Thursday, December 28, 2017

How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000)

I re-watched Ron Howard’s 2000 film Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas this week as one of the Christmas movies I saw this season. It wasn’t particularly well received when it came out but I have come into contact with a surprising number of people who have a great nostalgia for it. I hadn’t seen it in quite a few years, but I’m glad I revisited it now. I didn’t enjoy it, it’s a pretty terrible movie, but I’m glad I gave it another chance.

The worst thing about this movie is that it doesn’t seem to understand the source material, or Dr. Seuss in general, really. In the original story, The Grinch hates the Whos down in Whoville and that’s all we know. The narrator even tells us not to worry about why, though it does then offer the explanation that The Grinch’s heart is simply too small. The Whos, meanwhile, are total innocents, seemingly oblivious to The Grinch, as little Cindy Lou Who doesn’t recognize him as The Grinch when he’s in her house, but accepts him as Santa Claus. Here in this movie, adapted by writers Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman (coming off their even more awful adaptation of Wild Wild West), The Grinch is shown to be a sort of boogeyman to the Whos, almost a Voldemort as they cringe at the name itself, much less his presence. The Grinch is given a backstory of being bullied by the Whos when he was in elementary school, helping lead him to his Grinchy ways (although he was also unpleasant to start with). He then runs away to Mount Krumpit where he revels in the trash that the Whos dump there, wallowing in self-hatred and self pity and mostly generic dislike of the Whos.

The problems here are almost already too many to mention, as there’s no bullying in the world of Seuss, at least not of the generic kind shown here. Even in something like The Lorax, The Onceler doesn’t actively bully The Lorax, he just doesn’t heed his advice and pays the consequences for it. Here, we don’t need a backstory where The Grinch was a victim of the horrible bullying of the Whos, and in fact all of that is antithetical to the characters themselves. The Grinch is made the misunderstood hero, while the Whos are awful creatures who mock The Grinch for being different. This is an unnecessary and unexplainable reversal of character that is never really addressed. The handling of the backstory itself is actually pretty good and self-contained, I think it works. It might explain why The Grinch hates Christmas and the Whos. But is it needed? I don’t really think so. We don't need to understand how The Grinch was victimized as a child. He's The Grinch, that's all we need to know.

The Whos are also shown to be materialistic and shallow, celebrating and reveling in the commercialism of Christmas. All except for Cindy Lou Who (Taylor Momsen, giving a really nice child actor performance), who is taken from being in two pages of the book, and expanded into the co-star of the whole piece. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but Cindy doesn’t do much other than be the moral champion that nobody listens to until the finale when everyone suddenly listens to her and they all live happily ever after. I understand that there may need to be expansion of character and story when going from a 60-ish page children’s picture book to a full length feature movie, and so Cindy Lou Who is a fine choice to expand, but there’s really not a character there. She starts as the moral center nobody listens to and ends as the moral center that people listen to because....reasons. But the other Whos, including Cindy’s status quo dad Lou (the great Bill Irwin) and “winning the best Christmas lights contest” obsessed mom Betty (Molly Shannon), as well as the Mayor of Whoville (Jeffrey Tambor) and his girlfriend Martha May (Christine Baranski, who does barely contained femme fatale sexuality better than anyone) are all drawn as shallowly as possible.

Worst of all, I think, is actually The Grinch himself. While Jim Carrey may not seem a terrible choice in theory, as the man at his height is a walking cartoon himself, he’s all wrong for the character here. Carrey is manic when The Grinch should be quietly, even deliciously, menacing. He’s cartoonish when The Grinch should be deeper as a character. The makeup, which deservedly won an Oscar, transforms Carrey into looking like a terrific Grinchy lead, but he doesn’t seem to understand the character, and that’s a problem when he’s the star. Even in the finale, when Carrey really does the emotional heavy lifting of having The Grinch realize the true meaning of Christmas, he’s tremendous, only to undercut it with what should have put the emotion over-the-top (the growing of The Grinch’s heart) into really turning on the tears, Carrey goes for a wacky “it feels like I’m having a heart attack” buffoonery instead of staying in the emotion of the moment. It all amounts to nothing, and even negates the good work he does do here.

But Carrey isn’t the only one at fault, as the movie itself also doesn’t understand the story and goes for manic when it should be going for magic. The movie is both too long (at 104 minutes) and also too shallow to justify even a full length feature, much less one over an hour and a half. It has a couple of songs, but very short ones, like it was originally going to be a musical adaptation, but they changed that at the last minute. Overall it’s just an unpleasant experience. None of the magical whimsy of Seuss is captured, and even the nastiness of The Grinch isn’t entertaining, it’s off-putting. There are plenty of sexual innuendo’s in the script, as well as more adult material like The Grinch pulling a bottle of alcohol out of a Whos pocket to drink. Who are these things for? They’re not from Seuss. They’re not in the spirit of Seuss. They’re not ultimately for anybody, really. They don’t work in or out of the context of the story.

This movie as a whole doesn’t work. It may not be as bad as the mind-numbing animated feature adaptation of The Lorax was, but it’s bad. The animated TV specials of both The Lorax (from 1972) and The Grinch (from 1966) are really tremendous and are still what should be watched by everyone. They’re in the spirit of Seuss (as Seuss was involved with them) and capture what the man and his stories were really about. Watch them, show them to your kids, not this.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

The Best Endings in Movie History

The ending is often the thing that cements a movie's status. The right ending can take a movie from good to great, great to transcendent, or unfortunately, meh to bad, or bad to awful. So the ending must be done right. Some endings become famous in their own right, even outside of the movie itself. "Bruce Willis was dead the whole time" became a cultural phenomenon when The Sixth Sense came out. People are still talking about the ending of The Usual Suspects, finding out that Kevin Spacey's Verbal Kint was actually the criminal mastermind Keyzer Soze the whole time. The problem with some of these kinds of endings is that they actually nullify what came before it. If Kint was Soze the whole time, then none of his storytelling mattered because it was likely all a lie and the movie becomes a variation on "it was all a dream" (the worst possible kind of ending). Finding out that Bruce Willis was dead the whole time is certainly a shock to us and him, but when you start to pull the thread of "wait, so he never talked to his wife for a whole year and didn't figure out what was happening? No interactions and he didn't think something was up? What about his funeral? Was he there for that? Did he just disappear and reappear a few days later? Did he not wonder why his wife was so inexplicably sad?" the movie and its ending fall apart.

The list I have here are all endings that work, and work well, for a variety of reason from a variety of types of movie. Obviously, ***SPOILERS***. So if you see a movie title you might not want to see discussion about the ending, skip it. Now onto the list!

Honorable mention: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) directed by Philip Kaufman

Donald Sutherland's inhuman noise and screwed up face signaling the ending of humanity as the pod people have taken over. Pretty powerful, frightening, and iconic stuff.

12. Sleepaway Camp (1983) directed by Robert Hiltzik

It's an awful movie, but the ending is insane and creepy, and I would say reason enough to see the movie. We find out that our main character, Angela, is actually a boy named Peter, who was raised as a girl after his sister Angela died in an accident. Peter/Angela has been the one murdering people at the camp as we see him, naked, jump up, dropping the severed head of his boyfriend, and make a truly unsettling and animalistic hissing sound as the remaining characters look on in horror. Credits. It's an amazingly effective ending, similar to Invasion of the Body Snatchers' actually, to a movie whose scares had been little-to-none previously.

11. Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982) directed by Tommy Lee Wallace

Halloween III is the black sheep of the Halloween franchise, but it's what the franchise should've been. It thankfully has nothing to do with Michael Myers, and instead was the first entry the way that series creator John Carpenter intended, as a Halloween themed anthology horror series. Damn I wish it had succeeded. Now unfortunately, like Sleepaway Camp, it's not a good movie. But the ending is phenomenal. Our hero, Dr. Daniel Challis, discovers the bad guys plan to commit mass murder through the use of Halloween masks made by his company, all of which contain a microchip that will bring death upon its wearer and anyone around them when it hears the signals produced by a commercial for the masks. Challis, after escaping from the bad guy, is able to use a payphone to call the TV stations and get the intended commercial taken off two of the three channels (ahh, pre-cable TV, remember the days?) but the movie ends as Challis is on the line with the third station, hysterically screaming into the receiver "Turn it off! Stop it! Stop it!" as the commercial begins to play. Credits role. It's a memorable ending because the bad guys don't usually win in horror movies. Although the bad guy is dead here, his plan at least partially succeeds and likely thousands of people (most hauntingly, the children wearing the masks) are going to be dead. Again, not a good movie, but a great ending.

10. Unbreakable (2000) directed by M. Night Shyamalan

David Dunn (Bruce Willis) survives a train crash that killed every other occupant, but he doesn't have a scratch on him. He is approach by Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), who is David's opposite, a man whose body is so fragile he says they called him "Mr. Glass" as a child.

Many feel like this ending, revealing that supposed mentor Elijah is the one who set up the train derailment in his search for an Unbreakable, was another Shyamalan twist, just like The Sixth Sense had famously had (and his later The Village would later ridiculously have), but it really isn't, even if Shyamalan foreshadows it with Elijah's mother buying him a comic book as a boy and excitedly saying "they say this one has a twist at the end". Elijah being revealed as a villain has been obvious the entire time. We are just conditioned by others movies to have seen the type of relationship between Elijah and David as mentor/student, with Elijah helping David realize his potential as a hero. But Shyamalan sets up every step of the way that Elijah is the villain, we just weren't paying attention. We never wonder "what are Elijah's motives?" because other movies spoon feed us everything, but Unbreakable doesn't spell out with big letters that Elijah is the villain until the final scene, but it's not really a twist because the movie hadn't been hiding anything the way other twist movies do. It's all out there and it's not cheated or hidden, we simply assume one thing when another is the truth. And that's what makes this "twist" ending actually work in ways that don't unravel what came before it.

9. The Shawshank Redemption (1994) directed by Frank Darabont

The Shawshank Redemption is a tremendous movie with one of the great touching endings of all time. After Andy (Tim Robbins) has triumphantly escaped from prison, he leaves clues for Red (Morgan Freeman) to come find him if he ever gets out too. Red eventually does, after giving one of cinema's great speeches during his parole hearing. He works the same grocery store job and stays in the same depressing halfway house that we've seen old man Brooks (James Whitmore) in earlier in the movie. Rather than take the same depressingly suicidal actions that Brooks took, Red instead decides he needs to "get busy livin', or get busy dyin" and travels to pick up Andy's clues,

which turn out to be money enough to get Red to the small Mexican town Andy wanted to run away to. The movie ends as Red breaks his parole by leaving the city, traveling to Mexico. Over narration we hear Red say:

“I find I'm so excited I can barely sit still or hold a thought in my head. I think it's the excitement only a free man can feel, a free man at the start of a long journey whose conclusion is uncertain. I hope I can make it across the border. I hope to see my friend, and shake his hand. I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams. I hope.”

This is so powerful because we've seen, earlier in the movie, Andy talk about how hope is a great thing, maybe the best of things. It's the one emotion that will get us through anything. Hope for the future. Hope that things will get better. Red said Andy was foolish for having hope while inside prison, but Andy shows Red the power of hope. The movie ends as we see Red embracing hope, seeing its results as the credits roll as we see Red walking along the beach towards Andy.

8. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) directed by Steven Spielberg

I love the ending of Close Encounters because it doesn't answer any questions. We've seen Richard Dreyfuss's character be psychically compelled to come to Devil's Tower and make further contact with the aliens. During the transcendent mothership sequence, there are people returned who'd previously been abducted by the aliens. Soldiers from WWII, and random others who don't look a day older than when they were abducted decades before. We even see the little son of Melinda Dillon's character come back. The aliens present themselves, never communicating in words what their intentions are or why these people were abducted or anything else. They make physical contact, they make aural contact. One repeats the hand motion, sign language-esque sequence of movements shown by Francois Truffaut's character. But no communication of intentions or reasoning is made. Dreyfuss approaches and is taken aboard the ship. Doors close, ship takes to the skies. We're never told where they're going, why they're here, why they picked the people they did. No motives are revealed, and I love that! No reasoning would make any difference to the movie. No motivation would explain or deepen the experience in any way. The finale of the movie is an overwhelming culmination of the unexplainable experiences our characters have been having. Spielberg uses every tool at a filmmaker's disposal except language. It works on all of our senses and because of the storytelling it feels like a conclusion. But it's a conclusion that doesn't objectively answer anything.

7. Some Like it Hot (1959) directed by Billy Wilder

Some Like it Hot's ending is the beacon of simplicity. Posing as women to outrun the mob, Jerry (Jack Lemmon) and Joe (Tony Curtis) end up in a situation where Joe falls in love with Sugar (Marilyn Monroe), and Jerry is fallen in love with by old man Osgood (Joe E. Brown), eventually even getting engaged (one of Lemmon's finest scenes as an actor, but we're here to talk endings). In the final scene, as the foursome is slipping away in Osgood's boat, Jerry tries to get out of his engagement with Osgood without having to come clean about not actually being a woman. They have this perfection of an exchange:

Jerry: Oh no you don't! Osgood, I'm gonna level with you. We can't get married at all.
Osgood: Why not?
Jerry: Well, in the first place, I'm not a natural blonde.
Osgood: Doesn't matter.
Jerry: I smoke! I smoke all the time!
Osgood: I don't care.
Jerry: Well, I have a terrible past. For three years now, I've been living with a saxophone player.
Osgood: I forgive you.
Jerry: I can never have children!
Osgood: We can adopt some.
Jerry: But you don't understand, Osgood! Ohh...
[Jerry finally gives up and pulls off his wig]
Jerry: I'm a man!
Osgood: Well, nobody's perfect.

Despite knowing this was the ending, the first time I saw the movie, I was literally rolling on the floor laughing. It's just a simple, perfect line. It's so casually, acceptingly, and effectively delivered by Joe E. Brown. There simply isn't a funnier line to end a movie, ever.

6. Before Sunset (2004) directed by Richard Linklater

Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) met and fell in love in 1995's Before Sunrise. Circumstances kept them apart and Jesse wrote a book about their experiences that night as they walked through Vienna and fell in love. 9 years later, they have just been through an emotional rollercoaster brought on by both of them finally being vulnerable with the other. Celine had tried to move on from the experience, despite having fallen for Jesse. Reading his book brought up all those feelings in her again and she blames him for her distress. Jesse confesses to Celine that he's unhappy in his marriage and his transmission to her is that he wrote the book as a way to keep alive the only real love he's ever felt. Jesse takes her to her apartment in Paris, just to drop her off before he has to fly back to New York. But he asks her to play a song on her guitar (which turns out to be a song about him), and she gets up to make them some tea while Jesse puts on some music. While being silly and imitating Nina Simone, Celine looks at Jesse.

Celine: Baby, you are gonna miss that plane.
Jesse, smiling: I know.

And the look on Hawke's face tells us that he's going to change his whole life for this woman. He's not going to let her get away. It's an incredibly romantic movie, and that ending is just perfection. After the open ended beauty of Before Sunrise, when I heard they were making a sequel, I was angry, as the ambiguity of the ending to the first movie would be ruined by catching up to the characters again. I wasn't complaining at all after watching Before Sunset.

5. The Birds (1963) directed by Alfred Hitchcock
The Birds is not one of my favorite Hitchcock movies, but it's ending is a doozy. After we've slowly begun to see chaos and destruction follow our heroine Melanie (Tippi Hedren) as her arrival into a sea side town in Northern California coincides with all the areas birds attacking people. The birds attack and attack and attack, relentlessly maiming and killing people in the town. After holed up in a barricaded cottage for the night, Melanie and Mitch (Rod Taylor), carefully try to leave the house in the morning to get Melanie to a hospital for injuries she sustained in the night. Creepily, as they leave the house, there are birds perched on seemingly every surface, perfectly still. They allow the people to leave, no longer needing to attack as it's become obvious that they control the town now.

