Showing posts with label Top 10 List. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Top 10 List. Show all posts

January 9, 2015

Top 10 Films of 2014

We Are the Best!

I’ve heard plenty of recent claims that 2014 was a disappointing year for movies, and the logic doesn’t compute. There were some generic blockbusters, but that’s hardly a new phenomenon. Hollywood is shifting even further into a franchise mode, and smart writers like Mark Harris are right to question it. Even so, that fact doesn’t mean there weren’t plenty of treasures to find this year. The continued rise of VOD is making it easier to catch films with limited releases for surprisingly modest fees. I paid a mere $0.99 to watch God Help the Girl on Amazon, and it deserved a lot more. Despite missing significant titles like Birdman, Interstellar, and Inherent Vice, I’ve still caught a wide range of impressive films. If you’re decrying 2014 for its lack of exciting movies, you aren’t trying hard enough.

Ranking my favorites of the year seems foolish, but I’ve taken a shot to inspire discussion. Choosing an order helps with digging through what I really loved about each choice. It wasn’t easy to narrow the list down to 10 selections. I’m including films with 2013 festival screenings because they didn’t receive a general release until this year. This list is a snapshot of my feelings at this time, and my thoughts will certainly change down the road. Despite the challenges with comparing films, it’s still enjoyable to see how everyone ranks the hundreds of worthy contenders around the globe. It can lead to engaging discussions about divisive selections that will charm some while angering others. That’s the great thing about movies; you bring so much of your own background into every screening.

Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightley in Begin Again

10. Begin Again
I hesitated to dive into this film despite my love of John Carney’s Once. It seemed like there was no way to avoid disappointment with his follow-up project. While it doesn’t reach the same heights, Begin Again delivers a similar emotional charm. There’s such a love of music and creating art that’s it’s easy to overlook the awkward scenes. Can anything beat the joy of walking around the city and listening to Stevie Wonder? I loved Mark Ruffalo’s nerdy charm and Keira Knightley’s heart-on-her-sleeve performance. I hope that we don’t have to wait another eight years for Carney to do something this cool again.

9. Ida
Two of my favorite performances this year come from Paweł Pawlikowski’s Ida. Agata Trzebuchowska is effective as the quiet title character, while Agata Kulesza’s fiery work as Wanda Gruz demands attention. The black-and-white cinematography and mostly static camera allow the characters’ search for truth to take center stage. Pawlikowski creates a striking look by using the unconventional 1.37:1 aspect ratio, and it never feels like a gimmick. The sharp composition of each shot aids the story, and I won’t forget it anytime soon.

8. Boyhood
It's a challenge to come up with new superlatives to describe Richard Linklater's remarkable project. There's such ambition to the fairly normal story of Mason (Ellar Coltrane) that it sometimes feels like too much for one movie. Even so, Boyhood is filled with striking moments and interesting performances. Patricia Arquette's remarkable work as Mason's mom stands out and never hits a false note. Her character makes unfortunate choices in men, but she's always believable. Ethan Hawke's progression as the dad was surprisingly poignant as he evolved from estranged hipster to straight-arrow family man. It's interesting to note how the characters around Mason sometimes make a greater impression that the boy himself. This isn't a strike against Coltrane but more about the complex world that Linklater creates in this epic tale.

Chef, written and directed by Jon Favreau

7. Chef
Jon Favreau built his reputation as a writer/director with heart that loved movies. Somewhere along the line, he lost something and seemed ill-suited for generic blockbusters. It was so refreshing to see the warm emotions back in place on a smaller scale with Chef. It’s the kind of movie that’s easy to love but rarely comes along. I expect Favreau saw a lot of himself in his tale of a chef that’s lost his mojo. The likable guy feels misunderstood by critics but needs to start over completely. Favreau’s doing a similar thing with this endearing film, and I hope that charm carries into his future work.

6. Edge of Tomorrow
Moving beyond the enjoyment of watching an ill-equipped Tom Cruise repeatedly die, Edge of Tomorrow was another summer movie that delivered great fun. Watching Cruise and a powerful Emily Blunt work together to solve problems is just part of the charm in Doug Liman’s sci-fi yarn. I love the time-loop premise, and the screenplay from Christopher McQuarrie and others expands the world of Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s graphic novel. It never feels repetitive, and that’s quite a stunning feat.

5. Only Lovers Left Alive
Sometimes you need a big budget and complicated plot to sell a story. Other times you just need to put Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston in a room and let them dance. Few relationships felt as effortless as the one between Eve and Adam in Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive. They’ve been together on and off for centuries and share an unspoken bond that different than the human “zombies”. The actors understand what makes these characters tick, and the result is a riveting movie.

Stuart Murdoch's God Help the Girl

4. God Help the Girl
I called Stuart Murdoch’s debut “joyous” in my review, and I still can’t think of a better way to describe it. The songs function like music videos that move the story forward but succeed on their own. It’s a vibrant and colorful look at the ways people connect through the love for music. God Help the Girl is a precious and very cute film, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.

3. Guardians of the Galaxy
Marvel has announced their slate for many years to come, and there’s a real chance of franchise fatigue. That fact makes the success of Guardians of the Galaxy even more impressive. It feels completely fresh and sidesteps the confines of the Marvel cinematic universe. I had few better times at the movies this year. Chris Pratt deserves to be a star, and the offbeat Peter “Star-Lord” Quill is the right guy for the job. It’s a team adventure with colorful supporting characters, over-the-top villains, and just pure fun.

