Monday, July 30, 2012

Top 10 Films of 2011

It took me a little while to get through all the major films of the year so I could feel confident in putting out a strong top 10 list for 2011 (I will say I still have not seen the two films Todd and Zach claim to be the best of the year).  As we look back on the mark left by 2011 in the coming years in film, the best way to describe it would be the year of nostalgia.  So many films this year pay homage to the films and times of the past.  Some of those films will be found on my list.  As of today, I have watched 52 films from last year.  This list includes the ten films I have given 4 stars to from 2011.  First, here are some films that just missed the list.  Enjoy!

Honorable Mention: Drive, Moneyball, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2
Drive Poster
Moneyball Poster
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II poster

10. Crazy, Stupid, Love. (directed by Glenn Ficarra & John Requa)
Crazy, Stupid, Love. poster
It seems like every year there is one romantic comedy that breaks the stereotypes of the traditional rom-com and become something greater.  In 2009, it was It's Complicated.  Sometimes, like in 1998 with Shakespeare in Love, the film can even find its way to the Oscar.  This year's standout romantic comedy was Crazy, Stupid, Love.  This film gave one of the best casts of the year with Steve Carell, Julianne Moore, Marisa Tomei, Emma Stone, Kevin Bacon, and Ryan Gosling (who had one of the best years in recent memory).  Although Gosling steals the show whenever he is on screen, the cast as a whole works so well together to make a perfect picture of realistic characters and relationships.  It doesn't force its laughs or its tender spots.  They are organic and authentic.  It is a wonderful all around film.

9.  Win Win (directed by Thomas McCarthy)
Win Win poster
I was very excited to see this film as it was Thomas McCarthy's follow-up after 2008's The Visitor which was one of my top movies of that year and a real surprise.  This film turned out to be just as great as his last one.  Like The Visitor, this film centers around the troubled life of the main character while he goes about his daily business.  This time around, it is Paul Giamatti in the leading role as a lawyer and high school wrestling coach who stumbles across an amazing wrestler that changes the look of his team, but caused him to be dishonest to get him.  McCarthy does a wonderful job of making his films feel completely authentic and real. You can identify with all his characters.  You may not like them, but you relate to them and feel for them.  Even though this was an anticipated film for me, it still was my surprise of the year.

8.  Hugo (directed by Martin Scorsese)
Hugo Poster
Nostalgia film #1.  Scorsese takes a different turn and makes a children's adventure film here, but there is a reason he chose this one to make.  For someone who loves and appreciates the filmmakers who came before him, no one could have done this story justice quite like he could.  It tells the story of a young orphan who finds his way into discovering a robot that introduces him and the audience to the silent films of one of the greatest turn of the century filmmakers, Georges Melies.  It was a beautiful film start to finish that not only allowed the younger generation to experience Scorsese's brilliance, but also instilled a love and respect for those that come before.

7.  The Help (directed by Tate Taylor)
The Help poster
There is always a feel-good critical darling that becomes a top Oscar film of the year.  Sometimes I really don't understand the love for it (2009's The Blind Side), and sometimes I am right with everyone on the love.  The Help is one of these films.  I was not really looking forward to this film, but felt obligated to see it as it was a Best Picture nominee.  It blew me away.  It is such a strong story brought to life by an outstanding cast.  For a feel-good movie like this to succeed, it has to bring about a genuine emotional attachment to a character.  This film moves the viewer to have an emotional attachment for four or five characters.  I am a sucker for a film where you root for the underdog, and this is definitely one of them.

6.  The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (directed by David Fincher)
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo Poster
I will start out by saying I have not seen the original film.  However, it shouldn't matter on the quality of the American remake ... Todd.  Anyways, there has never been a David Fincher film I didn't like, and this is no exception.  Rooney Mara's Lisbeth Salander is haunting throughout.  All the characters work and fit perfectly into their roles.  You add to that David Fincher making his return to psychological thrillers, and you have a perfect storm making a near perfect film.

5.  Source Code (directed by Duncan Jones)
Source Code poster
This was my top movie of the first half of the year.  This story just fascinated me from start to finish.  Duncan Jones, as he did with his last film Moon, does such a great job at establishing a sci-fi alternate reality that his films take place in.  In this film, Jake Gyllenhaal relives the same 8 minutes trying to find a potential bomb threat.  From the first minute, you buy into the concept and are with the characters on every twist and turn.  Such a fun film.

