Thursday, April 18, 2019

The Movie Hasn't Changed... But I've Changed

It's a Saturday night and my wife and I are starting the needlessly arduous task of selecting a movie to watch. While I keep a running list of what I want to see on Letterboxd, my wife was not necessarily wanting to watch something horrifically dark. So reluctantly, we started "the scroll". Everyone in the age of streaming has started "the scroll", clicking through title after title of movies and shows, only to never feel good about your choice. We first head to Hulu. Nothing doing. Then it's HBOGo. "You scroll so fast that it hurts my eyeballs," my wife says. My eyeballs have been warped long ago, so she turns away as I scan each title for 0.1 millisecond. Again, nothing doing. On to Netflix. A few titles into the scroll my wife mercifully tells me to stop. "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind! I love that movie! We should watch that." I hesitate. "I watched Eternal Sunshine in college and I don't remember really liking it. I think I was somewhat confused." But in my attempt to be a good husband (and bank a later Saturday night to force my wife to watch a Denis Villenueve movie), I relent. Eternal Sunshine it is.

Fast forward 120 minutes later. I'm in tears. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is an absolute masterpiece. There's so many hauntingly beautiful visuals and devastating reveals. The acting is incredible. Why didn't I like this movie when I first watched it? Was an idiot? Was I not paying attention? I started thinking about this phenomenon a little more in depth. One of my favorite parts about film is that we as viewers get to bring our viewpoints into the experience and make our interpretation through our own lens. When my wife and I saw Annihilation last year, we both walked away with different conclusions. I'm a much different person now than I was when I saw Eternal Sunshine in 2010ish. Maybe I wasn't ready for it back then. Maybe having some more life experience has allowed me to feel for the characters sense of loss in a relationship. Whatever it was, I'm glad I watched it again and had the experience.

This isn't the first time that I've changed my opinion on a film. Swingers is my most notable example. Swingers is the quintessential break-up/post-college guy movie. My first watch was when I was in college and had basically no dating experience. I thought it was unfunny and dull. Fast forward to my second year of law school. By that time I've had some dating experience, some heartbreak. I'm trying to find my place in the professional world. After reading a great oral history on Grantland, I decide to give it another shot. This time, the movie is a revelation. Every pain that Mike (Jon Favreau) is feeling, I can now identify with. I see Trent, Sue, and Rob in several of my friends. The humor and the banter is now making me crack up. Swingers came out in 1996 and didn't change. But now this movie that I had written off as "boring" is one of my favorite films of all time. 

I think this is why I love movies so much. When done well, they are a piece of art to engage and move the viewer, just like any painting hanging in The Met. Fight Club, (500) Days of Summer, Blade Runner, and The Boondock Saints are all movies that I had a materially different experience upon subsequent viewings. Some I just enjoyed more (Blade Runner). Others I came to a different conclusion as to their themes and interpretations (Fight Club, (500) Days of Summer). And finally, there are some that I at one time loved, but now scratch my head as to why I ever did (Boondock Saints). 

So what's the lesson? If there's a movie that you didn't like on your first try, but someone you know is a big fan, don't be afraid to give it another shot. The movie certainly hasn't changed, but maybe you did!

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Top 10 of 2018

2018 had quite a few solid movies, but was nowhere near the quality of 2017. 2017 had an all-time great (Blade Runner 2049), excellent action (Baby Driver, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2), dramas (Lady Bird, 3 Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri), and some of my favorite comic book films ever made (Guardians, Logan, Thor:Ragnarok). 2018 had... Mission: Impossible and some good documentaries? While that's a bit of an exaggeration, 2018 just was not a strong movie year in my estimation, probably the weakest since 2013. Despite all that, I still had some of my more memorable theater experiences in a while. The big screen induced dread of the criminally underseen Annihilation. The weepy funeral recession feeling of A Star is Born. And A Quiet Place would not have been near the experience it was without the ominous quiet in a large movie theater. I've rated every movie I saw in 2018 on Letterboxd, but my thoughts on the top ten movies of the year are below!

1. Mission: Impossible - Fallout

A day will come when Tom Cruise running around like an action hero will seem silly. When Roger Moore got too old to play James Bond, those final couple of movies were campy and dumb. But Cruise is not there yet, and somehow, Fallout may very well be the best entry in the Mission Impossible franchise. The stunts and fight scenes are just plain awesome. Swapping Jeremy Renner with Henry Cavill somehow works. But it's Cruise and his ageless charisma and dedication to jaw dropping stunts that helps slot the sixth entry in the franchise as my favorite film of 2018. The much hyped bathroom fight and infamous halo drop scene are both impressive and vault Fallout into the discussion of the greatest action films of all time.

