Posts Tagged ‘movies’

It’s Christmas Eve. The shopping is finished, the stockings are hung, and not a creature is stirring, so you know what that means: time to get to work on my year-end best movies list.

I don’t know exactly what years constitute “the old ways,” but they’re definitely dead in 2018. All the good movies come out in November and December? Nope. “Summer” movies have to be stupid? Nope.

Netflix can’t make a good movie? Nope.

We’ll get to all of that over the next couple weeks. But for now, here’s some of the movies I loved watching this year that didn’t quite make the final cut of the Top 10.

Best swan song: The Old Man and the Gun

Who better than Robert Redford to play a criminal of a certain age who robs banks using little more than effortless charm? No one, that’s who.

In what will be (allegedly) his final onscreen performance, Redford plays real-life heist man Forrest Tucker in director David Lowry’s (A Ghost Story, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) delightful film that is part whodunit, part biopic and part golden-years romantic comedy.

It’s a great sendoff for the veteran actor who, like Tucker, has always made it look easy.

Best Box-office Flop: Bad Times at the El Royale

“El Royale,” made $31.5 million worldwide on a budget of $32 — so safe to say there won’t be a “Worse Times at the El Royale” any time soon. (<— Not that I’m actually advocating for a sequel, as that would be a horrible idea).

It’s a darned shame too. As El Royale is one of the best ensemble pieces of the year, with the likes of Jon Hamm, Dakota Johnson, Chris Hemsworth, Jeff Bridges and 2018 M.V.P. contender Cynthia Erivo (also in “Widows” this year) in a twisty Summer-of-love-era period thriller from writer-director Drew Goddard, whose “Cabin in the Woods” similarly goofed around with convention and failed to find the audience it deserved.

Best Superhero(es): Avengers: Infinity War

I absolutely understand why some are fatigued with superhero movies. I was getting close, but then “Infinity War” happened and pulled me back in.

Set aside, for a moment, the deluge of comic-book adaptations and consider what Marvel Studios was able to achieve with IW. The first Avengers, successfully merging three franchises (plus the Hulk), was itself a minor miracle. But Infinity War is on an entirely different and unprecedented scale, seamlessly weaving together narrative threads that spread out over 18 distinct films released over a period of 10 years.

It’s a feat of storytelling, put into corporeal form through a cinematic investment that spared no expense, all culminating in a surprising, genuinely affecting film that left anxious for the next chapter.

Best documentary: Three Identical Strangers

The initial set-up of “Three Identical Strangers” is, by itself, the kind of story that sounds stranger than fiction. A young man enrolls in college and finds himself an instant big man on campus courtesy of the identical twin he never knew existed who went to the same school one year earlier.

The already-bizarre tale gets its first twist early, as it turns out the twins are triplets. But that’s only the tip of an iceberg that is carefully and meticulously revealed regarding the brother’s separation at birth.

Best Horror: Suspiria

A close contender for the final award on this list, and one for which the “horror” label doesn’t fit quite right (the *actual* best horror movie of the year is part of the 2018 Top 10. Hint, hint) Luca Guadagnino’s remake of “Suspiria” is frequently unsettling, occasionally disturbing, and endlessly fascinating.

Centered around a dance schools/coven of witches in divided Berlin, “Suspiria” is a moody, atmospheric film that jumps from beautiful to grotesque and back again with a dark humor and unforgiving sense of dread. Bookended by two truly bonkers dance sequences (the first of which is back-dropped against a “how did they do that?” onscreen death) “Suspiria” is a movie that wonderfully defies description.

Best popcorn: Mission Impossible: Fallout

Until 2018, each of the five installments in the Mission Impossible franchise had been helmed by a new director and connected only by a loose mythology, a core cast of characters and the charge that Ethan Hunt, an agent within the Impossible Mission Force, save the world and nearly die in the process.

In Fallout, we have the first direct sequel, with director Christopher McQuarrie returning and continuing the story he launched in “Rogue Nation.” And it’s easy to see why the people behind all these impossible missions decided to break their own rules and ask McQuarrie on a second date.

Fallout is, simply, superb, the sort of extravanganza for which people say “this is why we go to the movies.” It’s nonstop plot barrels forward like a freight train, upping the ante with each new scene until a hold-your-breath climactic sequence that sees Tom Cruise in a helicopter chase/cliffside brawl while his team works to locate and dismantle a pair of nuclear weapons against a ticking clock.

