Posts Tagged ‘Christopher Nolan’

Finally, FINALLY!, I’ve seen all the films I needed to see to put together the Top 10 list for *last* year. Living in a flyover state is such a burden for the recreational cinephile (#FirstWorldProblems).

I’ll keep the intro brief, but wanted to comment on the year that was. I already noted in my post for the Number 11 film about how great movies were spread out through the calendar year instead of being clustered only in the November-December holiday season. But what also stands out to me about 2017 was the level of humor in the best films of the year; not necessarily as outright comedies but as film’s that didn’t feel forced to cram themselves strictly into the typical binary of serious vs. silly.

It made for richer movie-going experiences, IMHO. And besides, in 2017 I think we could all use a few extra laughs.

Without further ado, here’s the 10 best movies that came out 2017. It was an agonizing process to select them, as always, and I’ll add a few extra shout-outs to good movies that didn’t quite make the cut at the end.

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10. Phantom Thread

Say it ain’t so DDL!!!!  Daniel Day-Lewis, currently the greatest living male actor (come at me!) claims that his latest collaboration with director Paul Thomas Anderson is his last film — as in, ever. As tragic as the thought is, it’s at least comforting to know that he’s going out on a great note.

Day-Lewis stars as Reynolds Woodcock, a renowned dressmaker and unyielding perfectionist who finds his latest muse in Alma (Vicky Krieps). Their relationship is toxic and one-sided, by Woodcock’s design, except that Alma isn’t content to wither and fade as the dressmaker’s former lovers did.

The movie takes a bit too long getting to its deeper machinations, which in the hands of a lesser filmmaker and cast would doom the film. But the combination of DDL’s customarily immersive performance and PTA’s ethereal direction make every minute on a hypnotic delight, even if their combined weight causes the film to drag slightly.

Watch it on: Currently in theaters

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9. Nobody Speak: Trials of a Free Press

Whoulda thunk one of the most troubling and potentially detrimental challenges to the First Amendment would involve a Hulk Hogan sex tape, but here we are. Terry Bollea (the man behind the do-rag) quite literally sued the pants off of Gawker after the site posted excerpts of Bollea’s sex tape, arguing that while *Hogan* was a public figure and subject to additional scrutiny by the press, the man behind the character, Bollea, was a wholly separate individual who deserved his privacy.

Much like the infamous McDonald’s hot coffee case, there’s a lot more going on here than one might immediately suppose, and director Brian Knappenberger does a superb job at peeling back the layers of this particularly rotten onion. In a time when the media is under concerted attack by public figures (“FAKE NEWS!”) and reality TV stars and tabloid provocateurs have their hands on the highest levers of governmental power (again, “FAKE NEWS!”) the ability of someone like Bollea, backed by the personal fortune of a vendetta-driven billionaire (in this case, Peter Thiel), to sue a media outlet into oblivion over objections to its content is, quite simply, terrifying. (Yowza, how’s *that* for a run-on sentence?).

Watch it on: Netflix

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8. The Disaster Artist

There have been many movies about making movies, and even a few movies about making bad movies (See: Ed Wood). But there’s never been anything quite like The Disaster Artist, which dramatizes the true and truly bizarre story of the making of The Room.

Part biopic for the notoriously terrible film’s director/writer/star Tommy Wisaue, part love-letter to film itself and part tribute to the fruits of indefatigable optimist. Centered around the all-in performance by James Franco, himself an occasionally out there multi-hyphenate, The Disaster Artist is the funniest film I saw this year. Between the abundant laughs, it’s also succeeds, somewhat unexpectedly, at making a sympathetic character out of its wackadoodle protagonist, who managed to achieve his goal of being an all-American Hollywood star (and maybe vampire?) through the most unlikeliest of routes.  (Bonus: Make sure to see “The Room” if you haven’t, but not necessarily *before* you watch The Disaster Artist. It works in either order).

