Podcast: Summer Movie Tournament

spielberg jaws

Usually, around this time of the year, I go on Rachel, my usual Criterion Project co-host’s, other podcast to predict what will be the biggest summer movies of the season. This year however, there is no summer movie season to speak of. Instead, my wife and I joined Rachel to determine once and for all: what is the best summer movie of all time? Jaws, Star Wars, Jurassic Park, The Dark Knight, all make an appearance, but only one of them will be crowned the best. You can listen to our conversation below, or wherever you get your podcasts.

With ‘The Post’, Steven Spielberg completes an excellent trilogy about the Constitution.

the post

America’s never been great, but that’s not entirely America’s fault. No country is inherently great. No constitution, no matter who writes it, guarantees a country’s success. The constitution of the United States of America is no different, but that doesn’t prevent its citizens from being obsessed with it. America, in many ways, is obsessed with itself. Almost every controversy in this country is followed by commentators, politicians, and celebrities philosophizing on what it does and doesn’t mean to be an American. “This is not who we are”, “This isn’t the image America should give to the world”, “America is better than this.” We can debate whether this “American exceptionalism” does more harm or good, but there is no question that most Americans believe in it.

The ability to believe in this message of exceptionalism while simultaneously examining -even questioning- the machines that make it work is what makes the recent work of Steven Spielberg so fascinating. Judging by his movies, Spielberg is a believer in America’s ability to be a force for good. Moreover, he believes that the American constitution is a perfectly fine blueprint for achieving this greater good. At the same time, however, he understands that the constitution isn’t perfect, and more importantly, is not going to uphold itself. Being a force for good is possible, but it’s not an easy job. It’s not that the constitution magically created a great country. The constitution is important, but even more important is the belief behind its creation, that a country could be great.

In order to explore this question, Spielberg’s made a trilogy of films that serve as a lesson in American civics. Each of these movies interrogates the idealism of the constitution by focusing on the practical. Each movie shows what it looks like for a different democratic institution to try to uphold the ideals behind this founding document. The first movie of the trilogy is Lincoln, which chronicles the process of passing the 13th amendment that ended slavery and was integral step toward actualizing the “all men are created equal” element of the constitution. Lincoln deals directly with the notion that it’s not the constitution itself, but people’s interpretation of it, that creates equality. It also shows that achieving something as great as the passage of an invaluable amendment can be an extremely tricky process.

President Lincoln -portrayed in an Oscar-winning performance by Daniel Day-Lewis- is a wise and charismatic man; he’s also a cunning strategist. A large chunk of the movie focuses on the unorthodox methods Lincoln used in order to convince congress to pass the bill. Not everything that was done was ethical, not everything that was done was legal. There was extensive trickery, and lies, involved. But such is the democratic process, the movie argues. The juxtaposes the idealism of one of the brightest moments in American history with the down and dirty reality of the political machine. John Williams’s heroic score can swell while Lincoln gives a speech, and still the movie understands that idealism is nothing without action.

The second movie in the trilogy, Bridge of Spiesfocuses on the judiciary. All-American Tom Hanks plays attorney James B. Donovan, who takes the job of defending a captured Soviet spy. The first half of the movie includes a lot of Donovan speechifying about how granting this man -no matter his crime- is the right, American, thing to do. Not doing so, according to Donovan, would be forgetting the ideals of the constitution, lowering the standards up to which American Democracy holds itself. This is very much a movie about the cost of idealism. Doing what’s right turns Donovan (and his family) into pariahs. So much so that instead of throwing rocks at his house, an angry mob decides to shoot at it.

