Sunday, May 19, 2013

The Hunted

Director William Friedkin is a master of chase scenes. His iconic car chase in The French Connection is often pointed to as the epitome of such a chase. His quickly forgotten 2003 film The Hunted is essentially a 90 minute chase scene, as we follow former Army trainer L.T. Bonham (Tommy Lee Jones) tracking down one of his trainees, Aaron Hallam (Benicio Del Toro), who's gone off the rails and begun murdering local deer hunters. It's pretty much a rip off of the first Rambo movie, First Blood, but plot is not really the focus or forte of action movies, so what does that matter?

The training that LT did in the Army was as a contractor teaching survival, stealth, hand-to-hand combat, and efficiency in killing. In a flashback, he tells his soldiers he'll teach them until killing and survival become a reflex, and that the hardest part of all will be to turn it off. Hallam was never able to turn it off, and after experiencing some serious post traumatic stress from his assassination missions during Kosovo, he goes rogue. When LT is sent to go get him, he simply starts wandering out in the woods "If I'm not back in 2 days, it'll mean I'm dead" he calls back to the officers in charge of the hunt. He chases Hallam through the woods, later through the city of Portland, then ultimately back into the wilderness again.

This is an action movie for, I think, both people who don't like action movies and for action movie fanatics. These guys aren't superheroes. They punch and kick and stab and everything has weight to it. Fights are tiring, punching hurts your hand almost as much as it hurts the other guys face. They sweat, they wear down, the older Bonham quicker than the younger Hallam, which Hallam uses to his advantage often. This is like a realistic action movie, though just as ridiculous in many areas as your average action flick. We get some back story, but nothing in the way of character development really. This movie is pared down to the absolute essentials. We know roughly what these guys can do, and why they're chasing, and then we get down to the chase. That's it. But to me there's an almost poetry to the action because it's less complex, from a character standpoint. But I also think that's why Friedkin cast the actors he did, Del Toro able to evoke inner turmoil effortlessly, and Jones being so rough and weathered and giving that "lived in" kinda feel to his characters. He's the most believable of actors because of those innate qualities, and that's exactly what this movie needed.

Gorgeously shot by ace cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (father of actresses Emily and Zooey), this is the gritty, sweaty, mano a mano, bad ass type of action movie we don't get very often. Almost no gun play (Bonham says he doesn't like guns, I guess they're too loud, hard to stay in the shadows with a smoking gun), but a lot of intense hand fighting, sometimes with knives. Somehow forgotten and largely dismissed critically and commercially upon its release, I stumbled upon it just looking for a mindless action movie. The Hunted isn't mindless, it's just got its mind focused on a couple of things, namely action. It's one of my new favorites of the genre.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013


Sherlock Holmes is the most represented character in the history of movies. More than Dracula, more than Tarzan, more than James Bond. Literally hundreds of Sherlock movies have been made, and every generation seems to have "their" Sherlock, whether it's Basil Rathbone, Jeremy Brett, or for some now Robert Downey, Jr. But after watching the BBC series Sherlock, my Sherlock Holmes is and will forever be Benedict Cumberbatch. His extraordinary work as Sherlock carries the series, along with the wonderful chemistry he has with his Dr. John Watson, played by The Office (UK) and The Hobbit's Martin Freeman. Their banter, the fact that people keep thinking they're a couple, which often goes over the head of the socially inept Sherlock. All of it makes for our strong central relationship, taking us through murder and theft and national security cases the pair take on. They're a joy to watch, but they're not the only reason to watch.

Gorgeously filmed and edited, the supporting parts are perfectly cast as well, especially series co-creator/writer Mark Gatiss as Sherlock's brother Mycroft Holmes and Louise Brealey as Molly, the poor morgue assistant that has a crush on an oblivious Sherlock. The way they use text overlays to let us into part of Sherlock's mind, as well as the extreme close-ups that show us the tiny details that only Sherlock sees. All immerse us into this world better than any other version of Holmes I've seen. And Cumberbatch's eyes and body language convey so much about the internal Sherlock, he's often fun to just sit and watch think. But, no hero is complete without his arch-nemesis. No Sherlock can exist without his Moriarty. And baby faced Andrew Scott makes for an astounding foil. Though he doesn't show up until later than I expected, we see his plans unfold and know the kind of forethought that goes into his actions, but when we meet him there's a certain unhinged quality to him that makes him seem much more formidable. We're not really sure what he's going to do or how.

So very unlike American TV series, Sherlock is made up, currently, of two seasons of 3 episodes. Each episode, though, is 90 minutes long. So they essentially made 6 movies in a franchise, and are supposedly filming season 3 right now. Cumberbatch is likely to become a bigger American star in a few days when the new Star Trek movie is released, in which he plays the main villain. It'll be interesting to see, since for me he's my Sherlock! I root for him. I even laugh when someone calls him a psychopath and he angrily yells "I'm a highly functioning sociopath, do your research!" So I'm not sure how I'll take him as the bad guy. No doubt I'll love it, because he's a wonderful actor, but I'd rather see more Sherlock. I'm especially excited because I think I like the second season better than the first, so I can't wait to see where it goes from here. It's quickly become one of my all-time favorite TV shows.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Top 10's of the decades - 2010's

The 2010 top ten list was a little weird to come up with. Since the birth of my daughter, I've been way behind on my movie watching. For examples, I've only seen a handful of movies from 2012. But still, I did the previous 7 decades, so I thought I might as well keep going. Now, as is evidence by the fact that I've done a top 10 of the 2000's twice and the lists are different, my view of the best movies of the decade can and will change between now and when I can do a proper list of the decade (or, ya know, at least when the decade is actually over), but this is what it looks like right now today:

10. The Social Network (2010, directed by David Fincher)

David Fincher follows up the disappointing Curious Case of Benjamin Button with this adaptation of the book The Accidental Billionaires by Ben Mezrich. Following the rise and sort of fall of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg). Though its accuracy depends on who you ask, I take every "based on a true story" movie as fiction, so it doesn't bother me. What fascinates me is the central performance of Jesse Eisenberg and how his character of Mark Zuckerberg is so representative of the times. He's technologically savvy, socially awkward, and morally flexible. He seems to not have any remorse for stepping on people to get where he is in life (one of the richest men in the world). He might've been spurred into his idea for Facebook by others, but when being sued for stealing the idea from the Winklevoss twins he tells them "If you guys were the inventors of Facebook, you'd have invented Facebook." Almost willfully ignorant of anything anyone contributed to the invention of the social networking giant. It's a fascinating performance, and a fascinating movie.

9. Inception (2010, directed by Christopher Nolan)

I'm a big fan of Chris Nolan's. His new Batman trilogy (though I've still not seen its conclusion) sets the tone for much of the comic and action movies that come after. His breakout Memento, as well as his magician tale The Prestige, as well as and his less seen debut Following, plays with time and non-linear storytelling. Inception, strangely, doesn't plays with non-linear scenarios as much (as you would expect from a movie about dreams) as it plays with scenarios within scenarios as a launching pad of one of the best action movies of the 2000's. While it doesn't have a Heath Ledger as the Joker type performance to keep our attention, I really enjoy his take on dreams. Nolan is a very literal filmmaker, and his dreams are not the type you'd expect from a more surrealist artist like David Lynch or Luis Bunuel. His dreams are ones that have rules and layers and a lot of exposition (all Nolan movies are overloaded with exposition), which has caused a fair amount of backlash from many in the film nerd community. But not from me. I see his homages to On Her Majesty's Secret Service and Dark City, and it makes me smile. Like The Dark Knight, everything is pitched as a climax, so it runs out of steam by the end of its 2 1/2 hours. But it's still a hell of a ride, and a fun one, I think.

8. The American (2010, directed by Anton Corbijn)

The movie that was known for a while as the "George Clooney as an assassin" movie is not only not that, it's so much more. Gorgeously shot and quietly unfolded by Dutch former music video director and photographer Anton Corbijn, it's a low key story of Clooney's character Jack who is on the run from some bad people. He sets up in a Italian mountain town, and through his contacts gets a job to make a sniper rifle for Mathilde (Thekla Reuten, the hotel owner from In Bruges). While in Italy he begins dating a local prostitute, Clara (Violante Placido), and begins being haunted by his former deeds and imagines what it would be like to be able to run away and start a new life.