Watch it on: Currently in theaters

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7. The Big Sick

Directed by Michael Showalter and written by the real-life couple whose story is dramatized on screen, The Big Sick is the charming millennial love story none of us knew we were waiting for. Kumail Nanjiani (playing a version of himself) and Zoe Kazan (as Emily) are dynamite as the central couple. And when Kazan is sidelined by the titular physical ailment of her character, the movie pops to a whole new level with the arrival of Emily’s parents, played on-the-money by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano.

On its face it’s a love story, but the smart and unfussy script folds in themes of religion and family ties for a rom-dramedy that truly shouldn’t be missed.

Watch it on: Amazon Prime video

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6. Logan Lucky

After the 2013 movie “Side Effects,” Steven Soderbergh claimed he was done directing movies. He focused on television, churning out some great work in projects like The Knick and Behind the Candelabra, but maintained that he was retired from the big screen.

*Lucky* for us (see what I did there?) he changed his mind.

Going back to the heist format that launched him into the upper-Hollywood stratosphere with Ocean’s Eleven, Soderbergh bottles lightning with “Logan Lucky” a madcap, freewheeling story about misfit toys who come together to rip off a NASCAR event. It’s anchored by the oddly soulful performances of Channing Tatum and Adam Driver, the latter sporting a comically rudimentary prosthetic arm, and bolstered by an A-plus ensemble cast that includes the indescribably joyous casting of Daniel Craig as the redneck bomb-maker “Joe Bang.”

If there’s one weak point, it’s Seth McFarland as an obnoxious NASCAR driver, but it’s a minor complaint in an otherwise inventive and refreshingly clever smash-and-grab job.

Watch it on: Available for rent or purchase on streaming services

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5. The Post

Not only is Steven Spielberg’s latest very good, it’s also very necessary, arriving at a moment when the free press and First Amendment are under more scrutiny and pressure than they’ve been since…well…since the Nixon Administration depicted in the film’s plot.

The cast is stellar and the plotting is taught, diving into the emotions at play as the leadership of the Washington Post (then a second-tier paper behind the behemoths like the New York Times) wrestles with whether and how to publish the Pentagon Papers. At the center of it all is Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, waxing journalistic as the Post’s publisher and editor respectively. For newsy folk like myself, it’s the cinema equivalent of catnip, but for those outside the industry it’s a reverential and informative peak behind the curtain of one of our nations most essential democratic institutions.

Watch it on: Currently in theaters

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4. A Ghost Story

No film that I saw this year stuck with me the way A Ghost Story did. If you’ll pardon the pun, I was haunted by it.

There’s nothing conventional about this movie: it’s a bold and enigmatic story of a couple separated by mortality in which the protagonists spends the bulk of the running time obscured by a sheet like a child’s simplistic Halloween costume. You literally could not do less to show a ghost on screen, but the effect works wonders as the character (unnamed and played by Casey Affleck) looms outside the perception of his grieving wife (Rooney Mara) before becoming lost in time through a series of ponderous vignettes, all paired to precision with the single best soundtrack of any film this year.

Watch it on: Amazon Prime video

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3. Lady Bird

Few films feel as effortlessly alive as “Lady Bird,” the impressive directorial debut of indie darling Greta Gerwig. Starring Saoirse Ronan (it rhymes with “inertia”) in her funniest role to date, Lady Bird is a coming-of-age-tell that shrugs off expectations to tell a story that is at times universal (awkward first loves, parental embarrassment, dreams of adulthood in the big city) and at times wholly individual (to whit, the incredible mother-daughter pairing with a never-been-better Laurie Metcalf).

Watch it on: Available for rent or purchase on streaming services

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2. Get Out

Speaking of directorial debuts, from the mind of Jodan Peele comes the biggest talker of the 2017 year in film. Released in February, “Get Out” landed with a bang so loud the ground was still shaking by December. Not quite a horror movie, not quite a comedy and not quite sane, the movie leaned hard into America’s racial tensions, taking a textbook “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” setup and spinning it around until the wheels fall off.

Most impressive, the film doesn’t fall apart without the element of surprise. By the time most people saw it (myself included), word-of-mouth and buzzy reactions had made even the most diligently spoiler-averse audience member aware that strange things were afoot at the Circle K. You may not know exactly what is in store, but you know going in (or very shortly afterward) that things are going to be a little odd.