Man vs nature is a fascinating and endless well for storytellers to draw on. Usually the story is mans attempt to tame nature, or natures harshness swallowing up mans attempts to control it. In The Birds, however, its nature actively attacking humanity and taking control back from us. It's a frightening concept, and although I find the movie to be too long, and the SFX to be dated and no longer scary today, its central concept is a solid one. And Hitchcock's execution of the finale is masterful. The uneasy feeling as Melanie and Mitch go to the car is palpable. And ending the movie knowing that we lost our fight against nature just makes the finish that much more impactful.

4. The Godfather (1972) directed by Francis Ford Coppola

The Godfather has one of the most famous endings in all of cinema, and it's a great one. Visually, of course, The Godfather is one of the most beautiful movies ever made and the framing of shots in this scene is extraordinary. Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) has taken over "the family business" as head of the mafia in New York. He's flexed his power by having the heads of the other families all murdered, as well as some people who were in opposition to him or wronged him in some way. Among those killed were his brother-in-law Carlo. Michael's wife Kay (Diane Keaton) challenges Michael, asking him if he killed Carlo. Michael reminds Kay to never ask him about his business (which should be a dead give away to Kay, that Carlo was part of "his business"), but relents and then lies to her that he didn't have Carlo killed. Kay sighs and smiles in relief and goes to make them a drink. We follow as Kay leaves the room and framed behind her a group of men come in and kiss Michael's hand, paying tribute to him as "Godfather". The shots reverse and we see Kay looking into the room as the door is shut by someone, leaving her in the hallway as Michael does his business.

It's a powerful ending because Michael and Kay fell in love when Michael was a decorated WWII hero. His father Vito (Marlon Brando) had said he never wanted "this life" for Michael. Maybe "Senator Corleone, Governor Corleone" but not to take over as head of the family. And Michael has his father's skills and power as head of the family, but has a ruthlessness that Vito didn't have. Michael lies to Kay, and Kay wants to believe the lie. But as the door shuts on Kay, separating her physically from her husband, it also shuts her out of his heart, and shuts the door on the man Michael used to be. He assured Kay in the beginning of the movie "That's my family, Kay. That's not me." But it has become him. He has fallen. He is corrupted. The door has shut on his soul.

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

Big Night is my favorite movie, and what first began to seal it as such was its ending. The big night of the title, when jazz star Louis Prima was supposedly going to eat at the restaurant owned by our two lead characters, has come and gone. There were fights between Secondo (Stanley Tucci) and his big brother Primo (Tony Shalhoub), as well as between Secondo and his girlfriend Phyllis (Minnie Driver), his mistress Gabriella (Isabella Rosselini), and his business rival Pascal (Ian Holm). The restaurant has lost too much money and is destined to close after the failure of Prima to show up and give the business the publicity it needed. The final scene of the movie is done in one shot, a 5+ minute mostly static shot of the restaurant kitchen as restaurant helper Cristiano (Marc Anthony) is sleeping and Secondo comes in to make some breakfast. The only words spoken are Secondo asking Cristiano if he's hungry. Seco makes some eggs and Cristiano grabs some bread and they silently eat. Primo comes in and rather than continue their quarrelling, Seco grabs a plate and dishes up the last of the eggs for his brother. They sit beside each other, eating, and without saying a word they embrace each other and the movie fades to the credits.

It's a powerful ending because of all the implications of the actions. We don't need any words. We know the restaurant will fold, and that the brothers' options are unknown. They love having their restaurant together. They're a team, they're family, they're best friends. Primo wants to go back to Italy to a job their uncle has set up for them. Secondo has said he will never go back to Italy. They both thought they were teaching the other how to succeed, Primo through showing his baby brother the art of food, Seco through teaching Primo that there's a business to run and they must sell the food to survive. Pascal, who set up the big night, promising that Louis Prima would come despite knowing that was a lie, wants their restaurant to fail so that he can bring the brothers to his restaurant to work and elevate his business. Out of desperation, Seco might go to Pascal, but Primo would not. He's disgusted by Pascal. There's so much unknown in the futures of these two men, and nothing gets resolved by the ending. But when they embrace each other, over food, we know that their relationship will be okay and we get a sense that everything else will work out however it will work out but it'll all be okay because they won't ever abandon their brotherly love. It's a beautiful, touching, and very emotional ending to my favorite movie.

2. Whiplash (2014) directed by Damien Chazelle

The ending of Whiplash is one of the most complex endings I've ever seen. Andrew (Miles Teller), has ratted on his former instructor Fletcher (JK Simmons), which got Fletcher fired as the teacher at the prestigious school where he'd led the jazz band for many years. Andrew thinks he told his story anonymously. Andrew has gone from having his entire life revolve around his drumming, to not even stopping to listen to a guy drumming on the street. He just walks on by, eating his slice of pizza. Fletcher begins leading another jazz band and invites Andrew to be the drummer. Without rehearsal, because Andrew knew the parts to the songs Fletcher told him they'd be playing, the band plays a public gig. Andrew is set up by Fletcher, as the other band members are playing a different song. Fletcher had done this to most publicly embarrass Andrew as revenge for getting him fired. Instead, after Andrew runs off stage, he decides to come back and takes a transcendent drum solo, mouthing "fuck you" to Fletcher as he does it. This burst of creative talent is exactly what Fletcher had always craved from a student, and we see him instead of being angry, eventually come to support and even direct a bit of Andrew's solo. The movie cuts to the credits as Andrew finishes his solo and the two men lock eyes, exchanging looks of "I finally found it" from Fletcher, and relief and a bit of pride from Andrew. But what does this mean?

Fletcher has justified his extreme drill sergeant-esque teaching by saying that the truly great talents would rise up to be better. They would get beat down and come back stronger. He's said he's looking for his Charlie Parker. So when Andrew comes back out on stage, he's fulfilling the prophecy that Fletcher wanted. However, it wasn't by embracing Fletcher's teaching, it was by defying it and even abandoning it. Andrew didn't reach his full potential until he'd stepped away and given up drumming, only relying on his innate talent when he returned. He elevated himself by embracing his own abilities, not by listening to Fletcher in any way (Fletcher's teaching of his drummers was essentially to turn them into human metronomes and didn't really have anything to do with the artistry of music at all). However, the look in Andrew's eyes, right before the cut to black, shows that he obviously loves the approval Fletcher is giving him. Writer/director Damien Chazelle has said that he views this as a dark moment. Andrew is going to go down the same path Fletcher did. I don't know that I totally agree, but the reason the ending is so brilliant is that it is both a triumph AND a dark moment.

1. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) directed by Stanley Kubrick

Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey has an ending that is quite an achievement. Wordless, it conveys more and has caused more discussion than probably any movie ending ever. Our main character, Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) has overcome the murderous HAL 9000, and gets sucked into a wormhole around Jupiter. He goes through and we see innumerable colors and shapes and all manner of visual magnificence, before finally Dave ends up in a brightly lit room all by himself, where he appears to live out the rest of his days alone. Until on his death bed, the black monolith, the same beacon that has spurred evolution in the apes of the beginning section of he movie, appears to Dave. He reaches out to it and becomes what fans have referred to as The Star Child. A frightening, seemingly Godlike baby, as the famous Also Sprach Zarathustra plays on the soundtrack as we cut to black.

To me this sequence is so powerful primarily because Kubrick refused to hold our hands and have dialog explain what was happening. The only flaw, in my mind, is the traveling over different lands to get to the room. This sequence goes on long after the point has been made. We get it, we're traveling over planets which we cannot even comprehend. It just keeps going and going, but perhaps that's what makes the ultimate cut to Dave's face so dramatic and impactful. As for the room itself, I've always thought of it as like a zoo. I think Dave is being observed by whatever alien beings control the monoliths. He lives out his days being monitored by the aliens, and then on his deathbed is deemed worthy of the next step of human evolution, ascension to the stars. I think Arthur C. Clarke's earlier book Childhood's End helps explain this idea really well, if you're looking for more explanation.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Top 15 of the 2010's

15. Hugo (2011) directed by Martin Scorsese

Boy what a love letter of a movie this is. Martin Scorsese is my favorite living filmmaker, and this 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 fittingly so, 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 I can think of 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.

