Films of the Decade: Vols. 8 & 9: 2018/19

And now we’re at the end. I decided to go with the style I’ve been using up to now for 2018, but also feel like I haven’t had enough time to really focus on 2019’s lot, so I’m simply going going to list the films I liked, saw, and didn’t see. Onward.

2018

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Black Panther

While I didn’t think that Black Panther was the Best Picture nominee-earning great film that many did, I did enjoy it a great deal, especially in terms of the role it served in setting up the rest of the Marvel films that followed. It is certainly one of the more well-acted, well produced films in the studio’s history, and features probably the most thought-out villains in a comic movie to that point in Michael B. Jordan’s Erik Killmonger.

There are a lot of ideas about family and origins here, and those are important to the Black Panther film as a whole, and so in many ways the film works as one of the better stand-alone movies in the MCU.

The action, however, especially in the wider sense later in the movie, didn’t work as well, and the script, after some interesting twists on the comic book standard storyline, succumbs to the stereotypical “final battle” between Black Panther and Killmonger (complete with not so great CGI). Otherwise, there’s no doubt this is a strong addition to the MCU, even if it’s not my favorite.

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Annihilation

Definitely going down as the strangest movie I saw in 2018, Annihilation is a gorgeously filmed movie with ideas about humanity and the ways we tend to eat each other alive. While different in particulars compared to its source material, Alex Garland’s followup to Ex Machina keeps the thematic ideas of the book alive.

Much is asked of the actresses, especially Natalie Portman as the eyes through which we see the world of the film, and as the film progresses into weirder and weirder territory, it’s the performances that ground us as viewers.

Even when the visuals are terrifying, they maintaining a hypnotizing beauty, credit to the filmmakers for making weird and horrifying somehow something you can’t take your eyes off.

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Isle of Dogs

The works of Wes Anderson are, as I’ve noted throughout this series of blogs, films I often connect with, and I’m especially fond of his efforts in animation, not only with this film, but with The Fantastic Mr. Fox several years earlier. That film is a marvelous retelling of a Roald Dahl book, while Isle of Dogs is an original, thoughtful, and inventive script from Anderson himself.

The energy of the two films is close to the same, however, as is the filming style — which doesn’t stray too far from Anderson’s live action films — and the overall pacing of the movie. And of course there is the usual cast of Anderson alumni providing voices for the film, such as Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, and Edward Norton, along with newcomers like Bryan Cranston and Scarlett Johansson.

It’s an easily likable film about animals who just want to survive and live a better life than they have, but it’s also a spin on the classic “boy and his dog” tale. Anderson adding his own flare to it is absolutely wonderful.

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A Quiet Place

I was initially hesitant to see this movie, mostly because I’m not a big horror fan. But word of mouth about the quality of the movie directed by and co-starring John Krasinski was starting to be so good, I eventually ended up choosing to see it during my school’s employee appreciation day at the movies.

It was the quietest I’ve ever been in a movie theater.

As the title suggests, there’s very little dialogue or even more sound in the movie, but the way that sound is used when it is during the film is incredible, to the point that it essentially becomes another character in the film. And while there are tense moments throughout the movie’s running time, it’s less horrific than unsettling, although the more sci-fi nature of the terror does eventually lead to something more akin to traditional jump scares.

But the movie doesn’t depend on those, and it is to its great credit, as the film works because of the performances, especially from Emily Blunt, Krasinski’s wife and co-star, who is dazzling as the matriarch and eventual leader of the family unit.

Even though the film is slightly outside my normal wheelhouse, I am glad I saw it and am looking forward to Part 2 early next year.

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Avengers: Infinity War

The lead into this year’s Endgame could have been a throwaway film that Marvel knew everyone would see regardless of how good it was. And so it’s to the great credit of the filmmakers that they took care to make sure that the emotional payoff of Infinity War would actually work, setting up the first act of Endgame.

The coming together of all these heroes could have easily been overwhelming, too, but somehow the script gives time for the story develop as it needs to, and gives each of the vital members of the Avengers to stand on his or her own as needed.

And of course Thanos, the villain that the series had been building toward for years leading up to Infinity War, finally comes into the picture in full and the payoff here is worth the wait. He even gets opportunities to look relatively reasonable in his efforts to wipe out half of the galaxy, even if his actual plan is wildly unnecessary and thoughtless.

The power of Infinity War is how effective it was in setting up the final piece of the MCU puzzle (at least up to that point), and in that regard, it is quite so. Definitely one of the better Marvel movies.

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The Incredibles 2

It took a really long time to get this sequel, but it was definitely worth the wait in this case.

Picking off at the exact moment that the first film left off (one of the benefits of animation when a sequel comes 14 years after the original), the second installment in Brad Bird’s series ends up flipping the focus to Elastigirl, who gets noticed by a rich benefactor who wants to be part of the return of Supers to the limelight. But there’s something sinister afoot within his organization, and although Winston Deavor has no idea what’s up, he is certainly among those in question as things get progressively worse.

The turn in focus allows a bigger performance from Holly Hunter as Helen, although all five members of the Parr family play important roles in solving the mystery as it develops.

Sequels don’t always work, but this one does, mostly because Bird was careful not to force a second film out of characters just for the sake of doing it. Pixar is usually good about this, although their sequel rate has increased in recent years. The Incredibles 2 is a prime example of why that idea matters.

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Mission: Impossible – Fallout

Action movies don’t have to be dumb and solely about the set pieces. For most of its existence, the Mission: Impossible series has proven that. Fallout might be the best of the bunch.

Over the last few films in the series, Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt has started to have adventures that are connected in ways outside of a few characters. In Fallout, that comes to fruition with the return of Hunt’s ex-wife Julia, played by Michelle Monaghan, who initially appeared in J.J Abrams’ Mission: Impossible 3. She has only an uncredited cameo in Ghost Protocol, before featuring more into the story in Fallout.

And her being her is part of what makes this M:I movie work so well. Yes, there are huge set pieces and Cruise continues to push the envelope in terms of doing his own stunts, but there’s also a sense of story connectivity and intelligence about the plots that have been part of the series since after John Woo’s unintelligible second M:I film.

So with Fallout you get exhilaration and intelligence. For me, there’s very little else that makes for a better movie of its kind.

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BlacKkKlansman

I am not what you’d call a Spike Lee fan. I saw Do The Right Thing in college and while I appreciated what it was, I wasn’t blown away by it. Of his other films, I’ve only seen a one, 25th Hour, along with the playable movie inside NBA 2K16. I think 25th Hour is brilliant, but generally speaking I’ve never felt drawn to any of Lee’s other films.

But once the conversation around BlacKkKlansman started to push toward awards, I knew it was one I’d eventually getting to see, especially once it was nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars.

And I have to say I was pleasantly surprised.

Based on what I knew of Lee, I was expecting a very heavy-handed look at the story of a black man who managed to infiltrate the KKK in Colorado because he “sounded white,” but was instead treated to a lively, entertaining take on the story that still conveys Lee’s thoughts about race in America.

Featuring two incredible performances from John David Washington (close your eyes and try not to hear the voice of his famous father) and Adam Driver, along with an uncomfortable but effective turn from Topher Grace as the leader of the KKK, David Duke, the film is nothing if not both immensely watchable and stirringly honest. I didn’t expect to like it, but I really did.

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A Star Is Born

This is the movie that probably should have won Best Picture at the Oscars over the pedantic and trivial Green Book. This isn’t to say that this was my favorite film of 2018, just that of the movies nominated (which also included BlacKkKlansman, Black Panther, Bohemian Rhapsody, The Favourite, Roma, and Vice), A Star Is Born is the best made and the most remarkable of the choices.

There’s so many ways this could have gone wrong. A first time director who is also co-starring in a multi-times remade story, also including a musician who had never acted in a full length movie before, not to mention the complicated nature of both lead roles.

And yet somehow it works so very well. Likely because of so many reasons, including Bradley Cooper surrounding himself with top notch filmmaking talent such as cinematographer Matthew Libatique, co-star Sam Elliot (in an Oscar nominated role), among others. But also because it appears as though Cooper was obsessive enough to tell the story of what obsession looks like and what it can do not only to the person who is obsessed, but to the people around them.

Lady Gaga’s incredibly starring role doesn’t hurt the matter, nor does Cooper transforming into his role as Jackson Maine, as he literally lowered the register of his voice to find the sound of the aging rock star.

I haven’t seen the other versions of A Star Is Born so I can’t say for sure, but I’m not sure how any of the others could compare to this. It’s utterly fantastic.

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First Man

If Chris Nolan is my #1 director, Damien Chazelle might be in the running for the #2 spot. After directing the whirlwind that is Whiplash in his first feature film, he turned around and gave us La La Land, a modern musical masterpiece. And if that wasn’t impressive enough, he immediately began work on First Man, the story of Neil Armstrong and his fight to become the first human to walk on the moon.

Visually stunning and featuring a quiet but impactful performance from Ryan Gosling as Armstrong, as well as Claire Foy as his wife Janet, Chazelle’s attention to detail as it pertains to the intricacies of space travel is incredible. And the often claustrophobic camera work by Linus Sandgren, who also worked on La La Land (for which he won an Oscar), American Hustle, and shot the next Bond film, No Time to Die, thrusts you almost literally inside the capsule with the astronauts, which is both unnerving and effective.

Sure there are some details of Armstrong’s life that seem to be altered or added in order to create a narrative structure, but this is to be expected in biopics of this kind. But the beauty and overall thematic ideas of Chazelle’s film — which aren’t entirely unlike those of Whiplash or La La Land — makes the movie one of the great cinematic achievements of the decade.

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Roma

The beauty of First Man is followed by yet another beautiful and, in the end, under appreciated film: Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma.

Financed by Netflix and shot entirely in black and white, the film tells the story of a young woman who works as a nanny and maid for a family in the Roma district of Mexico, who finds herself pregnant. All the while, the family she works for is in turmoil, as the father runs off with his mistress, leaving the mother alone with her children, all in the midst of budding civil war.

Because all of the dialogue is entirely in Spanish, Roma was a movie I couldn’t keep my eyes off of in order to understand what was going on. But Cuaron doesn’t allow you to pull your eyes away from it anyway, even if you have a full grasp of the language of the film, because his cinematic style of long takes, sometimes to uncomfortable levels, such as a hospital scene late in the film.

Miraculously it is spearheaded by Yalitza Aparicio, an unknown actress with no previous screen acting work, who went on to receive an Oscar nomination for her work in the film. She is one of the film’s many great performances, even if the awards recognition wasn’t what it might have been.

The film won three Oscars — Best Foreign Language Film, Director and Cinematography, both for Cuaron, an Oscar first — but it not having won the top prize feels like a mistake the Academy may wish it could undo someday (Green Book wasn’t it, gang).

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Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

On my list for 2018, I have three of the five nominees for the Oscar for Best Animated Feature, including this one, the winner of the award.

Frankly, Into the Spider-Verse is unlike any animated film I’ve ever seen. The way the filmmakers combined multiple animation styles into a single story, included humor, heart, and action, along with making a film that works effectively for people of all ages, it’s just wildly impressive. As good as they are, Pixar hasn’t been able to anything on this level before.

The story of the film — which includes multiple Spider-Man types from various universes via a comic portal — is quite clever. But ultimately the intricate plot comes down to figuring out who you are and not trying to be someone else. It’s a simple message, but one that works quite effectively given the nature of the plot.

We’re going to keep getting comic book adaptations for as long as studios keep making money from them. If the studios continue to allow filmmakers to make inventive and thoughtful versions of theses stories like Into the Spider-Verse, that’s quite alright with me.