2. We Are the Best!
Arguably my favorite ending for any film this year involved three girls sitting on a bus with huge smiles on their faces. Their first gig as a band was a disaster in conventional terms, but they don’t care at all. We Are the Best! tells a small story, but the friendship between the 13-year-old girls brings such heart that it sticks with you. Its emotional center is the fine work from Mira Barkhammar as Bobo, an intelligent girl who’s still adjusting to becoming a teenager. Lukas Moodysson presents these girls so warmly and delivers a story that feels more real than all the prestige pictures of the past year.


1. Snowpiercer
It’s easy to critique plot holes or heavy-handed themes in Bong Joon-Ho’s first English film, but none of that mattered while I was watching Snowpiercer. It’s an inventive thrill ride with a killer premise that rarely follows a predictable path. There’s dark comedy, wondrous action set pieces, and rampant creativity on an epic scale. Chris Evans is the perfect everyman to lead the revolution, while Ed Harris, Tilda Swinton, Ah-sung Ko, and Kang-ho Song shine in supporting roles. The seemingly endless train begins as a confining place and morphs into a world where anything is possible. Here's a quote from my original review that summarizes my thoughts:

"The screenplay delves into complex themes, but it's also rousing entertainment. The hatchet battle is possibly the most thrilling sequence that I’ve witnessed this year. Although it’s bloody and action-packed, there are small touches that separate it from the typical fare. In the middle of the fight, everyone stops for a brief New Year’s celebration. That brilliant segment is matched by a comic sequence involving a classroom of students, a history video, anthems praising Wilford, and machine guns. It’s ridiculous and represents a drastic shift in tone yet still feels right in this world. It takes major skills to get away with this move and keep the audience right with the story. I wasn’t budging for a second."


The following titles just missed the top 10 and could have easily made the cut. Presented alphabetically, they’re all intriguing films that connected strongly with me and deserve your attention.

Finding Vivian Maier
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Life Itself
Listen Up Philip
Obvious Child
The One I Love

During the upcoming months, I’ll continue to dig into the films of 2014 and will certainly find other gems that would have found a spot on this list. I caught up with Her last spring, and it would have easily placed near the top of my 2013 list. The process of discovery never ends, and there are always exciting movies to catch up with down the road. No matter what Hollywood does with its search for interconnected worlds and franchises, there will still be interesting films to find in some part of the world of cinema.

What did you think of this list?

August 7, 2014

Top 10 Scenes: Almost Famous

Almost Famous, directed by Cameron Crowe

At the end of 2009, film lovers compiled their lists of favorites from the new century’s first decade. My rankings had a clear pick at the top of the list – Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous. I couldn’t think of another movie that connected with me personally and expressed what it’s like to be a fan. Although I haven’t kept up with as many new bands lately, my love of music isn’t that far behind movies. This film isn’t just about music, anyway. It transcends that topic and shows the type of bond that grows when you connect with another person about a specific passion. Friendships are often built on the love of a movie, band, or sport and grow from that point. Crowe’s films wear their hearts on their sleeves, and it sometimes becomes too much. That isn’t the case with Almost Famous, where he strikes just the right notes because it connects to him so personally. Crowe’s probably never considered buying a zoo, but he’s definitely been a teenager who wrote about music.

For this list, I watched the “bootleg cut” for the first time. I’ll provide a few reactions to that version beneath my rankings. These choices likely come from the theatrical cut, but it’s possible a deleted scene is referenced. Narrowing all the great moments into 10 choices was a challenge. Crowe packs a lot of great interludes into the story of William Miller (Patrick Fugit) experiencing the highs and lows of the music world. Some work better than others, yet they all have a personal stamp of a guy who’s experienced many of these in his younger life. Ranking these was nearly impossible, so the differences are very slim.

10. William discovers music
The story begins with William as an 11-year-old who’s skipped two grades and is out of place among the older kids. His sister Anita (Zooey Deschanel) rejects their mom’s (Frances McDormand) controlling ways and bolts. First, she leaves her brother a gift that will change his life. Her incredible record collection begins William's quick transition into the 15-year-old we see during the rest of the movie. We still see the sheltered guy who’s alienated from his classmates, but now he has a passion that drives everything that he does.

Billy Crudup as Russell Hammond in Almost Famous.

9. I am a golden god!
Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup) is the cool guitarist with mystique and the star of the band Stillwater. When the conflicts within the group become too much, he takes William to find some “real people”. The party in Kansas is one of the funniest moments in the movie. Russell’s self-destruction leads him to a daring leap off a roof and into the pool. Before the big move, he has a few declarations to make including the big line. It’s fun to have William become the “adult” in the pair and try to keep Russell out of trouble. The star-struck teens can’t believe their good fortune, and Russell lives up to the rock star persona.

8. Lester Bangs’ ridiculous dance to “Search and Destroy”
Phillip Seymour Hoffman owns every scene as Lester Bangs; it’s no surprise that it topped many lists of his favorite characters after his recent death. Bangs' appearance reveals immediately that he’s an oddball who loves rock ‘n’ roll. He can barely contain himself with all the records at a local radio station. He puts the needle on “Search and Destroy” from Iggy Pop and the Stooges (is 10 a.m. too early?) and performs a very silly dance in the studio. Bangs is feeling the music, no matter how goofy it looks.

7. William charms Stillwater and gets backstage
William’s first assignment sends him to an arena show to write about Black Sabbath. Of course, it isn’t easy to get backstage. He tries several ways to gain access and has no luck. When the opening act Stillwater arrives, William sees his opportunity. All it takes is a little flattery to get on their good side. Beyond being a fun scene, it shows that William can think on the fly and push the right buttons. The reaction of singer Jeff Bebe (Jason Lee) to the praise is priceless. Finally, someone recognizes his greatness!