2. A Star is Born

When you hear the pitch for this movie, it sounds like a disaster waiting to happen. So many questions came to my mind after seeing the trailer. "Wait this is the third remake of this movie?" "Bradley Cooper has never directed a movie before?" "Lady Gaga is in it and took off all her make up?" Bradley Cooper is trying to sing?!" And to say that those fears were assuaged is a massive understatement. A Star is Born is an emotional punch with fantastic acting and even better music. When Ally, played by Lady Gaga, joins Jackson Maine, Cooper, on stage for the first time to sing the now mega hit "Shallow", it is an absolutely masterful movie moment. It felt like our theater was going to explode in applause when Gaga really lets it go. While there may be a corny line or two, this film is a powerhouse, and is easily my pick of this year's Best Picture nominees.

3. Eighth Grade

Eighth Grade may be the most accurate portrayal of middle school life ever put on film, sometimes painstakingly so. Given first-time director Bo Burnham's history as a YouTube star, it makes sense that he would be the one to most capably portray life as an 8th grader in 2018. Instead of taking the easy route and vilifying today's kids as self-important screen addicts, he takes a more sympathetic approach. Kids are as much the same now as they ever have been, they just have different outlets. In one interview I heard, Burnham points out that kids are going to be glued to their phones because parents gave them the most powerful tool in the history of mankind and just said "you figure it out". Eighth Grade will make you cringe, laugh, cry, and remember one of the most difficult years in everyone's childhood.

4. Bad Times at the El Royale

Director Drew Goddard is most certainly doing his best Tarantino impression in Bad Times at the El Royale, but I say that with the utmost respect. Bad Times is a twisting crime story with wonderful characters and abrupt reveals in the same vein as Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. Jon Hamm, Jeff Bridges, Dakota Johnson, Chris Hemsworth and more give excellent performances. This movie tanked at the box office, and I predict will have a strong following over the next few years as it gets discovered on streaming.

5. BlacKkKlansman

Not based on a Chappelle's show sketch, BlacKkKlansman is the incredible true story of a black police officer in Colorado infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan. John David Washington, Denzel's son, was the biggest snub of the Academy Award nominations as the star of the film. His conversations over the phone with KKK members posing as white man are darkly hilarious. Just as a pure thriller, this had me on the edge of my seat. I don't necessarily want to get into the politics of the film (that's been covered in every place imaginable on the internet), but I do think that director Spike Lee’s choice of using actual news footage at the end of the film was a bit too on the nose. The story from the late 1970's was very clear in its timeless message of the reality and evils of all types of racism. To add news footage from 2017 will unfortunately make the ending a prisoner of the moment, rather than something more timeless. I still loved the film and it didn't detract from my enjoyment, just something that I would have liked to have seen done differently. Adam Driver and John David Washington's budding friendship in the film is really the heart of it, and both actors really nailed it.

6. Incredibles 2

The Incredibles is my favorite animated movie of all time, and the sequel nearly reaches the same heights. All the same action, suspense, and comedy is just as charming the second time around. Pixar rarely misses and this is no exception.

7. Won't You Be My Neighbor?

I must admit that my love for this documentary is extremely clouded by nostalgia and sentimentality, but I think that was the point. Fred Rogers was one of my favorite TV personalities as a kid, and this was a loving tribute to the man that so many children adored. I wept in the theater while the film showed the countless times that Rogers loved his fellow man, all in the name of Jesus Christ. Your mileage may vary based on this one, dependent upon your love for Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, but I would still recommend it to anyone.

8. Three Identical Strangers

Some documentaries can reveal new information that was previously unknown to the public. Others are tributes to their subjects or attempt to record history. And then there are those stories that are so insane that you don’t quite believe what you’re watching. Three Identical Strangers is in that latter camp. I won’t spoil anything more than what the title tells you, but just imagine if on your first day of college you bump into your long lost twin. It only gets weirder from there.

9. Annihilation

Alex Garland's previous film, Ex Machina, was a sci-fi masterpiece. His follow up, Annihilation, was not quite up to that level, but was still an incredibly thought provoking work. Natalie Portman leads an almost all-female cast in a visually stunning and hauntingly scored brain buster. I think the strangeness of the film ultimately kept me from liking it more, but this is the type of big swing that I love to see filmmakers take. I’ve heard five or six interpretations of the end that all differ from my own, which is a truly rare feat.

10. Beirut

I have a rule- if your movie has Jon Hamm, I will like it by approximately 34.4% more. Hamm can play comedy, drama, or romance, and do it while looking more handsome than just about anyone else out there. Beirut benefits greatly from the Hamm rule. The political thriller set in the early 80’s hits a lot of great action notes and is engaging throughout. Perfect plane flight watch.