Clooney is one of the best low key actors we've ever had. He can say so much with his body and his face without saying any dialog. This may be his best work as an actor, he lets us into Jack's mind and its opening up to the possibility of a new life when all he's known is the life of a killer and seemingly a spy. He knows much more than is ever let on, he's experienced so much, and Clooney tells us all this in his sparse and amazing performance. The ambiguous ending leaves us with a wonderfully open feeling from this very insular movie, one that I really want to revisit soon.

7. Leaves of Grass (2010, directed by Tim Blake Nelson)

Some sources list Leaves of Grass as an '09 movie, but those were just festival showings. It didn't get a proper release until 2010, so I say it's eligible for this 2010's list, dammit! Leaves of Grass has a lot of autobiography from its writer/director Tim Blake Nelson. Not so much in Ed Norton's twin Kincaid brothers, the marijuana dealing, or the violence, but in many of the little details contained in this wacky ride through my beloved home state. Nelson (probably most famous as Delmar from the Coen brothers' O Brother, Where Art Thou?), although from humble Tulsa beginnings, is an Ivy League (Brown University) educated Classics major, a Julliard graduate, an accomplished playwright, and an experienced filmmaker, Leaves of Grass marking his 4th major work as director. About half of that description applies to Bill, one of the twin brothers played by Ed Norton (who also serves as a producer on the film).

Bill is Professor of Classical Philosophy at Brown, a hot young name in academia being courted by Harvard to start up his own program there. The movie opens with a great monologue by Bill dealing with the teaching of the ancient Greeks, and it's a testament to Nelson's faith in his script that he doesn't turn it into simply a montage of Bill lecturing to students, but a fully formed monologue, much of which foreshadows the intellectual themes of the rest of the movie. Soon after, we meet Brady, a genius pot grower in the Southeastern Oklahoma town of Idabel. He and his best friend Bolger (Nelson) are running into problems with a Tulsa based Jewish drug kingpin (deliciously played by Richard Dreyfuss) who wants payback, Brady and Bill's hippie mom (Susan Sarandon) who's checked herself into a retirement home, and with Brady's pregnant girlfriend Colleen (Melanie Lynskey) who wants Brady to stop selling, stop growing, and stop smoking his beloved mary jane.

Blackly comedic hijinks ensue as everybody crosses paths and we get faked deaths, real deaths, obvious comedy, subtle comedy, uncomfortable comedy (thanks to Josh Pais's unbelievably great performance), philosophical discussions on poetry and the existence of God. Brady has an interesting theory about why he does believe in a higher power, I would've never thought about explaining God's possible existence with parallel lines, but it makes a lot of sense when Nelson gives his characters the time to talk about things and ideas the way that few movies ever do. It's intoxicating to find a movie that allows the ridiculousness of legendary singer/songwriter Steve Earle angrily shooting a crossbow (with his bluetooth headset in his ear) to exist in the same realm with Keri Russell reciting Walt Whitman while she guts a catfish. It's a wonderful feeling, even if Nelson doesn't quite have the directorial flair to be able to pull it off without a hitch. There aren't many problems with the movie, but maybe those things can't go flawlessly into a movie in the first place. I'm still really glad he tried.

Now, I've not been a huge fan of Edward Norton over the years. I was never one of the people praising his work to the heavens and declaring him the best actor of his generation. I think he's a solid actor whose performances tend to all feel the same to me. Not, however, in Leaves of Grass. Bill is intelligent and logical, but increasingly reaching the end of his rope, often due to Brady. And Brady is a brilliant mind who doesn't always put his smarts to use in a constructive manner. Although the "hick" accent that Norton uses for Brady is way too over-the-top, either he or us grows into it, and I was okay with it. Norton creates these two characters with a wonderfully subtle bag of acting tricks, and the illusion of the twins is handled wonderfully by Nelson and his bag of directorial tricks. I knew, of course, that Norton wasn't acting opposite himself, Nelson made pains to include many shots of Bill and Brady together, and Norton's timing and amazing ability to play off of himself seals the deal so that we never question that we're watching two brothers interacting.

6. Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011, directed by David Gelb)
That's right, a documentary about a guy that makes sushi. But not just any guy. Jiro Ono is the master of sushi. Anthony Bourdain has said the 20 minutes he spent at Jiro's 10 seat restaurant may have been the best meal he's ever eaten. When Jiro was awarded a 3-star rating from the Michelin Guide, they said that 3 stars (a rating which only around 100 restaurants in the world have achieved) was the only acceptable rating for Jiro's food. Not that it makes a bit of difference to Jiro, he is not spurred on by outside praise. He seeks only to achieve perfection in the simplicity of his own mind. He is the harshest critic of his food, he seems to take less pleasure in his food than most chefs, but it's not because of a lack of pride. He, like our traditional view of the Japanese, takes all the pride in the world in his work. His work just happens to be sushi. No appetizers, no entrees, no salads. Sushi. And the waiting list is often months long.

The movie is a fascinating portrait of the pursuit of perfection. We don't meet Jiro's wife, but he has two sons. The oldest, Yoshikazu, is 50-years-old, and in the Japanese tradition, working for his father, intending to take over when the old man retires. But Jiro is 85, and seems to only want to do one thing in the world, and that's make sushi. The younger son, Takashi, opened a mirror image of his fathers restaurant (mirrored because one is right handed and the other is left handed, and the restaurants sit accordingly), but admits that he'll never be as good as his father. So although his restaurant is very successful, he must charge less money than Jiro, because his sushi is inferior to his dads. Jiro admits to not being a great dad, and others talk about how he hates national holidays because he must close. He seems to be only interested in perfection of his sushi.

I wouldn't have thought a movie on this subject (despite being a big fan of sushi) would be as engrossing as this, but the relentlessness that Jiro possesses is fascinating. The single mindedness with which he lives his life is quite a sight to see and explore on screen.

5. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (2010, directed by David Yates)

I have a deep, personal love of J.K. Rowling's books, and haven't always been completely pleased with their adaptations to the silver screen. 2009's Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince was the first one that in my mind really captured so much of the magic of the books into the movies, but even it had so much that was cut from the novel as to be disappointing. Splitting the mammoth final book into two parts was a good idea here, as even though many things were cut out, few of them are truly missed. Although Deathly Hallows, Part 1 certainly feels like the first half of a story, it also succeeds admirably as a movie.

Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson as the three leads have truly grown a lot since their first forays into our lives. Radcliffe had, in my mind, more than a few awkward line readings and uncomfortable times in the series, but as he has become a man he has also become a better actor. He gives Harry weight and depth as a character, and not in just a "good for a kid actor" sort of way. Grint, who's buffed up in the past couple of years in addition to his normal growth, keeps Ron's role as the comic relief of the trio, but also adds some layers to Ron, the love and anger and friendship that the role needs. Emma Watson, whom I've thought was the star of the group since the fourth movie or so, again soars here. There's a scene in the first few minutes of the movie, when Hermione wipes herself from her parents memories, when Watson conveys all of Hermione's psychological conflict in just a look, and director David Yates gives us a great shot of Hermione walking away from her house, and maybe her family, forever.

Yates, returning for the 7th and final movie after also helming numbers 5 and 6, again gets things right as far as the balance of character and action, giving us some of the same small moments that make Rowling's books so delightful to return to, as well as the big action scenes that a blockbuster of this type requires. I've heard some rumblings from some people that the movie moves too slowly, but I didn't feel that way in the slightest. I thought the 146 minutes flew by wonderfully, with only some of Dumbledore's backstory that I can think of that I really missed seeing from the novel. Yates and his cinematographer Eduardo Serra do maybe go a little too heavy on the handheld sometimes. I'm thinking mostly of the chase with the Snatchers, which felt very Paul Greengrass-y (like his terrible handheld work on his two Bourne movies), but mostly the movie is gorgeously shot, whether in the forest, on the beach, or in the Ministry of Magic, the movie looks terrific. My favorite part of the movie though, had to be the animated sequence detailing the "Tale of the Three Brothers", done in an updated take on the animation of the legendary Lotte Reiniger's paper cutouts. Such a beautifully done piece.

So we get what I feel is the best Harry Potter movie. A lot of people went just as crazy for Part 2, but to me it doesn't have the dramatic weight that this one does. It's too much of a big action movie, and I disliked how Yates changed so much of the final assault on Hogwarts, for the worse. But it's still a fine movie and a good conclusion to the series, it's just that Part 1 is the best Harry Potter movie and that's why it's here on this list.

