12 Years a Slave fully deserves its Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay of 2013. It's based on the 1853 memoir by Solomon Northup, a free black Northerner who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841. British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor stars as Northup, and Kenyan-Mexican actress Lupita Nyong'o won an Oscar for her supporting role as a young slave frequently used and abused by her master. British director Steve McQueen and writer John Ridley pull no punches in bringing this harrowing drama to the screen. When its authenticity is hard to watch, the camera does not waver, giving these skilled actors time to wear their roles like skin. Northup's ordeal is a rare first-person account of slavery authored by an educated black man who was born a free American before falling into America's holocaust.
13 (2003): see Thirteen.
2012 (2009) is another apocalypse fantasy from Roland Emmerich, who produced and directed The Day After Tomorrow (2004) and Independence Day (1996). This time, life as we know it is threatened by solar flares that overheat the Earth's core and destabilize the crust. The title refers to the Mayan calendar, which supposedly stops at the year 2012 because that's when the world ends. But don't expect any scholarly lessons in history or science from this movie. It's pure special-effects fireworks as things fall apart and entire continents meet their doom. Of course, someone has a plan to save mankind. The only actor who brings an appropriate level of farce to this picture is Woody Harrelson, who plays a wacky radio talk-show host. Everyone else tries very hard to keep a straight face.
21 Grams (2003) would be an even better drama without the jigsaw-puzzle editing, which disrupts the continuity of fine performances by Sean Penn, Naomi Watts, and Benicio Del Toro. This is the second time Penn has been flayed by a heavy-handed director who thinks that abrupt jump cuts within scenes are avant-garde filmmaking. (The first time was in I Am Sam, 2001.) Despite the distraction of randomly rearranged scenes, 21 Grams is a compelling drama about three star-crossed people: Penn's character, a math teacher who discovers that a heart transplant doesn't give him a new life; Watts' character, a mother who is nearly destroyed by personal tragedy; and Del Toro's character, an ex-con who struggles against personal demons to go straight. Moral: life goes on.
25th Hour (2002) is Spike Lee and David Benioff's tale of a New York City drug dealer (expertly played by Edward Norton) who has one last day of freedom before starting a seven-year prison sentence. He struggles to tie up loose ends and endure the dread of his suddenly bleak future. He's not a sympathetic figure, because the only thing he truly regrets is getting caught. Just when the story appears to be reaching an explosive climax, there's a stupid fight scene, followed by an ambiguous did-he-or-didn't-he ending. Through it all, the post-9/11 references make you wonder if the film is a parable of impending doom. Overall, it's a good effort that never quite resolves itself.
28 Days Later (2003) is a cross between Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Day of the Triffids (1962). Like Living Dead, it's wantonly gross and violent, and it flaunts its low-budget production. (It was shot on grainy digital video.) The parallels with Triffids are even more blatant. In both films, the main character wakes up in a London hospital bed, discovers that an apocalyptic event has transpired while he was unconscious, becomes the surrogate parent of a teenage girl, does battle with strange creatures, watches helplessly as a major English city burns, flees on a desperate road trip, and seeks refuge at a military base. The main difference is the source of the trouble: in Triffids it was weeds from outer space, and this time it's a voracious disease. Like most modern horror flicks, the scariest thing about 28 Days Later is the anticipation of another gross-out scene.
3:10 to Yuma (2007) is a modernist remake of a classic 1957 Western. Russell Crowe plays outlaw Ben Wade (portrayed by Glenn Ford in the original), oddly mixing humor with sociopathy. Crowe veers from amusement to manipulation to violence, often in the same scene. Some lines hint of modern psychobabble and verge on breaking character. Christian Bale, the surprising star of Rescue Dawn (2007), delivers another startling performance in this drama. He plays Dan Evans (portrayed by Dan Heflin in the original), a good-guy rancher who agrees to help escort the outlaw prisoner to a train bound for Yuma, Arizona. Ben Foster plays a chilling Charlie Princea sadistic gunslinger who tries to free Ben Wade. At times, the dialogue is a little too breezy, and I found the conclusion unrealistic. But overall, this picture is a thrill.
The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005) is a passable comedy if you can tolerate raunchy humor and an utterly predictable plot. Steve Carell plays an electronics-store employee who is unsuccessful with women. He's handsome, intelligent, and well built, so the movie explains his dilemma by portraying him as a unstylish super-nerd whose apartment is filled with collectable action figures, toys, and posters. Even more absurdly, he can't drive a car, even though he lives in L.A., so his primary transportation is a bicycle. It's obvious that the film is stacking the deck, and it doesn't stop there. When his buddies discover his sexual status, they try to get him laid, with occasionally humorous but always expected results. Before long he meets two attractive women who are hot for his bod, and the movie ends with a bizarre scene reminiscent of Napoleon Dynamite (2004). If your expectations are low, you'll like it better.
