Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Ten Best Movies I Saw Last Year




Figuring that you'd have to be a full time film critic to see enough movies to formulate a definitive best of the year list, instead I am excited to tell you about the ten best movies I saw during 2013. Many of them came out in 2013, but not all. If you love a good movie, my purpose is to point you toward the ones that really worked for me. The ranking of the films subjectively reflects how much I liked them relative to each other but it is insignificant in the grand scheme of things.

1. Dragon Tattoo Trilogy: Extended Edition [Blu-ray] (2010)


Not to take anything away from the American remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo; the 2011 David Fincher film starring Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara was fine for what it was, but if you haven't seen the Swedish original, you haven't really seen The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Based on a Swedish novel, the basic setup is nicely laid out by Wikipedia.

"The Millennium series consists of three best-selling novels, originally written in Swedish, by the late Stieg Larsson (1954–2004). The two primary characters in the saga are Lisbeth Salander, a woman in her twenties with a photographic memory and poor social skills, and Mikael Blomkvist, an investigative journalist and publisher of a magazine called Millennium. The Swedish film production company Yellow Bird created film versions of the Millennium Trilogy, all released in 2009, beginning with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, directed by Danish filmmaker Niels Arden Oplev. The protagonists were played by Michael Nyqvist and Noomi Rapace."



The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest were expanded in 2010 to about three hours in length each, then produced as a mini-series of six episodes collectively known as The Dragon Tattoo Trilogy: Extended Edition which is currently streaming on Netflix and available on DVD and Blu-ray.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo interweaves a fascinating mystery with the personal stories of the main characters, investigative journalist Blomkvist, and research assistant Salander (with the tattoo). We begin to see that Salander is somewhat damaged. In the second and third movies we find out why, as her history becomes equal parts mystery, personal trial, and political thriller.

All three movies are richly detailed, well cast, well acted, well written, and well directed. Michael Nyqvist and Noomi Rapace are excellent in the lead roles. The movies are so good that you never realize that they are three hours long. For best results watch the original Swedish language with English subtitles. The DVD does have an English dubbed version for the subtitle-resistant.

Watching the subtitles though, gives you the advantage of hearing the dialogue in the actors' own voices, and after a few minutes you don't even realize that you are reading subtitles. You'll even pick up some basic Swedish; when they say "yes" or "no" or greet each other you'll find that you don't even need the translation. This trilogy was not only the best thing I saw in 2013, but it was the best movie I've seen in quite a few years. The Netflix stream has a higher resolution picture than you would think was possible for streaming video; on the large flat screen the picture is equal to or better than Blu-ray, with full 5.1 sound.




2. Skyfall (2012)


I've seen every James Bond movie. It began when the second Bond picture came out in theaters and my mom thought it would be too racy for a ten year old. I think it took about three days but I finally wore her down and she took me to see From Russia With Love. Watching the first two Bond movies now, Dr. No seems seriously dated and campy, while From Russia With Love stands, even now, as a taut espionage thriller. There was no reliance on special effects or outrageous stunts, just exotic locations, a good villain, and a good script.

Over the years, the Bond pictures have gotten into a formula that involves plenty of gee- whiz techno gadgets and action stunts that range from ridiculous to absurd. When they brought Daniel Craig on board to play Bond, they seemed to very quietly reboot the franchise. Skyfall has all the hallmarks of classic Bond without the excesses. Early on in the movie when Bond meets Q for the traditional presentation of the technical gadgets, he only gives Bond a gun and a radio, much to Bond's surprise. There is no shortage of action in Skyfall, exotic locations, women, villains, and the like, but there is more of a reliance on good writing than most Bond pictures in recent memory.

One factor is that they tapped an accomplished director from outside their own production company, Sam Mendes. There is also an excellent cast supporting Daniel Craig, including Judi Dench, Javier Bardem, and Ralph Fiennes. Bond aficionados are always game to debate the best Bond; for my money, Sean Connery set the standard and Daniel Craig is a more than worthy successor. If Skyfall is not the best Bond movie ever, it's at least equivalent. Skyfall gives you everything you could want in a Bond movie; for that matter it gives you everything you could want in any action-adventure political thriller.




3. The Way, Way Back 2013)


The first time writer-director duo of Nat Faxon and Jim Rash really get it right with The Way Way Back. This is the story of a family's summer at the beach, and of the boy who doesn't quite fit in with any of the family and friends who congregate at the beach house. It's funny but it's not a comedy. It's dramatic but it's not a drama. It's basically a slice of life with the characters so well written, well cast, and well acted that it seems quite real.

Anyone who has ever been stuck with people on vacation that you would rather not be with will relate. Anyone who has ever had to accept a divorced mom's new boyfriend into the family will relate. Steve Carell is quite good in the unsympathetic role of the annoying boyfriend. Liam James is excellent as the fourteen year old son. You can see the two of them right at the beginning of the trailer below. The Way Way Back is a movie that when it ends, you wish it would keep on going. Some movies stay with you after you've seen them and they get better and better the more you think about it. This is one of those movies.





4. Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (2011)


"A fisheries expert is approached by a consultant to help realize a sheik's vision of bringing the sport of fly-fishing to the Yemen Desert and embarks on an upstream journey of faith and fish to prove the impossible possible" (IMDb). Directed by Lasse Hallström (The Cider House Rules), Salmon Fishing in the Yemen tells a good story, fleshed out with an excellent script, casting, cinematography, and direction.

Amr Waked is inspiring as the sheikh with the big idea of bringing fly-fishing to the Middle East. Emily Blunt is the epitome of British charm as the consultant who tries to make her client's dream a reality, spurred on with pressure from Kristin Scott Thomas who plays the press relations officer for the English Prime Minister, in need of a feel-good story to aid relations between Britain and the Arabic world. Ewan McGregor is just perfect as the Scottish fisheries expert who comes into the project thinking it to be quite impossible. Neither Blunt nor McGregor see a romantic angle developing, but we do and Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is a total delight.





5. Before Midnight (2013)


When Before Midnight opened to nearly unanimous four star reviews in the spring of 2013, being that it is the third installment of a trilogy, it seemed like a good time to revisit the earlier films. Even though Before Midnight would work as a stand alone feature, I highly recommend this approach. In Before Sunrise (1995) Ethan Hawke as Jesse meets Julie Delpy's Céline on a train. Jesse is an American who is on the way to Vienna for a flight home the next morning. Céline is on the way home to Paris. The conversation, once begun on the train, continues when Céline decides to get off the train with Jesse and the two of them walk around Vienna and talk (mostly) all night until Jesse has to leave in the morning.

Before Sunset (2004) picks up nine years later when Jesse, now an author on a book tour of Europe, makes his last stop in a Paris bookstore for a reading. Céline has seen his name on the schedule so she shows up, and after the reading the two of them catch up and spend all of the available time talking (mostly) until Jesse has to leave for his flight home.

Before Midnight, "like its predecessors, was directed by Richard Linklater and was co-written by Linklater, Hawke and Delpy, the film picks up the story in Before Sunset nine years on when Jesse and Céline spend a summer vacation together in Greece" (Wikipedia).



In addition to the beautiful locations of Vienna, Paris, and the coast of Greece, in addition to the romance and later love that develops, these characters are highly interesting and they spend the entire movie talking about anything and everything. In a way, these films owe a debt to My Dinner With André (Louis Malle, 1981) which demonstrated that you could have a fascinating movie consisting of nothing but conversation between two people.

These characters have the potential for more; anytime Delpy, Hawke, and Linklater feel like they have something to say about life, love, relationships, ths state of the world, or really anything at all, they've got the ideal vehicle. All three movies are highly enjoyable, and when you've had enough comic book superheroes, car chases, gun battles, or comedies that are stupid or unfunny, these three movies are the perfect antidote.





6. The Great Gatsby (2013)


I must admit that going in I was not a fan of director Baz Luhrmann. It wasn't his penchant for over-the-top extravaganzas, but when I saw Moulin Rouge (2001), it opened with the caption "Paris, 1900" and the movie proceeded to use soundtrack music that didn't exist in 1900, including Elton John (!). I could not get my mind around the contradiction. I've since come to understand that Moulin Rouge is essentially a dream fantasy that existed in Luhrmann's head where I'm sure the juxtaposition of music and images made perfect sense, and I look forward to giving Moulin Rouge another screening.

In Luhrmann's 2013 production of The Great Gatsby, the classic novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald, set in the 1920s, we have the best possible combination of director and material. Luhrmann's skill is not limited to depicting the enormity of the excesses of the parties Gatsby threw, but Luhrmann's vision is realized throughout the movie, whether it's showing aerial shots of New York City or interior conversations or wild car rides from Long Island into the city. Everything has an artistic style and a glow that makes it almost look like art deco postcards come to life.



The artistic design is not the only area of excellence in The Great Gatsby. The superb script was co-written by Luhrmann and delivered by some high octane acting talent, including Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby, Tobey Maguire as Gatsby's neighbor, Nick Carraway, Carey Mulligan, who plays Daisy beautifully, and Joel Edgerton as her husband, Tom Buchanan. DiCaprio does quite a bit more than calling everyone "Old Sport." The range of roles in which DiCaprio has excelled is truly mind-boggling and even though DiCaprio had the title role, I would call him a supporting actor in this script.

The leading role in this production has to be Tobey Maguire who tells Gatsby's story in the form of a conversation with his psychotherapist and he gives likely the best performance of his career. Carey Mulligan is positively radiant as Daisy; Gatsby is essentially a story of the power of love and obsession, and looking at Daisy the way Gatsby sees her, one can begin to understand.



