Friday, March 30, 2018

Best of 2017 (Part Three)

And finally, we are here! My Best Films of 2017 list! KIND OF.

I tend to judge a year in film by how many films I saw that I want to own on DVD/Blu-Ray. 2017 was not as strong as 2016 in that regard, but there were a lot more movies that I really liked (but didn't love) this year than in years past. In other words, my Top Ten was really easy to come up with, but my Top Twenty was VERY DIFFICULT. I kept moving things around and trying things out in different slots, and ended up deciding the agony just wasn't worth it.

But I still wanted to pay tribute to all the films I saw last year that I felt deserved it. So here is my way of doing that - a VERY expanded list of "Honorable Mentions" and "Runners Up" (in roughly ascending order) to my Top Ten. That list will be posted next week. Promise.


The Lost City of Z - So much more thoughtful than most other adventure epics. Gorgeous cinematography and a much better than expected performance from Sienna Miller.

The Lure - A bit slow, but few movies this year could match the creativity on display in this horror-fantasy musical drama, and the songs are actually pretty great.

A Ghost Story - Gorgeous and original, even if it didn't have the emotional impact on me it clearly wanted to have.

Wonder Wheel - Kate Winslet's barn-burner of a performance is more than enough to recommend this.

Stronger - Touching, raw portrait of PTSD with fantastic performances from Gyllenhaal, Maslany, and Richardson.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Thursday Movie Picks - TV Edition: Non-English Shows

Written as part of the weekly blogathon hosted by Wandering Through the Shelves. Join in by picking three movies that fit the week's theme and writing a bit about them!

Look, I'm cheating this week. I am fully aware of that. But it's only because I don't watch foreign-language TV shows. #SorryNotSorry

Fanny & Alexander (Ingmar Bergman, 1982) This Swedish miniseries is absolutely gorgeous, a testament to what a master of the visual form can do even on the small screen. The plot certainly doesn't sound like something that is worth watching for five hours: Fanny and Alexander's father dies, and their mother remarries a prominent bishop who naturally doesn't take too kindly to the boy's active imagination. But what Bergman does with that is just jaw-dropping. Some of the most beautiful sequences I've ever seen in movies or on TV are included here. There's a sense of childlike wonder that shows up in small doses that is just unmatched by anything else I've seen. There's a shorter film-length version, too, but the miniseries is absolutely worth your time.

Scenes From a Marriage (Ingmar Bergman, 1973) As epically intimate as Fanny & Alexander is intimately epic, Scenes From a Marriage is another Bergman miniseries that was later edited for a theatrical release. This one is pretty much a duet between the great Liv Ullman and Erland Josephson as Marianne and Johan, a couple that is not-so-slowly disintegrating before our eyes. These are two of the greatest performances in the history of the medium, captured in uncompromising detail. It's a tough sit, but pays off in spades.

French in Action (1987) Now this one actually was a TV series, shown on public television to teach French in an immersive program. There's a running romantic comedy story interspersed throughout the lessons about a French girl, Mireille, and an American student in France, Robert, that has developed a bit of a cult following over the years. I was introduced to this when I was really young through my father, who was a high school French teacher. And then when my own high school French teachers started to show it, I knew the storylines and lessons already, which was kind of fun.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Thursday Movie Picks - Nostalgia

Written as part of the weekly blogathon hosted by Wandering Through the Shelves. Join in the fun by picking three movies that fit the week's theme and writing a bit about them!

I had a hard time coming up with movies for this week's theme, nostalgia. I'm assuming we're talking movies ABOUT nostalgia, not movies that evoke a sense of nostalgia within us. Although even if it were the latter, I still might have trouble. But anyway, here's what I could come up with.

Peggy Sue Got Married (Francis Ford Coppola, 1986) Peggy Sue is pretty unhappy in her marriage, and at her high school reunion, she passes out and wakes up back in her senior year of high school. Is she really there? Is it a dream? Would she do anything differently? The major conflict of the film, beautifully acted by Kathleen Turner in the title role, is whether Peggy Sue's nostalgia will overcome her so much that she will make the same decisions and fall into old patterns, or if she will be bold and blaze a new path for herself. Viewing this movie now, I was somewhat unsatisfied with the ending, but upon reflection it's a bit more complicated than I initially gave it credit for. It probably doesn't help that Peggy Sue's beau is played by Nicolas Cage at his most grating (on purpose, but still). But the cinematography is gorgeous, and the cast is an embarrassment of riches: In addition to Turner, who is brilliant, there's Helen Hunt, Joan Allen, and Jim Carrey! Which brings us to...