14. 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. 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 led 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 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 stereotypical Spanish hero.

Pixar delivered us another masterpiece, with the best ending since the perfection of Monsters, Inc's. 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.

13. Boyhood (2014) directed by Richard Linklater

In the summer of 2002, Richard Linklater began one of the most ambitious movies in film history. In his home town of Houston, Texas, Linklater started shooting an unnamed movie starring Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette, his own young daughter Lorelei Linklater, and then 7-year-old Ellar Coltrane. Each year for the next 12 years he got the cast and crew back together for a handful of shooting days to tell the story of the boyhood of Coltrane's character Mason, from the ages of 6 to 18. And that's what we get, following Mason from 1st grade into his first days as a college freshman.

The movie is made up almost only the small moments of life. During its 164-minute epic length run time, Linklater gives us a series of life moments. They're not all big speeches or scary incidents. Sure, there are talks about the nature of life and thoughts on the magic all around us in our world, as well as fights and drunken step fathers and all that, but nothing is played to the back of the room. It's all very intimate and insular to Mason's life. After all, life isn't made up of the big moments, but of a series of small moments with occasional spikes in emotion. As I was watching it the first time, like Mason's mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette), I expected more, I expected better, I expected bigger. It wasn't until the end credits rolled that I really understood what it was I'd just watched, which was a truly extraordinary movie. I realized how many times Linklater and his cast, especially his two still growing stars, could've stepped wrong and didn't. Could've hit false notes and didn't. Could've gone for the big Oscar moments, but didn't. Linklater doesn't even give us milestone markers like "1 year later" or "age 14" or whatever, and the movie is better off for it. We realize we're in different times through changed hair cuts or subtle signs of growth (or braces), and it was startlingly fascinating to see both the kids and adults grow older over the course of the movie.

I don't know if it's the best movie of Linklater's career, I'd put it behind Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Dazed and Confused from his oeuvre, but it may end up his most iconic. And since Linklater has always been fascinated with time as a filmmaker, it may be the most Linklater-esque movie he's made.

12. Jauja (2014) directed by Lisandro Alonso

Lisandro Alonso is a filmmaker I'd never heard of before diving into his 2014 film Jauja. But it's obvious to me that he's a director of great talent and one to watch and look forward to in the years to come. Jauja stars Viggo Mortensen as Danish Captain Gunnar Dinesen in 1880's Argentina, leading an engineering project as well as working with soldiers on the eradication of the local native people. In tow is his young teen daughter Ingeborg (Viilbjørk Malling Agger), who is in love with one of the young soldiers in the group, and lusted after by one of the older soldiers. Inge and the young soldier, Corto, run off together one morning. When the Captain awakens to find his daughter gone, he sets out after her, alone. This is pretty much the extent of the story in Jauja.

We are told in the opening titles that Jauja is an El Dorado-like fabled earthly paradise that many looked for, but that they always "got lost along the way." Lost could certainly fit the description of the characters, as Inge doesn't really know where she's going with Corto, and the Captain doesn't really know where he's going in looking for Inge. Lost could also describe the experience of many viewers to the approach Alonso takes as a filmmaker. The movie is very slow moving, few if any close ups, long takes, with beautifully filmed landscapes that made me feel often that it was like Hou Hsiao-Hsien had made a western about a man looking for his daughter. But in the last third, things take an odd, and fascinating turn down the rabbit hole of surrealism, leaving many viewers lost as to what it all means, or maybe what even actually happens. Perhaps that's the "getting lost along the way" that we're told up front happens with Jauja.

In the lead role, Viggo Mortensen gives one of his best performances. Speaking both Danish and Spanish, Mortensen has such command over his body language and the way he's presenting himself that although there isn't a ton of dialog in the movie, we're never left wondering where the Captain is emotionally. It's terrific work from one of our best actors, who we haven't seen enough of lately. It's also remarkable to think of how many languages Mortensen has now spoken on screen. By my tally he's now spoken English, Spanish, Danish, French, Russian, and the fictional language of Elvish.

We know from the opening shot that Inge wants a dog, so when the Captain runs across one in his quest and he follows, where is the dog leading him? When he gets to where the dog led him, where is he? Who is this Danish speaking old woman in the middle of the Argentinian desert? How is she who we think she is? In Norse mythology Hell is presided over by a woman and her dog. Is this Hell? Is the Captain searching through Purgatory, unaccepting of returning to see the woman? What kind of western ever gets us to ask these kinds of questions? One of the greatest, that's what kind.

11. 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 generally 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. Owen Wilson plays the lead role 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. 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, Scott (Tom Hiddleston) and Zelda (Alison Pill). Scott takes a liking to Gil and offers to take him along to a bar they're going to to meet up with Hemingway (Corey Stoll). 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 Salvador Dali (Adrien Brody), Luis Bunuel, Man Ray, Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), Picasso, Matisse, and TS Elliot, among others during the few extraordinary nights he's able to return to this magical place. He also happens to run across the beautiful Adriana (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 Allen" role. He has a bit of Allen's 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. Marion Cotillard is as luminous as Paris itself, making it unsurprising that so many of these artists are inspired by 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 an era previous as well. 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 always glad to see one of my favorite filmmakers working at such a high level.

10. Sing Street (2016) directed by John Carney

John Carney’s Sing Street was one of the most unfairly overlooked movies of 2016. It’s the coming-of-age story of Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), a teenager in 1985 Dublin, Ireland. His family is falling apart, his parents constantly fight, economic times are tough, he’s being transferred to a new Catholic school full of bullies and harsh administration, and (as we all do at that age) he’s trying to figure out who he is as a person. Conor plays a bit of guitar and writes a bit of poetry, but he doesn’t really know who he is yet. What 15-year-old does? Into the mix, as usually happens in these stories, steps “the girl,” Raphina. Conor asks her to be in his band’s next video, to which she agrees. He then promptly walks away and up to Darren, the only friend he’s made at his new school, and says “We need to form a band.”

Conor gets lessons in music from his hash smoking college dropout brother Brendan (Jack Reynor), and finds a songwriting partner in multi-instrumentalist Eamon (Mark McKenna). Quickly, the boys form up their band (which they call Sing Street) and even have an original song written for the video Conor invited Raphina to be in, which they cheaply shoot in hodgepodge costumes and makeup. The shoot is a success, the song is actually good, and it leads to more of both happening. Conor, of course, falls hard for Raphina.

Conor ends up finding himself through the band and through music. It all started because he wanted to impress a pretty girl, but it took hold of him and became a much deeper experience than that eventually. And this is where the movie really shines. I don’t remember other fiction movies being able to capture the unexplainable joy and soul connection of playing music together. We can watch great concert documentaries, but never had a movie captured that with characters in a way that spoke to me (as someone who has played music for a long time, both in bands and by myself) until John Carney’s 2007 movie Once. He then recaptured that magic on a much larger budget with his next movie Begin Again, which is wonderful even if it’s not got Once’s charm. He then moved on to Sing Street, which is one of the most joyous movies I’ve ever seen. Carney has a way of playing off the looks between band members, the sideways glances and just the energy between the performers. Like in Once, he got real musicians to play the lead roles, which I think made a huge difference. These guys aren’t faking their abilities or their joy. They’re just playing these great songs (which Carney co-wrote, alongside his duties as writer/director of the movie) and we feed off their performances.

