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

blackpanther

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.

annihilation

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.

isleofdogsheader

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.

quietplace

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.

infinitywar

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.

the-incredibles-2-2018-poster-eo

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.

Mission-Impossible-Fallout-poster

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.

BlacKkKlansman-cast-Who-is-Spike-Lee-Black-Klansman-1005107

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.

star-first

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.

firstman

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.

roman

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).

SpiderManIntoTheSpiderVerseKeyArtCopyright

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

knivesout

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

star-wars-the-rise-of-skywalker-header_1st_image

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

1917-Movie-Early-Reactions

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?

Split-Movie-Poster-Custom-24-Personalities

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.

bigsick

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.

logan

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.

babydriver

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.

wonderwoman

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.

spidermanhomecoming-quadposter

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.

dunkirk

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.

lady-bird-insta

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.

bladerunner

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.

thor

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.

coco

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.

phantomthread

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.

star-wars-the-last-jedi-is-now-streaming-on-disney

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.

^*^

warofplanetofapes

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. 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.

whiplash

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.

legomovie

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.

the-grand-budapest-hotel-vintage-movie-poster-original-1-sheet-27x41

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.

wintersoldier

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.

edgeoftomorrow

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.

dawn-of-the-planet-of-the-apes-movie-wallpaper

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.

GOTG_wpw_Poster

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.

birdman

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.

GoneGirl_Comp-Header

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.

fury_ver2_xlg

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.

interstellar

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.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.

drive

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.

CaptainAmerica

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.

rise

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.

220px-Moneyball_Poster

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.

descendants

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.

50:50

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.

^*^

And now for the conclusion of this blog:

sourcecode

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

I Wanted to be a Sportswriter (and now I am…sort of)

I set two goals for myself for this year, one was related to starting and maintaining my own podcast, the other was to do a better job keeping up things here on my site.

Technically, I’ve done both things, as the podcast exists, although it’s been longer than I’d like since an episode has dropped; and the site, well, the front page isn’t as full of new posts as I’d like.

I’ll blame both on the work I’m doing for Niner Noise, where the writing is in-depth and therefore requiring of a great deal of attention, and work I’ve been doing toward the launching of the new Niner Noise Podcast, the first episode of which should be released later this week.

On many levels, this is the very thing I always wanted, as I noted elsewhere before, because the job I dreamed of as a kid looked a little something like this:

Screen shot 2015-01-05 at 9.26.26 AM-2

Once I got into high school, I realized I was better with my voice, and that turned into sports radio, which gave way to writing during the end of high school and into college, and before I knew it, writing was the focus of my education and my career in many ways.

Still, reading student papers and giving revision feedback wasn’t fully what I had in mind, but there’s mostly been time to find other ways to flex the writing muscles, whether that was through my creative writing MFA, my own poetry and creative non-fiction, or this website.

The Niner Noise opportunity came along, and even though I’m volunteering my time, I really do enjoy the writing, and I think that’s because it taps into something that I always wanted to do. I’m not getting rich or famous from it, although I did have one of my pieces featured on the Bleacher Report feed not too long ago, but it is fun to be able to engage with something I love already (in this case, my favorite football team) and then to be able to spend time writing and talking about the team and its current and long term direction.

Who knows if there will be opportunities to do more with this down the road, but honestly that’s less the point, although it would be nice to try my hand at doing this for a living instead of just as a hobby.

For the time being, it’s a nice way to balance my life into not being exclusively either work or family (not as if there’s anything wrong with either of those things), providing me a way to channel my writing and creative energy into something that I enjoy doing (and, in most cases, am doing already).

Keep on the lookout for more from my via Niner Noise, and I’ll post a link to the Niner Noise Podcast once it goes live.

 

School’s Back for Fall

This time of year is one that creates a mixture of emotions within me. My summer is over, and I’m back at work, getting my classes ready for the upcoming semester, and generally recalibrating my mind and other parts of me to what I’d grown accustomed to over the past few months.

Teaching at a college, I got out of school in mid-May, leaving me a week or two on my own until little L got done with her school and E’s year also came to a close within the next few weeks. Hence why it’s only August 11 and I’m already days into the end of summer and staring the beginning of classes in the eye.

But like I said, this brings with it a veritable cocktail of emotions. It’s great to see my colleagues and work friends, most of whom I haven’t seen since school let out, and even those I have, it’s only been in passing. I’m fortunate to work with people that I really like, and many of whom I’d count as friends, making my working environment that much better during the school year. But there’s also the fact that the rest of my family are still at home, enjoying the reminder of their respective summers, both of which are close to ending, but not over like mine.