Kate Hudson as Penny Lane in Almost Famous

6. Penny Lane arrives at the Hollywood Hyatt
Kate Hudson announced herself as a rising star in Almost Famous with her role as the “Band-Aid” Penny Lane. She shined as a character that could own the room and stand out from the crowd. When she arrives at the Hyatt in Hollywood, Penny tells William she wants to avoid the spotlight. While that’s partially true, she also loves it. It shows how she’s playing the character of “Penny Lane” but thrives on it. Her pronouncements while stepping into the hotel room are designed to get everyone’s attention. Russell is her primary target, but it wouldn’t take that much bombast to get his attention. She wants the spotlight.

5. I’m going to Morocco! Wanna come? Ask me again. 
William falls for Penny right away; he’s never met anyone like her. At the end of the night in San Diego, she reveals her plan to escape to Morocco for a year. When Penny asks him to go along, his “ask me again” reply is just perfect. This young guy has just experienced the greatest night of his life, and he wants to savor it for just another minute. The girl of his dreams just asked him an inexplicable question, and he can’t help but want to hear it one more time. Crowe is a master at showing this type of scene. It sounds like too much on the page but works brilliantly because we feel the emotions on the screen.

Patrick Fugit and Kate Hudson in Almost Famous

4. First concert with Stillwater and on stage
William’s greatest night includes time backstage where he chats with the band, meets the roadies, and feels like he’s part of something amazing. When Stillwater’s ready to take the stage, he follows along and joins them in the circle to get pumped up for it. The joyous guys let him join the fun; how can he not love it? He steps to the side with Penny while they blast into their single “Fever Dog”, and nothing will ever match this moment. It’s like seeing your favorite band for the first time; will they ever be that amazing? It’s possible that other times will match this one, but they’ll be something special.

3. Russell and William's final talk at his house
Things go sour within the band and with William, and he finally returns home to his bed and a semblance of a normal life. Will he recover from getting betrayed by the guys he admired, especially Russell? Penny’s intervention brings them together, and William and Russell talk on equal footing for the first time. They’re no longer the rocker and the journalist and are just two guys who loved a girl. William does finally get to interview Russell, and his classic response to “What do you love about music?” is pitch perfect. To begin with, everything.

2. Last scene with Lester Bangs
I could pick all the chats between William and Lester, but this list is about tough choices. My favorite is their last call, which happens with the young protégé at a low point. It’s late and he’s fighting the conflict between the truth and losing friends. Lester’s advice to “be honest and unmerciful” is brilliant yet carries a downside to it. Here’s another great quote:

While women will always be a problem for us, most of the great art in the world is about that very same problem. Good-looking people don't have any spine. Their art never lasts. They get the girls, but we're smarter.

Elton John's "Tiny Dancer" in Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous

1. Tiny Dancer
After a band fight and his party meltdown, Russell is ready to quit. There’s a huge rift in the group; can anything save it? All it takes is a rousing sing along to Elton John. This bus ride is one of my favorite sequences in any movie. Once the piano opening begins, I’ve got goose bumps and am ready to belt out the chorus right with the guys. Blue jean baby, L.A. lady, seamstress for the band… and so forth. Crowe is a master at using the right songs at the perfect time, and this is the best example. He recognizes the power of music to bring people together and heal wounds, and this scene makes his case so well. It’s just magical.

Checking out the bootleg cut was interesting because it felt the same, yet less focused. That isn’t a criticism, however. The scenes had more room to breathe, and spending more time with these characters was a nice bonus. Hoffman gets more chances to shine as Lester Bangs, including some ore great lines. There are a few scenes that seem out of place, especially William getting ridiculed in the shower when he’s 11. They add little and feel like they’re from a lesser movie, but there aren’t too many examples. The theatrical version does a better job telling the main story, but the bootleg cut fills in the background. First-time viewers should probably watch the shorter version and then more to the extended on. Regardless, Almost Famous remains one of my favorite movies.

What are your favorite scenes from Almost Famous?

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January 31, 2014

Top 10 Favorite TV Shows


We’re currently enjoying an incredible time for television with show runners taking full advantage of the long form. Actors who would have scoffed at the medium are now clamoring for it. The wide range of options through cable and online venues has opened the marketplace. Which new series will stand the test of time? That’s hard to say. I haven’t finished mentally absorbing everything from Breaking Bad, and there are plenty of similar examples. Please remember that any list of favorites is personal and doesn’t reflect judgments on the “best” show. So much depends on what you’re trying to get out of art and your place in life. It’s important to note that I’ve yet to watch Deadwood and Mad Men, and I’ve only caught the first two seasons of Six Feet Under. I’ve also bypassed shows like Seinfeld and Cheers that make me laugh but don’t create the same personal connection. These 10 picks reflect TV that I’ve watched frequently and can’t wait to see again.


Special Mention: Survivor/The Amazing Race
It didn’t seem right to try and rank my favorite reality competition series against fictional comedies and dramas. Even so, I felt like they deserved a mention since I’ve watched both since the beginning. While the quality depends greatly on the casting, I still get plenty of enjoyment from these shows. The Amazing Race has floundered since its early glory days yet still has enough to make it worthwhile. On the other hand, I’ve grown more interested in Survivor in the past few years. They’re starting season 28 next month, and the staying power of the original reality juggernaut is astounding.


10. Farscape (1999-2003)
Rockne O’Bannon’s ambitious sci-fi adventure remains one of the most creative shows from the genre. I was late to the party and didn’t catch this gem until 2010, when I ran through the entire series in a few months. It’s consistently surprising and does the type of long-form story telling that I love. The third season in particular does a crazily ambitious move to split the cast in two and use two versions of Ben Browder’s John Crichton. His love story with Aeryn Sun (Claudia Black) drives the story, but there’s so much more. The Creature Shop puppets from the Jim Henson Company are so original and are true characters. When you add in wormholes, vicious enemy races, and the amazing Wayne Pygram as the nefarious Scorpius, you have a show that continues to surprise right up to the end.


