Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Day 150: It's a Wonderful Life

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #29
Year: 1946
Director: Frank Capra
Starring: James Stewart and Donna Reed

I thought I might do a blog post outlining my picks for winners in the Oscar categories, but I guess I'll wait until nominations are announced. Instead, I'll jump right into my next Top 250 film, #150 overall for me, leaving just 100 more posts after today. Tonight's movie I actually watched on Christmas Eve, along with the rest of America. It's a Wonderful Life has become just as associated with Christmastime in America as Santa Claus or Ebenezer Scrooge, even if it only partially takes place around the holidays. Clever marketing and a perennial primetime slot on network television has made sure that every American knows the name George Bailey and knows the lesson of his story. Despite religious undertones, it isn't truly a Christian movie, and its message is universal: Life is worth living, and everybody matters. It's a classic in every sense of the word, and it earns every ounce of the praise that has been heaped upon it in the half-century-plus since its release.

The movie's story is mostly told in the form of a series of flashbacks showing George Bailey's life, starting with a childhood accident that leaves him deaf in one ear and progressing through his life as the head of the Building and Loans office, the only organization standing in the way of a malicious bank that seeks to dominate his entire town. When it looks like his company, the driving force in every aspect of his life, is about to go under, Bailey contemplates suicide. He makes it all the way to the bridge he intends to throw himself off of when he crosses paths for the first time with his guardian angel, Clarence, who preempts Bailey's jump into the icy abyss with one of his own. Bailey reacts and saves Clarence from drowning, and that's when the movie really takes off – a sequence that lasts only its final fifteen minutes or so.

The closing sees Clarence taking George Bailey through his sleepy little burg to show him what it would be like if he had never been born. It's a unsubtle nod to A Christmas Carol, especially given the fact that it takes place on Christmas, but it works brilliantly for Capra. Bailey, of course, learns that he likes the world a lot better with himself in it, tells Clarence to fix things, and runs home appreciatively into the waiting arms of his children. The townspeople gather the money to keep his business' doors open, and everyone lives happily ever after. No man is a failure who has friends, Clarence's final message to George tells us, and the credits roll with every viewer's heart aflutter.

Sentimental value probably overrates this movie, as its position inside the list's top 30 reveals, but it's still extremely good. It's a relatively undaring, unchallenging film, but it's representative of some of what made Hollywood's Golden Era as golden as it was. Stewart gives one of his many brilliant performances and really plays George Bailey with the necessary nuance that keeps his backstory from seeming too schmaltzy. It's a holiday tradition, and rightly so.

The Good: The final 15-20 minutes.

The Bad: The scenes that apparently take place in Heaven, which are just shots of outer space.

The Skinny: Deserves to be on the list, even if I'm unsure about it's high placement.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Best of 2010, Part 4: The Top Ten

10. Shutter Island
I'm always willing to commend an established artist for venturing into unfamiliar territory when the familiar has done nothing but serve them well. Martin Scorsese reaches far beyond his usual fare with this mystery horror homage to Hitchcockian noir. Leo DiCaprio lays his Departed accent on thick as Federal Marshal Teddy Daniels, ostensibly sent to a remote insane asylum to investigate the disappearance of a patient. As his investigation continues, he only seems to get further from the truth until the thrilling climax and heart-wrenching denouement. While the film took some flak for its Scooby Doo-styled reveals and half-baked David Lynch dream sequences, it's so much fun to follow its constant twists and turns that it's hard to hate it – besides, even the weak points can be chalked up to homage, as Hitchcock wasn't always the most well-rounded filmmaker himself.

9. Winter's Bone
In Debra Granik's adaptation of Daniel Woodrell's novel of the same name, the tone is so oppressive that it's difficult to imagine anyone smiling at any point in its duration. Jennifer Lawrence shines as Ree Dolly, a hard-nosed adolescent forced to raise her family deep in the Ozarks while her mother is ill and her meth-cooking father is God-knows-where, on the lam from a bail bondsman and sheriff who promise to repossess the Dollys' house if he isn't found – dead or alive. Ree embarks on a seemingly Sisyphean hero's journey that reminded this middle-class college student that there's a world beyond higher education and its trappings. No one in the movie is seen with a cell phone or on a computer even though it's set in 2010, and showers and orthodontic care appear few and far between. It's a sobering film, and its tragic centerpiece is the scene where Ree finally finds her father. It ends on a somewhat happy note, with Ree coming into some money she very badly needs to take care of her family, but it's clear that even the Good Life in her world is a thousand times harder than the way most of us are privileged enough to live.

8. Kick-Ass
As I've descended into the depths of film snobbery over the past year, my capacity to enjoy good old-fashioned dumb fun has somewhat declined. My film critic tendencies couldn't stop me from loving this one, though; it was just too fucking fun. Unlike Roger Ebert, who couldn't quite get past the fact that an eleven-year-old girl (Hit-Girl, played by Chloë Moretz) would call a group of bad guys "cunts" and that the level of violence is beyond gratuitous, I couldn't stop laughing and silently applauding as Hit-Girl sliced through legions of enemies and dropped her distinctly R-rated catchphrases. The second time I watched the movie, some of that novelty wore off and the thinness of the plot (Regular guy decides to become superhero and gets caught up in fairly standard Mob plot) revealed itself, which is why it isn't higher. It was still the most fun that I had at the theaters this year, and the best comic book film of 2010.

7. The Kids Are All Right
Leave it to a lesbian filmmaker to make the most richly detailed, authentic portrait of the life of a normal family in America in 2010 that I saw this year. And conservatives think they're too out of touch to raise kids...but anyway. The Kids Are All Right is a lighthearted, beautiful movie about two lesbian moms of two artificially inseminated kids who get curious about the identity of their sperm donor father, look him up, and forge a friendship with him. One of the moms (Julianne Moore) starts sleeping with him (Mark Ruffalo) while the other (Annette Bening) becomes increasingly stressed at work and starts to take it out on her family. The relationships between the characters – all of whom are brilliantly acted and should land the film plenty of Oscar nominations – are realer than just about any other film relationships I've seen, and the movie is entirely character-driven, with only a few relevant plot points, almost all of which are detailed above. It's a heartwarming movie, even at its most emotionally tense, and it has my vote for 2010's best ensemble cast.

6. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
There's hardly a year since cinema's origins that didn't produce an absolutely masterful Swedish film, and this year was no exception. Niels Arden Oplev's adaptation of the first book in Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy is a psychologically taut crime thriller. Veteran character actor Michael Nyqvist plays Mikael Blomkvist, a journalist locked in a court battle over a libel accusation and in the midst of an investigation on a forty-year-old cold case, and relative newcomer Noomi Rapace gives one of the strongest female performances of the year as punk-rock computer hacker Lisbeth Salander, whose own research talents are at first used to investigate Blomkvist until they eventually join forces. Their individual trials and tribulations are fascinating enough, but it's where their paths intersect and their chemistry is allowed to shine that the film is at its best. There's shades of Ingmar Bergman, as with most Swedish national cinema, but Oplev succeeds in making this adaptation his own.

5. Toy Story 3
No third movie in a series of animated pictures should, in theory, ever be the fifth best film of a given year. But theory doesn't account for the existence of Pixar, a veritable powerhouse of greatness at this point that has a remarkable masterpiece-to-crap ratio unmatched by any other studio, animated or otherwise. Toy Story 3 is very possibly their most complete film yet, flawlessly marrying the emotional depth of movies like Up and WALL-E with the rip-roaring adventure and comedy of lighter fare like Monsters, Inc. or its own prequels. An entire generation (mine) empathizes with Andy as he goes off to a future uncertain and, both literally and symbolically, leaves behind childish things. The incredibly moving scene at the landfill is likely 2010's best.

4. The King's Speech
This one has so much Oscar buzz and so many big names that it feels weird to call it underrated, but I'm about to: The King's Speech is underrated as hell. It's struggled to find an audience outside of the biggest U.S. markets, it's found itself conspicuously absent from plenty of critics' lists, and I have yet to hear a single person call it the best film of the year. Colin Firth, Helena Bonham Carter, and Geoffrey Rush arguably each give the best performance of their respective careers in this historical drama centered on King George VI's (Firth) lifelong stutter and his relationship with speech therapist Lionel Logue (Rush). It's not as stuffy as it sounds; Rush's character brings plenty of whimsy and irreverence to the mix, dragging His Majesty into his little world and coaxing some of the funniest scenes and lines of the year from their meetings. While director Tom Hooper's execution is mostly ordinary, the film's climax turns a time-worn cliché on its head: Firth is called upon to give a speech on the day Britain declares war on Germany and invites Rush to guide him through it, and while the speech is undoubtedly rousing, the focus is not at all on the content; it's on the elocution. We've seen speeches as climaxes in films before, but never quite like this.

