believers, persecution, a trial, and all that. I don't see it that way, I see it as a simple tale, told simply and wonderfully. I have even always loved that the story comes about because everyone is acting in their own selfish interests. From the judge holding off on making a ruling so as to not anger potential voters to the post office workers sending the Santy Claus letters to the courthouse just so they'll stop taking up so much space in their building. It's a funny twist for a Christmas movie, one that I love. And Edmund Gwenn will always be Santa Claus to me.


30. Night of the Hunter
Year: 1955
Country: USA
Language: English
Director: Charles Laughton

A frightening nightmare of a movie, Night of the Hunter gave Robert Mitchum his greatest role and he stepped up with the performance of his career. Legendary actor Charles Laughton's only trip behind the camera also gives us some indelible imagery and one of the great movies ever made. It's really not surprising that the movie was a big flop on its original release. Despite its (likely mandated thanks to the times) happy ending, it's still a disquieting, weird, expressionistic, poetic movie that isn't tied down exclusively to reality, looking to evoke fear and unease rather than thrills and violence, and few of those adjectives spell box office gold. But Night of the Hunter was even dismissed by critics at the time, only to find its revival slowly over the years. In 2008, the magazine Cahiers du Cinema (the famous launching ground of the French New Wave of the 50's and 60's) put Night of the Hunter only behind Citizen Kane on their all-time movies list. Obviously I wouldn't go quite to that length of praise, but it's not too far down the list (and way higher than Kane, which won't be showing up on these lists, even though it is great). It's fascinated me since I first saw it as a teenager, and after writing all that it's making me want to watch it again!

Cronos


"In 1536, fleeing from the Inquisition, the alchemist Uberto Fulcanelli disembarked in Veracruz, Mexico. Appointed official watchmaker to the Viceroy, Fulcanelli was determined to perfect an invention which would provide him with the key to eternal life. He was to name it... the Cronos device. 400 years later, one night in 1937, part of the vault in a building collapsed. Among the victims was a man of strange skin, the color of marble in moonlight. His chest mortally pierced, his last words... Suo tempore. This was the alchemist." - opening narration of Cronos



Cronos was the first film by Guillermo del Toro. It is the tale of antiques dealer Jesus Gris (Federico Luppi) and his finding of the Cronos device. Tipped off by the unusual behavior of a man coming in to his shop and looking at the faces of angel statues, Jesus finds the base of one of the statues to be removable and in it finds the mysterious looking device. Along with his granddaughter Aurora (Tamara Shanath) he tries to figure out what the device does, only for it to suddenly sprout insect like legs that stab Jesus in the hand in which he's holding it. Soon, Jesus finds himself feeling younger and more vibrant, and also having a barely controllable attraction to blood.
I'm not really sure what I expected, story wise, coming into this movie, but I found myself surprised. The movie didn't play out in a way I've ever seen a vampire movie play out. I knew what to expect from Del Toro as a filmmaker though. Despite this being his first feature film, it's the 7th, of the 9 movies he's made, that I've seen. Cronos is very indicative of where Del Toro would go next as a filmmaker. All of his trademarks were there from the start: mechanisms, insects, monsters, elaborate camerawork, impressive sets, imperfect families, a fascination with the mythic and legendary, Ron Perlman, all of it, it was all right there. Perlman plays Angel, the nephew of a dying man who's made a life's work of trying to track down the Cronos device.

Something Del Toro does here that he also does elsewhere is that he inverts the stereotype of the monster figure. Jesus does not become Count Dracula, Lestat, or some other conventional murderous movie vampire. He is horrified when he realizes that he'll need to drink human blood in order to live. "You can't gain eternal life from a cow or a pig" he's told. It made me think of, for the first time, that the vampire mythology contains a circle of life element to it in that a victim must die so that the vampire can live on. We pity Jesus because he doesn't want to kill, he just wants out of this deal he unwittingly has taken part in. Luppi is extraordinary at conveying this sadness, and even reminded me of a Latin Christopher Lee a few times, I'm sure intentionally on Del Toro's part.

But for Del Toro, the monsters aren't the bad guys. The ghost in The Devil's Backbone is not the villain, people are. The monsters during Ofelia's trials in Pan's Labyrinth are nothing compared to the horrific Captain Vidal. Even Hellboy, despite being born as the sign of the apocalypse, is the hero of his movie, not the villain. The monsters in Del Toro's work are not these horrific, one-dimensional things to cause fear or wreak havoc in the story. They are objects of sympathy and even curiosity. And Cronos was just the first time he was able to show this to us. It's a terrific movie.

