Movies - Lists posts
Monday March 23, 2020
My Top 10 Movies of 2019
I usually apologize for posting my top 10 list late—and this is by far the latest I’ve ever posted this thing—but screw it. If I’d rushed it, I couldn’t have added about half these movies (#s 1, 3 and 9 for starters). They would’ve slipped into the gap. Plus, as you know, it’s been kind of a fucked-up year. In January, I was down with a virus (not that one … I don’t think), then I was playing catch-up throughout February. And this month, yeah. This shit show.
In that regard, most of these movies are available for streaming on Amazon (“The Farewell” is free if you have Prime), while “The Irishman” and “Dolemite” are on Netflix. Stay safe.
10. A Family Tour
At a hotel in Taichung, Taiwan, a film director who’s been exiled from Mainland China and now lives in Hong Kong, is seeing her mother—traveling with a tour group—after five long years. The meeting is outside a hotel and includes her husband and 4-year-old son. It should be heartfelt. It isn’t. It’s stilted and slightly awkward, and then it’s interrupted by the tour director, who leads the mother away. The sense of violation is immediate—maybe particularly for me, since my own mother suffered a stroke three years ago. At that moment, I was really hating on the tour director. Turns out, she allowed this meeting, and others, to happen, despite risk to herself. What we’re witnessing is the long arm of authoritarian rule. Even in another country—ostensibly the same country—it can come between a parent and child.
9. 63 Up
It felt a bit like attending a class reunion; I kept getting reacquainted with forgotten friends. “Oh right, Tony, the wannabe jockey who becomes a cabby, who’s got a joie de vivre and is always on the run, always on the make. And Nick, the farmboy who doesn’t “want to answer those kinds of questions” (about girls), who becomes a scientist and moves to the states and marries one beautiful woman, then divorces, then he marries another beautiful woman. I guess it pays to not answer those kinds of questions. And of course Neil, unforgettable Neil, who at 7 was a cute Liverpudlian boy with Beatle bangs who skipped along sidewalks and wanted to be an astronaut, and who at 28 was homeless in the Scottish countryside, unable to answer questions without rocking back and forth, in the midst of a psychological breakdown.” I could never forget him. Not in a million years.
8. The Irishman
When introducing characters throughout the movie, Scorsese will often freeze-frame the shot and let us know when/how the character died—usually it’s brutally—and I assumed that’s where he was leading us during the extended denouement: to the death of Frank Sheeran. But that’s the one he doesn’t give us. He shows us Frank buying a coffin. He shows him estranged from his family—his four girls—and FBI guys showing up to try to get more info on the Hoffa case. But then this too goes away. Everything goes away. The nurse taking his blood pressure doesn’t know from Jimmy Hoffa, and Frank is more and more irrelevant, more and more alone, until he asks the departing nurse to leave the door open to let a little light in. And that’s where Scorsese leaves him. He doesn’t end him. He leaves him in purgatory.
7. Dolemite is My Name
This is the first Eddie Murphy movie I’ve loved since the 1980s. What’s fascinating is he’s playing someone the exact opposite of Eddie Murphy. Murphy was a hit on “SNL” at age 19, a hit in the movies at age 21, a standup phenomenon at 22, and the star of the biggest box office movie of the year, “Beverly Hills Cop,” at age 23. Not many actors were hotter, sooner. And in “Dolemite” he plays a dumpy, middle-aged man who missed his shot. But Murphy makes this credible. He has hurt in his eyes.
6. Avengers: Endgame
There’s a need for the MCU to move on, so I guess this is the right call. But some part of me feels we didn’t get enough Iron Man vs. Captain America. It’s not just the clash of personalities. They represent the two halves of America: its ideal (democracy/Cap) and its messy reality (capitalism/Iron Man). It felt like more could be said with this dichotomy—things that might help explain us to us. But pause a moment to consider the triumph of this series.
5. JoJo Rabbit
I don’t know if it’s the funniest movie of the year, but it’s certainly the most original. Playing the Beatles’ German-language version of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” over the exuberant opening credits? And associating this happy 1964 music with the mania Hitler caused among Germans who adored him? Wow. There’s a scene where a Gestapo agent tells JoJo to ignore the rumors that Hitler has only one ball because it’s not true—he has four of them. I’d say that’s actually writer-director Taika Waititi. He’s certainly got some big ones. He even plays Hitler in this, to comic perfection.
4. The Farewell
The Chinese title is more direct, “Don’t Tell Her,” which is a little ironic since the point of the movie is a particularly Chinese lack of directness; keeping an unpleasant truth from a beloved family member. The cultural absurdities here may be specifically Chinese but the family absurdities are universal. I love the final scene in China: Billi in the cab with her parents being taken to the airport, and watching her Nai Nai through the rear window waving and getting smaller and smaller and smaller. That’s all of us, eventually, saying good-bye to loved ones. Or being the loved one.
3. Corpus Christi
Is Bartosz Bielenia a shapeshifter? In Jan Komasa’s “Corpus Christi,” he plays Daniel, a 20-year-old criminal who pretends to be a priest in rural Poland, and throughout the character seems both immoral and holy, male and female, child and man. He’s a not-good person who becomes one. He repairs a community. I think he enjoys what he does—he’s good at it—but don’t be fooled into thinking he’s a good kid. He’s not. Maybe that’s why he makes such a good priest.
2. Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood
It’s not until we see the title at the end that we realize we didn’t see it at the beginning. We also realize why. At the end, it’s an admission. The author is basically saying he did his best but he can’t change history like he did with “Inglourious Basterds.” He’s breaking the fourth wall. He saying this is just a wish-fulfillment fantasy, a fairy tale, a once up on a time… I’d argue it’s the most poignant moment in any Quentin Tarantino movie but I’m not sure what else would rank. Poignant isn’t a word we normally associate with the man.
1. Pain and Glory
This is my favorite Almodóvar. He’s usually too quirky or pungently sexual or something for me, but this one hits home. Because it’s a portrait of the artist in winter and I’m a writer in autumn? Because the artist, director Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas), has a sense of failing his dying mother, and I’ve been probing that wound since my own mother died last August? The movie is Almodóvar’s, specifically his, but it doesn’t feel narrow. It’s as wide as life. It forgives everything but bad art.