4. Toy Story 3 (2010, directed by Lee Unkrich)

In Toy Story 3 we get back to Woody, Buzz, Jessie, Rex, Potato Head and the whole gang yet again, and although I think the second entry in the series is among Pixar's weakest efforts, the third time is certainly a charm.

Andy is now 17-years-old and getting ready for college. His beloved toys lay in his toy chest, unplayed with for years. Misunderstandings ensue, and the toys are donated to the Sunnyside Daycare. There they meet a host of other toys lead by the fluffy, strawberry scented, Lots-O'-Huggin' Bear (voiced by Ned Beatty), and Ken (Michael Keaton), who immediately falls for the Barbie doll that Andy's sister had donated. They're told that Sunnyside is an ideal place for toys. They're played with all day, 5 days a week. But after one day in the "caterpillar" room, with the youngest kids (or, "not age appropriate" as Buzz says), they begin to doubt the sincerity of Lots-O and the other toys. Meanwhile, Woody has been snatched up by a sweet little girl named Bonnie and taken to her home where he meets another set of lovable toys, but he's determined to get back to his friends and to Andy.

There was something about Toy Story 2 that didn't connect with me. It didn't have the simple magic that the first Toy Story had, but didn't have its own magic to ride on either. Toy Story 3, on the other hand, has that magic. There's an amazing amount of heart poured into this movie, the characters and relationships (both positive and negative) drawn with more care and developing in much more interesting ways. I was afraid at one point that it would simply be a case of "heroes triumph over villain" and I'd have to leave the theater telling myself "Yeah, it was good. I just wish it had been more than that." Thankfully, I didn't. I even found Lots-O's backstory fascinating on its own in how it shaped the toy we see. There's also a wonderful development between Jessie and Buzz, made most hysterical when Buzz gets accidentally switched to Spanish mode, taking on the over-the-top poetic lover mode of a Spanish hero.

Pixar delivered us another masterpiece, with the best ending since the perfection of Monsters, Inc's. Pixar slip up with its next effort, Cars 2, but that was just a misguided artistic move. Cars was/is a merchandising phenomenon, but those two movies are their two weakest. Regardless, Toy Story 3 may not reach the poetic brilliance that Wall-E did, or cut straight to my heart like Remy's love of food in Ratatouille did, but it easily sits next to the family saga/action bonanza of The Incredibles and the unadorned majesty of the original Toy Story as not only Pixar's best work, but among the great gifts the art of animated cinema has ever given us.

3. Midnight in Paris (2011, directed by Woody Allen)

I have a soft spot for Woody Allen movies. Even supposedly terrible ones like Scoop are films I can enjoy a great deal. Granted I've only seen about half of his movies, but there hasn't been even one that I downright disliked, simply a couple I haven't cared for as much. 2011's offering (I say 2011's because Allen works so regularly that 1981 was the last year he didn't have a movie, and he still released 10 movies in the 80's) is the charming romantic comedy Midnight in Paris. It's not as deep or as impressive as Allen's best work, but damn if it isn't romantic, funny, and highly enjoyable. And subsequent re-watches on DVD have only proven this.

Owen Wilson takes on the lead role here, that of hack screenwriter Gil Pender. He churns out crappy Hollywood movies but yearns to write a book and be important and worthy like his literary heroes. He's in Paris on vacation with his fiancee Inez (Rachel McAdams), they tagged along with her parents who're there on business. He's a romantic who wants to roam the streets and stop in cafes, drink wine and walk in the rain. He's the only one in the group who even likes being in France until he and Inez meet up with Paul and Carol (Michael Sheen and Nina Arianda) who want to take them to Versailles and drone on in pseudo-intellectual talk about French history and art. Gil just wants his simple pleasures (and to be out of the presence of the insufferably pompous Paul) and Inez is happy to get rid of him, so she lets him go.

While the clock strikes midnight one night, a car pulls up and a jovial group of people pull Gil in with them and take him to a party. At the party he sees a guy who looks mysteriously like Cole Porter singing songs to adoring listeners, and meet a couple who introduce themselves as the Fitzgerald's, F. Scott and Zelda. Scott takes a liking to Gil and offers to take him along to a bar they're going to to meet up with Hemingway. Gil finds himself magically drawn into the world of 1920's artistic Paris, a time and place he'd dreamt of his whole life. He runs across Dali, Bunuel, Man Ray, Gertrude Stein, Picasso, Matisse, and TS Elliot, among others during his few extraordinary nights. He also happens to run across the beautiful Adriana (Oscar winner Marion Cotillard), who has Picasso, Hemingway, and legendary bullfighter Juan Belmonte fighting for her affections. Gil falls for her just like the others do as he dreads the inevitable end of his miraculous journey through 1920's Paris.

Owen Wilson is one of the better actors when it comes to playing the traditional "Woody" role. He has a bit of Allen neurosis, while also keeping his strangely laid back charm, and some shades we've not seen from him before. His ability to portray Gil's hopeless romanticism, while those around him try to destroy it, is essential to making the movie work. Wilson's Wedding Crashers love interest McAdams is pitch perfectly hateable as Gil's relentlessly unsupportive fiancee, so obviously crushing on Michael Sheen's pedantic Paul while Gil is too busy being annoyed by him to notice. Marion Cotillard is as luminous as Paris itself, making it unsurprising that so many of the artists are using her as their muse.

The script is Allen's strongest since Sweet and Lowdown, the sweetness and romance fully coming through without being forced in the slightest. The gorgeous photography by ace cinematographer Darius Khondji brings an extra amount of warmth to the movie that fits in nicely with the unassuming romanticism Allen's going for. I also like Allen's comments on coming to terms with the times you live in and not getting bogged down in the nostalgia of the past, because the people in that time probably didn't think everything was so great and idealized a previous era too. Even with a little bit of intellectual comments on nostalgia, it's still hard not to think of this movie as simply one of the sweetest love stories I've seen in a long time, and glad to see one of my favorite filmmakers working at such a high level.

2. 50/50 (2011, directed by Jonathan Levine)

50/50 kinda came outta nowhere at me. I love all of the actors that are in it, but had never heard of the writer Will Reiser, nor the director Jonathan Levine. So I was taken aback while sitting in my theater seat, watching the directorial command of tone and storytelling, and the wonderful evocation of a multitude of emotions from the writing.

It tells the story of Adam, a 27-year-old radio journalist who finds out he has a rare cancerous tumor on his spine. He's told his chances of survival are only 50/50, and his best friend Kyle (Seth Rogen)'s remark that "50/50? If you were a casino game you'd have the best odds. You're gonna be fine." doesn't help. He's sent to a therapist, Katherine (Anna Kendrick), to help him cope with his life changes, but he's only her third patient, and ends up helping her grow as much as she helps him. Adam also has to deal with his overbearing mother (Angelica Huston), and his inconsistent girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard), while his whole life is turned upside down with cancer.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt proves again that he's our finest young actor (not that we needed reminding after movies like Mysterious Skin, 500 Days of Summer, Brick, and The Lookout), and this is among his best work. His journey as he goes through the few highs and many lows of cancer treatment is rendered with such honesty and heart from Gordon-Levitt that I hope he's not forgotten when Oscar time comes around, it's the best performance I saw this year. Not to be out done, the supporting cast is flawless, especially Angelica Huston as the mother. Her love for her son, while also caring for her Alzheimer stricken husband, is palpable and Huston's subtlety in the performance is heart wrenching in some scenes, it's another award worthy piece of work from her. While Anna Kendrick is very good as the therapist, it's not all that different from her work in Up in the Air as George Clooney's young tag along. The real surprise for me was in Seth Rogen as best friend Kyle. He brings a ton of humor, and a real dramatic weight to his character.

But the best thing about this movie is that it's a movie about a young man getting cancer, it's very heavy in some moments, but it is extremely funny. While I would categorize Rogen as the "comic relief" the movie really doesn't need it as writer Will Reiser finds the humor in most situations without cheapening them. One of the best examples is that of Adam's chemotherapy friends (Matt Frewer and Philip Baker Hall), who convince him, after he initially declines, that eating their weed-infused brownies is about the only way to get through something like chemo. He can't argue with that logic, and so indulges.

Despite not representing anything I've personally gone through, there wasn't a single second of this movie that rang false for me. It was easily the best movie of 2011, for me, and an easy one to slide in here at #2.

