MY 10 FAVORITE FILMS OF 1986
Some of these are probably too good to get much distribution in the wilds of New Jersey, where CROCODILE DUNDEE passes for great cinema for most film-goers. But in any case, of the films I have seen I can break them into the five I liked most and what are probably the next five after that. I don't claim they were quality cinema, but I did enjoy them. Flamers, get ready:
Top Five for Enjoyment (in alphabetical order)
A GREAT WALL
MY BEAUTIFUL LAUNDERETTE
STAR TREK IV
THE COLOR OF MONEY
LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS
STAND BY ME
A ROOM WITH A VIEW
MY 10 FAVORITE FILMS OF 1987
Every January somebody asks me to list my ten best of the previous year. This year I will head them off by publishing first. Note that these are not my idea of the ten best. I don't know what the ten best are. These are the films I have liked the most (and the questionability of my taste is renown). If the rest of this article sounds familiar, it is just the capsules from the various reviews with some minor updating. Some I have up-rated from a +2 to a +3, based on later consideration. It is notable that six of them, including the top five, are historical films. None are set before this century, but they pretty much cover this century.
1. EMPIRE OF THE SUN -- Live a lifetime of experience in a short two and a half hours of film. A constantly inventive film conveys a sense of wonder about flight and a whole lot more. This is how to make a historical film. Rating: +4.
2. MATEWAN -- A great propaganda film in the best traditions of Sergei Eisenstein. An engrossing account of the birth pangs of the coal miners' union in Matewan, West Virginia, as seen purely from the union's point of view. Rating: +3.
3. HOPE AND GLORY -- John Boorman's reminiscences of childhood during the London Blitz form the basis of this unconventional but believable comedy. This film is filled with memorable characters and a child's sense of wonder at the War. Rating: +3.
4. THE LAST EMPEROR -- Impressive biographical historical epic gives an emotionally uninvolving account of the life of Pu Yi, the last emperor of China. Bertolucci tells us about historical events he should show us and shows us sex scenes he should probably only tell us about. But the sweep of history is certainly present and a great deal of change in China is obvious. Rating: +3.
5. HANOI HILTON -- This is a pretty credible story of POWs held by the North Vietnamese. In spite of what has been read into it, it is *not* a right-wing polemic defending the war. It *is* a tribute to the courage and ingenuity of POWs in defying their captors. As such it is one of the best films about the Southeast Asia war. Rating: +2.
6. HOUSE OF GAMES -- Psychiatrist, disenchanted with her efficacy, gets involved in an adventure of sorts. See the film before you read too many reviews; this is a difficult film not to spoil in the reviewing, but it is a really good script by David Mamet who earlier this year did THE UNTOUCHABLES. Rating: +2.
7. PRICK UP YOUR EARS -- The true story of the homosexual relationship of successful playwright Joe Orton and his equally talented but much less successful "wife," Kenneth Halliwell. This is a solid dramatic film. Rating: +2.
8. BROADCAST NEWS -- A winning romantic comedy also takes some reasonably good shots at the television network news business. James L. Brooks (TERMS OF ENDEARMENT has made an adult film with solid characters. Rating: +2.
9. RAISING ARIZONA -- A frantic and funny comedy about an ex-con who steals a baby to have instead of the one his wife cannot have. The BLOOD SIMPLE Coen brothers have made a second great film. It's a screwball comedy filled with screwball characters. Rating: +2.
10. FULL METAL JACKET -- FULL METAL JACKET has echoes of some of Kubrick's best work. It is episodic, noisy, sad, and funny, and sometimes gives a distorted view but it is also a powerful film, without much competition. It is one of the two or three best films about the Vietnam War. Rating: +2.
MY 10 FAVORITE FILMS OF 1988
I think I should preface this list by explaining that I am not listing what I think are likely to be the top ten films of the year, but only the ten best films that have been made available to me. Living where I do I have some (inconvenient) access to films playing in New York and for the rest I am limited to what plays locally and what gets on cassette very quickly, and over the last year I have noticed a definite trend among the local distributors of films and videocassettes to show fewer of the "good" films and more moneymakers. Our local eightplex is, as of this writing (January 2, 1989) running THE NAKED GUN in two of its theaters, WORKING GIRL in two more, three fly-weight comedies, and an action film. I asked the manager if they would be getting MISSISSIPPI BURNING: definitely not.
If it seems odd that a TV-movie makes the top of my list, do not interpret this as strong praise. I suspect that LITTLE DORRIT and perhaps THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST might be better films, but these are the best ten I have actually seen.
1. A DANGEROUS LIFE -- Six-hour HBO made-for-TV movie of the fall of Ferdinand Marcos combines strong doses of THE PRESIDENT'S MEN, YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY, and EXODUS in one film. A little slow in the middle, but it pays off by the end. This should be a model for future docu-dramas. Rating: +3.
2. DANGEROUS LIAISONS -- Beautifully filmed and acted adaptation of a scandalous French novel of 1782 and the play based on it by Christopher Hampton (who also wrote the screenplay). The film proceeds like a sexual chess game with two master players and a board full of pawns. One of the year's best. Rating: +3.
3. MISSISSIPPI BURNING -- Alan Parker (director of MIDNIGHT EXPRESS, THE WALL, and ANGEL HEART) creates a well-detailed, though allegedly very fictionalized, account of the FBI investigation into the disappearance of three civil rights workers from Jessup, Missisippi in 1964. Gene Hackman's performance is complex in a film that is violent but rewarding. Rating: +3.
4. LADY IN WHITE -- Twenty years from now LADY IN WHITE will be considered one of the best ghost stories ever put on film. Frank LaLoggia has made a beautiful film that raises more than a little gooseflesh. Rating: +3.
5. THE DECEIVERS -- Fun swashbuckler about a fascinating historical incident. Pierce Brosnan goes undercover in India in 1825 to investigate the Cult of Kali that murdered millions of people in ritual killings. Merchant/Ivory (A ROOM WITH A VIEW) effectively remake the good STRANGLERS OF BOMBAY and do it better. Rating: +3.
6. TUCKER -- Francis Ford Coppola and Lucasfilm in top form bring to the screen the story of automotive legend Preston Tucker. The film is a tribute to American creativity and a lament about a system that wastes genius. Jeff Bridges refreshingly plays that increasingly rare hero of the screen, a man of genius. Rating: +3.
7. THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING -- THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING is not a light film, but it is by no means unbearable either. Philip Kaufman, who makes very entertaining films, makes one that only sounds like an exception. 171 minutes of solid entertainment with a title you can use to impress your friends. Rating: +3.
8. GORILLAS IN THE MIST -- A substantial and provocative film, GORILLAS IN THE MIST tells us the story of Dian Fossey, who made herself one of the leading experts on mountain gorillas and who fought for their preservation. Rating: +2.
9. CROSSING DELANCY -- Well-above-average comedy/drama reminiscent of MOONSTRUCK but set in the Jewish community of Manhattan. Some nice characterizations in this story of a 33-year-old career woman's relationships with two men. Rating: +2.
10. STAND AND DELIVER -- What kind of a film would appeal both to the Hispanic community and to mathematicians? The true story of a math teacher who fights to make mathematicians out of barrio kids. This plot has been done dozens of times as a fictional sports story, but rarely this well and rarely with a subject that has the immediate appeal that calculus does. Rating: +2.
MY 10 FAVORITE FILMS OF 1989
1. THE ABYSS -- A science fiction and adventure film that just misses a +4 rating. Alistair-MacLean-type action combines with 2001-type vision to make a whale of a film that blows BATMAN right out of the water. Rating: high +3. If only it had more interesting science fiction ideas. Rumor has it that there is a lot more to the film that will be coming out on cassette, but which was deleted from the theatrical release so as not to have a film too long. Under-appreciated, this film by itself advanced the science of undersea exploration. The face masks designed to allow the camera to see who was behind them actually were much preferred by divers over standard designs for the increased vision.
2. FIELD OF DREAMS -- A complex and witty fantasy film that features great performances by James Earl Jones and Kevin Costner. Even if you do not like our national pastime, this film about ghosts of the White Sox and a quest is a solidly entertaining fantasy. Rating: low +3.
3. BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY -- The true story of Ron Kovic who started a gung-ho super-patriot and remained so even after the Vietnam war left him a paraplegic. But eventually he turns into an anti-war activist. The film is done very realistically but it seemed Kovic didn't have very good reasons for taking either point of view. The sequence of his trip to Mexico could have been trimmed down, but whatever your feelings about Kovic this is a good film. Rating: low +3.
4. PARENTHOOD -- Several stories about styles of parenting are a single story. Because each story is on different approaches to raising children, the whole is better than the sum of its parts. Diane Wiest gives a stand-out performance. Rating: low +3.
5. THE BEAR -- A simple and pure and wonderful little film about a short period in the life of a young bear. It is too short at 90 minutes, particularly because it feels much shorter. Those "hammy" animal sounds are the real thing, by the way. A few of the scenes are among some of the most moving moments of film this year. Rating: low +3.
6. ROGER & ME -- A biting documentary about the destruction GM does by closing plants in Flint, Michigan. It is razor-sharp and bitter. Moore's film is a compilation of footage he took and pieces from stock footage, documentaries, television, etc. Moore rarely has to use narration to tell the audience the point of a sequence; the point is clear from the footage he chooses. The film has a very effective documentary style. Rating: high +2.
7. BLAZE -- Not as well-hyped as other films this holiday season, BLAZE is still a front-runner for plaudits with a solid performance by Lolita Davidovitch managing to steal the show from Paul Newman. Rating: high +2.
8. INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE -- Forget that Indian thing. This is the *real* RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. Slightly more realistic than RAIDERS, a little more concentration on character, and less on chases, this is a solid action adventure film putting the series back on track. George Lucas needs a hit and for the first time since RETURN OF THE JEDI he deserves one. Rating: high +2.
9. DO THE RIGHT THING -- With one film Spike Lee goes from being a one-film director to being a major Hollywood talent. This is a realistic film of insight, intelligence, and even some wit, but no easy answers. [Minor spoiler follows.] A likable "street film" turns into ANATOMY OF A RACE RIOT. Rating: high +2.
10. GLORY -- Excellent Civil War film of the first black regiment and the prejudice they faced. At times it seems a little over- idealized, but no more so than most films about World War II. Realistically photographed by Freddie Francis and well acted, particularly by Morgan Freeman. Rating: +2. This film is tied with HENRY V as the film people are most likely to still be watching in the year 2000.
MY TOP TEN FILMS OF 1990
This list is made with at least a couple of qualifications. It is relatively easy for a major critic to make a list of what he or she considers the best of the previous year and to have such a list complete by the middle of January. I do not see nearly so many films and many take a long time to reach my area. Many films open to a very small release in time for the Academy Award nominations and do not make it to the boondocks of New Jersey for many months into the following year. Some only make it into video stores. Some do not even make it there. Last year I made my list at the end of January to meet Evelyn's deadline. In February I saw ENEMIES: A LOVE STORY. It most certainly would have made my list. Later I saw TRIUMPH OF THE SPIRIT, which may be the only film to date at all accurately to dramatize the concentration camp experience. The accuracy of this list would be much improved if the publication date were late February and still later would make it more accurate. Evelyn feels, however, that readers lose interest in the previous year's films in early February. This is not so much my list of top ten films as it is a list of what seemed to me to be the top ten at the of January.
A further regret, and my second qualification, is that this list includes only theatrical films. On a previous list I included an HBO Movie of the Month, A DANGEROUS LIFE, as the best film of its year. However, I have nowhere near comprehensive coverage of made-for-television and released-first-on-television films. I cannot hope to integrate them accurately into this list, so I will not even attempt to include in some of the few I have seen. I will, however, highly recommend the PBS documentary THE CIVIL WAR and the "virtual film" from the Hallmark Hall of Fame, DECORATION DAY. Both were moving and would have made my top ten list, probably in the top half. The HBO film CRIMINAL JUSTICE would very likely have been a contender for the list.
Asterisks on the ratings below indicate they were adjusted from my original rating after later consideration.
1. MOUNTAINS OF THE MOON -- The story of one of the great expeditions of history--and of the controversy that surrounded it--is brought to the screen spectacularly and intelligently. While the film takes a few liberties with the facts, I found it a better adventure tale than JUNT FOR RED OCTOBER and give or take a fact or two, it is all a true story. Rating: high +3*.
2. AVALON -- A loving portrait of a Jewish family in post-World-War-II Baltimore makes AVALON one of Barry Levinson's best films to date. Levinson has a real talent for dialogue and for creating memorable characters. This is a film to be enjoyed more than once. Rating: +3.
3. DANCES WITH WOLVES -- Epic portrait of a Sioux tribal life as seen through the eyes of a Civil War officer. American Indians have rarely or never been portrayed so believably and sympathetically. Its biggest flaw is that the White Man does not seem as realistically portrayed. The films resembles WHITE DAWN and FAREWELL TO THE KING in plot and spirit. Rating: +3*.
4. GOODFELLAS -- A very realistic view of organized crime follows the life of a minor organized crime figure from 1955 to almost the present. The structure is autobiographical at some expense to the dramatic impact. Rating: low +3*.
5. REVERSAL OF FORTUNE -- Famous lawyer Alan Dershowitz defends Claus von Bulow in this adaptation of Dershowitz's book. While none of the characters is anyone you would really want to know or even deal with, some of the re-assessment of what appears initially to be an "open and shut" case is reminiscent of TWELVE ANGRY MEN. Rating: high +2*.
6. AWAKENINGS -- What is it like to wake up after having slept for decades? What is it like to discover the means to wake such people up? Robin Williams and Robert DeNiro star in one of the most intriguing films of the year. Rating: high +2*.
7. THE GODFATHER PART III -- The Corleone saga continues in another story of honor and revenge. This is not the Best Picture of 1990 but it is good enough that it will probably be nominated for that honor. While it is less than totally original, major similarities to the other parts may well go unnoticed. Rating: high +2.
8. FLATLINERS -- An original and hypnotic horror film. The music, the acting, the photography, and the script all get very high marks. It is a horror film with intelligent characters who do things rather than have things done to them. Strong on atmosphere and intriguing in ideas. Rating: high +2.
9. EDWARD SCISSORHANDS -- The worlds of John Waters and Jean Cocteau meet in a remarkably good fantasy film from Tim Burton and the screenwriter he has needed all along, Caroline Thompson. Rating: +2*.
10. THE COOK, THE THIEF, HIS WIFE & HER LOVER -- HBO is hiring established directors to do segments of its "Tales from the Crypt" series. Peter Greenaway didn't wait to be asked. He lovingly made a two-hour horror comic story with some hilarious detail. Somehow it is being treated as an art film. A unique film that certainly will not be for all audiences. Rating: +2.