But Donovan just has to do what’s right. In the second half, he is unexpectedly called to East Berlin, where he has to negotiate the release of two Americans who have been imprisoned by the Soviet and East German governments respectively. Donovan, as played by Hanks, is the most heroic character in this trilogy. He is an everyman who is thrown into impossible situations in which he simply has to what’s right. Donovan’s time in East Berlin is, simply, excruciating. He must deal with two corrupt governments, impossible bureaucracy, a lack of sleep, and the fact that he has a cold. In Bridge of Spies, upholding the constitution and doing what’t right is physically exhausting. But it’s what’s got to be done. Donovan refers to the constitution as “the rulebook.” Adhering to the rules, he claims, is “what makes us American”

The trilogy closes out this year, with The Postwhich is currently playing in theaters and might just be the perfect capper. The last entry in the series feels like a much more urgent film than the ones that preceded it, and for obvious reasons. Famously, Spielberg first read the script for The Post in February. Less than ten months later, the movie was screening for critics. To say that the movie was inspired by last year’s presidential election would be an understatement. The movie focuses on the publication of classified information known as The Pentagon Papers, and the subsequent lawsuit that the executive branch of government filed against the New York Times and the Washington Post. This is a movie about how the freedom of the press is essential in a democratic government.

The Post not only deals with the Executive Branch, but with the “Fourth Estate” that is meant to hold it accountable. It’s interesting that the movie chooses to focus on the people working at the Washington Post. The New York Times was the first paper to publish classified material that made clear the government was lying to the public about the Vietnam War, but focusing on The Post allows Spielberg to put the focus on the underdogs. Not only because the Post was a relatively small regional paper at the time, but because he finds a very fascinating hero in the paper’s owner, Katharine Graham (played by Meryl Streep).

Graham is a very unusual heroine. On the one hand, she is an underdog. She is a woman in a position of power at a time in which such things were more than uncommon (and she only got ownership of the paper after her husband died). As such, she has a hard time getting the men around her to fully respect her, and is incredibly doubtful about her decisions. This doesn’t mean that she isn’t a strong and courageous woman. If anything, it means the opposite, that a woman raised in a system that was overwhelmingly against her agency forged on to defy the U.S. President is outstanding. On the other hand, Graham is a privileged woman. She’s a wealthy socialite who spends a lot of her time at fancy dinner parties.

Because she is a Washington socialite, Graham is friends with many politicians, including Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. When she first hears about the possibility of publishing the papers, she thinks of her friend of Bob, of what this whole situation will do to him and his reputation. One of the most effective moments in the movie comes when Graham and Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), go on about their friendships to ex-Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. Were they softer on them than they should have been? How are the people meant to hold the President accountable be the President’s friend?

And at the same time, you have a whole group of reporters at the Post working hard to find and publish these papers. Graham might be at the center of the story, responsible for the ultimate decision to publish, but this is a team effort. It’s not just one person, it’s not even just one paper. It’s, again, a movie about doing what’s right on the face of fear. The things at stake are money, power, reputation. Those are all things that America loves, but those are not the thing behind the ideals of the constitution. That’s what Spielberg has been trying to get at in this section of his career. What does it mean to do the right thing?

At a time when culture is focused on nostalgia for the past. At a time where movies and tv shows insist on recycling the magic of the movies Spielberg made in the nineties, Spielberg has decided to go on a fully opposite direction. He’s making movies that have a classical sheen, following the legacy of Frank Capra and John Ford. That movies, in this day and age, can be bold and earnest about the thing they are about. That they can be transparently idealistic and incredibly honest at the same time. That there is a director like Spielberg, who can make these movies with such directorial aplomb. All of these things make me happy. All of these things, I celebrate.

2016 Movie Preview

hail caesar preview

January is hard for moviegoers who’ve already caught up with most of the late-year Oscar nominees. But while the world sees The Force Awakens again, and I watch World of Tomorrow on a loop (now available on Netflix!), let us take a look at the movies we’ll be seeing later in this great and promising year of 2016.