Friday February 07, 2020
My Five Worst Movies of 2019
Perennial caveat: My top-10 list is always late because I try to see the best movies of the year, which often arrive late. My five-worst list is always incomplete because I don’t try to see the worst movies of the year. Somehow I manage to see some pretty sucky ones anyway.
I should‘ve had this list up sooner but I was sick most of January. I don’t blame these movies for that. Much.
5. The Wandering Earth
China's entry into sci-fi action is as stupid as most Hollywood blockbusters. Also more jingoistic. I’m like: “Wait, we’re smart enough to turn Earth into a spaceship but dumb enough to miscalculate Jupiter’s gravitational pull?” There's a million-to-one shot to save us but every country wants to wallow in grief: Europeans drink; Japanese contemplate hara-kiri. Thank god for the bubblegum-blowing junior high student from China, who gives such a rousing speech about hope that the rest of the world finally puts down its bottles and and decides to try. You know, like China. Hollywood lesson: If you want the rest of the world to see your movie, maybe don't insult them?
4. Late Night
Emma Thompson plays a national comic treasure who's not funny; the male, politically incorrect writers are actually dull sweethearts; and Mindy Kaling turns Thompson‘s/Newbury’s soporific last-night talk show into a “viral sensation” with an on-the-street bit called “Katherine Newbury: White Savoir,” in which Newbury helps: 1) two black dudes hail a cab; 2) a fat woman buy clothes, and 3) some dude get free fries. “Late Night” sets up the usual false dichotomy of Hollywood films: high culture is snooty so let’s wallow in the YouTube muck. These are our only two options, apparently.
3. More Than Blue
At one point our hero, K, hires private detectives to spy on the wife of a dentist, who's cheating on him. Why does K do this? Because he wants the dentist to marry the girl K loves. Why does he want this? Because he's dying. It's like a fucked-up version of “Gift of the Maji”: “I'm dying so I got you a husband”; “I left my husband because you‘re dying.” The Chinese title translates as “A Story Sadder than Sadness,” but I’d say it's just sad.
2. Dark Phoenix
Brett Ratner's “X-Men: Last Stand“ (2006) ruined the X-Men universe. It killed Prof. X, Scott and Jean, stripped Magneto of his powers, and left the story with nowhere to go. So they went backward and rebooted the series as a 1960s prequel: “First Class.” Then in “Days of Future Past,” they created an alternate timeline which allowed them to bypass the mess of “Last Stand” and do whatever they wanted with the characters again. Guess what they did? Returned to the plot of “Last Stand.” With the guy who wrote “Last Stand” as first-time director. Cue face palm. Before the big battle, Magneto tells Prof. X, “You’re always sorry, Charles, and there’s always a speech. But nobody cares anymore.” Truer words.
1. Godzilla: King of the Monsters
This is one helluva foregrounding family. Dad overcomes a drinking problem by taking nature photos of animals eating each other, then fulminates against any course of action. Daughter acts too late and then attracts giant monsters to Boston. As for Mom? She causes the death of millions because she thinks giant lizards and moths are wiser than we are. These are our heroes. Don't get me started on the fortune-cookie joke. Godzilla may be gigantic, but the stupidity of this movie is bigger. It fills the screen. It roars.
Tuesday February 26, 2019
My Five Worst Movies of 2018
My top 10 list is always late because I try to see the best movies of the year, which often arrive late. My five worst movies list is always incomplete because I don’t try to see the worst movies of the year. That’s the caveat here.
There’s no real hatred for the movies below as there have been with past lists. Nothing pissed me off as much as “Batman v. Superman” or “Tusk” or “Nocturnal Animals.” There’s just a lot of boredom, disappointment, and occasional face palms.
5. Life of the Party
Back in college, middle-aged Deanna winds up schtupping Jack, a handsome, supernice fratboy who becomes obsessed with her—which seems a bit much. Later, at an expensive restaurant with her friends, including bestie Christine, Deanna runs into her ex, Dan, and his new wife Marcie, who acts all catty. Then their waiter arrives and ... it’s Jack! More: Jack is Marcie’s son! What are the odds? So trump card for Deanna, right? Yes, but it quickly gets uncomfortable. Christine in particular rubs it in Marcie’s face as if Dan weren’t standing right there. That’s all he does, by the way: He doesn’t defend mom from Christine, doesn’t defend Deanna from mom. He just stands there, a stupid expression on his face, while the others improvise around him. None of it is funny.
4. Big Brother
This should’ve been the easiest movie in the world to make. Donnie Yen becomes the new teacher for a gang of ne’er-do-well kids in a poor Hong Kong neighborhood. It’s “Ip Man” meets “To Sir, With Love.” Except the kids come off less underprivileged than spoiled. One girl feels her dad doesn’t love her so she wants to race cars. A Pakistani kid wants to sing but keeps remembering that time other kids laughed at his Cantonese accent. The most clichéd problem and insulting resolution is the alcoholic dad. He comes homes from what little work he does and demands his two boys buy him booze. Then one day Donnie sends the class on a field trip to a rehab center. And guess who’s speaking? Dad. Not sure when he decided to give up drink—the night before?—and if this is what the Chinese do instead of AA meetings. Please, come bare your soul to some high school kids who don’t know shit. Anyway, Donnie solves all their problems. “The White Shadow” wishes he were as involved in his students’ lives.
3. Ocean’s Eight
After all the schemes and shenanigans and supercool talking through earpieces, we discover there was a bigger haul than the $150 million Cartier necklace: the crown jewels on exhibit at the Met. So guess which of our intrepid female heroes swiped those? Sandra? Cate? Rihanna? The answer is Shaobo. If you’re thinking, “Huh, I don’t remember her,” it’s because Shaobo is a guy—the Chinese Cirque du Soleil dude from the other Ocean’s movies, who shows up late to lend a hand. Wait, lend a hand? He does it all. That’s our feminist heist film. Written and directed by Gary Ross.