The Revenant

Revenant
noun
- a person who returns as a spirit after death

Last year Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu triumphed at the Oscars with his movie Birdman, winning the Best Original Screenplay, Best Director and Best Picture awards. He's back just a year later with The Revenant, which is up for 12 Oscars itself. It stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Hugh Glass, a frontiersman left for dead after a bear attack only to live and seek revenge on the man (Tom Hardy's Fitzgerald) who was supposed to look after him while he either recovered or died. It's an intense movie, anchored on DiCaprio's largely silent performance. Innaritu, meanwhile, has really stepped up his game in a different way, this time adding some poetic visuals that would normally be more at home in the work of Terrence Malick or Hou Hsiao-Hsien.

There's really not much more to the story than what I described in the opening paragraph. There are a few other characters in the mix, including the leader of the expedition, Captain Henry (Domnhall Gleeson) and the young men Bridger (Will Poulter) and Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), who is also Glass's son. All the actors are very good in their roles, though Tom Hardy's accent is a bit inconsistent and the odd tone he chose for the voice is sometimes hard to understand. Gleeson, so different from his villainous turn as General Hux in The Force Awakens, is particularly good as the trusting and noble leader of the expedition. I also liked Will Poulter a lot as well as the kid in over his head but with a good heart. Funnily enough, they're all doing accents as none of those 3 are Americans. Gleeson is Irish and Poulter and Hardy are actually from the same part of London. 

The main draw, acting wise, is DiCaprio in the lead role. He's pretty wonderful in it, conveying a lot about Glass without saying much. It's probably the least dialog DiCaprio has ever had in a movie, actually. He's always been able to say a lot with his eyes, those bright blues conveying fear, or obsession, or pain. He displays all of that here too, but the performance is mainly captured in the eyes instead of them being just another aspect of it. People are describing this year's Best Actor Oscar as DiCaprio's award to lose, and while I think it's a worthy performance, it'd only maybe crack my top 5 performances from him. It's certainly not on the level of his work in The Aviator or What's Eating Gilbert Grape?, both of which probably should've nabbed him Oscars already. But I will be one of those cheering if he does win.

Another big selling point of this movie is the look of the thing. It's possible that cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezski will win his 3rd consecutive Oscar (after awards for Birdman and Gravity previously) and it would be deserved. The movie is stunning in its bloody, snowy, bleak beauty. Though sometimes shot too close up for my personal liking, especially during a couple of action scenes, Innaritu and Lubezski give us such stunning shot compositions and camera movements that I can give up my tiny quibbles about closeups. There are no images in this movie that've ever been in another movie. Even when the scene is conventional, Innaritu has no interest in shooting scenes like they've always been shot by other filmmakers. So there are numerous new and beautiful images here. Werner Herzog would be proud.
I haven't seen a lot of the movies from 2015 that are up for awards, but I will be perfectly pleased with whatever this movie wins come Oscar night. It's an ambitious and pretty terrific movie. I still think Innaritu is the least of the Three Amigos (alongside his fellow Mexican directing friends Alfonso Cuaron [Gravity, Children of Men] and Guillermo del Toro [Pan's Labyrinth, The Devil's Backbone]) but this film certainly puts him a lot closer to them.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Top 10 Favorite Animated Films

Now, I'm bending the rules a little bit because I decided to make a top feature films and a top short films list. But still with the usual rule of 1 filmmaker, 1 film (otherwise half the shorts could be taken up by some of Chuck Jones's Looney Tunes work). Shorts are generally ignored by the public, but I've loved them since childhood, when they would often be shown before movies, or on TV either on PBS or before the Disney Channel became what it is today. So here are my animation favorites:


Features:


1. Beauty and the Beast

I just put this on another list last week, when I listed it as my 31st favorite movie. It's romantic, charming, beautiful to look at, and filled with tremendous songs and characters. I have not tired of re-watching this masterpiece in the 25 years since it came out.


2. Wall-E

The pinnacle of Pixar's greatness, one that grows on me exponentially every time I see it, I just can't get enough of Wall-E, the movie or the character. Also on my list of favorite movies, this one came in at #37. No need to write much more about it, since I so recently did. But here it is at #2 on my all-time animation list.


3. Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind

Hayao Miyazaki's greatest work was this, his first feature film. Although made before the actual foundation of Studio Ghibli alongside his co-hort Isao Takahata, it's generally considered the first Ghibli film. And though he's gone on to make at least 2 other unquestionable masterpieces (1988's My Neighbor Totoro and 2001's Spirited Away), this one is still my favorite. So much so that it was #42 on my all time favorite films list.


4. Fantasia

The 4th of 5 on this list that was also in my all-time list, Fantasia is my 47th favorite movie ever made and the one of these that I saw the most recent. I'm still blown away by it, and can't wait to come back to it over and over and over again throughout my life.


5. Ratatouille

Brad Bird's 3rd masterpiece (after The Iron Giant and The Incredibles) is this great and inspiring flick that I recently rated as my 49th favorite movie ever made.