The Five Movies I Can’t Wait to See: 

Hail, Caesar! – I put this movie on my “Most Excited”list last year, saying I wasn’t sure it would actually come out in 2015, and here we are. The Coen Brothers’ latest will have its premiere at the Berlin Film Festival. I don’t know what to say about this one. I’m a huge Coen Brothers fan, the trailer makes it look awesome, and the cast (including Josh Brolin, Ralph Fiennes, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, and Channing Tatum) is full of great actors. (February 5)

Kubo and the Two Strings – Just the fact that Laika made ParaNoman, a strong contender for the best animated movie of the past ten years, is enough to get me excited for whatever they do next. The gorgeous-looking trailer I saw before The Force Awakens is only icing on the anticipation cake. (August 19)

Moana – You know I’m a Disney buff. Frozen was a mega-hit, but this is the moment of truth. The first female-led/princess animated Disney movie in a post-Frozen world. The Polynesian setting and the involvement of Ron Clements and John Musker (two of Disney’s finest) has me very excited. (November 26)

How to Talk to Girls at PartiesThis is a movie about boys trying to pick up alien girls. This is a movie that stars Nicole Kidman. This is a movie based on a Neil Gaiman short story. This will be the first movie directed by John Cameron Mitchell in six years. His debut feature, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, is one of the movies that turned me into a cinephile. I can’t wait. (Release Date TBD)

ZamaLucrecia Martel’s La Cienaga is one of the most significant and groundbreaking South American movies of the last twenty years. Eight years after her last movie, she returns with this epic literary adaptation, based on the novel of the same name by Antonio di Benedetto and produced by Pedro Almodovar, Zama is one of the largest Latin American productions ever made. Here’s hoping it’s also a great film. (Release Date TBD)

Last Year’s Movies That Will Be Released in 2016 (And I’m Most Excited For):

The WitchGood horror movies are hard to come by, and the reaction from last year’s Sundance spell out good things for this “New Englang Folk-Tale”. Plus, the trailer already looks creepy as hell. (February 26)

The Lobster – I already saw Yorgos Lanthimos’s English-language debut at the New York Film Festival, but if I’m being honest, I’m looking forward to watching it again more than I am looking forward to most films coming out this year. (March 11)

Green Room – A punk band is held hostage by a group of violent skinheads in this independent thriller. The big selling point for me here is director Jeremy Saulnier, who made my Best of 2014 list with Blue Ruin. (April 1)

A Bigger Splash – Tilda Switon. Ralph Fiennes. Dakota Johnson. I love all of them. Throw in Matthias Shoenaerts, who whatever is a fine actor, and director Luca Guadagnino, who has already proven to have a stylish and sumptuous eye in I Am LoveI’m in. (May 13)

Maggie’s Plan – One of the movies I regret not being able to catch at the New York Film Festival, Rebecca Miller’s romantic comedy stars Greta Gerwig, Ethan Hawke, and Julianne Moore, all great actors currently doing some of the best work of their careers. (May 20)

Movies I’m Cautiously Optimistic About:

Everybody Wants Some Richard Linklater often makes great movies. Before Midnight and Boyhood were both among my favorites of their respective years, but he also sometimes make merely ok movies. The trailer for this spiritual sequel to Dazed and Confused makes me think it could go either way. (April 15) 

The BFG – If Lincoln and Bridge of Spies are any indication, Steven Spielberg is still going strong. This year will see Spielberg go back to family entertainment with an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s children’s novel about a big friendly giant. Here’s hoping this is an E.T. and not a Hook. (July 1)

La La LandThe first (and only) image released so far makes this look like a classic Hollywood musical. I love classic Hollywood musicals. I also loved when Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone played lovers in Crazy, Stupid, Love. I’m hoping this will be great, even if I wasn’t crazy about director Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash. (July 15)

Julieta It’s always worth it to get excited about a new Pedro Almodovar movie. He’s been hit and miss recently. I’m nervous because his last movie, I’m So Excited!was one of his weakest, but even that was still pretty fun. (Release Date TBD)

The Lost City of ZJames Gray is a director best known for making social realistic dramas like Two Loversand melodramatic period pieces like The Immigrant. His next movie is an adventure about a 1925 expedition to find a lost city in the Amazon. Sounds unusual, and ambitious, and it has my attention. (Release Date TBD)

Classic Spielberg: A Review of ‘Bridge of Spies’

Screen shot 2015-10-12 at 2.30.27 p.m.