3. True Grit
It's often considered blasphemy to opine that a remake is better than an original, and that is especially the case in genre filmmaking, where fans cling to the old classics like a religion. Indeed, 1969's True Grit – the film that earned John Wayne his only Oscar – is a difficult movie to best, but the Coen Brothers are just the people to do it, and with this Jeff Bridges-starring throwback Western, they have absolutely done it. Their True Grit is the best film in the genre since 1992's Unforgiven, and it does what every great Western should do: It lets the camera do the talking. Yes, there are brilliant, verbose performances from Bridges, newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, and others, but the Coens pull the camera back and let us drink in the rolling landscapes of the Old West and then zoom it back in to show us the craggy expressions of work-hardened men and women. This isn't mere Sergio Leone worship, though; the Brothers have their indelible stamp all over it, and it's bound to join the canon of their finest works.

2. Inception
No movie was more anticipated in 2010 than the latest mind-bending thriller by Christopher Nolan. He has forged one of the most recognizable directorial identities of the last fifty years with his brand of exposition-heavy, brainy action films, and Inception feels, in a lot of ways, like the full realization of his talents. It's an at times literally labyrinthine exploration of a completely fabricated dream world. Some criticisms have said that it's not a realistic reflection of dreams, but it's not supposed to be. Leave the David Lynches and Takashi Miikes of the world to paint nightmarish dreamscapes on film; Christopher Nolan wants to show us what dreams would be like if we had drugs and technology that could make them occur in a predictable manner, and he does so with great success. Nolan tells us everything we need to know. A focused viewing will make every scene totally clear, and when we're left to decide the ending for ourselves, we shouldn't feel cheated. Quite the contrary, we should feel honored. It's Nolan trusting us more than he's ever trusted an audience before. Ultimately, it doesn't even matter what the ending is; it's the journey that's important.

1. Black Swan
And at long last, behold: the best film of 2010. Darren Aronofsky spent a decade revising and rewriting a script that was originally about a New York theater troupe to make it the best movie about the stage ever made. Set in the ultra-competitive world of professional ballet, company dancer Nina (Natalie Portman, in a role that finally shows her full potential as one of the greatest actresses of our time) is given the chance to be the prima ballerina in a production of Swan Lake. The pressure of the role, along with the unorthodox methods of her director (Vincent Cassel) and competition from a new company member (Mila Kunis) sends her spiraling into a mental breakdown that makes the audience question what is real and what isn't. Unlike Christopher Nolan, though, Aronofsky doesn't let us off the hook and tell us what to believe. Nothing is certain, and even multiple viewings can produce only theories, not conclusive truths. It's a brilliantly acted, brilliantly directed fusion of Mulholland Dr. and The Wrestler that brings with it countless layers of meaning and limitless potential for analysis, and it is without a doubt the finest movie of the year.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Best of 2010, Part 3: Non-Top 10 Movies

And now, with the films I didn't see and documentary features out of the way, it's time to start counting down the 2010 movies I've seen, starting with the godawful and eventually reaching the sublime. Here we go!

25. Vampires Suck
This isn't just the worst movie of 2010; it's the worst movie I've ever seen. It was friends' wishes, not morbid curiosity, that led me to see this rubbish at a drive-in over the summer, and its mercifully short running time was the least fun I've ever had at the movies, let alone at a so-called comedy. Already dated pop culture references, scatological jokes, physical humor, and everything else that one should expect from a Scary Movie offshoot was present, and in spades. Avoid at all costs.

24. Iron Man 2
I actually had somewhat high hopes for this movie. I thought its prequel was one of the best things Marvel has ever done for the big screen, and even though the trailer had a few warning signs that the second one wouldn't be as good, I went in with optimism. That optimism was shattered. The script is atrocious, making everything that comes out of Robert Downey, Jr.'s mouth a hackneyed catchphrase. The brilliant "Demon in a Bottle" storyline from the comic is reduced to a series of sight gags and bland witticisms, the film introduces way too many new characters and characterizes none of them, and serves essentially as a two-hour ad for the forthcoming Avengers movie. Wake me up when that comes out, because Iron Man 2 sucked.

23. Dinner for Schmucks
2010 was a wretched year for comedies. No movie is more telling of that fact than Dinner for Schmucks, a remake of the 1990s French film The Dinner Game that stars Paul Rudd, Steve Carell, and Zach Galifianakis, but still manages to suck. It has a couple of funny parts, but coming off of the output those three dudes have had in the last decade, it should have been the funniest movie in years. It wasn't, and the (mercifully) brief Jeff Dunham appearance pushed it as low on the list as it is for me. Anything that gives that, erm, schmuck more money is going to catch some heat from me.

22. Diary of a Wimpy Kid
My middle school brother dragged me to this story of a middle school kid facing typical middle school problems. Bullying, gross lunches, finding a group to fit in with, and every other trope of the genre is present, and while it was executed fairly well, it really didn't need to be a movie in the first place. Nickelodeon shows like Ned's Declassified and As Told By Ginger have done more than enough exploration of what it's like to go to middle school. This doesn't suck, but it's not worth paying for when turning on the TV will more often than not turn up the exact same thing.

21. Red
My expectations for this movie were higher than they should have been. A great cast does not a great movie make, and Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich, Helen Mirren, Mary-Louise Parker and Bruce Willis seem to barely be trying here. I haven't read the comic that Red is based on, but it didn't inspire me to do so. While it's good for a few laughs – mostly based on the fact that old people are using automatic weapons – it's ultimately a popcorn flick that you'll forget about halfway back to your car in the parking lot.

20. Micmacs
I have to give Amélie director Jean-Pierre Jeunet a lot of credit for this movie even though I didn't particularly like it. It is, if nothing else, extremely ambitious. More characters, places, visual elements and ideas are introduced than in anything else I saw this year. Unfortunately, Jeunet doesn't flesh them out as much as he needs to, and his characters basically exist as humorous caricatures rather than actual, sympathetic people. I'd probably have this movie higher if it didn't borrow its entire visual identity from some of the worse Terry Gilliam films. A busy frame is not always an effective frame, and while Jeunet managed to organize his chaos in his 2001 masterpiece, that is not the case in Micmacs.

19. How to Train Your Dragon
Here comes controversy. It should be noted that I actually did enjoy most of the movies I saw this year, and that this low ranking doesn't mean I am soulless and didn't find anything to enjoy in the movie. But all that said, yes, I do think How to Train Your Dragon was probably the most overrated movie of 2010. I think people were blinded by the fact that Dreamworks managed to make a movie that wasn't all pop culture references and jokes for the adults that would fly over kids' heads (Shrek is still their only great movie). Yes, this is a visually stunning movie with a sympathetic, interesting lead, but the voice cast sucks and it's a bit of a one-trick pony. I can't even count the number of scenes in which we see Hiccup a) training Toothless or b) taming other dragons. They are many. I'll at least give the movie mad props for not pulling any punches with the ending. Much more bittersweet than one would expect from a kids' film not made by Pixar.

18. The Other Guys
While 19th place was underachievement for How to Train Your Dragon, 18th for The Other Guys is massive overachievement. I don't even like Will Ferrell all that much, but he and Mark Wahlberg had great comedic chemistry and gave us the best buddy cop flick in decades. A few of the gags get driven into the ground, but the punchlines just keep coming and the story is interesting enough to keep you watching. It's tough to analyze a Will Ferrell movie, so I'll just say that if you like Anchorman and Talladega Nights, you'll probably like The Other Guys. Ferrell is the man of a thousand movies but just one character. At least that character is funny.

17. Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole
I love owls. I wouldn't have gone to this movie if I didn't. Aside from its heroes being owls, there's very little to differentiate this film from a million other animated fantasy flicks. Still, its execution is so perfect that it's hard to complain. Zack Snyder's directorial debut in animation may go down as his best movie, though, as he's forced to show a restraint that has been sorely lacking from all of his live-action pictures. Legend of the Guardians could have made a run at my top ten this year if it weren't for the fact that some dumbass decided that an Owl City song should be played during the climactic battle scene, thus basically ruining the moment and, in turn, a lot of the movie. 17th might be a little high for a movie that pissed me off more than any other this year, but the parts that didn't piss me off were all done so well that I can't fight it.