MY TOP TEN FILMS OF 1991
This was supposedly a very bad year at the box office. I guess I find that strange, since on the whole I thought we had more good films this year than in most previous years. I don't usually rate five films as +3 (or low +3) in a single year. And the idea that a Sylvester Stallone film would make my top ten list would have been unbelievable at the beginning of the year.
1. CYRANO DE BERGERAC: For those unafraid of subtitled films, there is a lot to like in the new film production of CYRANO DE BERGERAC. The play is excellent and this is perhaps the best production of the play ever done. Rating: +3. [Technically a 1990 film, this never got a wide release until 1991.]
2. BARTON FINK: Very strange but supremely well-crafted film from Joel and Ethan Coen. The Coen Brothers have the best batting average in Hollywood. They have made four films and each of the four is highly recommended. During a bout of writer's block (which they obviously got over) writing MILLER'S CROSSING they wrote this strange film about a young playwright facing the same problem in Hollywood. Great performances, great photography, weird film! Rating: +3.
3. HOMICIDE: Strange and disturbing thriller about a Jewish policeman torn between two cases. David Mamet's best film so far is one of those films you cannot fairly even give thought to until it is all over. This is one of those films you may spend more time thinking about than you will have spent watching it. Rating: +3.
4. IRON AND SILK: Mark Salzman stars in the film based on his autobiographical book about his two years teaching in China in the early 1980s. While the film places too strong an emphasis on his martial arts training, it is a valuable film to help understand what is happening in modern-day China. Rating: low +3.
5. PROSPERO'S BOOKS: Peter Greenaway's Christmas package for really jaded fans of fantasy or Shakespeare. This film breaks a lot of rules, but it is still a marvelous and fascinating retelling of THE TEMPEST in visionary terms. It may be one of the great fantasy films for just the right audience. Rating: low +3.
6. SILENCE OF THE LAMBS: A dark and fascinating thriller that is a genuine departure in the depiction of the psychopathic killer on the screen. Hannibal Lecter is a screen villain as memorable as Norman Bates. Rating: high +2.
7. THE ROCKETEER: The 1981 graphic novel comes to the screen as what may be the best film ever made based on a comic book. This is a wonderful tying together of odd historical detail in the story of a man who becomes a super-hero with the help of a rocket pack. Rating: high +2.
8. BEAUTY AND THE BEAST: Disney's animated feature films are, in my opinion, over-rated. They lack plot and complexity. Their emotional impact is limited. The usual excuse is that they are only supposed to be simple children's films. BEAUTY AND THE BEAST demonstrates that a lot more can be done in this medium. It beats BAMBI, CINDERELLA, SNOW WHITE, SLEEPING BEAUTY, and all of the other classics, including FANTASIA. Parents should go with their kids. If you don't have kids, go anyway. This one may not be on cassette this century. Rating: +2.
9. OSCAR: A delightful surprise. OSCAR is a throwback to manic screwball comedies of the 1930s that takes chances and them makes them work. Undemanding as a star vehicle for Sly Stallone, OSCAR is packed with eccentric weirdos, funny hoods, and lots of nutty dialogue. It has been a good long time since I laughed so much at a comedy. Rating: +2.
10. OBJECT OF BEAUTY: A well-crafted comedy with some nice dramatic moments and some serious things to say. This story is of the theft of a valuable piece of art from a spendthrift American couple living in London. The story touches a broad range of emotions with some of the minor characters more interesting than the main ones. Rating: +2.
MY TOP TEN FILMS OF 1992
1. LORENZO'S OIL: How did two parents with no medical background find a cure for the previously terminal disease that afflicted their son? You actually will understand, step by step in this true story part intellectual puzzle, part political statement about the medical community, part story of a family medical tragedy. We need more films like this. Rating: +3
2. THE CRYING GAME: An IRA kidnapping leads to a chain of events that keeps both the characters and the audience guessing. MONA LISA director Neil Jordan has equaled or surpassed that film in one of the best movies of the year. Rating +3. See it before someone spoils it for you.
3. GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS: Little more than just a filmed stage play, but a very compelling one. David Mamet's play is a tense story of people caught up in the real estate game. The play is both suspenseful and at the same time makes a bitter piece of social commentary. See this one just for the sheer joy of hearing rich and powerful dialog. Rating +3. Rating: +3
4. FAR AND AWAY: A really big film with impressive historical sweep. The sort of epic storytelling that films do so well and just have not done very often in recent years. Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman star in a story of Irish immigrants coming to the Irish slums of Boston and then to the Oklahoma land rush just about one century ago. This is the most enjoyable film I have seen in 1992. Rating: low +3.
5. UNFORGIVEN: A film to debunk most of the myths in other Western gunfighter films. Perhaps Eastwood made UNFORGIVEN as an act of contrition for glorifying violence in so many of his previous pictures. In any case, this is a very adult and intelligent Western about myth and reality. Rating: high +2.
6. THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS: Michael Mann's LAST OF THE MOHICANS is finally available and while James Fenimore Cooper might cavil, this is still a film that teaches a lot about a little-dramatized chapter of history. In some ways it is more intriguing in concept than the source novel. Technical credits are good across the board including remarkable stylistic restraint coming from Mann. Rating: high +2.
7. PRELUDE TO A KISS: Romance, comedy, fantasy, and even a little softcore horror combine in an intelligent and thoroughly enjoyable film. PRELUDE handles an old idea, but at the same time says a lot about life and human relationships. Even the acting by minor characters is good. (This is one of those films whose actual premise comes as a surprise well into the film. I will be very vague below rather than spoil the plot.) Rating: high +2.
8. DEAD AHEAD: Some subjects are just intrinsically difficult to adapt to film. There were no human deaths and little visually spectacular in the Exxon Valdez disaster. There WAS a lot of political fighting in the wake of the disaster with a large number of players. DEAD AHEAD compares favorably with films that had similar obstacles such as ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN. This HBO-BBC co-production is remarkably compelling watching. Rating: high +2.
9. HOWARD'S END: One of the best, indeed probably the best, of the recent run of film's based on E. M. Forster's novels. It takes a long time before the audience knows for sure where this story is going, then it turns out to be a story that is subtle and complex. Very good performances all around. Rating: +2.
10. ENCHANTED APRIL: This is a light and VERY pleasant comedy that could be used as an ad for the Italian Tourism Board. It starts like E. M. Forster's indignant social dramas and then unwinds under the warm Italian sun into a rich romantic comedy. It features beautiful settings and people you would love to meet. Rating: +2.
Top Ten Films of 1993
This has been the most impressive year for film since I started writing reviews. Some films that did not even make my top five list would have been my choice for best picture other years. While most years I have no more than one or two +3 films, this year I think I have ten.
The capper was something I have talked about as possible that I never expected to see, a film I thought was much better than any of my +4 films of the past. That means I have to either call it a +5 film or lump it in as a high +4. As you can see below I am still indecisive, but unfortunately it is not a decision I expect to come up again.
One of the interesting trends I see in this list is the recreation of history. For a while the historical film was in decline since filmmakers thought that history was not popular with today's audiences. This year is not representative of that trend. We see in the films below recreations of the Holocaust, a civil war battle, and the war in Vietnam, and one film in part about Chinese history early this century. More recent history is also represented with the recreation of a British court case and the research done in the fight against AIDS.
1. SCHINDLER'S LIST: I have said before that it is impossible to make a film about the Holocaust that does justice to the subject. SCHINDLER'S LIST comes as close as any film could. This is a supremely powerful depiction of the banality of evil and--for once on film--the seductiveness of good. As a special case, I leave SCHINDLER'S LIST unrated but very strongly recommend it.
2. GETTYSBURG: This film that contains more authentic military history than any other film I have ever remember seeing. The film itself is more than four hours and very little of seems to be fiction or not well-grounded in historical record. Perhaps a little is speculation, but the highest proportion of time is reenactment of the most important battle in United States history. This too is one of the best historical films I can remember. Rating: high +3
3. JURASSIC PARK: Steven Spielberg has tapped into the mother lode of human dreams and sense of wonder. Michael Crichton's story may be "Westworld" with dinosaurs, but for once the technical basis for a science fiction film and the special effects are both exceptional. Rating: +3.
4. AND THE BAND PLAYED ON: HBO gives us one of the best films of the most compelling films they have ever made. This is a detective story, a story of politics and sex, and has a terrific script and some very moving performances. HBO has made my top ten list multiple times in the past, but this is the best film I have seen from them. Rating: +3
5. THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS: Tim Burton proves himself a creative genius with a film deserving of instant holiday classic status. Just about everything comes together and genuinely works in the best Christmas film since Alistair Sim starred in A CHRISTMAS CAROL. This is a marvelously inventive animated feature film. Rating: +3
6. IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER: This is the true story of the victims of a conspiracy by British police to scapegoat eleven innocent people, many from a single family, for an IRA bombing. The main character spent fifteen years in prison before an enterprising lawyer uncovered the conspiracy and was able to overturn the conviction. Pete Postlethwaite is particularly effective as the main character's father who is imprisoned in the same cell as his son. Rating: low +3
7. THE JOY LUCK CLUB: These are the stories of four families who emigrated from mainland China in the last generation. It is the story of four mother-daughter relationships in the United States and the story of the four mothers' lives in repressive and sexist Chinese society. The stories are often heart-wrenching and often inspirational. If this is a woman's film, as some have accused it of being, it at least is miles ahead of something like BEACHES. Rating: low +3.
8. MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING: No Laurence Olivier standing statue-like and soliloquizing with stentorian speeches, Kenneth Branagh clearly communicates why this is considered a comedy. He puts back into Shakespeare the fun that the original audiences must have had. And with proper delivery the language is not at all hard to follow. This is a joyous film. Rating low +3.
9. INDOCHINE: There is human drama, political spectacle, and beautiful scenery in this DR. ZHIVAGO of Vietnam. A story of a love triangle is told against the backdrop of the Vietnamese revolt against French imperialism. Very little has been done in film about the Vietnam of this period. Rating: low +3.
10. UN COEUR EN HIVER: Most of the film revolves around the personality of one of the main characters, which is only gradually revealed in the film, so I will refrain from discussing it. This is a thoughtful, intelligent film. A minor tragedy that is surprisingly affecting. Rating: low +3.
Top Ten Films of 1994
Each year I try to hold off as long as possible in listing my top ten films for the previous year. This year is it easier than in previous years to close off a top ten list in mid-January. Frankly there is not much coming out in the next month or so (not from 1994). 1993 was a great year for films and 1994 was not nearly as good. Somehow all the 1994 films I was looking forward to I have already seen.
1. THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION: This is a beautifully told and photographed story of a man who transforms an entire prison through his humanity. With acting and production values uniformly excellent, this film works on both the literal level and as an allegory. It could well make it to the status of being a classic like ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST. Rating: low +3 (-4 to +4).
2. QUIZ SHOW: QUIZ SHOW is an intellectual EIGHT MEN OUT. It is an in-depth look at a little-remembered scandal that made national headlines back in 1958. Once the public realized that TV quiz shows were rigged to promote ratings, they would never look at television in quite the same way again. Robert Redford directs from a terrific, ironic screenplay. Rating: low +3 (-4 to +4).
3. LEGENDS OF THE FALL: This is an old-fashioned epic of an early 20th Century Montana ranching family and the coming of more urbanized life styles. An alienated father and three very different sons pull in different directions to different fates. The film features nice photography and a rich score. Rating: low +3 (-4 to +4).
4. HOOP DREAMS: Surprisingly engaging documentary that follows two promising inner-city basketball players from high school recruiting to freshman year at college. The story is surprising both in its completeness and the dramatic power it has, considering it is not a script that could be planned in advance. Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4).
5. PULP FICTION: What would you get if Robert Altman tried to do a super-violent crime film, a cross between SHORT CUTS and SCARFACE? Quentin Tarantino tells a weird collection of inter-connected crime stories peopled by a weirder collection of thugs than Damon Runyan could have imagined on drugs. This is a film with comedy, heavy violence, some terrific dialogue, and a whole lot of entertainment. Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4).
6. A CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER: This is the best spy film to be released in several years. It is also the most intelligent film in the Jack Ryan series based on the Tom Clancy novels so far. Screen credit goes to three top-notch screenwriters. There is one breath-taking action sequence, a generous dollop of government skullduggery, and a plot that will seem to be taken from headlines of recent U.S. history. This is as good as any of the James Bond films. Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4).
7. CRONOS: This Mexican horror film is genuinely a cutting-edge art house monster movie. It is visually striking, has a real "what-happens-next?" plot, and some intriguing human relationships. It has been a long time since a new monster movie has played to art film audiences, but this one is worth it. Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4).
8. DOOMSDAY GUN: Once again HBO's docu-dramas prove that there are good films being made for cable. The story of Gerald Bull and his attempts to build a super-gun for Saddam Hussein's pre-war Iraq was under-reported in the press, in spite of the natural fascination of the material. This film is a sort of TUCKER-meets-Tom-Clancy based on fact. Rating: +2 (-4 to +4).
9. HEAVENLY CREATURES: New Zealand film director Peter Jackson, famous for his BAD TASTE, creates a very odd but fascinating film about the darker side of imagination. The film tells the true story of two 1950s teenagers who are pulled into a vortex of creative fantasy and drawn to a bloody and violent conclusion. This is a surprising and inventive film that blends fantasy and reality in ways you haven't seen before. Rating: +2 (-4 to +4).
10. THE LAST SEDUCTION: Even without a good story, this film would be fascinating if only for the characterization of Bridget Gregory. Linda Fiorentino plays a brilliant, calculating, manipulative woman. Steve Barancik has written a taut, steamy murder thriller that has already played on cable and is now getting only a tiny theatrical release. THE LAST SEDUCTION is worth seeking out. Rating: +2 (-4 to +4).
The next ten films in alphabetical order, each rated +2: - CARL, MY CHILDHOOD SYMPHONY - CLERKS - INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE - MISS AMERIGUA - NELL - RED ROCK WEST - THE SHADOW (Okay, so it fell apart near the end. Up till then it was a very good representation of the pulp and radio hero.) - SIRENS - THE STORY OF YUNNAN - WHAT'S EATING GILBERT GRAPE
Top Ten Films of 1995
Some years the top ten lists of most critics have a lot in common, some years they do not. This is a year in which there is no strong consensus as to what are the top ten. These are the films I rated highest. Several previous years a film made for HBO made may top ten list because I thought it was by any objective standard one of the best ten films I saw that year. That is not the case this year, but I feel I should mention that if I were to name my next six films the odds are really good I would have not one but three HBO films on the list, namely COMRADE X, INDICTMENT, and THE INFILTRATOR. It is also interesting to note that while the film industry tries to avoid films taht might be downbeat or even depressing, the majority of the films below are films that are fair definitely of a darker mood.
1. APOLLO 13: Ron Howard gives us a surprisingly gripping yet accurate account of this country's tensest week in space. This is an inspiring film to remind us that seemingly impossible problems can at times be solved with sufficient perseverance and determination. It also is one of the most exciting and spectacular films of the summer. Rating: low +3.