Honorable Mention: Ready Player One, A Quiet Place, Green Book, Deadpool 2, Creed II, Wreck It Ralph 2, Instant Family, Tag, Game Night

Overrated: Vice, Isle of Dogs, Black Panther, Roma

Movies so bad that they're worth mentioning specifically: The Predator, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom 

Sunday, February 3, 2019

The State of Movies in 2019

2018 was a transition year for movies. Netflix continues to make prestige plays (Roma) and meme plays (Bird Box) left and right. MoviePass tried to revive the movie theater but ended up dying an untimely death (RIP MoviePass- during my 11 month subscription I saw 25+ movies for an absurd $110). The comedy film is all but dead. Star Wars had a panic attack. Comic book films have replaced the Braveheart style epic. And TV shows, whether streaming or traditional, continue to steal the cultural spotlight that was normally reserved for the movie of the week.

As a traditionalist (translation: curmudgeon), I continue to prefer films to television shows. Don't get me wrong, I've sung the praises of recent prestige dramas (Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Wire, etc.), rewatchable comedies (Brooklyn Nine-Nine, The Office, Seasons 1-10 of the Simpsons, etc.) and will continue my quest to finish all Star Trek episodes (currently watching the original series) with my wife. However, given the choice, I love the contained quality of a film. Annihilation was able to say more in its 2+ hours than any TV show could in 10+ through its visuals, high caliber acting, and incredible score. Every TV show is such an investment, with hours upon hours to invest in an endless list of quality programs. Not to mention the sinking feeling that you've just spent an hour on a filler episode (I'm looking at you Stranger Things and your "Eleven Joins the X-Men" episode that had no consequence to the plot). I feel like every time a friend recommends me a TV show I become more and more anxious with the list piling up. Meanwhile, I watched a random YouTube interview with Quentin Tarantino where he mentions this 80's movie called Blow Out starring a magnificent John Travolta. Instead of adding to my anxiety, I took 2 hours, enjoyed the ride, and went on with my life.

To even further bolster my case as an old man, I still generally prefer seeing films in the movie theater. Pop quiz: where can you go in 2019 to experience something with other people that captures their complete attention, and isn't being distracted by a smartphone? Dinner? No. Concerts? Annoyingly, no. I went to a basketball game last week and the person in front of me watched less than 5 minutes of the game and spent the rest of the time on an iPhone. The movie theater is one of the last shared experiences we have that is completely focused and uninterrupted (as long as everyone behaves). I think that's a good thing to hold on to, and I hope that the movie theater has a renaissance that bolsters my case. No matter how meme-worthy the Netflix movie of the week is, it can never, ever beat seeing a classic on opening night with an excited crowd. Seeing The Dark Knight at 11pm on opening night with some of my college buddies is something I will never forget. Half-watching a new Netflix original with my Nintendo Switch in one hand and iPhone in the other is something I've already forgotten 30 times.

And therein lies the hope for movies in 2019. TV at home is a distraction, something to occupy our minds while we unwind or do chores. Movies can still be an event to go appreciate a piece of art with others around us. It can be reflective and entertaining and carry the cultural conversation when something truly worthy comes alone. Look no further than the release of A Quiet Place earlier last year. Everyone that saw that in the theater had an incredible experience together, given the use of silence in the film. A Star is Born was similar- our theater was almost entirely in tears walking away. In a culture that values experience over materials, my hope is that the theater experience can be as special now as it has been in the past.

This year's Best Picture Oscar feels ABSURDLY wide open. Considering the "Popular Film Oscar" gaffe from earlier in the year and the truly abominable The Shape of Water winning and confusing just about everyone last year, I feel a safe pick coming. The Golden Globes chose Green Book and Bohemian Rhapsody as their picks for Best Picture, ostensibly two crowd pleasers. Black Panther feels like a bridge too far for Academy voters to choose a comic book film (a film I felt was completely overhyped). Maybe Green Book will be the next Crash? Maybe Spike Lee gets his belated due with the excellent BlacKkKlansman? Who knows. While the Academy is bound to screw it up, my top 10 for 2018 is bound to be completely infallible. I still need to catch up on some of what 2018 had to offer, so check back as the Academy Awards get closer for my top 10 list!

*Side note: you can see my ratings for every movie released in 2018 on Letterboxd. I discovered this app earlier in the year and it is a perfect way to catalogue quick thoughts and rankings for everything you've ever seen. I nearly went insane trying to remember and log each movie I've seen from birth until now. When you find yourself thinking the phrase, "I know I've seen Air Bud, but did I ever see any of the sequels?" you've probably gone too far.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

The Cult of Fight Club and Liking Something for the "Wrong" Reasons

When Fight Club was released in 1999, there was a strange marketing plan to promote the film. Most advertising largely relied on Brad Pitt's sex appeal and macho action scenes. Pitt was at the height of his heartthrob status, and his marriage to Jennifer Aniston made him a part of the hottest couple in Hollywood. Aniston even hosted SNL and there were quite a few references made to the film.  Moviegoers that were looking for Pitt to be some action hero were disappointed as they watched Fight Club. David's Fincher's masterpiece is about the dangers of consumerism, modern masculinity, and spiritual bankruptcy. Book author Chuck Palahniuk was even quoted as saying that he liked the film's ending more than the one he wrote. But despite the themes and messages that Fincher and Palahniuk were trying to convey, the film was widely misunderstood, and created a strange culture of fans that loved the movie for all the wrong reasons.