16. The Girl Who Played With Fire
I actually saw this, the second film in the Swedish Millennium Trilogy, before I saw its predecessor, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Without knowing how great that movie was, I enjoyed the hell out of this one. Noomi Rapace gives yet another stellar performance as renegade computer hacker Lisbeth Salander, and we get details of her back story that prove as emotionally resonant as anything in the darker, more moving first picture. Michael Nyqvist is a bit more on the sidelines here as investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist, and his plotline isn't nearly as interesting as Lisbeth's, but as my introduction to the characters of the trilogy, The Girl Who Played With Fire was an engrossing, beautiful film.

15. The Secret in Their Eyes
The most recent Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Language Film finally touched down in U.S. theaters earlier this year, and it landed with a bang. This Argentine crime investigation film by noted director Juan Jose Campanella struggles with some pacing issues, but more than resolves them with some gritty, graphic scenes and a twist ending for the ages. Even if it occasionally feels like an extra-long episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit – a series Campanella has directed several episodes of – The Secret in Their Eyes is a fine introduction to Argentine film and more than deserving of its Oscar.

14. The Social Network
I'm sure someone will want to crucify me for this one. 14th isn't bad, but it's a far cry from the Movie of the Year honors that have been bestowed upon it all over the Web and in newspapers across the globe. While I really liked The Social Network, I found its deliberate pace and so-called Rashomon-style narrative to be a solid step below their hype. There are great performances across the board, and I do recognize that in this social media-driven world, a movie about the interconnectedness of society with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg as its principle character is about as timely as any movie could be. But I still found it less entertaining than thirteen other movies. Let the Hollywood kingmakers laud its importance; I'm here to have a good time.

13. Rare Exports
Some movies this year weren't historically important at all. In what will surely never go down as a holiday classic, the Norwegian film Rare Exports (sometimes subtitled with "A Christmas Tale") challenges the modern conception of Santa Claus and instead paints him as the child-killing maniac that the old mythologies apparently intended him to be. It has its frightening moments, but it's mostly delivered in a tongue-in-cheek manner, and while we never actually get to see Santa (that's actually an elf in the trailer), it's a raucous good time that finally explains its confusing title in the final five minutes in what, in a perfect world, would become one of the most revered sequences in the Christmas movie canon.

12. Machete
"Machete don't text." Maybe Robert Rodriguez was trying too hard to own 2010's most iconic line, but he may have succeeded by default in a year mostly devoid of punchy scripts. In any case, his Mexploitation B-movie tribute is just as fun and bloody as similar films like Kill Bill and The Devil's Rejects and may have been the most fun I had in the theaters this year. Danny Trejo is BAMF through and through, and while Rodriguez mostly fails in his attempts to juggle friendly, violent fun with serious political discourse, he still manages to turn in an incredibly enjoyable effort that is more grindhouse than Grindhouse was.

11. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
And standing just outside my top ten is Edgar Wright's adaptation of Bryan Lee O'Malley's graphic novel series, Scott Pilgrim. I didn't know where the hell this was going to end up when I watched it, because I didn't know how to compare a movie unlike any I'd ever seen before to other movies. No film has ever before tried so hard to look like it belonged in another medium – a strange mix of video games and comic books, in this case – and succeeded so brilliantly. When Scott defeats an enemy, they explode into a shower of coins. Sound effects appear as words on the screen. Nonsequitur visual gags appear at such an alarming clip that if you blinked you'd miss them, and yet the whole movie remains a cohesive package with a clear, pronounced vision. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World may stumble around in the dark a few times, but in such uncharted territory, even the effort is worth serious commendation.

Best of 2010, Part 2: The Documentaries

Documentaries: I didn't want these to be eligible for my actual top ten, partly so I wouldn't have to think about how to integrate them, but also because they're a fairly different category from "movies" even while residing in the medium.

5. Freakonomics
I'm a certified economics nerd, and I love Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner's Freakonomics and its sequel, Superfreakonomics, but the film adaptation of their first book does not need to exist – at least not theatrically. It's a competent retelling of the duo's findings divided into five chapters with different directors (Super-Size Me director Morgan Spurlock's being the best), but only one of those segments deviates from the book, and all of them look like something you might linger on if they came on cable but wouldn't willfully pay to see.

4. Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage
Since this actually did hit theaters, I don't feel too weird about putting it here. It's a pretty standard band doc, but it was directed by Sam Dunn of Flight 666 and Metal: A Headbanger's Journey fame, so it's naturally very well-made. I learned a lot about one of my favorite bands, and while I would have liked a little more music in it, it was still a very interesting movie.

3. Once Brothers
This perhaps belongs a bit less than the Rush movie since it only ever aired on television and is part of a series of documentaries, but it was the only 30 for 30 film I was able to watch in 2010, so I'll count it. While Once Brothers bums me out because I half-intended to write the story it tells in book form, it's still a brilliant exploration of the fallout between former Yugoslav basketball teammates (principally Vlade Divac and Drazen Petrovic) divided by that country's civil war. The filmmaking techniques are a little bland – it's directed by "NBA Entertainment" rather than a human being – but the story it tells is consistently riveting.

2. Restrepo
It's inevitable that I'll get around to it since every review I've read says it, so I'll get it out of the way now: Restrepo is the documentary version of The Hurt Locker. While the former takes place in Afghanistan and the latter in Iraq, the two films are structured fairly similarly. Restrepo documents one year in the life of a platoon stationed in Afghanistan's Korangal Valley, the place CNN dubbed "the most dangerous place on Earth." It's the best insight on the War on Terror I've ever seen, and it very briefly made me want to enlist – that's how powerful its depiction of our troops in the Middle East is. It's an unflinchingly honest film, and in most years, it would be my favorite documentary.

1. Exit Through the Gift Shop
The only 2010 doc I saw that was able to top the greatness of Restrepo was Exit Through the Gift Shop, a seemingly straightforward documentary about street art that has stirred up more controversy than perhaps any other movie this year. Directed by infamous British street artist Banksy, the film follows French filmmaker/possible sociopath Thierry Guetta as he goes from documentarian of the street art movement to bona fide street artist. Whether Mr. Brainwash, Guetta's artist alter ego, is actually real or not, is the film's principle question, and while Banksy insists that he is, it's as though he's winking under that trademark hoodie of his, leaving it intentionally open to the viewer's interpretation. Whether some of Exit Through the Gift Shop is fabricated or not, it's the most riveting documentary of the year, and well worth anyone's ninety minutes.

Best of 2010, Part 1: Movies I Didn't See

There's a reason I haven't been blogging the Top 250. I'm working on my year-end roundup! Here's part one:

For a number of reasons, 2010 was the biggest movie year of my life. My work with the student newspaper thrust me into more conversations about movies than I've ever been in before, and I found myself becoming extremely aware of what was happening in film at all times. In July, I decided to start blogging the IMDb Top 250, and between those movies I've tried to find the time to watch as many others as possible. I may not be a bona fide film critic, but I certainly watch as many movies as one.

In any case, my overwhelming awareness of 2010's films has led me to do something a little unconventional with my list. I'm going to put together a semi-comprehensive list of 2010 movies, break it into a categories, and end with my top 10 list, counting backwards. I say semi-comprehensive because there's tons of 2010 movies that I'm not quite interested enough in to put into a category or write a blurb about. Still, this will be a pretty hefty endeavor, so please bear with me, and feel free to comment at will.

(Note: All movies included saw their first theatrical release, however limited, in the United States in 2010. I don't go abroad or go to festivals to see movies, so a few of these were first seen in 2009, but I couldn't have possibly seen them.)

(Note 2: Anything that I didn't see but plan to I didn't think had a legitimate shot at breaking into my top ten. That's why it got pushed to the back-burner. Once I catch up I might find myself wanting to amend my list, but for now, let's say that's not going to happen.)

Documentaries I didn't see but want and intend to:
The Tillman Story: NFL fans basically know the Tillman story, but a whole film on it would have filled in the blanks.
Inside Job: Looks like the film version of Andrew Ross Sorkin's Too Big to Fail, one of my favorite nonfiction books of all time.
Last Train Home: It made our best of 2010 list at WEEKEND. That's all I've got.
Oceans: I wanted to be a marine biologist when I was 6. A doc that takes place entirely underwater would have found that inner child and reassured him.
Babies: If the only thing it has going for it is cuteness...I might still want to see it.
45365: There have been "a day in the life of a small town" documentaries before, but a) Roger Ebert loved this one and b) it takes place in Sidney, Ohio, a town a mere fifteen miles north of my hometown.