This wants to be “Die Hard” in Hong Kong. One reason it fails miserably? You more-or-less buy Bruce Willis as a cop, you buy Bonnie Bedilia as his estranged wife/business exec, and most of what McClane does—even the crazy outside-the-building stuff—seems vaguely plausible. Do I buy The Rock as a security executive? Neve Campbell as a surgeon fluent in both Mandarin and Cantonese? Do I believe the size and shape of The Pearl: 240 stories, with outside turbines forever spinning? Do I believe that the Rock’s character, Sawyer, who has a prosthetic leg and must weigh 250 pounds, can climb a building crane, swing it close to the Pearl, and leap from the crane’s top into an open window 150 stories above the ground? The only thing I bought about this movie—sadly—was the ticket.
1. Hello, Mrs. Money
At a Sunday matinee show at Pacific Place (attendance: 3), most of my time was spent waiting out overlong set-pieces and not-exactly #MeToo-friendly scenarios. Nothing funnier than a man in drag being sexually assaulted by a grinning lothario who won’t take no for an answer. Nothing funnier than date-rape drugs sprinkled into drinks. It felt like vague consolation that the powder was less sedative than Chinese aphrodisiac, and the people who drank it were already in relationships. At the same time, those relationships were hardly worth saving. The deer that lost its penis for the aphrodisiac must‘ve gone: “You’re shitting me. For this?”
Tuesday February 19, 2019
My Top 10 Movies of 2018
It was a weak year for American movies. At the least, it was a year in which I disagreed with most American critics about most American movies. The movies they touted (“First Reformed,” “Sorry to Bother You,” “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”) left me cold, while the movies that stuck with me (“Wajib,” “Love Education”) no one mentioned at all. Overall, I left a lot of theaters disappointed.
That’s my curmudgeonly greeting to this way-late list of 10 best movies of 2018.
I should add I don’t feel like a zealot on the matter. I’m open to the idea that the problem is me. Maybe in five years I’ll see some of these again and go, “What was I thinking?” But for now, this is what I was thinking.
10. People’s Republic of Desire (China)
It does what documentaries are supposed to do: gave us e a glimpse into a world we know nothing about. It's also a world we know everything about. It’s about the desire for wealth and fame, yes, but at bottom it’s about loneliness and isolation. It’s about the urge to connect, and how social media taps into this urge and never assuages it. Social media is to connection like salt water is to thirst. We drink and we drink, and we wonder why we keep getting thirstier.
9. Mid90s (USA)
This rang so true to me in Jonah Hill’s directorial debut: reaching a certain age, 10, 12, and suddenly having to navigate shit you’re supposed to know but have no clue about. It’s generally stuff about girls and sex, or about how to act with guys. What to say, what not to say, and when. What’s cool and what isn’t? What are the rules? Where are the rules? At such moments, ignorance isn’t bliss, it’s terrifying. The great irony with “Mid90s” is that the navigator, Stevie, is trying to fit in with a gang that is slowly breaking apart.
8. The King/The Searcher (Part I) (USA)
During the summer of 2016, Eugene Jarecki drove Elvis Presley’s 1964 Rolls Royce through the places that made Elvis who he was—Tupelo, Memphis, Nashville, New York, Germany, Hollywood, and Vegas—and let different folks into the backseat to play, sing, or just talk about Elvis and the state of the country. It’s Elvis as metaphor for America. We took over the world with a sneer and a shake of our hips, then we grew comfortable, addicted, overweight and addled. Trump is our late-stage Vegas period. “The Searcher” is the more straightforward HBO doc that digs into the roots. The second half makes too many excuses but the first half rocks and rolls.
7. Juliet, Naked (USA/UK)
It’s that rare rom-com for adults. Ethan Hawke is perfectly cast as Tucker Crowe, a shaggy, reclusive, former indie rock star who released an album of quiet love songs, “Juliet,” in 1993, then disappeared from a Minneapolis stage and never came back. Chris O’Dowd is perfectly cast as the fan obsessed with his work. Rose Byrne is the woman between them. Comedy, and something approaching wisdom, ensue.
6. Cold War (Poland)
One of the surprising things about this movie is the relative ease with which Cold War borders are crossed. At one point Wiktor returns to—is it Prague?—to see the troupe, and Zula, again, but the secret police pick him up. And interrogate him? Make him love Big Brother? No. They put him on a train back to the West. You chose your side, Wiktor, they seem to be saying. Stay there. This is true until it horrifyingly isn’t. Question: Is it a fault of the film that it seems to be saying the horrors of Soviet totalitarianism are nothing next to a crazy broad? If you can't be happy as an artist/singer in 1950s Paris, good god, brother, what hope?
5. John Mulaney: Kid Gorgeous at Radio City (USA)
What really won me over was the gazebo bit. Mulaney talks about seeing a gazebo in Connecticut that was dedicated in 1863, and before he gets to the joke, this was my thought: “Huh. Middle of the Civil War.” And that’s the joke. Mulaney imagines the scene with a Prof. Harold Hill-type charlatan selling town leaders—who have just read off their Gettysburg war dead—on the concept. I immediately knew I’d found a kindred spirit: someone who paid attention to the chronology of things. Mulaney also tells jokes, of course, that reveal the trauma of our times—from “Horse loose in a hospital” to idiot online Captcha crap: “You spend most of your day telling a robot you’re not a robot. Think about that for two seconds and tell me you don’t want to go walk into the ocean.” It’s the line of the year.
4. Burning (South Korea)
“Burning” is about the death of a girl that happens off-stage. Not only do we not see it happen, we don’t even know if it does happen. Consider it an arthouse version of a revenge thriller. The revenge happens clumsily, and less-than-heroically, at the 11th hour, and we’re not sure if it’s necessary. Traditional revenge movies are all about certitude and satisfaction. This leaves us with nothing but questions. It haunts us long after we leave the theater.
3. Capernaum (Lebanon)
The sadness and hardness of the world is reflected in the eyes of Zain, age 12, and there’s nothing romantic about it. As you’re watching, you wonder how this kid could act this. How he could be so dead-eyed? What trauma could he have suffered? Answer: He’s a Syrian refugee. He plays Lebanese here, a son in a large family of the undocumented, who tries to look after his sister, who then tries to look after a small immigrant baby, and the most heartbreaking moments are those moments, like on the bus with Cockroach-Man, or in the movie’s final scene, when you realize that despite all the adult things he's doing he’s just a fucking kid.