For those nights when you need something big and loud and awesome, it doesn’t get much better than this.

Best indie: The Death of Stalin

Fans of HBO’s “Veep” know Armando Iannucci’s talent for mining government dysfunction for comedy. Now imagine “Veep” set in Soviet Russia and you have “The Death of Stalin,” a pitch-black comedy about the chaos and scheming that followed Stalin’s death as the members of his party jockeyed for position.

Steve Buscemi is the MVP as Nikita Khrushchev, but every member of the superb, expansive cast (including the always-interesting Jason Isaacs and a spectacularly dry performance by Andrea Riseborough ) gets plenty of moments to shine.

The 2018 Wood’s Stock Balls-to-the-Wall award: Sorry to Bother You

“Surreal” doesn’t even begin to describe “Sorry to Bother You,” writer-director Boots Riley’s film about a black telemarketer whose talent for sounding white on the phone catapults him to success selling what amounts to voluntary slave labor.

And that’s just the literal plot of “Sorry to Bother You,” an increasingly gonzo story that at one point takes a turn to [potential spoiler alert] include human-horse hybrid monsters. Riley’s meta commentary on race, class, art, popular culture and consumerism goes full-tilt for its central metaphor to increasingly bizarre and shocking results. It’s a movie with a lot on its mind, but at each point where there’s a risk of falling off the rails, Riley and his protagonist (the phenomenal Lakeith Stanfield) keep things just steady enough to keep the narrative going.

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According to ‘Concussion,’ when real-life Dr. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith) first decided to publish his discovery of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, he expected the National Football League to be relieved and take action against the degenerative disease driving so many of their retired players to depression, dementia and early deaths.

And when the NFL does what anyone would expect a billion-dollar corporation built on the backs of human crash test dummies to do — reject and ridicule Omalu’s findings — the good doctor is lovingly chided for his naivete.

“You’re going to war with a corporation that owns a day of the week,” he’s told by his mentor, played by Albert Brooks.

The exchange holds an interesting parallel to the movie itself, which is to be released on Christmas in what is, no doubt, a play at awards-season attention, but which coincidentally occurs at the zenith of the college football season, with the NFL’s super bowl just around the corner. Not only is Smith’s latest film competing with Star Wars for the eyeballs of film-goers, it also needs to convince football fans (of whom there are many) to pay the admission price and watch a movie about how their favorite sport is recklessly killing people.

It’s not easy task, but ‘Concussion’ handles the challenge with surprising grace. Smith is charming and heartbreaking as Omalu, an extensively educated Nigerian medical examiner whose own personal American Dream is slowly shattered by the ambivalence of our country’s institutions. His journey begins in a Pittsburgh coroner’s office, where the death of a former Steeler’s center collides with Omalu’s natural curiosity, creating the spark that ignites the doctor’s drive to discover the unseen malice that lie in the thousands of blows to the head that players experience during their careers.

Surrounding Smith are Brooks, Omalu’s guide and cheerleader, Alec Baldwin, a former NFL team doctor racked with guilt and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as the love interest that helps humanize the lead character.

While directed and performed well, the segments of the film concerned with Omalu’s personal life are its weakest. ‘Concussion’ is at its best when it’s at its most outraged, describing the science behind CTE and tangentially showing the former players who are spiraling out of control. Each one of those deaths is a tragedy of its own, and in making extra room for an immigrant love story ‘Concussion’ does a slight disservice to the real lives lost that spurred Omalu’s work.

But the occasional flaws in the film are little in the face of its strengths, particularly the clarity of Omalu’s case against the league and the ugly but unsurprising steps the NFL took to avoid the blame when now-expendable players lose themselves in a fog of the mind. Far from giving the NFL a pass, ‘Concussion’ relentless points a finger at the league, but a more focused script may elevated the power of the story to a knockout blow.

Grade: B+

*Concussion opens nationwide on Friday, December 25.

 

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Not every great movie is beautiful and not every beautiful movie is great. But every so often, you get a movie that is both.

Michael Caine stars as Fred Ballinger in ‘Youth,’ a lilting, dream-like film directed by Paolo Sorrentino. Set at a posh resort in Switzerland, Ballinger’s retired composer/orchestra conductor traipses through a routine of massage, upscale dining, dips in the hot tub and discussions of prostate with his longtime friend Mick, a celebrated film director played by Harvey Keitel.