^*^

Saw, but didn’t make the list (*close): Peter Rabbit, Ready Player One*, Deadpool 2, Solo: A Star Wars Story, Ocean’s 8, Tag, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, Ant-Man and the Wasp, A Simple Favor, The Sisters Brothers, Venom, Bohemian Rhapsody, The Grinch, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindlewald, Green Book, The Favourite, Vice*

Didn’t see: On the Basis of Sex, Aquaman, Mary Poppins Returns, If Beale Street Could Talk, Creed II, Ralph Breaks the Internet, Widows, The Ballad of Buster Skruggs, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Searching, The Wife, Crazy Rich Asians, Christopher Robin, Eighth Grade, Sorry to Bother You, Leave No Trace, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, First Reformed, Tully, You Were Never Really Here, Pacific Rim: Uprising, Tomb Raider, A Wrinkle In Time, Red Sparrow, Maze Runner: The Death Cure, 12 Strong, The Commuter

^*^

2019

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Saw and liked:

Toy Story 4

Avengers: Endgame

Spider-Man: Far From Home

Ad Astra

Joker

Ford v Ferrari

Marriage Story

Richard Jewell

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

Little Women

Knives Out

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Saw, but didn’t like/expected better:

Glass

The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part

High Flying Bird

How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World

The Laundromat

Captain Marvel

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

Uncut Gems

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Didn’t see (*yet):

Us, Dumbo, Shazam!, High Life, John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum, The Souvenir, Booksmart*, Yesterday, The Goldfinch, Hustlers, El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, Motherless Brooklyn, The Report*, Parasite*, Once Upon a Time In Hollywood*, The Irishman (technically I’ve seen 2/3 of it)*, 1917*, Midsommar, Frozen 2, Cats, The Lion King, The Lighthouse*, JoJo Rabbit*, Pain and Glory*, Bombshell*, Aladdin, Zombieland: Double Tap, Dark Phoenix, Godzilla: King of the Monsters, It: Chapter 2

 

 

 

 

 

Films of the Decade: Vol.8: 2017

Let’s get started, shall we?

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Split

The first entry from this year is one that I technically didn’t see when it came out, but last Christmas just before the release of Glass, the movie that follows Split in director M.Night  Shyamalan’s sudden trilogy of films that began, unbeknownst to most, with Unbreakable in 2000.

To be fair, this isn’t really the type of movie I am immediately drawn to, but James McAvoy’s lead performance in the film is so captivating, it’s difficult to take your eyes off of it. While it succumbs a bit to camp in the sequel, in Split, the horror feels real, and McAvoy never strays from his commitment to the character’s many personalities.

It’s intense, with nary a break once the girls are kidnapped, but it also functions as an actor’s showcase for McAvoy, and so in that sense, it’s marvelous.

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The Big Sick

This is one of the more original and thoughtful romantic comedies in recent memory, one that begins with all the expectations you have for the genre, and then seeks to subvert them all along the way.

Based on the true story of writer/star Kumail Nanjiani’s early life with his wife (who co-wrote the script), the story focuses on their meeting and falling for each other, to the chagrin of his Indian parents, before the titular sickness kicks in at an all too awkward point in their relationship.

The movie is funny when it needs to be, charming when the moment calls for it, and also often devastating, tones the writing adeptly balances throughout. It’s a film that under the wrong direction wouldn’t work, but here is exactly what it needs to be all the time.

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Logan

Speaking of films that subvert genres, I give you Logan, Hugh Jackman’s final turn as Wolverine. Dark and grisly and extremely violent, the film takes advantage of the studio’s okay to make an R-rated comic book movie, and it paid off. Not only is Logan one of the best reviewed films of the year (77 score on Metacritic, 93% critics and 90% audience on Rotten Tomatoes), it also made over $226 million at the US box office, and over $600 million worldwide.

All that comes together in a surprisingly interesting way, in this post-apocalyptic version of the X-Men where not only are the heroes all but extinct, but the world shuns them even more than they ever have. An lab experiment leads to the creation of Laura, a young girl who reminds Jackman’s Logan of himself.

It isn’t for the feint of heart by any stretch, but it features a great performance from Jackman, in definitively his final run at this role, and the mood fits the movie perfectly.

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Baby Driver

This movie is all about the editing. The story is interesting to a certain point, but mostly it  hits the notes you’d expect. Ansel Elgort’s lead performance is interesting, and there’s a lot of greatness going on in the supporting roles too (although watching Kevin Spacey when I saw this movie, after the allegations came out, was unsettling).

But the pacing and snappiness of the editing is what makes this movie ultimately worth watching. Some might call it too showy, but to me it makes the film feel original and gives it its own definitive look and feel.

It’s a worthy addition to director Edgar Wright’s filmography.

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Wonder Woman

I’d like to go on record that ever since Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, the DC Comic films have been either underwhelming (Superman Returns) or outright terrible (Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice). After the latter, I pretty much gave up on the series altogether (I didn’t even see Justice League).

Wonder Woman is the only movie that gives me any hope that the films can be any good at all.

Yes, on many levels it’s pretty much a retread of the origin stories we’ve seen in other recent comic book movies, but this tale feels much more interesting than others that have come before it, especially because of the intrigue built into the main character’s story.

The problem with DC is, and continues to be, that many of the characters are difficult to connect with because they aren’t real people (like Wonder Woman or Superman) or have tons of money (Batman). Still, Wonder Woman works better than any of the movies in the group so far.

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Spider-Man: Homecoming

There were a lot of trepidation about yet another Spider-Man movie being launched, even though new Spidey Tom Holland showed himself to be intensely likable in his cameo in Captain America: Civil War. But because the filmmakers avoided yet another origin story, treating this version of Spider-Man more en media res, Homecoming works immensely well.

Much of that is credit to Holland, who is electric as Spider-Man, but is often at his best during his Peter Parker moments, which, for the first time on film, feel real. Aided by cameos by Robert Downey, Jr’s Tony Stark and featuring an excellent villain-with-an-actual-backstory turn by Michael Keaton, the movie is always fun and sometimes affecting.

It’s the start of a new run of Spider-Man films that, as long as Holland is on board, should be really good.

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Dunkirk

It should come as no surprise to see Dunkirk, the latest in the filmography of my favorite director Christopher Nolan, is on this list. It’s massively different in terms of how it tells the story of the Battle of Dunkirk, but it’s incredibly inventive and makes effective use of its varied time lines.

The narrative of the movie isn’t exactly groundbreaking, but the cinematography, which is often claustrophobic and unsettling in all the good ways, and the manner in which the story unfolds is always engaging.

Ultimately the story is about time and how little there often is, and about how heroism looks different in its various forms. It’s a beautiful film, one that often looks and feels like old Hollywood, but is always fantastic.

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Lady Bird

The directorial debut from Greta Gerwig is an off-center coming of age story about a girl trying to survive her senior year of high school in Sacramento. Lady Bird, as played by Saoirse Ronan, just wants to escape the grips of the town she’s always known and the tough relationship with her mother, who just wants what’s best for her daughter.

The movie feels honest and true about the difficulties of growing up in our modern times (even though the movie is set in 2002), and the need for connection. In the end, the film has a “the grass isn’t always greener” theme, and also a lot to say about what happens when our choices take us away from the places we know.

Both Ronan and Laurie Metcalf as her mother, are fantastic, but one of my favorite performances in the film is the understated one coming from Tracy Letts as her father, who, while caught in the middle of a complicated mother/daughter relationship, seeks to make the home a livable place. It, like most of the movie, feels lived in and loved.

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Blade Runner 2049

Sure, a sequel to a cult classic film from the early 80’s based on a Phillip K. Dick novel seems like an odd idea. But Denis Villeneuve’s reentry into the Blade Runner universe is a contemplative, quiet, and often surprising tale that looks at the natural consequences of the events of the first film.

Blade Runner 2049 is built heavily upon the ending of the original film, but much of the film is about the look and feel of the film, mostly built on the Oscar winning cinematography from all-world DoP Roger Deakins. The production design is top notch, as are the effects and overall look of the film.

Ryan Gosling’s performance is very much in line with a lot of his recent work, as he doesn’t say much, but tells much of the story with his eyes and intentions.

While not an easy rewatch, it’s a beautiful film that goes down as one of the decade’s great achievements.

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Thor: Ragnarok

The funniest film in the MCU, Thor: Ragnarok was a pretty wild turn of events in terms of tone for the series. Most of that comes from director Taika Waititi, the New Zealander who announced his arrival into the scene after making smaller films like Eagle vs Shark, What We Do in the Shadows, and Hunt for the Wilderpeople.

So while Ragnarok is often still very much a Marvel movie, Waititi’s trademark sense of humor and wit makes the whole special effects riddled affair feel less bogged down and way more fun.

Chris Hemsworth is likely the actor that benefits most from this, as his stoic, medieval version of Thor gives way to a more fun-loving, even funny character, one that the series maintains to this day. There are a lot of fun supporting roles, like Jeff Goldblum as the Grandmaster and the introduction of Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie. Given the stuffy nature of the original Thor films, this was a great turn in the series.

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Coco

Yet another in the long run of excellent Pixar films, Coco is a story set in the world of the Dia de los Muertos, and the connection this belief has not only to those who live, but to those who have already passed.

Featuring some great original songs and a story that will melt even the hardest of hearts, Miguel, the boy at the story’s center, travels into the after life, believing his great-grandfather might be the great singer Ernesto de la Cruz, who can save his great-grandmother Coco. When Miguel meets de la Cruz, he finds the situation isn’t going the direction he believes.

Of course, Coco is a gorgeously made film, and the ending tearjerking as Pixar films often are. The film, as always, is family friendly and fit for everyone, no matter how old you are.

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Phantom Thread

Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the our great living filmmakers, and he continues to prove that more and more with each of his films. Not all of them are as great as the next, but the lengths he goes to in order to make sure each one is different from the previous film is quite excellent.

Phantom Thread is another worthy addition to his filmography, and it features one of the great performances from Daniel Day-Lewis, in what might be his last role. Day-Lewis plays Reynolds Woodcock, a fashion designer of the highest class, who meets his match in Alma, a young woman who he meets while on holiday.

She soon moves into his estate and quickly becomes not only his love, but his muse, but she still feels under his thumb. So she takes action to take control of the relationship in the only way she can: in a physical sense.

Brooding and magnificent, Phantom Thread is a moving film about obsession and its consequences.

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Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Alright, so it’s time to do this.

The Last Jedi might be the best Star Wars movie in the Skywalker Saga, although it is likely eclipsed only by The Empire Strikes Back in that category.

So now that we’ve got that out of the way, I’ll explain myself.

One of the best things that a long running series can do is to set up expectations and then eventually subvert those expectations and do something out of the ordinary. Otherwise, you’re left with a series that keeps repeating itself and has no real ideas. While The Force Awakens borrows much of its ideas from the original Star Wars film, it does present some new ideas and moves the new series in a set of directions that could have been interesting.

In that regard, Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi takes the ideas presented in TFA and makes them his own, hoping to push the series into a wild and inventive new direction. In my mind, it’s better that Johnson didn’t feel the need for Daisy Ridley’s Rey to be related to anyone we’ve already met; it’s better that Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker didn’t always believe in the Force the same way he always did and that his run in with his nephew might have pushed him away; it’s better that the storyline goes in places you wouldn’t expect.

And so it’s a bummer that most Star Wars fans couldn’t handle alterations. I think those people didn’t want a new Star Wars film, they wanted a rehash of what they already had. On some level, I get it, because the prequels were mostly awful, but the new series had an opportunity to go somewhere different, to subvert expectations by following the trail set forth by The Last Jedi, one of the great Star Wars films.

Spoiler alert: The Rise of Skywalker won’t be on my 2019 list.

^*^

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Saw, but didn’t make the list (*close): The Lego Batman Movie, Get Out, The Girl With All the Gifts, Table 19, Kong: Skull Island, Beauty and the Beast, The Boss Baby, Going in Style, Colossal, The Circle, Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol.2, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, Despicable Me 3, Cars 3, War for the Planet of the Apes*, Leap!, Downsizing, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, I, Tonya, Pitch Perfect 3, The Shape of Water, Murder on the Orient Express, The Disaster Artist

Didn’t see: All the Money in the World, The Post, The Greatest Showman, Call Me By Your Name, Last Flag Flying, Justice League, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, The Florida Project, Stronger, Goodbye Christopher Robin, Mother!, Molly’s Game, It, Battle of the Sexes, Darkest Hour, The Glass Castle, Wind River, The Dark Tower, Detroit, A Ghost Story, Transformers: The Last Knight, Okja, Wonderstruck, Alien: Covenant, Free Fire, The Lost City of Z, The Fate of the Furious, Life, Song to Song, T2 Trainspotting, A Cure for Wellness, Fifty Shades Darker

Films of the Decade: Vol. 7: 2016

Let’s go.

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Zootopia

We begin this year’s recap with another movie that appeals to both children and adults. But this time it isn’t Pixar (more on them later), although it is still Disney.

Zootopia is a clever film about a world where animals live like humans: they have jobs, wear clothes, live in houses, all that good stuff. And with that comes problems that look at lot like human problems.