On top of that, my daily decisions are no longer solely mine, at least not to the extent they have been over the summer, leaving less time for much of anything else, forcing me to be much smarter with my time than the summer forces me to be.

And while I’m happy to be back in my classes and look forward to meeting new students and teaching again, that comes with the requisite work.

So yes, I know: teacher problems, right? But I’m not here to debate about the merits of summers off or to hear about how everyone else has to work all year long, the fact of the matter is that this is part of my career, and so this transition is one I face all the time.

All this to say: if I seem distant or off over the next few weeks, I do entreat you to know it isn’t you. It’s just the changes.

A few more things of note to close things out here.

First, I’ll be playing an event on September 14 called SteveFest. It’s put on by a former teacher colleague of mine, and ticket proceeds are going to help Classroom Central, an organization in Charlotte that helps out low income families and their teachers with school supplies. You can buy tickets through the link on their Facebook page, which is linked above.

Second, I’m really taking it upon myself to get into a better place health-wise. While things like CrossFit have helped a great deal over the years, I’ve been up and down with it in the past, so I finally caved and bought a Planet Fitness membership. It’s not as intense as CrossFit, but I think it’s something I can make myself do on the way home from work or later in the day. So I’m slowly hoping to see signs of change, as I’m also looking more at my food consumption and other things I take into my body. I just want to get to a place I can maintain and feel comfortable.

Third, I might soon be getting myself into a dual podcasting gig. Myself and another Niner Noise writer are going through the early stages of working on a Niner Noise podcast, so I’ll be sure to pass that on once it actually exists. In the mean time, I’ll still be doing Things That Matter (To Me), although the frequency is to be determined at the time.

I’m looking forward to another school year and all that entails. Yes, it’s going to take more focus on my part, but honestly, I could do with a little more of that these days.

Vacation (Or Why I’m So Bad at this Lately)

I’m just not even going to acknowledge the elephant in the (virtual) room. I’m sorry I’m bad at this lately. Time is a suck.

^*^

It has come to my attention over the last few years that there are essentially two ways to vacation. The first type of person points to a map–maybe randomly, maybe with slightly more intentionality–and selects a place, maybe somewhere he’s never been before, and then he books the trip, telling himself that the details of the days spent in this new place will be worked out later. In this case, the act of getting away is the point.

The second type of person has ideas in his head–like “I want to see the Eiffel Tower” or “I’d like to experience authentic Italian food” or maybe “I wonder just how hot it can get in Israel in the summer?”–and then sets out to get himself to that place. There’s an itinerary, there’s lots of preplanning, even if working in “down time” is part of that. In this person’s mind, the destination is the point.

I believe I’ve always known this about myself, but it’s become clear to me lately that I am cemented into the latter category. Furthermore, it’s also obvious that I married into the former category, and I mean that of almost the entirety of my wife’s family.

This isn’t a judgement thing. My preference is for the latter, and so of course, I also find it to be the best choice (“Why wouldn’t you have a plan to do specific things when you go somewhere?” I’d ask); this doesn’t mean that people don’t get plenty of good out of the dart board method.

The problem is that when these two methods of vacationing clash, it’s a very oil-and-water like scenario. I can say this with certainty because in the past few years, I’ve experienced it enough to feel as if I can refer to myself as a bit of an expert on the subject.

Most recently, my wife, daughter and I joined 12 members of my wife’s family (and a few longtime family friends) in Curacao for six days of vacation. If you’re thinking to yourself right now “Where is that,” don’t worry, you aren’t alone (it’s probably the most frequent question we got leading up to trip, so much so that I just started anticipating it when telling people where we were going). It’s basically here:

curacao-location-map-min

Yes, it requires two zooms to see it, seeing as the first level zoom only places it, but there’s no indication if its actual location or size. It’s small (roughly 171 square miles, less than the metro area of Charlotte), and decidedly melting pot in its cultural background. Part Caribbean island, part South American influences, partially still Dutch, it’s certainly one of the more interesting places I’ve ever seen in that regard. However, it also uses its main features–namely the beaches and other water-based attractions–as tourist draws, and justifiably so.

The problem being, at least for me, that I’ve never been a big fan of the water in any form, least of all the ocean water. So that put me in a bit of a troubling place as far as that was concerned. The second part of it was the fact that it was during the planning of the trip that I realized how much my in-laws and I differ on vacation philosophies.

Again, this isn’t a bad thing, it’s just preferences colliding. We were offered to join on the trip, we said we would, and it was only later that I realized the trip wasn’t for any reason other than just to go and be around the family. That’s all fair, it just isn’t my preference.