He’s a tortured man, facing his own mortality and desire to live out his days quietly under pressure from his daughter to reconcile his life as a husband and father and a nagging emissary from her majesty The Queen, who would like him to perform his most famous (and pedestrian?) work one last time.

Mirroring his story is that of Mick’s, who is crafting his “testament,” a screenplay that will define his career, but one which challenges him to craft a satisfying third act.

The parallels to old age are obvious, but rather than hide from the metaphor, Sorrentino injects fantasy and levity to challenge expectations.

That the director is an Italian is no coincidence, as the film is undeniably European, interspersing bits of quiet plot between pseudo-surrealist montages of life at the resort with metaphorical and philosophical discussion between the core cast.

There’s plenty of meat for the various actors to enjoy — a brief appearance by Jane Fonda and a subplot with Paul Dano are particularly great — but the best moments are reserved for Caine and Keitel, whose friendship speaks to the melancholy pain of memory.

Grade: A-

*‘Youth’ opens in Salt Lake City on Friday, Dec. 25.

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“The party is over”

That’s the expectation of on character near the end of “The Big Short,” a movie that tracks three independent teams of Wall Street outsiders who foresaw the housing market crash of 2007 that decimated the U.S. (and world) economy and bet big on a bursting bubble.

He’s referring, of course, to the big bankers, whose behavior leading up to the crash can be described in the nicest terms as negligent (but are more accurately described in less nice terms). The banks will be broken up, he says, and those responsible for cashing checks on the backs of millions of woefully ill-advised mortgages will be sent to jail.

Well, that didn’t happen.

Instead, as hindsight and the film make abundantly clear, the big banks marched forward with the aid of a taxpayer-funded bailout, earning gargantuan bonuses for their chief executives while millions of American families lost their homes and livelihoods. The party, for the wrong people it would appear, was over.

It’s hard not to get angry while watching “The Big Short,” which deftly balances a frenzied excitement — akin to a subdued “Wolf of Wall Street” — while still possessing bucket loads of moral outrage. The outsiders who saw the disaster coming are mocked and ridiculed while shouting out to anyone who will listen the danger at the country’s doorstep.

And director Adam McKay, best known for low-brow comedies like Anchorman and Step Brothers, turns out to be an inspired choice. Any talk of adjustable interest rates and asset-backed securities is bound to glaze the eyes of casual film-goers, so McKay amps up the showmanship by having the film narrated by a smarmy, fourth-wall breaking Ryan Gosling, who occasionally delegates his explanatory duties to guest star cameos, like Margot Robbie in a bubble bath giving an Econ 101 lesson on subprime mortgages.

It’s heady stuff, but rather than get lost in the weeds, McKay and “The Big Short” (rounded out by an incredible cast including Steve Carrell, Brad Pitt, Melissa Leo and Christian Bale) keep things light and breezy, explaining just enough of the big picture to string together the insidious bread crumbs that led to financial catastrophe.

Grade: A-

*The Big Short opens nationwide on Wednesday, Dec. 23.

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“All hail Macbeth, thou shalt be king hereafter.”

Adapting Shakespeare for a modern audience is no simple task. Even the most literate of audiences can struggle to keep pace with The King’s early modern in iambic pentameter.

That’s why most director’s add a little sizzle to the steak, like the kaleidoscopic eye-jazzery of Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Romeo + Juliet’  or the winking casual-Friday approach of Joss Whedon in 2012’s phenomenal ‘Much Ado About Nothing’.

Which brings us to ‘Macbeth’, the Michael Fassbender-staring take on The Scottish Play, in which Justin Kurzel fills the screen with a lustful amount of gorgeous imagery, to the point that you almost forget how disengaged you are.

As it always has, ‘Macbeth’ tells the story of the titular Thane of Glamis, a general in the army of Duncan, King of Scotland. After a major victory, Macbeth is visited by a trio (now a quartet, inexplicably) of witches who prophesy a chain of promotion’s in the general’s future, including future king.

When one of those promotions is then bestowed on him by Duncan, Macbeth, at the urging of his wife, commits to a murderous plot to end Duncan’s reign and seize the throne for himself.

But in ‘Macbeth,’ the movie, the descent from valiant soldier to mad tyrant is crudely telescoped, eliminating much of the subtlety and moral struggle in Shakespeare’s work. We know little of pre-treason Macbeth, which robs his later decay of its emotional impact.

Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, as Lord and Lady, make the most what little breathing room is left in the script. As an Irish-German, Fassbender slips a little more easily into his role than the French Cotillard, and both wisely avoid straining to adopt overtly Scottish affectation.

What the film lacks in dramatic heft, it nearly makes up in its visuals. The battle scenes, enmeshed in smoke and fog, are shot in a trance-like speed while the palace intrigue is backdropped with an eerie, palpable darkness.

It’s a stunning thing to look at, but falls short in its storytelling.

Grade: B-

*‘Macbeth’ opens nationwide on Friday, Dec. 11

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Most movies about European immigrants chasing the American Dream are not bright, sunny affairs (think Gangs of New York or, more on the nose, The Immigrant).

But in ‘Brooklyn,’ written by Nick Hornby (About a Boy, An Education) and directed by John Crowley, the idea of romance and opportunity awaiting across the Atlantic seems endearingly possible.

After a seasickness-filled voyage across the sea, Eilis (a sensible Irish woman played by Saoirse Ronan) meets and eventually falls in love with an Italina, baseball-loving, plumber. She’s beyond lucky, with a job and boarding house lined up before she arrives, and the trick Crowley executes is acknowledging the charmed life of his protagonist without melting into a pool of sugar.

It’s a testament to the period details included in the script, like a holiday meal at the local Irish parish that pays tributes to the cheap immigrant labor that built New York City, or the hint of anxiety as a family of fellow travelers is pulled aside to face quarantine.

And Eilis’ fortune evolves into the central drama in Act III, when she’s temporarily called back across the pond and faced with a choice between her new life in America or an unexpectedly-improved situation in Ireland.

The tension of that choice arrives a little late in the movie’s running time, setting up a resolution that feels earned but could have benefited from a little more time in the oven.

Ronan already has a number of fine performances under her belt (if you haven’t seen Atonement, do so post haste)  and while ‘Brooklyn’ is hardly a breakout vehicle, it’s the latest fine choice in a growing resume of quality work for the young actress.

Grade: B+

*Brooklyn opens in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Nov. 25

 

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It’s 2001, George  W. Bush has just entered the White House, AOL is advertising on billboards and a massive, decades-long cover up of child molestation by Catholic Priests is about to be exposed by an elite team of journalists.

That’s the setting of Spotlight, which tells the true-life story of the Boston Globe division that spent a year interviewing victims and pouring through church and court records to unravel one of the most insidious conspiracies in modern memory.

It’s a great story, and just like the scandal needed the Globe’s Spotlight team to tell it right, Spotlight, the movie, is the perfect fit to tell the tale on the big screen.

Full disclosure: I’m a journalist, and I have no illusions about how much these types of films preach to my choir. But even as I attempt to set that bias aside, I maintain that Spotlight is a great piece of drama and not just first amendment porn.

That’s because director Tom McMarthy is working with a perfect cast, including Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo Liev Schriber, Rachel McAdams, Stanley Tucci and John Slattery. And together they create an incredibly human story about individuals working together to move a mountain.

Because this is Boston, and The Catholic Church (or simply, THE Church), is an institution that is all but immortal. But the Spotlight team made it bleed.

As a piece of drama, Spotlight shouldn’t work. There’s no back-alley meet ups with anonymous sources, no bricks through windows. Even fellow based-on-a-true-story Zodiak had the unspoken possibility that its journalist character could be murdered by the titular killer.

Instead we have long segments in which the characters furrow their brows and run their fingers down the pages of a directory, or type names into a database. It’s not sexy stuff, but Spotlight makes the machinery of a newsroom as compelling as a car chase.

When the pieces start coming together, and the Globe team realizes its not just a handful but dozens of priests with hundreds of victims between them, the script hums with electricity. The audience is treated to a sample of firsthand accounts from survivors, and the knowledge that it’s the tip of a very dark iceberg is handled with deft, unsettling precision by McCarthy.

The film would have been forgiven for playing into the criminal acts of the Catholic Priests. It’s easy to imagine an alt-universe version of Spotlight that plays like an episode of CSI, showing us a string of horrendous crimes as our heroes get closer to the truth.

McCarthy resists that temptation, and the film is better for it. It’s not a story about depravity, it’s a call to action.

Grade: A

*Spotlight opens in Salt Lake City on Friday, November 20

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