9. Twin Peaks (1990-1991)
How did this show air on network TV? It’s such an unconventional choice for ABC, but I’m so thankful it exists. David Lynch and Mark Frost deliver a hilarious, sometimes horrifying series with so many surprises. It goes off the rails after Laura Palmer’s killer was revealed, but even the worst episodes have their moments. The finale remains stunning and ends in such a nihilistic way. There is no other show that has scared me like Twin Peaks, and the moments with Bob haven’t lost their impact. Agent Cooper isn’t your typical goofball and is both charming and intelligent. The crazy subplots (Nadine going to high school, Ben Horne re-enacting the Civil War, anything with James) aren’t for everyone, but they’re brilliant to a certain type of viewer. I’m one of those people.


8. Freaks and Geeks (1999-2000)
Although it lasted just 18 episodes, this heartfelt drama from Paul Feig and Judd Apatow about high school in the early ‘80s leaves quite an impression. It feels breezy while still tackling the big issues faced by teens in any era. It’s also really funny. Having actors like Martin Starr, Jason Segel, and Seth Rogen involved doesn’t hurt. Linda Cardellini does a great job in the lead part, but the show thrives because of the incredible ensemble. The soundtrack also sets the timeframe without being overly tied to the specific era. There are so many classic moments, and the comedy never feels strained.


7. Stargate SG-1 (1997-2007)
Most of these choices wouldn’t seem out of place among what many consider the best shows of all time. This pick is probably the exception. I’m an unabashed fan of all three Stargate TV shows, and the original is the strongest. The main reason is the chemistry within the cast, particularly the four leads. Richard Dean Anderson understands the silliness of this premise, and his approach works perfectly for it. He can still sell the dramatic moments, and that’s the key. My love for SG-1 connects to the simple idea of taking adventures to faraway planets. It’s an old-school show that arrived just before the arc-heavy genre boom, yet it still finds interesting ways to connect the episodes. During its heyday (seasons 3-6), few shows offered more enjoyment for me on a weekly basis.


6. The Shield (2002-2008)
When Vic Mackey shoots a cop at the end of The Shield’s pilot, it’s a shock even after seeing him raise hell for an hour. The willingness to paint its “hero” in such a bad light works because it was never simple villainy. Michael Chiklis’ incredible performance also shows us that Mackey could solve a case and still work tirelessly to save an innocent. The moral compass of this show is all over the map for all the characters, and that only grows during the later seasons. The quality level only increases with each new season, and adding Glenn Close and Forrest Whitaker is a stroke of genius. Unlike the tidy Breaking Bad finale, The Shield closes perfectly and connects with its entire run. The image of a determined Mackey venturing into the darkness is brilliant and sets the bar for how to end a story.


5. The Wire (2002-2008)
It took me a few episodes to warm up to The Wire, which feels so different. We’ve been trained to watch TV a certain way, and it explodes those conventions. Creator David Simon takes a slow burn with each season, and the major players aren’t clear. It feels like a logical extension of Homicide: Life on the Street and goes much further into Baltimore and the workings of a modern city. I love the way that the writing gives the audience so much credit. There’s no easy solution, and the layers of complicity stretch to the cops, journalists, bureaucrats, and criminals within the system. It’s more than a clinical perspective, however. It’s the emotional side that’s under reported with coverage of this show. There are heart-breaking moments that keep us invested right to the final scene.


4. Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009)
I love the way that Ronald Moore and David Eick take a hammer to the conventions of the sci-fi genre. Despite being set in space, BSG feels completely unique and ranks among the most intense shows ever created. There is such a different look and tone to the show, and it hooks me right from the start. I don’t mind complicated mythology, especially when it’s combined with engaging characters. It also really helped to bring in veteran actors like Edward James Olmos and Mary McDonnell to lead the ship. Despite a few misfires, Moore and Eick never rest on their laurels and keep pushing the envelope. It’s a thrilling reminder of the possibilities within the genre when the rule book is tossed aside.


3. Sports Night (1998-2000)
Few shows are as endlessly re-watchable for me as Aaron Sorkin’s Sports Night. The half-hour episodes fly by, and several hours have passed before I realize it. The main reason is the cast, which has such a strong group of actors. Josh Charles and Peter Krause get the best material as hosts Dan and Casey, and Felicity Huffman does so much with Dana. It says a lot that it’s taken me even this long to mention the wonderful Joshua Malina as Jeremy. This behind-the-scenes comedy of a Sportscenter-like production uses Sorkin’s trademark dialogue and fast pace to great effect. Even when it stumbles with unfortunate story lines like the dating plan, the actors push through and keep us with the characters. It’s too bad that it only lasts two seasons, but that might be a blessing in disguise. It goes out on a high note and avoids the downturn that affects even the best series.


2. Firefly (2002-2003)
An even stronger example of a show that never had a chance to slip is Joss Whedon’s beloved Firefly. I’ve enjoyed all of his shows, yet none keep me coming back like this one. We can feel the strong bond among the actors right from the start, and everyone gets a chance to shine. Nathan Fillion stands out as Mal, but Adam Baldwin, Jewel Staite, Alan Tudyk, and Summer Glau are right there with him. I’ve watched the 14 episodes many times, and I’m amazed by how much I still connect with them emotionally. When Mal gets his first look at Serenity at the end of “Out of Gas”, it brings chills. The ship feels like home for the characters, and it builds that same connection with the viewers. I can’t say enough good things about everyone involved with this wonderful show.