Fake documentaries I didn't see but want and intend to:
I'm Still Here: I still think Joaquin Phoenix should get an Oscar nomination.
Catfish: Hopefully knowing the ending doesn't make it completely unwatchable.

Wide-release movies from the first three months of the year, all of which I sort of meant to see but didn't, that have since lost my interest:

Youth in Revolt: Michael Cera playing kinda-not-Michael Cera. Funny, maybe?
Extraordinary Measures: "I already work around the clock!"
Edge of Darkness: I like redemption stories and I thought this could have been Mel's.
From Paris With Love: John Travolta looks cool bald. That was my rationale for wanting to see this.
The Wolfman: Great cast, a summer movie released not-in-summer.
Cop Out: Kevin Smith, Tracy Morgan, Bruce Willis...what could go wrong?
Alice in Wonderland: I basically hate Tim Burton, but I'm still weirdly attracted to his films.
Hot Tub Time Machine: The title should have been enough to get me out to this one.
Clash of the Titans: Got bullied by critics into skipping what looked like a pretty fun fantasy flick.

Films I was excited for when I heard they existed that I decided to skip when I saw the trailers:
Jonah Hex: Josh Brolin and John Malkovich in an adaptation of a comic book Western scored by Mastodon. Awesome, right? The first "F" I've seen the AV Club give, an 81-minute final cut, and that horrible, horrible trailer suggest otherwise.
The Last Airbender: Nickelodeon's Avatar is one of the only non-comedy cartoon series I've ever watched, so the prospect of a live action version naturally intrigued me. Did I still feel this way after I saw the trailer? Nope. Disaster.
The Tourist: Okay, the universal panning from critics had more to do with it than the trailer, but a Depp-Jolie movie should be good, and, at least right now, clearly isn't.
Hereafter: When this was in early development and all I knew about it was that it starred Matt Damon and was directed by Clint Eastwood, I wanted to see it. Then the trailer came out and I learned that it was like if Crash – a movie I hate – required you to believe in an afterlife. No thanks.

Family films that I didn't see and have no intentions of seeing:

Alpha and Omega: Worst trailer of the year. YouTube at your own peril.
Shrek Forever After: Four Shrek movies?! Four!?!
The Karate Kid: I would only see this if I learned that Jaden Smith whips his hair back and forth in it.
Ramona and Beezus: Even a not-quite-of-age Selena Gomez can't make this look fun.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1: Maybe it's a family film, maybe it's not. I stopped reading the books after Book 3 and I stopped watching the movies after Movie 1.
Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief: Is this even a thing?
Tooth Fairy: You're kidding me.
Cats and Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore: No, seriously, you're fucking with me.
Nanny McPhee Returns: There's no way this is real.
The Spy Next Door: I fucking quit.

Family films that I didn't see but still plan to:

Despicable Me: Steve Carell's presence, along with the two funny gags in the trailer involving the little girl ("It's so fluffy I could die" and "Does this count as annoying?") made me want to see it; the annoyingly flaunted 3D (A roller coaster? Seriously?) and, let's be honest, fucking terrible title, stopped me.
Megamind: I love superhero movies, and this one honestly looks better than The Incredibles to me. I can't give you a real reason why I didn't check it out, but I plan to on DVD.
Tangled: Wasn't interested until multiple people, including my ten-year-old sister who's an expert on the subject, told me it was a "Disney princess classic." Guess it'll be a rental.

Movies that critics generally loved that I have no interest in seeing:
127 Hours: This is the biggest one for this category. I saw the 60 Minutes special on Aron Ralston after he wrote his book, so I know the story well. The movie, from what I can tell, does two things I don't like: It tries to convince me that James Franco looks like Aron Ralston (he doesn't), and it makes me watch him cut his arm off. (I'm not scared I'll faint, I just don't particularly think it's necessary.) Danny Boyle is an auteur, but this is one I just have no interest in.
The Ghost Writer: I think Roman Polanski is just about on par with Wes Anderson as the most overrated director in Hollywood. (Okay, not in Hollywood. They don't let child rapists live there.) I know that if I saw The Ghost Writer I'd probably like it at least a little, but it just doesn't have any factors working for it that would compel me to do so.
The Fighter: Jesus Christ, could this look any more cliché? Rocky was tedious enough in Philadelphia; I don't need to see it in Boston.
Greenberg: The whole "terrible mainstream comedy actor doing an indie film" thing has never appealed to me. This looks like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or Punch-Drunk Love all over again.
The Town: Did we really need Ben Affleck to direct his own version of The Departed? Aside from the very cool nun and skull masks and the presence of Jeremy Renner, this one looks boring as hell.

Movies that critics generally loved that I didn't get the chance to see but assume I eventually will:
Blue Valentine: The NC-17 rating may have dissuaded some people, but it actually served to insert a move that otherwise wouldn't have been on my radar into my consciousness. The trailer is beautiful, and while I'm not compelled to see it immediately and don't think it could breach my top ten, it does look good.
A Prophet: I don't know anything about it other than it was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar and a lot of people whose tastes I respect enjoyed it. That's probably enough for me to eventually get around to watching it.
I Am Love: British actress Tilda Swinton playing a Russian character who speaks heavily accented Italian is enough to make me want to see it. The plot doesn't sound that interesting, but her performance is probably brilliant.

Movies that critics didn't exactly adore that I'd still like to eventually see:
The Human Centipede: First Sequence: If you know the premise of the movie, you know exactly why it's intriguing. Will it suck? Probably, but I want to see exactly how it goes about sucking.
Salt: Sure, it sounds like every other spy movie ever, but it stars Angelina Jolie, whom I love, and hey, who doesn't like a well-executed spy film?
Easy A: 2010 was a pretty awful year for straight-up comedy movies, and this looks like it could be a worthy successor to Mean Girls. It's a shame I haven't had a chance to watch it yet.
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest: Through a series of unfortunate circumstances and weather complications, I didn't get to see the third movie in the Millennium Trilogy when I thought I was going to. Critics would probably say that that's okay, but when I start a trilogy and enjoy its first two parts, I like to finish it.
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader: I never saw Prince Caspian, but The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is one of my favorite fantasy movies of all time.
Date Night: I watch The Office and 30 Rock every week, so even if this movie sucks, seeing Steve Carell and Tina Fey riff for ninety minutes would be pretty fun.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Day 149: Platoon

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #138
Year: 1986
Director: Oliver Stone
Starring: Charlie Sheen and Willem Dafoe

Platoon isn't a subtle movie, but then, Vietnam wasn't a subtle war. Charlie Sheen's character wrestles with two sides of himself, embodied by two of his platoon's leaders, played by Willem Dafoe and Tom Berenger (both of whom were Oscar-nominated for their roles), and he tells us outright that they represent those sides of him. The film is an exploration of how these two forces – the sacred and the profane, if you will – interact both within and without Sheen's character during his year in Vietnam. It's about the duality of human nature, and it's all filtered through Oliver Stone's best (and perhaps only truly noteworthy) direction, rooted more deeply in the jungles of Vietnam than any comparable films. It's also pretty cool to see Charlie Sheen in one of his few dramatic roles playing a character facing his demons in Vietnam, just like his father did seven years earlier in Apocalypse Now. And while Platoon doesn't exactly compare to that film, it's still one of the finest records of the Vietnam War that Hollywood has given us.

As a war movie, Platoon isn't particularly profound. It's got all the hallmarks and tropes of the genre, and it executes them all to Oscar-baiting perfection. Since the movie focuses on an entire platoon, there's a great ensemble cast with a lot of now-big actors, and seeing their chemistry is a lot of fun. Sheen, Berenger, Dafoe, Kevin Dillon, Forest Whitaker, Johnny Depp, John C. McGinley and others each play one of the standard war movie character types, but the interaction of those types when executed well will never not be entertaining. With such an all-star cast, the usual interactions are even more of a joy to watch. All of those guys would go on to play a character or two that are absolutely ingrained in my psyche as a lover of movies (and television, in Kevin "Johnny Drama" Dillon and John C. "Dr. Cox" McGinley's cases), so seeing them work together in a movie that's now twenty-four years old was a lot of fun for me. The actors definitely make the film in this case.

The plot is typical Oliver Stone fare. It's leftist, showing only the worst parts of the Vietnam War and suggesting that incidents like what went down at My Lai were far more prevalent than we'd like to think. There are scenes of murder and rape by United States military men, and there are strong implications of intentional friendly fire. It paints Vietnam as ugly, and rightly so. Shockingly, it manages to remain mostly un-preachy – though some of that may come from my own personal opposition to the Vietnam War and my willingness to believe damn near anything about its mishandling. The cast plays it well and for the most part, with Berenger and Dillon's characters as notable exceptions, communicate a hate-the-war-not-the-soldier message, which is what I think films with this much of an anti-war agenda should try to do. Platoon is definitely no Apocalypse Now, but it's arguably a full step above Full Metal Jacket in the canon of Vietnam classics.