2. PRIEST: A young and idealistic priest is forced to choose between two evils, one is immediate and personal, one is more abstract but more fundamental to the beliefs of the Catholic Church. Gad, I love a film that presents a sophisticated moral dilemma, treats the audience as adults, and gives no pat answers. Rating: low +3.
3. LEAVING LAS VEGAS: A prostitute and an alcoholic have a relationship in the short time while the alcoholic intentionally drinks himself to death. The story is downbeat, but it is also a moving study of the both love and self-destruction. There is more than a little of the George/Lenny relationship of OF MICE AND MEN in this story. Stand-out performances by Nicholas Cage and Elizabeth Shue make this one of the better films this year. Rating: low +3.
4. CASINO: Martin Scorsese's story of the rise and fall of a casino manager is a detailed but informative and even enthralling three hours. CASINO chronicles how organized crime lost Las Vegas, as seen through the eyes of two close friends appointed by the mob to run the operation. In spite of strong graphic violence this could get the Best Picture Oscar. Rating: low +3.
5. LEGENDS OF THE FALL: This is an old-fashioned epic of an early 20th Century Montana ranching family and the coming of more urbanized life styles. An alienated father and three very different sons pull in different directions. The film features nice photography and a rich score. Rating: low +3.
6. DEAD MAN WALKING: Tim Robbins gives us a three-dimensional view of the issues raised by the death penalty as a nun tries to help a convicted killer on Death Row. What sets this film apart is that it presents multiple and conflicting sides of the issue seemingly fairly and does not try to force any particular point of view. This is a complex film about a complex issue. Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4)
7. DEATH AND THE MAIDEN: This is a film full of questions about justice, tyranny, and the nature of truth. Ironically much of what is necessary to make it work will also be a turnoff to many viewers, but the film boasts two riveting performances. Rating: high +2.
8. CITY OF LOST CHILDREN: This is a bizarre and wonderful French fantasy that defies description. In a never-never land that seems to combine Marseilles at the turn of the last century and the next, the evil scientist Krank kidnaps children to steal their nightmares. He is opposed by a carnival strongman and a young girl. This is one of the most visually creative films ever made, combining the style of BRAZIL with a wall-to-wall creativity almost rivaling THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS. Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4)
9. MURDER IN THE FIRST: This is a story partially based on truth about a man who was tortured for 38 months in Alcatraz. In the early 1940s he is on trial for a murder he was forced to commit in prison. While the visuals give in to stylistic excesses, the film boasts terrific performances from Kevin Bacon and Gary Oldman. Rating: high +2.
10. THE USUAL SUSPECTS: With a whimsical title, THE USUAL SUSPECTS looks superficially to be a piece of light entertainment. In fact, it is a crackling crime drama that tests the logical abilities of its audience rather than simply entertaining them. Somebody invested heavily in the actors, and the photography, but the writing is the real attraction. Rating: +2.
Top Ten Films of 1996
I am strangely unenthusiastic about my choices for this year's top ten films. Not every year can have a SCHINDLER'S LIST, but usually I can feel there are at least two or three films I can unreservedly recommend. This year there is little on my list that I can say was a good film without adding "for the right audience." The three films that could have the widest appeal are crime films, two with a fair amount of violence, but all three are highly creative. Each is probably actually better than PULP FICTION, though it clearly paved the way for each. Most of the films on my list are made for smaller niche markets. Only TWO DAYS IN THE VALLEY played at my local multiplex. This could be seen as a good sign that art houses are becoming a more significant part of the market or a bad sign that we are getting more polarization between the art house films and what is being shown at the local neighborhood theaters. My ratings for each film on a -4 to +4 scale is in parentheses, some of which may have been revised by a half point since seeing the film.
1. RICHARD III (+3): This alternate-history story of a Fascist takeover of Britain in the 1930s, with a script by William Shakespeare, is the most amazing use of modern dress I have seen for a piece of theatrical work. It surpasses anything that Branagh has ever done to make Shakespeare actually fun. If possible see it just efore you see LOOKING FOR RICHARD.
2. ANNE FRANK REMEMBERED (+3): This is the rest of what happened, a very complete story of Anne, the book she wrote expecting it would never be seen, and the many controversies surrounding hat book. This documentary does an excellent job of bringing into human terms the Holocaust. It includes the only film footage, meager though it is, known of Anne Frank.
3. BREAKING THE WAVES (low +3): This is a surprisingly complex and compelling story encompassing themes of loyalty, sex, and religion. The film's point-of-view is left deliciously ambiguous until the final sequence which nails things down somewhat heavy-handedly.
4. THE CRUCIBLE (low +3): Arthur Miller's play works as both allegory and as human drama. The story has timeless themes and the study of how power works. Miller is a great modern dramatist and in spite of some Hollywood-ish touches this film has a lot of real substance.
5. FARGO (low +3): Quirky situations and characters that you have not seen in films before highlight what is yet another approach to the crime drama. Francis McDormand plays the pregnant and perky chief of police in a tangled story set in the white hell of a Minnesota winter. In spite of some extreme violence this film is a lot of fun.
6. LONE STAR (low +3): A long-unsolved murder forms the core of this film about secrets and strained father-son relationships in a Texas border town. John Sayles takes this well beyond the murder mystery it appears to be on the surface.
7. HEAVY (high +2): This is a very unusual approach in storytelling. Almost all of the plot is advanced by the visual images rather than by the dialogue. This holds the viewer's attention on the screen much more than conventional film techniques.
8. TWO DAYS IN THE VALLEY (high +2): This is the third odd but well-crafted crime film of the year and one that is being unfairly overlooked. A very diverse set of plot threads and characters come together very enjoyably in a story of personal redemption and violent gunfights. There is as much of SHORT CUTS here as of PULP FICTION.
9. LOOKING FOR RICHARD (high +2): This film lies somewhere between a fiction film and a documentary. Al Pacino prepares a production of RICHARD III. Along the way he asks some of the world's most distinguished actors about playing Shakespeare. This could have been a much better film if Pacino had not thrown in so much that is irrelevant or self-aggrandizing.
10. MICROCOSMOS (high +2): Terrific documentary just showing the tiny world of insects and other small animals in a French meadow. Drama, comedy and some breathtaking visuals. Not a lot of depth or a lot to think about, but a real spectacle for the eye.
Other films that I enjoyed, in some cases considerably more than many of the critics were the following. I suppose some of these films should be what some critics call "guilty pleasures" but I would claim I have none and that any film I like really is a good film: INDEPENDENCE DAY (+2 though the writing fell apart toward the end). DRAGONHEART (+2), THE ENGLISH PATIENT (+2), THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU (+2--in some places incredibly self-indulgent, but much more the religious allegory that H.^G.^Wells intended than the previous film versions), MICHAEL COLLINS (+2), SECRETS AND LIES (+2--though the first half hour seemed unbearably long, this film got a lot better was it went along).
For those who know what a Hugo award is (basically the Oscar of the science fiction world) these are my nominees for dramatic presentation:
"Z'Ha'Dum" (BABYLON 5 episode) BREAKING THE WAVES INDEPENDENCE DAY THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU THE WHOLE WIDE WORLD
Top Ten Films of 1997
The following is the list of the ten films that I enjoyed most over the year. I have to admit living in the wilds of New Jersey I have not been as active as I might have been in seeking out more obscure films that might have been more qualified. This was a year in which the multiplexes around me seemed particularly preoccupied with getting films that had large explosions. In addition there are films that will come to my area in the next few weeks that might have made it onto my list. With that in mind, here are the ten best of what I saw this year.
1. L. A. CONFIDENTIAL: This is a dense, complex, multi-layered crime story that may just be one of the best films of its kind ever made. Great dialogue, very good plot, great characters, good musical score, great photography. This is one of the most engaging film script we have seen in a while. This is a film to rank with THE MALTESE FALCON and CHINATOWN among the best of the crime. Rating: 9 (0 to 10), high +3 (-4 to +4)
2. THE ICE STORM: Ang Lee adapts the novel by Rick Moody. Two neighboring families, each in its own way dysfunctional, are the study of this film set over Thanksgiving weekend in 1973. Both families seem obsessed with sex, but different people use it in different ways and react differently. Lee very finely defines his characters and the film adds up to a powerful experience. Rating: 9 (0 to 10), +3 (-4 to +4)
3. CONTACT: The first contact with an alien race has a huge impact on society. We see that impact through the eyes of one woman who devoted her life to the search for extraterrestrial life. The film adaptation of Carl Sagan's CONTACT is in some ways a betrayal of Sagan's philosophy and has some hefty revisions to the book. Knowing that I would like to down-rate CONTACT, but I have to admit what remains is a substantial and intelligent film. CONTACT was produced by Sagan and his wife, Ann Druyan, and that may be why so much of the film was on-track. While not perfect, it is the best science fiction film we have gotten in a good long time. Rating: 8 (0 to 10), low +3 (-4 to +4)
4. THE SWEET HEREAFTER: An opportunistic lawyer comes to a rural Canadian town in which a school bus accident has killed many of the town's children. With a smooth sincere-sounding line he turns grief into anger in the hopes of building a class action lawsuit. Atom Egoyan's non-linear telling gets in the way a little, but this is a powerful statement about the law and about grief. Rating: 8 (0 to 10), low +3 (-4 to +4)
5. ROSEWOOD: This is a powerful historical account with an epic feel made on a subject that has never been adequately covered by film. This story of a race massacre in 1923 Florida is intelligent and exciting, a difficult mix. Stylistically similar to MATEWAN and perhaps even better, John Singleton's film changes the truth a little, but brings a an important incident in American race relations to audiences who would not know about it otherwise. Rating: 8 (0 to 10), low +3 (-4 to +4)
6. AMISTAD: Steven Spielberg's account of the slave mutiny of 1839 and its legal aftermath is certainly a good historical film, filled with facts and historical details. Occasionally it is actually powerful. But it lacks some of the emotional impact of THE COLOR PURPLE and SCHINDLER'S LIST and its pacing is off. Still, it is a useful and engaging source of historical perspective. Rating: 8 (0 to 10), high +2 (-4 to +4)
7. EVITA: The on-again, off-again history of attempts to bring this Webber and Rice musical to the screen finally culminates in a spectacular film starring Madonna, Antonio Banderas and Jonathan Pryce. By now the music is mostly familiar. The politics are superficially explained, but the visuals give the film a great epic feel. It is hard to imagine Madonna will ever have as powerful a role or be as good in another film. Rating: 8 (0 to 10), high +2 (-4 to +4)
8. EVE'S BAYOU: A ten-year-old Creole girl grows up during one hot Louisiana summer. Director and writer Kasi Lemmons draws some very nicely defined characters for whom the viewer has real interest and empathy. One of the most touching and engrossing films of the year. It is also very well photographed with some very memorable images. Rating: 7 (0 to 10), +2 (-4 to +4)
9. THE WINGS OF THE DOVE: One of Henry James's lesser novels makes one of the more entertaining films based on his works. A woman whose guardian will not let her marry her poor lover plots to have the lover seduce a dying heiress so he will inherit her money. The story meanders a bit in going where the viewer knows it eventually will, but the view is nice along the way. Rating: 7 (0 to 10), +2 (-4 to +4)
10. CHASING AMY: A pair of 20-something buddies who co-author a comic book are split over one's interest in a gay woman. Kevin Smith takes what could have been rather trivial and self-important material handles it with a light touch, making a film that is both engagingly serious and genuinely funny. Fans of Kevin Smith will not be surprised that the film is also at times fairly raunchy. The frank and often sexual dialog is realistic, but will be a turnoff to some. Rating: 7 (0 to 10), +2 (-4 to +4)
Top Ten Films of 1998
3+ Return to Paradise
3 Saving Private Ryan
3 Smoke Signals
3 The Truman Show
3- Gods and Monsters
3- Deep Impact
3- Last Night*
3- The Giraffe*
3- Shakespeare in Love
3- The Pentagon Wars (HBO)
3- Clay Pigeons
* no general release
Top Ten Films of 1999
I always have the same problems when it comes to publishing my top ten films of the previous year. 1) It is always too soon. I live in the wilds of New Jersey some of the best films have just not made it to any place I can see them until well into February, if then. What are probably the very best films are not distributed well. I have to balance the timeliness of the article against the poor distribution. 2) I feel that I am not really including the best films I have seen since I have a strong leaning towards theatrical films. I used to include cable films when I thought they were good enough to rank in the top ten. I just saw a beautifully filmed and fascinating documentary on the bees. It did not go the theatrical route. That is the only reason it is not on this list.
A word on why at least a couple of the films are on this list. Nobody seems to remember the graphic arts of Filippo Brunelleschi. Yet I don't think there is a painter today who is not at one point or another influenced by Brunelleschi. Around 1410 in Italy he discovered the geometric rules of perspective and how to draw with them. I suspect if we did see his graphic works they would look like uninteresting student exercises at least at first glance. At least two films below are there not because they had such great plots but because they did something new. They increase the palate of the filmmaker.
Here are my top ten.