No matter, because Peele’s twisty concept and in-your-face constructions are simply that good. In a way, “Get Out” is spoiler proof, because what it has to say is louder than plot.

Watch it on: HBO Go/Now

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1. Dunkirk

I had a hard time choosing the image for this entry, since every option seemed so small compared to the experience of actually watching Christopher Nolan’s epic film in the theater (if you missed the large-screen format, you should still watch Dunkirk but know that you’re missing out on it’s most impressive effect: size.)

Dunkirk is a film at odds with itself. Everything about its imagery is big, from the wide-angle aerial shots to the endless horizon of a sea boiling with hulking warships toppled under billowing clouds of smoke and fire. But it’s individual moments are small, and largely wordless, as we follow various groups of soldiers, pilots and civilians engaged in the most straightforward of tasks made daunting by circumstance: getting from one side of the English channel to the other.

The contradictions in tone are made all the better by the film’s format, which weaves together three narratives that take place in different windows of time (one week on land, one day at seat and one hour in flight). It is at first disorienting, until you embrace the disorientation and look past chronology. Every scene is its own story of survival, so it doesn’t quite matter which order they occur in.

The Battle of Dunkirk has been depicted on film before, most notably in the excellent film Atonement. But while those stories made pit stops at the beach, Nolan’s story is lazer-focused on the plight of the English and French forces trapped between the German invaders on one side and the treacherous waters on the other. A straightforward telling would have made for a straightforward movie, something Nolan has shown he has little interest in, and one that may have been fine but wouldn’t stick with you the way “Dunkirk” does.

Watch it on: Available for rent or purchase on streaming services

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And a few more:

As always, there’s more than 10 movies that deserve recognition. I mentioned a few already with my Honorable Mentions, but most of those weren’t ever under consideration for my end-of-year Top 10.

Because movies come late to Utah, I end up making a Top 10 and then bumping titles off as late releases outrank them, which is heartbreaking. This was particularly the case with I, Tonya, with which I went back and forth for a few days deciding between it and Phantom Thread for the final spot.

Similarly, it killed me to not include Blade Runner 2049. I’m a huge fan of director Denis Villeneuve and really enjoyed his gorgeous sequel to the Ridley Scott classic. But I can also see where its detractors are coming from, and while I recommend it wholeheartedly there are few little nit-picky things that kept me from ranking it.

Battle of the Sexes, starring Emma Stone and Steve Carell is very good, and Stone *in it* is particularly excellent. I was going to mention it as Best Indie but I just couldn’t get over It Comes at Night. Similarly Wonder Woman deserves every inch of its success and I look forward to what Patti Jenkins does with the franchise (still the only corner of DC’s cinematic universe worth paying attention to.)

I was surprised by how much I liked Murder on the Orient Express. I knew nothing about the story which probably added to my enjoyment (your mileage may vary if you already know the big reveal) and I’m pleased that a sequel is reportedly in development, especially since this time it *won’t* include Johnny Depp.

Also Wind River is another worthwhile directorial debut, this time by Taylor Sheridan who has written some of the best crime-related films in recent years (Hell or High Water, Sicario). His skills in the director’s chair aren’t quite to the level of his writing ability, but it’s a strong first film that suggests even better things on the horizon (Sicario, you may recall, was directed by Denis Villeneuve, which ties this list together in an interesting way. And its sequel “Soldado” comes out this summer. I am, to put it mildly, excited.).

Last but not least, The Greatest Showman is a darn good musical. Sure, I would have liked a less sanitized version of P.T. Barnum — a complicated man, to say the least — but the music is great, the choreography pops, and its quite successful at what it sets out to do.

**Addendum*** This morning’s Oscar Nominations reminded me that I forgot to include The Shape Of Water in my post-list shoutouts. GDT is a visionary director, and his latest has the feel of a moving painting. Great performances by the cast (most notably Sally Hawkins is a near-silent role) and a great fantasy creation. It was a contender for the Top 10 but got bumped in the final weeks.