The story centers on Judy Hops, a bunny who wants to live in the big city and be a cop, but generally speaking her species are considered to kind and sweet to be built for that kind of job. She does it anyway, and eventually gets assigned as a parking attendant, a job she takes on with as much excitement as she does everything else. She also comes across Nick Wilde, a fox who she initially assumes is a do-gooder, but who proves to be a swindler.

There are a lot of great moments in this film, lots of jokes for both kids and adults (the sloths work at the DMV!), but in the end the movie is focused on the idea of accepting people for what they’re good at, not just what they appear to be on the surface.

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Captain America: Civil War

While this is technically labeled as the third Captain America film, what it really amounts to is Avengers 2.5, since the events here set up much of the rest of the MCU’s overarching story, especially bleeding into the next official Avengers movie.

But in spirit this is still Cap’s story, as the fallout from The Winter Soldier becomes the driving force of this movie, wherein Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark finally learns the cause of his parents’ death: Cap’s old buddy Bucky Barnes, although under the brainwashing of Hydra.

The disagreement over the Sokovia Accords — so named because of the casualties suffered at the end of Age of Ultron — is the catalyst for a fracturing of the relationship between two factions of the Avengers. The realization of Barnes’ role in the death of Stark’s parents is the final nail in the coffin.

Yes, the movie ends with hope, since the MCU needed to continue to its end several films later, but there is a darker edge to parts of this film that wouldn’t return until the final two Avengers installments. This time around is less genre film than the first two Captain America movies, but it’s no less effective.

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Green Room

One of the more unsettling movies I’ve ever seen in a theater, Green Room is one of those movies that starts out tense and then continues to ratchet up the tension more and more as it goes on.

Starring Anton Yelchin in one of the last movies he filmed before his untimely death, the film follows a punk band on a truly DIY tour. They end up at the next stop along the way, to find it’s a “club” out in the literal middle of nowhere, which turns out to be run by group of neo-Nazis.

Before too long the band members witness a murder, which of course makes them expendable, and the rest of the film focuses on the band members trying to escape the gang, with increased violence.

Clocking in at just over 90 minutes, Green Room is one of those take you by the throat movies that you simultaneously can’t take your eyes off of and don’t want to keep looking at, such is the nature of the violence. But its insanity and pacing works to its advantage, and not to mention that it is excellently made by writer/director Jeremy Saulnier.

It’s unforgettable, but mostly because the wildness of what happens on screen is almost unbelievable.

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The Nice Guys

From Shane Black, the guy who brought us such movies as Lethal Weapon, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and Iron Man 3 (it’s good, people), comes a movie that feels like the best combination of everything he’d done up to that point (okay, maybe not IM3). The Nice Guys features two fantastic, witty, and self-effacing performances from Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe, as two private eyes looking to make it big in 1970’s LA.

One of the things that Black does so well as a writer is dialogue, the the quality of that in this film is never in question. And Gosling and Crowe look like they’re having the best time, even when the film calls for them to get beat up or knocked around, which is quite frequently.

It’s often hilarious and almost always a great time, and also features an absolutely fantastic mystery on top of everything else.

Finding-Dory

Finding Dory

If there was ever a Pixar movie that called for more investigation into its world, the underwater world of Finding Nemo certainly feels like one of the better options. It took thirteen years, but Pixar finally returned to the sea to tell the story of one of the best supporting characters in its arsenal: lovable, forgetful Dory.

Still voiced with genuine charm and sweetness by Ellen Degeneres, Dory’s story is essentially Nemo’s in reverse: she’s off to find her parents, who, of course, she can’t remember. Through a series of spotty memories, her journey leads her to the Marine Life Institute, where she hopes to find them.

Along the way we meet more interesting characters such as Hank the octopus, Destiny the whale, and Bailey her neighbor. While maybe lacking some of the originality of the first Finding film, Dory’s story is just as sweet and tear-jerking as the first time around. And Nemo is even around to help her out this time.

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La La Land

It’s funny what happened to the discourse about this film during its run in theaters and during the Oscar race in late 2015 into 2016.

When it debuted at the Venice Film Festival in last August, the film was critically acclaimed, and immediately hailed as the frontrunner for Best Picture, among many other awards at the Oscars. It played at several other festivals, like Telluride, Toronto, and AFI before officially premiering in — where else — Los Angeles in early December. Again, the acclaim was great and the expectations were high.

Then, as often happens in this day and age, the think pieces started coming in, as they often do for movies like this that seem to have leg up on the Best Picture award, and another film, Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, started getting mentioned in the conversation, too.

The movie ended up making over $446,000,000 worldwide, was nominated for 14 Oscars (winning six, Director, Best Actress, cinematography, original score, original song, and production design), and maintaining its critical acclaim. It also famously almost won Best Picture, and in fact did for a moment, before it was realized that the wrong card had been read and Moonlight had prevailed.

And yet to me, none of this matters; what matters is the general feeling of excitement that watching this film — the first time and every time since — gives me. I love the performances, I love the story, I love the songs, I even love the way the movie ends, which I would have never seen coming.

Simply put: it’s one of my favorite movies of all time. Not just of 2016. Not just of this last decade. Ever.

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Sully

Having just returned from seeing Clint Eastwood’s most recent film, Richard Jewell, the story of the man accused of the Atlanta Olympic bombing, my friend and I asked the same question: what was the last great Eastwood film?

The answer, we surmised, might go as far back as Mystic River from 2003, but might also include Invictus from 2009, and most definitely Sully, the story of the man who piloted, and then was forced to explain why he’d lost control of, the plane that landed in the Hudson River in 2009.

If I hadn’t seen the aftermath of the event with my own eyes (and also happen to know someone who was on the plane), I wouldn’t have believed it actually happen. This is probably why there was an investigation into the matter, as heroic as Captain Chesley Sullenberger, better known as Sully, was on that day.

The film is focused on that hearing, which allows the filmmakers to show the crash, recreated with great intensity and intricacy, from various angles and points of view. Sully likely experienced this throughout the investigation, and the film takes great care to show that even though he needed to intelligently make the case for his choices, that needing to do so agonized the pilot greatly.

Featuring an outstanding performance from Tom Hanks, who failed to score an Oscar nomination, Sully is a wildly well made film, as we as come to expect from Eastwood as a director.

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Arrival

A sci-fi film that isn’t particularly interested in answers or explanations, Arrival is a thoughtful, intelligent movie about the power of language, the importance of communication, and the reasons for the choices we make.

Amy Adams is spectacular in a role that asks her to do a lot of work and be on screen throughout most of the movie. The film paints her as a mother who lost her child, but there is a wild twist that only works because of the mysterious nature of the aliens that arrive as the film opens.

Great science fiction is not necessarily focused on aliens who are coming to take over the world and the violent ends that come because of them, but often works as allegory for the current world we find ourselves in. Director Denis Villeneuve and cinematographer Bradford Young create a visually beautiful version of our world, but writer Eric Heisserer clearly has bigger things on his mind.

I won’t spoil the ending, even all these years later, because if you haven’t seen Arrival yet, it’s certainly worth not knowing going into it. But suffice it to say it says a lot about humanity, even as the story focuses on aliens arriving on Earth.

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Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

There are a lot of questions about the direction of the Star Wars universe as it has been working towards the ending of the Skywalker Saga since The Force Awakens. While Disney continues to movie forward with planned movies once The Rise of Skywalker is released, many question what the focus will be. At this point, we still don’t know.

But Rogue One at least suggests there’s a possibility that movies can be made without characters named Skywalker or Solo and still be of good quality. It’s the story of those who gave their lives to steal the plans for the Death Star leading up to the events of the original Star Wars film. This, of course, means that the ending of the film is never in question, since gaining the plans came “at great personal cost” to the Rebellion.

That doesn’t make the “how” they got there that the film looks at less interesting, and while the backstory elements of Felicity Jones’ Jyn Erso doesn’t always work (her father created the Death Star!), the action, especially the final set piece, is often successful.

I still don’t know what direction the Star Wars universe will go from here, but there is hope that good stories can be made without the characters we’ve come to know and love during the nine films of the Skywalker Saga.

^*^

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Saw, but didn’t make the list (*close): Hail, Caesar!, Deadpool, Zoolander 2, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (eyeroll), The Jungle Book, X-Men: Apocalypse, Alice Through the Looking Glass, Cafe Society, Money Monster, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, Now You See Me 2, The Shallows, The BFG,  Ghostbusters: Answer the Call, Jason Bourne, Don’t Think Twice, Batman: The Killing Joke, Suicide Squad, Pete’s Dragon, Sing, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, The Girl on the Train, Doctor Strange, Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them, Moana, Passengers, The Founder, A Monster Calls*

Didn’t see: Silence, Fences, Patriots Day, Hidden Figures, Jackie, Allied, Manchester By the Sea, Loving, Hacksaw Ridge, Moonlight, The Accountant, Birth of a Nation, The Magnificent Seven, Deepwater Horizon, Lion, The Light Between Oceans, War Dogs, Kubo and the Two Strings, Hell or High Water, Captain Fantastic, Star Trek Beyond, Independence Day: Resurgence, Neon Demon, The Divergent Series: Allegiant, Everybody Wants Some!!, 10 Cloverfield Lane, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, London Has Fallen, Knight of Cups, Midnight Special

Films of the Decade: Vol. 6: 2015

Let’s get straight to it, shall we?

Ex-Machina

Ex Machina

No doubt one of the strangest films of the decade, Alex Garland’s directorial debut was one part horror story, one part sci-fi romp, and one part cautionary tale about the dangers of technology.

Domhnall Gleason is Caleb, who is expecting to help out Oscar Isaac’s Nathan with a secret AI project. Then he meets Ava, a droid who seems to be learning. Similar to a darker toned version of Her, Garland’s movie starts off uncertain of its direction, but takes a wild turn toward the end.

Ex Machina certainly doesn’t look or feel like a filmmaker directing his first movie, as there’s a sense of confidence and assurance throughout the film, something that would be increased a few years later with Garland’s followup. Even in its strangest moments, this film has a lot to say about the ideas it wants to convey.

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Brooklyn

This is one of the lushest, sweetest films of 2015, and one that was liked but likely not as well loved as it should have been. Saoirse Ronan continued another run of beautiful performances, this time as a woman who is looking to make the most of her life having come from Ireland to Brooklyn in the 1950’s.

There’s a clear level of care involved in each element of this film, from the writing by novelist Nick Hornby, to Ronan’s performance, to the direction of John Crowley, and the cinematography of Yves Belanger, everything is just splendidly done.

Brooklyn is an endearing film that has sort of disappeared among people talking about the best films of the decade. I’m not making that mistake.

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Me and Earl, the Dying Girl

This is one of those movies that I didn’t see coming. Based on a YA novel and featuring a less than appealing title, I wasn’t expecting a quirky, thoughtful, and often poignant movie about life and death and the impacts they can have on friendship.

But Me and Earl, and the Dying Girl is all of that and more. Greg (the “me” of the title) and his friend Earl spend their time making parodies of hit movies and otherwise being teenagers who don’t fit the traditional mold. When Greg finds out his friend Rachel is dying, he and Earl set out to make her a little less sad.

In the midst of the quirky films within the film, there is a sweetness and an honesty about this film that makes it stand out above other films in its general genre.

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The Lobster

Forget weirdest movie of the year, The Lobster might be the most bizarre, yet wholly original films, I’ve ever seen.

Set in a near future where the world has fallen apart, single people are taken to a hotel to mingle and hopefully find their mate. But after 45 days, if they haven’t matched up, they’ll be turned into an animal of their choice and sent into the woods. See. I told you. Weird.

There’s no explanation as to how the world got to this point, or even how the powers that be would actually go about turning people into animals, but the idea is so very absurd, I found myself giving into the concept without any explanation.

Partly that says a lot about the performances, especially the lead role from Colin Farrell in a career altering performance, which ground the film in spite of it’s strange ideas about the world we might soon be living in.

Exactly what writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos is getting at isn’t quite clear, but there is a sense that he sees something in the world that he finds strange and wants to highlight. The “leave it to the audience” approach is a little infuriating, but it also makes for a mind-bending movie watching experience that is never boring.

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Inside Out

In case you weren’t sure, I really respect the work that Pixar does. Almost all of its films are good, and often they are great or groundbreaking, and Inside Out is one that falls into the great category. Its characters are emotions, its setting inside the brain of a pre-teen girl named Riley, and yet its ideas are true to life and, in spite emotions being the focus, never feels manipulative.