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004) Sometimes, you're not nostalgic for a time or place, so much as a person. The problem for Joel Barrish is that he realizes he's nostalgic for his ex-girlfriend Clementine while he's undergoing a procedure to have her erased from his memories. So he decides, along with the version of Clementine in his memories, to hide her. Charlie Kaufman's script is dazzling, and Michel Gondry's direction even more so, but the real draw here is the ensemble cast, especially the performances of Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet as Joel and Clementine. Carrey was never used better in a dramatic role, his expressive face getting quite the workout as Joel goes back into memories of being a small child. And Winslet's performance is even more mind-blowing when you realize that for most of the movie, she's not actually playing Clementine, but rather Joel's memory of her. It's an incredible film all around, probably the best film since the new millennium. Truly a work of staggering genius.

Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen, 2011) Owen Wilson is engaged to Rachel McAdams. The two of them are visiting Paris with her parents on a business trip. He's a writer, and is naturally taken with the historical city. But at midnight, when he's wandering about, he ends up in the 1920s, in the salons of some of the greatest artists of the 20th century. Will he try to stay in the earlier time period as he becomes more and more infatuated with it? I won't spoil that, but I absolutely will spoil some of the rogue's gallery of an ensemble, who are the true reason to see this lovely little film: Kathy Bates as Gertrude Stein, Adrien Brody as Salvador Dali, Tom Hiddleston and Allison Pill as the Fitzgeralds F. Scott and Zelda, Corey Stoll as Ernest Hemingway... Allen clearly had a blast writing for these characters, and the actors pay him back with all they've got. Unfortunately, the present day characters are pretty much insufferable. But that's not near enough to take the fizz out of this champagne cocktail of a movie.

Best of 2017 (Part Two)

And the summary of my 2017 Moviegoing continues! Be sure to come back next week for the thrilling conclusion, including my favorite films of the year!

Best Adapted Screenplay
Atomic Blonde
Call Me By Your Name (WINNER)
Lady Macbeth
Molly's Game
Atomic Blonde comes up with an actual last-second reveal that manages to make sense - and even more so on a second viewing, which is no easy feat! It may have been motivated by the desire for a sequel, but the decision to only adapt the first half of It was the first good decision that team made, followed by the focus on the coming-of-age elements and liberal doses of humor - it's a very smart adaptation all around. There are a couple of scenes in Molly's Game where Aaron Sorkin falls into his worst tendencies, but no one can match his propensity for sparkling dialogue. Lady Macbeth is a lean, provocative take on the Russian novel, spare in dialogue but rich in meaning. James Ivory's work on Call Me By Your Name, though, is a sterling case study in how to adapt a novel - what to take out, what to leave in, how to capture the feeling of all that prose without all those words, and what to copy directly because it's absolutely perfect as is.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Thursday Movie Picks - Childhood Favorites

Written as part of the weekly blogathon hosted by Wandering Through the Shelves. You can play, too - just pick three movies that fit the week's theme and write a bit about them!

This week on Thursday Movie Picks, we're going back to our childhood days. I had a LOT of favorite movies as a kid - my sister and I wore out so many VHS tapes (yes, I'm that old) that I STILL have some movies memorized (most of them Disney animated classics). And while a lot of them were kids movies (anything and everything involving the Muppets), some of them were... well... a bit odd. And those are the ones I'm sharing with you today.

The Addams Family (Barry Sonnenfeld, 1991) One of the best films to be based on a comic strip, partly because its punctuated with little scenes that play out just like reading a Sunday morning comic, and partly because it so deftly brings Charles Addams's signature morbid sensibility to the modern world. Yes, the Addamses become even more anachronistic, but the actors involved have such a perfect understanding of the proper tone that it works like gangbusters. Anjelica Huston and Raùl Julia are utter perfection as Morticia and Gomez, and Christopher Lloyd is a delightful Uncle Fester, but it's young Christina Ricci who steals the show and beyond-morbid daughter Wednesday. When I was a kid, I was most fond of the various Rube Goldbergian contraptions in the Addams mansion as well as Wednesday and Pugsley's bloody performance at the school play.

Father of the Bride (Charles Shyer, 1991) I was only seven years old at the time, so I had no clue that this was a remake of the wonderful Spencer Tracy film, but even so, I still enjoy this one. Steve Martin is a wonderfully affable lead, easily sympathetic even when he's being idiotic or mean, and his chemistry with Diane Keaton is just wonderful. And the story is timeless and pretty much foolproof. Even despite Martin Short's best attempts (I loved him when I was a kid, but good GOD he is OVER THE TOP here), this is an easy, breezy delight.