The Good: The ensemble cast is brilliant (and probably underpaid).

The Bad: The end monologue is pretty hackneyed and provides no catharsis.

The Skinny: I can dig it in the 250, but #138 may be a little high.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Day 148: King Kong

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #202
Year: 1933
Director: Edgar Wallace
Starring: Fay Wray and Robert Armstrong

Usually when an old movie that I don't particularly enjoy is labeled a classic, I don't put up a fight. The 1933 version of King Kong will not be one of those cases. It is a terrible movie, and there is absolutely no reason for it to be on the Top 250. I'll now break my usual format for this blog to explain why.

1) It is irredeemably racist and sexist: I fully understand the times when racism and sexism in a movie are acceptable. When a character would actually be nonchalantly racist or sexist, playing them that way is also okay. And if the bigotry is somewhat buried in the subtext, I can generally stomach it. In King Kong, that is not the case. The racism is present in a Chinese character named Charlie (yep) who looks like he jumped out of a Thomas Nast political cartoon and into the film and who longs to go back to China, and tells us so with in the most stereotypically accented English I've ever heard outside of a racist impression of a Chinese person. It pops up again when they actually get to Skull Island, and a group of tribesmen act like you might imagine tribesmen may, if you were a giant racist. They have declared a giant ape their king (Hmmmmmm....) and they kidnap the pretty white girl who landed in their home. (Hmmmmm....) Speaking of that pretty white girl, let's address the sexism. The first twenty minutes of the film is essentially a bunch of guys on a film crew talking about how they don't want to bring a woman along to shoot their movie, and they reel off dozens of outdated and offensive reasons why. Then, when Fay Wray shows up and they realize that they will be spending time on a ship and an island with a woman, they continue to be sexist, this time to her face. And then, when one of them falls in love with her, he makes sure she knows he still hates women (his word, hates) and that she is an exception to the rule. And no one learns their lesson and starts being nice to minorities and women, which would still fall short of redeeming it. So there's that.

2) The special effects are laughably bad: I get that this is part of the appeal, but shouldn't King Kong be a cult midnight movie and not on the IMDb Top 250? Anytime Kong or the dinosaurs are in a shot, it's abundantly clear that a) they were filmed separately from the "real" action, and b) they're made of fucking clay. I seriously laughed out loud more than once when Kong was wrestling with the dinosaurs. There's no way I can call these effects innovative enough to warrant classic status. I would have preferred if they just got an ape from the zoo and did trick photography.

3) The acting, too, is laughably bad: During Hollywood's so-called Golden Era, the acting had to be good, because with a few notable exceptions, there generally wasn't a lot else to look at besides the actors. The crew of King Kong didn't get the memo. Everyone is awful. Fay Wray is beautiful, but awful. 'Nuff said.

4) Peter Jackson remade it with none of the above problems, and that film isn't on the list: Seriously. Maybe it's blasphemy to say a remake is better, but whatever, I'm kind of a heretic anyway. The 2005 King Kong is phenomenal. It takes what should have been a good movie in the first place but wasn't and makes it great. The ensemble cast is perfect, it's not unbelievably offensive, and for the first (and perhaps only) time, a fully CGI character managed to make tears well up in my eyes. Mr. Jackson made one of the best movies of 2005 with his King Kong, but the 1933 one is on the list out of some misguided loyalty to anything that did it first. It's bullshit. There, I said it.

The Good: The story is actually good fun, and Jackson teased out the best parts of it in his adaptation.

The Bad: See above.

The Skinny: Worst movie on the list. I feel like I give this title out a lot, but this time I mean it.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Day 147: The Sting

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #99
Year: 1973
Director: George Roy Hill
Starring: Paul Newman and Robert Redford

For plenty of good reasons, The Sting is compared to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Both movies were directed by George Roy Hill and star Paul Newman and Robert Redford. Both took a great song and made it iconic – "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head" in Butch and "The Entertainer" here. Both focused on a pair of swindlers with a complicated relationship. In most measurable ways, the films are equivalent. In execution, however, they are not. While Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is a great film that holds a candle to the brilliant team that Redford and Newman make, The Sting is superior on almost all fronts. It's a true tour-de-force, easily one of the greatest films of the 1970s and quite possibly of all time. It has everything you might want from a caper story and more. It uses tropes and stereotypes inherent in the age-old genre in a totally new way and is worlds better for its self-awareness. I'm a huge Western buff, so I didn't expect to like a movie that is basically Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid set in Depression-era Chicago more than that film, but boy, was I ever wrong. This is one of those movies on the list that makes me ask myself how I went so long without seeing it. Yes, I loved every second of The Sting.

Like most great caper films, the majority of The Sting's running time focuses on one big job. The director Hill keeps us on our toes, never letting us know everything that the heist's principle players know. We're constantly misled to think that someone has conned someone that they haven't, that people have been betrayed when they haven't been, that the law has caught onto the job when it hasn't, and plenty of other red herrings and misdirections that make every labyrinthine turn in the film a joy to watch unfold. Doyle Lonnegan (played brilliantly by Robert Shaw) isn't the only mark; the audience is right there with him. Actually, without it being incredibly obvious, I think Christopher Nolan's Inception owes a lot to The Sting. In both films, the person being deceived by the heist team is the only character not in on the scheme, and in each, if you don't pay extremely close attention throughout the film, you're bound to miss something crucial. The Sting has a little more respect for its audience's intelligence than Inception, though; where Nolan explicitly shows us everything that we need to know to understand his film, Hill lets us hang. Until the last five minutes of the film, we don't know exactly how the caper was designed, and even when we do, it isn't revealed in dialogue; we have to figure it out by watching what happens and remembering clues from much earlier in the movie ("The mark can't know you're ripping him off, even after you've finished ripping him off.") I respect the hell out of that.

There's two more things about this movie that warrant a mention, and they both involve using a time-honored (some might say clichéd) device and making it seem innovative. First of all, the soundtrack. My God, the soundtrack. I haven't listened to Scott Joplin in earnest since I was in 2nd grade and we had to learn about ragtime during Black History Month, but The Sting made me consistently question why I don't own his entire discography. Sure, "The Entertainer" is a classic, but every rag that plays in the film is brilliantly suited to the visuals it's paired with, and they seem to perfectly encapsulate 1929 Chicago, even if the songs were quite a bit older than that. Just as significantly, the way that The Sting divides its parts, and in turn, the parts of the caper, into seven chapters with Joplin-accompanied title cards is nothing short of ingenious. Quentin Tarantino has since made this device a part of his usual repertoire, but in 1973, it hadn't been done very often since the silent film era. These are just two examples of many ways that George Roy Hill made The Sting a unique experience while firmly rooting it in its genre. It's been one of my favorite discoveries thus far on the blog, and I can't recommend it enough.

The Good: The amount of faith George Roy Hill puts in the intelligence of his audience.

The Bad: Not much comes to mind. I really loved this movie.

The Skinny: #99 sounded high before I saw the film; now it sounds a little low.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Day 146: Ben-Hur

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #142
Year: 1959
Director: William Wyler
Starring: Charlton Heston and Jack Hawkins

You can't say "Hollywood epic" without immediately thinking of Ben-Hur, whether you've seen it or not. Until last night, I hadn't seen it and I still totally got the joke the Monty Python boys were making when they said that their Life of Brian "makes Ben-Hur look like an epic." Between the glistening homoeroticism, constant trumpet fanfares, famous scenes in a slave ship and on a chariot racetrack, and a depiction of the crucifixion, suggesting that this film is anything shy of epic is clearly laughable. Unfortunately, so is a lot of the movie itself. As much as I want to say that 51 years later Ben-Hur has held up, I can't in good conscience. One year later, Stanley Kubrick would make a movie with basically the same formula as this one and called it Spartacus, and if you find yourself craving that era of Hollywood epics, I can't begin to tell you how much more I would recommend that one. Let's talk about some of the problems with Ben-Hur, and maybe you won't think I'm just a jaded asshole.