4.  Super 8 (directed by JJ Abrams)
Super 8 poster
Nostalgia film #2.  This film is a throwback to the Steven Spielberg sci-fi films of the 80's.  It was also one of the most secretive projects of the last few years.  It was well worth the wait.  JJ Abrams not only appropriately (unlike a film like War Horse) pays homage to the films that paved the way for this one, but he tells a thrilling sci-fi story in such a sweet and innocent way that you instantly fall in love with it.  This will be a classic for years to come in the same way its predecessors like E.T. and Close Encounter of the Third Kind are now.

3.  We Bought a Zoo (directed by Cameron Crowe)
We Bought a Zoo Poster
There was something with me loving the feel-good movies this year.  Either that, or there were just some amazing feel-good movies made.  This one was one of my most anticipated films of the year, and most overdue as it marked Cameron Crowe's first film since 2005.  Based on a true story, Matt Damon plays a journalist that decides to move his kids out of the city after his wife dies and buys a zoo as a project for them to come together.  It is such a beautiful story with wonderful cast.  Seriously, why doesn't this guy make more movies?

2.  Midnight in Paris (directed by Woody Allen)
Midnight in Paris poster
Nostalgia film #3.  It is rare that I absolutely love everything about a Woody Allen movie.  It is also rare that I love everything about an Owen Wilson movie.  I guess they just had to come together for it to happen.  Owen Wilson breaks out of his usual stigma and gives his best performance as an author who falls in love with the city of Paris during his midnight walks.  Everything about this film works.  Every character and caricature work perfectly.  The music matches the mood and feel.  Woody Allen's quirkiness and Owen Wilson's quirkiness are a match that works amazingly.  I loved everything about this film.  In some years, it may have been my number one.

1.  The Artist (directed by Michel Hazanavicius)
The Artist Poster
Nostalgia film #4.  There are few films that come around that change the way you look at films.  This was one of those films for me.  This bit of nostalgia goes back a little further than the other films on the list.  Jean Dujardin stars as silent film star George Valentin during the transition from silent films to talkies.  He holds firm to his art form and pays the price for it by falling into obscurity.  This film introduces a new generation to a whole genre of film that had been all but forgotten by producing one of the best of its kind in the first major silent film in some 70 years.  This is my favorite film of the year, and with time could be my favorite of this young 21st century and one of my favorites of all time.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Power Rankings: Fake movies we wish were real

This list could be filled with almost any movie mentioned in Seinfeld or 30 Rock, but my scope of knowledge of those shows is not the greatest (hence why only two are mentioned). Other easy qualifiers are the Grindhouse films and Tropic Thunder films, even though most of the former are planned for actual production (omitted those ones). I tried to diversify this list a bit, but it basically ended up just being a bunch of comedies. Nothing wrong with that, though. I will also give my best shot at assigning the film a writing and directing team. Check it out…

Others receiving votes: Ants in Your Pants of 1939 (Sullivan’s Travels), Austinpussy (Austin Powers in Goldmember), Fiercely (What Just Happened), Maximum: Extreme 2 (Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle), Meet Pamela (Day For Night), Nation’s Pride (Inglourious Basterds), Re-Do (Funny People), Rochelle, Rochelle (Seinfeld), Satan’s Alley (Tropic Thunder), Simple Jack (Tropic Thunder)

10. ASSES OF FIRE (South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut)
What we know about the plot: Stupid comedy about two moronic, profane Canadian friends who fart, sing, and insult their way to huge laughs
Writers/Directors: Bobby Farrelly, Peter Farrelly
Why? I am not sure how much more popular this would be than the typical Adam Sandler movie or something, but when the Farrelly brothers are making gross-out R-rated comedies, few filmmakers are more effective. The weird thing is that it is technically live action, so that would definitely make it a bit different.