Carney started out as the bass player in the great Irish band The Frames (led by his future Once star Glen Hansard), before leaving to pursue filmmaking. So he has music in his bones, and it has shown in his three brilliant music driven movies. Carney gets the music so right, but this movie doesn’t work if the love story falls flat, and thankfully he also wrote two great lead roles in Conor and Raphina. Raphina isn’t just a pretty face, and she isn’t a manic-pixie-dream-girl there only to spur Conor’s character development. Raphina is a fully well rounded character, played in a beautifully heart felt and vulnerable performance by Lucy Boynton. She has her own arc, her own insecurities and strengths and weaknesses. And Conor loves her through all of it.

9. Ex Machina (2014) directed by Alex Garland

Ex Machina has all the elements of great science fiction. Mostly, it has the greatest element of science fiction: ideas. There's a lot going on here, comments on human nature, sexual politics, bro friendship, and, of course, it's central theme: artificial intelligence. The story is very simple: Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is a low level employee of billionaire tech developer Nathan (Oscar Isaac). Nathan invites Caleb to his secluded mountain cabin for unknown reasons, only to eventually find out that Nathan wants Caleb to give the Turing test to Ava (Alicia Vikander), an AI robot Nathan built. Things begin to disintegrate quickly, as Ava asks Caleb to break her out of the cabin, and Nathan seemingly plays endless mind games while also drinking and partying like it's the end of the world. Ex Machina was the directorial debut of screenwriter Alex Garland, and it's extraordinary in its directorial control. The uneasy mood, intellectual engagement and intrigue, and the framing shots and careful unfolding of the narrative show that Garland is obviously a big fan of Kubrick, but he never apes or steals. It's just obvious in its inspiration. And Garland doesn't abandon the intellectual approach in the finale, even as he ramps up the tension and lets the sparks start flying. It would be remarkable storytelling even from the most experienced of filmmakers. From a first time director, it's very exciting and I hope it points to big things to come.

8. The Assassin (2015) directed by Hou Hsiao-Hsien

Taiwan's Hou Hsiao-Hsien is one of the most acclaimed filmmakers in the world, and has been a favorite of mine since I first saw his Three Times back in 2009. Long time passion project, The Assassin, stars the impossibly beautiful Qi Shu (her third collaboration with Hou) in the title role. Her magnetic work carries the movie despite the fact that I think she only says about 5 sentences. She plays Yinniang, a 9th century woman who was taken away from her family as a child and trained to become an unparalleled killing tool. We join her as she starts having that downfall of many a movie assassin, human emotions. Tasked with a target of her former betrothed husband, Tian Ji'an (Chang Chen, reuniting with his Three Times cohorts), Yinniang must decide whether or not to defy her master or to betray her heart.

All of this plays out in Hou's typical elliptical and slow storytelling. I've read that the original script explained much more of the story and either through the shooting or during the editing process Hou took things out so that the final product is much more opaque and not straightforward. It lends a wonderful intrigue to the movie, because even though it's not fast paced we are often trying to figure out what's going on, and why. There was a point late in the movie when I had an epiphany as to what was going on and how certain characters related to each other. On the first viewing it makes for a very layered and fascinating viewing experience, and on re-watches lends an even deeper experience.

All of that on top of the fact that this is one of the most beautiful, visually striking movies ever made. Not just the impeccable costuming and set design but also the landscapes (filmed in central and northern China) and Hou's genius in photographic framing in addition to the staging of the action. Hou has always made beautiful movies, but this is no question his most beautiful yet. It won him a Best Director award at the Cannes Film Festival the year it premiered there.

Viewers who come into the movie based on the exciting trailer or the promise of the typical wuxia (ancient martial arts) movie will be numbed by the pregnant silences and even the way Hou shoots the action, not up close and flashy like a Hollywood director, but from his usual medium or long shots, with the action often over before you know it. And yet, because it's so different from what we're conditioned to expect, that's why I find so many of the sequences still vividly in my mind even days and weeks after watching it. The birch tree forest fight (and I didn't even realize who Yinniang's opponent was until later, reading about the movie), Yinniang taking on hordes of guards in the trees outside Tian Jian's compound, shot from long distance so that most of the action is obscured by the trees. It's really extraordinary stuff for us Hou fans. I'm glad he made a wuxia film all his own, instead of trying to make an action movie to have a hit or something. And the fact that it got him some of the best notices of his career was just icing on the cake.

7. La La Land (2016) directed by Damien Chazelle

A great love letter to the cinema and to Los Angeles itself, La La Land was a movie I didn't think would happen. That is, I didn't think that Damien Chazelle could have really followed up Whiplash with a movie in the same realm of greatness. What La La Land is, though, is the work of a truly brilliant filmmaker. Seeing it in the theaters, with all the expectations I brought with, and the Oscar hype that surrounded it at the time, I loved it but wasn't quite as in love with it as I felt I wanted to be. Watching it without all that build up recently, I was bowled over by the visual brilliance, the low key charm of its lead actors Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone (reteaming for the third, and by far best, time), and the directorial choices in both shot selection and framing, and the camera movement. It's audacious in almost every way, unabashedly uncool in what it loves (old school musicals, classic Hollywood dancing, and jazz), and defies expectations by being indebted to all these old school Hollywood and French New Wave (Demy's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort in particular) movies, while being decidedly modern and relevant. The nostalgia element that is so central to Midnight in Paris comes up again here, though Chazelle gives weight to the other side (here personified by John Legend's modern jazz/pop star, Keith) more than Allen did in his movie. To get lost in this movie is to get lost in a perfect melding of the old and the new.

6. Gravity (2013) directed by Alfonso Cuaron

Alfonso Cuaron has my money any time he makes a movie. I've liked or loved every single movie of his I've made. My least favorite in his catalog, the third Harry Potter movie, is typically considered the epitome of that franchise. I'd closely followed the production of his follow up to "best movie of the 2000's" Children of Men (named as such on this very blog). When he finally released Gravity in 2013, I was completely blown away. Sandra Bullock's central role as astronaut Ryan Stone was the best work of her career, and she was supported by one of the most visually ambitious movies ever made. The opening shot alone is 17 minutes long, and all of this was done with Bullock and co-star George Clooney the only non cgi items on screen. The planning that had to go into the lighting of the actors faces, to match what would be done in the computer, is staggering to think about. The simplicity of the movie, though thematically ambitious, is its key. It lets the realism it presents to become a kind of horror movie. A survival horror movie. But then it touches on things like making the decision to keep fighting for life when the universe seems destined to kill you. The decide to live even when you're grieving an unimaginable loss. There are beautiful images of womb-like safety, and triumphant rebirth. How many $100 million budget Hollywood movies have the poetic and artistic talent and balls to try and get you to think and feel these kinds of things? Only the type Cuaron makes.

5. The American (2010) directed by Anton Corbijn

The American is a startling and brilliant movie for a multitude of reasons. It contains one of George Clooney’s best performances, is shot mostly in the picaresque Italian countryside, and is the engagingly subtle tale of an assassin hiding out in a small Italian village. Based on British author Martin Booth’s spy novel A Very Private Gentleman, The American follows Jack (Clooney) as he flees Sweden, running from men who are trying to kill him. We’re not sure why, but Jack’s handler Pavel (Johan Leysen) says it’s because Jack has lost his edge now that he’s getting older. Jack goes to where Pavel sets up a safe house in Italy, but a paranoid Jack runs away on his own to a different town. He’s eventually set up with a job to make a gun for Mathilde (Thekla Reuten, the innkeeper from In Bruges). While in the town, Jack becomes involved with local prostitute Clara (Violante Placido), despite Pavel advising not to “make friends” with anyone, telling him “you used to know that.” Jack also crosses paths with local priest Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli), with whom he has many philosophical conversations. But Jack never lets down his guard, even as we can tell he wants to for Clara.