The term “old fashioned” is usually associated with certain negative connotations, but believe me when I say that Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies is old fashioned in all the right ways. All throughout this Cold War spy drama, I was reminded not of any particular classic Hollywood film, but of the style of the films that were made in this era. Not the films that dealt specifically with important “issues”, but those that couched a sometimes profound, almost always subversive, message in their narratives. These films were more often than not “genre pictures” -western, horror, science fiction- but they always had something to say about America and American culture beyond their narrative thrills. Bridge of Spies, despite not being a “genre picture”, shares in the tradition of those defiant classics.

Despite its title, Bridge of Spies does not fit comfortably into our definition of the “spy movie” genre. If anything, the film would be best described as a legal drama, which is part of the reason why the movie couldn’t be called a “genre picture”. Legal dramas are simply too prestigious. And even then, it’s hard to classify the movie under one single genre at all. The first half of the movie focuses on what happens after the capture of Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), most specifically the trial during which all-American insurance lawyer James Donovan (Tom Hanks) acts as the Soviet’s attorney. In the second, the film shifts gears into a tense negotiation in which Donovan must travel to Berlin and strike a deal to exchange captured spies with the Soviet government.

One thing’s for sure, though. Like the film’s I alluded to before, Bridge of Spies is one hell of a handsomely made movie. Even though I would contest that Spielberg has not directed a masterpiece since Munichhis filmmaking talent has not diminished a bit in the past decade. Unlike other directors who age out into irrelevance, Spielberg’s seems to have found comfort in the fact that he is one of the most *powerful* filmmakers alive. He has evolved from a cinematic virtuoso into an old master of the form. Experience has given him the confidence to be patient. Bridge of Spies takes as much time as it needs to go from scene to scene, and it knows that we will follow it into any kind of narrative digression and trust that the seemingly unconnected scene will mean something to the movie in terms of plot, character, of theme.

We spend an uncommon amount of time with characters other than our hero, and while we don’t really need to see these scenes to follow the movie’s narrative, they end up being some of the movie’s strongest sequences. One of them follows a cycling student in East Berlin, the other is the movie’s opening, which focuses on the daily routine of Soviet spy Abel before he gets captured. Abel -played magnificently by theatre veteran Rylance- end up becoming the emotional center of the film. His old-man demeanor and dry sense of humor is not an act, this communist spy is presented as a character with as much honor and conviction as the American protagonist. A characterization that would have been shocking in any mainstream film made before the fall of the communist block.

This brings me back to my original point about Bridge of Spies. A superficial reading of the film, and it would be tempting and understandable to make such a reading considering the sheer technical quality of the filmmaking, will present a classic tale about a moral citizen fighting hard for American ideals. Hanks’s Donovan echoes the quintessential political hero portrayed by Jimmy Stewart when Mr. Smith went to Washington. This is one of Hanks’s most charismatic performances, and probably the epitome for an actor who has made a career off of playing all kinds of “everymen.” But accepting this as a tale of great idealism would be meeting the movie only halfway through.

The natural question is: Why would Spielberg decide to tell this story now? The film is based on true events, and has been in development in way or another for years, but why now? The easiest connection to make is the treatment of Edward Snowden after his infamous information leak. Not a far-fetched connection when we’re talking about a movie that spends most of its first act exploring the idea that the “enemy” spy deserves proper representation and a fair trial. Restricting the thematic undertones to Snowden might actually be too much. Spielberg has a number of things to say about intelligence and information. Hanks’s character, for example, is continually kept on the dark during his Berlin mission, and despite the third act’s triumphant air, every victory comes with a darker, more melancholy, side to it.