1. Hugo (2011, directed by Martin Scorsese)

Boy what a love letter of a movie this is. Martin Scorsese is without a doubt the best filmmaker working, if you ask me, and this movie is like his tribute to the movies themselves. It has a nostalgic tone for the silent era of movies, and in particular the work of fantasy master and former illusionist Georges Melies, most known now as the man behind the famous 1902 movie A Trip to the Moon. Main character Hugo (Asa Butterfield) is our guide through the bustling Paris train station whose walls he lives in. He meets a variety of characters, played by wonderful actors like Sacha Baron Cohen, Emily Mortimer, and Christopher Lee, and but in particular is drawn to Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz) who eventually leads Hugo to "Papa Georges" (Ben Kingsley) who has accused Hugo of thieving before, from his desk in his trinket shop in the station. Papa Georges back story eventually intertwines with Hugo's, as Hugo tries to rebuild a sort of robot his father (Jude Law) left to him.

It's a glorious visual marvel, so obviously fake in many scenes, but with a style evocative of the types of children's storybooks the movie itself is adapted from. Scorsese creates these amazing adventurous worlds for us to inhabit. The hissing and fog filled walls and clocks of the station, so different from the busy people crammed place outside its walls. The whole thing has a kid-like adventure feeling to it that no other movies have. I wouldn't characterize it as a "kids movie" like so many have, I'd say it's a movie for adults who remember what it was like to be a kid. And I'd also say it's the best movie of the 2010's.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Top 10's of the decades - 2000's

10. 5 Centimeters Per Second (2007, directed by Makoto Shinkai)
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 were 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 moving. But they are determined to meet up again, they do and fall in love as teenagers, only to be split apart again, before becoming adults who still think of each other but have moved on with their lives (or are trying to learn how to). It's breathtakingly animated. Writer/director Makoto Shinkai allows so many shots of lonely looking objects to linger a bit longer than most would let them, underscoring the longing our characters feel for each other. At just 63 minutes, 5 Centimeters doesn't outstay its welcome, but Shinkai takes his time unfolding his story in a way that makes sure it doesn't feel truncated either.

The story reminded me forcibly of Hou Hsiao-Hsien's great Three Times, another love story set against 3 separate time periods (and was my honorable mention in my previous top ten of the decade). Of course, Hou set the stories apart by having the same actors playing different characters in different time periods and then watched how they play out their love scenarios. Shinkai simply gives us three segments from the same characters, as they grow older. The first segments are strikingly similar, as the man (boy in 5 Centimeters case) seeks out the woman (girl) before eventually meeting and sharing a simple expression of affection, although Shinkai's ending is as achingly beautiful as Hou's, it's in a different way, since 5 Centimeters follows the same characters throughout its 3 stories, we don't leave our characters at the end of the segment. So there isn't the ending note of love, since we will catch up with Shinkai's characters (and his first segment ends on a less fully romantic note, there's some mixed feelings there). The unreciprocated feelings in the second story are interesting and worthwhile as a story, but don't have quite the same emotional weight as the opening segment.

The final segment, though marred a bit by a too on-the-nose power ballad that stands at complete odds to the sparseness of the rest of the soundtrack, is the ambiguous end to the story that maybe isn't so ambiguous once you think about it. Our hero is haunted by the lost love that never got to see its fruition, while the heroine still occasionally thinks back on those days gone by, even as she has moved on. The chance meeting that the hero has longed for finally happens, but how you feel about the outcome will ultimately depend on each viewers interpretation of the characters feelings at that point in their life.

9. Adventureland (2009, directed by Greg Mottola)
I wrote, when I first saw it, that Adventureland was a rare movie. I wrote that it was so good that I sat in my seat hoping it didn't screw it up, and it didn't. One thing I didn't realize the first time I watched it was that I wasn't just watching the best movie of 2009, I was watching one of the great movies of the decade. Adventureland is the most wonderfully realized, delicately crafted, and emotionally affecting movie about young people that I've ever seen. It captures a moment in time that didn't even exist in my life, yet I connect to it so deeply I almost can't explain it.

There's not a single moment in the movie that rings false to me, and so many moments that transcend the maligned "young adult/teen" genre. Of course, it's not about "teens", it's about people just out of college realizing that their studies in Comparative Literature or Russian and Slavic Languages don't mean much in the real world. It's also about those fragile feelings of first love, real friendship, jealousy, and taking the wrong advice because you don't know any better yet. More than anything really, it's the story of first love. But because everything is so carefully constructed, capturing life, the feeling of real life, it's about much more than that simple genre description might allude to. Sure, it's not documentary-esque real life, it's idealized and nostalgic, but in the best way possible.

8. No Country for Old Men (2007, directed by Joel and Ethan Coen)
2007's No Country for Old Men is the Coen brothers best work, and they're no strangers to great movies. I would count their The Big Lebowski, Raising Arizona, Blood Simple, and Miller's Crossing as really great movies (and that's with thinking their generally regarded crowning achievement, Fargo, is just "good"). Of course, Javier Bardem's Oscar-winning villain is the part that sticks in everyones mind, but the work done here by Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin, and Kelly MacDonald can't be overvalued. MacDonald in particular deserves more attention than she ever got. The scene where she gets a piece of news she didn't want to get, her reaction brings tears to my eyes every time I watch this movie, and I don't think I can say that about any other scene in the typically emotionally distant Coen catalog.

One of the most tense movies I've ever seen, I was so wrapped up in the story that like many people, I was caught off guard by the ending. We're trained by other movies to expect some sort of showdown between the main characters, and when we don't get it, I was left quite disappointed. It wasn't until I kept thinking about the ending, and watched the movie a couple more times, that I was hit by its brilliance. The Coen's go for intellectualism and metaphor rather than the emotional release of a showdown. I wasn't sure at first if they'd made the right decision, but I'm more sure than ever (after my last viewing) that they did make the correct choice.
7. In Bruges (2008, directed by Martin McDonagh)
Every time I watch In Bruges, it grows on me. Colin Farrell's effortlessly heartbreaking yet hysterical performance as the endearing naughty boy Ray becomes that much more impressive. Brendan Gleeson's shows that many more layers to his character, the wonderfully paternal Ken. And even Ralph Fiennes' deliriously over-the-top mob boss becomes more of a joy to watch, as well as making such a deeper impact on a dramatic level. McDonagh's screenplay shows off his roots on the stage (where he's considered one of Ireland's top playwrights) in its use of a small number of locations and characters, and his attention to the detail of his dialog. In what may be the movie's best scene (although it's really too tough to pick just one), a simple piece of dialog shifts the entire mood of the film. Not in many movies would a line like "Good. Because he wasn't a bad kid, was he?" change the course of the movie, but the line is loaded with meaning where it's placed in the screenplay, and delivered with such brilliance, it has a remarkable impact. And that's without thinking about the scene being a masterfully subtle 6 1/2 minute long single take.

McDonagh should also be commended for his ability to mix the profane with the spiritual, violence with the magical, and most simply (yet remarkably) the comedy with the drama. In Bruges would be a tremendous piece of work for any filmmaker, but the fact that it's McDonagh's first makes it all the more impressive. I still haven't caught up to his followup, 7 Psychopaths, but he already has this masterpiece under his belt.
6. Wall-E (2008, directed by Andrew Stanton)
The number 6 movie on my list is the Pixar tour-de-force that is Andrew Stanton's Wall-E, quite possibly the greatest of all animated movies. Its visual invention and nearly silent opening section are reminders of what a little ambition can do for a movie. Stanton and his co-writers provide pointed commentary on the laziness of the human race and where our reliance on technology will logically lead us to (a commentary lost on so many viewers who thought the filmmakers were just making fun of fat people). But at its heart, Wall-E is a simple love story, one that just happens to star robots.

Most of note, really, is the genius creation of the title character. Stanton gives ample time for his mostly silent hero to show of his comedic skills, ones worthy of the great Buster Keaton. Stanton has actually said that he and his staff studied the entire available catalogs of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton in an effort to understand and emulate the great silent comedians. Wall-E is a delightful creation, and the movie starring him equally enchanting. It was another one that didn't quite hit me with its full force on first viewing. Looking back on my original review, I wasn't even sure if it was Pixar's best movie. After repeat viewings, I always find wonderful little details in it, plus there's still the beautiful sequences like Eve and Wall-E's dance, and the simplicity of the story proves to be a strength rather than a hindrance. Our adorable hero and his quest for love hits me in the gut every time since that first viewing. It's really a testament to the strength of the decade's movies that a masterpiece like Wall-E is only 6th.
5. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004, directed by Michel Gondry)
I have also previously written about my #5, Michel Gondry's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, from 2004. It's one of the most interestingly done visual experiences ever put on screen, with Gondry able to project what the inside of our minds just might look like.

