Archive for the ‘Number 11’ Category

The top 10 is finished. I have the films selected, ranked and ready to go. In fact, I was about to skip the Number 11 post entirely and go straight to the business when I was struck by the sentimentality of tradition and the memory that my finacêe made me insist that I acknowledge *her* favorite movie of the 2016 at some point during my year-end posting.

Luckilly for her (and me, let’s be honest) is that her favorite movie also happened to be the 11th best movie of 2016. And that movie is…

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Arrival

Director Denis Villeneuve is on a pretty impressive streak, with this year’s “Arrival” coming after last year’s “Sicario,” and both “Enemy” and “Prisoners” in 2013. I haven’t seen his earlier work, but if what I hear about “Incendies” is true, then the streak continues.

His film are difficult to categorize, and none more so than Arrival, which is ostensibly a science-fiction film about aliens visiting Earth but doubles as an examination of hope and the binding power of communication.

It’s also a showcase for actress Amy Adams, whose linguist and interpreter Louise Banks is the heart and soul of the plot. After a number of disk-shaped, hovering craft appear, Banks is scooped up by the U.S. government — along with Jeremy Renner’s mathematician Ian Donnelly — and given the task with communicating with the beings inside, a pair of tentacled forms that employ a written language of circular ink blots.

Beautifully shot and scored, Arrival is heavy on atmosphere, which hums in harmony with the largely abstract themes on screen. And in a year as divisive and rhetorically toxic as this one has been, it’s poetic — maybe fated? — and cathartic to watch a film that champions a rejection of competition and isolation in service of a greater good.

Optimistic and movingly heart-breaking, with an arthouse-quality production and craftsmanship, “Arrival” is the 11th-best movie of the year.

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I promise, the Top 10 is coming. Unfortunately, because I live in Salt Lake City, limited release films like The Revenant, Carol and Anomalisa are slow to trickle in, and it would be a dereliction of duties to crown the Best Films of The Year without having watched all of the major contenders.

That said, I *have* a Top 10 list, which could very well remain unchanged. And as is often the case, there were more great films this year than room at the inn.

Here at Wood’s Stock, we have a tradition of honoring an 11th best film of the year. This spot is traditionally reserved for a big-budget, major-studio-produced crowd pleaser that may not be up for any awards come February 28th, but was nonetheless a blast to watch.

This year, that film was…

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The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

In 2006, the stewards of the James Bond franchise released Casino Royale, starring a then-relatively-unknown Daniel Craig as a scowling, brooding, and occasionally bruised and bleeding take on the legacy character. It represented a seismic creative shift for the franchise, adopting a darker and focused tone as an antidote to the excessive camp and frivolity that defined the tail end of the Pierce Brosnan era.

But imagine, if you will, a parallel universe in which the makers of the Bond films creatively cleansed the franchise of its failings while still committing to the grinning, innuendo-soaked playfulness that traditionally defined the character.

That movie would be The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

Set during the cold war, TMFUNCLE gives us con-man-turned-American-spy Napolean Solo (Henry Cavill) and Soviet agent Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) reluctantly forced to work together for the greater good by their respective governments.

It’s an unmistakably retro film, filled with exotic locales, fancy cars, beautiful women and booze-swilling men who crack wise and skulls in equal measure. But it’s also a film that is astutely self-aware, filled with breezy double entendres and a jazzy beat that practically stares at the camera to ask “Hey, isn’t this fun?”

Directed by Guy Ritchie, who injected a similar old-meets-new flavor into his Sherlock Holmes films, UNCLE is unafraid of keeping things lights, humming along as though its amusing itself.

The ensemble pops, aided by the gorgeous and effervescent Alicia Vikander, who adds a crucial woman’s touch to the proceedings, going toe-to-toe with her male costars. And with the exception of an over-boiled finale, the action scenes and set pieces are stellar, tightly choreographed and edited to maximum effect by Ritchie (a standout scene involves a boat chase and a cargo truck).

UNCLE is in good company this year, fun-wise, with Rogue Nation, the latest of Ethan Hunt’s impossible missions, but because of the effort and risk it takes to launch a new franchise, the edge goes to the new kid on the block. Sadly, with only $45 million in domestic revenue, it’s doubtful (but not impossible) that we’ll see the next adventure of Solo and Kuryakin.

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Putting together a top 10 movies list is never easy. There’s always too many films and a nagging sense of betrayal as I’m forced to drop titles from the running, let alone the hair-splitting agony of figuring out which film to christen as the ultimate champion for the year. I try to alleviate this with my honorable mentions, which helps, but there’s always at least one more movie I want to recognize.