1. Homicide: Life on the Street (1993-1999)
Choosing a top pick for this list was nearly impossible. What lifted Homicide above the rest was its impact on me as a TV viewer. It arrived when I was a teenager, and no shows had connected in the same way at that point. On an intellectual level, it just felt smarter than anything else on network TV. Emotionally, I connect with characters that don’t look like your typical faces on cop shows. They’re fat, balding, and racially diverse. The cases often go unsolved, and the job takes its toll on the detectives. Even when the show evolves to stay afloat, the writing remains top-notch and delivers gripping episodes. Homicide introduced me to Andre Braugher, Melissa Leo, Richard Belzer, and Kyle Secor. It reminded me why Yaphet Kotto is awesome. It even found the best out of Daniel Baldwin. It’s incredible and deserves every accolade that it’s received. If you haven’t watched it, you need to get started right now. I promise that you won’t be disappointed.


These 10 shows just missed the cut and have provided so much enjoyment over the years:

Alias
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Chuck
Fringe
Lost
The Sopranos
Stargate Atlantis
Veronica Mars
The X-Files
The West Wing

What are your favorite TV shows? Make your case.

October 25, 2013

Top 10 Steven Soderbergh Films


When I created a Top 5 Steven Soderbegh Films list back in December 2011, it was extremely difficult to narrow the choices down to such a small number. That challenge would be even greater today after seeing even more of his work. Soderbergh has directed 27 features since his debut in 1989, and there have been very few misfires. Amazingly, he’s announced his retirement from directing films, but that’s hard to believe. I’m hoping that it’s just a temporary absence and he’ll be returning to the field in the future. My viewing background includes all but five Soderbergh movies, and none are considered among his best work. I didn’t list honorable mentions, but the choices that just missed the cut were Haywire, The Informant!, and Erin Brockovich. There’s also a special case of a film that I really need to revisit before giving it a fair shake.

Special Mention: Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989)
Soderbergh’s feature debut is the most glaring omission from this list, but I didn’t enjoy it that much. I’m giving it a special mention because it has been a long time since that viewing. It’s possible that I might have a more positive reaction on a second visit. Also, I recognize this film’s importance to both Soderbergh’s career and indie film in general. It was a huge hit and played a major role in the rise of smaller films to prominence during the ‘90s.


10. Side Effects (2013)
This brilliant thriller subverts our expectations at every turn and challenges any who try to rope it into a genre. Soderbergh uses the unreliable narrator to great effect and changes perspectives right in the middle of the story. He takes serious aim at the pharmaceutical industry but places the criticism in the context of a thriller. Rooney Mara gives another intriguing performance that is the key factor in disguising what’s actually happening. It’s one of my favorite films of 2013 and succeeds because Soderbergh understands how the audience thinks. It’s manipulative and trashy, but in the best way possible.


9. Magic Mike (2012)
When the promos appeared for this film last year, I never would have anticipated it making this list. The story of a male stripper trying to figure out his life works because we’re drawn in by the characters. Soderbergh mixes the glitzy stage performances with strong dramatic work from the solid cast. I just watched this movie for the first time this week, and it was one of the bigger surprises of the year.


8. Solaris (2002)
The original Solaris was a nearly three-hour art film about love and loss set within a sci-fi universe. Soderbergh’s remake maintains the tone while making something unique (and much shorter). It’s a challenging film that grows in your mind the more you think about it. George Clooney’s barely expressive face says enough to sell what Chris Kelvin is feeling when his dead wife (Natascha McElhone) reappears. There are intense moments because the emotional stakes are high. When you add in a crazed Jeremy Davies, it’s hard to go wrong.


7. Contagion (2011)
Soderbergh excels at taking a standard genre and turning it on its head. With Contagion, he takes a clinical approach to an outbreak and follows the CDC as they struggle to stop the disease. Major actors are brutally killed with little warning, and there’s a feeling that humanity may reach its end. There have been plenty of disaster films in recent years, but few stay as grounded in reality as this film. Soderbergh keeps toying with our expectations yet delivers a believable movie that sticks with you for a long time.


6. King of the Hill (1993)
I watched this charming adaptation of A.E. Hotchner's memoir during my original Soderbergh marathon. The story depicts the difficulties of a boy growing up in Depression-era St. Louis with little help from his parents or other adults. He finds ingenious ways to survive and maintain a fake lifestyle for his well-off classmates. It's an intriguing drama that warmly depicts both the fun and obstacles without laying on the melodrama. Soderbergh strikes just the right balance of involving our emotions without manipulating us. It's a difficult combination but works surprisingly well in this touching film.


5. Ocean’s Eleven (2001)
Possibly the most pure fun of any of Soderbergh's films, this star-studded caper uses a ridiculous premise but finds a way to make it seem plausible. It's clear that George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Don Cheadle, and many others are having a great time. However, this fun doesn't come at the expense of an interesting story like with the inferior sequels. The streamlined plot maintains the necessary focus that keeps us engaged while we're following their exploits. Soderbergh shows his ability to deliver a crowd-pleasing mainstream film without pandering to the lowest common denominator.


4. Traffic (2000)
Soderbergh's most ambitious film to that point, Traffic pares down the sprawling narrative of the 1989 miniseries into an excellent movie. Focusing on three stories that offer different perspectives on the drug trade, the award-winning Stephen Gaghan screenplay makes each an interesting tale. Soderbergh uses a different color palette for each one, exemplified by the cold blues of the picture above with Michael Douglas. My favorite is the Mexico story, which involves a corrupt cop played by Benicio Del Toro struggling to do the right thing. Douglas plays a drug czar who fails to realize his daughter's becoming a junkie at home. Soderbergh received a well-deserved Best Director Oscar for this movie.