Violante Placido, as Clara, is kind of the heart of the movie, at least in regards to what she means to Jack. Placido is even more beautiful than her mother Simonetta Stefanelli (whom most of us know better as Michael’s Italian wife Apollonia in The Godfather), but with the same expressive eyes, sweet smile and intriguing Italian sensuality. Possibly the best scene in the movie is one in which they go out on a real date at a restaurant and her girlish excitement at being with a guy she could actually connect with is endearing. When a man comes over selling roses and she tries to shoo him away, trying to tell Jack, “He thinks we’re a couple,” Jack retorts simply with “It’s okay.” The look in her eyes, seeing that Jack isn’t embarrassed she’s a prostitute and actually enjoys being with her, being seen with her, and thought to be her guy, almost brought tears to my eyes in what that means to Clara and how beautifully Placido expresses that. But, of course, this movie works because of George Clooney. There may be no other actor as interesting to watch as he thinks. Jack’s mind is always going, even as he keeps a relatively stone faced exterior. Clooney says so much with his eyes and his body language, and even the tone of his voice, so much more effectively than most actors. He has always been able to sell that there’s a lot going on under the surface, and Jack is one of his best characters. Jack is lost, at a crossroads in his life, and he’s a broken man in many ways. He sees possible redemption for himself in his relationship with Clara, maybe, as long as he can stop wondering if she’s a fellow assassin out to kill him.

There’s not a wasted scene or even moment here, really. Everything tells us something, as long as we’re paying attention. Corbijn’s photography here (along with cinematographer Martin Ruhe) is extraordinary. The movie is beautiful to look at, for sure, but it’s also framed so gorgeously and often in a way that assists the narrative. There are shots where there are things in the background that inform the foreground, or shots that show us the labyrinthine streets of the Italian mountain town, or ones that frame Clooney in a way that underscores what’s happening narratively. It’s a movie that could and should be studied by film students for the brilliance of the shot selection.

Corbijn’s allowance of silence in the movie is likely what turned off some viewers, but it’s what captivates me. He lets words hang in the air as we contemplate something as simple as two different people calling Jack “Mr. Butterfly.” Well, he has a butterfly tattooed on his upper back, which we’ve seen multiple times, but have both of these people seen it? Is it connection or coincidence that these separate people used those specific words? Jack doesn’t live in a world of coincidences. Other movies point out this kind of possible connection, but The American knows it made its point and doesn’t need to bash us over the head with it. It doesn’t insult our intelligence, it respects us as viewers.

4. The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) directed by Wes Anderson

Wes Anderson makes movies like no other. They don't look like other filmmakers' movies, they don't feel like other filmmakers' movies, and the characters don't talk like other filmmakers' characters talk. I've been hit and miss on his movies over the course of his career, loving a few, hating one, and the others falling somewhere in between. I've often said that the Wes Anderson-ness of his movies keeps them at a distance from real emotions and characters and thus keeps us in the audience at a distance from his movies. The Grand Budapest Hotel is the most Wes Anderson-y of his movies yet, and his most extraordinary.

Reminding me a bit of The Saragossa Manuscript in its Russian doll-like unfolding of the story, though not nearly as down the rabbit hole as that movie can be, we eventually arrive at the central story of Monsieur Gustav, who is played by the great Ralph Fiennes in what might be his greatest performance. Gustav is funny, profane, intelligent, well put together, and always in control. His protégé Zero (Tony Revolori) narrates a good part of the story, even though it's done by the older Zero, played by F. Murray Abraham. What follows is a series of funny, exciting, ridiculous, thrilling filmmaking of the highest order.

Anderson assembles a great and large cast, as always. But this is his largest, and greatest cast yet. All of the regulars are here, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, and others, but thankfully even when they're mere cameos (as they are by those actors) they fit within Anderson's crazy world of a movie. And he gets wonderful work out of all of them, most particularly Abraham, Revolori, and Fiennes. This is also, by far, I think, Anderson's best looking movie. That the budget for this movie is listed at $30 million is ridiculous when thinking about how distinct every part of this movie is, and how bland movies with many multiples of that budget are. The sets, costumes, locations, everything is impeccable and I wouldn't have been surprised if I'd seen a $100 million budget attached to it. But Anderson does so much with what he has, proving that cinematic creativity isn't dependent on budget in the slightest.

I laughed out loud many times while watching this movie. It is simply a delight from start to finish. I found myself resisting a bit at first, almost even thinking I may not be in the mood for a Wes Anderson movie right now, but he won me over with this magical, wonderful movie.

3. Whiplash (2014) directed by Damien Chazelle

"There are no two words in the English language more harmful than 'good job'"

So says Terence Fletcher (JK Simmons) to his student Andrew (Miles Teller) as justification for his abusive and manipulative teaching style at the Shaffer Conservatory of Music in Whiplash. Andrew is a 19-year-old, Buddy Rich worshipping, aspiring jazz drummer at the fictional academy (obviously meant to evoke places like Julliard). When he catches the eyes and ears of the notorious Fletcher, who conducts the prize jazz band of the school, he feels like he's made a break on his way to being a legend like Charlie Parker. But things aren't easy in the hyper competitive world, and Fletcher doesn't make anything easier. He flings many things at his students (racial and homophobic slurs, general insults, even occasionally furniture) in relentless pursuit of perfection.

We see Andrew, through the confidence gained by being accepted as an alternate in the band, ask out the pretty girl that works at the concession stand of the theater he frequents with his dad. Melissa Benoist is charming and cute as the girl, Nicole, while Paul Reiser is wonderfully real and loving and supportive as the dad. Andrew progressively uses Fletcher's motivation to push everything but drumming out of his life, even to the point of getting rid of the bed in his dorm room for a drum set so he can after hours and all hours practice. The movie asks us (and its characters) if a single minded pursuit like this is good for the musician or the person who's doing it. Certainly Andrew achieves more under Fletcher's exacting demands than he would have otherwise, but does he actually gain any creativity or artistic understanding? Or is it merely an athletic feat of becoming a human metronome. The movie's moving finale leaves us with this question. Is it a triumph? A descent into madness and inhumanity? Is it a talented slap in the face to Fletcher as a teacher, or an endorsement of him?

Miles Teller and JK Simmons could not have possibly given better performances. Simmons is all bulging veins and muscles and intensity, while Teller strikes a remarkable balance of shy self doubt and growing confidence and even arrogance. Teller also does the majority of his actual on screen drumming, a body double being used only for insert shots and whatnot. This gives a real lived in feel to the character, as they aren't forced to cut around the fact that the star isn't actually playing the instrument we believe he is, as is usually the case. It also gives Teller a chance to really imbue Andrew with telling physicality, so that we don't even need a lot of extra dialog because we can read his body so obviously. Simmons is likely soon to hear his name announced as Best Supporting Actor at the Academy Awards, and it will be with great reason. It will go down as the defining role for the great character actor, even above his lovable Mac MacGuff from Juno, his loudmouth J. Jonah Jameson in Sam Raimi's Spidermanmovies, or even his terrifying white supremacist prisoner on the TV show OZ. He finds a humanity and sense of really caring about the students he's abusing, giving us at least some sympathy for his extreme approach to teaching.

Finally, the work of the filmmaking team of writer/director Damien Chazelle, editor Tom Cross, and cinematographer Sharone Meir make this personal drama in the world of school jazz bands into a psychologically and viscerally thrilling movie. They get the camera right in there with the action of the band, while often cutting to the rhythms of the music in a wonderfully propulsive manner that often has the same effect on us in the audience that a car chase or a shootout has on us in a traditional action movie. Chazelle, in just his second time behind the camera, made a truly personal and affecting movie and announced himself as a filmmaker to really watch.

2. Cloud Atlas (2012) directed by Tom Tykwer and the Wachowskis

What is the point of a movie like Cloud Atlas? I'd say that the point of a movie like this is to shame other filmmakers for their lack of ambition and insistence on giving us the same ole shit. Not a film for people who don't pay attention, or those uninterested in thought provoking art, Cloud Atlas is a movie for those of us that thirst for greatness. This is one of the great movies ever made.