So a few years back I started naming an 11th best film, an honor reserved for a big-budget, mainstream, popcorn film that excels above the too-frequent mindless bilge produced by the Hollywood tentpole machine. Sometimes there is no such film, but this year it was an obvious choice.

Without further ado, the 11th best film of 2014 was…

4222808-captainamericaCaptain America: The Winter Soldier

To criticize comic book adaptations of being formulaic is the lowest of hanging fruit, but the genre rivals romantic comedies for their paint-by-numbers predictability. 1. Introduce hero doing something heroic. 2. Introduce love interest. 3. Introduce villain being evil. 4. Send hero after villain. 5. Place love interest in peril. 6. Introduce complication that suggests hero will fail/villain will succeed. 7. Have hero and villain punch each other really hard. 8. Hero emerges triumphant, saves love interest. 9. Sunset, ride off into.

The first Captain America followed this pattern, giving us the milquetoast Steve Rogers who, after an injection of magic juice, went on a two hour Nazi-punching campaign. Spoiler alert, I guess, but the ending had villain Red Skull vanishing into a ball of magic space light while Rogers plunged into the arctic so that we could fast forward to the movie we really wanted to see, The Avengers. It didn’t exactly leave me chomping at the bit for more of the star-spangled Cap.

But Winter Soldier was no phoned-in creation of redundancy. It took the loose threads left by The Avengers, namely the super-secret spy organization S.H.I.E.L.D and pulled while the connective fabric of the Marvel Cinematic Universe unraveled. The result was a comic book movie that was more political thriller than rock ’em sock ’em cacophony, complete with a who-can-we-trust paranoia and a ripped-from-the-headlines criticism of the modern security state.

After TWS, nothing in the MCU feels the same. Promos and chatter suggest the remaining films of Marvel’s phase 2 and some of Phase 3 (including the next Captain American installment) will continue and expand on the fissures created by Steve Rogers’ second outing. The result is an invigorated curiosity in the behemoth multi-film extravaganza that is The Avengers that makes me look at the never-ending slate of new films with cautious optimism, rather than creeping boredom.

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I started naming an 11th best film two years ago. The idea was to reserve a special recognition for mass-market popcorn films of high quality that failed to make the final cut. For example, past winners include 2011’s Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol and 2012’s Skyfall.

But this year, I found myself stuck. I boiled the candidates down to World War Z and Iron Man 3 – both great films that I enjoyed – but neither of which felt right to sit, ostensibly, as one-slot-away from the Top 10 films of the year. World War Z ends with a cleverly creepy third act, but that only serves as a reminder of how uneven and – pardon the pun – lifeless the rest of the film is, as Brad Pitt’s character hop-scotches around the globe getting out just in time and magically landing exactly where he needs to be. It’s essentially 2012 without the cheesy acting.

Iron Man has the opposite problem. The first two-thirds are excellent, trading impressive action sequences with witty humor and culminating in a gonzo reveal, only to then devolve somewhat disappointingly into an over the top explode-a-thon that sees Guy Pierce’s villain literally breathing fire and the most predictable non-death in Marvel Cinematic Universe history.

As I wrestled with the decision, my mind kept being drawn to my drafted Top 10 list, which had one title too many. A title I knew would likely be knocked out entirely once I finished screening all of December’s releases. A title that I couldn’t bear to leave off the list, having given it a perfect A rating and having enjoyed it so thoroughly.

“But it’s an indie movie,” I said to myself. “The Wood’s Stock 11th Best is for big-budget popcorn films and mass-market flicks. A movie shot on a shoestring budget, in which the actors recite Shakespearean dialogue, is the antithesis of this category.”

But then I remembered that I AM Wood’s Stock. I MAKE the categories. I AM THE LAW!

And so, it is with great pleasure that I announce that the 11th Best Film of 2013 is…

joss-whedon-s-much-ado-about-nothing-gets-a-trailer-watch-now-129765-a-1362674635-470-75Much Ado About Nothing

Directed by Joss Whedon (The Avengers), and shot in a minimalistic black-and-white over the space of a few days at Whedon’s family home in California, Much Ado About Nothing sees all of our favorite Whedonverse friends (Nathan Fillion, Clark Gregg, Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Fran Kranz, Sean Maher, etc.) spouting the Bard’s prose in a modern take on one of Shakespeare’s best comedies.

The story, for those of you who skipped English Lit in high school, revolves around two couples: the sweet, young Claudio and Hero and the independent and disdainful Benedick and Beatrice. While gathered together at the home of Leonato, the Governor of Messina, friends conspire to bring Benedick and Beatrice together while enemies plot to drive Caudio and Hero apart.