BEING JOHN MALKOVICH: Paydirt! A really, really off-the-wall fantasy that provides just one strange idea or one weird insight after another. An office worker discovers his file cabinet hides a doorway into the head of John Malkovich so that fifteen minutes at a time the visitor can be the famous actor. Different people are affected differently and the implications of the premise are used in multiple comic and serious ways. Rating: 9 (0 to 10), +3 (-4 to +4)
STAR WARS EPISODE 1: THE PHANTOM MENACE: What George Lucas does well, he does better than anyone else. Simply put this film probably shows the greatest visual imagination of any film ever made. (Probably only one non-STAR WARS film even competes). It even has a few interesting science fiction ideas. George Lucas returns to many of the values of EPISODE 4, missing in 5 and 6. EPISODE 1 has a host of new alien species, another strongly mythic story, and a few embarrassments. But overall it is a lot of fun. Rating: 9 (0 to 10), +3 (-4 to +4)
OCTOBER SKY: In Coalwood, West Virginia, 1957 a boy uses model rocketry to escape the fate of a career digging coal. With the inspiration of one high school teacher and the drive to follow his curiosity and vision, he resists all the pressures of the town, and especially his own father, to work for a dying mining company. While parts of the story seem contrived, this is a true story. It is based on a book by the main character is riveting. Rating: 9 (0 to 10), +3 (-4 to +4)
CRADLE WILL ROCK: In the 1930s art and politics inextricably intertwine in this (mostly) true story of big money interests fighting the WPA's Federal Theater Project. Also retold is the tale of the disagreement between Nelson Rockefeller and Diego Rivera over the mural that Rivera painted for Rockefeller Center. Tim Robbins, who both wrote and directed captures a feel for the heady days when American talent seemed to be blossoming but when the mostly liberal sentiment of art was seen as a threat to the wealthy who strongly influenced the government. This film will certainly be in my top three films of the year. Rating: 9 (0 to 10), +3 (-4 to +4)
AMERICAN BEAUTY: A razor-sharp, merciless look at human relationships in suburbia goes from a light satirical comedy to a drama of piercing intensity. One man's mid-life crisis tears apart a neighborhood. This provocative theatrical film is the debut of former TV-writer Alan Ball and it is as perceptive and as it is unforgiving. Ball keeps no less than six characters center stage and defines each of them with brisk and telling dialog. Rating: 8 (0 to 10), low +3 (-4 to +4)
THE RED VIOLIN: More intricately plotted than the viewer at first expects, THE RED VIOLIN tells the history in episodes of a (fictional) legendary violin. This is a film that gets better as it goes along and presents the viewer with several interesting puzzles. The classical music that goes with the story is a definite plus. Rating: 8 (0 to 10), high +2 (-4 to +4)
COOKIE'S FORTUNE: A gentle crime story set in a sleepy Mississippi town has more than its share of eccentric but likable characters. Robert Altman has given us his most relaxing and pleasant film. For once we do not care if all the plot strands are going to come together or not, this is just an interesting set of people. Rating: 8 (0 to 10), high +2 (-4 to +4)
TOPSY TURVY: Mike Leigh takes a break from his films about the lower classes to give us a sort of concert film docu-drama about the first production of the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta THE MIKADO, performed by the famous D'Oyly Carte Opera Company. Many different personalities come together and many plot threads are woven together to tell the complete story--or at any rate as much as you would want at one sitting--of how the production came to be. Rating: 8 (0 to 10), high +2 (-4 to +4)
THREE KINGS: Set in the day or two following the Persian Gulf War, THREE KINGS begins as a light-hearted caper film but turns into a grim view of the realities of the Middle East and American policy. This is an adult film, demanding but intelligent. A good film even if it is not always pleasant. Rating: 8 (0 to 10), high +2 (-4 to +4)
THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT: In 1994 three amateur filmmakers went into the Maryland woods making a documentary about the local legend of the Blair Witch. They never returned. This is claimed to be a compilation of the footage they took showing how they were lost and ran afoul of something unseen. This is a film that demonstrates that horror in a film need not be created by visual effects. Instead the immediacy created by hand-held cameras and a realistic rather than artificial style makes this the most intense horror film since HENRY, PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER. Rating: 8 (0 to 10), high +2 (-4 to +4).
The Ten Best Films I Saw in 2000
Most years for my "Top Ten" list I just take the capsules and the article is written already. This year maybe I am feeling more gregarious, but I will want to give my opinions of these films as they have stuck with me. These are my impressions of these films at this moment.
I have couched my title to cover myself a little. Living as I do in the wilds of New Jersey, I do not have easy access to a lot of the films I would have liked to see. Rather than delaying this article in the hopes that a few of the films that have premiered in Los Angeles in December will trickle down to my neighborhood, I will just go with what I have seen. Some I will admit, I did not see in the wilds. Four of my top ten films I saw at this year's Toronto International Film Festival. But I did have a chance to see them in New Jersey.
Any list of favorites is going to be very subjective. Usually when I put a list together there are one or two films that will surprise people that ANYBODY would put on a top ten list. What can I say? First, I have not seen all the great films out there and my tastes are very subjective. I will tell you why I liked what I liked and hope nobody thinks I am too weird. I also generally find a surprise for me. That there would be two films in Chinese is at least a bit unusual. But that I have a Hindi film made for Indian domestic release is for me a real surprise. Most Indians who talk to me about film deprecate Hindi films. There are however other Indians who get very angry if they hear the same sentiment coming from a non-Indian. With the exception of a few serious films for export, most Hindi films are more interesting for their cultural differences than for the high quality of their content.
THE CONTENDER -- I am told that the impact of this film is considerably less for people who watch "The West Wing" and for political conservatives. I really enjoyed the writing and the story. This is a political thriller about a Vice Presidential confirmation hearing. The viewer gets a believable behind-the-scenes look at how the game of politics is played and how pressure is put on people to do the wrong and to do the right thing. This is a film about people with principles and about people who only pretend to have principles. The film is also very timely having a great deal to say about the Clinton administration. Rod Lurie, who wrote and directed, has given me one of the best films I have seen in years.
TITUS -- I like Shakespeare. I have seen a lot of Shakespeare. While the stories are different, the experience is usually much the same. That is why I liked Branagh's MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, and why I chose the 1995 RICHARD III as the best film of its year. TITUS is a Shakespeare experience like none other I have ever had. It is a brash and gruesome horror/revenge tale with visual design by Julie Taymor, best known for the Broadway staging of "The Lion King." For once just the Shakespeare plot is a jaw-dropper and the staging shows you things that would be impossible on the stage. The whole film is beautiful ugliness. Anthony Hopkins and Jessica Lange make for very formidable opponents.
SUNSHINE -- There is no proper venue for this story. The film was three hours long and should have been five. That made is a little superficial. But nobody wants to release a five-hour movie. This is a film that covers 140 years of a Jewish family in Hungary with Ralph Fiennes playing as three very distinct men: father, son, and grandson. One generation faces the anti-Jewish bigotry of the Hungarian aristocracy; the next faces the Nazis with their racial laws; the third generation faces the Soviets and their hatred of the Jews. In each generation of the family there are members who want to assimilate and those who want to maintain their Jewishness. William Hurt has a nice subdued role as a moderate Soviet.
THE EMPEROR AND THE ASSASSIN and CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON -- I left CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON thinking that it had bested THE EMPEROR AND THE ASSASSIN. Certainly the two of them are the most enjoyable Chinese films I ever remember seeing and I probably would up my rating of the latter to match the former's +3. But right at this moment I would give THE EMPEROR AND THE ASSASSIN the edge. I am going to give it the edge because I really think that it has the better story of the two. THE EMPEROR AND THE ASSASSIN has genuine historical sweep and deals with real historical figures. CROUCHING TIGER is a light, or perhaps at times heavy, fantasy. Also I happen to be a fan of the laws of physics and I do not like to see the heroes of a film breaking them with the abandon. The dancing at the ends of wires which are then removed by CGI is beautifully done, but I still prefer the historical film with its feet on the ground. However, both are very good.
GLADIATOR -- An English-language historical epic is GLADIATOR, a fictional story of the conflict between the Roman Emperor Commodus and Maximus the former general of his father's army in Germania, through injustice turned into a gladiator. The visuals are very nice in most cases though some of the computer effects mar the realism. There are a number of heavy ironies in the script. Commodus is a villain because he murdered the wife and son of Maximus and took the throne that Marcus Aurelius wanted to give Maximus. Yet Maximus killed in the hundreds or thousands at the behest of the peace-loving Marcus Aurelius. Somehow Spartacus seems the bigger hero. Still, how often do we get a spectacle film about Ancient Rome?
TITAN A.E. -- Okay, let's get it over with. For years one of my axes to grind has been that animation is a tremendous medium for science fiction and science fantasy. To save a little money we have been given a lot of lousy, unimaginative animation and nobody has been really serious about using the medium well. I had a great deal of hope for Japanese Anime. Occasionally they do a reasonable job with a story, but mostly they do stories that allow them to showcase fights and explosions, guns and fights. TITAN A.E. has some fights, but they are not really what the film is all about. It is not great science fiction, but it is on the level of Alan Dean Foster. That's fine by me. And the film has some really imaginative spacescapes. This is a film that has been needed for a long time. I am just sorry that it did not get much attention and that most the attention it did get was negative.
SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE -- This is a one-joke comedy-horror film, but it is a great pleasure to watch, especially the first half. As most people know, the first film version of Bram Stoker's DRACULA was F. W. Murnau's 1922 film NOSFERATU featuring a really weird performance by Max Schreck as Count Orlock the vampire. This film suggests that Schreck might actually have been a vampire slowly dining at the expense of the film crew. In about fifty different ways this contradicts known film history, but it is a nice lavish recreation of the period. I would say that the first third is great, the middle third very good, and the last reel is just okay. But it is certainly worth seeing.
HEY! RAM -- In spite of Mahatma Gandhi's policy of non-violence, India seems to be breaking apart in the chaos that followed India's independence. When rioting Muslims rape and kill his wife, Saketh Ram blames and is determined to kill Mahatma Gandhi. There is nothing left in the heart of the formerly peaceful man but hatred and a need for vengeance. We follow Ram through his training by a covert group intending to use his anger to change the course of Indian history and politics. Some really effective surreal sequences are extremely effective.
O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? -- This year's Coen Brothers film is a picaresque of three convicts escaped from a chain gang and trying to find a treasure before a dam inundates it. The setting is 1937 Mississippi and the period feel is just about everything in this film. As a whole it is not that great a story, but the individual episodes are a lot of fun and it comments on everything Southern from politics to music to cooking. George Clooney and John Turturro star with several Coen Brother films veterans including Holly Hunter, John Goodman and Charles Durning. While it seems to have little to do with the Preston-Sturges-inspired title, it does humorously adapt sequences from Homer's ODYSSEY.
I saw the following at the Toronto International Film Festival and they would have made this list if released here: SHADOW MAGIC, LIAM, and THE DISH. SHADOW MAGIC and THE DISH will probably have 2001 releases in the United States.
THE TEN BEST 2001 FILMS I SAW IN GENERAL RELEASE
Every year I dread making out my list of the top ten films of the previous year. It seems like it should be an easy matter to choose since I rate most of the films I see. Except for ratings ties for the last few places, the ratings should actually choose most of the films. The truth is that my list is usually a bit of an embarrassment. You would expect that there should be some obscure films on the list.
The truth is I see mostly just the films that have made it to Central New Jersey and what I see at film festivals. I do see some very good films at the festivals, but people do not want to read recommendations for films they never hear of and will have little chance to see. If such a film gets a release, I will treat it as if I had just seen it on that release. As remarkable as it was that I had a +4 film on my list this year--I very rarely use the +4 rating because so few films are that good--even it was not the best film of this year. THE GREY ZONE was in my opinion the better film but may not get much of a release.
So there are better films that I have seen but which are not generally available. And there have been better films that are generally available but which I have not seen. That compromises this list somewhat. The films are listed best first (so much for suspense). Each one has the ranking and what I would rate the film on the 0 to 10 and the -4 to +4 scale.
My major hobbies include travel and film. Both can take me to places I have not been to before in different ways. Sadly the films that do that are films that may have been popular, but perhaps not much public respect. But what impresses me the most about THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING (#1, 10, +4) is the effort that was required to being it to the screen. Tolkien's Middle Earth has been portrayed on the screen before and those representations only go to show how hard it is to do it well. This I did think was done well and in a visualization that repeatedly created a sense of awe. Peter Jackson has created the definitive visualization of a modern classic story.
MEMENTO (#2, 9, +3) is a clever and intelligent idea for a film. In telling its narrative in reverse order, it is a film in which we all know how the story ends, but the mystery is how it began and really who is who. The reverse structure also gives the viewer a simulation of the actual mental dysfunction, a form of amnesia, the character is suffering. This is a film that some viewers have found very taxing, and perhaps it should be seen more than once, but it is probably the most original film of 2001.
A BEAUTIFUL MIND did not get released in my area until 2002, but it makes an interesting companion piece to 2001's THE LUZHIN DEFENCE(#3, 9, +3). Both films are about geniuses who are social misfits and gives the audience a window into how these people think as well as the price each pays for his genius. John Turturro stars as Alexandre Luzhin, a chess Grand Master who is nearly an idiot savant. In this adaptation of a story by Vladimir Nabokov the strange Luzhin falls in love at and important chess match. John Turturo stars as the brilliant but extremely eccentric chess master.
If MEMENTO was disorienting in its story told backward-style, A.I.: ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE (#4, 9 +3) disoriented the viewer by telling its story in tree parts of very different styles. In a sense this is a sort of dual of Ridley Scott's BLADERUNNER. That film suggested that we would be able to create feeling beings, but their life span would not be long enough for their purposes. It replicates are haunted by how short and transitory life is. The film planned by Stanley Kubrick and completed by Steven Spielberg looks at a created human with a life span far longer than his purpose. Programmed to love and be loved by one human, the robot goes on living pointlessly, his whole reason for living taken away. Some almost magical future intelligence gives him one last contact with his purpose in life and the film asks us, "Is he better or worse for it?" Is it like giving a reformed alcoholic one last drink? Many did not like the sentimentality of the last part of the film, but I found the film to be rich in ideas throughout.
Several times now I have included on my top ten list films that have been made for cable. I have never seen that with anybody else's published top ten list. I do not know if other reviewers just do not consider them to be good enough or did not consider them at all. In any case this year no less a critic than Roger Ebert and I both agree WIT (#5, 8, low +3) is among the best of the year. The film has Emma Thompson as a professor of 17th century poetry who is dying of cancer. It is based on Margaret Edson's Pulitzer-Prize-winning play. With wit and intelligence she tells us about the dying experience. This is an extremely moving film.
There was a time when the best art films were horror films. German expressionism gave us THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI, NOSFERATU, M, THE GOLEM, WAXWORKS, and METROPOLIS. Their legacy gave us films like DRACULA, THE BLACK CAT, and THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN. But since that time few horror films have had substantial merit. The films produced by Val Lewton and some made by David Cronenberg and perhaps one or two films like INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS were interesting artistically. The best modern director of artistic horror films is Mexican director Guillermo del Toro. This year he followed up CRONOS and MIMIC with THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE (#6, 8, high +2) which combines generally non- horror subgenre of the boys school story with a story featuring a ghost and a stalking villain. As always, del Toro's visual compositions are absolutely beautiful. In the final analysis this is more of a murder film than a ghost story, but it nonetheless is hypnotically told. Del Toro actually has done (three times out of three) what Romero, Craven and Carpenter should be doing.
HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER'S STONE (#7, 8, high +2) is faithful to the book and at the same time entertaining, not an easy balance. Like THE LORD OF THE RINGS it is a marvelous visualization of the book. There is some violence that may bother some parents, but kids are turning out in legions to see the film. And for many this will be one of the tamer films they are going to see. If the film limits the imagination they need in reading the modern classic Potter series, it will show them how it is done and open their imaginations when reading other books. Most of the weaknesses in the film, things like plot improbabilities, I found track back to the book.
Two good crime stories come next on my list. THE MAN WHO WASN'T THERE (#8, 8, high +2) is a crisp black-and-white murder tale with a twisted plot that becomes clear in the end. The story is about a personal failure, a second chair barber in a tiny barbershop. When Ed enters a room with three other people in it, he makes it approximately three people in the room. In desperation to change his condition he tries blackmail and that makes things start to happen. The stark black and white images actually are the result of filming in color and then making black and white prints from that. HEIST (#9, 8, high +2), written and directed by David Mamet, this script boasts two very clever robberies and a fairly good story of a brilliant criminal in the process of retiring. The script is not perfect, but is intriguing and has fewer holes than Mamet's THE SPANISH PRISONER. David Mamet's dialog may not be realistic, but it is artistic, like Shakespeare's was.