The crowning achievement in Charlie Kaufman's catalog, in my eyes, teaming him again with French music video director Gondry (who had previously directed Kaufman's script Human Nature, unseen by me). A haphazard journey through the memories of Joel Barish (a never better Jim Carrey) as he tries to erase his recently ex-girlfriend Clementine (the always brilliant Kate Winslet) from his mind. Kaufman started from the idea of erasing someone from your memory (who hasn't wanted to do that before?) and the impact that memories have on us as people. The way a loved one can get so associated with something that to remove it would be to remove a part of your own being. The impulsive Clem has had Joel erased from her memory by a company called Lacuna that provides such a service. As a way of getting back at her, Joel decides to erase her from his memory. Joel at one point asks Dr. Mierzwiak (the infallible Tom Wilkinson) if there's any chance of brain damage caused by the erasing. He answers "Well, technically speaking, the procedure is brain damage."

There's an achingly sad moment later in the movie when you realize that Joel doesn't remember the song "My Darling Clementine", even though it had deep meaning to him long before meeting Clem. It had become so associated with her in his mind that to remove her removes all traces of the song as well as his childhood favorite, Huckleberry Hound. For the majority of the movie we travel with Joel through the good and bad memories of the two years he spent with Clem. It's hysterical, heartbreaking, amazingly true to life while being totally surreal. Also, the brilliant score by Jon Brion is worth mentioning. It plays more like an accompaniment to the action onscreen, instead of trying to underline it, or try and inform the audience how to react emotionally. The movie is a beautiful, hilarious, and melancholy trek through the emotions one experiences with both the good and bad in a relationship, and how you should live with the balance of the two instead of trying to forget. Your memories help make you who you are, appreciate that you have them.

4. High Fidelity (2000, directed by Stephen Frears)
High Fidelity is another one that didn't immediately make an impact on me. As a 17-year-old, I walked away from the theater loving Jack Black's hilariously over-the-top know it all Barry, but not really connecting with John Cusack's self-loathing (yet occasionally arrogant) Rob, and his travails through the top 5 loves of his life, and why they didn't work out. A few years later, I watched the movie again and found it deeply affected me on an emotional level, now that I had some life experience with what Rob was talking about, and a deeper love of the pop-culture that Rob also cherishes. Now, as a 26-year-old with even more experiences, I find more than ever that I connect not just with Rob, but with Barry, Dick, Liz, and Laura. All the characters are amazingly well drawn (much of which comes from Nick Hornby's brilliant novel) and brilliantly played by the actors, with even Jack Black seeming like a real character, and not just Jack Black.

Sometimes a movie feels so personal to me that I fear showing it to other people, afraid that their opinion (whether positive, negative, or indifferent) will color mine in some way and my love of it will be somehow tainted. This is a movie like that. I occasionally hesitate in recommending such a deeply personal favorite, especially one that I don't think will connect with someone as fully as it does with me, immediately at least. Some people aren't willing to revisit movies that they didn't love the first time around. But I do have such a deep love and connection with it that I can't help but put it on this list and want to recommend it to anyone with an open mind.

3. Almost Famous (2000, directed by Cameron Crowe)
With Almost Famous, Cameron Crowe finally achieved the flawless synergy of his love of rock music and the personal relationship dramedy that he’d been trying to perfect since his debut with Say Anything. Crowe used his experiences as a teenaged journalist for Rolling Stone magazine (where he toured with Led Zeppelin, The Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and The Eagles, among others) as the basis for his autobiographical masterwork. And while the theatrical cut of the movie is wonderful, the cut that makes it onto my list is the Untitled: Bootleg cut (i.e. Director’s cut). Although most director’s cuts are fairly worthless and indulgent, the original cut of Almost Famous only had one drawback (to me), which was that it felt a bit rushed. Crowe’s Untitled cut adds in just enough scenes to make the movie feel more lived in, more detailed, and add more character moments so that we really get to know and love these people.

Even though the movie skirts so close to cliché at nearly every turn, it never felt anything but alive to me. A lot of the credit for that goes to Crowe’s (deservedly) Oscar-winning script, but I think even more of it goes to the best cast he’s ever assembled. From Patrick Fugit as our hero William, to Frances McDormand’s overprotective mother and Zooey Deschanel’s flighty sister, Jason Lee and Billy Crudup’s quarreling band leaders, to Kate Hudson’s perfect Penny Lane and most especially Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Lester Bangs (still his greatest of many, many great performances), the closest thing William has to a mentor. Hell, Crowe even gets a terrific performance from Jimmy Fallon. Fugit though, as the newcomer of the bunch, deserves special mention for his ability to capture a certain youthful naiveté and earnestness, while also taking us on William’s coming-of-age journey with enthusiasm and joy. It’s one of the great youth performances the movies have ever given us.

Probably the most talked about sequence in the movie is the “Tiny Dancer” scene. I’ve heard it described as transcendent by some, and ridiculous (or worse) by others. It is, of course, the former. After a night of in fighting and much drug intaking, the whole group is angry with Crudup’s Russell Hammond as he gets on the bus wrapped in a towel and still a little bit high. The bus sets off, and Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” plays over the bus speakers. Eventually everyone joins in singing along, and with it, Crowe shows us the kind of healing power great music can have. Nobody says anything to Russell about the night before. They don’t have to. Music is a powerful thing, and Almost Famous captures that like no other movie I can think of.

2. Pan’s Labyrinth (2006, directed by Guillermo del Toro)
Guillermo del Toro had shown promise with some of his earlier films, most particularly in the comic book adaptation Hellboy, and his ghost story The Devil’s Backbone. But he had never melded his extraordinary talents as a visual stylist with some storytelling craft as well as he did with his 2006 masterwork Pan’s Labyrinth. He wrote a simple story about a young girl escaping from her hellish life into a fantasy world that may not be any less brutal, but tells it with an elegance and assurance that he’d only hinted at before. The effortless flow of the story makes the simplicity all the easier to enjoy, with the only character who isn’t really a defined good guy or bad guy being the Faun who opens up this alternate world to our young heroine.

Movies with children as the lead characters can often get bogged down in “cute” moments from the young actors who fail to give much in the way of a real acting performance. Pan’s Labyrinth is not one of those movies. Premier among the movie’s many pleasures is the central performance from Ivana Baquero as Ofelia. The rest of the cast is littered with wonderful performances as well, but Ofelia is our guide and needs to be something truly special. Baquero is most certainly that. The film’s detractors often point to the simplistic nature of the movie as a negative, usually pointed at Sergi Lopez’s villainous Captain Vidal as the biggest offender. So what? So he’s obviously the bad guy, and he’s a really, really bad guy. He’s not even the most memorable villain, as the infamous Pale Man sequence has demonstrated. Regardless, do we denigrate The Adventures of Robin Hood because Claude Rains is so wonderfully hissable, or the Harry Potter movies because Voldemort is one-sidedly evil? No, we enjoy the obstacle for our heroes to overcome. And the movies are better for it.

The feeling that often stays with me after watching Pan's Labyrinth is one of a beautiful melancholy. The Javier Navarrete score is gorgeously haunting, and fits the movie perfectly. The rich cinematography from Guillermo Navarro, as well as Del Toro’s developing compositional brilliance, leaves us with some stunning images. One thing I would like to address that Del Toro purposefully leaves open to a bit of interpretation is whether or not this fantasy escape is all happening in Ofelia’s head. There’s a shot near the end where Vidal runs into Ofelia talking to the Faun, but he can’t see the Faun. Del Toro has said he meant this as adults aren’t as in tune with the fantasy world as children, more than that the fantasy world doesn’t exist. And that’s the way I’ve always looked at it as well. I’m more one who believes in the fate of the fig tree as an indication of what was real and what wasn’t. What is very real though is that this is one of the great movies I’ve ever seen, and I have no problem having it as my #2 movie of the decade.