As always, Pixar worked hard to make this film appeal to both kids and adults, with silly characters like Anger and Bing Bong combined with a real sense of what it means to look inside the mind of a young girl. Part of the goal is to remind the viewer how to properly handle the emotions that rear themselves on a daily basis, and gives kids (and adults, too) the okay to express themselves.

Per usual, the film is beautiful and features great voice performances from the likes of Amy Poehler, Bill Hader, and Mindy Kaling, among many others. But the story and the truth of what it has to say are what gives Inside Out its staying power.

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Room

When I first heard about this movie, I sought out the book upon which it was based and devoured it. It’s often bleak, but more importantly, it’s told from a very specific point-of-view, one that didn’t seem to me to be ever remotely filmable.

And yet, using a script by the novelist Emma Donoghue, the film manages to pull back a little, but not too much so as to lose the claustrophobic feel that the story needs, especially during its first section when Ma (Brie Larson) and Jack (Jacob Tremblay) are stuck inside the titular room.

The movie, however, is mostly focused not on Ma and Jack being trapped, but on the way they are both still trapped even after their being released. The film is about mental health and the impacts that the experience of being kidnapped has on both mother and child, and consequently the impact that the mother’s mental state has on her child.

Featuring powerhouse performances from both Larson (who won an Oscar for the difficult role of Ma) and Tremblay (who, for some reason, wasn’t nominated for his wonderful work), Room isn’t an easy watch, but it’s a beautiful and important one.

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Steve Jobs

This film gets a lot of flack for its portrayal of its title character, the elusive man behind the success that is Apple Computers.

Told in the most unorthodox of manners, it is director Danny Boyle’s attempt to tell the story of a man who almost nobody knew through the very thing that most everyone knew him for: the introduction of his most famous products.

It’s an inventive script by Aaron Sorkin, who also managed to make an engaging script out of the creation of Facebook in The Social Network, and while lightning doesn’t necessarily strike twice for Sorkin, this movie is still likely better than many give it credit for.

Steve Jobs doesn’t achieve all its goals perfectly, and there are a great deal of questions about how true a lot of the story’s details are (along with some problems with the relationship between Jobs and his daughter), but Boyle and Sorkin’s film is nothing if not outside the box thinking.

It’s exactly what Steve would have wanted.

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The Martian

Matt Damon, it turns out, might be one of our best living actors. I say this because he manages, like Tom Hanks in Castaway and others before him, to make The Martian immensely entertaining and watchable in spite it be just him onscreen for much of the movie’s run time.

It’s also wild to think that this was among the Best Picture nominees at the Oscars, and even though it likely had little chance to win, that it was there in the first place was rather impressive.

There’s a fair amount of intrigue on Earth, too, and supporting roles from the likes of Jessica Chastain, Kristin Wiig, Jeff Daniels, and Donald Glover all guarantee the movie will continue to be packed with entertainment and star power even when Damon isn’t the focus.

Ultimately the point is that he’s always the focus, however, whether he’s onscreen or not, as the point is survival for his Mark Watney. And survive he does.

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The Big Short

That this movie got made at all is something of a miracle. That it works so effectively is simply wondrous, and is a tribute to the great cast of actors that director Adam McKay brings along for this movie about the financial crisis.

Christian Bale is here, as are Brad Pitt, Ryan Gosling, Steve Carrell, and Marisa Tomei. Not to mention the massive number of supporting characters like Max Greenfield, Karen Gillian, Melissa Leo, and Rafe Spall, among others.

Edited at a frantic pace, The Big Short tries to make sense of all the numbers required to get even a basic understanding of what happened, all while maintaining an entertainment value that doesn’t make sense given the subject matter.

It’s a smart movie about big ideas that often leaves you exhausted as a viewer, but it’s quite impressive that it got made and that it works so well.

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Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens

I’ll get into this more later, but The Force Awakens, while a quality reboot of the Star Wars franchise, isn’t exactly breaking any ground in terms of the series’ history. It hits a lot of the same notes as the original Star Wars, something that director J.J. Abrams no doubt did on purpose. And while it is wildly fun and introduces a whole score of great new characters, it isn’t a great film.

What it does is effectively kickoff the final trilogy of the now-called Skywalker Saga in a way that feels lovingly done and effectively crafted. Abrams is nothing if not a great ideas guy, even if he’s not always efficient in finding answers to the ideas he has.

But the characters of Daisy Ridley’s Rey, John Boyega’s Finn, Oscar Isaac’s Poe, BB-8, along with the return of old favorites like Harrison Ford’s Han Solo, Carrie Fisher’s Leia, and the brief cameo from Mark Hamill are all effective and pull you into the universe yet again.

To my mind, the series would get better from here (although the ending remains to be seen), but The Force Awakens is a truly effective restart to the saga of a galaxy far, far away.

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The Revenant

I’ll begin with this: as well made and effective as The Revenant is, it remains a movie I have no intention of seeing again.

Based on the true story of Hugh Glass, who survived being mauled by a bear on the American frontier in the early 1800’s, only to pull himself back to civilization by the power of sheer will.

The role won star Leonardo DiCaprio his first Oscar, something many thought was well overdue, and while it isn’t my personal favorite of his performances, the immense physicality of the role certainly pushed him ahead in the Oscar race.

But like I said, this movie, while beautiful shot by Oscar winner Emmanuel Lubezki and under the direction of Alejandro G. Inarritu, who won his second straight Best Director Oscar for this film, is a difficult rewatch. That’s exactly why I haven’t watched it since the first time I saw it, and have no intention to revisit it any time soon.

That says nothing about its quality, just how difficult a film it is to watch.

^*^

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Saw, but didn’t make the list (*close): The End of the Tour*, The Last Five Years, Chappie, The Divergent Series: Insurgent, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Man Up, Mad Max: Fury Road, Tomorrowland, Irrational Man, Aloha, Jurassic World, Results, Ant-Man, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation*, Paper Towns, Spotlight*, Pitch Perfect 2, Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials, Bridge of Spies*, Spectre, The Peanuts Movie, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2, The Good Dinosaur, Creed, Macbeth, In the Heart of the Sea, Concussion, Joy

Didn’t see: Point Break, The Hateful Eight, Carol, Crimson Peak, Beasts of No Nation, The Walk, Pan, 99 Homes, The Intern, Trumbo, Our Brand is Crisis, The Visit, Suffragette, Anomalisa, War Room, Straight Outta Compton, The Man from UNCLE, Diary of a Teenage Girl, Fantastic Four, The Gift, Mr. Holmes, Self/less, Magic Mike XXL, Ted 2, Amy, Southpaw, San Andreas, Poltergeist, Sicario, Spy, The Age of Adaline, Far From the Madding Crowd, Furious 7, Get Hard, Trainwreck, Hello, My Name Is Doris, Focus, McFarland USA, Hot Tub Time Machine 2, Cinderella, Fifty Shades of Gray, Jupiter Ascending, Dope, Tangerine, Cake, The Wedding Ringer, Blackhat

Films of the Decade: Vol. 5: 2014

LaAnd on and on and on we go. Let’s move into 2014, my bulkiest year in terms of mass number of films that I’m recapping.

On we go.

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Whiplash

The year begins, at least in this case, with probably my favorite movie of the year and one that would be near the top of films of the entire decade (maybe I’ll compile that list at the end of all this).

As movies about obsession go, I don’t believe I’ve seen a better one. Miles Teller’s Andrew is a kid who just wants to be the best jazz drummer he can be, right up until he encounters J.K. Simmons’ Fletcher, who might be the only person in the conservatory more obsessed with greatness than Andrew.

The movie, which also announced the talent of first-time director Damien Chazelle, becomes a game of who wants it more. Fletcher pushes and demeans Andrew, and the latter is supposed to take all that, practice until his hands are literally bloody, and still maintain his life.

Chazelle’s script never really asks the viewer to decide if either man’s obsession is worth the cost, as there is insinuation on both sides of the argument, especially given the way the film’s ending. It’s masterfully shot and edited (it won an Oscar for editor Tom Cross, but somehow wasn’t nominated for cinematography), as the pacing and staccato of the film’s jazz score pilots Cross’ editing choices.

It’s not exactly a movie that is fun to watch, but it’s immersive in its entertainment value, and the vitriol coming from Simmons’ Oscar-winning turn (and Teller’s underrated performance opposite him), make it a movie worth coming back to over and over.

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The Lego Movie

Here’s one for the kids.

I remember I went to see this movie on a February evening at 10 PM because I thought it was weird for a grown man to go see a movie heavily marketed to children during the day by himself.

But as much as this movie is a flash of colors and silliness, it also has, like the best movies put out at as “kids movies” these days, something for the adults, be it some over-the-kid’s-heads jokes or references that only the sharpest of viewers would catch.

The story of the film, and the meta narrative of it all, is quite clever, something that was redone in the sequel to less success, mostly because the “woah” factor of the reveal was lost after the original.

And the idea to make the Legos in the film actual Legos is a brilliant one, and it allows the story to have more weight than you’d think a movie about walking and talking Lego characters should. Great voice acting and top-notch animation makes this one worth returning to.

And while it launched a series of movies we didn’t need because of this film’s success (including a Play-Mobil movie!), the original, as it often is, stands out above the rest.

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The Grand Budapest Hotel

I already shared my love for Wes Anderson earlier in this series, but it’s worth repeating: he’s pretty great. And The Grand Budapest Hotel might be, in many ways, his crowning achievement to date.

It’s grander than most of his work, not just because of the locations, but because of how intertwined all the movement in the film is to one another. Anderson has many of his regular cast of characters along for the ride, but it’s the starring performance of Ralph Feinnes as M.Gustave, the concierge at the Grand Budapest who’s got a bit of a nefarious side.

The film, as Anderson’s often are, is all about the atmosphere and the look, and Grand Budapest has that all over. Even as the plot is spinning around on itself, there’s never any doubt that entertainment will be had.

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Captain America: The Winter Soldier

I noted that the first of the Captain America films is one of the strongest in the Marvel canon. One of the films that stands above it is its followup — Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

If the original Captain America movie was a World War II movie with a comic book sheen, then The Winter Soldier doubles as an espionage thriller, and begins to set up the key relationship that would push the next few Marvel films: namely the strained relationship between Cap and Bucky Barnes, who is the Winter Soldier.

It would become key in Civil War, the technical sequel to this movie, and this film does a good job of setting up Cap’s character as someone who would struggle with such a push and pull situation.

Of the Marvel films, The Winter Soldier stands out among the crowded lineup. And it probably started to make people believe that this whole MCU thing was going somewhere after all.

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Edge of Tomorrow

Speaking of really excellent action movies, here comes Edge of Tomorrow (or Live. Die. Repeat. which is a much less confusing title). And wow, what a film this is.

The premise is ridiculous (and actually not terribly different from that of About Time, if you think about it). Tom Cruise is Cage, a soldier who goes into fight an alien race that is invading Earth. Cage dies almost immediately in battle.

But when he’s doused with alien blood(?), he is sucked into a time loop, allowing him to relive the same day over and over. So, along with Emily Blunt’s Rita, he takes it upon himself to use the ability to his advantage in order to find the key to defeating the aliens.

In spite of the craziness of the story, the movie is actually quite smart, and gets a top performance from Cruise, and Blunt, who wasn’t actually considered an action star coming into the movie, more than holds her own (it’s one of her finest roles). It also has a bit of heart to it, which is part of what makes the movie so good.

This isn’t just another mindless action movie.

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Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

The sequel to the excellent Rise of the Planet of the Apes from 2011, a much more contemplative movie that built up to its action, Dawn is a movie more focused on the apes and their fight for freedom.

After having gained their freedom, Caesar and his fellow apes have built a home for themselves in the jungle outside the city, but still find themselves subjected to human interference. Caesar’s goal is to create a kind of peace, as is the case for many of the humans living nearby.

But when one of the humans doesn’t agree with that (Gary Oldman), the fight begins, fueled mostly because the humans fear the further spread of the virus that is wiping their race out.

Like its predecessor, Dawn has ideas about segregation and hating someone because of what they look like, ideas that ring truer than ever in our day and age. Much of the quality of the film comes from the human performances and the humans portraying the apes, especially Andy Serkis’ lead role as Caesar. Without that dose of humanity, from both human and apes, this would be just another silly ape movie.