I saw Fight Club around 2004 or 2005, when I was in high school. There's a continuum that goes along with your understanding of this film, based upon the age you first see it (disclaimer, this pertains to men only; women do like Fight Club but for different reasons than men):

10-14: Any kid that sees the movie during these ages probably has parents that don't care whether or not their son grows up to be a psychopath.

15-24: Violence=cool. "Dude we should totally start a Fight Club" has been uttered thousands of times by idiotic young men. A much smaller number actually started a Fight Club, and an even smaller amount got smacked in the face and realized that underground bare-knuckle boxing is kind of stupid.

25-40: This is the sweet spot where you actually pick up on the themes of the film. Recommended.

41+: Why does Brad Pitt have to remind me that he is chiseled from stone and I can't throw a football without my arm falling off the next day? (Come on, you know I jest!)

Luckily for me, despite seeing the movie for the first time in the dangerous 16-24 range, I never started a Fight Club. I did however, totally miss the point until I got a bit older. Unfortunately this range of men has created a sort of macho bro'ed out vibe around this film. And shocked critics seeing the movie in 1999 didn't do it any favors either. They focused on the ultra-violent fight scenes and the characters seemingly cathartic association with violence. But like countless songs, movies and literature that has come before, this totally misses the point.

In the trailer for the 2012 film Project X, we see flashes of a giant party and one high schooler's quest to destroy his parents home. The trailer makes the movie look like one huge party scene, making kids everywhere think "why couldn't I be there"? Prominently playing over the trailer is Kid Cudi's "Pursuit of Happiness". This song is decidedly not about how "cool" partying is. It's a very tongue in cheek song about the emptiness of the party lifestyle. Yet the producers of the film just grabbed it anyway and put it in the trailer without any sense of irony. Same goes for those Wrangler commercials  that played Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Fortunate Son" as they flashed close ups of Real American Men wearing Real American Jeans. Never mind the fact that "Fortunate Son" is an anti-war song that is anything but a Patriot's anthem.

Why do I mention these examples? Because of misappropriation, people now associate these songs with the complete opposite sentiment that their artist tried to convey. Fight Club has been met with a similar fate. Because of the critics initial shock at the violence, as well as the 15-24 year old boys that all stupidly tried to start a fight club, a large number of people think it glorifies violence. But it's the exact opposite. Edward Norton's character (the unnamed "Narrator") seeks any sort of emotion in his life after years of being beaten into submission by corporate and consumer life. His (spoilers ahead!) alter-ego Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) uses fighting to elicit this response, giving the Narrator a rush that he's been so desperately seeking. However, by the end of the film, he realizes that all of this senseless violence wasn't what brought him back from the dead- it was a real, emotional connection with similarly lost soul Marla (Helena Bonham Carter). Durden's methods were wrong, but his message was right: give up your pretension, give up your hopeless attachment to material goods, and just let go. The Fight Club aspect of the plan ultimately balloon's out of control on the narrator. The film leaves you with the message that your spiritual bankruptcy cannot be solved by materialism, a good job, or on the opposite end, going to extremes to "feel alive". The message is that real, human interaction is the ultimate high for humankind. (As a side note- the message here is partly right. Materialism and extremism won't bring you fulfillment, and human connection does play a large role in spiritual health. However, the ultimate healer, Jesus Christ, is the missing ingredient that the film goes nowhere near. Not that I expected this, but it's interesting that Christianity and Fight Club share common beliefs when it comes to material wealth).

It's unfortunate that this wrongful aura exists around Fight Club, because it's an absolute classic. It is thought provoking, visually compelling, and has one of the biggest twist endings in film history. It has a firm position in my top 10 films of all time. I may get some unfair judgments for placing it this high, because there are plenty of  dude-bro's that have it in their top 10 as well. It's just for vastly different reasons.