6. Grave of the Fireflies

The easy movie to point to for those who think animation is just for kids. Grave of the Fireflies is the emotional story of a young brother and sister trying to make their way through the world after their orphaning during the firebombing of Tokyo in WWII. Charming, touching, and finally devastating, Grave of the Fireflies is the masterpiece from Studio Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata, whose name isn't as known as Hayao Miyazaki, but should be. I previously wrote about it here.


7. 5 Centimeters per Second

The Japanese anime 5 Centimeters Per Second is one of the most beautiful movies I've ever seen, in both a visual and thematic way. It's the story of two people who are inseparable as kids (both entranced by the falling cherry blossoms, which allegedly fall at 5 centimeters per second) but are split apart by their families movies away from each other. Their love brings them back together only to see them spilt apart again as teenagers. Will they get back together as adults? An exploration of loneliness, longing, love, and ultimately life, other than the too on the nose power ballad at the emotional climax, this movie is perfect.


8. Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit

Just seeing Wallace and his big goofy grin makes me smile and feel fuzzy inside. Nick Park's brilliant creations reach their head, I think, in their only feature length adventure. The movie is clever and lovable at the same time. Brilliant acting from Peter Sallis as Wallace, to be expected, but also wonderful additions from Helena Bonham Carter and Ralph Fiennes as well. Gromit is his usual silent comic genius, evoking Chaplin or Keaton in his ability to get us to laugh and sympathize while staying dialog free. Writing about it is making me seriously want to re-watch this movie again.


9. The Many Adventures of Winnie-the-Pooh

Technically, this could go in the short film list, since it's simply a package movie of 3 Pooh shorts that Disney had done, with some connecting material added in. But I think the added stuff really works and helps make the movie feel like a whole piece rather than 3 things stitched together, so it goes here. Pooh is, like Wallace and Gromit, just one of the most likable characters and universes to dive into. Simplistic, but not simple or stupid. The audience is never talked down to, and this movie has that great balance that Pixar has tried to strike, that of entertaining both adults and children while not patronizing either group. Many have tried, and few have succeeded like The Many Adventures of Winnie-the-Pooh.


10. Coraline

One that grows on me a lot each time I watch it, Henry Selick's dark fantasy Coraline is a wonderfully creepy and effective adaptation of Neil Gaiman's novella. It has the brilliant mix of humor and macabre that Selick pulled off with The Nightmare Before Christmas, but I found myself much more involved with this one, perhaps because of my distaste for the Tim Burton (who wrote and produced but didn't direct)-ness of the other movie as I get older. Here, Selick is both writer and director, and takes us on a crazy journey to an alternate universe where Coraline (Dakota Fanning) learns about appreciating the family and life she has rather than focus on the mundane things she hates about her life. The movie has a certain amount of the magical feeling I remember from childhood books like The Secret Garden, but it goes in a much different, darker, and weirder direction thanks to Selick.


Shorts:


Since many folks don't know that short films are readily available all over the internet, from Vimeo, YouTube and other places, I linked to the videos of the shorts themselves whenever I could. Please enjoy!




1. The Man Who Planted Trees


Often a movie that tops these kinds of lists, it's no surprise that Frédéric Back's brilliant and beautiful adaptation of Jean Giono's short story ends up here. Narrated by the great Christopher Plummer, it tells the story of a lonely shepherd's quest to re-forest an area around the Alps in Provence. Though on the longer end of the short film form, at 30 minutes, the time flows by thanks to Plummer's voice and the achingly gorgeous animation from Back. One that needs to be experienced, and yet further proof (as though we needed it) that animation is hardly just for kids, I can't think of a type of person that wouldn't enjoy this movie.


2. Hedgehog in the Fog


Playing like a children's fairy tale, with very little in terms of guidance narratively, Yuriy Norshteyn's The Hedgehog in the Fog is basically exactly what it sounds like. An adorable little hedgehog gets lost in the fog on his way to see a friend. He becomes frightened after seeing and hearing many things in the foggy forest. He can hear someone calling to him, but is confronted by an owl and a horse, he falls in a river, and loses the present he was bringing his friend. It's a very simple tale, and strongly evokes the feelings of childhood. The happiness, curiosity, and occasionally frightening things happening that may not be frightening when you look back on them as an adult, but can be almost overwhelming when viewed through the lens of an innocent child.


3. Duck Amuck
Warner Brothers keeps the old Looney Tunes stuff off YouTube, unfortunately, so can't link to this brilliant short.

The most genius of the Looney Tunes shorts (I couldn't in good conscious pick my childhood favorite Duck Dodgers in the 24th1/2 Century, even though it is also a little piece of genius from Chuck Jones), Duck Amuck is writing, voice acting, and animation at it's highest level. Though Bugs Bunny was the most famous, we all know that Daffy Duck was the more interesting character. It's exhilarating to see him tormented by the mostly unseen animator, who changes the setting, clothing, and occasionally even the duck himself throughout the short's 7 minutes.