The Great Gatsby was shut out of all the major categories at this year's Oscars, by virtue of not being nominated. It did however win two well deserved Oscars for Best Production Design and Best Costume Design. Every element of this movie was as good as it could possibly be, the look and feel that perfectly evokes the Roaring Twenties, due to the artistic vision of Baz Luhrmann. I would venture to say that no other director would have or could have done justice to Fitzgerld's book with as much imagination and I think for that Luhrmann should have won the Oscar for Best Director; he wasn't even nominated.

The soundtrack music in The Great Gatsby, like Moulin Rouge, features a host of current artists and original songs by Beyonce, Jay-Z (who also served as Executive Producer), the xx, and Florence & the Machine, just to name a few. I'm here to say that in the context of this movie it all totally works. I'll even say that Lana del Rey (who co-wrote her song with Luhrmann), sounds like she was born to sing in this movie, something about her voice suggests the twenties. There is an excellent score by Craig Armstrong with a Jazz Age orchestra led by Bryan Ferry. Finally, the song by Sia sounds quite nice as the credits roll. I should not close without mentioning that I watched The Great Gatsby with someone who reads books the way I listen to music, and in her opinion, this film is better than the book.





7. Seven Psychopaths (2012)


The average moviegoer will most likely see Seven Psychopaths thinking that it's going to be a crime drama with murders and such - that's not this movie. Seven Psychopaths is the story of a screenwriter trying to write a movie called Seven Psychopaths. It's ingeniously written and directed by Martin McDonagh and stars Colin Farrell as Marty Faranan, the struggling screenwriter. The movie is quietly funny in a way that plays off the viewers' own sense of the absurd.

Not content to just send up the conventions of crime dramas, McDonagh plays with the motivations and philosophies too. Marty wants his movie to be non-violent, and comes up with the idea of a Buddhist psychopath. After a while he crosses out "Buddhist" and writes "Amish", then, after thinking about it, scratches "Amish" and makes it "Quaker". The scenes that follow have a stereotypical old fashioned Quaker looking so menacing that the contradiction is just perfectly ridiculous.


Colin Farrell

The supporting cast is excellent. Australian actress Abbie Cornish is so crazy talented that it's almost a crime that as Marty's girlfriend, she's only in a few scenes in the first reel. Marty bats ideas around with his best friend Billy Bickle, played by Sam Rockwell, ideas like a serial killer who only kills other serial killers. Billy is a psychopath too, and he's involved with Christopher Walken, looking his psychopathic best as Hans Kieslowski, named as an obvious nod to Krystof Kieslowski, one of the greatest film directors who ever lived, in my estimation.

The genius of Seven Psychopaths in the writing. Some scenes are unquestionably the creation of the Marty character, but what about the psychopaths who populate Marty's reality? They are also the product of a screenwriter's imagination, one who is also writing a movie called Seven Psychopaths. The movie really gets good when you realize that the movie has folded in on itself and the line between the movie you are watching and the movie-within-the-movie dissolves to the point that they are one and the same movie.




Writer-Director Martin McDonagh


8. The Hunger Games (2012)+ The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)


It must say something about the state of our culture that so much of our entertainment, books, movies, and television are consumed with negative imaginings of the future. Subject matter runs the gamut from totalitarian regimes to post-apocalypse and everything in between, including zombie apocalypse.

The Hunger Games is a wildly popular trilogy of books, written by Suzanne Collins, that take place in a post-apocalyptic dystopia. Expectations were high when the first Hunger Games movie hit the theaters in 2012. I didn't partake until 2013 on Blu-ray. The quality of the first one was high, so I joined the hordes for the opening weekend of Catching Fire.

In The Hunger Games, "Katniss Everdeen voluntarily takes her younger sister's place in the Hunger Games, a televised fight to the death in which two teenagers from each of the twelve Districts of Panem are chosen at random to compete" (IMDb).

"THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE begins as Katniss has returned home safe after winning the 74th Annual Hunger Games along with fellow tribute Peeta Mellark. Winning means that they must turn around and leave their family and close friends, embarking on a "Victor's Tour" of the districts. Along the way Katniss senses that a rebellion is simmering, but the Capitol is still very much in control as President Snow prepares the 75th Annual Hunger Games (The Quarter Quell) - a competition that could change Panem forever" (Lionsgate).



The vision of the future in this series is unquestionably bleak and is well rendered in the movies. The consistency of quality is impressive considering that each film used different directors, Gary Ross (Hunger Games) and Francis Lawrence (Catching Fire). The screenplay for The Hunger Games was written by Ross, Collins and Billy Ray. Catching Fire's script was written by Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire) and Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine).