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Guardians of the Galaxy

While most of the first few Marvel films were pretty safe bets (even Iron Man had name recognition, even if it was only from the Black Sabbath song), Guardians of the Galaxy was the first in the canon that came way out of left field. And it’s to the great credit of everyone involved that the original GotG was not only a smash hit, but produced some of the MCU’s most beloved characters.

Much of the credit goes to director James Gunn for realizing that to sell this to the general public, they needed to create a film that had a real sense of what it wanted to be. First and foremost, this is an action comedy, with heavy reliance on the humor to make all the ridiculousness feel less weighty.

Which isn’t to say that this is all stakes-free cinema. As with all the Marvel films, there’s a lot going on, especially so because many of the characters in this film have direct ties to Thanos, who would become the great villain of the MCU in the years to come. So yes, Marvel rather needed this film in order to complete the long-form story they were telling, but that they took such care in making it work on so many levels is a testament to the quality of the studio’s filmmaking expectations.

So even if the characters tended to fade into the background in their appearances outside of their own films, they are all well-crafted and beloved no matter where they appear. The gamble paid off.

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Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

From a superhero/comic book film to a movie that is, in its own way, critiquing the genre. Birdman, the eventual Best Picture winner at the Oscars in 2015, is certainly one of the more bizarre films in years.

There’s commentary going on all over this. From the casting of Michael Keaton as a former comic book movie actor turned “serious actor” with some clear mental instability,  to the releasing of this film amidst an onslaught of superhero/comic book and other IP movies, director Alejandro G. Inarritu clearly has things he wants to say.

And yet the movie is quite high concept. It’s shot in extended long shots, and is meant to appear as if it’s entirely free from cuts, as the camera glides around the corridors of the theater that Keaton’s Riggan Thomson is using to stage a version of a Raymond Carver story he’s told is too difficult to do. Scenes don’t so much begin and end as the camera interrupts and inserts itself into conversations.

And in spite poking fun at the whole comic book film phenomenon, Inarritu’s movie leans into the otherworldly and bizarre, allowing Riggan’s inner mind to manifest itself on-screen.

Combine this with the open-ended final scene, and you’ve got a film that never allows you to take your eyes off of it, all while never quite leaving your mind.

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Gone Girl

One of the more unsettling films of the year, Gone Girl is also one of the best of 2014, and one of the better executed movies of the decade.

Based on a best selling novel, David Fincher’s adaptation takes some liberties with the formation of the narrative, but generally keeps the story intact. This is a story where nobody is completely innocent, but where it’s pretty clear that nobody is fully at fault for the narrative’s events, either.

In short, Ben Affleck’s Nick and Rosamund Pike’s Amy deserve each other, and if nothing else, the movie goes out of its way to make that clear. Nick is a victim of Amy’s treachery and cunning, yes, but Amy is also the victim of Nick’s cheating and general sense of not being a trustworthy partner. Neither is forgivable, but within the context of the film, the actions, while often beyond insane, feel somewhat logical, even if the mind from which the logic derives doesn’t really feel fully formed.

Pike was nominated for an Oscar for her role, an award she probably should have won because of the stirring, affective nature of her performance. But a lot of the success of the film comes down to Affleck’s role, and he handles it with aplomb, especially given how the movie’s story seems to eerily connect with his own personal life.

It’s not a crowd pleaser or an easy movie to watch, but Gone Girl is a wild movie to watch, even if it isn’t for the feint of heart.

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Fury

Here’s one of the most overlooked movies of 2014.

It’s an extremely violent, claustrophobic World War II tank movie with excellent performances from Brad Pitt, The Perks of Being A Wallflower’s Logan Lerman, Michael Pena and most especially from Shia LeBeouf, who reminds people why he is considered such a talented actor in spite his personal mental lapses.

Fury is an upsetting film in terms of what it wants to say. Sure, there’s the whole “war is hell” trope, but that’s not the point. War, the movie wants you to remember, is the end for many of the people that enter into it. In staying in literal close proximity with these men, the film needs you to always remember that. And in watching it, there’s almost no way to miss it.

There’s no sparkle of American spirit here, no “this is going to work out in the end” refrains. In fact, the movie almost beats you over the head with the opposite. Good is being done, but the terrifying nightmare of war is how lonely it is. And yet these men have each other, and that’s the only silver lining.

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Interstellar

I wrote about this movie in detail when it first came out, and while I have cooled on it some, I still think there is a great deal of achievement in what Chris Nolan has done here.  Visually this remains an incredible film to look at, even if the story doesn’t hold up as well as you want a movie of its length to.

Yet Nolan is nothing if not ambitious, a quality he has maintained throughout his career, be it via his Batman trilogy, Inception, or Dunkirk, one of his keys is doing something different.

In that sense, Interstellar is a success. And while it may not be the shining achievement of Nolan’s career, it stands up as one of the more thought provoking and stunning films not only of 2014, but of this decade.

^*^

Saw, but didn’t make the list (*close): Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, Frank, Laggies, Obvious Child, Wish I Was Here, Boyhood*, The One I Love, The Monuments Men, Mr. Peabody and Sherman, Chef, Neighbors, Noah, Muppets Most Wanted, Bad Words, Veronica Mars, Divergent, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Draft Day, Transcendence, Godzilla, X-Men: Days of Future Past*, The Fault in Our Stars, How to Train Your Dragon 2, It Follows, Foxcatcher, Snowpiercer, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Giver, The Imitation Game, Nightcrawler*, Welcome to Me, Love & Mercy*, The Theory of Everything, The Maze Runner, Inherent Vice*, Big Hero 6*, A Most Violent Year, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part I, American Sniper, Into the Woods, Taken 3, Big Eyes, Selma

Didn’t see: Mr. Turner, Kingsman: The Secret Service, Exodus: Gods and Kings, Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb, Annie, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, Horrible Bosses 2, Unbroken, Dumb and Dumber To, John Wick, No Good Deed, The Drop, The Equalizer, Tusk, St. Vincent, The Judge, Wild, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, Let’s Be Cops, Into the Storm, The Expendables 3, Get On Up, Lucy, The Purge: Anarchy, Tammy, Transformers: Age of Extinction, Jersey Boys, 22 Jump Street, A Million Ways to Die in the West, Maleficent, The Rover, God’s Not Dead, Need for Speed, 300: Rise of an Empire, Winter’s Tale, A Long Way Down, Labor Day, RoboCop, I, Frankenstein, Calvary

Films of the Decade: Vol. 4: 2013

As the end of the year (and decade) slowly approaches, I’m getting concerned I won’t be able to finish this. But my goal remains to get to 2019, even if these become daily updates between now and Christmas.

And so on we move to 2013!

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Warm Bodies

To be sure, the movie version of a teen novel about a zombie who seems to be reversing his un-deadness doesn’t sound like fodder for a movie I’d like, but somehow Warm Bodies feels lived in and intentional in its setup, to the point where it was both funny and heartwarming, neither of which you’d expect from a movie of its kind.

It’s ultimately a love story between Nicholas Hoult’s zombie R and Teresa Palmer’s zombie-friendly Julie, the latter of whom saves the former when she’s attacked. It wears its Shakespearean influences on its sleeves (instead of Montagues and Capulets, it’s zombies and non-zombies), but it also moves at a great pace and packs in the humor, too.

While not conventionally great cinema, it does stand up as one of the more entertaining films of its year.

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Much Ado About Nothing

Seeking a break from the gargantuan nature of filming his Marvel movie, director Joss Whedon decided to follow up his massive hit with a much smaller idea: a modern day retelling of a Shakespeare play.

Whedon’s movie essentially places the play in one location — the director’s own home, in reality — and casts his friends to play the roles. What you end up with is kind of like the types of movies kids might have made in their backyard, except much more expertly made and acted.

Shot is gorgeous black-and-white, Whedon’s film feels like the director is finally able to exhale after all the work he did on The Avengers, and while almost nobody saw the movie (it took in a whopping $171,942 on its opening weekend, barely eclipsing $5 million worldwide in box office), it feels light, breezy, and infinitely watchable.

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The Way, Way Back

Speaking of delightful films with loads of heart, I give you The Way, Way Back, a film that successfully turns Steve Carrell into a grade-A douche.

The story centers on Duncan, a young boy whose mother, played by Toni Collette, is dating Trent, played Carrell, but doesn’t really recognize what an awful guy he is. They go on vacation to Trent’s beach house, a place Duncan does not want to be, since he knows nobody and isn’t the type of kid who puts himself out there.

Eventually he starts working at a beat up waterpark alongside its manager, played with his usual gusto by Sam Rockwell, and meets the quirky staff there. Rockwell serves as the catalyst for Duncan’s coming-of-age during the summer, and pushes him to talk to the Susanna, the girl who lives next door.

It’s not treading any new territory, but the film, written and directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (the Dean from Community), is both sweet and intimate at all the right times.

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About Time

Not including this film, which features the song that my wife walked down the aisle to at our wedding on its soundtrack, would be a travesty.

On the surface, the plot of the movie is a little ridiculous. Domhnall Gleason’s Tim is told by his father, played by Bill Nighy with his trademark goofy earnestness, that the men in their family have a special ability: they can travel back in time to change the outcome of events.

The movie never gives the audience any sense of how silly this is, but instead treats the news as fairly commonplace. Tim, who at the time he receives the news is still relatively young, at first uses the ability for his own gain. He messes up a conversation with a girl he likes, so he goes back to retry, things like this.

Then he meets Mary, played by Rachel McAdams in maybe her best role, and while some of the initial usage of the skill continue at first, it soon turns into an opportunity to save his relationship, eventual marriage, and all the things that are related to them.

The underlying message, however, steers away from the science-fiction of it all. Instead, the reminder is that time, no matter if you can manipulate it or not, catches up to us all.

It’s our job to take advantage of what time we do have.

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Gravity

The story of Gravity, Alfonso Cuaron’s space masterpiece from this year, isn’t much to discuss. Sandra Bullock is out in space with George Clooney — it’s her first mission and supposed to be his last — when something goes wrong. They have to make their way to an escape capsule or else they will die.

And yet the film, in spite it’s simple plot, is a massive achievement in terms of its scope, its visuals, and for a performance by Bullock that far outdoes that role that won her an Oscar for The Blindside.

And that is what makes the film so great. Not because the film is “about something” or is “important;” but because of what it achieves as a technical and visual marvel. It won 7 Oscars (cinematography, directing, editing, original score, sound editing, sound mixing, and visual effects), was nominated for three more (picture, actress, production design), and yet somehow still feels under appreciated.

I honestly haven’t seen the film since I saw it on IMAX when it came out, mostly because there’s no way to reach the massive heights of the visual sensation of having seen it that first time.

I should end that streak. It’s really a great film no matter what it’s seen on.

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Inside Llewyn Davis

Many people refer to Inside Llewyn Davis as so-called “lesser Coens.”

I think those people are wrong, and I think that distinction is stupid.

Sure, like most directors the Coen Brothers have films that work better than others, they have some films that are more “important” or well received than others. But why this film, about a down-on-his-luck folk singer during the 1960’s starring Oscar Isaac in an utterly fantastic, welcome to stardom performance, is among those considered in that group, I’ll never know.

It’s a smaller film in many ways, of that much I’m certain, but the magnitude of the performances and the care with which it is made suggest the this movie should be better regarded, not just shuffled into the “lesser Coens” category as if it should be happy to be invited.

I prefer the intimacy of this film than something like The Big Lebowski (yeah, I said it) or Hail, Caesar! To me, this isn’t just “major Coens,” it might be “best Coens,” save maybe for No Country For Old Men, Fargo, or O Brother Where Art Thou?

And that is my hot take for 2013: Inside Llewyn Davis is one of the best films of that year and one of the best the Coen Brothers have ever made.

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Her

To call Spike Jonze one of our more interesting living filmmakers would seem to be a slight understatement. He’s made some bizarre films — Adaptation and his version of Where the Wild Things Are — and scores of music videos for artists like Kanye West, The Arcade Fire, and Lady Gaga, which seem to be his main focus these days.

But Her, a strange love story starring Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore, a man living in the near future who is riddled by anguish over having lost the love of his life, played by Rooney Mara, mostly in flashback.

He purchases an AI helper, voiced by Scarlett Johansson, and as they learn about each other, Theodore falls in love for her, although the complications of the relationship are one of the many questions the film asks.