Sunday, February 25, 2018

Top 10 of 2017

1. Blade Runner 2049

It is absolutely astonishing that this movie turned out well. I mean, whose idea was it to make a sequel to a 35 year-old weird sci fi movie that totally bombed upon its initial release? Movies with ridiculously belated sequels have a tough enough time, but to come up with something to follow the original Blade Runner seemed impossible and borderline irresponsible. The original had such a unique style and such a satisfyingly vague ending that dredging it back up for a sequel would surely end in disaster. But lo and behold, it was pulled off so well I could have never even dreamed it (even if that dream contained a unicorn). Directed by Denis Villenueve and starring Ryan “on fire” Gosling, Blade Runner 2049 is my easy choice for the movie of 2017. First of all, it is an absolute visual feast. Ridley Scott created a stunning movie world in 1982 and it is beautifully expanded upon in the sequel. There’s a fight scene in front of an Elvis hologram that’s particularly mesmerizing. But visuals are not the only winning element of this film. There’s an emotional story that asks central questions about humanity itself, thus continuing the great work the first movie started. Even at its near 3 hour run time, Blade Runner 2049 flies by and keeps you guessing. I can not recommend this movie enough, especially for fans of science fiction. Once again the Academy forgot to nominate the ACTUAL best movie of the year for its Best Picture statue; but is should be primed for some well-deserved technical awards.

P.S. Harrison Ford has now reprised his three most famous film roles in the last 10 years. Harrison, a word from all of us: please stop while you’re ahead. Nobody needs more belated sequels like Witness 2: Amish Ascending, Air Force Two: He Told You to Get Off His Plane, Seven Days Eight Nights: Does Anyone Remember Anne Heche?, or Fugitives: Attack of the One Armed Men. We’re good Harrison, we're good.

2. Star Wars: The Last Jedi

I think my thoughts from when this movie first came out still sum up how I feel now. And it held up even better the second time. Now, we will all hold our breath as we wonder whether or not J.J. Abrams will go back to playing it safe.

3. Lady Bird

Behind a Blade Runner sequel actually working, how much I liked Lady Bird comes in a close second for the biggest surprise of 2017. It’s a coming of age story about a petulant  high school senior, self-named Lady Bird,  that is hell bent on getting out of her hometown of Sacramento. Every relationship in Lady Bird just feels authentic. This is especially true when it comes to Lady Bird and her mother. Nothing is belabored or over the top, the story just unfolds without bludgeoning you over the head about anything. Plus, it has an absolutely perfect ending, something most coming of age stories struggle with. Of the 9 nominees, Lady Bird is my pick for Best Picture.

4. 3 Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

3 Billboards, despite its backlash, was not only a great film, but a very timely one for 2017. We now live in a world where you are defined only by your extremes. Even if you do something as benign as become a presidential election meme or something that's just a fun fixer upper show in your small town, the backlash will come swiftly and utterly unfairly. So what do you do with a mean spirited mother in grief, a racist cop, and a troubled police chief? That's the question that 3 Billboards wants you to wrestle with. Each character is angry for different reasons, and the movie shows us where that anger takes us. It also asks us to look at people for more than just their faults. Are people defined by their worst qualities? By their worst actions? Can bad people still do good actions, and can they change? Our society would answer those questions by those articles I linked above. But life is not about our worst. "Bad" people aren't just caricatures, and 3 Billboards makes us live with this. Our world is so swift to judge, it's good to have a film that asks us not to do so. And luckily for us, we have a Creator that has that patience with us (2 Peter 3:9).


5. War for the Planet of the Apes

The intelligent ape Caesar, finishes his Moses-esque journey in the final installment of a very underrated trilogy of films. The War from the title doesn't end up being what you expect, and in a very good way. Caesar's arc from lab monkey to grizzled leader is a great ride, and this move is its fitting end. I can't decide if War or Dawn (or whatever they called the second one, I seriously can't keep the names straight between the first two) is my favorite, so I'll just choose to love all three of these movies.



6. Baby Driver

Director Edgar Wright has made his career with Simon Pegg action-comedies (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, The World's End), and Baby Driver proves that he's got much more left to say. The movie plays like an awesome mix of Guy Ritchie and Martin Scorcese; quick cuts, fierce action, and a killer soundtrack. Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, and Kevin Spacey all play slightly crazy bank robbers that use young "Baby" (Ansel Elgort) as their getaway driver. The driving scenes are particularly heart-pounding as you might imagine, but it's not just all action. Each character is three-dimensional and fleshed out. The romance between Elgort and his waitress girlfriend gives enough emotional weight to make the action interesting.

7. John Wick: Chapter 2

I saw the first John Wick on a guys trip and it was one of those situations where the movie lined up perfectly with the weekend. It was a complete blast, and had me saying "I'M THINKING I'M BACK" for months on end. Chapter 2 has every single thing that made the first movie great, and more. John Wick succeeds so well because of its world building. It gives you just enough insight into its underground of hit men and assassins that you keep wanting to learn more. But the draw of the film is the over the top Keanu Reeves action, and it is here in spades.