9. GOOD WILL HUNTING 2: HUNTING SEASON (Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back)
What we know about the plot: A comedy regurgitation of the masterpiece. How do you like them apples? Applesauce, bitch!
Writer: Matt Damon (story), Ben Affleck (story), Seth MacFarlane (screenplay)
Director: Seth MacFarlane
Why? This would probably be awful, unless it really embraces its ridiculousness. In the movie, it is made to be an actual sequel with the stars just looking for a payday, but if someone like MacFarlane got his hands on it, it could be hilarious. Granted, the story is not exactly as iconic as Star Wars, but if I could somehow see Will and Chuckie in a movie again, I would be there in a minute.

8. CHICKS WHO LOVE GUNS (Jackie Brown)
What we know about the plot: More of an informational video than a real movie, but it is all about chicks in bikinis shooting and discussing their assault rifles
Writer: Quentin Tarantino (story), Edgar Wright (story), Robert Rodriguez (story), Eli Roth (story/screenplay)
Director: Eli Roth
Why? Honestly, I am not even sure what this actually is, but if we get the Tarantino brain trust thinking up a story, then this would be amazing. Eli Roth seems to be the one of the four that is least concerned with what people think of his work. He would take the jump and make this into something insane.

7. SACK LUNCH(Seinfeld)
What we know about the plot: A light escapist comedy with a poster featuring a family in a brown paper bag. Details about how they got there and whether the family got shrunk or it is just a giant bag is not disclosed.
Writer: Paul Rudd (story/screenplay), David Wain (story)
Director: David Wain
Why? What makes the thing so great is that Elaine never really thinks about how the bag may be figurative. I assume that it is a real bag, but still. It seems like a light, funny Paul Rudd-esque story. I assume that he and Wain would make it more than just Honey, I Shrunk the Kids or something of that nature.

6. HOME FOR PURIM (For Your Consideration)
What we know about the plot: A Jewish family in 1940s, complete with a patriarch, dying matriarch, lesbian daughter and girlfriend, and son returning from war, gathering to celebrate the Jewish holiday, Purim
Writer: Lawrence Kasdan
Director: Mike Nichols
Why? All the while watching FYC, I always thought this looked like a very watchable movie. It seems like a Kasdan story (there is no way that he wouldn’t direct), but Nichols would make this into a brilliant talky movie in a way that only he can. If they are involved, then maybe it won’t just be one anonymous blogger talking about its Oscar buzz…

5. CHUBBY RAIN (Bowfinger)
What we know about the plot: A campy sci-fi alien action movie culminating with the awesome kill scene and line “Gotcha suckers!”
Writer/Director: John Carpenter
Why? Carpenter seemed to be the go-to guy for schlocky horror movies, and this one looks no different. I don’t know how Carpenter can make the cliché and ridiculous be interesting and groundbreaking, but he does. This screenplay would need a rewrite, and it could well be Carpenter’s ticket back to the Hollywood eye.

What we know about the plot: At some point mobster Johnny guns down fellow mobster Snakes, using his token line “keep the change, you filthy animal”
Writer/Director: Matthew Weiner
Why? It has been forever since we have had a real hardcore gangster movie. Who better than Weiner to make a send-up to the Cagney-era gangster flicks? This would be among the coolest things ever. Oh, and don’t forget about the sequel “Filthier Souls” from Home Alone 2!

3. THE 3 (Adaptation)
What we know about the plot: It is a dark, cliché psychological thriller about a serial killer
Writer: Donald Kaufman (screenplay/story), Charlie Kaufman (story)
Director: Donald Kaufman
Why? As Terry pointed out to me, Donald dies, so he can’t direct it. However, that was a movie, not real life. But Donald is not real to begin with, and his Oscar nom was not labeled as posthumous. Screw it, he is directing the movie because we all know that Charlie was not all that into it. The movie was kind of already made as Identity, but “The 3” promises to be so much more awesome.

What we know about the plot: Hitler’s diabolical plans to create a race of superwomen, with Nicolas Cage as Fu Manchu!
Writer/Director: Rob Zombie
Why? This is the only one of those mock trailers that has no plans or shot of ever being made, yet it was the coolest one…well other than Machete. I laughed so hard during the trailer, and yet Zombie has the kind of horror skill and comedic timing that this could turn into a modern horror masterpiece. I need this movie!