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For two decades, the films of writer-director Christopher Nolan have been steadily growing bolder in ambition, scope and dreams-within-dreams-within-dreams mental trickery. From the relatively humble beginnings of “Following” and “Memento” came the genre-defining Dark Knight Trilogy, the mind-tripping shenanigans of “The Prestige” and “Inception” and, most recently, the time-and-space traversing spectacle of “Interstellar.”

From the trajectory, one might have expected Nolan’s next feature to be a smorgasbord of bombast and celestial mystique. But instead, the auteur turned his lens toward the decidedly earth-bound and human setting of World War II and the battle of Dunkirk, the first time Nolan has tackled a historical subject — Nikola Tesla dramatizations notwithstanding.

*Disclosure: While there are many who find Nolan’s shtick tiresome, I am an unapologetic fanboy. Prestige may very well be my favorite movie, and he is one of only a few directors whose filmography I have viewed in its entirety (others including, but not limited to, Rian Johnson, Wes Anderson and David Fincher).*

Interweaving three stories — of land, sea and air — Nolan’s “Dunkirk” follows the evacuation of allied forces from France, with hundreds of thousands of soldiers effectively trapped on the wrong side of the English channel and surrounded on all sides by Nazi forces. On land, young men wait through enemy bombardment for any opportunity to sail across the channel, only to find an equally — if not more — perilous situation on ships targeted by submarine torpedo and dive-bombing attacks. They are aided by civilian ships called in to the rescue effort, and protected from above by a coterie of fighter pilots.

That’s the plot, in a nutshell, as Nolan is less interested in exposition, character and dialogue as he is in setting the scene before a tense, 100-minute exploration of survival and war. For long swathes the film is silent but for the haunting Hans Zimmer, which adds suffocating weight to moments of hopelessness and agonizing claustrophobia as men are trapped inside a series of sinking ships or blindsided by enemy gunfire.

There are a few familiar faces along the way, including Kenneth Branagh as a stoic commander, frequent Nolan collaborators Tom Hardy and Cillian Murphy, and boy-band alumnus Harry Styles as a rank-and-file soldier. But the movie isn’t interested in star power, relying on a largely unknown supporting cast and spreading the running time throughout its characters in lieu of a clear protagonist. The result is, paradoxically, a more personal tale of war, bolstered by breathtaking aerial photography and the minimalist action sequences that highlight Nolan’s career. He knows that death and destruction don’t require window dressing, and the film is better for it.

While comparatively a much more traditional film, the elements of Nolan’s chronological and visual trickery are still present. He uses the spinning camera work of “Inception” for the interior shots of his sinking ships. And the three main storylines move forward and backward through time — a la Memento and Prestige — to cover overlapping periods of one week, one day, and one hour. Events are shown out-of-sequence and repeated from various character viewpoints while plot is doled out only as needed.

It works incredibly well, resulting in an impactful film in which every second feels significant and climactic, while the mechanics are veiled by a screen of simplicity. There’s no 5th-dimensional beings, dream machines, dueling wizards or masked vigilantes, but “Dunkirk” dazzles all the same. It’s a neat trick, even for a magician like Nolan, resulting in what is easily one of the best films of the year.

Grade: A

*Dunkirk opens nationwide on Friday, July 21.

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Despite his status as the most iconic of comic book superheroes, Superman has always been (in my opinion) a rather boring character. He is effectively indestructible and quasi-omnipotent – possessing super strength, super speed, x-ray vision, heat-ray vision and the power of flight to boot – and has been historically prone to feats that stretch the suspension of disbelief, such as reversing time by flying backwards around the earth or relocating the moon to combat a photo-sensitive foe.

He’s also a Boy Scout (in the non-political sense of the term) standing for truth, justice and the American way. That sort of metaphorical Manifest Destiny nostalgia worked in 1938 in the wake of the great depression and on through the years of the creeping Red Threat but in today’s cynical, hyper-connected, “there are no front lines” society, the Last Son of Krypton comes across as a little, well, quaint.