1. Children of Men (2006, directed by Alfonso Cuaron)
I have rarely been as emotionally impacted while watching a movie as I was sitting in the theater watching Children of Men. Having since seen it multiple times, I am more convinced than ever that it is the best movie of the decade, and one of the greatest achievements in all of cinema. Its story is very simple: the year is 2027, and the human race has been infertile for the past 18 years. An emotionally disconnected former activist (now anonymous bureaucrat, played by Clive Owen) is asked by his ex-wife to escort a young girl to safety across the dangerous obstacles now occupying England as the world's last surviving powerful nation. The by now well known complication being that the girl is pregnant. Director/writer/editor Alfonso Cuaron uses this concept as the basis to tell a powerful story of action, love, and hope rarely touched in cinema. The almost oppressive grimness of the frighteningly realistic future setting is offset with the optimism brought about by the prospect of a future generation.

Children of Men has become somewhat famous for its single-shot sequences, including an assault on a car that lasts for more than 4 minutes, and a shot during a chaotic battle that lasts for around 7 1/2 minutes. The thing that many people don't know about these shots are that they aren't really a single shot, but a couple of shots stitched together through the aid of computers. Some detractors have taken this as a negative, as though the only point of single-shot sequences is an exercise in technique. The single-shot sequences, whether actually a single unaided shot or not, work as a single take, not allowing the audience the chance to distance itself through an edit. We can't get away from the action, because the camera isn't getting away from the action, making the movie all the more tense and exciting.

The great German director Werner Herzog has said that the world is starved for great images. With Children of Men, Alfonso Cuaron continues his fight to give us extraordinary images. He has the audacity to be poetic in an almost Herzog-ian way such as in the scene where the soldiers all stand around dumbfounded at the sound and sight of the baby Theo is escorting out of a building. Some people, even in the midst of the fighting and destruction going on around them reach out to the baby as the first sign of hope in nearly 20 years. The soldiers, many of whom are probably too young to even remember seeing a baby in their lifetimes, look on at the young child in a paralyzing shock. It's a tremendously moving sequence, and again, Cuaron's use of music (an opera) is very reminiscent of Herzog. Cuaron has given us some wonderful images in his previous movies. Y tu Mama Tambien, A Little Princess, and even his Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban were expertly filmed and gave us gorgeous shots to behold. But nothing he'd ever done in the past prepared me for the power and poeticism of some of his work here. I would single out more shots, but I could nearly single out anything in the movie and use it as an example, since Cuaron often finds the poetry of images in small ways that many viewers may not even be aware of or remember.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Top 10's of the decades - 1990's

10. Defending Your Life (1991, directed by Albert Brooks)

Albert Brooks is a sadly underappreciated filmmaker. He's made other good movies, but Defending Your Life is his masterpiece. Daniel (Brooks) dies and is sent to Judgment City, where people from his part of the world are sent to find out whether they will be allowed to move on, or whether they'll be reincarnated on Earth for another go round. They have to defend the power that fear has over us in all its guises, from not taking a job you want because it'll be scary, to chickening out on making a move on the girl you really like. Daniel is assigned an attorney, Bob Diamond (Rip Torn), and eventually meets another deceased person in the city, the fun and lovable Julia (Meryl Streep), also awaiting judgment.

Daniel's told that he will have to defend 9 days of his life while in Judgement City. "Is that a lot?" he asks. It's not a lot or a little, he's told, it just is. But to a neurotic guy like Brooks, that sure seems like a lot, and when he tells people how many he has to defend, people always give him a "Ooh, sorry" kind of response. But the city is nice, they can eat all they want without gaining any weight, and stay at hotels while they're there. Streep's character is booked at a Four Seasons type hotel, while Brooks is relegated to the local Holiday Inn type, only reinforcing his fears that he will be sent back to Earth instead of "progressing on". Streep's character is only defending 4 days, and when Brooks sneaks into her trial he sees things like her saving her family from their burning house and her prosecuting attorney crying and saying "I just wanted to see that again" after Brooks' prosecutor (Lee Grant) has been relentless in saying he doesn't deserve to move on.

The laughs come in all different ways here, some great one liners and set ups, but mostly I found them coming from the great characters Brooks sets up. He's his usual sarcastic neurotic self, but we feel some deep humanity in him as his life of second guessing himself may send him back to Earth just as he's met the love of his (after)life in Julia. And boy is Meryl Streep low key, warm, and altogether wonderful as Julia. It's not a flashy part like many of her Oscar roles, but it's a role that would've ruined the movie if it'd been cast with the wrong actress. Rip Torn is a hoot as the lawyer, and Buck Henry makes an always welcome and hilarious (but brief) addition to the cast Daniel's temporary substitute attorney.

Defending Your Life is a wonderful look at a possible afterlife, with many associated questions arising from the world Brooks creates. It's a terrific love story between Brooks and Streep. And above all it's just a damn wonderful comedy, and a terrific start to my 90's countdown.

9. Swingers (1996, directed by Doug Liman)

Swingers is an important movie for me in that I saw it as a young teenager, and it was one of the first low budget non-Hollywood type of movies I ever loved. It's funny to think of it now as non-Hollywood, since so many of the people involved went on to big careers, but at the time it was just a $200k movie that no studio wanted to make with the writer starring with a bunch of his friends and being directed by a guy, Doug Liman, who'd only made one movie before. But I'm glad things happened as they did, because Swingers is one of the great comedies if you ask me.

Jon Favreau and Vince Vaughn play Mike and Trent, a couple of struggling actors who occasionally get auditions, but mostly just hang out, going to clubs all around LA with their friends Rob (Office Space's Ron Livingston), Charles (Alex Desert), and Sue (named after the Johnny Cash song "A Boy Named Sue", played by Patrick Van Horn), and cruising for chicks along the way. Mike's trying to get over his breakup with a longtime girlfriend, and Trent repeatedly and hilariously tries to get Mikey to follow his advice for how to pick up girls (whether he actually likes them or not is irrelevant). Against this aimless backdrop, Liman shoots a lot of handheld (and apparently often without filming permits) shots, giving the comedy a great homemade and gritty quality that is endearing rather than annoying to me.

Swingers launched both Vaughn and Favreau to much bigger things, both in front of and behind the camera, but I'm not sure either ever did anything better. Liman would go on to direct Mr. and Mrs. Smith, The Bourne Identity, and the underrated Go, but I don't think he ever bettered this movie either. Whether it's Trent's "You're like a big bear" speech, Mike's incessant calling of a girl whose number he got earlier in the night, or even Favreau's little look when Trent says "Hey Mikey, it's been 2 days, you should call that Nikki girl", the humor comes in many ways, all perfectly delivered by the wonderful cast.

8. Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993, directed by Steven Zaillian)

A fascinating movie with a lot of brains and insight, while also working on the level of being one of the great family movies ever made, Searching for Bobby Fischer is a movie that I watch pretty much every time it's on TV, and it's on TV way more often than you might think. I just find it so challenging, yet so lovable. It's perfectly acted by everyone in the cast, subtly directed by ace screenwriter Steve Zaillian, and gorgeously shot by the legendary Conrad L. Hall (where, shamefully, the movie's only Oscar nomination came from). Although "based on a true story", much of what happens is fiction, except for the fact that it follows a chess prodigy. But I've never been one to demand facts from my fiction, so I wholeheartedly love this little movie.

Fred Waitzkin (a never better Joe Mantegna) is a sportswriter who slowly finds out his baseball loving son Josh (Max Pomeranc) innately understands chess, without ever having been taught. Josh learns from "watching the men in the park", like Vinnie (Laurence Fishburne), who yells at Josh's frightened mom Bonnie (Joan Allen) that her son is special, as he writes down the date of the first time he sees Josh play. Thinking his son might be the next Bobby Fischer, Fred is able to secure the services of chess teacher Bruce Pandolfini (Ben Kingsley), who eventually molds Josh as a player in one way, while Vinnie molds Josh into his own vision of what's right in the game. Taking Josh around to competitions, Fred meets other chess parents, fights against the teachers complaining about Josh missing school, and runs up against another chess prodigy that frightens Josh. The supporting cast is filled with people like Tony Shalhoub, Dan Hedaya, William H. Macy, David Paymer, Laura Linney, and many others who populate this wonderful movie with a variety of characters.