The Birdcage (Mike Nichols, 1996) Okay, so I was twelve when this came out, so maybe this is stretching the "childhood" definition a bit, but... my sister and I loved this movie so much that despite both of us owning it on DVD, we met up at Metrograph in NYC to see it on the big screen last year. And the fact that we were twelve and ten when we saw it probably tells you all you need to know about how we were raised. It's still amazing to me that this movie was as huge a hit as it was, since despite coming from a major director and starring major stars it was a remake of a French farce about a gay couple, one of whom is a drag queen. Would this even get made today? I almost doubt it would be as big of a hit if it was, and that's saying something about film distribution and marketing today. I'm not even entirely sure how much I really understood everything going on in this the first time I saw it, but credit to Elaine May's screenplay: Funny is funny, and The Birdcage is FUNNY. And also heartfelt where it needs to be.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Best of 2017 (Part One)

It is my firm belief that the Oscar nominations are Christmas Morning and the Oscars themselves New Year's, so now that the Oscars have happened, it is officially time to put 2017 to bed, regardless of what I have or haven't seen. And to be honest, I've seen pretty much all of the 2017 releases that interested me. So what you see here represents my totally biased take on last year in film. It was an interesting year for me - while I didn't love nearly as many films as I did in 2016, I really liked a lot more. In other words, there wasn't a lot of competition for my #1 film of the year, but there was a TON of competition for my Top Ten. Of the 63 films I saw, there are some truly special films that find themselves ranked in the 40s, which means it must have been a very good year for film.

Let's take a look at some Oscar correlative categories, shall we?

Best Makeup & Hairstyling
Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2
I, Tonya
The Lure
The Shape of Water (WINNER)
Those mermaids in The Lure are quite the beguiling creatures, even before they glam up with '80s makeup, and the patrons of the club where they perform are styled to be perfectly sleazy. Everyone on the I, Tonya hair and makeup team must have had a blast if we're judging by their exuberantly big '90s styles. The team on It deserve all the credit in the world for re-imagining Pennywise so effectively, and their work on the kids is subtly perfect. Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 is even more out-there than the first one, and the hair and makeup team responded in kind, perfecting the look of existing characters and flawlessly executing the new ones (particularly Mantis). Nothing beats the outstanding creature work on The Shape of Water, though, and the work on the human characters is just as strong - look at how Sally and Octavia's hairstyles tell you everything you need to know about their characters. And not to mention Michael Shannon's steadily blackening finger.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Thursday Movie Picks - Just One Day

Written as part of the weekly blogathon hosted by Wandering Through the Shelves. Join in the fun by picking three movies that fit the week's theme and writing a bit about them!

Today on Thursday Movie Picks: The Aristotelian Unities! Or, at least, one of them!

For those of you who didn't have it drilled into your head at a young age, the Aristotelian unities are rules for drama established by the Greek philosopher Aristotle in his Poetics. They are the unity of action (there should only be one action that the play follows, with minimal subplots), the unity of place (the play should exist in only one physical space, and there should be no compression of geography), and the unity of time (the action of a play should occur over a period of no more than 24 hours) - the last of which is the one we are concerning ourselves with today.

Of course, film is a different medium from theater, and the Aristotelian unities most certainly do not apply, as cameras can take us anywhere at any time and show passage of time in ways productions on stage can not. But still, there is something about films that take advantage of the unities and pare things back to basics, but still feel cinematic. Like these movies below.

Before Sunrise (Richard Linklater, 1995) Jesse and Céline meet on a trans-European train, and Jesse convinces her to get off with him in Vienna, before she continues on to Paris and he catches a flight back to the states. They spend one magical night together walking around Vienna and talking to each other - deeper than most people would get on any regular sort of first date. When the train comes the next morning, they agree to meet in Vienna again in six months, without exchanging any contact information. Linklater and his stars, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, create an atmosphere that is just intoxicating - you may find Jesse and Céline's vaguely hipster-ish philosophizing insufferable, but there's very little about it that's pretentious. We're watching two people really get to know each other - in a way we usually don't get to see in films. And it's so magical that you would think that there's no way this creative team could ever capture that lightning in a bottle twice. Except...