Enter Man of Steel, the latest attempt by director Zach Snyder to insert Superman into modern relevance. It’s a respectable offering, considerably more so than 2006’s milquetoast Superman Returns, making Clark Kent a stranger in a strange land (in this case, Earth) rather than a spotless idol. But at 143 minutes long, Snyder’s creation is both overly-long and unsatisfyingly-empty, jumping from one dramatic moment to the next without giving the viewer a reason to care before culminating in a dull, roaring bout of skyscraper-crashing fisticuffs between two seemingly immortal beings.

The plot begins on the planet Krypton during an elaborate and visually-enchanting prologue that sees a military coup led by General Zod (a fuming Michael Shannon) in response to wasteful leadership that has brought the planet to the brink of destruction. Jor-El, Krypton’s chief scientist, retrieves an item called the Kodex and ships it and his son Kal-El off to Earth to safe his race from utter extinction.

From there we meet a grown Kal-El, now the Kansas-raised Clark Kent, drifting hunter-gatherer style before finally ending up at a NORAD dig in arctic Canada where the U.S. government and Pullitzer-prize winning journalist Lois Lane are investigating a mysterious craft buried beneath the ice. Clark and Lois share a meet cute and a dose of Kryptonian exposition follows, followed by a time-consuming sequence of Lois tracking down the mystery man with the bulging biceps.

At this point you’re halfway through the movie before Superman dons the iconic red and blue suit and the villainous Zod returns, threatening Earth’s existence if Kal-El is not surrendered to him. His plan, we learn, is to rebuild Krypton from the ashes of Earth and he needs Kal-El and the Kodex to do so.

The latter third of the movie is consumed by a series of escalating skirmishes between the alien visitors, who relentlessly attack each other despite the rather apparent knowledge that no damage can be done to them.

But damage can, and is, done to the puny human ants that attempt to intervene and the structures they’ve erected. A very New York City-esque Metropolis is all but decimated in a sequence reminiscent of The Avengers, only without that film’s sense of fun or emotional tension. When the music stops and all is finally quiet, you feel more viewer relief than celebration.

Amy Adams, at 38, is an odd choice opposite the 30-year-old Cavil. Independently, each actor brings a fresh take to their respective roles but together the chemistry falls flat. Of the supporting cast, Russel Crowe’s stoic Jor-El stands out while the remaining characters have little time to do anything beside gape in wonder.

Man of Steel is burdened by the task of rebooting a familiar origin story. Snyder makes attempts at elevating the story, including a few interesting allusions to Plato’s The Republic and the just city, but much like 2005’s Batman Begins (which was directed by MOS producer and cinema-extraordinaire Christopher Nolan) the film is burdened in back-story but shows promise of future growth now that the requisite set-up is out of the way. It could very well end up being the weaker first entry in an otherwise strong franchise but for now, fans and newcomers alike will have to settle for a modern Superman that flies, but fails to soar.

Grade: B

*Man of Steel opens nationwide on Friday, June 14.

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Christopher Nolan’s third and final installment in his Batman franchise arrived Friday, marred by tragedy and bogged down by seemingly insurmountable expectations. How do you follow the greatest superhero film ever made, one of the best action films ever made, and end one of the greatest trilogies ever made? How, in essence, do you deliver perfection when only perfection will be accepted?

The task is daunting and as the millions of you who, like myself, set aside time opening weekend to see the film already know, Nolan has, for the most part, succeeded.

That’s not to say that TDKR is a better film than TDK, or that it even should be. Empire is greater than Jedi. X2 is greater than X3. Two Towers is greater than ROTK (yes it is). Second films are, typically, the strongest of a trilogy in that they raise the stakes and set the stage for the finale. The challenge, then, with a third film is to provide a satisfying conclusion to the story and also stand alone as an exceptional film. The only comparison that need be made is between the film itself and the entire library of American cinema.

Or, in other words, TDKR is not as good as TDK, but it doesn’t have to be and is still miles and miles ahead of everything else at the cinema.