4. A Grand Day Out
Unfortunately again, I can't get to this one for free anymore, not on YouTube at least.

Though many prefer the follow up Wallace and Gromit short, A Close Shave, for me A Grand Day Out has the most charm and enjoyment. Possibly the most likable characters ever created, Wallace and Gromit have crackers, but no cheese. Well, we all know the moon is made of cheese, right? So Wallace builds a rocket and they fly to the moon to get cheese. Why not just go to the grocery store? Because this is better. My favorite gag has Gromit figuring out why the rocket isn't taking off. Although the stuff on the moon maybe doesn't work quite as well as the stuff getting us there, it's still a blast and my favorite of the short films from Nick Park (who lost the 1990 Oscar to himself when he won for his equally brilliant Creature Comforts).


5. Quest


The most recent one I've seen, I really was moved by this movie, an Oscar winner in 1996. The story of a kind of sand man (literally) who realizes he's out of water. Following the sound of dripping water through his desert world into, in order, a land made of paper, a land of rocks, a land of metal, and finally a land of water, the movie could easily be seen as a metaphor for growing up, growing older, or many other things, only to end up coming full circle in the end. It's beautifully animated (in stop-motion), with tremendous sound design, and no dialog. I love movies that tell their story without the aid of dialog. So universal and strangely engaging.


6. Mickey and the Beanstalk
Like WB, Disney keeps most of their stuff off YouTube because they want you to buy the DVDs.

Although released in theaters as a package movie (called Fun and Fancy Free), as Disney used to occasionally do, I've always seen Mickey and the Beanstalk on its own. So even though it's listed online in some places as being a feature film (because of the package deal), Mickey and the Beanstalk is right at 30 minutes, so is a short film and rightfully on my list here. There are so many memorable pieces in this that nearly the whole thing stuck in my memory from childhood. Although many others prefer the Mickey starring The Brave Tailor or others (the one that nearly made the list instead was 1937's Lonesome Ghosts, with Mickey, Donald, and Goofy basically trying to be the Ghostbusters almost 50 years before the Ghostbusters movie came out), Mickey and the Beanstalk is one I still love and happily get lost in all these years later.


7. Paperman


I love Disney and Pixar's continued support of the animated short form, this brilliant piece of magical romanticism played before Disney's Wreck-It Ralph. I'm glad I saw them separately, as I would've been thinking about Paperman all through the feature length movie instead of paying attention to the very good Wreck-It Ralph. But anyway, there's no use describing the plot, as it's quite simple, better to be experienced and caught up in than talked about. I love the black-and-white style of the animation, just gorgeous to look at. And I'm a romantic at heart, so this spoke right to me.


8. Father and Daughter




A sweet, simple, metaphorical story of a father and daughter riding their bicycles to the sea before the father abruptly hugs his daughter and leaves. Wordlessly, we watch the daughter keep coming back to the spot where her dad left, in all manner of weather, throughout her life, dad's bike still waiting against a tree. The open ending is simply beautiful, and the dialog free movie so affecting thanks to the simple yet somehow still bold animation.


9. Alma




A short, creepy, little movie from Spain, directed by ex-Pixar animator Rodrigo Blaas. Alma (Spanish for "soul") tells the story of a little girl playing by herself down a snowy street when she sees some chalk and a wall with many people's names on it. She decides to write her name on the wall too, and immediately afterwards looks at the shop opposing the wall to see a doll who looks and is dressed just like her. Another example of that animation is not just for kids, Alma has no violence or anything like that in it, but is affecting because it works on your mind and fears.


10. Lambert the Sheepish Lion


I always love when you can love something as a child, revisit it as an adult, and love it just as much or more. Beginning with the Stork (Sterling Holloway, who also narrates) from Dumbo accidentally delivering the baby lambs to a group of ewes, with Lambert the lion cub attaching himself to his mother ewe, who headbutts the stork when he tries to take Lambert to South Africa where he was supposed to go. Raised as a sheep, only to unexpectedly remember his lion roots when a wolf tries to take his mother, I vividly remember Lambert from childhood, as I found his transformation scene frightening. Now, especially as a parent, I love the protection of family, and the message of making our own families, regardless of blood or even species.


Honorable mention to:


Batman: The Animated Series episode "Heart of Ice"

I think Batman: The Animated Series is one of the great shows ever, and this is my favorite episode, telling the tragic story of classic Batman villain Mr. Freeze. I didn't include it on the list proper because it was an episode of the TV show and not a stand along short film.


The Fly


An Oscar winning Hungarian short from 1980 that's an amazing look at a fly's perspective of being in a house