8. Dunkirk

Dunkirk is a technically flawless movie. It is expertly filmed in almost documentary-like fashion. We learn of the heroism of British citizens and soldiers as they evacuate from France in WWII. Dunkirk is also an incredible theater experience, the sound of every bullet and every plane flying overhead rattled my sternum in my seat. It's not necessarily a movie I'll ever watch again, akin to something like Schindler's List, but that doesn't underscore it's effectiveness as a movie experience.

9. The Big Sick

For me, this was a very pleasant surprise. I took a chance on The Big Sick as an in-flight movie a few months ago. I was somewhat expecting a dumb, raunchy comedy in the vein of 40 Year Old Virgin or Neighbors. I couldn't have been more wrong. Instead, I was treated to a delightfully funny drama about a guy (Kumail Nanjiani) who breaks up with a girl right before she goes into a coma. He then forms a relationship with her parents and learns to appreciate her even more, despite her illness. The Big Sick is a top-quality romantic comedy.

10. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Marvel did some work on me in 2017. I wrote back in 2013 that I was pretty much done with superheroes. It felt like they'd all become stale, effects-heavy, action bore-fests. But starting with Guardians Vol. 1, I decided to give Marvel another chance. Guardians Vol. 2, along with Thor: Ragnarok to a slightly lesser extent, reinvigorated my interest in Marvel movies for one reason: these movies do not take themselves seriously in the slightest. Guardians Vol. 2 is hilarious, crazy, and weird, and it doesn't try to be anything its not. It's got a killer soundtrack, pretty visuals, and quick one-liners, and not much else. And that's great! I'm not sure that all Marvel movies can get away with such a free-spirited vibe, but I enjoyed the heck out of the ride in this one.


Honorable Mention:

Molly's Game
Thor: Ragnarok
Logan
I Don't Feel at Home in this World Anymore
American Made
Jim & Andy
I, Tonya
Logan Lucky

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Top 10 of 2016

1. La La Land

Previous to seeing La La Land, here's the list of musicals that I'd seen in my entire life: Wizard of Oz, The Sound of Music, Grease (on TV one time when I was like 8), and Mary Poppins (I think). Needless to say, I'm not a musical guy, and it is no small feat that La La Land ascended to my top spot for 2016. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone continue the chemistry they started in Crazy. Stupid. Love and sing their way through a sun-splashed classic Hollywood tale. There's a lot of conventional stuff about love, dreams, and happiness, all executed very well. But it's the music, the strong performances by Stone and Gosling, and the unexpected ending that elevate this film. Gosling is on an insane "Jim Carrey in the 90's" type run right now, totally on fire in everything he's in. I listened to the soundtrack for months after this movie came out, and I don't like musicals! Stone and Gosling don't necessarily have strong voices but it makes sense for the story. I didn't see Moonlight, but I have a suspicion that despite its Academy Award for Best Picture, La La Land will be the movie we're talking about 20 years from now.

2. Hell or High Water

A little bit No Country for Old Men, a little bit Heat, and a little bit Bonnie and Clyde, Hell or High Water hits all the right notes. It has some absolutely incredible bank robbery scenes. Chris Pine and Ben Foster play brothers trying to save their mother's farm, with Pine playing the level headed lead and Foster playing crazy in a way that he does so well (see 3:10 to Yuma and Lone Survivor). It's a Robin Hood type moral tale that has you questioning each character's motives that's also backed by some intense action and beautiful desert vistas. This is Pine's best performance of his career. You'll reluctantly root for his character and question your reasons for doing so.

3. Arrival

Arrival is a true science fiction movie. It has high concepts that make you think more deeply about our own world, with little in the way of action sequences. It reminded me a bit of the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode called "Darmok". Two completely foreign peoples struggle to learn to communicate despite having completely different methods of communication. What sets Arrival apart is its emotional stakes. I don't want to give all the twists and turns away, but there's so much to unpack about understanding others, the sanctity of life, and free will. Amy Adams is excellent as always, and gives a pretty gut-wrenching performance as a linguist attempting to communicate with aliens that have landed on earth. This a perfect example of how art can be God's way of seeing His beauty. There are numerous spiritual themes that director Denis Villenueve may or may not have intended to convey, but no matter the intent, they are there nonetheless.

4. The Nice Guys

Ryan Gosling, previously described as "on fire", only bolsters that description in an awesome buddy cop film. He and Russell Crowe have a lot of fun together here. The story is a tried and true murder mystery, but as with any good buddy cop movie, the real draw is the relationship between the two leads. Crowe and Gosling are funny and charming each time they're on screen, and there's enough mystery to keep the story moving at an effortless pace.

5. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Why do they feel to need to add "A Star Wars Story" to all of these movies? Is there anyone on earth that will be confused by Rogue One and Solo being anything but Star Wars movies? It's just an awkward title that I hate. With that out of the way, Rogue One is a great action movie. The ending was bold (not for normal movies, but for Star Wars), and greatly increased how much I left the theater liking this movie. The filmmakers decided to use CGI work to re-create young Carrie Fisher and Peter Cushing, a move I thought strayed too close to the uncanny valley. That was part of my biggest annoyances with Rogue One, the insistence up on the nudge-nudge, wink-wink "remember this is Star Wars" nods. Did we really need cameos by R2-D2, C-3P0, and the guy that gets his arm hacked off by Obi-Wan in Episode 4? Not really. Rogue One was good enough on its own. Here's to hoping this is toned down in Rian Johnson's new Star Wars movies.  Despite all of that, there's still a lot to like. Rogue One does an excellent job at explaining one of the most baffling plot holes in all of Star Wars history: the incredibly stupid "flaw" in the original Death Star. I wish that the movie had taken itself a tiny bit less seriously, but overall, I was a big fan of this first Star Wars spin-off.

6. War Dogs

I'd like to submit War Dogs as the most underrated movie of 2016. Miles Teller and Jonah Hill play morally questionable guys that game the federal government's military procurement system. Part of the reason why I liked this movie so much was that I actually did this job for a summer. Except for the, you know, super shady illegal stuff that they get involved with in the movie. But the insanity they describe of how the US government buys its weapons is actually that insane in real life. War Dogs has two great leads and a fantastic "too crazy to be true" type story that will easily keep you engaged for its run-time.

7. Hunt for The Wilder-People

This is the film that got Taika Waititi a chance to direct mega blockbuster Thor:Ragnarok, and you can see his talent here. Sam Neill plays a crusty old man that is left to care for a troubled New Zealand kid played by the hilarious Julian Dennison. Wilder-People hits all the right father-son notes with plenty of comedy and heart.  

8. Hacksaw Ridge

Mel Gibson makes his triumphant return to our consciousness with an emotional and beautiful(ly violent) war film. Ridge is about WWII pacifist Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) and how he became the first US veteran to win the Medal of Honor without ever firing a shot. Hacksaw Ridge has shades of We Were Soldiers with a little less melodrama (a little), and the same amount of war violence. But no matter the comparison, it's a great WWII film. 

9. The Founder

The story of McDonald's (semi) founder Ray Kroc is a worthy tale to be told. The Founder tells of how traveling salesman Ray Kroc built the biggest restaurant empire in the world. It straddles the line between a cautionary tale of capitalism and a celebration of the entrepreneurial spirit in a non-preachy way that's interesting for its whole run time. Michael Keaton is brilliant as Kroc, and it's likely the second best performance of his career, with his portrayal of Captain Mauch in The Other Guys a clear first (I'm only slightly kidding).

10. Star Trek Beyond

Now that I've completely given up on on these new Star Trek movies actually being Star Trek movies, I felt free to enjoy Beyond for exactly what is was; an action movie. I understand that it's not profitable to make Star Trek: TNG style science fiction movies, so there's no reason to be upset that this is really a Star Wars movie starring James T. Kirk (even the TNG movies went the action route- a much dumber choice with its cast becoming more and more ancient with each film). Beyond is just another solid entry in this franchise, nothing more, nothing less.

Honorable Mention:

Keanu
X-Men: Apocalypse 
The Lobster







Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Top 10 of 2015

1. Mad Max: Fury Road

The teaser trailer for this film came out in late 2014, and needless to say, I was pumped. The style and look felt completely fresh. And after seeing the film, I was not disappointed. These days, special effects don’t do anything to “wow” you. That is, until George Miller melts your face off with a guitar-strapped masked man chained to a monster truck and shooting fire out the end. Just read that sentence again. This is exactly what action movies should be. Memorable characters, jaw dropping stunts, and no time wasted. Charlize Theron’s Furiosa was praised upon release, and deservedly so. She’s the real hero of the film, with the titular Max (Tom Hardy) playing second fiddle. This is an incredible achievement in film making, one which was rewarded by 6 Oscar wins. You’ll want to watch this one over and over.

2. Star Wars: The Force Awakens

The Star Wars conversation surrounding these new films has been nothing short of hilarious. The routine goes something like this: near universal critical and audience praise upon the film's release, followed by those very same people drastically walking back their initial enthusiasm. The Force Awakens has been endlessly picked apart, and I won't resuscitate any of those arguments here. I have it so high on my 2015 list because JJ Abrams succeeded in bringing back the magic of Star Wars to our lives. I felt it in the theaters in 2015, and I felt it when I re-watched it before The Last Jedi in 2017. This is a movie I will watch over and over. To me, it has a little Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade feel to it. There's nothing new to speak of, but the formula works so well that when it's done correctly, it's joyful. It was a wonderful close to Han Solo's story, and an effective introduction to new characters Finn, Rey, and Kylo Ren. Kylo Ren and Rey, when all is said and done, may be the best two characters in all of Star Wars (gasp!).