3. Che (2008)
While I'm tempted to separate the two films and list just the first part here, they really function best as a single epic. Benicio Del Toro has never been better and makes Che a compelling figure. Soderbergh presents the famous revolutionary's intelligence and skills, but he wisely avoids making him a perfect hero. Instead, he lets us decide on our own if Che's actions served the right purpose. The success in Cuba contrasts effectively with his difficulties in Bolivia during the darker second part. Although they offer very different resolutions, both films combine to deliver a stunning narrative.


2. The Limey (1999)
This clever thriller includes a great performance from Terrence Stamp as Wilson, a career criminal who gets out of prison and heads to the United States to investigate his daughter's murder. Soderbergh uses inventive devices to bring energy to a fairly straightforward story. Stunning L.A. sets like the shore-side house of Record Producer Terry Valentine (Peter Fonda) add to the excitement. There also are several classic set pieces, especially Wilson's "You tell him I'm coming!" take-down of some hoodlums. Strong character actors like Luis Guzman, Nicky Katt, Bill Duke, and others join the fun in this underrated movie.


1. Out of Sight (1998)
Soderbergh finds just the right tone for Elmore Leonard's colorful characters in this crime movie that works as both a heist film and a love story. The dialogue crackles from the entire cast, even Jennifer Lopez in her best role. Back in 1998, Clooney wasn't a proven leading man, and his role as bank robber Jack Foley showed that he could succeed on the big screen. Soderbergh is at the top of his game and switches up the narrative to create a stronger film. The nonlinear approach has rarely worked better, and there are too many classic scenes to mention. It's one of my favorites beyond its place in Soderbergh's career and is one of the best Leonard adaptations.

May 17, 2013

Top 10 Steven Spielberg Films

Steven Spielberg

Exploring the early phase of Steven Spielberg’s career has shown just how much he’s evolved since the 1970s. His 27 feature films include the expected blockbusters and prestige pictures along with some interesting detours into passion projects. Duel and The Sugarland Express have a much different feeling than his breakout movies yet already revealed his technical expertise behind the camera. When deciding on my Spielberg favorites, there was no way to narrow the list to five films. Even making 10 choices was a challenge, and this list has several omissions that are excellent options. While the placements for several Oscar contenders may be surprising, they work for my preferences because I’m not looking to watch them again in the near future. I could easily sit down with the top choices at any point and not check my watch. Those favorites provide great entertainment and never feel like they’re pandering to the audience. That’s a tricky balance that shows why Spielberg deserves attention as one of our top current directors.

A.I. Artificial Intelligence

10. A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)
This last spot was the most difficult to fill because the possibilities were so different. My choice is one of Spielberg’s most ambitious films. A.I. confounds many viewers by combining a hard-edged look at the future with a child’s search for his mother. There are a few slip ups along the way, but the scale and excitement of this world overcomes those hurdles. We rarely see this type of movie that shoots for the stars thematically and with its effects. Stanley Kubrick originally worked with Spielberg on this project, and the combination of their different sensibilities makes for a surprising and original movie.

Saving Private Ryan

9. Saving Private Ryan (1998)
This up-close depiction of the horrors of war is clearly a passion project for Spielberg, and his commitment delivers some remarkable sequences. The opening battle at Omaha Beach is one of the most ambitious war scenes ever put on film and throws us right into the heart of the conflict. When the pace slows down and the main story begins, we’re still on board with the characters. Nothing can match the energy of the first act, but there’s still plenty to like in the rest of the movie. The actors stay down to Earth and seem to understand the overall setting is more important than their characters. Tom Hanks, Barry Pepper, Adam Goldberg, and Jeremy Davies stand out in memorable roles.

Schindler's List

8. Schindler's List (1993)
Spielberg’s most acclaimed film is easily his stunning 1993 look at the Holocaust and its many horrors. The black-and-white cinematography brings a reverence to the material and avoids making it too dramatic. With a few notable exceptions, the camera sits back and lets us get sucked into the action. Liam Neeson is sharp in a tricky role of a guy who’s more of a businessman than a heroic savior until the end. This was also the breakthrough performance for Ralph Fiennes as the heartless Amon Goeth. This three-hour epic isn’t a movie that I revisit often, but it’s still quite a filmmaking achievement.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

7. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
This is one of the most purely entertaining movies in Spielberg’s career and nearly rivals his success in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Sean Connery and Harrison Ford have such great chemistry, and the comedy between them never feels forced. Their bond seems effortless, which is saying a lot when you consider the star power of both individuals. The search for the Holy Grail is basically a retread of the pursuit of the Ark, but it’s so much fun that we barely notice. Although Spielberg returned to the character one more time, I prefer to believe the series ended on just the right note with this movie.

E.T. The Extra Terrestrial

6. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
I watched E.T. for the first time in a long while last year, and it was surprising to remember just how great it is. It’s the kind of movie that could be dismissed as just for kids but remains enchanting for adults. Spielberg does an excellent job presenting the world from a child’s point of view and doesn’t bring the grown-ups into the mix until the final act. The undercurrent of the damage caused by the family’s recent divorce hangs over the entire story. Despite the sci-fi premise, this timeless film remains firmly grounded in reality. It’s refreshing to even see a government agent who isn’t the stern bureaucrat you might expect. Spielberg delivers an affecting and refreshing movie that still hits the mark today.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind

5. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
Spielberg followed his breakout success in Jaws by delivering this subtle and intriguing story about aliens landing on Earth. It’s more of a personal story about Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) and his unflinching pull to discover the truth. He’s so drawn to this place that he leaves his family and sets out for the landing site at Devil’s Tower. Spielberg wrote and directed this film and uses a deliberate pace to build our expectations towards the surprising climax. Although it lacks the firepower of his biggest effects pictures, Close Encounters rewards on repeat viewings and keeps you thinking about for a long time.