To give a plot synopsis is futile. Writer/directors Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski, and Tom Tykwer weave together six or seven different plot lines from across hundreds of years and many locations. It's a thriller, a romance, comedy, sci-fi/action movie. It's everything you could want in a movie. It was adapted from the 2004 novel by David Mitchell, unread by me. If the novel is anything like the movie, I would've thought it completely unfilmable. What Tykwer and the Wachowski's have done, however, is extraordinary work on every conceivable level. The movie has wonderful and distinct looks across all of its stories, which also takes many recognizable faces and reincarnate them across the stories. Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugh Grant, Jim Broadbent, Jim Sturgess, Susan Sarandon, Ben Whishaw, and many others appear across many, if not all, of the stories. Korean actress Doona Bae was my favorite, although everyone is flawless in their roles, stepping up their game since the filmmakers were setting such an ambitious bar. Also obscenely amazing make-up allows the actors to jump not only through the timelines to play their differing characters, but also jump through ages, races, and even genders.

Unsurprisingly, with what I've just said, Tykwer and the Wachowski's were unable to get any studio financing for the project. Ultimately they raised a little over $100 million independently to make the movie. I wouldn't have been surprised if you'd told me the budget was $400 million. It's expert filmmaking through and through, making more of its budget than any movie in recent memory.

Ultimately, Cloud Atlas takes on themes of love, kindness, friendship, and human decency. Actions ripple across time and space and give us the sense that no persons life is without meaning or influence, even if we don't feel it while we're alive. It's a life affirming movie of the highest order. It's also the type of movie that comes along not very often that affirms the great power of cinema. I think the filmmakers were laying down the challenge to all other artists to push themselves into greatness. Although I've not been a fan of their previous work, this film is exhilarating and enriching to the soul.

1. Upstream Color (2013) directed by Shane Carruth

Shane Carruth got strong notices (and many awards) for his 2004 debut film Primer, a mega-low-budget movie about two friends who stumble into inventing a time machine. Made for just $7,000, the film is remarkable in many ways. My favorite way is the elliptical and complex storytelling, so that we’re not always sure where we are in the timeline of the movie. Carruth feels no need to spell everything out for us, and has even said that although he had to figure out the complex timeline of the movie in order to make it, it’s not necessary for the viewer to. I love that he didn’t spoon feed us everything, or anything, but also that it’s not just a puzzle to figure out. You can work to figure out the logistics if you want, but it’s not necessary to enjoy the movie. There’s also the immortal line “Are you hungry? I haven’t eaten since later this afternoon.” Unfortunately, he struggled through financing his next picture, a sci-fi masterpiece of a script called A Topiary, before eventually abandoning it to make 2013's Upstream Color, which for my money is the best movie of the 2010s.

Upstream Color is a mesmerizing, hypnotic, nearly silent movie. Not silent like The Artist, I say it's silent simply because it relies very little on dialogue. There is plenty of dialogue in the movie, but it doesn’t rely exclusively on it to tell its story or convey ideas. The movie is more about the rhythm of the narrative, the extraordinary cinematography, and the overall sound design. Or I guess I should say that these elements are elevated more here than they are by other filmmakers. The sound design is integral to the story in a way you pretty much never see, and can’t really be explained unless you’ve seen it. Also low budgeted (though Carruth has refused to say, because he felt Primer got too much press for its budget and not for the movie itself, but I've seen estimates showing this one around $50,000), still absolutely gorgeously made, you’d never guess from looking at it that it was a low budget movie, except for the fact that it’s unlike any movie you’ve ever seen.

It's told non-linearly and often abstractly, but the basic story of the movie is that of a woman, Kris (played by the intriguingly beautiful Amy Seimetz) who is drugged and kidnapped by a man known in the credits only as Thief (Thiago Martins) who, through the drug he slips her (which has some sort of worm in it), is able to put her in a hypnosis-like state. Eventually he leads her to liquidate her bank account and all other money and give it to him, before he disappears. Somehow she’s then led, still in a hypnotic state, to the Sampler (Andrew Sensenig) a pig farming sound recorder, who removes the worm from her body and transfers it to that of one of his pigs.

Suddenly, Kris awakens in her SUV on the side of the highway, unaware of anything that has happened in the previous days. She returns to find her house littered with blood stains, things missing, food all over, and eventually no money in her bank accounts and fired from her job (go mysteriously missing for days with no explanation and this is what would happen). Later, on a train, she meets a man, Jeff (Shane Carruth) whom she has an almost metaphysical connection to. They fall in love, and both start to unveil their secret pasts and what happened to them, with more in common than we would've anticipated.

The story is told without any rush, with a beautiful, Malick-esque intermixing of natural and urban settings. Stolen moments helping to fill in the gaps of what would normally be a big Hollywood thriller of kidnapping and thievery. Carruth gives a nice leading man performance, but the star here is Seimetz, whose work is truly extraordinary. She gives Kris a look haunted from her past, but also her brief smile lights up her face and lets us see that Kris really is in love with Jeff. They weren't drawn together because of their pasts, they were drawn together seemingly in spite of them. Weirdly, I could continue detailing the entire plot and it still wouldn’t ruin the movie, but I’ll leave it there for you to discover on your own. The movie works the first time around, no matter how much you know about it. But like all the great pieces of art, it enhances upon each viewing as your understanding of it and emotional connection to it grows.

I first saw this movie in 2013 when it came on Netflix streaming (where both of Carruth’s movies still are), but it has stuck in my memory since then and I’ve revisited it multiple times. It’s always less confusing than the first time around. But even then, I didn't care that I was confused on a story level because Carruth had me mesmerized by every second and so it was more that I didn't know what to expect and wasn't always sure where we were headed. Now I know, and so the atmosphere works even better because I can give myself over to the movie and let it wash over me while also picking up on a ton of little things I'd missed in previous viewings. I "got it" the first time around, Carruth's movies don't beg re-watches because you don't understand every little thing, you don't need to. They beg re-watches because he respects the audience’s intelligence and refuses to explain every little thing to make sure we understand it. I enjoy Upstream Color much more than I did Primer (which I also really like) and will continue going back to it over and over again. And at just 96 minutes, Carruth doesn't overstay his welcome, he ends things perfectly and in a way that makes us want to enjoy the ride again and again.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Favorite Best Picture winners

I've only seen 56 out of 90 Best Picture winners, but for as much flak as I've given the Academy over the years for not picking the best movies to be awarded the top award, there are very few of them that I dislike, and there are 18 of them that I rate 10/10. So this was a surprisingly difficult list to make. But here we go anyway with my favorite winners of the biggest award a movie can win. Since I've written about all of these movies in the past, and/or recently on the top lists of the decades, I decided to ask specific questions about the movie and the year they came out. These are my favorite movies that've won the Best Picture Oscar, but were they each the best movie nominated? What about the best movie of the year? Let's find out:

An honorable mention top 5 for:

Schindler's List
The Hurt Locker
Dances with Wolves
Silence of the Lambs

10. The Godfather part II - 1974

- Was it the best movie nominated?

The nominees at this year's ceremony were:

The Godfather, part II
The Conversation
The Towering Inferno

I would argue that The Godfather, part II wasn't even Francis Ford Coppola's best movie nominated for Best Picture that year, as I slightly prefer The Conversation. And I prefer Chinatown to both.

Verdict: No, it wasn't the best of the movies nominated for Best Picture that year.

- Was it the best movie of the year?

1974 had five movies on my top movies of the 1970's list, but The Godfather, part II was the lowest rated among them. I had The Conversation, Blazing Saddles, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, and Chinatown above it.

Verdict: No, it was not the best movie of 1974.

9. Rocky - 1976

- Was it the best movie nominated?

The nominees at this year's ceremony were:

All the President's Men
Bound for Glory
Taxi Driver

Amazingly, a year in which all nominees are great movies, a feat which almost never happens. There wouldn't have been a wrong choice. The Academy loved the underdog story of Rocky, understandably. It's a big emotional crowdpleaser, those are great Oscar choices (see Chariots of Fire, The King's Speech, etc.). I could hear arguments for any of the movies, but Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver, I think, easily stands atop the nominees.

Verdict: No, it wasn't the best of the movies nominated for Best Picture that year.