Ultimately, Jonze’s film is about loneliness and the lengths to which we will go to combat it, especially in our technologically driven society, ideas that feel more prescient than they even did back in 2013.

Phoenix, who is receiving acclaim in 2019 for his role in Joker, is much different here than in that role, but his muted uncertainty is what drives the film, and his sadness gives the film its emotional weight. It’s to his, and Jonze’s, great credit that this film, with his somewhat strange narrative, works at all; but it does, and it’s one of the best and most intriguing films of 2013.

Films of the Decade: Vol. 3: 2012

At this point, too much lead up feels like pandering, so let’s just jump right into it.

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The Hunger Games

On most levels, the concept of this novel and film series is patently absurd. What makes both work is how seriously the novel’s writer, Suzanne Collins, and the filmmakers behind the adaptations take the premise. Yes, there is an insanity to what’s going on here, an almost “how do these people not see how ridiculous this is” element to the entire concept, but somehow it all comes together.

Part of it is the lead performance of Jennifer Lawrence, in what could certainly be considered her breakout role. Her Katniss understands the tragedy behind what’s going on around her, but also sees an opportunity to undermine the system, if only just a little.

The relatively smallness of the original film is important in that respect. The story isn’t of a girl who wants to revolutionize a government; it’s really about a girl who wants to save her sister’s life by offering hers. The repercussions are the concerns of the rest of the series, but the only way that The Hunger Games as a beginning film to a series works is because of how self-contained it is. It contains Katniss’ life to her district, and then to small spaces like the train that takes her and Peeta to the capital, their shared apartment prior to the Games beginning, the practice spaces, and then the Arena itself, which, while seeming and feeling massive, is just as contained, it just doesn’t look like it.

I’m not sure if this is the best movie of the four in the series, but it feels like the one that understands best what it is. And that works really effectively in this case.

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Moonrise Kingdom

For the life of me, I can’t understand why someone would hate any Wes Anderson movie. Sure, they might not be everyone’s favorite, with his quirky storytelling, hyperrealistic costumes, and sharp dialogue, but at the very least every one of his films is immensely likable. For my money, Moonrise Kingdom is among Anderson’s best.

I think it has a lot to do with the sweet quality of this particular addition to Anderson’s filmography. He’s often a lot more scathing than he’s given credit for, with films like Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums possessing an edge that’s just boiling below the surface, readying to blow. While Moonrise certainly has a lot under its saccharine shell, in a lot of ways it’s very content being a sweet teenage love story.

As is often the case with Anderson films, there’s a lot going on, with multiple groups searching for Sam and Suzy, like her parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand), his scout troop, led by Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton), and the local law enforcement Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis). As always, the narrative is relatively simple, but it’s more about the performances and overall look at feel of the film, which garnered Anderson and Roman Coppola an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay.

Overall, the film is wildly rewatchable, one of the main tenants of great cinema, and something that isn’t always the case, even for a great director like Anderson. This is one of his best efforts, not only to date in 2012, but still to this date.

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The Dark Knight Rises 

We all knew this was coming, so I’ll preface everything by saying this: in hindsight, I wanted more from this film on an individual level. At the time of its release, I noted that The Dark Knight Rises was the perfect ending to Chris Nolan’s Batman trilogy, and on some level, I still believe that’s true.

But as a movie itself, it doesn’t matchup to The Dark Knight or even Batman Begins, but a lot of that has to do with the weight it carried coming into the making of the film.

The passing of Heath Ledger was tragic on so many levels, but one of the lesser levels was the choices it led Nolan and the rest of his crew to make regarding the direction of this film. I’m not sure that Ledger’s Joke resurfaces completely in a different version of this trilogy capper, but his death led the filmmakers to pull away from the The Dark Knight more than they might have anticipated, leaving some elements of this third film feeling disconnected.

Even though only four years passed between films, the narrative moves eight years into the future, where Joker is a bit of an afterthought, and Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne is all but finished with wearing the cape and cowl after taking the fall for the death of Harvey Dent. What this means is that there’s very little Batman in this supposed Batman film, as Wayne starts out retired, and spends much of the film’s run time rehabilitating his back injury while in a prison built into a pit.

Still what the film offers is a clean ending for Nolan’s trilogy, and for Batman to do what he intended to do after Dent’s death and the encounter with the Joker: save the city and remove himself from his choice entirely.

It’s the entirety of Nolan’s work that is getting recognized then, by way of remembering the film that closed out the series.

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Ruby Sparks

We move from the giant ending to a massive film trilogy, to a much smaller, yet still wildly effective film in Ruby Sparks, written by co-star Zoe Kazan and starring her real-life partner Paul Dano.

The film focuses on a writer (Dano) who is struggling to produce the follow-up to his successful first novel. He starts to write about a character named Ruby, and the next day, he actually meets this character he’s created (Kazan). It isn’t long before the two are in a relationship, but then Dano’s Calvin begins to realize that anything he writes for Ruby on his typewriter becomes true of her character.

Part fantasy, part really-messed-up love story, Ruby Sparks is ultimately about the difficulties of genius, the reality of love, and how the two things don’t often coincide. Calvin initially accepts Ruby because she is everything he wants at all times, but finds that even controlling a character of his own creation is difficult.

There’s a sweetness to the film, to be sure, but the underlying darkness of Calvin’s clear mental instability, combined with his inability to accept who he is, adds depth to the narrative. Dano is excellent in a role that suits his best skills as an actor, and Kazan has a lot to do as Calvin alters Ruby’s existence.

The fantasy is never treated in a way that feels farcical, to the film’s great credit, and the film is all the better for it in the end.

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The Perks of Being a Wallflower

When the film adaptation of Stephen Chbosky’s novel (directed by the novelist himself) came out, I had this to say:

“It could easily have slipped into a high school movie cliche, but it is stronger than that. I’m 28 and I appreciate the value of the friendships shown here. We all need these types of relationships to help us get through life. To help us get the love we actually deserve, rather than just the love we think we do. To help us become infinite.”

Looking back, these lines, which ended my blog on the film, is a little hokey looking; but all these years later, it feels even more important to note how impressively the film handles the idea and value of friendship.

I’m 35 now, and I still believe this to be true, even if the nature of my relationships with people have changed. I’m not able to have friendships like Charlie does with Sam and Patrick, because those types of relationships are a long ago part of reality for me. But the value of long term people in your life who can be counted on for anything, well that never goes away. The people who fill those roles might change, but we as people all need someone like that always.

I’m so glad this film exists.

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Looper

Before Rian Johnson was navigating the stars in a galaxy far, far away, he was making strange but wildly interesting films like Brick and this mind-bending time travel/assassination film, Looper. While not for everyone, it’s difficult to say that Johnson was ripe with original ideas, something that’s even a vital part of his entry into the Star Wars universe.

This one is a tiny bit bonkers. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays an assassin in the future, where the name of the game is to go back in time to kill would-be criminals and ne’re-do-wells earlier in their life before they have a chance to break bad, as it were. The catch is that all these so-called loopers will eventually be murdered by their future self, in this case played by Bruce Willis.

What follows is a wild, time-bending tale of a younger man trying to stay alive, and an older version of himself just trying to do his job. To make things even crazier, there’s another job, one that both versions of the character seem unwilling to complete.

The movie is massively entertaining and the plot is well thought out, even in those places where time travel movies often slip. Rian Johnson also cemented himself as a top genre director, and it’s highly likely that this movie paved the way for his massive role as part of the Star Wars universe.

I, for one, think that’s a very good thing.

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Argo

This is a pretty rare year where the Oscar for Best Picture actually went to a movie I felt deserved the award. While Argo wasn’t my favorite movie of the year (as noted here), among the films that had a real chance at winning Best Picture, I was glad to see it crowned.

That isn’t to say the film is without its flaws, but what director (and star) Ben Affleck made is a gripping, often troubling thriller about a real life story that shook the nation to its core. But the unusual nature of how the rescue operation was undertaken was one of the more compelling elements of the film.

There are lots of good things to rave about, but one of them is Alan Arkin’s Oscar nominated performance as the producer of the fake film being set up by Affleck’s Tony Mendez as a means of extracting the hostages. And Affleck’s direction and depiction of the turbulence of the time period is also top notch.

It’s not often that I’m able to look back at a Best Picture Oscar winner and feel like the Academy made a good choice. 2012 was rare in that way, partly because Argo is such a quality film.

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Skyfall

I’ll admit that prior to Daniel Craig taking over as James Bond, I wasn’t all that interesting in the series. Right before Skyfall came out, I started watching the originals in order, got through Sean Connery’s films and half of Roger Moore’s before time got in the way (someday I’ll finish them, only 10 to go!). I had liked Casino Royale, which I’d seen because I was told it was not as silly or campy as the Bond films before it, and found Craig’s take on the character to be one that interested me.

But nothing prepared me for the quality of Skyfall.

Casino Royale is considered one of the better Bond films ever. Skyfall could just be considered one of the better films of 2012, and of the decade, regardless of genre.

The Broccoli family, the family behind the cinematic world of James Bond, have been reticent to give Bond any type of backstory or history, fearing that doing so would make him seem more like a real person than a spy who was able and willing to do anything for his country.

Skyfall not only dives into that history, but the history provides the name of the film, and gives more to the character than simply being good at his job and seducing women (something that the end of Casino complicates, too).

The series would crater a bit with the followup, 2015’s Spectre, but if Skyfall is peak Bond, we’ve certainly got a good one to always remember.

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Silver Linings Playbook

Man, what a year for Jennifer Lawrence.

Not only was she the star of one of the most successful films of the year (The Hunger Games), she also won her first Oscar for this movie in a wonderful performance opposite Bradley Cooper (who is also great, but lesser recognized).

Silver Linings Playbook is technically based on a novel of the same name, but having read it, I can say there’s very little taken directly from the book (which appears to have been written for a younger audience) except the basic premise. The film was nominated for 8 Oscars, including in all of the top 5 categories (Picture, Director, Actor/Actress, Supporting Actor/Actress), along with Adapted Screenplay and Film Editing, winning for Lawrence for Best Actress.

It’s a pointed look at mental health and the way that it manifests itself in different people, as each of the characters seems to suffer from something, be it depression, obsession, addiction, or delusions of grandeur. And yet the movie is about finding those slivers of hope, those silver linings in the midst of all the awful things going on, even if it’s something as silly as a local dance contest.

For me, this would have been the film I would have liked to see triumph in Best Picture over Argo, but ultimately it might have been doing too much for most voters, as it is often funny, often cruel, and often heartbreaking, sometimes from moment to moment. That works here, even if it doesn’t always.

^*^

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Saw, but didn’t make the list (*close): Safe House, Wanderlust, Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie, Being Flynn, Jeff, Who Lives At Home, Goon, The Cabin in the Woods, The Five-Year Engagement, The Raven, The Avengers*, Dark Shadows, Men in Black 3, Prometheus, Safety Not Guaranteed, Your Sister’s Sister, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Seeking a Friend For the End of the World*, Brave*, To Rome With Love, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Ted, The Amazing Spider-Man, The Watch, Total Recall, Celeste and Jesse Forever, The Bourne Legacy, The Campaign, ParaNorman, Cosmopolis, Lawless, Anne Karenina, The Master*, Amour, Trouble With the Curve, Frankenweenie, Pitch Perfect, Taken 2, The Oranges, Here Comes the Boom, Seven Psychopaths, Smashed, Cloud Atlas, Flight, Wreck-It Ralph, Lincoln*, Life of Pi, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Zero Dark Thirty*, This is 40, Not Fade Away, Django Unchained, Les Miserables, Promised Land

Didn’t see: Haywire, Red Tails, Underworld: Awakening, The Grey, Man on a Ledge, Chronicle, The Woman in Black, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, This Means War, Dr. Suess’ The Lorax, John Carter, 21 Jump Street, Wrath of the Titans, American Reunion, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, The Dictator, Battleship, Snow White and the Huntsman, Rock of Ages, That’s My Boy, Magic Mike, The Odd Life of Timothy Green, The Expendables 2, End of Watch, Hotel Transylvania, Sinister, Paranormal Activity 4, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn–Part 2, Red Dawn, Jack Reacher

 

Films of the Decade: Vol.2: 2011

We are back for yet another round of “Films of the Decade,” taking on 2011 this time. Once again, I’ll be listing the films in no particular order, outline what makes it special to me and what continues to make it do so, along with what makes the film great. Lastly, I’ll include the films I missed and the ones that just missed the cut.