What we know about the plot: a Vietnam movie and apparently the only movie to win the Oscar with balls since The Deer Hunter
Writer/Director: Quentin Tarantino
Why? So many directors have taken on a Vietnam movie, yet Tarantino seems to be the one custom built to make one. They talk this movie up as being the shit, and when you have a Tarantino script mentioning how awesome Deer Hunter is, you know it has my attention. The title is perfect. If Tarantino puts his mind to it, then I think we could be looking at an all-time war classic. After first watching True Romance, I wanted so badly for the movie to be real. And yet with the million movies that QT promises to make, this has never been mentioned. Sigh…

That was so much fun to write. Thoughts? Omissions? Your list?

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Best Film of 2011: Margaret

Directed by
Kenneth Lonergan
Margaret is a movie that has been one of my 5 most anticipated films each year for the past 7 years. That’s right, 7 years. The film was shot back in 2005, and after going through post-production hell, the movie was deemed “unreleaseable” at one point. There were lawsuits filed over the extension of the editing process, and the original cut of the film (just over 3 hours) was butchered down to an initial 90 minutes, which garnered the film some scathing reviews and made the movie that much harder to get released (Once Upon a Time in America, anyone?). Finally, seven years after the film wrapped, the film was released in a compromised 150 minute form, yet basically no one saw it in theaters. The video release is going to be where the film gets its reputation, featuring the theatrical and extended cuts of the film. Some reviewers who gave the initial version a negative review have viewed the director’s cut and changed it to positive, sometimes in as drastic of a 180 as Ebert’s Brown Bunny fiasco.
Having said all of that, this film is clearly the best film I have seen released in 2011. Kenneth Lonergan (whose only other directorial effort was the brilliant 2000 feature You Can Count on Me) creates a masterwork that ranks with the finest films of the past few years. It is probably the most ambitious film of 2011 (even more that The Tree of Life). It is the most emotionally impactful film of 2011. Even when would you would have expected it to take a scene off from the grief or had an opportunity for an easy way out, Lonergan keeps the scope on his characters and makes the audience feel it. Not every scene works, but the vast majority does. And the ones that do work are richly-drawn and unforgettable.

The film revolves around outspoken Manhattan high school student Lisa Cohen (Oscar-winner Anna Paquin, three years before she first donned a Merlotte's uniform) who witnesses a horrific traffic accident which killed a woman (Allison Janney), an accident that she feels increasingly responsible for. Lisa knows that the driver of the bus (Mark Ruffalo) did not intentionally run her over, but their combined role could be construed as reckless. They both brush it off with no crime filed, yet both feel the deep-seeded guilt over the death of the innocent woman. The film is not a Guillermo Arriaga-type story in which it examines the effect an incident has on everyone involved. The film is about Lisa. It is about her trying to set things right with her screwed view of the world. She pushes away her caring family and concerned teachers. She seeks out a lawsuit against the driver with the best friend of the victim (Jeannie Berlin). She strains every relationship in her life, but the person who is most broken is Lisa herself.
The movie could easily have delved into melodramatic territory and be a burden on the audience, but every scene is so beautifully shot and brilliantly written that the audience is left spellbound for the duration. What is most amazing is that Lisa is not at all a likable character. She is a horrible person who can only justify her actions to herself. She is scathing for no reason to her actress mother (J. Smith-Cameron, Oscar-worthy) and she manipulates everyone around her. When someone tries to make a connection with her and help her get through the grief, like her teacher Mr. Aaron (Oscar-winner Matt Damon), she does nothing but tries to use him for her own reasons. Paquin really digs deep into her character and into our hearts. She gives far and away her best performance ever, and had the film gotten a wide release and more people had seen the film in its rightful form, the full 186 minute cut, there is no doubt in my mind that she could have walked away with the Oscar gold.