If there is a weak link to this movie, it is probably its ending, which -not unlike many of Spielberg’s movies- indulges in sentimentality that threatens to drown out the more subtle nuances of the story. I think it would be improper of me to write about the end in detail when most people haven’t seen this movie yet, but I will say that some of the most fascinating and revealing moments in the movie have to do with the relationship between the captured spies and their respective governments. Each government wants to get back their people, but the swelling strings of Thomas Newman’s score don’t correlate with the treatment of the people welcoming them back home.

Spielberg’s directorial hand is so assured during most of the movie that it becomes puzzling that he decided to go so straight-forward and sentimental in the final moments, especially in his use of title cards at the very end of the movie. Still, there is so much more to this movie than just the ending, and even within its sentimental culmination, there are ambiguities and melancholies to be found. There might be nothing more cliched than harping on the end of a Spielberg movie, so I shall abstain. Instead, I will recommend Bridge of Spies for its thrills, its thoughts, and even its flaws.

Grade: 8 out of 10

NYFF Diary Part Four: Three Really Good Movies

steve jobs 1

This is the “diary” I’m keeping during my (mis)adventures at the New York Film Festival, you can read my previous thoughts here. And you can see what I thought of this weekend’s movies, including two of the festival’s big premieres, if you keep reading…

Saturday, October 3

Steve Jobs (directed by Danny Boyle)
I very strongly believed that I didn’t need to see a movie about Steve Jobs. I’m still not sure I *needed* this Danny Boyle/Aaron Sorkin collaboration, but I most definitely enjoyed it. These days Sorkin seems to be at his best when he writes for the movies, and by choosing to build this movie around three dramatically specific days in Jobs’s life, he provides the perfect pressure cooker setting for his characters to bounce off of each other. And boy do these actors deliver. Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen, Michael Stuhlbarg, Jeff Daniels, Katherine Waterston… a strong cast on paper, is even stronger on screen. Sure, Michael Fassbender doesn’t really look or sound that much like Steve Jobs, but who cares when you’re having this much fun (and when he’s delivering such strong work)?

Steve Jobs comes only second to Thomas Edison as far as stories about universally acclaimed geniuses were actually huge jerks are concerned, and that’s why it makes such a great pairing with Sorkin. More so than any of his previous movies -especially after the criticism he got for The Newsroom– Sorkin seems to be examining his own reputation through Jobs. I don’t know if Danny Boyle was the best choice to direct this movie, but he gets the work done. I will think more about how these pieces fit together and write a full review of Steve Jobs later this week, so feel free to look forward to that.

Sunday, October 4

Bridge of Spies (directed by Steven Spielberg)
More than anything, this movie reminds me of classic Hollywood. Not that it features any blatantly obvious nods toward the movies of that period (although Spielberg’s as a whole is obviously deeply influenced by Hollywood’s Golden Age), but because of the way in which it interweaves a solidly classical narrative of idealistic triumph with darker and more subversive undertones that point the fingers towards America’s current relationship to information and intelligence. Calling it pro-Snowden would be too much, but not ridiculous.

I still need some time to fully digest the movie, but Spielberg is in good form for this one. So are Tom Hanks, who is going through a very solid period in his career, and Mark Rylance, who steals the show in an understated supporting role as a Soviet spy. If there’s an adjective to describe this movie it is solid. I will give a longer, more detailed review when we get closer to the movie’s release in a couple of weeks.

On that note, let me say that I think both Steve Jobs and Bridge of Spies are really good movies, but that they both suffer from third acts that are too happy and clean when compared to the level of emotional complexity that came before.

Monday, October 5

Son of Saul (directed by László Nemes)
If you’re anything like me, then you also think you’ve seen enough Holocaust movies. In the last decade or so, we’ve got one after another lame and stagnant movie about Nazi-era Germany. So, I was ecstatic when Son of Saul, the feature film debut of Hungarian director Lászlo Nemes, turned up to be not only a good movie, but among the best movies to play at this year’s New York Film Festival.