2. Love Education (Taiwan)
You work through the comedy to get to the poignancy. I think that’s what most of life is like, and that’s what Sylvia Chang’s “Love Education” is like. We get three generations of women, each dealing with their own issues at their own stage of life. When the grandmother dies, and her daughter (also Chang) wants to move her father’s grave next to her mother’s, that’s when things kick into another gear. I saw this at SIFF and keep waiting for it to show up anywhere else: streaming, video stores, etc. It deserves an audience.
1. Wajib (Palestine)
A father and his estranged son spend a day hand-delivering wedding invitations in present-day Nazareth and resurrect old wounds. It’s the kind of episodic non-plot that should weary us; but writer-director Annemarie Jacir and her two stars—real-life father and son Mohammed and Saleh Bakri—make it riveting. “Wajib” is specific and universal, funny and human. The day is long, tempers cool with the evening, but nothing is resolved. It’s just another round of forgiveness and understanding that never seems to stretch far enough; but maybe it covers what we can while we can.
You know, now that I look at it, that's a pretty good year. A shout-out as well to the following: Free Solo, The Third Murder, Shoplifters, Three Identical Strangers, The Guilty, Roma, The Favourite, Last Letter, Eighth Grade and Isle of Dogs.
Friday December 28, 2018
No-Drama Obama's Top 15 Movies of 2018
Today on social media, which helped elect Donald Trump and destroy his legacy, Barack Obama listed his favorite books, movies and songs of 2018. Dude's well-read, well-watched, well-listened to.
In music, glad that he likes local hero Brandi Carlisle but gotta wonder where his Matt Maltese is. Probably too apocalyptic for 44. Oh wait, “As the World Caves In” is last year? Damn, I'm old.
Movie's I know, and here's Obama's top 15:
- Black Panther
- The Death of Stalin
- Eighth Grade
- If Beale Street Could Talk
- Leave No Trace
- Minding the Gap
- The Rider
- Support the Girls
- Won’t You Be My Neighbor
A few of these will be on my top 10, but overall there's nothing surprising. It's like he took critics “best of...” lists and mixed, sorted. I wouldn't have minded a surprise or two. (The closest to a surprise is “Blindspotting.”) On the other hand, if everything I did caused 40 percent of the country to throw up their arms and curse and shout and spit and threaten my life for the rest of my life, I'd probably play it safe, too.
Besides, there's something to be said for having a president who's well-read, well-watched and well-listened to. Not to mention well-liked
Saturday November 17, 2018
The First Top 10 Movie List of 2018
We are the champions?
And so it begins. The first top 10 movie list of the year—from Stephanie Zacharek of Time magazine—was released on Thursday.
I usually dread these since they‘re full of movies I’ve heard about (via the festival circuit) but won't be able to see for another month or so. Or longer.
Not here. Of Zacharek's top 10, I‘ve already seen five, and only three haven’t been released in U.S. theaters yet. It's a good eclectic collection. She's a movie booster:
Every year, there's someone around to say, “This seemed like a bad year for movies,” to which I invariably say, “I think it's been a great year for movies!” This has been going on for decades now, so the problem—if you want to consider it one—is clearly with me. What stuns me each year isn't how many bad movies get made, but how many good ones do.
No wonder she got the Time gig.
She adds, “Naturally, there's a broad middle ground of mediocrity” (oh yeah), and “I go to the movies not to be impressed, but to be overwhelmed” (who doesn‘t?). She ends thus: “So here is a list of 10 movies that didn’t impress me so much as they brought me an exquisite and sometimes formidable kind of joy.”
Then we get to Stephanie's list:
- 10. Paddington 2
- 9. Bohemian Rhapsody
- 8. If Beale Street Could Talk
- 7. A Star is Born
- 6. Can You Ever Forgive Me?
- 5. The Favourite
- 4. Eighth Grade
- 3. First Reformed
- 2. Won't You Be My Neighbor?
- 1. Roma
I like a good eclectic collection that leans toward popular fare. But joy? Of the five movies I've seen in her top 10, I admire some (“Eighth Grade”) but was generally disappointed in the others.
Of course, this has been a year of real movie disappointments for me. I keep being unimpressed with the movies critics love (“BlacKkKlansman,” “First Reformed,” “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”) and wonder why no one talks up the movies that I loved (“Wajib,” “Love Education,” “The King”). I know. That could be any year for any of us. Just seems more pronounced this year.
Tuesday May 01, 2018
What's an A+ CinemaScore Worth?
One of my old freelance employers, MSN, finally uploaded something I wanted to read: a list of the “46 movies with A+ CinemaScore since 2000.”
First, this is CinemaScore:
CinemaScore is the industry leader in measuring movie appeal among theatre audiences. Since 1978, CinemaScore has been polling moviegoers at major movie releases on opening night to collect demographic information and calculate a distinctive CinemaScore grade.
In other words, it tries to find out if the movie appeals to the people to whom it's supposed to appeal—the people who couldn't wait to see it; who had to see it opening night.
So what kind of movie appeals to the people to whom it's supposed to appeal? And appeals to them SO MUCH they give it an A+? Superhero movies? Horror films? Chick flicks? Actioners starring The Rock?
Nope, nope, nope, and nope.
Turns out, they‘re movies starring and/or targeted toward audiences that feel marginalized by Hollywood. Two groups in particular: African Americans and conservative Christians. Their films make up 65% of the A+ scores.
Of the 46 movies, 17 are about or star African-Americans:
- Finding Forrester (2000)
- Remember the Titans (2000)
- Antwone Fisher (2002)
- Drumline (2002)
- Ray (2004)
- Diary of a Mad Black Woman (2005)
- Akeelah and the Bee (2006)
- Tyler Perry’s Why Did I Get Married? (2007)
- The Help (2011)
- 42 (2013)
- The Best Man (2013)
- Woodlawn (2015)
- Selma (2015)
- Queen of Katwe (2016)
- Hidden Figures (2016)
- Girls Trip (2017)
- Black Panther (2018)
And twelve are conservative Christian movies:
- The Passion of the Christ (2004)
- Dreamer (2005)
- The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005)
- The Blind Side (2009)
- Soul Surfer (2011)
- Courageous (2011)
- Dolphin Tale (2011)
- Lone Survivor (2014)
- American Sniper (2015)
- Miracles from Heaven (2016)
- Patriots Day (2016)
- I Can Only Imagine (2018)
There's also one Mexican-American co-production:
- Instructions Not Included (2013)
So why are so many of the A+ scores from groups that see themselves at odds with the very entity (Hollywood) that creates the product? A few guesses.