Before Sunset (Richard Linklater, 2004) ...nine years later, they did. Jesse has become a writer, and has written a bestseller about the night he and Céline spent in Vienna. In a stop on his book tour in Paris, he spots Céline in the crowd, and they pick up right where they left off, walking and talking around Paris for about an hour before Jesse has to catch a flight. Strangely, Before Sunset is even more romantic than Before Sunrise, because of that nine year gap and the effect that night had on each of them. Delpy and Hawke were co-writers of the screenplay with Linklater, and you can feel how personal the story and characters are to them radiating through the screen. It's a beautiful film, with one of the all-time great endings, and we all would have been satisfied if they had left it there, but...

Before Midnight (Richard Linklater, 2013) ...nine years later, they went and made it a trilogy. Before Midnight is far and away the most frustrating of the three films, but that's because it takes place at the most frustrating time in Jesse and Céline's lives - indeed, the most frustrating time in most people's lives. The two have married and are parents to young twin girls, and step-parents to Jesse's teenage son, who splits his time between his mom in Chicago and Jesse in Europe. Jesse and Céline find themselves at a crossroads, and the decisions they make will affect not just their lives, but their children's lives as well. Before Midnight is set at the moment when the romance of a coupling has worn off, and you have to choose to work to find it again or let it die, and watching these two go through that in real time is often excruciatingly hard to watch. But it's also incredibly rewarding, thanks to the incredible performances at its center.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Thursday Movie Picks - Oscar-Nominated Movies That Should Have Won

Written as part of the weekly blogathon hosted by Wandering Through the Shelves. Join us by picking three movies that fit the week's theme and writing a bit about them - it's easy and fun!

Well, as I mentioned just yesterday, the most wonderful time of year is upon us: OSCAR NIGHT! I wish I were a little more excited for this Sunday's ceremony, but... well, this season has turned into one of those years where all the precursors are in lockstep, and this year is so much richer than having the same winners over and over would have us believe.

But, in order for somebody or something to win an award, others must lose, and that's what we're focusing on today: movies that were nominated for an Oscar that should have won. In my opinion, of course, since it's my blog. For the purposes of today, I'm focusing solely on Best Picture just to lessen the list of potentials a bit. And look, even narrowing it down to just the big award, there were PLENTY I could have picked. But let's be honest: In one of the early years of this new millennium, the Academy made one of their worst choices for Best Picture when they instead could have made one of their best. Just imagine looking at a ballot with ANY of the following three films on it and saying, "Nah, A Beautiful Mind was better than that!"

Gosford Park (Robert Altman, 2001) Quite brilliantly taking the piss out of the classic British Manor House Murder Mystery on its head, Altman works his customary magic with perhaps the best ensemble he's ever had (after Nashville of course, because nothing is better than Nashville). Julian Fellowes's screenplay is just delectable, the performances are indelible (witness the genesis of Downton Abbey's Dowager Countess in Maggie Smith's Oscar-nominated performance), and the costumes and sets are, of course, gorgeous. It's one of the best films of Altman's career, and given his filmography, that's saying something!

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (Peter Jackson, 2001) Stupid, silly Academy "waiting until the third LOTR film to honor the whole trilogy." This is even sillier in hindsight, since the first of the trilogy is still the best. The world-building here is just jaw-dropping, expanding outward throughout while somehow never overwhelming the whole endeavor. That the film works as both first chapter and as a stand-alone film as well as it does is a testament not only to Tolkein's source material, but to Peter Jackson's meticulous, gorgeous direction: This is a big gosh-darned MOVIE movie, one that latches onto the ability of cinema to transport us to new worlds and then goes full-speed ahead, completely immersing us in Middle Earth. Gorgeously designed, flawlessly edited, beautifully scored, and powerfully performed, this is the greatest fantasy film ever made. (It's also the first movie I saw more than once in theaters, so you can probably guess which of these three was my pick to win...)

Moulin Rouge! (Baz Luhrmann, 2001) Baz Luhrmann's dizzying whirligig of a musical is certainly the MOST movie of 2001, but it's also the most visionary. A bit of Old Hollywood razzle-dazzle by way of the ADD-afflicted MTV generation, Moulin Rouge! throws a century's worth of pop culture and cinematic tropes into a blender, mixes it all up, and comes up with an elemental story (penniless writer falls in love with consumptive courtesan-with-a-heart-of-gold) in phantasmagorical gilded-age dressing and an almost punk-rock attitude. It's too much at first, but by the time Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman are singing a medley of love songs at each other on top of a giant elephant as CGI fireworks explode all around them, the film has swept you off your feet into its mad embrace, causing an intoxicating head rush you won't ever want to escape.