First of all, it's too fucking long. I'm okay with long movies; a few of my all-time favorites crack the three-hour mark. I just need all of the time to be totally justified, and in Ben-Hur, it isn't. There's seriously a ten-minute scene where people are slowly and deliberately changing their wagers on the chariot race in a currency that no one watching the film would know anything about. Why could this not take, I dunno, 30 seconds? Even the chariot race itself, by far the most impressively shot scene and the most fun to watch, is in grave danger of losing its entertainment value by going on for far too long. Boxing movies don't show entire boxing matches for a reason; if people wanted to watch that, they'd watch a boxing match. If I wanted to watch vehicles circle a track for as long as Ben-Hur made me watch them, I'd turn on NASCAR for the first time in my life. So yes, if this film were to shave an hour from its more than three-and-a-half hour running time, I might have enjoyed it more. I had to watch it in three sittings as it was to keep from falling asleep – more a consequence of my own sleep deprivation, but still.

Another thing I didn't like was the way that the film knows full well that it's epic and thus tries to mold itself accordingly. Every scene was treated as though it were the most important thing that happened in the course of human history, and the acting, while decent, was naturally overblown as a result. Finally, the extremely, sickeningly religious – nay, Christian – ending was a little difficult to swallow. The idea that this man whose life has been consumed by revenge on the Romans for all that they did to him, his people, and his family would hear Jesus' message of tolerance on the cross and give it all up is a little propagandist in my opinion. Yes, I know that his mother and sister were healed of leprosy, but that was by Jesus – not the Romans who made his entire life a living hell. Oh well.

There were still good things about the movie. Charlton Heston performs admirably and reminds us all that he has one of the coolest voices in American history. The chariot race, while too long, as I mentioned above, is unlike anything I've seen from 1959 or before. The Technicolor is vibrant and real-looking; it really places you in Biblical times in a way unlike anything I've ever seen. But I still couldn't totally get on board with the film. It's just too long, too epic, and too religious for me to ever want to watch it again. Sorry, I'm only human.

The Good: The chariot race.

The Bad: The middle section seems to drag the most. I would have start cutting there.

The Skinny: I don't think it should be on the list. Blasphemy, I know.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Day 145: Singin' in the Rain

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #78
Year: 1952
Director: Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen
Starring: Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds

Ah, yes. Singin' in the Rain. "Not my thing" would be a severe understatement. I don't like musicals, and this is one of the quintessential movie musicals in the history of Hollywood. But surprisingly, and possibly because of the sleep deprivation I watched this under, I don't really have many negative comments about this film. It won me over fairly quickly, and I actually rather enjoyed it. The plot was enjoyable – I've always found the transitional period between the silent film era and the Golden Age of Hollywood to be an interesting time – and the songs were all top-notch for what they were. (My musical bread and butter is extreme metal, so no, I didn't rush out and buy the soundtrack, but I didn't hate the music, and that's saying something for a musical.) The Technicolor is gorgeous, Gene Kelly's performance (singing and dancing included) is nothing short of inspiring, and, like Citizen Kane, it's one of those movies that just feels so damn great that you're bound to fall in love with eventually.

So since Singin' in the Rain is a musical, and I like it, is it my favorite musical of all time? If we exclude musicals that aren't like other musicals – namely Disney movies, The Nightmare Before Christmas, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street – then yes, it probably is. It's a charming exploration of silent film stars being forced to make a "talkie" after the success of The Jazz Singer at a rival studio, and unlike a lot of musicals, most of the songs are worked into the framework of the story somewhat seamlessly – the cast decides to make their terrible talkie into a movie musical. I don't actually know the titles of any of the songs except for the title track and "Broadway Melody," but they were all pretty good, and Gene Kelly, Donald O'Connor, and Debbie Reynolds are amazing tap dancers. Granted, they tap danced way too much over the course of the movies 103 minutes, but they were really good at it, so it was at least mildly fun each time they did it. I don't usually like dancing, but I was enchanted (or possibly tricked) into liking it for just shy of two hours.

I might not be inspired to watch Singin' in the Rain again soon, but for what it was – that is, a movie that I am so far outside the target audience for – I actually quite liked it. I don't have much more to say about but that it exceeded and defied my expectations, and I have no qualms about recommending it to anyone.

The Good: The tap dancing is amazing...

The Bad: ...but there's so fucking much of it.

The Skinny: #78 is too high, but it belongs on the list.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Day 144: Rain Man

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #247
Year: 1988
Director: Barry Levinson
Starring: Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise

As those of you who follow me on Twitter probably know by now, I'm wasting my Netflix fee this month because I got Ben-Hur shipped to me five fucking days ago and haven't found the time to watch it yet. To be honest, I'm not particularly excited about watching a 3.5 hour movie from 1959, and I'm almost certain that if I put it on when I'm even remotely tired, I'll fall asleep. So there's my bias on that one, look forward to that. For today (at 2:15 a.m., fuck!), I'll be writing about Rain Man, a movie that has unfortunately become associated with bad impressions of Dustin Hoffman's character and questions from stupid assholes about how many of something there are on the floor when you drop anything. (Man, do I get angry when I'm tired, or what?)

Rain Man, in my opinion, is a fairly overrated movie, and television has made it that way. It's on all the time. And like The Shawshank Redemption and Forrest Gump, it's one of the "good movies" that everybody and their brother has seen. At that point, it starts to bear a lot more similarities to Gump than to Shawshank, as its ubiquity has made it too saturated into our media to live up to anyone's expectations. I'm guilty of catching this movie in bits and pieces literally ten times before I actually sat down to watch it, and I just didn't care that much. I'm sure in 1988 a movie tackling the issue of adult autism was really boundary-breaking, but I can't watch it through those same eyes, and it kind of just falls flat for me.

Of course, Dustin Hoffman gives a great performance; it's kind of what he does. And Tom Cruise manages not to be distractingly bad, which is a nice bonus. And it's a pretty nice sibling drama to boot – the dynamics between the two leads are even touching at times. But the package is not the sum of the parts, and the whole thing falls apart at the finish line. This is officially a paragraph entirely composed of clichés, so I think it's time I called it quits. Yikes. Sorry, Rain Man, I didn't like you well enough to make the effort to write verbosely about you in the middle of the night.

The Good: Hoffman's performance.

The Bad: The huge disparity from how good people say it is and how good it actually is.

The Skinny: It's practically off the list as it is, who's gonna cry if we knock it down four spots to #251?

Monday, December 6, 2010

Day 143: Amélie

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #45
Year: 2001
Director: Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Starring: Audrey Tautou and Mathieu Kassovitz

Two stray observations: First, calling my posts "Day __" is erroneous since I've taken time off and will probably continue to take time off. Furthermore, I'm not even sure if I have the number of movies I'm on – the only thing the "Day" nomenclature should now be measuring – right, and I'm sure as hell not going to go back through and count. Second, in the AV Club's excellent book of lists, Inventory, there's a rather famous one that made its way into the book's subtitle regarding "manic pixie dream girls," characters like Natalie Portman's in Garden State, and upon watching Amélie for the first time today, I want to know how in the hell Audrey Tautou's title character didn't make the cut. She's a spontaneous, unstable, ever-smiling ball of energy and whimsy unlike anything I've ever seen. And her film, as I enthused on Facebook to a swarm of agreement from friends, is quite possibly the best French film ever made – or, at least, quite possibly the best of the handful I've seen.

Director Jean-Pierre Jeunet's style reminds me a bit of Terry Gilliam's. There's lots of scenery to take in; the pace is rapid and doesn't leave much time for introspection; there's countless sight gags and a vibrant color palette. The acting is expressive and effusive. The tone is whimsical. Unlike most of Gilliam's films, which employ all of these things to a fault, Jeunet makes them his strengths. It's hard to imagine the character of Amélie Poulain acting in any other way than Jeunet let Audrey Tautou act. Without Jeunet's whimsical (That's the third time I've used a variation of that word in this post, and for that I apologize, but if you've seen Amélie, you know why I keep using it) hand, in fact, the film falls flat. How can a movie about a girl obsessed with manipulating and meddling in other people's lives (albeit with the intent of making them happier) be this sunny and fun? Well, it's a combination of all the abovementioned traits that the director stuffs into his film. Tautou may have created an immortal character with her portrayal of Amélie, but the credit for this film's greatness owes at least as much to Jean-Pierre Jeunet.

I'll close this post with something kind of unconventional. Rarely have a posted on Facebook or Twitter about a movie and received such a unanimous positive response, and I want to let my friends speak about this film since I'm still new to it. It should be noted that, in an hour or so, six people "liked" my status about watching Amélie for the first time, and it got seventeen comments. Here's a few:

"I love that movie. It's so whimsical and heartwarming."
DUH .. get on the boat."
AHH it's SOOO good."
It's a wonderful feel-good movie all around. It's what made me fall in love with Audrey Tatou."
"Welcome to the club! :)"
one of my favorites movies!!!"
Its really hard not to love that movie...really hard."