Many of the above movies have no other audience other than that group. Who went to see “Miracles from Heaven,” for example, except white Christians? Who went to see “Tyler Perry's Why Did I Get Married?” except black Christians? At opening night, there were no outsiders going, “What the fuck is this crap?” and screwing up its score.
But that doesn't mean the targeted demographic will like the movies in question. So why did they? And so uncritically?
A lot of it, I'd guess, comes down to this: If you‘re embattled, or feel embattled, you don’t disparage your side to the enemy. You circle the wagons. Most of these scores seem like wagon-circling to me. Or some kind of circling.
As for the other 16 A+ movies? Eight are animated—Pixar, mostly:
- Monsters, Inc. (2001)
- Finding Nemo (2003)
- The Incredibles (2004)
- The Polar Express (2004)
- Up (2009)
- Tangled (2010)
- Frozen (2013)
- Coco (2017)
Then there's live-action movies that should be geared toward kids but which we all go see now:
- Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)
- The Lord of the Rings: Returns of the King (2003)
- The Avengers (2012)
We also have inoffensive Oscar (or Oscar-y) movies:
- Cinderella Man (2006)
- The King's Speech (2010)
- Argo (2012)
Finally, we have two recent from-the-heart curios:
- Wonder (2017)
- Love, Simon (2018)
What's missing from CinemaScore's list of A+ movies from this century? With the exception of the Pixars, just the best movies from this century. But I kind of expected that going in.
Thursday March 01, 2018
Dates I Posted My Top 10 Movies of the Year
Yeah, sorry, this is mostly just for me.
Yesterday I got my top 10 movies of 2017 posted just hours before a self-imposed March 1 deadline, and it took a flurry of early-evening activity to pull it off. Even so. Feb. 28? I can't do better than that? Made me wonder when I posted the top 10 list in previous years.
Here are the dates, along with my #1 movie in parentheses.
- December 31, 2009 (“L‘Heure d’ete”)
- February 7, 2011 (“Un Prophete”)
- February 13, 2012 (“The Tree of Life”)
- February 10, 2013 (“De rouille et d‘os”)
- January 17, 2014 (“Wolf of Wall Steet”)
- January 12, 2015 (“Boyhood”)
- January 13, 2016 (“Theeb”)
- February 25, 2017 (“Manchester By the Sea”)
- February 28, 2018 (“Call Me By Your Name”)
I was impressed by all those mid-Januarys. And a December! The hell? Way to be on top of things, younger me.
I began to wonder about my #1s, too. Three of the first four were French. What happened to that? Them or me? Or Hollywood taking it up a notch? Mostly male stories, too: sensitive (“Manchester”) or insensitive (“Wolf”). The only female leads are in “L’heure” and “De rouille.” And “L‘heure” is more ensemble.
Next year is my 10th year doing this and I’m tired of this end-of-February shit. But the movie studios, releasing the best films later and later in the year, aren't helping much.
Wednesday February 28, 2018
Top 10 Movies of 2017
OK, so I'm ridiculously late to this party. Sue me. It's been a busy few months. Plus it takes a while for some of these to show up in Seattle. Or on Amazon. So let's just get going, shall we?
10. Spider-Man: Homecoming: “Homecoming” does two things most superhero movies don’t. First, you get a real sense of how tough it is to put the “super” in “superhero.” Pete can scale the Washington Monument but it’s hardly effortless—any more than you or I doing wind-sprints up a hill would be effortless. Plus crimes don’t just happen, wah-lah, in front of you. He nabs a bike thief but can’t find the bike’s owner. At one point, with nothing to do, he helps an old lady with directions. The movie also answers the question David Mamet says every playwright/screenwriter needs to ask: What does the guy want? Generally, once a hero becomes super, they have no motivation other than a grand one (stopping crime, saving the world). Supervillains are the ones with schemes; heroes are just trying to stem the tide. Not here. Pete? He desperately wants to be an Avenger. He wants superhero friends. He wants a superhero home.
9. Louis CK 2017: I don't think that titular year turned out the way Louis CK imagined, but that shouldn't stop people from appreciating his brilliance. He's the greatest stand-up comic of the 21st century. He's a truthteller who held onto a dark secret. He begins this concert, which I saw live in Seattle in December 2016, by making comedy out of 1) abortion and 2) ISIS. Think about that. I assume he did it as a dare to himself. Well, it worked. I laughed harder at the ISIS bit than at just about anything in this horrible, horrible year.
8. Get Out: Great premise: Using the tropes of the horror genre to tell the story of a black guy visiting the family of his white girlfriend. It's racial awkwardness as the underlying horror of American society. Good follow-through: the GF is obtuse about race, thinking everyone's cool with everything; the father keeps dropping racial references to show how cool he is; the mother is steely and distant, perpetually stirring her tea. The white neighbors say inappropriate things. They‘re like the neighbors in “Rosemary’s Baby”: Everyone seems off. The third act doesn't undercuts a lot of this or “GO” would‘ve been higher.
7. Phantom Thread: I got a whiff of the serial killer at the outset. A ride in a sports car in the British countryside at night made me flash on Alex and his droogs in Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange.” Woodcock peeking through a peephole at how his fashion show is doing made me flash on Norman Bates doing the same with an undressing Marion Crane in Alfred Hitchcock's “Psycho.” Did Paul Thomas Anderson intend this? There's such a density to his movies. They feel beyond flickering images; they‘re palpable. Daniel Day-Lewis’ Woodcock, a precise, haute couture fashion designer in the 1950s, is heavier than all the CGI monsters in the world.
6. 120 BPM: The personal is political. It's also way more interesting. The first third of the French film “120 BPM” (Beats Per Minute) deals mostly with the comings and goings of ACT UP Paris in the early 1990s—their actions, stridency, the internecine battles between various players. You find yourself siding with this one ... or that one. And maybe sympathizing with that take ... or the other one. It's not until the focus lands on Sean, a radical, insouciant member, and his relationship with newbie Nathan, and then Sean's suddenly quick slide toward death, the thing they‘re all fighting, the thing we’re all fighting, that it hits you in the gut. That's when arguments about politics and tactics go out the door. It reminds you: Death is our greatest villain. It. Takes. Everything.