Midnight

Midnight in Paris

My personal history with Woody Allen movies is pretty slim. I’ve seen a few of them (Match Point, Blue Jasmine, The Irrational Man, Scoop, Bullets Over Broadway, Sweet and Lowdown, Hollywood Ending, Anything Else), but none of the “classic” options (Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex, Annie Hall). Well, save for Midnight in Paris, which, to my mind falls flatly in that category.

There is something eternally watchable about this movie, which was nominated for four Oscars (Picture, Director, Art Direction, winning for Original Screenplay) and features one of the all-time Woody-but-not performances from leading man Owen Wilson, who has just the right amount of awe and acceptance about the whole ordeal of the film.

Lately, it feels like when Allen tries to make movies about something IMPORTANT, he falls flat, but he works best when working in genres or when his concern is about a performance (Blue Jasmine) or a mood (Match Point, Midnight). Ostensibly the movie wants you to know that things might have looked better “back then,” but living in the past has its dangers — namely, that those things are over.

And even though the characters that aren’t people from the past are a little thinly drawn (see: Rachel McAdams’ fiancé character, who doesn’t have much to do), there is a sense of wonder to the entire film. And that, it seems to me, is ultimately the point.

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Drive

This is a film that is also built more upon the feel of it more than what actually happens. Drive begins wistfully, meandering through the life of Ryan Gosling’s unnamed Driver, who does what his title suggests: he drives quite a bit.

There is a mother who lives in his apartment building, played with great care by Carey Mulligan, and her husband is in prison, so Gosling’s character takes it upon himself to take care of her and her young child. But when the husband returns, things begin to unfold quickly and dangerously.

And then the movie, which barely spoke above a whisper throughout much of its run time up to that point, loses its mind. All hell almost literally breaks lose, as the violence kicks into gear and Gosling’s Driver finds himself responsible for removing himself from a life threatening situation the only way he can.

It’s not a movie you can watch over and over again in the same way Midnight in Paris, and by comparison it actually is director Nicolas Winding Refn’s tamest movie, as the filmmaker would move into more intense and outrageous situations later in his career. This film’s relative success (it made over $76 million worldwide on a $15 million budget) allows Refn to continue to work, and to my mind, it’s still his best movie.

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Captain America: The First Avenger

Much of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) of to this point was made up of movies that were intertwined by thin threads. But Captain America: The First Avenger was the first major indicator that there was actually a plan in place, and that the MCU was well on its way to being one of the most thoughtfully developed string of films in the history of movies.

It was also probably the first movie in the MCU where people stopped and realized that Marvel might actually be capable of making high quality films. Captain America also possesses the distinction of being the first film in the MCU that felt like a genre film of another era. What director Joe Johnston has here is essentially a World War II movie masquerading as a comic book romp. He didn’t avoid the origins of the character altogether by any stretch of the imagination, but there is a sense that The First Avenger exists in a world outside of movies like Iron Man and its sequel.

This feeling would dissipate through much of the MCU’s remaining movies in the years that followed, although films like the original Ant-Man, Thor: Raknarok, and even the sequel to The First Avenger subverted this argument a little bit.

In spite of all the financial gains of the MCU, not all of the movies have worked quite as well as others. Captain America: The First Avenger is not an example of that, and certainly ranks high among the MCU’s films, along with being a standout of 2011.

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Rise of the Planet of the Apes

File this under “Reboots We Didn’t Know We Wanted But Worked Anyway.”

I have watched most of the original Planet of the Apes films, and even saw the Tim Burton remake when it came out in theaters (this was before I knew better, I’m sorry). The original film is interesting, and has interesting things to say about race relations during the time it was made, a metaphor that went away with each successive (and worse) sequel. In all, there were four sequels to the original, each slightly less successful than the one before it, ending with 1973’s Battle for the Planet of the Apes. There was also a television series that ran for 14 episodes in 1974, and an animated series (Return to the Planet of the Apes) that featured 15 episodes in 1975, and although the 2001 remake was financially successful, a sequel was never made.

Ten years later, this reboot, which sought to explain the origins of how the ape Caesar came to be how he was, was released, and set up what would become a successful and well-reviewed trilogy of films that both mimicked the original movie in terms of message  as well as acclaim.

The key to this film’s success is the humanity of Caesar, as played by Andy Serkis via motion capture, and how as viewers we feel a connection to him early on the film. This is vital to the rest of the series working, too, but also allows the film to not hinge so much on the humans in the movie.

It also never places blame on humanity as a whole, suggesting that human/ape relationships and peace are possible, but not wanted by all. There are villains on both sides of the argument, an important element to making the movie work. Even if the plan wasn’t to continue the story, if this opening movie didn’t work as well as it did, it would have been difficult for them to consider moving forward toward the events of Planet of the Apes, a second remake of which feels slightly inevitable at this point.

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Moneyball

Last time out, I mentioned that The Social Network was likely not only the movie of 2010, but of the 2010 decade, too. Moneyball is on the list of top films of the decade as well, although it might be for entirely different reasons.

In a way, both films are about similar ideas: a man obsessed with one thing that he must accomplish. For Mark Zuckerburg, that was creating Facebook; for Brad Pitt’s Billy Beane, that is creating a championship caliber baseball team without having the money of top notch clubs.

Based on actual events, Moneyball works even for people who aren’t baseball fans, and that’s mostly because it’s not really a baseball movie. Sure, there’s baseball in it and the main character is the general manager of a baseball team, but the movie is really about Beane’s quest for greatness and what fueled him to need to get there in the first place.

The movie is a contemplative, introspective look at a job very few know anything about and only handfuls of people have ever experienced, so it’s important that the audience feel connected to the man more than the mission. Pitt’s performance falls in line with the overall tone of the film, as he never gets either too high or too low, and, combined with the haunting and perfect score by Mychael Danna, pulls the entire film together.

So while Moneyball is the showiest of films, it stands together in every way it needs to be, and features as one of the year’s, and decade’s, greatest cinematic achievements.

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The Descendants 

Alexander Payne is one of the more underrated filmmakers working today, of this much I am sure. The director of such instant classics as Election, Sideways, and Nebraska, has long been noticed by the more independent community and often by Oscar voters (he’s been personally nominated for six Oscars, winning twice for writing this movie and Sideways), but for the general public, he doesn’t seem to be anything special.

This is a shame, as he’s pretty consistently made high quality and interesting films, and gets fantastic work from actors across the board. He’s partially responsible for breakout of Paul Giamatti, the introduction of Reese Witherspoon, and showing the public there’s more to Will Forte than a SNL funnyman.

He also got one of the best performances of George Clooney’s career in this Oscar-nominated family drama about a man who is looking to connect with his daughters when his wife goes into a coma after a boating accident. The film centers on several elements, including a twist regarding his relationship with his wife, and some land owned by Clooney’s character’s family. Oh and the film is set in Hawaii, so the landscapes are breathtaking.

Payne’s film also introduced me to a new young actress named Shailene Woodley, who had been starring on television’s The Secret Life of an American Teenager for three years leading up to this film. Her performance here, as a teenager who felt cast aside by her mother and, in light of the events in the film, only finds herself more so when her father seeks to intervene. She was nominated for a Golden Globe, and an Oscar nomination should have followed, as it was one of the best performances of the year.

Overall the movie is infinitely watchable, although in a different way from Midnight in Paris, as The Descendants is built entirely on the quality of its performances, which, especially from Clooney and Woodley, are wonderful across the board.

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50/50

This is one of the most overlooked films of 2011, but easily one of my favorites. It is one of those movies that manages to find the fine line between comedy and drama and truly straddles it in ways that most movies cannot.

That’s mostly because all the actors, save for maybe Seth Rogen who was still trying to figure out how to tone it down at this point, know how to wield both parts of their arsenal, especially leading man Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who grew up as a comedian on Third Rock from The Sun, but clearly, based on this and other similarly styled films, understands the idea of nuanced performances.

So what 50/50 provides is a comical and honest look at what it looks like for Gordon-Levitt’s Adam to find out he has cancer at just 27-years-old, and how that impacts his relationships with his girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard), his best friend (Rogen) and his mother (Anjelica Houston). There’s also a wonderful turn from Anna Kendrick as his hospital appointed psychologist, who might manage the tension between funny and painful better than anyone here.

The film was a moderate success, as it earned back its $8 million budget during its opening weekend and made almost $40 worldwide, but it’s the type of film that sadly doesn’t exist anymore, at least as far as theatrically released movies are concerned. But each watch is worth engaging with on various levels, and manages to grab the attention of the viewer each time. It’s one of my favorites of all time mostly because of how honest it feels throughout its run time.

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And now for the conclusion of this blog:

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Saw, but didn’t make the list (*close): The Green Hornet, No Strings Attached, Win Win, Like Crazy, The Other Woman, The Adjustment Bureau, Paul, Rango, Battle: Los Angeles, The Lincoln Lawyer, Source Code*, Attack the Block*, The Beaver, Thor, Bridesmaids, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, The Tree of Life, Melancholia, Kung Fu Panda 2, X-Men: First Class*, The Hangover: Part 2, Super 8, Bad Teacher, Cars 2, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Larry Crowne, Horrible Bosses, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, Cowboys and Aliens, Crazy, Stupid, Love*, One Day, The Help, The Ides of March, Contagion, Carnage, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Anonymous, Your Sister’s Sister, Goon, The Oranges, Jeff, Who Lives At Home, My Week With Marilyn, Hugo*, The Adventures of Tintin, In Time, J.Edgar, The Muppets, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol*, Young Adult, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo*, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, We Bought a Zoo, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, War Horse

Didn’t see: Take Shelter, Margin Call, A Separation, Limitless, Jane Eyre, Sucker Punch, Hanna, Your Highness, Scream 4, Fast Five, Water for Elephants, We Need to Talk About Kevin, The Artist, The Skin I Live In, Green Lantern, The Change Up, 30 Minutes or Less, Fright Night, Albert Nobbs, A Dangerous Method, Shame, Real Steel, Warrior, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, Footloose, The Thing, The Rum Diary, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, The Darkest Hour, The Iron Lady

Films of the Decade: Vol. 1: 2010

Look who has returned from the blogging dead! It’s me (so maybe you’re less excited than you thought, but then again it’s my blog, so you shouldn’t be that surprised, nor should you be that upset if you subscribed to my blog).

Anyway, I am back to begin to wrap up not only 2019 (which is down to weeks-to-live), but also the decade of the 2010’s. And true to form, I’ve decided to look back via the world of movies and music. I’ll begin with a series of the top films for each year in the decade, considering their longterm impacts, and how and why they matter to me personally.

A few things before we get started, however. First, the sizes of these lists will fluctuate from year to year, as some years are better than others. Second, I’m not listing these in any particular order in order to avoid spending hours struggling over which film of my favorites is better than the others. Last, I did not see everything for every year, so if something isn’t on the list, either a) I saw it and it didn’t matter enough to make this list or b) I didn’t see the film. I’ll try to note a few honorable mentions and movies I missed for each year to clarify the differences.

And so without further ado, my top films of 2010 looking back from 2019.

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Toy Story 3

The Toy Story series is one of the best and most successful film franchises of all time, and it’s also one that, since the four-year gap between the original and Toy Story 2, has taken the term “long gestating” quite seriously. The third installment hit theaters in the summer of 2010, 11 years after part 2 (and this year’s 4 came 9 years after 3).

One of the most special elements of these films is that while they are essentially still for children, they manage to include not just adult thematic ideas, but also struggle with the existential in a way that the kids won’t know until they re-watch them years later.

In that regard, Toy Story 3 is the franchise as its most “what does it all mean,” as our favorite toys like Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz (Tim Allen), and the rest of the gang are forced to reconcile with the fact that Andy is outgrowing playing with toys.

The third film maintains all of the quirks and silliness of the originals, but also expands its heart and, shockingly, sense of dread, which is wildly heightened for a G-rated movie. But the characters, after all the years, still feel lived in and have grown over the years, from Buzz’s realizations that he’s actually a “child’s play thing” or Woody’s loosening of expectations.

Whether its the best in the series is up for debate, but there’s no doubt in my mind that it’s one of the strongest and most impactful films not only of 2010, but of its decade.