So while everyone else spent much of the week going off on excursions and seeing as much of the island as they could, I did a lot of reading in the house we were renting. While everyone else went to the beach, I tried to see if I could finish all the books I’d brought with me from the library. Save for one trip, where my father-in-law, two brothers-in-law and myself went golfing, and non-water related trips to Willemstad, I stayed at the house, and was mostly okay with it.

The golf was cool, though. Check this out (and please, correct my footwork here if you can be helpful):

XSUYhtVzRmuBIRZVh2rdrg

This wasn’t my chosen method of vacationing, so I made the best of it by doing what I wanted to do while I was there, which was basically to enjoy the opportunity to do nothing for a few days. I didn’t concern myself with what was happening at home too much, mostly because I couldn’t. And that was fine.

In an ideal world, I’m starting to realize more and more, I’d be able to check off my list of places to see: Goodison Park during an Everton match; the rest of Liverpool; San Francisco as an adult, including Levi’s Stadium for a 49ers game; Rome because I didn’t make it there before and to see all the sites there; Seattle because I’ve been told that the city fits my personality; more Cubs games at Wrigley Field, but also in a few other stadiums throughout the country; Scotland to explore the place where my family came from all those years ago. And those are just the ones that immediately popped into my head. I’m sure I can think of more.

Needless to say, if I never return to the Caribbean again, I’ll survive. Nothing against the Caribbean or its islands, they just aren’t my ideal. And I think that’s got to be okay in the same way that other people might think, “A vacation full of doing stuff! Why would you want to do that?” and that’s good for them.

I don’t know. Maybe I’m just looking to maximize the experiences for myself (I think our one-year anniversary trip to Chicago supports that fact). And maybe that’s selfish. But I suppose that’s how vacations work, isn’t it? Everyone is trying to get the most out of it for his/herself, and that works out nicely if everyone is pretty much on the same page.

I suppose, then, it’s up to me to figure out how to maximize the experiences, even if the situation isn’t necessarily the one I’d have chosen.

^*^

As for why I’m bad at this, it’s the same old list: summer classes, vacation, writing for Niner Noise, my podcast, and general lack of ideas. I just have to get over that. 

Updates…again

For better or worse, this site has started to become a life update blog rather than being as  kept up to date as I originally planned. I think I can do better, so that will be an aim for the rest of 2019 and beyond. Here’s to that.

Summer started for me a few weeks ago, and I turned 35 that weekend, which was a great time with family and friends. As I’ve often noted, however, these transitions are always interesting, as I spent a week mostly on my own while little L finished up her last week of preschool, and then the last few weeks have been mostly she and I looking for ways to pass the time.

She just turned 5 and starts kindergarten in the fall, which is crazy to me, and at times she appears to be a fully-formed, if still pretty physically small, human being. She has a lot of opinions, interests and curiosities, and it’s often fascinating to watch her work through things. She’s also taken to watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles lately, so I bought her a DVD of the original cartoon that I used to watch as a kid, and we’ve been sharing that together. I guess time just keeps circling around.

Wrigley has been part of our family for nearly half a year now, and while having a dog again brings its own complications (making sure we’re not gone all day too often, having to consider what to do with him if we want to leave town, keeping his ever-busy jaws from eating everything in sight), he’s mostly a sweet little guy who still possesses a lot of puppy attributes. He’s curious and loves being part of what’s going on in the house, and in spite her insistence otherwise, loves his mom the best, but I am always glad he’s part of our family.

E is wrapping up her second year of teaching, and I am certain she grew massively over the course of the first year, which didn’t always mean that everything was easier in year 2, but I saw her handle the whole year with grace and a sense of confidence that she justifiably lacked during her first year. I’m looking forward to seeing her continue to grow at work.

At home, we’re also closing in on our second anniversary and just over six months of home ownership (has it only been that long!), even though we’ve only been in the house less than half a year. It’s often been frustrating, as little problems like leaky pipes coming from our water heater or faulty electrical wires are now our responsibility, and the adjustment from just having to call the landlord hasn’t always been fun, but in many ways, having a house of our own, where we know we’ll be for the foreseeable future, is really fantastic. We’ve already upgraded in several areas, and while I’m sure we will continue to (E starts to get antsy when things are the same for too long), I think we’re settling in pretty well.

This summer will be pretty busy, with E and L heading off on a camping trip with her parents next week (no thanks on sleeping outside, even if there is a nice camper involved), and then we’re all off to Curacao the first part of July, just after our anniversary on July 1 (don’t worry, I have a plan for that, too). Mostly, I think we’re all just looking forward to doing a lot of nothing. I’m teaching a few classes, but those don’t take up a lot of time, and I’m keeping busy with the new podcast, doing some writing, and watching a lot of baseball (Go, Cubs, go!).