3. The Hateful Eight

Quentin Tarantino indulges at every single turn in this 3-hour long western. If you’re not a fan of  “Tarantino dialogue”, you will hate this movie. It’s long, deliberate, and slow, but in the very best kind of way. Each conversation builds the tension between ruthless killers and liars, all culminating in a twist filled ending. I watched this movie and The Revenant back to back, and that one felt at least an hour longer despite a shorter run time. Where The Revenant feels labored, Hateful Eight masterfully builds tension and keeps you engaged.

4. Sicario

This film is a great example of the language of film. It’s mood and storytelling is told through its visuals. This is a violent, complicated film about the US border with Mexico. The scenery is striking, with the vast dark of the Mexican desert eliciting dread at every turn. Emily Blunt is amazing in her role as an FBI agent drawn into the thorny politics of the war on drugs and immigration. She plays her role with power and an undercurrent of vulnerability. She’s effectively the only woman amongst an agency of men, and her strength is different and in ways more effective than theirs. It’s the best performance of her career, not to mention the solid work of Benecio Del Toro and Josh Brolin. Director Denis Villeneuve will show up several times in my top tens- and he’s inching towards Fincher and Nolan’s “automatic watch” category.

5. Creed

One Christmas break (back when I had such a thing) my family decided to watch the first five Rocky movies in a row. As I went through the 6 Rocky films, my thoughts went something like this: 1. This is incredible! I love you Rocky! ADDRIAAAAAN!! 2. OK, this one is pretty much exactly the same story as the first one but still good I guess. 3. Why are Rocky and Apollo Creed running shirtless on the beach together? Why is this in slow motion? Wait now they're jumping and hugging?!?! What is this movie?! 4. Is there any part of this movie that isn't montage? I guess it's fun to watch a movie where we beat the Russians? Was this the first movie to talk about PED's? Did they really have to kill off Apollo Creed to get Rocky mad at this Russian? 5. Why is Rocky's kid such a horrible actor? Is he worse than Tommy Gunn? No, Tommy Gunn is worse. Is this the worst Rocky movie ever or just the worst movie ever?. 6. (Doesn't even see it due to scarring from Rocky 5).

What a roller coaster. Despite all this, I still had high hopes for this movie because of the talented director Ryan Coogler and star Michael B. Jordan (I wanted to yell "WHERE'S WALLACE" at the screen but I didn't). Creed ends up being possibly the best film in the entire series. It's got some great acting, most improbably by Sylvester Stallone, reprising the role that made him famous. It's strange to see such a serious and incredible drama that is technically a sequel to one of the least serious and cheesiest "dramas" of all-time (Rocky 5). Creed has the emotional stakes and intensity that come with any boxing film, with the Creed-Rocky history adding layers to the characters that mean something. Whatever you want to call this reviving of the franchise (Reboot? Soft Reboot? Sea-boot?), it has been a success, and should be a blueprint for others that would like to do so.

6. Inside Out

Pixar did it again- it made an emotionally resonant story out of some computer generated characters. I shouldn't be surprised at this point, they've been doing it since the 90's. Inside Out is a comical and wonderful trip into the mind of a child, in such a way that it rings true with everyone. Physical manifestations of our emotions was a brilliant premise that was executed with all the laughs and all the feels.

7. Spectre

I'm a big fan of the James Bond series (see here and here), and I really liked Spectre. Daniel Craig's Bond films have all felt fresh in one way or another. But this one feels like it's "settling in". Any Bond fan knows that basically every movie for the series first 30 years followed the same simple formula. And we loved them for it! Sometimes you just want to settle in and watch the familiar. But after Skyfall set the bar so high, a drop was bound to happen. It's a solid time, and not much more. Vintage Bond.

8. Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation

At some point, Tom Cruise is going to be too old to play action heroes. But it's not here. This 5th entry in the franchise hits all the right notes to make a solid action movie. Cruise always makes for an excellent time, he's still as bankable as ever.

9. Spotlight

For the second straight year, the Oscar winner for Best Picture comes in at number 9 on my list. I really loved Spotlight. It's a well-acted, well-directed movie of an important event in American history. However, it doesn’t do anything new. And that may be why it’s been somewhat forgettable in my mind. Solid, but not much more.

10. The Martian

Did Matt Damon make a cameo in Interstellar knowing that he would be in this role and it would confuse everyone? Maybe. But The Martian stands on its own right. It feels less serious than Interstellar, but serious enough to make the last 20 minutes very intense.

Honorable Mention:
Jurassic World
The Intern
The Big Short
Daddy's Home
Spy