Then there's SHREK (#10, 8, high +2). What can I say? It has great animation and I laugh every time I see it. Robin Williams's genie in ALADDIN leaves me cold. Rosie O'Donnell's Terk in TARZAN went all the way to irritating. Eddie Murphy's donkey in SHREK cracks me up every time. The film stands as a story on its own, but it is also a merciless rank-out of every Disney convention in reach. Mark Leeper's
Top Ten Films of 2002
Well, it is time again to list my top ten films of the previous year. I am sorry that my list comes out after so many others have been published. Some reviewers announce their top ten lists in the middle of December. As for me, I am lucky if I have seen all the major films of the previous year by the end of January. I have decided not to include films that I have seen over the year that have not yet been released in this country. Too many of my readers will have forgotten I rated some of these highly by the time they finally do get released. In fact, the best film on this year's list falls into that category. I saw THE GREY ZONE at a film festival something like September 13, 2001. Harvey Keitel was there to introduce the film but instead just asked for a moment of silence for those killed two days earlier. I was hoping that the reviews it got bore out my high regard for the film. I was pleasantly surprised (if I can say that in conjunction with this very bleak films) that the critics did see the same power and quality in the film that I did.
So what films have I seen but did not listed for this technicality? TOGETHER is a delightful film about a Chinese child prodigy violinist whose father takes him to Beijing so that he can develop his talent. It has just beautiful music, surprising and interesting characters, and is a real pleasure. I understand it has been scheduled for release in this country so hopefully it will be on next year's list. I might suggest that you write down this next title. I saw it in a theater packed with Russian-speaking people who knew better than I what to expect. Apparently the film is known in Russia (under the title OLIGARKH), and I hope it becomes known in this country. The English title is TYCOON. I think it probably occupies the same place in Russian society that THE GODFATHER has here. A wealthy and unpopular businessman, a little dishonest, is murdered. We then see the events after the murder and flashbacks telling how he got to his position as one of Russia's wealthiest businessmen. At the same time, it tells of what happened to Russian business under Communism and after its fall. TOGETHER and TYCOON are both well worth remembering.
There will be some who will note the conspicuous absence of THE TWO TOWERS. Have I become disenchanted with the LORD OF THE RINGS? No. I just refuse to give three +4s to each of the thirds of what I consider to be a single film. I probably will not put THE RETURN OF THE KING on my top ten list next year. Suffice it to say, I am impressed by the film THE LORD OF THE RINGS and still consider it to be only one film that I have already given a +4 to last year. I will list them in increasing order. (Oh, each film below is rated on a scale of -4 to +4).
10. ABOUT SCHMIDT (high +2): This is an adult film in the best meaning of the term. It is the kind of motion picture where the viewer repeatedly sees people he knows. Jack Nicholson's repressed rage and his pitiable side have never been shown to better advantage. Though the story could have been better this film has a great character study from Alexander Payne, the director of CITIZEN RUTH and ELECTION.
9. THE ROAD TO PERDITION (high +2): In 1931, circumstances make a father and son fugitives from the Capone organization. The moving story about two different father-son relationships follows a once-loyal hit man forced to take actions that will make him a legend. The film has a simple plot of a Western set in the East, but acting and beautiful photography turn this into an emotionally charged and memorable film. A curiously low-key performance by Hanks meets an interesting killer played by Jude Law. Paul Newman plays a powerful local gangster.
8. GANGS OF NEW YORK (high +2): Martin Scorsese recreates slum and gang life in Civil War Era New York City. It is a cutthroat world where virtually everyone is a criminal and everyone is a victim to some degree. The historic background alone is worth the price of admission, even if the foreground story is a little hackneyed at times. This is an always-fascinating historical film with a lot of factual detail. Bill "the Butcher" Cutter is a unique character, based on the real Bill "the Butcher" Poole.
7. ADAPTATION (low +3): This is Spike Jonze's and Charlie Kaufman's follow-up film to BEING JOHN MALKOVICH. I think that Charlie Kaufman has in one stroke made his the most recognizable screenwriter's name in the country. His new film is a meditation on the forces that make films successful; it is also a philosopher's chestnut and a marvelous mental toy. This is the kind of film that viewers can discuss for hours.
6. THE QUIET AMERICAN (low +3): Michael Caine gives one of his best performances as Thomas Fowler, in this story of a worldly English journalist and his relationship to a naive American who has strong ideas how to shape Vietnam. Graham Greene wrote the novel set in 1952 Vietnam. The story is powerful and only became more so as the United States became more involved in Southeast Asia. This is a riveting film.
5. MIYAZAKI'S SPIRITED AWAY (low +3): Hayao Miyazaki, creator of MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO, KIKI'S DLIVERY SERVICE, and PRINCESS MONONOKE gives us a masterpiece of fantasy in the anime that is as timeless as Lewis Carroll's Alice stories and enjoyable for just as wide an audience. This film may even beat THE LORD OF THE RINGS for most imaginative film of the year. Watch for the *real* Spiderman.
4. MINORITY REPORT (+3): Steven Spielberg adapts a story by Philip K. Dick. He mauls the intent of the original story but creates a marvelously faceted and incredibly dark vision of the future with its own virtues. MINORITY REPORT is fast-paced, yet still full of ideas. It is probably a better science fiction film in a more complex society than was BLADERUNNER (also non- faithfully based on a story by Philip K. Dick).
3. WE WERE SOLDIERS (+3): Mel Gibson stars in a chronicle of the bloodiest three days of the battle of Ia Drang in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. It is probably the best account of the Vietnam War experience I have seen, for once told with respect for the soldiers on both sides. Gibson plays the commander of the American Seventh Cavalry in Vietnam. The scene of his leaving his family and going off to war is as moving and poignant as the scene of Frederic March returning from war to his family in THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES.
2. THE PIANIST (+3): This is the violent and harrowing true story of brilliant Jewish pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman who survived two uprisings against the Nazis in Warsaw. This must have been a very personal film for Roman Polanski who survived the Krakow Ghetto. The story has some real depth and moral complexity.
1. THE GREY ZONE (high +3): A good cast in a stark and grim drama of the Sonderkommandos in Auschwitz who preserved their lives by doing terrible work for the Nazis murdering their people. The continuation of their very lives was a figurative moral gray zone. An example of what can be done with writing. This is a haunting film.
MY TOP TEN FILMS OF 2003
I always resist a little the task of making up a top ten list of the best films I have seen over the year. I tell myself that I have a preference for entertainment films over artistic independent films. To me that makes my list seem a less than serious. This year I stood back and looked at the list and found somewhat to my surprise that there are really only three or so studio films and even those have a sort of independent film feel. In any case these are the films that I most enjoyed over the past year.
1. SHATTERED GLASS: Journalistic integrity is a concept that is a little abstract and the story involves no guns, chases, or explosions. Billy Ray has written and directed a surprisingly exciting film very different from just about anything else out there. He gives us a very nuts- and-bolts explanation of what is not really a nuts-and-bolts sort of business, the writing of opinion. SHATTERED GLASS also looks at the question of how do we know what we know is true. This is a surprisingly intriguing film. Rating: +3 (-4 to +4) or 9/10
2. HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG: What is probably the best-written film of the year functions as a thriller and as a human drama. Two people from different backgrounds struggle for ownership of the same house. The film plays with our expectations and our prejudices but also touches on some very serious issues. Rating: +3 (-4 to +4) or 9/10
3. PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL: This is almost certainly the most exciting pirate film ever made. This fast-paced confection of an adventure has wit, a good story, and imaginative visuals. Johnny Depp gives what is probably his best performance as a grubby yet stylish pirate captain. Rating: low +3 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
4. WINGED MIGRATION: This documentary follows many species of birds as they go through their lives and especially as their migrations. We see it almost literally "up close and personal." Much of the film is jaw-dropping and more than a little is genuinely funny. Give this one a chance and almost certainly you WILL like it. Rating: low +3 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
5. THE FOG OF WAR: Inspired by reading the memoirs of Robert S. McNamara, Errol Morris made THE FOG OF WAR. McNamara was the Secretary of Defense from 1961 to 1968. In this film McNamara offers some extremely surprising opinions about American foreign policy from the Second World War to the present, but especially during his term as Secretary of State. Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
6. MONSTER: Charlize Theron proves herself capable of Oscar-worthy performances in the story of a real-life serial killer and prostitute who has a lesbian relationship with a runaway. The plot is familiar, the direction is only mediocre, and the photography is flat, but the acting is really top notch. Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
7. MASTER AND COMMANDER: THE FAR SIDE OF THE WORLD: In 1805 Jack Aubrey, captain of HMS Surprise, is obsessed by the mission to capture or sink the French ship Acheron. More so than in any previous film we are brought aboard a fighting ship from Britain's war against Napoleon. The story may be slow except for some really exciting action scenes, but the historical detail is probably the best for any film about the period. If you enjoy Aubrey (or even Hornblower) stories this film from director Peter Weir is a must. Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
8. MYSTIC RIVER: Clint Eastwood directs Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Kevin Bacon, and Marcia Gay Harden in a powerful drama about three friends haunted by an incident in the past that still looms heavily over their lives. This is a film with great performances and a strong feel for its Eastern Massachusetts setting. The film builds to a powerful conclusion that is reminiscent of a certain respected Western film. Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
9. WHALE RIDER: Though this story of New Zealand's Maori people is set in the present and told with some realism, it is still enchanting. WHALE RIDER is the mythic story of a girl chosen by the gods to lead her village. Pai seems to have a spiritual destiny, but the tale is told as if it happened to people with real 21st century problems. Though some of the material is familiar and cliched, it is still an affecting story. Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
10. BIG FISH: Tim Burton directs this study of a troubled father-son relationship with a dying father whose fairy tale stories of the major events of his life have always been a major barrier between himself and his son. The story has long fantasy sequences that pull the viewer into the stories studded with giants, werewolves, circuses, huge fish, Siamese twins, and more. The subject is really the upside ad the downside of a strong imagination. Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
In addition I would like to call attention to the following films that would be on my top ten list except for technicalities.
THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING perhaps deserves to be on this list. Bringing THE LORD OF THE RINGS to the screen is an impressive feat in this nine or ten hour film released in three parts. It deserves to be the best of a year. It does not deserve to be the best of the year for three consecutive years. I gave THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RINGS my best of the year for 2001 with instructions that it should share that honor with its two siblings.
I would also like to call attention to three other films that are appearing at film festivals, but not getting general releases. These were films I would have put on my top ten list (probably) had they become available to the general public. I say "probably" because I would add them to the top ten list and then would have to take three films off. I am not sure which films would come off. In any case the films are:
OSAMA: No, it is not about THAT Osama. It is about a young woman in Afghanistan in the days of the Taliban. Extreme Islamic religious restrictions prevent her mother and herself from any legal way to earn a living so she masquerades as a boy to get a job. This leads to tragic consequences.
CYPHER: While nominally not based on the writings of Phillip K. Dick, this is one of the best science fiction adaptations of Dick's ideas. Director Vincenzo Natali (CUBE, and the upcoming NOTHING) has a sure hand and could be a major talent. Jeremy Northam plays a nerd who becomes an industrial spy and the key player in a world war between two mega-corporations.
ROSENSTRASSE: This is the true story of highborn gentile women in Nazi Germany who had married Jewish husbands. The husbands are arrested and imprisoned preparatory to sending them to death camps. The wives organize and demonstrate for the release of their husbands, attempting to make themselves a serious embarrassment for the Third Reich.
Top Ten Films of 2004
As an amateur film buff I see nowhere near as many of the major artistic films as I would like. And frequently when I do, my take is somewhat individualistic. For example, while many of the critics are very impressed with SIDEWAYS, I am just mildly positive on it. These were the ten films of 2004 that impressed me the most. (Okay, it is twelve films. After I made this list I realized that I had inadvertently left off two films that I had seen in 2003, but which had official release in 2004. I have at the end two films that were pushed off the list.)