Jurassic Park

4. Jurassic Park (1993)
I remember the anticipation while waiting in a long line at my local theater. We ended up stuck in the front row, which made for a pretty hairy experience when the T-Rex arrived. Jurassic Park has lost none of its luster today, which says a lot about its impressive effects. The reason for this timelessness is the classic three-act structure. We receive all the necessary exposition up front, all hell breaks loose, and then the characters do their best to survive. Unlike the bloated follow-up, this movie flows smoothly through both the build-up and the action. Sam Neill and Jeff Goldblum play well off each other, and even the kids aren’t so bad. This remains one of the great adventure films of the past few decades.

Minority Report

3. Minority Report (2002)
One of the great sci-fi thrillers of all time, Minority Report combines an intriguing story with great action to deliver a stunning experience. Spielberg takes the “innocent man on the run” theme used so well by Hitchcock and wraps it in a sci-fi premise. The screenplay from Scott Frank and Jon Cohen never lets him down, and Tom Cruise is at his best as the everyman trying to survive. There are several incredibly tense sequences, and the world feels real even during the high-flying chase scenes. This thrilling movie hits on every level and provides great entertainment while engaging our mind at the same time.

Jaws

2. Jaws (1975)
Spielberg’s first hit succeeds because it’s about much more than the Great White shark. It's the classic tale of man versus beast with an unlikely trio facing their fears in the open water. The technical problems are well-documented and show how limitations often deliver the greatest filmmaking achievements. There have been countless movies with huge budgets that couldn’t deliver an ounce of the thrills in this film. The creative failure of the sequels and many knock-offs just reveals the achievements of this first true blockbuster.

Raiders of the Lost Ark

1. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
What more can be said about Raiders? It’s a classic adventure yet never feels like it’s stealing from the old-school serials. It’s pure joy from start to finish and includes so many exciting sequences. The truck chase would be enough to carry most films, yet that’s just one of the great examples. Harrison Ford is perfectly cast as Indiana Jones and makes the part seem effortless. Few actors have even one character on this level; he’s done it twice! The humor feels natural in Indy’s world, and John Williams’ score keeps the energy rolling without becoming intrusive. This is one of the most re-watchable movies ever made because it’s so packed with gags and thrills. Lawrence Kasdan’s script is witty and smooth, and Spielberg rarely takes a breath as he sends us headlong into the adventure.

Lincoln

In case you're curious, these three choices nearly usurped A.I. for the final spot. In no particular order, here are the movies that came closest to grabbing the last spot:

Catch Me If You Can
Lincoln
Munich

I'd love to hear your thoughts about this Top 10 list. Should I have placed his prestige films much higher in the rankings? What are your favorite Spielberg movies? You should also check out my past Top 5 Lists if you've missed them.

January 4, 2013

Top 10 Films of 2012


Putting together a year-end list has become a standard annual ritual for critics, bloggers, and even your everyday movie fan. While understanding that any rankings of movies are extremely limited, it's still fun to look back at the past 12 months. I didn't see as many new releases in 2012 as past years, but there were still plenty of strong choices. Reviewing my list, I was surprised by just how few foreign films I'd seen. While seeing classics from legends like Herzog and Bergman, I didn't catch up with enough new directors from across the globe. I'm hoping to rectify the situation in 2013, but it may be difficult. There are incredible events happening at home this spring. Regardless, I still had plenty of excellent options this year. The top choices were pretty easy, but the differences between the last few and the honorable mentions are very slim. My top ten usually doesn't include many big-budget films, but I admit those were some of my favorite experiences. After checking out my list, I'd love to hear what your favorites were from 2012. This is the best part of reading all the posts; they point me towards interesting selections that hadn't reached my radar.


Special Mention: Safety Not Guaranteed (Colin Trevorrow)
This low-key story about a possibly crazy guy (Mark Duplass) who claims to travel through time is a cool surprise. We expect that his claims will be played for laughs, but the screenplay refreshingly paints him as a fairly normal guy. Aubrey Plaza shines in the lead role, which allows her to expand on her typical persona. She brings great heart to an intern who's slowly drawn in by the unconventional guy. Although it concerns time travel, that's just a small part of this human tale of people trying to overcome a past loss. It's a charming gem that hopefully will build a much larger audience outside of the theaters.


10. Cabin in the Woods (Drew Goddard)
Let the Joss Whedon love-fest begin! Although he did not direct this clever take on the horror genre, most of this release's attention focused on Whedon. This isn't fair since it pushed aside Director Drew Goddard, who wrote Cloverfield and many episodes of Buffy and Angel. Working together, these guys craft a fun and original look at the tropes of the slasher film. I'm not a big fan of horror movies, but I've seen enough to recognize the in-jokes. Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins bring heft to the scientists with the job of sending teens to their deaths. What lifts up Cabin in the Woods is its completely insane final act, which wreaks serious carnage from all types of creatures. It's a fun romp that reminds us of the genre's silliness without reverting to total camp.


9. The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson)
It's been several months since I checked out this ambitious tale from Paul Thomas Anderson, and I'm still not sure what I think of it. It may deserve to be higher or could be off the list completely. Which is it? The fact that Anderson's created such an equally intriguing and frustrating work makes it worth checking out. The acting is excellent, though Joaquin Phoenix's mannerisms are a bit much after several hours. Even so, he's so engrossed in creating this vile guy that I have to give him credit. I didn't have the opportunity to see The Master in 70 mm, but it still is a striking movie. Anderson makes both the grand outdoor sequences and intimate conversations beautiful, which isn't easy. It won't rank with my favorite experiences, but the weighty issues and great acting earn it this spot.