In the mean time, enjoy some nostalgia with me. Unless, of course, you aren’t old enough to have seen it the first time. Then just enjoy it now.

https://dai.ly/x2glv75

Oh, where have I gone?

You may have noticed that I’ve disappeared over the last several weeks. I don’t want to make excuses, but it’s been a wild like few months. Between Spring Break–where we visited family in Tennessee, spent a few busy days at home, then were in Columbia for a family zoo trip–and finishing up the semester, there’s been a lot going on.

On top of that, I’ve taken on a new role as a contributor to Niner Noise, a website that’s part of the Fansided network, writing about the San Francisco 49ers. It’s a volunteer position, but has been cool to do something I always thought I wanted to do, which was write about sports. I’ve already written several pieces, one of which was read over 30,000 times in just two days. For someone who teaches at a small community college, leads worship at a small church and writes a respected but little read blog, this kind of readership is, well, it’s insane.

The bulk of this particular post, then, is just to remind people that I’m still alive, although my reasons for the disappearance make me think: am I doing this again? Am I spreading myself too thin?

It’s something I have a tendency to do. I’m always looking for something else to get myself into. I started this blog. I started writing for Niner Noise. I started a podcast. I still want to finish that confounded book. And write more songs, record another album. I still have work, church and my family to prioritize.

Seriously, how I get anything done at all is fairly incredible.

The trick, I’m starting to realize, is not make myself feel guilty when I can’t keep up with everything. Priorities are a real thing, and those elements of life that matter most must be given precedence, even in those times where they feel like the biggest struggle. It’s also probably true that the pieces that matter the most take energy away from the other things, for better or worse.

But again, I can’t let myself feel weighed down by what I’m not doing or what I don’t have time to do: instead, it’s better to focus the energy in a positive way to make the most of what I can do.

So maybe the blog suffers for a few weeks.

Maybe the podcast isn’t as consistent as I want it to be.

Maybe that book remains 3/4 finished.

Maybe songs come slowly, but eventually.

But I know that I’ll eventually get around to them as I find myself invigorated by each project again. That’s what gets things done and done well.

Weekend of Music

Every so often–not nearly as often as I used to, and in some cases not as often as I’d like–I still get the chance to see live music. When I was younger and only responsible for myself, I’d go probably once a month, more during the busier periods of the summer, but for various reasons, I’ve not seen as much in recent years as I did. In some ways this is okay. It’s an expensive night out, and to be honest there are times when it just doesn’t seem worth it anymore. So there has to be some combination of the right bands, a good night, great location or something along those lines to really pique my interest. This past weekend, however, I found myself attending not one, but two shows, and it was one of the better weekends I’ve had in a while.

On Saturday night, my wife, my dad and I drove to Atlanta to see Switchfoot, Colony House and Tyson Motsenbocker at the Tabernacle. Since I moved to the Charlotte area, I’ve driven to Atlanta maybe a half a dozen or so times to see shows, the most recent being when my wife and I went to see The Classic Crime on a rare trip to the East Coast a few years back. This latest trip was a Christmas present, and along with concert tickets, my wife secured the three of us access to The Room, a VIP lounge located on one of the Tabernacle’s five levels, complete with catered hors d’oeuvre, our own bar and a private restroom, a cool perk to what was a great show at an excellent venue.

Mostenbocker opened the show with a few solo acoustic numbers. I’ve now seen him three times in the last six months, and while he’s never played for very long, he’s always earnest and entertaining. More importantly, his sets always seem to have a sense of purpose and theme to them, something I appreciate a great deal. I will say that I am bummed that he ignores his fantastic debut LP, Letters to Lost Loves, but I also understand that he might be ready to move on from those songs by now.

He was followed by Colony House, who are probably one of my favorite working bands at the moment. I’ve seen them several times over the last few years, and their debut record, 2014’s When I Was Younger, is one of my favorite albums of all time. They also kill it live, and they’ve continued to build their skills as cohesive rock band over the last several years. There’s a feeling that exudes from a band that has it that together on stage, and Colony House, led by frontman Caleb Chapman and his drummer/brother Will (along with guitarist Scott Mills and bassist Parke Cottrell) have it in spades. Their music has energy and dynamics that is unlike many other bands around these days.