1. HOTEL RWANDA
Don Cheadle stars in a film that shows humanity at its best and at its worst. This is the moving dramatization of the true story of how one man saved the lives of 1200 people marked for genocide. It is a film of epic proportions that puts a human face on the disaster. One possible complaint is that it is a little too much like THE KILLING FIELDS. But that film, released twenty years ago, was the best film I saw in the 1980s. Saying HOTEL RWANDA is a lot like is at worst faint criticism. The film is a good introduction to the Rwanda Genocide for people who like me knew less than we should. It raises important questions at a time when many Americans want to see our country intervening less on the world stage. The film suggests the price that policy can cost. Rating: high +3 (-4 to +4) or 9/10
2. ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND
This is quite probably the best new science fiction film since MINORITY REPORT and well before. A medical device allows for the removal of painful memories by erasing them. The hitch is that the memories must be opened and partially relived as they are being erased. Charlie Kaufman's script is demanding, but it is delightfully engaging, intelligent, and even profound. Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman formerly came to public attention with the creative BEING JOHN MALKOVICH. He followed it up with the nearly as good ADAPTATION. Now he is showing that he has not yet reached his peak. ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND is his best script by a surprising margin. The director is Michel Gondry, but for once it is the screenwriter who is getting the deserved attention. Hopefully this is a movie that will show the film industry that good writing can do more for a film than good special effects. Rating: +3 (-4 to +4) or 9/10
3. MARIA FULL OF GRACE
Much in the style of EL NORTE and with a story similar to a subplot of TRAFFIC, this is a story of a Colombian woman who because she is pregnant falls prey to drug smugglers who use her as a "mule." A mule is a drug transporter who swallows (many) sealed packets of drugs to get them though customs. The film is engaging, and though it is downbeat it is not relentlessly bleak. In her first film, Catalina Sandino Moreno gives a sensitive performance deserving of an Oscar. The low budget US-Colombian film if finely crafted and will be long remembered. Rating: +3 (-4 to +4) or 9/10
In spite of the title, this film is not about Osama bin Laden, though parts of the film definitely reflect on him. Instead, it is a moving drama about the plight of women in Afghanistan under the Taliban. The Taliban was a regime so paranoid that some immorality would take place between men and women that they made women virtual prisoners. This is the story of a young woman who simply was not allowed to survive in the society under the Taliban. She disguises herself as a boy and then finds herself dragged off to indoctrination. There is no happy ending coming. The young woman who called herself Osama has a sad and horrifying fate. Siddiq Barmak wrote and directed the film based on true stories. He shows us a society in which there is little but pain because the resources are put into fear and paranoia rather than making life better. It is a difficult vision to forget. Rating: +3 (-4 to +4) or 9/10
This film dramatizes for the first time a little known incident from Germany during the Holocaust. In the cold of the winter of 1943 German Jews who had married Aryan women were arrested and put in a detention center, formerly a Jewish community center, preparatory to being transported east to concentration camps and death. Just outside on the street many brave wives gathered to wait for some sign of their husbands. Pleading for release and expecting no more than one last look at their husbands, they assembled in the street. Director and co-writer Margarethe von Trotta has acted in films by Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Volker Schlondorff. Her ROSENSTRASSE is a powerful drama. However, its greatest power is in the flashback sequences. More time is spent on the present than is really warranted by the value given by that part of the film. Still it is a forgotten chapter of history that deserves to be seen. Rating: +3 (-4 to +4) or 9/10
6. FINDING NEVERLAND
J. M. Barrie, the author of PETER PAN, was a man in love with childhood and with the child within himself. He breaks free from the stilted confines of Victorian England to frolic with the four children of a widow. Because he refuses to be ordinary in the way that was expected of him he is rejected by his wife and by society, but finds that his imagination is his escape. The role of Barrie is not a flamboyant role for Johnny Depp, but he is just about perfect as a man revolting against stilted society to break through to his childhood. The film is surprisingly affecting in its romanticism. Rating: low +3 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
7. Z CHANNEL: A MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION
One of the earliest pay cable stations was also one of the best. This is story of that station and of Jerry Harvey who made the station a film fan's dream while running his own life into the ground. Harvey would get films from all over the world, films that most ardent cinema fans had been dying to see. This documentary shows a rich selection of the films that played on Z Channel in Los Angeles in the late-1970s. It all came to an end very suddenly and very tragically. This is a documentary that does a lot in a lot of different areas. It is well worth looking for. Rating: low +3 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
Alfred Kinsey was a liberator according to some and a great corrupter to others. He certainly changed American sexual mores and KINSEY is the story of what he did and how he did it. Bill Condon, who directed the effective GODS AND MONSTERS takes a sympathetic look at the life of the father of modern sexual freedom. This is the surprisingly engaging story of how an expert on wasps changed the world. Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
9. STAGE BEAUTY
In Restoration England (and since before the time of Shakespeare) women were not legally allowed to be actors on the stage. Clare Danes plays Maria, a young stagehand who desperately wants to act. Billy Crudup plays the most renowned actor in women's roles in England. Then Charles II overturns the prohibition and the two actors vie to be the better actor of women's roles. The film is to a great extent about acting style, and about rage. Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
As a biopic RAY follows a time-honored formula. Jamie Foxx is magnetic as Ray Charles but does not show us enough inner conflict. The film is at its best showing the roots of the character. But the music is fine and is what will please audiences. It is hard to go wrong with a film that shows Southern discrimination, sex, and drugs, and glues it together with the soulful music of Ray Charles. This is not the most ambitious film around, but it is entertaining. Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
And the two more films:
11. TOUCHING THE VOID
This is a documentary about a mountain climbing expedition that went very wrong and of the horrifying one man went though to save his life. This true story combines most of the greatest horrors of mountain-climbing in one film. There is the horror of dangling helplessly over high drops, holding a friend's full weight with a rope slipping through your hands, and horribly broken bones. Before seeing the film I thought that mountain-climbing was a foolish risk and that I would have no empathy for the climbers. I surprised myself by finding the suspense breathless and I now think climbing is an insane risk. But this is the best suspense film of the year (with more than one meaning for suspense). Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
China tries to make its own CROUCHING TIGER with a story of an enigmatic stranger who has killed a triad of assassins for the benefit of China's first Emperor. The stranger tells the emperor multiple versions of how he killed the emperor's enemies. Visually HERO is stunning. The telling is operatic in style but becomes muddled. Some of the story may seem obscure to American audiences, but in this film the visual style is much more important than the actual plot. This is a case where it might have been better to dub carefully than to subtitle. I had to let several subtitles go unread to appreciate the images above them on the screen. This film is not the entertainment that THE EMPEROR AND THE ASSASSIN was, but it certainly is a film that can be appreciated by wide audiences. Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
My Top Ten Films of 2005
This was an unusually good year for films. I rate films on a scale of -4 to +4 and almost every year there are one or two films good enough to get a +3. Maybe three more get a low +3. About half will be in the +2 range. This year, any film that was not good enough to be in the +3 range was an automatic "also ran." For whatever reason, this year had a bumper crop of really solid films. These were the ten I thought were the best.
1) THE CONSTANT GARDENER: This is a love story, an education about the chicanery of the drug industry's testing in the Third World, and above all a good political thriller. And it works as all three. Ralph Fiennes plays a minor British government functionary who marries a leftist activist (Rachel Weisz). When she is murdered he realizes he did not know her very well. This film packs a wallop right up to the final scene.
2) DOWNFALL: The final days of the leaders of the Third Reich have been portrayed in several dramatic films, but never so well. Much of the same territory was covered in the documentary HITLER'S SECRETARY. This account, without apologizing for the man, puts a human face on the bunker in those last days. It is a particularly good war film. This film could have been depressing but at least the adults do not deserve much sympathy.
3) GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK: Cinema finally gives a long overdue tribute to a great journalist Edward R. Morrow. David Strathairn plays Morrow and George Clooney, who wrote and directed, plays Fred W. Friendly. This docu-drama tells of how Morrow risked his career to face off against Red Scare congressman Joseph McCarthy. This is a short but potent film account of their struggle. The only obvious flaws are the interruptions for jazz songs, which are only superficially relevant to the compelling storyline.
4) BEE SEASON: A family's dysfunction and its members' inability to connect with each other on an emotional level are the subjects of this strange drama. At the same time it is a film studded with ideas. Based on a best-selling book it is a film about psychological problems, about religious mysticism, and about intellect in various forms. Scott McGehee's and David Siegel's adaptation of the novel by Myla Goldberg has a sort of austere beauty of ideas.
5) EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED: This is a film that starts dryly and slowly, then moves into comedy, and then serious drama. An American Jew travels to Ukraine to find information about lost members of his family. Forgotten secrets of past are unearthed. The story elicits a wide range of emotions. It is a film with some laughter and some very affecting moments. It is a flawed film, but parts are really excellent.
6) MRS HENDERSON PRESENTS: Dame Judi Dench and Bob Hoskins shine in this 1930s and 1940s story of a widow who turns a cinema into a theater for live entertainment, founding an institution that becomes a symbol of the British spirit of resistance during the Blitz. This film is recommended to anyone not offended by some tasteful nudity on the screen. This is a warm comedy-drama--a confection of a film loosely based on the true story of the famous Windmill Theater in London.
7) CRASH: Films about race relations and bigotry go back at least to D. W. Griffith's INTOLERANCE (1916) and his BROKEN BLOSSOMS (1919), both made in part to atone for his racist bad taste in BIRTH OF A NATION (1915). One would think that in ninety years everything that could be said on the subject has already been said. Not so. Several interlocking stories show--even overstates--the undercurrent of private bigotry in our country. Then the stories take unpredicted turns and the film finds something positive to say about the human condition.
8) KING KONG (2005): If you love a film you don't want to see it remade. I love KING KONG (1933) and for years after seeing the terrible 1976 remake I hoped nobody would ever try again. Peter Jackson showed how to remake a great film. Jackson's film fills out the characters of Ann Darrow and Carl Denham. I still prefer the original but for many of the aspects this is a better adventure film. It certainly has enough visual spectacle for most filmgoers. And it manages to make a tender statement in the relationship between Darrow and Kong. It also has action without becoming a large video game.
9) THE GREAT WATER: In Macedonia, Yugoslavia, after WWII a boy whose parents opposed the Communists is sent to a camp/school intended to indoctrinate him in the new Socialist ideology. This is another film of unexpected turns and irony. THE GREAT WATER tells a great deal about totalitarianism and human nature. It is a timeless story about power. At times, however, this is a painful film to watch. In the last fifteen minutes it turns out to be a complex, ironic, and ultimately very powerful story.
10) CAPOTE: A film portrait of Truman Capote that in its own way is both admiring and damning. Capote investigates the murders that he was to chronicle in his docu-novel IN COLD BLOOD. To make the story better he also manipulates events and people. He can be incisive, ironically charismatic, and treacherous. Philip Seymour Hoffman has his best role to date--perhaps the best he can ever hope to get.
Of special note: These two films came very close to being among the top ten. Unfortunately only ten films can be there. DEAR FRANKIE is a story about a boy who has never met his father, but keeps up a correspondence with him thinking he is at sea. In fact, his real father is neither sea nor very fatherly. It is his mother who had been writing back to Frankie. The day comes when Frankie needs to see a father in the flesh and his mother hires a stranger to pretend to be Frankie's father.
LORD OF WAR, written and directed by the very fine Andrew Niccol is along the lines of THE CONSTANT GARDNER in that it is really an expose about an amoral industry, in this case arms dealing. The story is good, but not quite as powerful as THE CONSTANT GARDNER is.
MY taste seems to be going toward art house films. Only two films here played in the "neighborhood" theaters. I think all the rest are what we call "art house" films. The independent studios are making the best films.
My Top Ten Films of 2006
2005 was a banner year for cinema and I looked forward to what we would see in 2006. Sadly, 2006 just did not have the impressive quality films of 2005. While there were several films that were very engaging, nothing really stood out as being particularly powerful. There is a major film missing from this list. I almost certainly would have Guillermo del Toro's PAN'S LABYRINTH on the list if I had a chance to see it. This is what I get for living in the wilds of New Jersey. I will treat it as a 2007 film (just as 2005 films I did not see until 2006 are included here).
1) WATER: In India in 1938 a seven-year-old girl who does not even remember her arranged marriage and who never knew her husband is suddenly told that she is a widow and has to go live with other widows the rest of her life. Widows in India could die with their husbands or lead a penitent life in seclusion the rest of their lives. Here a very young girl through no fault of her own falls into this fate. The story is tragic, but it makes a strong statement for Gandhi's reforms. The photography of what was supposed to be Varanasi (but was actually Sri Lanka) is just beautiful. WATER is a real work of art.
2) THE PRESTIGE: Toward the end of the 19th century two rival stage magicians compete and battle for dominance. This is a thriller, an education in stage magic, a mystery, and even a bit of a science fiction film. Christopher Priest's novel is brought to the screen by co-writer and director Christopher Nolan in a wonderful adaptation. This is a film that may be more enjoyable on the second viewing once you know its intricate secrets.
3) SOPHIE SCHOLL: THE LAST DAYS: The German-language film SOPHIE SCHOLL: THE LAST DAYS tells the powerful and moving true story of the arrest, interrogation, and trial of an anti-government student and activist, one of the founders of the White Rose resistance movement, in Nazi Germany. It takes the story from her last day of freedom to her execution. Sophie Scholl's courage and personal morality in standing up to the evil and the force of the Third Reich make this film a moving experience.
4) NOTES ON A SCANDAL: In this the strong and disturbing story of two school eachers Barbara (Judi Dench) befriends and subtly controls her Sheba (Cate Blanchett). When Barbara discovers Sheba's indiscretion with one of her students she is able to make Sheba a puppet without Sheba ever realizing it. This is a real departure for both actresses.
5) THE HIDDEN BLADE: In Japan 1861 a minor samurai is torn between his responsibility, his desires, and his morality. With this film Y™ji Yamada follows up his TWILIGHT SAMURAI, also set in the mid-19th Century against the backdrop of the dying order of shoguns and samurai. It is a story of a man who must choose between his duty and what he thinks is right. The film is less one of bloody martial arts and more a study of a personal conflict in a society at once overly ordered and rapidly changing. Yamada's film is strong and poignant, though perhaps it will be more so with Japanese audiences who better understand societal pressure. The film is powerful, though it fails a little in the final few scenes.
6) CASINO ROYALE: Daniel Craig is probably the best James Bond on film and this is probably the best James Bond film. Craig's James Bond is gritty and mean and a lot more real, albeit still too much a superhero. He has human fallibility and he gets hurt. The story, closer than usual to the novel for a Bond film, has the feel of a serious spy novel and is less like a children's television show than previous films in the series. Now what I would like to see is all the Fleming books redone in order with Craig as James Bond as he was written in the books. I wonder if we will see that. In any case, this film gives us a chance to rediscover James Bond on the screen for the first time.
7) MUNICH: Following the terrorist murder of eleven Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, an Israeli Mossad officer is asked to lead a five-member counter-assassination squad to track down the Munich terrorists and eliminate them. Eric Bana leads a cast of major actors in a tense but realistic looks at the dirty business of undercover work. This film takes place in a world devoid of warmth. The story has the feel of authenticity, though the events of the book it was based on have not been and cannot be confirmed. Still, the story is as intriguing and tense as anything written by John le Carre is.
8) THE DEPARTED: Martin Scorsese surprises us with a film that is more of a thriller than his previous efforts. THE DEPARTED is a close remake of a very good Hong Kong crime film, INFERNAL AFFAIRS. The police Special Investigations Unit, unable to bring down gangster Frank Costello, places a mole into his organization. But Costello (Jack Nicholson) has his own mole in the police SIU. Each mole tries to determine who the other is. Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon play the two spies. The film takes a while to get going, but when it does it really holds the viewer. While this is one of Scorsese's most entertaining films, I have to say much of the credit goes to INFERNAL AFFAIRS. THE DEPARTED is the bigger film in many respects, but INFERNAL AFFAIRS is the better film. Scorsese added only modest value in return for taking someone else's plot.
9) THE THREE BURIALS OF MELQUIADES ESTRADA: When a Mexican illegal alien is killed, his employer and friend Pete Perkins (Tommy Lee Jones, who also directs) is unsatisfied that the authorities are going to do anything. Perkins finds the killer is a trigger-happy new border patrolman and decides that some justice will be done. Perkins forces the patrolman to execute the dead man's final wish. This is a modest, low-budget, and low-key film but Jones shows a sure hand and real directing power with handling his actors. THE THREE BURIALS OF MELQUIADES ESTRADA is a simple, likable portrait of the personalities one find near the border. There is some anger at the American law enforcement officers but the film's main thrust is not anger for the Americans but respect for the aliens who come over the border looking to improve the lives of their families.
10) THE NEW WORLD: Terrence Malick writes and directs the classic story of John Smith and Mataoaka (nicknamed Pocahontas) and later John Rolfe. Malick's script reinforces some of the unlikely myths like Mataoaka's romance with John Smith and Mataoaka dramatically risking her life to save Smith's life. But like most Malick films it is also a finely painted portrait showing the smallness of man in nature. This is a strong, mesmerizing, and authentic- feeling view of a time and place lost to history. Malick's pacing is a taste I have not quite acquired and his history has some faults. But the film is a memorable experience for anyone with a healthy curiosity about the feeling of history.
Top Ten Films of 2007
It took a while to prove itself, but 2007 eventually became a good year for film. December had some very good releases and circumstances allowed me to see several good films in one short spurt. These are the best films I saw over the course of the year.
1) AWAY FROM HER: A woman develops a new personality in her twilight years as Alzheimer's Disease robs her of her memories and her former nature, but has not yet robbed her of mechanical function. Her affectionate husband is bewildered by the initial loss, by the new personality, and by choices she is making. Based on the story "The Bear Came Over the Mountain" by Alice Munro, this very personal film is a deeply affecting work from Sarah Polley, a good actress becoming an even better writer and director. Julie Christie is excellent, but veteran Canadian actor Gordon Pinsett is even better.