Even the two people who commented who didn't like it had caveats that basically amounted to them saying it was a good movie. I declare Amélie a Facebook hit.

The Good: The visual identity forged by the director, and Tautou's disarmingly charming performance as the title character.

The Bad: Hmm...a little lack of focus? A little too much lingering on plots that weren't about Amélie. These are nitpicky; I loved the whole thing.

The Skinny: #45 is a little too high, but it was fantastic. Top 100, no doubt.

Day 142: Monsters, Inc.

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #243
Year: 2001
Director: Pete Docter, Lee Unkrich and David Silverman
Starring: Billy Crystal and John Goodman

I've seen every Pixar movie. What young man who was a kid when Toy Story came out hasn't? In my mind, though, I've always kind of had a list of what Pixar movies are great and which are merely good. (With Up and Toy Story 3, there should be a new category for "masterpieces," but never mind that for now.) Until last night when I watched it again for the first time in almost a decade on Netflix, Monsters, Inc. had always found itself in that "good" category with the likes of A Bug's Life and Toy Story 2. Now I'm more inclined to think it's great. I can level a few criticisms at it – the voice acting is sometimes a little too over-the-top, some of the gags are a little too brash, the quality of the computer animation is far from what it would become – but they're all entirely nitpicky. To be perfectly honest, I was content and smiling the entire time I was watching. It made me happy, and should I really ask anything else out of an animated kid's movie?

For those unaware, Monsters, Inc. is based on the premise that there is a monster world (cleverly called Monstropolis, and more reminiscent of The Nightmare Before Christmas' Halloween Town than I remembered) that runs on clean energy derived from the screams of children. At the film's eponymous factory, "scarers" use doors to the human world to go into kids' bedrooms at night and frighten them, collecting their screams for the power plant. It's one of those ridiculous premises that you buy into only because it sells it so hard and convinces you that it's feasible, and it totally works. James P. Sullivan, or Sully, voiced by an affable John Goodman is the all-time scare leader at Monsters, Inc., and he and his partner Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) get into some trouble when they inadvertently return to the monster world with a human child. The presence of the little girl – Boo, as Sully dubs her – drives the plot (one which monster intrigue and monster office politics figures heavily into, believe it or not) and is responsible for most of the funny parts and every situation of any consequence.

Monsters, Inc. mostly aligns itself in the "entertainment" camp in the Pixar canon rather than the "art" corner, but it's executed to such perfection that it's more than deserving of a spot in the Top 250. It might be weird nostalgia from playing the mediocre PS1 tie-in video game way too often back in 2001, but I'm starting to come around to the idea that Monsters, Inc. might be one of the five or so best Pixar movies of all time. It certainly stood head and shoulders above all of their other films that existed at the time of its release save for the original Toy Story. In any case, it's available for instant viewing on Netflix right now, and if you haven't seen it in a few years, give it a go. You won't regret it.

The Good: I keep coming back to the animation of Sully's fur. Next to, say, King Kong's fur in Peter Jackson's 2005 film, it looks awful, but it somehow looks right. Again, maybe I just played too much Playstation when I was a kid, but I love the fur and I'm giving it "The Good" props.

The Bad: Billy Crystal unfortunately makes the very Dreamworks gaffe of making his character merely sound exactly like Billy Crystal. It doesn't suck, but I've been more impressed by Pixar voice acting at just about every turn.

The Skinny: Deserves its spot; I could even go higher.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Days 131-141: Catching Up

Sorry I haven't been updating the blog lately. I've been more swamped in work than usual. I'm going to play catch up right now in a very cheap way. Rather than contributing a thousand words per movie, I'm just going to give my "IMDb rating" on a scale of ten. It's the best I can do right now. Real blogging will resume tomorrow. Until then, enjoy this roundup, ask me in the comments why I feel the way I do, and we'll start some arguments down there. Sorry for the unscheduled break!

Little Miss Sunshine, 2006, #233, 9/10
Stalag 17, 1953, #214, 8/10
Hotel Rwanda, 2004, #114, 7/10
Reservoir Dogs, 1992, #63, 7/10
Pulp Fiction, 1994, #5, 7/10
Blade Runner, 1982, #110, 7/10
How to Train Your Dragon, 2010, #172, 7/10
Stand By Me, 1986, #158, 6/10
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, 1964, #32, 8/10
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, 1975, #9, 8/10
The Grapes of Wrath, 1940, #174, 8/10

So yes, this batch had some movies that I think are pretty overrated, and on a list where most people would say the worst film is Little Miss Sunshine, it's undoubtedly my favorite and the only one I've been compelled to watch multiple times. Go figure.

Back tomorrow with Ben-Hur; you'd better be prepared.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Day 130: Donnie Darko

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #126
Year: 2001
Director: Richard Kelly
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal and Jena Malone

Should I really do consecutive posts about cult science fiction movies about time travel that I can't stand? Probably not, but I'm about to. Although, to be fair, next to Donnie Darko, 12 Monkeys looks like Citizen Kane. Hell, next to Donnie Darko, Darko Milicic looks like Orson Welles. I can't even describe my feelings for this film without sounding like a third-grader. What I want to call it is "stupid" and "bad," because it doesn't even have any of the necessary qualities to earn a more fair-handed criticism. It's a childish movie made for people with childlike minds for film who want to be intellectually stimulated on their level, and who want to have something ostensibly highbrow to wear on their Hot Topic-bought t-shirts. In short, Donnie Darko tries way too fucking hard. It's probably guiltier of that offense than any other movie I've seen.

Call me lazy if you must, but I'm not going to dignify this movie with a plot summary. The plot is just too asinine. The performances aren't any good, either. Part of me is annoyed with how popular this movie has become and how zealous its fans are, but part of me just wants to know what it is they're seeing. Perhaps I'm wrong and they aren't just simpletons who got their minds blown by something extremely un-mindblowing (Inception, while great, suffers from the same phenomenon), and there's something great about Donnie Darko that just didn't click with me the first time I watched it in slack-jawed disbelief that it had a generally positive reputation. I'm just not sure I'm willing to watch it again to find out.

And yes, I know this blog post will go down as one of my worst. I just can't dedicate 800 words to something I hate without coming off as an enormous douchebag – which fans of the film probably think I've already proved myself to be.

The Good: Am I going too far if I say nothing? Because I'm going to.

The Bad: Probably the post-production that is still finds itself in. I'm constantly baffled by how much people want to talk about this movie like there's anything to talk about.

The Skinny: Might be my least favorite movie on the list that I've seen thus far.

Day 129: 12 Monkeys

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #173
Year: 1995
Director: Terry Gilliam
Starring: Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt

I used to have my head so far up Terry Gilliam's ass I could see through his eyeballs, and excluding his work with the Monty Python gang (oddly, the only work of his that really holds up for me today), 1995's 12 Monkeys was my gateway. I worked my way through about half of a totally arbitrary online Top 100 Cult Movies list when I was in 8th grade, and this film placed very highly. I watched it, was enamored by it, and quickly became a huge Terry Gilliam fan and set out to watch all of his movies. Today, I'm not so fond of Gilliam or of this film – I think he's guilty of making every frame so visually interesting (erm, "interesting," I actually hate his visual identity) that the actual plot content of at least half of his scenes becomes utterly uninteresting. He's guiltier of that in fare like Brazil and the still-fairly-charming Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, but it exists here, too. Fortunately, Brad Pitt's towering mid-'90s screen presence (Not in stature, but in total dominance of every frame he's a part of – this guy was a star even before he was the great actor he is today.) makes most of the film easy to stomach. But is this a great film? Maybe with a more restrained director at the helm, but not in its existing form.

The plot depicts a futuristic sci-fi dystopia where a deadly virus has forced humanity to live underground. The film explores the realms of mental illness, totalitarianism, corporate interests causing society's downfall, secret societies, conspiracy, and, most questionably and yet most importantly, time travel. All of this stuff intrigued me when I was fourteen, but now I've come to realize it's just kind of a mess. Here Gilliam not only made his scenery too cluttered but also his storytelling, and a final scene that should have packed some emotional punch along with its "a-ha!" realization (like a Christopher Nolan ending, for example), it's just an opportunity for Gilliam to put yet another level of sci-fi intrigue into his muddled plot. I know it's kind of a stretch, but I recently wrote about Back to the Future, a film that makes time travel its principle endeavor. That movie works because it only requires us to think about one thing, and that thing happens to be somewhat complex. 12 Monkeys throws an extremely complex concept at us in the midst of everything else that's already going on, and it doesn't add anything to the film. It just makes it more unnecessarily complicated in an attempt to be almost condescendingly clever.