Both scripts were tight and had plenty of action and suspense, well photographed and directed. Casting and acting were superb, especially Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss, Woody Harrelson as her handler, Stanley Tucci as the oily TV host, and Donald Sutherland as the devious president. Also good were Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Jena Malone. Both movies were thoroughly entertaining.



The Hunger Games did blockbuster numbers when it came out based on its core audience of young women (about 72%). Catching Fire did even better, breaking all box office records for a Thanksgiving weekend opening; it also took the honors for being the top grossing box office movie of 2013, even though it was only out for five weeks. Catching Fire was so successful essentially because it expanded the demographics to include more men and a wider age range of older and younger viewers.

In 2012, we got the family together for a Thanksgiving day trip to the movies to see Lincoln. This past Thanksgiving, we decided to make a tradition of it as we went to see Catching Fire. There is some sort of irony in seeing a movie about a future where there is not enough food to go around on the biggest food holiday of them all. We will all have the chance to continue the tradition as the third book, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, is being made (milked) into two movies; Part 1 opens Thanksgiving weekend 2014 and Part 2 will follow at Thanksgiving 2015.

The Hunger Games Trailer


The Hunger Games: Catching Fire Trailer




9. Life of Pi (2012)


I almost didn't see Life of Pi. I watched the Oscars in early 2013, saw the many clips, boy and tiger in a boat floating on the ocean; didn't think I wanted to see it. When Life of Pi came out on disc, I began hearing raves about the visuals, and considering that Ang Lee is one of our most talented directors, I went ahead and jumped it to the top of my Netflix queue.

"The storyline revolves around an Indian man named Piscine Molitor "Pi" Patel, living in Canada and telling a novelist about his life story and how at 16 he survives a shipwreck in which his family dies, and is stranded in the Pacific Ocean on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker" (Wikipedia).

Life of Pi is totally not what I expected. The device of showing Pi in the current day, telling his life story to the writer over dinner draws you right in. The scenes of his childhood in India are constantly interesting as we see Pi's family owned zoo get put out of business when the city annexes their land for a park. The family sells off most of the zoo animals, but the ones that didn't sell, including the tiger, go onto the steamship as cargo for the Pacific Ocean crossing.



After the ship sinks and Pi escapes in a lifeboat we get to the heart of the movie in which Pi and the tiger float on the ocean for weeks. Rather than boring as I feared, this section of the film is endlessly fascinating. We go inside the mind of Pi as he does whatever it takes to survive and maintain his sanity. This is where the amazing visuals come in; the scenes of the sea, the sky, the weather, and the sea life are incredible and if you can't see it in a theater, you'll want to use blu-ray disc with a high definition screen.

Life of Pi is based on the best selling novel by Yann Martel. The beautifully adapted screenplay was written by David Magee. Suraj Sharma did a phenomenal job as the 16 year old Pi. By the end of the movie you may wonder whether the tiger was real or hallucination. Ultimately, it doesn't really matter; the fact is that the tiger, real or imagined, helps keep Pi alive through a week's long ordeal that would have killed most people. It's always nice when a movie defies your preconceptions, and I'm sure glad I didn't skip Life of Pi.







10. The Words (2012)


There are a variety of reasons that the majority of movies that open every Friday are disappointing. The most common fault is bad writing. It always amazes me that film companies and producers can invest many millions of dollars without batting an eye, but no one can tell when they have a poorly written script. Fortunately, this is not the case with The Words. Faced with the challenge of making an interesting movie about an author writing a book and dealing with the ethics and guilt of plagarism, first time writers-directors Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal made a fine film that is suspenseful, romantic, and engaging. I'll let Roger Ebert explain the plot.

"Almost every word Ernest Hemingway wrote in the years immediately before 1922 was lost by his first wife Hadley, who packed the pages in a briefcase and lost it on a train. Hardly an American lit student lives who has not heard this story.

Hemingway's lost prose lives on, in a sense, in the movie "The Words," which opens with a writer named Clayton Hammond (Dennis Quaid) reading from his new novel in a Manhattan bookstore. But hold on. Don't get ahead of the story. I know you're thinking Hammond's book is actually the long-lost Hemingway manuscript. But the movie adds another level. His book is about another novelist who finds the lost briefcase in a Paris antique shop. Most of "The Words" is about that novelist. His name is Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper), and he has a wife named Dora (Zoe Saldana)" (Ebert).

Bradley Cooper is good as the blocked writer who finds the manuscript in the antique shop briefcase and Zoe Saldana adds the romance as his wife who inadvertently sends him on a dangerous path. Dennis Quaid and Olivia Wilde are also good, discussing his book about the whole affair. Jeremy Irons plays the author who originally lost his briefcase with the manuscript. Don't pay any attention to the Rotten Tomatoes' rating; they thought that the story was too complicated. Let's just say that as long you're not texting or tweeting while you watch, the plot is not only easy to follow but The Words is first rate entertainment.



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