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Inception

Get used to seeing Christopher Nolan in here. The director had a very busy decade, and seeing as I am the chief among Nolan fan boys, well, just expect to see his name and his films quite frequently through this series.

Inception also came out in the summer of 2010, and it was one of those movies that immediately captured my imagination and, if you’ll excuse the pun, my mind.

If I found someone who hadn’t seen it, I made sure I made time to go with them, because it was just one of those movies you have to see multiple times to get all the nuances of and see how Nolan was doing what he was doing on-screen.

It’s not a perfect film, but it was, and remains, a genre-busting tale that weaves in espionage, heist films, and science-fiction into one mind-bender of a film that features a literal wave of images and star power.

To Nolan’s great credit, Inception still feels like an actor’s film in spite of all the massive set pieces and twisty plot. There’s a lot going on, but Leonardo DiCaprio still gets to really act with a character that makes choices in ways that feel lived-in and normal. They just happen to be taking place in a world where you can break into people’s minds and alter their dreams.

Ultimately, that is Nolan’s greatest strength as a filmmaker: he manages to find the humanity inside his Big Ideas. And even if it doesn’t always work, the effort is always appreciated, especially in an era where the mindless, big budget action movies are more the norm.

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The Social Network

I’ll be frank here. In light of all the things that have happened with the world, especially with social media, and in looking at the landscape not only of film, but in the world at large, David Fincher’s film might be the best of the entire 2010’s.

That might be a bold statement, but I think it’s one that is shared by film critics elsewhere, so it isn’t as if I’ve made this up from nothing. And The Social Network is a stirring achievement in so many ways. From Jesse Eisenberg’s lead performance, to Trent Reznor and Atticus Finch’s score, to the brooding tone of the film overall, there’s always that sense of something boiling under the surface, and all of these pieces speak to this.

Fincher is less interested in what Eisenberg’s Mark Zuckerburg created, and more concerned with what impacts the creation of anything and the power that comes from doing so has on the person who made the thing in question.

The film manages to make you unable to take your eyes of the chaos, while simultaneously being unwilling to keep watching these people, who are clearly unstable, self-destruct. The car-crash nature of the film makes it infinitely re-watchable, but also something you wish you didn’t want to watch so much. It’s society in a microcosm.

And that’s what makes it so excellent and a worthy addition to the top films of the decade.

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Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

Of all the films this year listed here, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is likely the most bizarre, and it’s not especially close. Strangely, this is also the last of the movies for 2010, which suggests that it wasn’t a particularly strong year.

But yeah, when it was good, it was very, very good.

Scott Pilgrim is a comic book movie pushed to the extreme, a direction that most “comic book movies” of our current age aren’t willing or able to go to in order to maintain their box office friendly mass appeal. In the case of this film, the studio managed only $47 million or so on a $60 million budget, making it a loss for Universal.

Still, what Edgar Wright created is a wild ball of kinetic energy wrapped up in a typically monotoned performance from Michael Cera as the eponymous lead character while the rest of his cast is either matching Cera beat-for-beat or dialing it up to 11, depending on the character. It’s unclear at times what it all means, but the film is never not fun, even at its zaniest.

It most ways it’s much different from the rest of the films on my list for 2010, but it’s also one of those movies I still hold up as one of my favorites, even if it isn’t as “important” was others from the decade.

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To conclude, here are some films I either saw but missed the cut, or ones that I didn’t see at all:

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Saw, but didn’t make the list (*close): Youth in Revolt, The Book of Eli, The Wolfman, The Ghost Writer, Shutter Island*, Alice in Wonderland, Green Zone, Repo Men, Greenberg, Hot Tub Time Machine, How to Train Your Dragon, Date Night, Kick-Ass, Iron Man 2, Robin Hood, Shrek Forever After, Get Him to the Greek, Winter’s Bone, Cyrus, Knight and Day, Despicable Me, The Kids Are Alright, Dinner for Schmucks, The Other Guys, The Switch, Never Let Me Go*, Easy A, The Town*, Due Date, Megamind, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part I, Love & Other Drugs, The King’s Speech, Black Swan*, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, The Tourist, The Fighter*, Tron Legacy, Little Fockers, True Grit, Somewhere

Didn’t see: Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, Brooklyn’s Finest, The Runaways, Clash of the Titans, Death at a Funeral, Exit Through the Gift Shop, MacGruber, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, The A-Team, Grown Ups, The Twilight Saga: Eclipse, The Last Airbender, Eat Pray Love, The Expendables, The American, Buried, Secretariat, Red, Hereafter, 127 Hours, Rabbit Hole, Blue Valentine

 

First Man has The Right Stuff

I should begin by making it clear that when I like something, I tend to really like something. I don’t have a ton of free time to give away, so it’s my experience that experiences or hobbies that I feel middling interest in often find themselves cut out completely. This goes for music, podcasts, and movies as much as anything else.

All that to say, directors play a large role in my connectivity to films. Sure, I get excited for the new Marvel or Star Wars films, too, but mostly because of the content; when it comes to directors that I love, the focus of the film is of secondary importance. That list is short for me, mostly consisting of Wes Anderson, Christopher Nolan, and, most recently Damien Chazelle, director of Whiplash, La La Land and now, First Man, which tells the story of Neil Armstrong and his fight to get to the moon.

Chazelle, who recently became the youngest person to ever win an Oscar for Best Director at just 32 years old, has already shown himself to be a master technician, and stands with the aforementioned directors, and others like them, who seem to always excel in the creation of the film, even if the sum of the parts doesn’t always add up. Fortunately for Chazelle, that hasn’t happened to him yet, as Last Man stands up both in terms of its technical prowess and storytelling, which focuses not necessarily on the Space Race or the politics of America in the 1960’s, so much as it does–like Whiplash and La La Land before it–on the obsession of its protagonist and the impact that has on those around him. So while Last Man is cognizant of its surroundings–the politics, the cost of errors, both in money and lives–the film is full entrenched in the mind and experiences of Gosling’s Armstrong, whom the actor portrays as focused but flawed, driven but disconnected from his emotions.

The film’s emotional framing device is the early death of Armstrong’s daughter, Karen, who dies of cancer at two-years-old just minutes into the film, allowing Chazelle and writer Josh Singer to insert the thematic ideas of how loss impacts Armstrong and the astronaut’s inability to express himself emotionally. Gosling’s performance, then, is muted and almost seems passive at times, but fits the reality of the character as the film presents it. This leaves the emotional weight to be carried by Claire Foy, tremendous as Janet Armstrong, who struggles both to keep her life together at home and with the regular and terrifying reminder that one of these days her husband may not come home. The repeated refrain of death is one that the film handles adeptly, as its drum beat repetition serves as a reminder both to the characters and the audience that the cost is extremely high.

Much has been made of the film’s perceived anti-American stance, and people who have not seen the movie, from friends of mine on Facebook to the President of the United States have spoken out against the movie because of what they’ve been told. The problem is that these people, who misinterpreted a story about the film, are wrong about the movie and its treatment of America as hero. While it is true that the planting of the American flag on the moon is not explicitly depicted on-screen, the flag is shown twice in rare wide shots of Tranquility Base, and the Stars and Stripes are all over the film’s scenes, from a heroic shot of Armstrong’s son hoisting the flag outside of the family’s Houston house to the flags literally in every shot of the astronauts in uniform or in spacesuits, the image is an indelible one in the film. Furthermore, while the script doesn’t go out of its way to make political statements about the Soviet Union, the mission is clear: NASA has to beat the Soviets to the moon, and it is embarrassed by its being beaten, time after time, by the Soviet space expeditions. The reason this is not hammered home even more throughout is also pretty clear: this is a film about Armstrong and his obsession to reach his goal, which has little to do with the Space Race and everything to do with his own desires. The film is called First Man, after all, and time and time again reminds the viewer that this is Armstrong’s story, not the history of the Space Race or of NASA (if that historical perceptive is of importance to you, try Tom Hanks and Ron Howard’s HBO docuseries From the Earth to the Moon).

The movie is also a technical marvel. Chazelle and DP Linus Sandgren, who won the Oscar for shooting La La Land, make the purposeful choice to double down on the claustrophobic nature of the film by shooting much of the movie in close-up on its actors, to the point where Gosling, Foy and others rarely even have their full heads on-screen throughout most of the shots. While this doubles as a metaphor for the tightness of the flight capsules the astronauts flew to space in, Sandgren’s camera work, and the snappy nature of Whiplash Oscar-winner’s Tom Cross’ editing, especially during the scenes in space, continues to make the point that the film is Armstrong’s, and that the outside forces, other than space itself, matter very little. Furthermore, the exactness of how the rockets worked, how space would have impacted the camera, and the lack of sound are all part of the decisions Chazelle makes, leading to a film that is more internalized than anything else.

This is explicitly stated in the lead-up to Armstrong leaving to prepare to leave on Apollo 11, where he worries himself with packing rather than spending time with his family. When Janet accosts him regarding his not saying goodbye to their boys, Neil’s response is that the “boys are asleep,” and whether it’s true or not isn’t all that important. His reply to his wife, who is clearly yearning for some emotional reaction from her husband, is damning–they might be asleep, but that he can’t even be bothered to wake them up anyway in light of where he’s heading says a great deal about the man. Yet there isn’t a cruelty to it, and Gosling’s muted temperament remains, but the violent anger of Janet’s retort forces action from Armstrong, who agrees to an uncomfortable Q&A session with his sons. Something about that, too, feels right, as Chazelle has already shown the best way to get information out of Armstrong is to ask him direct questions, and that even then his replies are short. When his eldest finally speaks aloud the question nobody really wants to ask–“Is there a chance you might not come back?”–Armstrong’s simple “Yes” feels equal parts agonizing and potentially catastrophic.

The final piece of the puzzle here is the score, a masterful piece of work by Oscar-winner Justin Hurwitz, who won for both score and original song for La La Land, that adds to the tension of the film. Somehow, even though I knew that there was a happy ending for Armstrong coming, Hurwitz’s musical choices, including the use of a theremin, supposedly a favorite of Armstrong’s, ratcheted up not only the claustrophobia of various scenes, but also never succumb to tropes of action sequences. In fact, in places where a more traditional film might have swelled, Hurwitz’s score goes minimal, all the while remaining a pivotal part of the film’s overall impact.

The film isn’t perfect by any means, however, and one of its weakest portions might be that Armstrong was who he was. There doesn’t seem to be as much as a single heroic bone in Armstrong’s body, but instead he comes across as an intellectual who is obsessed with the task, all the while being beaten down by the tragedy of his choice to get involved with NASA in the first place. And while the decision to start the film in 1961 allows for the death of Karen to play a major role in his life and showcase Armstrong’s emotional stoicism, it does force the rush through some of the events, such as skipping through much of the Apollo missions after the test failure of Apollo 1, and relying on dialogue to catch the viewer up on that. Granted, the movie is already push 2 1/2 hours, but more insight onto some of that might have been enlightening; but the centralizing of Armstrong as the story’s focus also argues against some of that, too. Some of the shots, while intentional and effective in their desire to cause a sense of disorientation, sometimes come across as little too artsy and confusing, although to the credit of Sandgren, Cross and Chazelle, they never allow those shots to linger for too long. And while the emotionalism of the film is sometimes lost by having to spend most of its time with Neil, the core feelings of loss and an inability to cope with or express emotions, are never lost.

While Chazelle’s filmography is short (other than Whiplash and La La Land, his directing credits include the Whiplash short that led to the full length film and Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, a super-indie that seems to have informed some of La La Land), all of his films have been incredibly well made and all convey the connective tissue of what being driven can do to people, whether that be taking people you love away or causing your dreams to come crash down before your eyes. In a way, Chazelle has gotten a little more optimistic as he’s gone along, as his endings, which are always spectacular and moving, have gotten sunnier, even if they aren’t flat-out living the “everything is going to be alright” mantra. It may be that First Man is Chazelle’s weakest output so far, but given the high bar he set for himself–he’s already been nominated for two screenplay Oscars, seen both of his films nominated for Best Picture and won the Best Director prize–this might not even be saying that much. Even more importantly, not only is the backlash against the film as anti-American not true, it actually flies in the face of how much the film goes out of its way to remind you what America accomplished (a French woman interviewed on TV after the landing says she knew she could trust the Americans to do the job). But ultimately this is the story of a man who accomplished what he set out to do, and that although it came with a cost, he is finally able to rest and acknowledge his accomplishment, one that he feels is very much his to relish.