2) THE KITE RUNNER: Marc Forster who directed MONSTER'S BALL and FINDING NEVERLAND directs a haunting adaptation of the Khaled Hosseini novel. Two boyhood friends in Afghanistan, Amin and Rahim, are separated by an incident and each's reaction to that incident. The incident hangs over both of their lives until years later when Amin, now living in California, has an opportunity to return to his homeland to amends. The story has a powerful theme of the necessity to confront evil and oppose it.
3) INTO THE WILD: Sean Penn writes and directs the true story of Chris McCandless (Emile Hirsch) who cut his ties with his wealthy family and lived on the road seeing the real country. Knowing he is very self- sufficient, he gives himself the test of living off the land in the Alaskan wilderness only to find it is one challenge that may be beyond him. The story has drama, suspense, and memorable view of western America. It is nice to see a good role for Hal Holbrook and one for the current Bart the Bear.
4) STARDUST: Neil Gaiman's STARDUST, directed by Matthew Vaughn, comes to the screen as a first-class fantasy film--one of the best I have seen in a long time. The story is humorously convoluted but not really confusing. A young man from our world is on a quest to win his love ends up being the fulcrum in a battle for the rule of a kingdom in a magical parallel world. Gaiman is a fresh and a different voice in fantasy writing, so the film is full of surprises and some genuinely funny jokes.
5) GOLDA'S BALCONY: Valerie Harper plays Golda Meir, former Prime Minister of Israel, in a one-actor play by William Gibson (who also wrote the classic play THE MIRACLE WORKER). Golda Meir in retirement reminisces about her life, the history of Israel, and the most important and difficult decision she ever had to make. Jeremy Kagan directs. Some of the visual style is distracting, but Harper carries the film.
6) EASTERN PROMISES: A London midwife is threatened by the actions of the Russian Mafia in this new thriller from David Cronenberg. Cronenberg brings back Viggo Mortensen from his A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE into another intense action role. Double-crosses, violent fights, and secret plans make the film feel like a good episode of the Sopranovs. This could well be Cronenberg's best film of this decade, atmospheric and exciting.
7) THE NAMESAKE: Mira Nair covers about thirty years in the life of one Indian family. She gives us a film about the pull of one's native culture and the esire of the next generation to be free of it. This is a realistic story without a pre-packaged message. The film is intelligent and moving. Perhaps the telling is just a little rushed.
8) GONE BABY GONE: A young private investigator takes a job of looking for a little girl whose kidnapping has become a media event. This investigation will prove not just to be violent and shocking, it will also raise some complex moral questions. en Affleck's first feature film as director turns out to be a much better film than most of the movies that he has acted in. This is a strong, well-directed film and the debut of what could be a very promising director.
9) BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA: Jess has a terrible life at home and at school. But the situation gets much more bearable and better when the new girl in town moves in next door and is enrolled in his class. She opens for him a whole new world of intellect and art and fantasy. The two are social outcasts, but form a rich (platonic) relationship together that strengthens Jess for some of the emotional wrenches to come in his life. This is a film that is by turns wonderful and heart-breaking. Do not expect a big special-effects fantasy. Fantasy as a source of emotional strength is one theme among several well-presented themes. This fantasy-etched story is more intelligent than most films made for adults.
10) SWEENEY TODD: SWEENEY RAZORHANDS. One of Broadway's best and most controversial musicals comes to the screen as a vehicle for the Tim Burton and Johnny Depp team. This version glories in the gory more than the stage version did. Depp's singing limitations rob the character of Sweeney of his all-important contagious savage fury. Burton shows the audience a lot that could not be shown on stage, not all of which was a good idea to show. Still the music will haunt you.
The following films got a high enough rating to make my list, but there can be only ten films on a Top Ten list. So I would like to recognize that I was also impressed with RESCUE DAWN, BEOWULF, THE SINGING REVOLUTION, and THE SAVAGES.
More importantly I would like to recognize three films from previous years that I saw in 2007, too late to make my list for their years though they probably should have been on previous top ten lists.
THE LIVES OF OTHERS is about an officer and interrogator in the Stasi, the Communist East German Secret Police, spying on innocent citizens and becoming involved in their lives. Ulrich Muhe plays Captain Gerd Wiesler who is extremely good in a job he comes to wish did not exist. The actor Muhe was dying of stomach cancer as he made the film and his last performance is strong and moving.
PAN'S LABYRINTH is powerful as a fantasy film and as a story of the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. This is Mexican director Guillermo del Toro's best film to date and is really a modern masterpiece of the fantasy film. BLACK is very unusual in many ways. It is a high quality production coming from the Bollywood film industry, but it is one that avoids the traditional Bollywood style. The film breaks neatly in half at the intermission. Before the intermission it retells the story of the training of a deaf and blind child. This is very close to being a remake of Arthur Penn's film THE MIRACLE WORKER, the story of the monumental effort to teach the concept of what words are to a young Helen Keller. After the intermission writer/director Sanjay Leela Bhansali fictionally continues the story of the blind and deaf woman trying to reach her teacher who has fallen into the abyss of Alzheimer's Disease. The photography and art direction are things of beauty.
My Top Ten Films of 2008
2007 had been a good year for films, mostly in the latter months. I was hoping that 2008 would be equally good. Sadly there were not as many memorable films. There were some very good films, but not enough to match the best of 2007.
1. THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON More than just a film, David Fincher's THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON is a genuine accomplishment. It stylistically shows a span of history, carefully orchestrating an evolution of feel and mood that tracks the passing years. This is an intelligent fantasy with a beautifully sustained and intricate attention to tone. This is a loose adaptation and a translation forward in time of the story by F. Scott Fitzgerald from his TALES OF THE JAZZ AGE. Rating: +3 (-4 to +4) or 9/10
2. TRUMBO The story of Dalton Trumbo's career is told, based on the play of the same name by Dalton's son, Christopher Trumbo. The biography is illuminated by Trumbo's writings, particularly his correspondence dramatically read by major actors of the film industry. Actors recreate the moods of this always tremendously well-spoken man. This may be the last film to feature Trumbo's writing and it has some of his most powerful prose. It is maybe the best film that has ever been made about the Hollywood blacklist and the Hollywood Ten. Rating: low +3 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
3. MILK Gus Van Sant directs a powerful docudrama of the life and times of Harvey Milk, from coming to San Francisco to being elected city supervisor to being murdered along with the mayor of San Francisco. The style is realistic and not overly polished. This is a highly affecting film, and Sean Penn gives the most moving performance of the year of a very ordinary man whom history moved to greatness. Rating: low +3 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
4. THE DARK KNIGHT In a year in which so many films are based on comic books this is a super-hero film whose depth is like no other. It plays with the whole philosophy of the superhero and the whole nature of superhero battles. It manages to bring together an action film and a thought piece. This is a lot more than we have come to expect from a comic book film. Christopher Nolan directs and co-authors the screenplay with his brother. Rating: low +3 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
5. THE WRESTLER Boxer/actor Mickey Rourke makes an acting comeback as a professional wrestler trying to retire and return to his personal life. Like his character, Rourke has been scarred by his years of fighting but can still make a pretty good grab for the viewer's empathy. Darren Aronofsky tells a solid character-driven drama with simplicity and impact. Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
6. WALL-E Pixar Animation is known for making good kids' films that even adults can enjoy. But now they have crossed over the line to make an adult film that even kids can enjoy. WALL-E is a light fun comedy set against a very grim background. This film has a lot more message than just "have a good time." It is all about some serious problems our world is facing. Under the laughs and the humanized robots this is a serious science fiction film and well above average for the genre. Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
7. THE BANK JOB When high political powers in Britain, wanting a piece of "evidence" to disappear, arrange for a bank robbery to take place, the result is complex chaos. Jason Statham plays Terry Leather, a family man going through a bad patch who takes what appears to be a great opportunity to rob a bank. The robbery opens a legal and political Pandora's Box. This film is full of action and actual suspense. The wit of the story is not always obvious when watching the film, but does come out in retrospect. Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
8. DEFIANCE This is an unusual true story of two Jewish brothers from Belorussia who fought back against the invading Germans and offered protection to a community of over a thousand fugitive Jews. Occasionally using thuggish tactics and more often being heroic, they survived in the forest while in constant danger from both the Nazis and the Soviets. The story is made a little idealized, but this is a chapter of history that has rarely been explored before. Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
9. THE COUNTERFEITERS The Austrian-German production THE COUNTERFEITERS is good cinema that deals with serious moral issues. It is about the ethical question of concentration camp prisoners prolonging their lives by helping the Nazi war effort. The issue is at what cost is survival. Writer/director Stefan Ruzowitzky does not give a pat and easy answer. Be aware that survivors of the camp do not remember the central moral question ever being asked. Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
10. THE VISITOR Richard Jenkins, a popular character actor going back to SILVERADO, finally has the lead in a film and gives a strong performance as an insular and lonely professor who gets a cause that brings him out of his shell. The cause comes in the form of two illegal immigrants squatting in his New York apartment. He befriends and learns from them and they learn from him. He also gets involved in the politics of US immigration policy. Thomas McCarthy who wrote and directed the excellent THE STATION AGENT writes and directs again. Rating: +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10
Honorable Mention goes to these films:
CHOP SHOP CLOVERFIELD GHOST TOWN HAPPY-GO-LUCKY QUANTUM OF SOLACE REFUSENIK RELIGULOUS THE TRAITOR VALKYRIE
One film that should have been mentioned last year, but I saw too late:
THERE WILL BE BLOOD
My Top Ten Films of 2009
Up until the last sixty days of the year or so, 2009 had been a somewhat weak year for film. People asked me what I could recommend and I could not give a strong recommendation for any film. Again the film industry was saving its best for the end of the year in the hopes the better films would be too recent to be forgotten. I suspect the most remembered film of the year will be THE HURT LOCKER, and a good film it is too, but it seems to me to be suspenseful action with not enough character. INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS gloried in the absurdity of its story, but the story was more a set of exercises in style. I cannot wholeheartedly recommend either. But in the last two months I saw a few films that I really can recommend.
I am a little surprised that three of the ten films are animated. Animation is becoming a very large part of the film industry.
1. PRECIOUS: The real title of this film is the unwieldy PRECIOUS: BASED ON THE NOVEL BY SAPPHIRE. When I first saw a bit of the film I decided I definitely wanted to see it but expected few other people would. That shows how little I know. It is showing up on several top ten lists. I felt for the characters just seeing a clip of the film. This is definitely a feel-bad/feel-good film in the tradition of Charles Dickens. The girl named Precious has a lot more wrong with her life than being saddled with a silly name. She is an obese black teenager who is tormented by her fellow students, by her mother, and even by strangers on the street. Precious's mother is a human monster. Toward the end of the film you get to understand the mother a little more so you see why she does what she does, but she is never likable. That is a hard balance to hit. Precious, who is years older than others in her grade, is sent out of school to a special learning center. There a teacher is able to show her that she has some value. That makes the film sound a little trite, but it is very human. Very fine performances by both Gabourey Sidibe in the title role and Mo'Nique as her mother. Rating: +3
2. FANTASTIC MR. FOX: Wes Anderson brings us a thoroughly delightful animated film. With wit, grace, and charm we get the story of a fox trying to evade three nasty farmers who are trying to kill him. But the animal characters are written very human and at the same time very funny, and they are made real by an all-star cast of familiar voices. Add a bunch of clever movie references and we get a lot of film for the price of a ticket. Wes Anderson humor generally does not work for me. Nor do Roald Dahl fantasies. But together they work magic. This film is obviously stop-motion without the perfection of CGI and even that works well for the film. Rating: +3 (Up-rated from my review rating of low +3)
3. UP IN THE AIR: George Clooney who has had a fairly successful 2009--killing chickens and staring goats to death--rounds out the year as another suave character who this time flies around the country passing the bad news to people fired by their bosses. Jason Reitman co-writes and directs with a style as smooth and assured as Clooney's. Eventually the film is about good choices and bad, about independence and commitment. Costars Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick hold their own playing opposite Clooney. This is just a very polished production. The acting is first rate but even the photography is just about perfect. Rating: low +3
4. SLEEP DEALER: This could easily be the best Mexican science fiction film ever made. It is a very believable look at what the future may be like all over the world. It takes place somewhere around twenty years in the future when people can connect directly to computers through jacks in their arms. But this is anything but a polished future. We meet Memo who lives in a village where the people have been fenced off from their water supply and are made to purchase their water. The Draconian laws are enforced by high technology and warplanes. To earn money Memo becomes a laborer for a corporation in the US. Robots do the actual work, but Mexican laborers who never leave their country control them. Labor can be exported without the inconvenience of actually bringing the laborers bodies to the US. Memo hooks up with a woman who sells her dreams electronically. In the end the case may be a little overstated, but it still is a powerful view of a believable future. Rating: low +3
5. THE MESSENGER: The Iraq War film that seems to be getting the best critical response is HURT LOCKER. I found this quiet drama more affecting and the characters more real and believable. Sgt. Will Montgomery (played by Ben Foster), wounded in Iraq, is sent stateside for the last three months of his enlistment. He draws one of the most unpleasant jobs. He has to go to the families of soldiers killed in the war and inform them of their loss. He is taken under the wing of a captain who has never been in combat, but specializes in breaking bad news. Capt. Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson) shows Montgomery the ropes with rules like never allowing himself to care about the bereaved. But the job is slowly killing Stone and Montgomery starts to care too much for one of the widows he informed. Rating: low +3
6. UP: Certainly UP is one of Pixar's best films to date. The reason is not that it has some of their best animation, though that arguably is true. FANTASTIC MR. FOX uses much older technology, but is at least on a par. Pixar's story values may be improving even faster than their animation. UP is a story with genuine pathos on themes of loss and of unfulfilled dreams. All this mixes with an adventure story that builds to an action climax. Kids will love this film, but some of the notes of UP will definitely resonate with adults. The bittersweet prolog really works to make this film unique. Unfortunately, most of the story virtues are in the first half of the film. The film heads toward a rather prosaic action finale. Those are just OK, but the prolog is one of Pixar's best sequences and is genuinely moving. Rating: high +2
7. THE STONING OF SORAYA M: This is a harrowing true story set in Iran, but it could take place in any country where fundamentalist religion has power. An Iranian woman becomes "inconvenient" for her husband. He wants to trade her for a younger wife and so frames her for adultery. He connives to have her found guilty and sentenced to death, and then knowing she is innocent participates in her execution. We see the stoning in horrific detail. The story is simple and compelling and the title leaves no doubt where the story is going. THE KITE RUNNER also involves a stoning, but knowing of a stoning is not as terrible as being shown one. In a few unnecessary places this film has a little irrelevant dramatic action, but the core story is very strong. This is a powerful film for those willing to see its extreme violence. Rating: high +2
8. SITA SINGS THE BLUES: Nina Paley interweaves her own story of her relationship with her lover (husband?) with a parallel story from the Indian epic poem, the Ramayana. Paley emphasizes the relationship of Rama and his wife Sita. Each layer of the story seems to have its own animation style and the narration, apparently done by shadow puppets, is apparently informal and very funny. Sita sings out her sadness in the voice of 1920s blues singer Annette Hanshaw. The film is charming on many levels. It may be running on PBS stations, but it can be downloaded for free. You will not see it at the Academy Awards because the commercial use of Hanshaw's music is apparently copyright infringement. But it is well worth downloading and watching. Rating: high +2 (The film is on-line from Channel 13, New York, at <http://tinyurl.com/sita-sings-blues>.)