It's a fascinating look into a world most of us are probably not familiar with, but at once is very familiar. That of parents pushing their children to do things and be things that the children may not want to do. Josh's mom never loses sight of the goal, and just wants her son to be a good person, but Fred gets caught up in winning at almost all costs because "he's better at chess than I've ever been at anything", while Josh is not always capable of knowing when to take Bruce's often harsh advice and when to take the more nurturing but less fundamentally sound advice from Vinnie. To see Max Pomeranc's tremendous performance as he's being pushed and pulled in all these directions while only 7-years-old, is truly extraordinary. It's probably the best child performance I've ever seen in a movie. Thankfully, it's not wasted in a lesser movie, but into one of the best movies of the 1990's.

7. Out of Sight (1998, directed by Steven Soderbergh)

I wanted to see Out of Sight when it came out because I thought Jennifer Lopez was hot. It was that simple for me. I knew it had "that guy from ER" in it (George Clooney), but whatever, it didn't matter. I had no knowledge of director Steven Soderbergh, nor screenwriter Scott Frank, nor writer Elmore Leonard, whose book inspired the movie. But I think I watched it 4 or 5 times when it came out on VHS (aw, remember those days? I'm glad they're dead too). I was enthralled with George Clooney's cool, Jennifer Lopez's hotness and actual acting ability, the sexy cinematography and editing, and the terrific crime story of deals and double crosses and interesting characters. The supporting cast populated with great actors like Don Cheadle, Albert Brooks, Steve Zahn, Denis Farina, and an uncredited cameo from Samuel L. Jackson, never hurts.

It was a renaissance of sorts for Soderbergh, who'd made a big splash with his debut Sex, Lies, and Videotape, but had hit a wall both creatively and commercially afterwards. It also sparked a great artistic working relationship with Clooney, as the two would make 5 more movies together. But they never topped this initial collaboration (though their terrific remake of Tarkovsky's Solaris gets better every time I watch it). Like Tarantino's Jackie Brown and Barry Levinson's Get Shorty, Out of Sight might not be completely faithful to the source novel, but it "gets" Elmore Leonard. It has the distinctive dialog, an unforced cool, and a leisurely paced narrative that Soderbergh mixes up by telling out of chronological order. It's famous "locked in the trunk" meeting between Clooney and Lopez is justifiably famous as it's off the sexiness charts, but the Don't Look Now evoking sex scene later in the movie is equally as sexy and proves that sexiness can easily exist without nudity. It's fun, funny, violent, sexy, and proof of how great the 90's were that it's only #7.

6. Goodfellas (1990, directed by Martin Scorsese)

Now, speaking of fun and violent, Goodfellas is one of the breeziest 2 1/2 hours in movie history, but is one of the most profane and violent mainstream movies you're gonna see. Not talking about gore or blood necessarily, but violence in the way people speak and treat each other, in addition to the guns and bats and ice picks and whatever else that these gangsters use to dispatch of one another with.

“As far back as I can remember, I've always wanted to be a gangster” Goodfellas follows the story of the half-Irish Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) and his attempt to rise in the ranks of the New York mafia from the mid-1950’s through the late-1970’s. Being half-Irish is an important component in Henry’s story because it prevents him from ever becoming a “made guy”, as only those with 100% Italian blood can ever be “made guys”. The same hurdle blocks Henry’s mentor Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) as well. However, as a child Henry is paired with the sociopathic Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) who as a full blood Italian could one day rise to made status. The three friends begin to pull different jobs to try and make a name for themselves, including the infamous Lufthansa heist.

Henry soon meets a fiery Jewish girl named Karen (Lorraine Bracco), and impresses her by taking her to the Copacabana but instead of going in the front door, he goes through the kitchen and comes out right in front of the stage as a table is placed there for them (this is where the famous tracking shot takes place, commonly considered the greatest of Scorsese’s career). Karen, taken aback by the treatment Henry receives asks him what he does for a living, “I’m in construction” Henry says without missing a beat. They’re quickly married and soon Henry has gained a mistress, begun the selling (and intaking) of cocaine, and has to deal with the repercussions of Tommy’s violent quick-trigger temper.

In addition to the flawless acting, Thelma Schoonmaker and Michael Ballhaus deserve infinite praise for their work on the editing and cinematography, respectively. Ballhaus’s roving camerawork helps us feel personally involved in these people’s lives, and Schoonmaker’s propulsive editing makes the movie feel alive with energy. The most obvious examples of Ballhaus’s great work is the famous tracking shot in the Copa, and the great camera work during a certain sequence of the movie scored to the piano section of “Layla”. Schoonmaker’s genius in particular shows during a bravura sequence where Henry spends a frantic, paranoid day where he believes an FBI helicopter is following him as he dashes all over town running guns, tries to organize some drug trafficking, and attempts to cook dinner for his family (“don’t let the sauce burn” he keeps repeating to his family).

That said, some people may be bothered by both the language (the “f” word is used an alleged 300 times in the movies 145 minutes) and the violence. These characters are not nice people, and the fact that they show no remorse for their actions may also disturb some. The movie is not overly graphic in terms of gore, but there is no shortage of violence depicted on screen. Still, it's to Scorsese and company's credit that I can't help but smile while watching all of that go down.

5. Dead Man Walking (1995, directed by Tim Robbins)

THE most emotionally devastating movie I've ever seen, Dead Man Walking's genius is to get us to be destroyed by the execution of an awful human being. Sean Penn's extraordinary work as Matthew Poncelet (the best of his considerable career) and the tireless decency and love from Sister Helen Prejean (Susan Sarandon) force us to see that every life is precious, even those of people who've stolen that precious gift from others. Robbins being the writer/director and staunchly against the death penalty, there are certainly indications that the movie is anti-capital punishment, but it has the intelligence and heart to also understand what an execution can bring to the families of those who've been wronged.

The story is that Poncelet is on Death Row for the murder of a teenaged couple and rape of the woman. Though he maintains his innocence, all evidence and testimony points elsewhere, and I never felt that the movie took Poncelet's declarations of innocence at all seriously. He asks local nun Sister Helen Prejean to help with his legal appeal, hoping to reduce his death penalty to life imprisonment, as his accomplice got. The families of the teenage couple gawk at Sister Helen through uncomprehending eyes, insisting she's taking "his side" while she tells them that everyone deserves a defense and killing another person won't bring back those already killed. But the final 30 minutes or so is the most destroying piece of cinema I've seen, as we see Matthew come to grips with the realization that he can't get out of his sentence, and Sister Helen's guides him through his final moments as she pleads with him to truly take responsibility for what he's done and have the possbility of redemption in God's eyes.

Flawlessly acted, written, and directed, the movie is never sensational about such an inflammatory subject. It sees everything the way it is, gives everyone their time, and simply regards the process of execution. Leaving the audience to make up their own minds about what they think. Robbins sidesteps every opportunity to preach to the crowd. He's much too smart for that. He knows that simply showing the story (adapted from the non-fiction book of the same name by Sister Helen Prejean), and making sure to show everyone as a real person, we'll see that Matthew's death really doesn't bring back that poor teenage couple. All we're left with is another dead body.

4. Unforgiven (1992, directed by Clint Eastwood)

Little Bill: You'd be William Munny out of Missouri. Killer of women and children.
Will Munny: That's right. I've killed women and children. I've killed just about everything that walks or crawled at one time or another. And I'm here to kill you, Little Bill.

My vote for Clint Eastwood's masterpiece as actor and filmmaker is the universally acclaimed western Unforgiven. The terrific characters set up in the original screenplay by David Webb Peoples people this movie with a lot of life, and Eastwood's flawless casting of great actors like Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman and Richard Harris, in addition to himself in the lead role, really helps bring the story alive. Ultimately though, it's the story of William Munny, who'd been cured of the evil ways of his youth by his now deceased wife, leaving him with two young children, and a lifetime of guilt and frustration. When the opportunity to make some money comes up, taking revenge on a couple of guys who attacked some whores in a brothel in Montana, he takes it. We follow him on his eventual descent back into the William Munny of legend, as the job becomes much bigger than taking down a couple of hoodlums, when Hackman's corrupt Sherrif Little Bill doesn't take kindly to Eastwood trying to cash in the reward for these fellas he's given leniency to.

It's a gorgeously shot, wonderfully acted, and terrifically written elegy of a movie. Eastwood's farewell to the western genre that'd made him a household name. Almost noirish in its moral ambiguity, Unforgiven also works as a straight ahead western adventure, even if you don't want to look deeper at the things he's saying with it. One of the best movies to ever win Best Picture at the Oscars, Unforgiven stakes its claim as possibly the greatest western ever made too.