- Was it the best movie of the year?

Again, it's a great movie from a year of great movies, but Taxi Driver is its superior.

Verdict: No, it was not the best movie of 1976.

8. Rain Man - 1988

- Was it the best movie nominated?

The nominees at this year's ceremony were:

Rain Man
Working Girl
The Accidental Tourist
Mississippi Burning
Dangerous Liaisons

While Mississippi Burning is a powerful, if simplistic, movie, and the others all have their moments, Rain Man is the only truly great movie in this group, I think. Great performances by Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman, a wonderful script, and subtly terrific control from director Barry Levinson, who never bettered this movie.

Verdict: Yes, it was the best of the movies nominated for Best Picture that year.

- Was it the best movie of the year?

1988 was a great year for movies, but Rain Man wasn't even in the top three (it's fourth). It might've been the best American movie made that year, but with Krzysztof Kieślowski's The Decalogue, from Poland, and Japan's animated masterpieces My Neighbor Totoro and Grave of the Fireflies, also coming out that year, there's no way Rain Man can claim "best movie of the year" status.

Verdict: No, it was not the best movie of 1988.

7. No Country for Old Men - 2007

- Was it the best movie nominated?

The nominees at this year's ceremony were:

No Country for Old Men
Michael Clayton
There Will Be Blood

A fine group of movies, even if I thought Atonement fell too flat when it should've been emotionally devastating, Juno is too self conscious, and There Will Be Blood hangs its hat too much on a performance that doesn't work for this viewer. But, to me, No Country for Old Men easily stands atop this group of movies. Joel and Ethan Coen's win for Best Director that year marked just the second time the award had been shared (it had previously happened when Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise shared the award for West Side Story).

Verdict: Yes, it was the best movie of the movies nominated for Best Picture that year.

- Was it the best movie of the year?

2007 holds the record as the year with the most 10/10 ratings I've given out, 11 in total. So it has a real argument as the best year of film ever. Six of those movies made it into my top list of the 2000's. While it was above such greats as Eastern Promises, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, and 5 Centimeters Per Second, No Country for Old Men was listed below Pixar's Ratatouille for my list.

Verdict: No, it was not the best movie of 2007.

6. Annie Hall - 1977

- Was it the best movie nominated?

The nominees at this year's ceremony were:

Annie Hall
The Goodbye Girl
Star Wars
The Turning Point

A few great movies in there, to be sure, including the too often forgotten The Goodbye Girl. This year marked the 19th and final Oscar ceremony hosted by Bob Hope. The Turning Point set a record for most nominations without a win (11), a record later tied by Spielberg's The Color Purple. Although it surprised many people that it beat out the cultural phenomenon of Star Wars, Annie Hall is the best of these movies, I think.

Verdict: Yes, it was the best movie of the movies nominated for Best Picture that year.

- Was it the best movie of the year?

1977 was a great year for movies, it had four entries into my top movies of the 1970's list. The Many Adventures of Winnie-the-Pooh, Star Wars, Annie Hall, and my top rated movie of that year, Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Verdict: No, it was not the best movie of 1977.

5. The Apartment - 1960

- Was it the best movie nominated?

The nominees at this year's ceremony were:

The Apartment
Elmer Gantry
The Alamo
Sons and Lovers
The Sundowners

Despite some heavy hitting names among those involved with the Best Picture nominees that year, including John Wayne, Fred Zinnemann, Burt Lancaster, and others (not even including Alfred Hitchcock and Psycho, for some reason), The Apartment is just such a perfect movie that it easily stands above the rest. The Apartment was the last black-and-white film to win Best Picture until Schindler's List in 1993.

Verdict: Yes, it was the best movie of the movies nominated for Best Picture that year.

- Was it the best movie of the year?

Even with the previously mentioned Psycho being released that year, and being my #7 movie of the decade, The Apartment was my #2 movie of the 1960's.

Verdict: Yes, it was the best movie of 1960.

4. Unforgiven - 1992

- Was it the best movie nominated?

The nominees at this year's ceremony were:

The Crying Game
A Few Good Men
Howard's End
Scent of a Woman

While A Few Good Men and The Crying Game have many great things in them, and Scent of a Woman does contain a great performance from Al Pacino, none of these movies are on the level of Clint Eastwood's masterpiece. Oscar fun facts from this year include composer Alan Menken becoming the first person to win two Oscars in back-to-back ceremonies, winning for Best Song and Best Score for Aladdin, the year after winning both for Beauty and the Beast.

Verdict: Yes, it was the best movie of the movies nominated for Best Picture that year.

- Was it the best movie of the year?

While there are two other 1992 movies on my top list of the 1990's, Werner Herzog's Lessons of Darkness and Spike Lee's Malcolm X, and both are astoundingly great movies, neither is as good as Unforgiven.

Verdict: Yes, it was the best movie of 1992.

3. On the Waterfront - 1954

- Was it the best movie nominated?

The nominees at this year's ceremony were:

On the Waterfront
The Caine Mutiny
The Country Girl
Seven Brides for Seven Brothers
Three Coins in the Fountain

While it's astounding that Rear Window isn't in that group, it's pretty obvious to me that On the Waterfront was the best movie of the bunch. I like the other movies, but don't love them. This year was notable both as Marlon Brando's first win for Best Actor, as well as his fourth consecutive nomination, a record still unmatched. On the Waterfront had the most nominations and most wins this year.

Verdict: Yes, it was the best of the movies nominated for Best Picture that year.

- Was it the best movie of the year?

While On the Waterfront was my #7 movie of the 1950's and is on my top 50 list of all-time, Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai is the best movie made that year.

Verdict: No, it was not the best movie of 1954.

2. Casablanca - 1942

- Was it the best movie nominated?

The nominees at this year's ceremony were:

For Whom the Bell Tolls
Heaven Can Wait
The Human Comedy
In Which We Serve
Madam Curie
The More the Merrier
The Ox-Bow Incident
The Song of Bernadette
Watch on the Rhine

A decent set of movies, really. Interesting factoid, The Ox-Bow Incident was the last Oscar nominated movie to only be nominated for Best Picture. Although Casablanca won Best Picture and Best Director for Michael Curtiz, The Song of Bernadette won the most awards on the night, with 4. Also, of the "big awards", only Best Original Screenplay went to a movie not nominated for Best Picture. This was the last year until 2009 that there were 10 nominees for Best Picture. Anyway, yes, of course Casablanca is the winner of this group.

Verdict: Yes, it was the best of the movies nominated for Best Picture that year.

- Was it the best movie of the year?

Although 1942's Bambi is a great movie, one that was on my top list of the 1940's (yet received no Oscar nominations), Casablanca is most definitely the best movie of 1942.

Verdict: Yes, it was the best movie of 1942.

1. The Godfather - 1972

- Was it the best movie nominated?

The nominees at this year's ceremony were:

The Godfather
The Emigrants

It's not a bad list of movies, but pretty uninspiring outside of The Godfather, I think. Although Bob Fosse's Cabaret set an Oscar record for most wins without winning Best Picture, with 8 awards that night. The ceremony was notable also for Marlon Brando's refusal of his Best Actor award, as well as the first competitive Oscar win for Charlie Chaplin. Chaplin won Best Original Score for his 1952 film Limelight, which was only eligible at that year's Oscars because it screened for the first time in Los Angeles that year. Of course, that it won is a ridiculous anomaly, but also further enraging because Nino Rota's iconic and influential score for The Godfather wasn't even nominated (due to some bullshit controversy about Rota reusing part of a score he'd previously written for another movie). Regardless, I had three 1972 movies on my top list of the 1970's but only The Godfather made the cut from this group.

Verdict: Yes, it was the best of the movies nominated for Best Picture that year.

- Was it the best movie of the year?

Of those other two 1972 movies, Herzog's Aguirre, the Wrath of God, and Gordon Parks Jr.'s Super Fly, both are inferior to The Godfather.

Verdict: Yes, it was the best movie of 1972.