9. RED CLIFF: John Woo tells the story of the famous Battle of Red Cliff in this fictionalized version. In China in A.D. 208 General Cao Cao gets permission from the Emperor to lead a ruthless campaign against the armies of two warlords. The warlords band together to fight back. John Woo fills the action-filled war story with plenty of spectacle, much of it generated digitally. This is a 150-minute Western release edited down from 300-minute Chinese release. It reputedly has most of the action but not so much of the back-story. The action never goes as over-the-top as it does in Woo's Hong Kong films, but it certainly is never dull. Rating: high +2
10. THE BURNING PLAIN: This is as much a puzzle as it is a story. As with his 21 GRAMS, writer-director Guillermo Arriaga shuffles his story lines so the film jumps around in time. THE BURNING PLAIN challenges the viewer to piece together a story involving three generations of women and an apparent murder. Kim Bassinger and Charleze Theron play mother and daughter caught up in heavy emotions. It is not clear the shuffling really improves the film, but allows Arriaga to give the film real impact having the key scene at the very end. Rating: high +2
That's it. I did have one more high +2 film. I am of a minority who was quite impressed with the science fiction film KNOWING. It is not easy to shock me and this film did have one moment of genuine shock. And after QUATERMASS AND THE PIT I really like films that give scientific explanations for non-scientific belief systems. This film gives interesting rational explanations to both scientific and religious phenomena. And it really kept me wondering where the film was going. And once it got there it had the courage of its convictions. It is a very unusual film.
My Top Ten Films of 2010
It is once again time to pick my ten best films of the previous year. Last year I thought that it was a particularly weak year for films. Sadly, that trend has gone even further. In addition, the best film of the year will make few reviewers'/critics' top ten lists because it did not have a theatrical release. It was made for HBO and appeared there first where it swept the Emmy Awards, but was not well noticed by the major film critics. That situation is particularly galling because a French made-for-TV movie had its first showing in the United States as a theatrical film, so it is eligible for the major film awards.
As usual I will not keep the reader in suspense and will present my choices with the best first.
1. TEMPLE GRANDIN--Made for HBO, this is the true story of Temple Grandin, a doctor of animal science, a college professor, and a person with autism. She has used her individualized condition to reexamine livestock handling, to redesign animal handling mechanisms, and to shed new light on the autistic mind. Clare Danes gives a hypnotic performance and director Mick Jackson keeps the film visually interesting and full of ideas. Rating: +3 (-4 to +4) or 9/10
2. TRUE GRIT--The Coen Brothers remake one of the classic Western films--a John Wayne Western yet. Their work was cut out for them, remaking a well-liked film, but they manage to make the characters more real and even to give the story a little more edge. Jeff Bridges gives one of his best performances and Hailee Steinfeld more than holds her own against the other leads. Matt Damon sort of fades into the background. It is not clear we needed another adaptation of the Charles Portis novel, but the production is first rate. It has more texture and more edge than the Wayne film. Rating: low +3 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
3. THE SOCIAL NETWORK--When we entered the Internet Age we entered a strange new world in which it is possible accidentally to become a billionaire. Based on truth, this is the story of how Mark Zuckerberg (played by Jesse Eisenberg) fooling around invented Facebook and the power struggles afterward when the new web site became a mega-money maker. The story is complex, but mesmerizing. Rating: low +3 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
4. THE KING'S SPEECH--This simple likeable story of the future King of England attempting to overcome a speech impediment is playing to sold out theaters here in the United States. THE KING'S SPEECH tells the story of how a self-effacing prince of England overcame stammering to be a leader for his people when they went to war against Nazism. Tom Hooper directs a film that gives a rich and warm study of the royal family of England. This is one of the best-written films of the year. Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
5. RABBIT HOLE--Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart turn in moving performances in this story of a formerly happy couple hit by the loss of a child and the ironic reactions of the couples' friends. This is a journey into anguish and loss, but it does not wallow in self-pity and is even at some times witty. Under it all there are some wry observations of inter-couple relationships. Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
6. THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO--An investigative report probes into a forty-year-old mystery of a disappearance of a girl from a gathering of a rich and influential family. He is dealing with forces too powerful for him, but is rescued by a mysterious and troubled young biker with almost fantastic abilities. This is the first of a trilogy about "The Girl", but it gives us enough of a taste to want to know more about this woman. Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
7. WAITING FOR SUPERMAN--It is impossible to overestimate the importance of education to the well being of this country. There is no question that our schools are sick and in desperate need of healing. Writer-director Davis Guggenheim lays out the problem. This documentary is a thorough look at the educational system and how it hinders rather than fosters the intellectual growth of our children. This year there were several really powerful documentaries that really deserve to be seen and studied. Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
8. FOUR LIONS--This is a low-budget, dark comedy with a very clever concept behind it. Four dim-witted Jihadi warriors plan a giant terrorist attack in England, but bumble at just about every turn. Parts of the film are very funny and parts are misfires. But even on the misfires one almost feels one should laugh just to support the very idea of the film. Britain's TV director Chris Morris makes his first feature film for the movie branch of Britain's Channel 4. Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
And somehow similar:
9. CARLOS--This is a five-and-a-third hour mini-series from France telling the story of the legendary terrorist Carlos (the story is based on fact but with gaps filled in with speculation). Though for two decades Carlos was at the top of the "wanted" lists, we see that the man himself was lazy, narcissistic, and not really very bright. Edgar Ramirez plays Ilich RamÁrez S nchez, know as Carlos. The first of the three parts is hard to follow, but eventually writer/director Olivier Assayas makes the story worth the effort. Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
10. INCEPTION--There comes a point when enough is too much. Writer and director Christopher Nolan makes an intelligent thought-piece that is at the same time an explosive action thriller with lots of digital effects. There is little time to absorb the ideas. It may be better to see it more than once. In a world where a few people have the capability of invading and redesigning dreams, a team induces dreams in the heir to an industrial empire and then enters those dreams to plant an idea. This is a long film with a lot of fiery explosions, intelligent ideas, sputtering machine guns, and violent car crashes. Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
Honorable Mention goes to these six films:
THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT--A two-lesbian-parent family is functional and stable until the children decide to meet the donor-father they share but have never seen. Meeting him upsets the dynamics of the family. What starts as a comedy about unconventional family relationships turns into a drama with ironically more conventional relationships. Annette Bening, Juliette Moore, and Mark Ruffalo star. Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
TOY STORY 3--Some of the most serious films being made today are the comedies from Pixar Animation Studios that the whole family can enjoy. Pixar has another hit returning to the "Toy Story" franchise. In TOY STORY 3 young Andy who always loved his toys is going to college and his toys are going into storage. As a last- minute reprieve they go instead to a day-care center where they can play until they break. Unfortunately that fate may not be as far away as they had hoped. The writing quality is what makes this film work as a comedy, an adventure, and a film with some serious affecting human drama. Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
CITY ISLAND--This comedy-drama is a real joy. In an Italian- American family living on an island off the Bronx, everyone has a secret or two that he keeps from the others. These secrets and the misunderstandings they cause become a major force in the family. Writer/director Raymond De Felitta has an uncommon talent for creating simple but compelling characters. Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
IN SEARCH OF BEETHOVEN--This 139-minute documentary of Ludwig van Beethoven is the most intelligent film biography of a composer I have seen. By featuring great musicians and conductors giving their commentary on the music itself this film is a step more intelligent than most musical biographies. Beethoven's music is transcendent and washes over the viewer. Phil Grabsky writes, directs, and even films this account. Juliet Stevenson narrates. Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
AFGHAN STAR--Just as Americans have their television program "American Idol", since 2005 Afghanistan has had its own popular music program "Afghan Star". It is the same and not the same. The difference is that religious fanatics like the Taliban can at any time decide singing a song is a capital crime. This is a country torn apart by those who want to bring in modern international ways and those who want to seal off the country with a fundamentalist fascism. This documentary follows four contestants on "Afghan Star" and what they experience risking their lives for a singing competition and for freedom. Havana Marking directs. Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
My Top Ten Films of 2011
Some years there is not a whole lot of variation in what film reviewers choose as the best films of the year. One can pick out two or three films and be fairly sure that the Academy Award for Best Picture will go to one of them. This year there is much more variation in lists. There is much less consensus. It was a very creative year for filmmaking and some very different films are people's favorites. That may be a good sign. We are getting fewer formula films. But I remember few years when it was so hard to recommend films. I do not remember when so many of the choices for top ten films were so controversial. Well, I like arguing films and the diversity of popular films is one of the few good signs is a year that most people found the way the outside world was going was disappointing. Maybe after a long nap, the art of filmmaking is waking up and being creative again. So what films did the most for me this last year?
1. HUGO There is a phantom haunting the Paris Train Station. Twelve-year- old Hugo lives in the walls of the station and maintains all the mechanical clocks. This film is about him, but also about a lot more. It is much more than a children's film about a little boy. Beautifully filmed in 3D it, turns into an education for the viewer on a subject near and dear to director Martin Scorsese's heart. This may be more Scorsese's film than even GOODFELLAS or CASINO was. He has made a beautiful tribute to his favorite art form. Rating: +3 (-4 to +4) or 9/10
2. THE LAST CIRCUS This is a sensational surreal horror/comedy fairy tale co-written and directed by Basque auteur Alex de la Iglesia (THE OXFORD MURDERS). It has to be the weirdest and one of the funniest films I have seen in quite a while. As time goes on, everything in THE LAST CIRCUS becomes more grotesque and dreamlike. Manic and dark and surreal but fun all the way, Iglesia's story seems like a high intensity version of a Guillermo del Toro film crossed with a Quentin Tarantino action pic. It is breathtaking, beautiful, and weird. Rating: +3 (-4 to +4) or 9/10
3. SHOLOM ALEICHEM: LAUGHING IN THE DARKNESS The life of the Yiddish storywriter Sholem Aleichem mirrors the changing, often tragic, world of Eastern European Jewry in the late 19th and early 20th century. Writer/Producer/Director Joseph Dorman lovingly crafts a biographical documentary of the often beautiful, often tragic life in shtetl communities. As the title suggests this is a portrait of a people living in constant hardship and keeping themselves sane with a bit of humor. The telling is as sweet as honey cake and as bitter as horseradish. Rating: +3 (-4 to +4) or 9/10
4. CONTAGION Director Steven Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns give us a fast-paced and grim scenario when a nasty but all-too-possible avian flu has been released and spreads through the environment. There are about six strands of plot running through the scenario, each with a recognizable actor playing the main character. In spite of the presence of major stars Soderbergh gives us the confidence that he is not tweaking the film to exaggerate the drama or excitement. Even without the usual tropes of science fiction, this is--among other things--an excellent science fiction techno- thriller. Rating: +3 (-4 to +4) or 9/10
5. BARNEY'S VERSION This is the story of Barney Panofsky, directed by Richard J. Lewis based on a Michael Konyves's screenplay based on the novel by Mordecai Richler. Barney is a self-indulgent, inconsiderate, alcoholic cad who somehow wins a wife who should have known better. Paul Giamatti gives a strong, multi-layered performance of a selfish, but not uncommon man. Rosamunde Pike plays his long- suffering wife. There is an undeniable fascination with this man whose life we see from early twenties to his late 60s. The dialog is really good without being unrealistic. Rating: low +3 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
6. THE ARTIST As with HUGO we have a tribute to silent film. The two films are interesting to compare. But rather than just giving silent clips, THE ARTIST is an entire feature film, virtually all created in the style of the monochrome silent motion pictures. And just that novelty sustains the film for most of its length. THE ARTIST is a charming French-Belgian production set in good old Hollywood in that late 1920s and early 1930s. Somewhere along the line it becomes obvious that THE ARTIST does not attain the heights a Chaplin or a Fairbanks film might. The novelty fades and one might be watching a somewhat run of the mill silent. Still, the experience brings back memories of some great silent movies. The plot may be a bit similar to A STAR IS BORN, but as a reminder of the greatness of silent films, this is one of the must-sees of the season. Rating: low +3 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
7. MARGIN CALL Everybody is concerned about the world fiscal failures and about the Wall Street securities traders who were instrumental in toppling the economy of this country. However, it seems impossible to make a dramatic film on the subject without huge expository lumps explaining economic theory. J. C. Chandor makes an intelligent thriller about a company that is faced with morall decisions and he makes it a compelling drama. It works like a good production of Shakespeare making the acting carry the story when the wording might be unfamiliar. The cast includes Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Stanley Tucci, and STAR TREK's Spock, Zachary Quinto. Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4 scale) or 8/10
8. TREE OF LIFE This film is mystical and yet holds a solid drama. TREE OF LIFE is the chronicle of a 1950s family living near Waco, Texas, placed in a context of all life going back to the creation of the world and later the age of the dinosaurs all to the tune of Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde". What appear to be hundreds of apparently random inconsequential moments, presented in almost stream of consciousness; of the texture of everyday family life eventually add up to a plot both sentimental and bitter. A father, played by Brad Pitt, transforms from loving to strict to abusive and leaves a deep mark on his two sons. Terrence Malick has a feel for the textures of life. At the same time he features some spectacularly beautiful nature photography. This film is visually beautiful but still not for all tastes. Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4 scale) or 8/10
9. THE ILLUSIONIST Just surviving is difficult enough for a lonely music hall stage performer in the 1950s. When a young teenage girl follows him to a new town he takes her under his wing to be his surrogate daughter. Sylvain Chomet animates a script by the great Jacques Tati. The story has a delicate bittersweet tone much too rarely present in contemporary films. The animated film THE ILLUSIONIST is really a film not to be missed. Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
10. WAR HORSE Other films this year are overt tributes to older style of filmmaking, specifically HUGO and THE ARTIST. Stephen Spielberg simply gives us a film that starts with life in an English village and then follows the life and fortunes of one horse as he goes through episodes in his life with different owners. His human characters may not be complex, but they are three-dimensional in ways one does not need plastic glasses to appreciate. The stories are moving and allow the viewer to see how animals are treated by human society. Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
Other films that rated a high +2 are WIN WIN, HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS--PART 2, THE LINCOLN LAWYER, RANGO, and DESERT OF FORBIDDEN ART.
My Top Ten Films of