Rises’ curtain opens on a peaceful, safe Gotham. Eight years have passed since the Joker’s reign of terror and the end of organized crime, thanks to a lie engineered by the caped crusader and Gotham’s police commissioner Jim Gordan. Batman is little more than a memory and Bruce Wayne has become a recluse, nursing wounds both physical and emotional in the east wing of his now-completed Wayne Manor.

But trouble is brewing. A mercenary named Bane arrives (in spectacular fashion) in Gotham with a terrorist cell-esque entourage  of religiously devoted henchman and the financial security of Wayne Enterprises is threatened after a shuttered sustainable energy project and the devious meddling of a cat burgler.

I’ll leave the synopsis at that, in part to avoid spoilers and also because you’ve all likely seen it already. Now for the analysis.

As a stand-alone film, Nolan has delivered yet another complex genre-bending film that combines originality, spectacle and emotional depth. Especially rewarding is how Nolan, while making Batman his own, still stays true to the inspiration of the source material. While the word “Catwoman” is never uttered, Selina Kyle nonetheless fulfills the role of the DC-universe frenemy, bouncing her loyalty back and forth and sparring both physically and flirtatiously with our hero.

As Bane, Tom Hardy is terrifying and (thankfully) easier to understand than the original footage made us believe. After seeing the 8-minute prologue before MI:GP last fall, it is obvious that Nolan went back in to clear up some of the dialogue from the mussled beast. Bane is an unstoppable physical force, a calculating mastermind and a ruthless killer, BUT without saying to much, his weaknesses and ultimately the motives behind his crusade hearken back to the original comics in a way that was both surprising and completely rewarding.

The action is superb, the ethos is fascinating and the sheer scope of what Nolan presents is something out of a dream (within a dream).

But it is as a finale to a larger story that Rises truly excels. Seven years after Bruce Wayne mastered his fears in Batman Begins, the theme resurfaces with an entirely new perspective on what motivates us and what role “fear” plays in our survival. A series of flashbacks both remind and inform that narrative of a man motivated first by revenge and then by the desire to become more than just a man. We are treated to old characters and old scenes that prompt both nostalgia and a sense of “oh, I didn’t realize that would be so important later.” (sidenote, keep your eyes peeled for a very small detail. When the camera shows a wide shot of the entire city, you can see where Nolan has digitally inserted the multiple-level elevated train from Batman Begins in Downtown. God is in the details and Nolan is the god of movies.)

And then it ends, in a way that is natural and predictable and yet unexpected, with Nolan hanging up his cape and walking away from the franchise he brought back from the dead.

Rises is not without its faults. The citywide battle that makes up the film’s climax does not fully deliver on the buildup and anticipation. And Bane and Batman’s final joust pales in comparison to the underground scuffle in Act II.

I preferred Gotham when it wasn’t so obviously Manhattan, as Nolan makes no attempt whatsoever at hiding the very real location where this fantasy is occurring. You would also think that a movie that is nearly 3 hours long wouldn’t leave loose ends, but I can think of a handful of questions left unanswered (One for those of you who have seen it. How exactly does a certain someone get back into a certain someplace when no one can get in or out?) and with so many new characters, I can’t help but feel that two old favorites in particular were mostly left out of the fun. Most notably, for a franchise that prides itself in the (relative) realism of its plot, I can’t help but question the city-under-siege scenario that plays out, but since the plot depends on it I’m mostly willing to let it go.

Ultimately, Rises was what I wanted it to be. Yes, I felt the absence of Heath Ledger’s joker and Bane may have been missing a certain je ne sais quoi. But I also felt myself sitting at the edge of my seat, mouth gaping open and eyes wide like a kid in a candy store. I left the theater more than 24 hours ago and I’ve had little luck since then thinking of anything else.

As a lifelong Bat-fan, I felt that my expectations were met and my passion rewarded. As a cinephile, I marveled at Nolan’s mastery. As a writer, I thought the emotional-arcs were genuine and true to the characters. As a guy that likes to watch stuff explode, Rise blew. my. freaking. mind.

Thank you Mr. Nolan. It was magical, as always. B+

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