The supporting players are uniformly great as well. It is interesting to look at it now, though, considering this astonishing ensemble were near-nobodies at the time of filming. Rosemarie DeWitt has one scene. Michael Ealy has a small part. Olivia Thirlby has a few lines. Sarah Steele (in her second movie) has very limited time. Krysten Ritter has a bit part. It is the more established actors that make the movie click, though. Matthew Broderick, in a somewhat meaningless role, performs admirably. Matt Damon is restrained and sensitive. Mark Ruffalo is fantastic. Kieran Culkin did his thing. Jean Reno is always fun to see. Allison Janney’s scene is devastating. The best-in-show reviews, however went to one of the great “Where the hell have they been?” performances this side of Jackie Earle Haley in Little Children. That actress was Jeannie Berlin, just her third film since her Oscar nom back in 1972. She is emotional and professional, probably the most relatable character in the film, and that is because she is so grounded. Her character is the heart of the second half, but it is still Paquin that still dominates the film.
The screenplay by Lonergan is insightful and is one of the greatest assets of the film. His words are so precise and his characters are all fleshed out to near perfection. He packs so many words into each scene, making each scene seem so vital to the story, and at times, maybe even a bit rushed. Honestly, the film could have even been longer. The audience wants to live in this world for as long as possible. The 150 minute version is a blistering masterpiece, but it almost needs those extra 36 minutes to really complete the story. There is enough that happens in the film to even justify a miniseries. In fact, by the time the credits roll after the beautiful final shot of the film, you will feel as much connection to these characters as you would characters you have watched for an entire season of television. The comparison to Once Upon a Time in America is legitimate. I could have watched Noodles and Max forever. I feel the almost the same about Lisa. Her character is so intriguing and haunting that I cannot help but be captivated by her presence in every shot of the film.

What makes this Margaret so great is how differently it handles the material. It is so immersed in its own atmosphere and characters that it will take time off from the story to make a point about something unrelated just to establish more character development within Lisa, while never losing the film’s razor-sharp edge. She wears her emotions on her sleeve perhaps more than any movie character ever. She overdramatizes everything, but as she says, she is a teenager and her mother is an actress, so it’s not her fault if she overdoes it. Watching Lisa go on her journey through self-justification and emotional hell is both fascinating to watch and intellectually-stimulating. She is a typical high-brow teenage New Yorker. She has a take on everything, despite her lack of education on the subject. She uses and misuses a ridiculous vocabulary. She is snobby and manipulative. The world revolves around her. How could the movie be so appealing then? Just go watch it and see for yourself. It may not be for everyone, but if you get into it, I can promise that you will never be on a more satisfying emotional roller-coaster watching a film. It is worth every penny and every second.

Rating: 4 stars

#1  of 2011

Friday, July 13, 2012

NFL Win Totals: Five Early Predictions

Sportsbook has released their over/unders for NFL teams for the 2012 season.  If you live in Vegas, this is a great opportunity to invest a hearty sum of cash right now and see a nice return by the new year.  If you do not live in Vegas, it is a good reason to convince your wife to move there.  OK, maybe not.  Actually, it’s a good way to make your wife force you to sleep on the couch.  But at least then, you can watch NFL network highlights at 2 in the morning.  That is, until she cancels your NFL network subscription.  Suddenly, this article is becoming autobiographical . . . in any event, here are some early season wagers that could pay off nicely (along with an open invitation to Todd to make Vegas plans right now).

Buffalo Bills (Under 7.5 wins +125)
$100 bet pays $125

The Bills are undoubtedly the NFL’s lovable losers – it is almost as impossible to root against them as it is for them to actually win games.  They showed some signs of life last season with a 5-2 start and legitimate talent on both sides of the ball (Fitzpatrick and Jackson both came up just short of 4,000 and 1,000 yards respectively, and the defense ranked 5th in forced turnovers).  But a .500 season is a lot to ask.  In 2012, four of Buffalo’s first six games are on the road (including cross-country visits to San Francisco and Arizona.)  And that’s not counting two additional road games in November against the Texans and Patriots back-to-back.  Speaking of AFC East teams, the Bills did finally beat New England last year, giving them their first win against the Pats since Week 1 of 2003.  This pushed their record to 1-15 against New England in their last 16 games (they ended up losing the season finale at New England, making their record 1-16). Not that the rest of the division has exactly been a cakewalk: Since 2008, Buffalo has beat the Jets a grand total of one game (a 16-13 overtime win in 2009) and have lost six of eight to Miami.  Sorry Ryan Fitzpatrick – it’s not too late to turn that Harvard degree into success somewhere else.