5. The Square: Writer-director Rebuen Ostlund is interested in cowardice—in what happens when men of the civilized and privileged upper classes face natural forces. In his previous film, “Force Majeur,” it was an avalanche. Here, it’s a thief. Then it’s confronting people with their possible thievery. Then it’s a noisy kid shouting his innocence in your face. It’s everything that’s avoided, and can afford to be avoided. And then when it can‘t.
4. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri: A movie about small-town police corruption and the battle of one woman, Mildred, to bring the truth to light? That’s how it seems at first, particularly when we meet Deputy Dixon, a dim, small-town bully known for racial profiling. But then Mildred has a tete-a-tete with Chief Willoughby, and the further the scene progresses, the more you feel your sympathies shift. The movie keeps shifting. By the end, it becomes a movie about all of us who are stuck between a desire for revenge and a need to forgive. Ourselves most of all.
3. Lady Bird: She’s a mix of contradictions. She displays confidence but isn’t. She may audition for the school musical, and run for school president, but she painfully aware that she’s a middle-class girl in a rich Catholic school. She’s authentic but pretends to be from richer homes; she pretends to have money. She drops one true friend for a prettier, more popular one. The irony is that once she gets the thing she wants, once she winds up in New York City, she embraces everything she’d previously rejected: her family, her church, California. Even her given name: Christine. She has to fly to let Lady Bird go.
2. The Big Sick: Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, girl goes into coma, boy becomes closer to girl’s parents, girl wakes up and says, “What are you doing here, jerk, you already lost me.” Who knew this would be the recipe for the funniest, truest romantic comedy of the century? And how lovely to get such a round portrait of a Pakistani family, whose dilemmas are both new to the movies and universal. What Kumail goes through with his parents is what Portnoy did with his. The story of America is the story of assimilation, and Kumail's response to his parents is the response of every first-generation son and daughter: “Why did you bring me here if you wanted me to not have an American life? We come here, but we pretend like we‘re still back there?” Oh, and did I mention? It’s fucking funny.
1. Call Me By Your Name: In this impossibly beautiful Italian country home, Oliver is using Elio’s room, and Elio is forced into the smaller room on the other side of a shared bathroom, and the doors are like invitations or refusals. Generally when one is opening the other is closing. It’s red light, green light, keep away. There are little verbal attacks, snarky little bites that confuse the other, and probably the biter. The two men show off and compete, and, for a time, each sublimates his desire with a pretty Italian girl. (Not a bad way.) The point of the love story is to keep the lovers apart, and dramatists often bend over backwards to find ways, but “Call Me By Your Name” reminds us that we do a pretty fine job on our own.
See you next year. Hopefully sooner?
Past top 10s:
Saturday February 03, 2018
The Five Worst Movies of 2017
Alright, the five worst movies I saw.
That's actually true every year, but for some reason I feel the need to qualify it this year. Maybe because I have less distaste for these films? None of them horrified me like “Tusk,” or sickened me like “Nocturnal Animals,” or turned iconic heroes into ponderous boobs like “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.” None tried to make comedy out of a massive social anxiety. They just suck. They just dim down the culture a notch.
So maybe this year I got lucky? Or I'm inured? (Voice inside my head: Yes, you‘re a nerd.) Or maybe it’s this: Nothing Hollywood produces could dim down the culture as much as the low-IQ ego-spurtings of Pres. Trump.
Now on with the countdown.
5. “The Mummy” (Universal): How many movies kill off an entire universe? This one did. Universal wanted to do with its monsters what Marvel did with its superheroes—create an interlocking, continuous, ka-chinging series of films—but “Mummy” sputtered out of the gate. The movie itself sputters out of the gate. It begins in 12th century A.D., shifts to modern-day London, then, why not, takes us all the way back to ancient Egypt for our intro to the titular character. That's a lot of throat-clearing before we get to Tom Cruise playing a devil-may-care opportunist in Iraq. Right, that's another thing: Our hero is an American trying to steal ancient artifacts from a country we already destroyed. Tone? Light comedy.
“Wait a minute, I do what to Iraq?”
4. The Fate of the Furious (Universal): You know a series has run out of ideas when it makes its hero evil. Dom (Vin Diesel) doesn‘t become evil—like Superman in “Superman III” or Spider-Man in “Spider-Man 3”—he’s just blackmailed by Cipher (Charlize Theron) into doing evil stuff. The announcement to the rest of the team is made with all the gravitas of a newsman reporting on the JFK assassination: “Dominic Torretto just went rogue.” They‘re not even trying to not make this a cartoon anymore. The final battle in Russia involves a nuke sub that breaks through the ice and fires a heat-seeking missile at Dom in his muscle car. But Dom deeks out the missile (yes), and, in slow-mo, drives his shit up over the submarine, causing the missile to do its chicken-coming-home-to-roost thing with the sub. Boom. There are, I’m sure, more ludicrious scenes in the long, sad history of movies. But there shouldn’t be.
The classy-as-ever “Fast/Furious” opening credits.
3. The Circle (Image Nation Abu Dhabi/Playtone/Likely Story/IM Global/STX Entertainment): At first, it seems like our hero, Mae (Emma Watson), a new employee at TrueYou, a Facebookish Silicon Valley megacompany, will provide a cynical viewpoint for all things techy and corporate and awful. She even jokes with another savvy insider about people who drink the Kool-Aid. Then she becomes the Kool-Aid. She agrees to have her entire life recorded 24/7, and in this way accumulates millions of followers and power. And what does she do with this power? When CEO Tom Hanks suggests allowing people to register to vote via TrueYou, she one-ups him. She suggests that everyone be required to have a TrueYou account. That it would be law. The scales only fall from her eyes when she inadventently kills her childhood friend (the kid from “Boyhood”) but by this point we‘re long done with her. And the movie.