Setting aside the pure delight that this movie is, the existence of a film like Much Ado About Nothing in the current cinematic landscape is something that demands attention. This year saw many seasoned film veterans (including Steven Soderbergh, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg) lamenting the state of modern film-making and forecasting a dire future as more studios look toward the ballooning budgets of so-called “tentpole” films for their survival while choking out quieter, more artistic storytelling.

Soderbergh announced his retirement (we hope he’s not serious) and Spielberg predicted that a few big-budget losses would start a chain reaction leading to an “implosion” of the studio system. He said that in June, right between the releases of After Earth and The Lone Ranger, which went on to be two of the biggest flops in box office history.

Which brings us back to Much Ado. Joss Whedon made the Avengers in 2012. It was the most successful film of that year and the third most successful film of all time with a worldwide gross of more than $1.5 billion. It cemented his status as nerd demigod and creative overlord of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and all but extended the keys to the Hollywood kingdom into his hands.

So how did he follow up that success? By calling up a few of his friends for a weekend getaway where, what the heck, let’s make a movie.

I would imagine that making Much Ado was essentially one big party, and that energy pours from the screen and infects the audience. The film moves along with such a sense of effortless charm and playful ease that you feel like you’re among friends, giddily participating in the ruse that brings Benedick and Beatrice together and anticipating the final reveal where things are made right between Claudio and Hero.

It was one of the smallest of 2013’s films and also one of the best, a master class on intimate, emotional storytelling. Here’s hoping other directors were taking notes.

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I recently went back and read my last year’s Top 10 picks to get myself into the mindset of my forthcoming 2011 list. The movies that I picked were all well and good but what is sad is how tragically unprepared I was. In a nut shell, the post went like this: “2010 was a crap year for movies and I had to stretch it to get to 10, oh but BTW I haven’t seen anything that came out in December, A.K.A, awards season.”

Amateur hour.

I can proudly say that I am MUCH more prepared this year, and that, combined with an altogether better crop of films in 2011, has made for a harder time narrowing the field down to 10. I recently posted my honorable mentions and I think I’ve finally settled on the final batch (now I just have to rank them, ugh) but there was one more movie that I wanted to give an honorary kudos to.

So, I would like to give you the first of what I hope will be an annual tradition here at Wood’s Stock, the 11th Best Film of the Year Award. Number 11 is more than just “what would have been number 10 if it hadn’t been for those meddling kids,” it is a loving tribute to populist, popcorn cinema; a slot specially reserved for a film that was produced for broad, mass market appeal but still managed to keep things classy, smart, and show us something new. It’s the “fun” movie that is ok to love.

Drumroll please,

The 11th Best Film of 2011 is…


Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol

While it is true that yes, I am a longtime fan of the franchise AND it’s star Tom Cruise (greatest American action star, ever) the fact remains that M:I is in an exclusive class of multi-installment franchises that not only uphold their quality over time but (arguably) improve. Other such club members include LOTR, Back to the Future, Bourne and Harry Potter. While there are greater and lesser Missions there has never been an outright bomb.

Think of other major American film franchises, can they say the same? Batman? Nope. James Bond? Nope. Rocky? Nope. The Godfather? Maybe. Jurassic Park? Nope. Scream? Nope. The Matrix? Nope. Pirates? No-siree. Indiana Jones? Noooooooope. Star Wars? NOPE! (*sidenote, the word “nope” has already lost all meaning to me. Isn’t that a weird word? Nope. Nope. Nope? What is that?)

And so we arrive at the fourth Mission, once again helmed by a new director per tradition (a brilliant move that has made each mission seem like a stand-alone action piece) this time Pixar alumnus Brad Bird making his live action directorial debut. Apparently the move to real life came easy to the director because Bird packs more seamlessly choreographed sequences into 2 hours than I thought possible and makes you go “did they seriously just DO that?”. The narrative skips around the globe without taking a moment to breath while our team of rag-tag agents fight against time to stop nuclear war. In the hands of a lesser man (cough: Michael Bay) the moving pieces would become blurred and confusing but Brad keeps things quick, clear, and on point.

The film has its weaknesses, namely that the villain is essentially absent and the agents themselves are so good that not only is failure not an option, it doesn’t ever seem like a possibility. I also would have liked to see more Face Masks, since that’s the defining shtick of the franchise. I was also a little irked by some of the creative decisions that the writers took in regards to M:I-3 (my personal favorite of the 4) but I’ll leave that spoiler-filled discussion for another day. Still, if it’s spectacle you want then it is spectacle you get and more. Tom Cruise’s star may have dimmed in recent years but I would hope that he wins some detractors back. He’s surrounded by hipper, younger stars but this is still his show and he makes saving the world look good, and effortless.

Ghost Protocol shows us that a franchise once speculated to be on it’s last leg is still very much alive. Here’s to more missions for year’s to come. B+


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