8. Beasts of the Southern Wild (Benh Zeitlin)
One of the most intriguing films of this year was Benh Zeitlin's debut feature, which depicted characters living in serious poverty in Louisiana. Although they're struggling to stay afloat, this is hardly a dour story even when a massive storm arrives. The revelation is the lead performance of Quvenzhané Wallis, who plays the six-year-old lead character Hushpuppy. Zeitlin is trying to do a lot more than showcase these characters and is commenting on the destruction of nature. He doesn't completely succeed, but it's such an engaging attempt that it deserves this spot on the list. The images are stunning as we journey with Hushpuppy and discover more about this unique environment.


7. The Avengers (Joss Whedon)
After all the build-up and expectations during the past few years, there were many ways that The Avengers could have failed. Amazingly, Joss Whedon finds a way to deliver a movie that serves both comic-book fans and mass audiences without alienating either group. I love Whedon's style, and he finds a way to throw some of his trademark humor into the mix. I'll join the massive chorus and praise Mark Ruffalo's work as The Hulk, which lives up to the hype. The other actors all bring their best work, even Scarlett Johansson in a possibly throwaway role. When the effects take hold in the last act, we're still into the story because the characters are so engaging. It's a team effort, and everyone gets a big moment to save the day. It's easy to dismiss this movie because it's such a breezy experience, but that wouldn't do justice to Whedon's achievements.


6. Lincoln (Steven Spielberg)
What makes this new look at one of the most famous U.S. presidents feel different is its strict focus. Instead of trying to give a broad look at Lincoln's life, Steven Spielberg and Writer Tony Kushner look specifically at a few months from 1865. This gives us plenty of time to get to know all the key players in the battle to pass the 13th amendment. Daniel Day-Lewis underplays the lead role but clearly shows us the brilliant mind that's working behind the casual demeanor. Lincoln wants this amendment passed by any means necessary. David Strathairn, Tommy Lee Jones, a scenery-chewing James Spader, and many others bring depth to this compelling historical drama. Spielberg takes his time and indulges a few too many speeches, but they rarely diminish the impact of this excellent film.


5. Skyfall (Sam Mendes)
When thinking about what I expect from a franchise movie, the key factor is taking the formula and pushing it to greater heights. It's okay to use the best elements that made that series a success if you do something interesting with them. Sam Mendes takes over the reins for the third appearance of Daniel Craig, and they deliver one of the best action films in recent years. They continue the excellent run beginning with Casino Royale and pay homage to many of the past Bond movies. The highlight is Roger Deakins' gorgeous cinematography, which stands out during the quieter moments. Mendes is clearly influenced by Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy and brings a greater emotional component to what's often been a silly franchise. Craig is up to the task, and Javier Bardem's over-the-top villain ranks among the best in the series. Judi Dench gets a larger role as M and brings depth to the connection between the agent and the boss who may not have his best interests at heart.


4. Argo (Ben Affleck)
There's something to be said for making a movie that doesn't proclaim itself as "important" from an artistic standpoint. Ben Affleck is clearly influenced by the '70s political thrillers in Argo, but it rarely feels like a throwback. He finds a way to combine a modern sensibility and satire on Hollywood with the real-life story. The chaotic situation in Iran is believable without drawing too much attention to itself. The ensemble piece stands out because it differs from much of the other mainstream fare in 2012. It's a dramatic film that takes its time and rarely goes for the cheap thrill. By the time the hostages have reached the airport and are excruciatingly close, we clearly understand the dire stakes. It's great entertainment that provides two hours of fun without leaving our brains at the door.


3. Looper (Rian Johnson)
Time-travel movies are tricky because they risk collapsing under the weight of complex plots. Rian Johnson recognizes this fact in Looper and deftly side-steps every obstacle. While still creating a cool premise, he focuses on the emotional challenges faced by Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) when confronting his future self. The amazing part is the way that it takes a serious left turn in its final act that wasn't spoiled by the previews. The stakes grow exponentially for the selfish guy, who realizes that the world's future hangs in the balance. Paying homage to the best films of the genre like The Terminator, this smart thriller rolls towards a surprising end and keeps you guessing the entire time.


2. Damsels in Distress (Whit Stillman)
Whit Stillman triumphantly returns with his first movie in 1998, and his biting wit remains firmly intact. This story is basically a fantasy about college life that works because of the engaging characters. Greta Gerwig is perfect for the lead part of the well-meaning, yet slightly delusional Violet. Along with her friends Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) and Heather (Carrie MacLemore), she employs unconventional methods to help troubled college students while igniting a new dance craze. The whimsical style isn't for everyone, but there's plenty of charm if you're willing to take the ride. There a lot of silliness from the self-involved characters, who lack awareness but are still likable. I'm really hoping that this is the start of another grand run from Stillman that rivals his best work in the 1990s.


1. Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson)
I'm a Wes Anderson fan and love Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, but my expectations weren't high for his latest movie. The preview made it seem not that different from his past work. Right from the start, it was clear that my expectations were totally wrong. Moonrise Kingdom is a wonderful film that shows Anderson's best qualities, but with a lot more heart. Even the usually serious Edward Norton does a great job as the well-meaning Scout Master Ward. Bruce Willis is also surprisingly good playing against type as the meek Captain Sharp. While the adults are strong, the true strength is the relationship between 12-year-old Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Heyward). Their young love never drifts into uncomfortable territory and drives the story. Anderson inserts plenty of his quirky touches, but they fit perfectly within this world and deliver my favorite movie of the year.


These five honorable mentions were extremely close to cracking this list. They're organized alphabetically and are essentially tied for the 12th spot in my mind.

The Dark Knight Rises
The Grey
The Hunger Games
Jeff, Who Lives at Home
Shut Up and Play the Hits

I'd love to hear about your favorite movies from the past year. Which movies should I add to my watch list? You should also check out past Top 5 Lists if you've missed them.