2. Transformers: The Last Knight (Paramount): Remember when you were 9 or 10 and played at war, and it was basically, “And then this happens, and then this happens”? No logic, no sense of connecting the past with the now? That’s this. It’s a movie written by 9-year-olds. A big robot named Optimus Prime and a bunch of army men chase our heroes—Mark Wahlberg and a hot newbie chick (British, named, I shit you not, Vivian Wembley)—who are trying to find a MacGuffin (an alien staff) that could lead to the end of the world, and which only they can find. Meaning if they don't find it, no one can find it, and the world isn't destroyed. So of course they find it. And of course the bad guys immediately steal it. And of course the big robot and the bunch of army men now join our heroes for the final battle, which takes place over jolly old England, and which involves a U.S. government scientist (Tony Hale) yelling orders at generals, as always happens. It's all so bad I kept flashing to that “Curb Your Enthusiasm” season in which Mel Brooks hires Larry David for “The Producers” because he wants his hit Broadway show to finally end. Because he's sick of it. Is Michael Bay doing the same with “Transformers”? Or is he simply boundary-testing how stupid we are?
1. “Baywatch” (Paramount): The biggest boobs here are the ones behind the scenes—particularly director Seth Gordon, who has already given us “Four Christmases” and “Identity Thief” and yet somehow keeps getting work. You know how “Jumanji” managed to make Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson both heroic and mockable? That's what this needed. It doesn't come close. The arcs in the movie belong to Zac Efron's gold-medal swimmer, who goes from douche to team player, and Jon Bass' Ronnie, who goes from schlubby tech guy wishing to be part of the team to ludicrously becoming part of the team (because “he has heart”). No, that's not really his arc. His arc involves his not-so-secret crush, C.J. (Sports Illustrated swimsuit model Kelly Rohrbach), who is out of his league by 20,000 or so. For most of the movie, he's constantly humilated around her. I.e., 1) he gets food caught in his throat, 2) she performs the Heimlich to save his life, 3) he gets a boner as a result, 4) he falls on a raft to hide his boner, 5) he gets his boner caught in the slats of wood, 6) medics are called in and a crowd gathers, laughing, as he's extricated. So of course C.J. falls for him. What S.I. model wouldn‘t? After the team saves the day, they wind up in bed together. Cuz movies.
What S.I. model woudn’t?
See you next year, Hollywood. Same time?
Saturday February 25, 2017
Top 10 Movies of 2016
Yeah, I'm a little late to the party. What can I say? Busy year. The fall and early winter were particularly busy, and that's the time distributors release their best movies, all at once, blarghhhhhh, and if you're a regular person with a regular job in a regular city you're kind of screwed. No movies you want to see for months, then a dozen you want to see on Dec. 29. They save the best for last. Or never. I blinked and missed the weeks-long window for “Silence” and “Paterson.” I haven't been able to drag myself to see “Lion” or “Hidden Figures.” “The Salesman” still hasn't arrived in Seattle.
So this is a top 10 list with that caveat. Or several. Here's one more: God, 2016 was a sucky year, wasn't it? In every way. Bless these movies that gave us a glimmer of something better.
10. Love & Friendship
I was wary of this one, afraid of another proto-feminist British costumed drama based upon another 19th century novel, and this is that, but far from that madding crowd. It zipped rather than plodded. And the woman at its center was a Scarlett rather than a Melanie: a schemer, Machiavellian in her ability to twist the world, and men in particular, around her beautiful finger. Her lines are among the dishiest of the year: “He has offered you the one thing he has of value to give: his income.” Yes, her options are limited in Victorian England but she makes the most of those limits. Indeed, with her, they hardly seem limits. More Scarletts, please.
Inspired by a 2006 oral history in Texas Monthly, director Keith Maitland spent 10 years filming and then animating the ground's-eye viewpoint of the people who, on August 1, 1966, were trapped and shot at and killed by former U.S. Marine Charles Whitman on the University of Texas campus. It's truly “you are there” cinema. It's recreation and documentary and a revolutionary way of viewing history. In the '60s, that turbulent, violent decade, Whitman seemed an outlier since his violence was random. We now know he was a harbinger. On that day, a radio newman tried to tell his colleagues what was going on: “There’s a guy on top of the tower. He’s shooting.” Then he had to add for clarification: “Shooting at people.” We never need that clarification now.
It’s “My Dinner with Andre” if Andre were about to die, and the story were spread over four days in Madrid rather than one night in Manhattan. Death hovers close, but it’s handled with a wistful shrug. Death is the asshole in the room, and the other two combat it with a shared secret and a twinkle in the eye. I liked hanging with them—that's the main thing. I liked their conversations, and meals, and women. We anticipate a lot of the third-act plot twists but that's not necessarily a bad thing. There's an inevitability to it, as in life. Watching, we feel our own inevitable deaths on a deeper level while being reminding of what makes life worth living.
7. La La Land
Throughout, there's a love of L.A., and the movies, and musicals. It's a modernist take on a classic, giving us a bittersweet ending rather than a Hollywood ending. Both of our protagonists actually get what they want—she becomes a movie star, he owns a jazz club—they just don't get each other. Is that bad or is it life? There's magic throughout: their first dance in the Hollywood hills; their first kiss floating amid the stars at the Griffith Observatory. I like her and her friends in different, primary-colored dresses strutting down the street on their way to a party. I like Sebastian on the dock with the fedora. Magic matters.
It's December 1945, and an intern with the French Red Cross in Poland—helping identify, treat and repatriate French citizens after World War II—is asked to go to a convent, where she finds a nun about to give birth. Then she discovers other nuns are pregnant. Six? Eight? Is it a miracle? The opposite. Backdate eight months and it's when the Soviet Army came through. These are women who hardly know their own bodies, whose bodies, they feel, belong to God. Some of them won't even let the intern examine them for the shame of it all. And Russians soldiers were at the convent for three days. That's the first horrific revelation. The second horrific revelation is worse.
A powerful rendering of one of the saddest weekends in American history, “Jackie” is interested in story-making and mythmaking and the difference between the two. As first lady, Jackie Kennedy tried to bring the history of the country to life. As first widow, she opted for myth because she knew myth resonated. Myth was remembered and she wantd her husband remembered. She politely stomped over the Johnsons, the Kennedys, and anyone else who got in her way to make this happen, then, with a priest, searched her soul and found a death wish. The movie does the opposite of what Jackie does: It reveals the human within the mythic.