Switchfoot closed things out with a fairly expansive set. Like the others, I’ve seen them several times over the years, and even in those moments where I haven’t been following the band that closely or really been enthusiastic about their most recent album, I have to say I’ve never been disappointed in the quality of their live show. Sure, there are always songs I wished they’d played or entire albums they might have ignored, but when you’re eleven albums in, that’s bound to happen; but the band always gives it their all, and I respect that. While there was some emphasis on their latest record, Native Tongue, for the most part they managed to cover most of their more recent albums going back to their breakthrough, The Beautiful Letdown, which features hits “Meant to Live” and “Dare You To Me.” But as was the case with the artists before them, the most exciting thing about the show was that you could feel that the band felt there was a bigger purpose to their being there; and that while playing a great show as important, creating a sense of unity amongst the people there, doing good for the world and spreading a message of the power of love matter most. So for all the bombast of the night, I walked away feeling that good was done in that place.

Tyson Motsenbocker
Almira
Something in the Way
Kickball (I’m guessing, I couldn’t find this song anywhere, so maybe it’s unreleased)
Dreamers
Colony House
You & I
Silhouettes
Was It Me?
Learning How to Love
2:20
Lonely
Caught Me By Surprise
Moving Forward
Waiting for My Time to Come
Wipe Out
You Know It
Switchfoot 
Let It Happen
Meant To Live
Voices
Hello Hurricane
Love Alone is Worth the Fight
Live It Well
Won’t Let You Go
Take My Fire
If the House Burns Down Tonight
Learning to Breathe
Shadow Proves the Sunshine
All I Need
Float
Native Tongue
Where I Belong
Encore:
Needle & Haystack Life
Prodigal Soul into
Dare You to Move

On Sunday night I went with a friend of mine to see Copeland headline at the Visulite Theater in Charlotte. The show was originally supposed to take place at the newly revamped Amos’ Southend, but it seems like Amos’ wasn’t quite ready, so they had to move the show a few weeks before the date. I like the Visulite, it’s a smaller, intimate venue with plenty of different places for people who want to stand (as we did, right up next to the stage) or sit at tables or the bar. I waited outside for a little bit before the doors opened, a misty rain falling down, and waited for my friend to arrive with another friend of his whom I had yet to meet. Upon their arrival, she promptly made friends with the guy standing behind me in line (who was alone and had driven up from Greenville), setting up the rest of the night.

Many Rooms began the show with a female-fronted, serene, atmospheric alternative rock sound that leaned heavily into the melancholy and quiet. The singer told us she was used to playing shows alone, and while I liked their sound, it was pretty clear the band wasn’t something she was used to, as there were several pockets in the set where the drummer had nothing to do and, to be honest, seemed a little bored. She didn’t play a lot of songs, but she was honest and thoughtful, and I appreciated the songs. I would have probably bought a record if they’d had one, but sadly they were all out.

From Indian Lakes came on next, a band who I’ve listened to sporadically for a while now, and actually own several albums from, but I wouldn’t exactly call myself a big fan of theirs. They played a great set of energetic indie rock–the lead singer joked about how fun it was being the heaviest band on a tour for once–and I recognized several of the songs from listening to the records over the years. I tried to snap a shot of their set list from my vantage point, but just as I was about to, someone reached out and grabbed it, so I don’t have a full set list for them, but I’ve included what of theirs I can ascertain from what I can see.

Copeland finished the show, playing a nice mix of songs throughout their discography, touching each of their six albums at least once. The focus was split between their most recent albums, 2014’s Ixora and Blushing, which came out just a few days before the show. As they were playing newer songs, I was watching the bass player, who was situation right in front of us, who seemed to be reacting to many people knowing the words, and I wondered about how cool it would be to be on a tour just as a new album was coming out and watching in real-time how the fans were reacting to it. Based on his face, he seemed pleased.

All in all, the weekend of music was excellent, and while they were two very different types of shows, I appreciated the intense work that went into the making of each one, be it in creating the music in the first place or figuring out how to piece the whole thing together in a live setting. I usually walk away from good live shows with two thoughts in my head: 1) I miss playing for people and 2) I should go see more live music. But then I remember it has to be the right collection of great things, and I’m thankful for times like this weekend where it all comes together.

Many Rooms (in no particular order and missing a few)
Hollow Body
99 Proof
Danielle
From Indian Lakes
Happy Machines (?)
?
Dissonance (?)
Blank Tapes
Sleeping Limbs
Am I Alive?
Awful Things
Sunlight
Bed (?, missing a word)
?
Copeland
As Above, So Alone
I Can Make You Feel Young Again
Chin Up
Have I Always Loved You
Disjointed
Lay Here
Choose the One Who Loves You More
Safer On An Airplane
Not Allowed
Should You Return
Erase
Pope
Skywriter
Coffee
You Have My Attention