It's not a totally worthless film, though. As I mentioned earlier, Brad Pitt starring in damn near anything in the 1990s is worth a gander because of the way his young face just lit up a screen. His performance as anti-corporatist animal rights activist mental patient Jeffrey Goines is no exception. But 12 Monkeys is still a rental copy at best. (Do people still say that when they recommend movies? Should I instead say "Put it toward the bottom of your queue"? I'm so

The Good: Pitt's performance.

The Bad: Terry Gilliam making a Terry Gilliam movie. Sorry, Terry Gilliam fans.

The Skinny: I wouldn't put it anywhere near the Top 250.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Day 128: The Graduate

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #161
Year: 1967
Director: Mike Nichols
Starring: Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft

Ah, looking at that poster brings back some fond memories. When I was a senior in high school preparing for my graduation party, I made a pretty wicked PhotoShop of the poster to The Graduate – a movie I was slightly obsessed with at the time – putting my face in place of Dustin Hoffman's. Subtlety wasn't (still isn't) my forte, but hey, it made me laugh. I wouldn't have been inspired to make that poster if the source material wasn't excellent, and even though it's been since my high school graduation that I've actually watched the film, I can assure you that it is. It's given us some truly timeless quotes, it gave Simon & Garfunkel an excuse to write one of their best songs ("Mrs. Robinson"), it has some entries in the canon of oft-imitated-but-never-replicated movie scenes (See the last twenty minutes of Wayne's World 2, which parody The Graduate by restaging it with Mike Myers and changing nothing. And I thought I was unsubtle.) and, above all, it's an enjoyable, funny movie that lives up to every bit of the hype it has generated in the 40+ years since its release.

The film follows recent college graduate Benjamin Braddock (a very young Dustin Hoffman in his first movie role) as he returns to the West Coast where he grew up and is seduced by a friend of the family while accidentally falling in love with her daughter. It's one of those movies that even if you haven't seen it, you've seen it because of how many times it's been parodied, paid tribute to, and referenced in pop culture since its release – and as such, I'll forgo a proper plot summary here. I'd kind of like to look at the culture impact of the movie over the past forty years, but that sounds like a 2000 word essay, and I'm writing three blog posts tonight and have three research papers to finish by Saturday, so, uh, nah. So yeah, you're kind of getting ripped off with this post. As with a lot of comedies, it's kind of difficult to write a self-contained piece about the film and nothing else that's very useful or interesting, so I'm copping out. If you want a paragraph on Wayne's World 2, I could probably do that, but somehow I doubt if that's in high demand. At least you learned about some fun I had with PhotoShop in high school, so this wasn't totally a wash, right?

The Good: "Plastics" and "Mrs. Robinson, you're trying to seduce me, aren't you?" are two of the greatest movie lines ever, and the Simon & Garfunkel song is so good, but I think the final shot of Dustin Hoffman looking out the back window of the bus with his presumed bride-to-be and that incredible look of doubt and apprehension on his face as the film cuts to credits says so much of what needs to be said about this movie. It's one of Hoffman's single greatest moments ever as an actor.

The Bad: Anne Bancroft's performance is surprisingly a little bit shaky, and not nearly as sexually enticing as Hoffman's character plays it as. Honestly, it's mostly creepy.

The Skinny: #161 sounds a little low to me. This one's a classic.

Day 127: The Princess Bride

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #184
Year: 1987
Director: Rob Reiner
Starring: Cary Elwes and Robin Wright

I'm gonna take a lot of crap for this one (just kidding, no one reads my blog), but I don't love The Princess Bride. I guess I get why people love it so much, but to me, it doesn't rise above the level of any other fairytale movie, and I'd much rather watch Labyrinth for the umpteenth time than watch The Princess Bride again, and that's not even to mention the dozens of superior Disney movies that adhere to the same formula. There's still a lot of charming things about this film, many of which stem from its excellent supporting cast (headlined by the greatest bit part actor of all time, Wallace Shawn, the late, great Andre the Giant, and the immortal-line-spewing Mandy Patinkin). Still, something keeps this movie strictly in the cult phenomenon zone for me and well shy of the "great film" range.

The plot is pretty standard, though it has its twists. A beautiful girl falls in love with a poor man but is betrothed to a rich prince. She gets kidnapped before the wedding can happen, and the kidnappers are pursued by both of the beautiful girl's suitors. Her true love (the poor man) catches up with her and they eventually ride off into the sunset together after the man weasels his way out of a duel with the prince. This is all framed by a grandfather (who may or may not be the poor lovestruck man himself) reading a story to his sick grandson. There's lots of other, more interesting things happening in what I would call the "B-plot" if this were a TV recap, but you don't need those here. If you're going to watch the movie, though, those are the bits you'll want to watch it for. The three aforementioned supporting actors, along with Billy Crystal and Christopher Guest, are all hilarious and better than the two leads (Robin Wright and Cary Elwes).

I'm not here to hate on The Princess Bride, though. Seriously. If I was eight years old in 1987, I would probably have a poster of it on my wall right now. But I didn't necessarily see it first at the right age or in the right environment to care very deeply about it, so it's easy to look for comparable movies that do what it does in a more interesting way. At worst, it gives me a chance to see Wallace Shawn – an actor whom I'm pretty sure I like more than anyone else on Earth does – in a relatively big role. Top 250, though? Inconceivable.

The Good: The scene wherein Wallace Shawn's character overthinks which cup the poison is in...

The Bad: ...leading to his death. This movie needed more Wallace Shawn.

The Skinny: Nah, it's not Top 250 good, at least not in my opinion.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Day 126: Glory

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #248
Year: 1989
Director: Edward Zwick
Starring: Matthew Broderick and Denzel Washington

Contemporary filmmaking hasn't been particularly kind to the American Civil War. It's mostly been reduced to four-hour blocks of fan service for the kinds of guys who subscribe to Blue and Gray and reenact the battle of Antietam in their local parks, and when truly great movies taking place during the Civil War are made, they're generally not really about the Civil War at all (see Good, the Bad and the Ugly, The). Glory is one glorious (heh) exception. It's got some of the hallmarks of ho-hum Civil War movies – namely extremely long battle scenes and resulting shots surveying fields covered in bodies that directly reference Matthew Brady's photography – but the story it tells is a fairly unique, or, at the very least, interesting one. Most of the credit goes to the casting, which gave Denzel Washington his first Oscar, gave Morgan Freeman a chance to shine as the wise, simple older man two years before he'd perfect it in Unforgiven, and gave Matthew Broderick the chance to reinvent himself as someone besides Ferris Bueller (it didn't stick, but hey, he pulls it off well here).

Criticisms have been leveled at Glory for being a black movie with a white hero. Okay, fair enough; Spike Lee probably wouldn't have jumped at the chance to direct this script, but this was a movie based on a series of letters from a white colonel in charge of a black regiment. I'm not saying history isn't sometimes racist, but that being said, it is history. The degree to which the black characters are integrated into the United States Army in Glory is pretty much the most equality they could hope for in 1863, and I think Edward Zwick does a fine job of reconciling that. Morgan Freeman has spoken out in defense of the film against black critics who argued that it was an "Uncle Tom" movie, and I'd say that the film's reputation has mostly been restored in the 21 years since its release.

Glory is not a perfect film (far from it, in fact), but considering the odds that are stacked against it – accusations of veiled racism, the handicap of making a Civil War film, the apparent obligation to show at least twenty minutes of boring war film footage complete with clichés like the formal rivals saving each other on the field of battle – it's a damned fine effort. The plot is immaterial because it's pretty much like that of any other war film about an embattled regiment, just this time it's about race, but the excellent cast makes it worth at least one viewing.

The Good: Washington, Freeman, and Broderick give an excellent trifecta of performances.

The Bad: Why the hell did Zwick decide to put Frederick Douglass in this film? So, so, so gimmicky and unnecessary. Also, ending your film with an utterly cliched battle scene and, of course, a shot of a battlefield strewn with bodies followed by, you guessed it, title cards? Pretty lame, Zwick. It's easy to tune out the last twenty minutes.

The Skinny: Yeah, sorry, it definitely isn't Top 250 material. I liked it more in 8th grade, and even then I'm not sure I would have totally understood it being on the list.