4. O.J.: Made in America
I may have been the only person in America who didn't pay attention to the O.J. trial back in '95. There was just too much noise; it felt like tabloid fare to me. But it's actually a linchpin in the racial history of America, meaning the history of America. It's the story of a man who became famous for running, and who ran from his race and embraced his celebrity; and then when the chips were down, he ran to his race. He spent years being treated as a football celebrity, even by the L.A.P.D., and got away with so much because of it; and in the trial he may have gotten away with murder for the opposite reason. The ironies in this seven-plus-hour documentary pile up and overwhelm. O.J. is a subject worthy of Shakespeare.
How hard do sensitive men have to become to survive? How much of yourself do you have to lose? Early in the film, Juan, the drug dealer/mentor, tells our child protagonist, “At some point, you gotta decide for yourself who you're going to be. Can't let nobody make that decision for you.” But Little/Chiron/Black lets others make that decision for him. Or maybe he simply decides to survive and in doing so you become someone else. By the third act, he's unrecognizable from the skinny, sensitive kid he was. He's a drug dealer with a grill, who intimidates with his presence. But a line late in the film reveals that the sensitive kid is still there underneath it all. It's the most devastating line of the year.
Was a better movie less seen in 2016? And yet it's a film that so necessary for our time. It's 1979 but that was the tipping-point year. That was the year before the year we all opted for wish-fulfillment fantasy in our politics as well as our entertainment. We even get Carter's infamous “malaise” speech here, and in it he seems to be predicting the future if we go the wrong way. He's talking to us like adults but we were children. “20th Century Women” is about a single mom who enlists two other women to help raise and educate her teenage son. The kid comes of age just as our country decides not to.
So many people think this movie as depressing, but I was exhilirated. Yes, it's a movie about a tragedy so large that its protagonist is essentially a dead man walking. There's no “working though the unimaginable” here. It's about two types of male stoicism: one adult, and aware, and tragic, and the other young and blind, and how each shapes the other. We get large understandings and small redemptions. And the redemptions, for being small, for feeling truer than the life outside the theater, are poignant and exquisite. They are cathartic.
Saturday December 31, 2016
The Five Worst Movies of 2016
Even the movies didn't help this shitty year.
My biggest concern with the year-end top 10 list is usually how I can pare it down to 10 because there's so many deserving movies; this year, I'm trying to build up to 10. I anticipate filler.
But the bottom five? Hey, that's the mother lode.
So here they are, from awful to horrible. Apologies to “Bad Moms,” (oh, Mila) “X-Men: Apocalypse,” (oh, Bryan) “Knight of Cups” (oh, Terrence) and “Ma Ma” (oh, Penelope): In a normal shitty year, you might've made the cut, too.
5. “The Girl on the Train” (Universal): It's called a tabloid film but even tabloids aren't this stupid. Anna (Rebecca Ferguson) steals the husband of Rachel (Emily Blunt), a lonely alcoholic, who becomes obsessed with and spies on Megan (Haley Bennett), the aloof sexpot. When Megan goes missing, Rachel gives false info about Megan’s affairs. After Megan is found murdered, Anna finds evidence implicating her husband (Rachel's ex) but does nothing about it. And the theme of this backstabbing movie? Sisterhood. Of course.
4. “Suicide Squad” (Warner Bros.): Marvel gives us continuity between movies but DC can’t manage it between scenes. It’s as if the filmmakers took chunks of story and lined them up without concern for what came before or after. The whole point of this squad, this government-run team of supercriminals, is to take on the next metahuman (read: Superman) in case he's not such a boy scout. Guess what? The next metahuman could take out the whole squad in a second. So there's no point to them. And the battles here? With Witchie-poo? In the rubble of Central City? It's sound and fury, signifying nothing. It's a tale told by an idiot. Right: Idiots. Yeah, I'm looking at you, Zack Snyder.
3. “Wiener-Dog” (IFC): A clueless boy in the first family that owns the title animal feeds it a granola bar. Cue writer-director Todd Solondz's 45-second tracking shot of shit on the sidewalk. Consider it a metaphor for the movie. “Wiener-Dog” lacks life, joy, meaning. The dog subsequently winds up with: 1) a vet assistant who's hung up on a meth-head; 2) a mentally challenged man who plays violent video games; 3) a lonely teacher/screenwriter who tries to blow up his university with explosives strapped to the dog; and 4) an old woman whose granddaughter visits with her idiot boyfriend to borrow money. Does the dog run across the street to kill itself? If so, it's the smartest one here. I saw it at the Seattle International Film Festival, where someone literally shouted, “This movie sucks!” near the end. With you, brother.
2. “Nocturnal Animals” (Focus Features): There are two storylines: one hopelessly dull, the other hopelessly horrific. In the former, a beautiful, red-haired art-gallery director in a beautiful glass house and a dying marriage reads a novel dedicated to her by her first husband. In it, a man (whom she imagines as her first husband), and his beautiful red-haired wife and daughter (whom she imagines as Isla Fisher and Ellie Bamber), are run off the road in the middle of the night in Bumfuck, West Texas by three yahoos, who slowly terrorize them and then kidnap the wife and daughter. They're later found naked, raped, murdered, artfully posed. For some reason, the novel piques the woman's interest in her first husband again. Focus Features marketed this pointless horror from writer-director Tom Ford as a “sexy thriller” but it's awful enough to kill sex.
1. “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” (Warner Bros.): Superman's great enemy isn't Lex Luthor but writer-director Zack Snyder. Snyder let the Man of Steel keep his powers but he took away his joy and purpose. What does Superman want in this movie? Who knows? He seems to help people reluctantly. He flies to Africa to save Lois but when Lex kidnaps his mom he's lost. I get being suckered the first time Batman uses kryptonite on him (he'd never experienced it before). But a second time? How dumb is he? And Batman? Snyder turns the Caped Crusader into a hateful xenophobe, a Fox-News watcher, a literal murderer. He listens to the noise, not the signal. He doesn't see the good Superman does, he simply fears him. And he would've killed him if not for ... Yeah. I know. I shouldn't. But in the future whenever this movie is mentioned, fans can rightly shout, “WHY DID YOU SAY THAT NAME?!?!?” Because no one will want to remember it. Ever. It's the worst movie of the year because Snyder completely botched the first cinematic pairing of the most beloved superheroes in the world. Afterwards, I felt like Brando in “The Godfather”: “Look what they did to my boys.”
Here's other years, if you're interested:
Fingers crossed for the future. Please.