3. Pulp Fiction (1994, directed by Quentin Tarantino)

Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction hit the moviegoing public like a lightning bolt in 1994. It's unashamed use of violence and creatively foul language offended a good deal of the people who went to see it (there were actually a number of boos from the audience when it took home the Palme D'or, the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival). It also hit me like a lightning bolt when I first saw it at about the age of 12 or so. It was the first movie I'd remembered seeing told out of order (no, I hadn't seen Citizen Kane by 12, nor had I seen Tarantino's debut, Reservoir Dogs) and the stunning dialog really lodged a place in my young brain. Tarantino's skills as director also had quite an impact on me, building tension in some scenes, hilarious comedy in others, and his use of music struck a significant chord with me back in those days of not knowing just how much he was stealing from Scorsese (in style and approach more than content).

So many movies that hit you at a young age simply don't continue having the same sort of impact as you get older. Pulp Fiction, though, still thrills me and makes me laugh (it's one of the great dark comedies at its core), nearly as much as when I was 12. There's not really a whole lot more to write about one of the most written and talked about movies ever made. Not for everybody, but definitely for me!

2. Dark City (1998, directed by Alex Proyas)

I vaguely remembered Dark City being advertised, but only knew one person who saw it in theaters and they told me it was just ok. So I was surprised when I saw at the end of the year that it landed at #1 on Roger Ebert's year end top ten list. That made me want to check it out and see what was up. I did, and just thought, "it was ok". But then I started thinking more about the philosophy behind it, and especially the images contained within it. I was caught by the incredible German expressionistic architecture, and the subconscious evocation of old school noir movies (subconscious to me, because I didn't know much about noir at the time) and the paintings of Edward Hopper. So I bought it on DVD, watched it again, and liked it a lot. Then a few weeks later watched it again, and loved it. A few months or a year or whatever later, I watched it again and decided it was one of my favorite movies. In 2008, director Alex Proyas released his Director's Cut of the movie. I'm not normally a fan of DC's, but this one took one of my favorite movies and turned it into an all-time top 5 for me. The theatrical cut is like a sprint, the quick cutting and relentless pacing rushing towards the final confrontation. The DC adds in just a few scenes, but Proyas cuts them in in a way that lets the movie breathe and not exactly take its time, since it is still paced quite rapidly, but feel like it's not the sprint to the finish line that the original cut is.

The first section of the movie is brilliantly constructed in a way to make a little off balance in our viewing. Our protagonist, John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell), doesn't know who is he, where he is, or why he's there. Proyas shoots with no camera movement, and the rapid cutting and seemingly disconnected storytelling putting us subconsciously in the shoes of our hero. Slowly, he begins to think more clearly and put together the strands of his life with the help of his wife (Jennifer Connelly), a mysterious doctor (Keifer Sutherland), and the detective (William Hurt) assigned to a murder case that John is the lead suspect in. As John does this, Proyas slowly starts letting shots linger a bit longer, move a bit more, and yet never lose the remarkable attention to visual detail that Proyas displayed in the earlier sections. The movie is chock full of references to other works, whether it's the landmark sci-fi epic Metropolis, the anime classic Akira, or the short stories The Tunnel Under the World and The Lottery in Babylon. Another influence, the French movie The City of Lost Children, is even quoted when one of the villains mentions that the people "Walk through the city like lost children."

The movie that Dark City most often gets compared with is The Matrix. They came out a year apart, in February of '98 and March of '99 respectively. They are both dark on a visual level, and deal with the central idea of "the world you live in isn't real," a classic sci-fi concept that both movies use as a launching pad. The Matrix uses it for half-hearted philosophy, but mainly for an action movie (which is all The Matrix is, no matter what any nerd tries to convince you otherwise), and even reused a few of Dark City's sets on its Sydney, Australia sound stage. Dark City uses it for philosophical contemplation and half-heartedly for an action movie. Proyas also uses the story as an excuse to have incredible image after incredible image on screen. Ebert said so eloquently in his original review (he's since written another one, when he added it to his list of "The Great Movies", as well as doing a commentary track for the DVD) and I can't top it, so I'll just close with this quote "If it is true, as the German director Werner Herzog believes, that we live in an age starved of new images, then Dark City is a film to nourish us. Not a story so much as an experience, it is a triumph of art direction, set design, cinematography, special effects--and imagination."

1. Big Night (1996, directed by Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott)

I've written about Big Night over and over again, because it's the movie I most connect to on an emotional level. It's a terrific comedy, a heartbreaking drama, and an actors showcase as the ensemble put together by Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott, including the two of them, is simply extraordinary. I initially wrote that Big Night was about life, and I believe that more than ever now. It's about relationships, new and old, romantic and platonic and familial, beginning and ending. It's about trying to start your life, or a new life in the case of Tucci and Tony Shaloub's Italian brothers. It's also about food, that life giving nurturer that we disrespect so often. Tucci has said "I thought I loved food when I started making Big Night, but I loved it even more after. It was never my intention to make a food movie. The movie was about the relationship between art and commerce, the art being food." But no movie has ever loved food like Big Night. The cooking, the presenting, the eating, it's all here, it's all delicious looking, and it means so much. When Shaloub's character is disgusted by the "Italian food" served at the restaurant of Pascal (Ian Holm), he isn't just disgusted, he shouts "RAPE! RAPE! That's what that man serves every night, the rape of cuisine!"

It's a movie that is comforting to me. It's a movie that is moving to me. It's a movie that is endless in its humane depth of insight. It is my favorite movie and definitely the #1 movie of the 90's.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Roger Ebert, 1942 - 2013

Film critic Roger Ebert died yesterday at the age of 70. There have been countless tributes and RIP's out there from fellow critics, actors, filmmakers, bloggers, even President Obama. Most people knew him from his TV partnership with Gene Siskel, where their "Thumbs Up" or "Thumbs Down" was used and repeated so much it became part of pop culture, eventually they even had it trademarked. But he started his career when the Chicago Sun-Times film critic retired and he was put into the position in 1967. He always considered himself a writer and reporter above all. He wrote more than 7,000 reviews during his career, most of which I've probably read. He even won a Pulitzer Prize in 1975, the first movie critic to be bestowed the honor. He apparently had more than 31,000 Twitter posts, though I'm not a big Twitter person so I didn't read most of them. He also posted on his blog frequently, and I read most of those entries.

No one is more responsible for my growth in film knowledge and appreciation than Ebert. As I got into my teens and needed something to push my brain, I came upon Ebert's writing. I'd always preferred Siskel on the show, but Ebert's writing was like a whole new world to me. His weekly reviews (often pushing near 300 a year) have been regularly read by me for more than a decade. His "Great Movies" essays on the essential movies in history were always a welcome Sunday read. Any time I saw a new movie, usually even if I'd read his review before watching it, I wanted to see what Ebert had to say, even (and sometimes especially) when I thought he was wrong. Even today, I've seen a lot of Siskel and Ebert reviews on TV (or YouTube or where their reviews live now) but it's no comparison to what I've read from Ebert.

With on screen partner Gene Siskel
His obvious and unpretentious love of all good movies was a revelation to me. Here was a guy who would give 4 stars to a big Hollywood blockbuster, or a tiny little indie movie, or a foreign film, as long as he thought it deserved it. There were no boundaries, and that was incredibly freeing to me. As long as you could articulate what it was you liked, there was no need to say anything but what you believed. I know now that that's not necessarily a unique quality for a film critic, but at the time it seemed so many were either stuffy anti-Hollywood types, or idiot blockbuster hounds. But in Ebert I found a talented writer who nurtured my love of both watching and writing. In fact, it's over the years of reading his work that led me to start writing myself. This blog doesn't exist without Ebert.
Recently with wife of over 20 years, Chaz
He was tireless in his work. He was still posting reviews as of last Friday, and posting on his blog as of Tuesday. On his blog over the last few years, he related many very personal stories of his cancer treatments and recovery. He'd post on religion, politics, and in one heartbreaking and extensive post, detailed how he battled alcoholism. After cancer took his ability to speak (as well as eat solid food) in 2006, he said he was so open about his fight because his good friend Siskel had been so private about his fight against the brain tumor that took him in 1999. It let us, the readers, into his daily life and his struggle so that he became more than just some movie critic or writer. He was our friend Roger. I don't remember ever shedding a tear over the death of someone I didn't know, and that didn't change yesterday, because Roger Ebert's fans knew him well. RIP