The movie’s formal conceit is a brilliant one, and the thing that most clearly sets it apart from most recent attempts at finding something different to say about the Holocaust. And even then the movie does focus on an aspect of the Holocaust that we haven’t seen before: this is the story of a Sonderkommando, which is to say a concentration camp prisoner who was forced to be part of the work unit in charge of the extermination and disposal of prisoners. Going back to the film’s aesthetic, though, Nemes follows his protagonist so closely that he is often the only focused thing on screen. The background, and the atrocities happening around the protagonist are all distorted. We don’t see them, we only listen to the sounds of death and misery.

Son of Saul is relentless filmmaking, one of the striking movies that uses formal and technical inventiveness (both in sonic and visual design) to capture a specifically horrific moment in history. I urge you to look for it when it starts its theatrical run in the U.S. around December 18.

The Best Movies of 2005

top ten 2005
This is the official end of the 2005 Project, which followed last year’s Summer of ’92 in my obsessive quest to determine what is the best movie of my lifetime. The “closing ceremony”, so to speak, is a list of my top ten favorite movies of that year.

I’ve always remembered 2005 as one of the best years of my life. It mostly has to do with a number of personal reasons, but I was 13 at the time, which makes it right around the time I was discovering “grown-up” movies and television. However, fond memories and contemporary realities are different, and my taste has changed quite dramatically since then. Back then, my favorite movies of the year were A History of Violence, Match Pointand The Squid and the WhaleOnly one of those three movies remains in my top ten. Wanna find out what movies are on the list and why? You just have to keep reading…

Top ten best movies of 2005

Disclaimer: There are a couple of movies I wanted to watch before writing this article, but couldn’t find a decent copy of. I’ve made peace with catching up with most of them at some point in the future, but the one I’m really bummed I couldn’t get a hold on is Romanian director Cristi Puiu’s Cannes-winning The Death of Mr. LazarescuIt is, by all accounts, an essential film, and I couldn’t write a “best of 2005” list without mentioning it.

Grizzly101. Grizzly Man
(Dir. Werner Herzog / 103 min. / USA)
One of the most unique and excellent cinematic experiments. The Discovery Channel had loads of footage to make a movie about the life and tragic death of Timothy Treadwell. But instead of just making the movie, they handed the footage to Werner Herzog, a man whose personality can only be described as the absolutely opposite of Treadwell’s. The result is a magnetic dialogue in which Treadwell’s love for nature blooms from the afterlife, and Herzog tries to re-assemble the life of a mind he can barely grasp.

Film Title: Munich.2. Munich
(Dir. Steven Spielberg / 164 min. / USA)
A strong contender for Spielberg’s greatest movie, Munich is now more relevant than ever. Clearly a response to 9/11 and the war on terror, Spielberg boldly says what no one was willing to say at the time, and what most people are still unwilling to admit: violence will only bring more violence. And he did it by examining one of the most difficult subjects in all of contemporary politics. Years from now, this will be one of the key movies to understanding the politics of our world. We will hopefully look at it as a sign of change, and not an early omen of our failures.

pride083. Pride & Prejudice
(Dir. Joe Wright / 129 min. / UK)
The most delightful experience on this list. Jane Austen is obviously a genius. Literary adaptation are often dully swallowed by their own prestige. The beauty of Wright’s movie is in how excited he seems to be not only to be telling this story, but to be telling it as a movie. Lighting, costumes, sets, camera movements, editing, score, sounds, choreography… no cinematic elements goes unexplored in turning this into a movie that shares the lively enthusiasm of Austen’s prose and its main protagonist.

squid074. The Squid and the Whale
(Dir. Noah Baumbach / 81 min. / USA)
Of all the movies in this list, this one hit me in the most personal way. The life of the characters in Baumbach’s autobiographical movie has enough small similarities with my own personal history as to make me identify and consider some of the most upsetting elements about the aftermath of this disturbed family’s divorce. But it’s not that it only speaks to me, the level of detail Baumbach puts into the movie makes it ring true. There is enough here to find multiple ways into the mind of these characters. It’s not a “nice” movie, but it’s a deeply genuine one.