Detroit Lions (Under 9 wins +105)
$100 bet pays $105

I expect the under to move up as the season gets closer, but the stars are perfectly aligned for this one: Calvin Johnson appearing on the cover of Madden, the sophomore slump for any team appearing in the playoffs for the first time in the new millennium, and six of their first nine games on the road.  Their draft didn’t really solve their most nagging problem (a complete lack of consistent running game), and with Chicago and Minnesota likely to improve, playing any team in the NFC North suddenly seems like a daunting task.  Five of their last seven games are at home, but opponents the likes of Green Bay, Houston, and Atlanta don’t exactly spell relief.  This is a talented team with a bright future, and nine wins this season would be more than impressive.

Denver Broncos (Under 8.5 wins +125)
$100 bet pays $125

Peyton Manning is 36 years old.  He hasn’t thrown a pass in the NFL since January 8, 2011.  He is recovering from a neck fusion.  His primary targets are Eric Decker, Demaryius Thomas, and fellow 36-year-old Brandon Stokley (who admittedly did put up stellar numbers with Manning as QB . . . in 2004).     

Then there’s Denver.  The Broncos haven’t won 9 games since 2006 (the transition year from Jake Plummer to Jay Cutler).  Three of their first four games in 2012 are against double-digit win playoff teams from 2011 (Pittsburgh, at Atlanta, Houston, and at New England).  In fact, the Broncos only play three teams that won 7 or fewer games last season (Carolina, Tampa Bay, and Cleveland).  But never mind their schedule.  Never mind Peyton Manning, or their 24th ranked scoring defense from last season.  There’s karma involved here.  When you win your first division title and first playoff game in six years, and when you choose to ship off a talent like Tim Tebow and instead choose to spend $13 million on a kicker, bad fortune awaits you (ask Trent Dilfer and the 2001 Baltimore Ravens).  The 2012 Broncos are a disaster waiting to implode.

New York Giants (Over 8.5 wins -160)
$100 bet pays $62.50

I’ve tried to avoid negative lines since we’re looking for lucrative preseason bets, but this one completely defies logic.  Did the oddsmakers stop watching the Giants at the end of the regular season?  Did they just assume they were another middle-of-the-line 9-win team?  Put it this way: The over/under for San Diego – a team which has not made the playoffs since 2009 – is 9 and the over/under for New Orleans – a team whose coach has been suspended, whose franchise is in turmoil, and whose quarterback is currently embroiled in contract dispute – is 9.5.  And the G-men?  8.5 games.  Slap in the face.

Granted, their schedule is tougher than others: Seven games against playoff teams from 2011, and some tough road games at San Francisco, Atlanta, and Baltimore.  But they haven’t had too much turnover since their Super Bowl title besides already-underperforming Brandon Jacobs and Mario Manningham, and the last I saw, they looked indestructible in their Super Bowl run.  The season after they won Super XLII, they didn’t exactly slouch either, going 12-4 and clinching the NFC’s #1 seed.  Yes, they have the propensity for extreme unpredictability – to a frustrating extent – but they can make 9 wins in their sleep.  On the upside, $62.50 can pay for three nights at the Stratosphere.

Pittsburgh Steelers (Over 10.5 wins +140)
$100 bet pays $140

Everyone is eager to call this team old, slow, and downright lucky to have won 12 games last year (when you face off against quarterbacks like Tyler Palko, Kellen Clemens, Blaine Gabbert, Tavaris Jackson, and Colt McCoy, 12 wins suddenly doesn’t seem so tough).  The reality is that only six teams won 11+ games last year, and the Stealers were one of the them.  Another reality is that Pittsburgh was a Torrey Smith catch away from being the AFC’s #1 seed.  As usual, Pittsburgh’s schedule is inexplicably easy: Only five games against over-.500 teams from last season (the Ravens are their only opponent with double-digit wins).  Three of their final four games are at home.  No Patriots, Texans, Packers, Saints, or 49ers.  The only five games they could lose are at Cincinnati, at New York Giants, Baltimore, at Baltimore, and at Dallas – and this is generous.  And look at the plus side: If you blow $100 on this line and it doesn’t deliver, that means Shittsburgh would have lost six or more games.  In fact, my bad karma makes me want to put a lot of money on this.  No amount of money could possibly quantify how happy it would make me if this team really is too old.