proposition pearce5. The Proposition
(Dir. John Hillcoat / 104 min. / Australia)
A perfectly made Australian western, The Proposition follows in the tradition of the genre by using its conventional set-up to explore deeper and darker elements of the soul. It not only makes reference to the most violent passages of Australia’s history, but it uses the wild frontier to examine the nature of justice, and how the cold and analytical nature of reason is easily defeated by the boiling hot passion of our humane feelings. These feelings make us human, but are they our greatest strength, or our biggest flaw?

newworld066. The New World
(Dir. Terrence Malick / 135 min* / USA)
I have a limited experience with Malick, but this is the only one of his movies that has truly spoken to me. The visuals, aided by genius cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, are amazing, and the structure of the pre-existing history of Jamestown and Pocahontas give Malick solid ground to build on. It might seem a little too new age-y at the start, but as it goes on, The New World reveals that by being fascinated with the world of the natives, John Smith is as complicit as anyone in Pocahontas’s tragic end. There is no way of approaching the virgin land without changing it forever.

threeburials057. The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada
(Dir. Tommy Lee Jones / 121 min. / USA)
There are imperfect elements to this screenplay, but the fact that both of Jones’s movies as a director have gotten as little recognition as they have is just criminal. In this beautiful allegorical tale, the friendship of a rugged all-american rancher and an undocumented Mexican immigrant is put to the test in the form of a typical Western quest across the Texan border. It’s quite a magical movie, full of poetic metaphors and heartbreaking parables about the human relationships between the two countries. On a more superficial level, Jones speaking Spanish is a delight.

warworlds088. War of the Worlds
(Dir. Steven Spielberg / 116 min. / USA)
Dismissed as corny and poisoned by Cruise’s bad publicity upon release, just a decade has been enough for me to recognize the gigantic intentions of this movie. Sure, the more corny aspects are still there (it is, after all, Spielberg), but then again, this *is* Spielberg. And this might very well be the quintessential disaster movie of our time. A movie that, through imagery and directorial strength, harkens back to the most primal fears of humanity in a world that has met the holocaust, 9/11, and global warming.

chappelle099. Dave Chappelle’s Block Party
(Dir. Michel Gondry /  103 min. / USA)
I considered this a fun movie when I first saw it. Nine years later, it shines as a defiant political document. Its most radical characteristic? It’s optimism. Chappelle is a great performer, but he is also a very intelligent man. On the face of the Bush administration back then, and on the face of gentrification and police violence now, Chappelle’s love-letter to the “hood” becomes an idealistic and powerful cry towards tolerance, community, and understanding. The funniest, most entertaining deeply radical film you’ll ever see.

Qi Shu10. Three Times
(Dir. Hou Hsiao-Hsien / 120 min. / Taiwan)
Determining the 10th spot was quite hard for me. I seriously considered Brokeback Mountain, Cacheand Kiss Kiss Bang Bang for this spot, but at the end, even if I wasn’t *completely* in love with Hou’s multi-temporal love stories, there are very few movies that can compare to the very best moments in Three Times. I wasn’t a big fan of the obtuse modernity of its third act, but the second act is as audacious a filmmaking exercise as you’re going to find, and the first act is one of the most gloriously romantic segments I have ever seen in any movie. And even with my reservations towards some of the segments, the juxtaposition of these three love stories is quite powerful.

Honorable Mentions: Brokeback Mountain, Cacheand Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

And in case you’re curious, here are my favorite performances of 2005:

Lead Actor: Steve Carell (The 40 Year-Old Virgin), Robert Downey Jr (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang), Tommy Lee Jones (The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada), Heath Ledger (Brokeback Mountain), Ray Winstone (The Proposition)

Lead Actress: Joan Allen (The Upside of Anger), Q’Orianke Kilcher (The New World), Keira Knightley (Pride & Prejudice), Qi Shu (Three Times), Reese Witherspoon (Walk the Line)

Supporting Actor: Jeff Daniels (The Squid and the Whale), Val Kilmer (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang), Barry Pepper (The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada), Mickey Rourke (Sin City), Donald Sutherland (Pride & Prejudice)

Supporting Actress: Amy Adams (Junebug), Taraji P. Henson (Hustle & Flow), Catherine Keeener (The 40 Year-Old Virgin), Laura Linney (The Squid and the Whale), Jena Malone (Pride & Prejudice)

2005 Project Batch 2: Munich, The 40 Year-Old Virgin, and Grizzly Man

munichbig

Like I said in the previous post, I’ve been watching movies from 2005 and writing about some of them on my Letterboxd page. I’ve also been copying those thoughts and posting them in the blog. Just to clarify, these are not full-fledged reviews, but rather some quick thoughts (I’ll be watching so many movies that I couldn’t possibly write full-length reviews for all them).

Here’s the second batch.

munich posterMunich (Directed by Steven Spielberg)

“There is no peace at the end of this”

Easily Spielberg’s best since ‘Schindler’s List’, and comfortably among his best period. I’m not a huge fan of the famous sex scene towards the end, but otherwise a sober and rather daring take on an incredibly delicate topic. You wouldn’t expect Spielberg to be as neutral as he is here, but he proves to be a deeply humanist filmmaker.

He is also a master of his craft, and it shows in the way he constructs the tensest scenes. I know comparing movies is not always the best policy, but this is the kind of nuanced perspective that I would’ve loved to see from something like ‘American Sniper’. Tortured heroes are tortured for a reason, and compromising means you have to lose something in the process. And not just anything, but something that really hurts.

I don’t like to get too political, but I’m firmly against the idea of “nations”. This feels like a movie for me.

40yearoldvirgin posterThe 40 Year-Old Virgin (Directed by Judd Apatow)

The least indulgent, and thus best, of Apatow’s filmography. Probably the most immediately influential comedy of the new millennium. It started the trend of overrelying on improv that not even Apatow seems to be able to control anymore, but works rather wonderfully here. When Jane Lynch tells Steve Carell about the Guatemalan man who took her virginity and proceeds to sing in Spanish, that’s the kind of improv that I welcome in my movies.

Ten years after the fact, there is a lot of bro-ish and LGBT-phobic humor that hasn’t aged well. The laughs of the first half of the movie seem particularly lazy, but once the Catherine Keener enters the picture and the movie becomes more of a romantic comedy, we get moments of true emotion that elevate the film.

The most valuable player of this movie is its star. Almost everything Carell does here is fantastic. It’s one of the funniest, and also the most touching performances of his career. Proof os this is the closing dance sequence, where Carell commits to letting the ridiculous nature of the moment and not his actions drive the comedy, while Seth Rogen and Paul Rudd fail to produce any laughs with their mugging.

grizzlymanGrizzly Man (Directed by Wener Herzog)

This is it. This is where our current notion of who is (and how we parody) Werner Herzog comes from.

First of all, Herzog is a masterful documentarian. Outright embracing the notion that no film can ever be objective, he comes out with a very strong point of view, but doesn’t let his thinking overwhelm the film.

It’s because this movie is a dialogue between Treadwell’s footage (acquired over many summers living with the bears), and Herzog’s manipulation of the recordings. And so, we have a fascinating story about a fascinatingly disturbed character, who ends up being the perfect protagonist for a Herzog movie.

Fitzcarraldo defied nature by pulling a ship up a mountain, and Treadwell does the same, by daring to live among the bears. But Treadwell’s obsession is driven by a certain kind of madness, and the sense of being an outcast in what he perceives as the “human world”. At the end, Treadwell can’t fight nature. In real life, no one can.

There really isn’t that much for me to say. It’s all there in the film. I can just point out the genius of putting together such different minds to tell this story about the ultimate dramatic irony.