42 (2013) tells the story of baseball legend Jackie Robinson (whose uniform number was 42) breaking the color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. Recruited by Dodgers owner Branch Rickey from the Negro Leagues, Robinson played a year with a minor-league team in Montreal before moving up to Brooklyn. It was not a smooth path. Robinson faced racism from every directionfans, team owners, managers, opposing players, and even his own teammates. Chadwick Boseman makes his big-screen debut with an exceptional performance as Robinson, and Harrison Ford is wonderfully gruff as Rickey. This film pulls no punches and portrays a transition that was pivotal not just in baseball history, but also in American history. Like many sports movies, however, it can't resist ending with the cliché of rising music and slow-mo action.
99 Homes (2015) is an outstanding drama of the housing-bubble collapse that triggered our recent Great Recession. Although it can be criticized for barely mentioning the high-finance schemes hatched by big banks and derivatives traders, the intricate details of collateralized debt obligations and credit-default swaps would only confuse most viewers. Instead, writer/director Ramin Bahrani focuses on the personal story of an evicted homeowner and a predatory real-estate agent who flips foreclosed houses in Florida. It would be easy to cast these characters as good guys and bad guys, but 99 Homes depicts a more complex morality. The victim becomes a predator, and the predatory agent has his reasons. Andrew Garfield as the former homeowner and Michael Shannon as the real-estate agent have their starring roles down cold in this skillfully made film.
About a Boy (2002) is really about a man who's like a boy. He's a man (stiffly played by Hugh Grant) who doesn't have to work because of an inherited income stream. But liberation from the daily grind has turned him into a directionless, moribund consumer. Then a young boy and a single mother come into his life and turn everything upside down. It sounds formulaic, and the last reel is a bit too sugar-coated, but the snappy dialogue and a few plot twists create a story that is frequently funny and warm.
About Schmidt (2002) is a devastating evaluation of middle-class American life. Jack Nicholson, with surprising subtlety, plays a newly retired insurance man. After some unexpected tragedy, he begins to doubt his life has accomplished anything of lasting value. The verdict comes slowly because he's not accustomed to self-examination. By swinging deftly between drama and comedy, this film explores the meaning of the American dream far better than American Beauty. And it isn't simply a Hollywood smirk at bourgeois America, as claimed by some critics, who have also overblown the nude scene with Kathy Bates. It's a story that will haunt you for a long time.
Across the Universe (2007) is a lively rock musical featuring new arrangements of classic Beatles songs. It tells the story of a young Liverpool man who travels to America and falls in love. But the backdrop is more sinister: the 1960s turmoil of the Vietnam War, violent protests, civil rights, assassinations, and alienation. Some scenes are day-glo psychedelic, a homage to the Beatles own filmsMagical Mystery Tour (1967) and Yellow Submarine (1968). Others contain subtle references to real historical figures and events. Although the updated music is generally quite good, the storyline tends to be jumpy and overpopulated with characters and subplots.
Adaptation (2002) must be the ultimate self-referential film script. Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich) teams again with director Spike Jonze (ditto) to make a film about his struggle to write a film adaptation of Susan Orlean's book The Orchid Thief, which itself was adapted from an article in the New Yorker. Nicolas Cage excels in a double starring role as Kaufman and his twin brother, Donald. Outstanding supporting actors are Chris Cooper and Meryl Streep. The story has more inner twists than a mobius strip and drags a little near the end, but viewers who like unusual movies will enjoy the ride.
The Adjustment Bureau (2011) is a philosophical thriller that pits free will against predestination. Matt Damon stars as a politician who falls in love with a modern dancer (a luminescent Emily Blunt) after a chance meeting. A second unexpected meeting seems to confirm their mutual attraction. But were their meetings really chance? And would a relationship thwart their life goals and disrupt the march of history? Some mysterious strangers who claim to secretly control the world think so. Like another recent movie starring Damon (Hereafter), this film explores an ancient philosophical debate while studiously avoiding theology. Although it offers no new insight, it's a passable thrillerexcept that religious concepts stripped of their religious trappings often look like naked fantasy.
The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle (2000) tries hard and has some funny moments, but it can't match the charm of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, another movie that mixes live action with cartoon animation.
Alice in Wonderland (2010) is director Tim Burton's adaptation of Lewis Carroll's classic fairy tale. But it's not a straight adaptation. In this version, Alice is a young woman who only vaguely remembers her childhood adventure in the dream world she calls Wonderland. It's actually called Underland, and it's a bleak underworld dominated by the evil Red Queen and her chief enforcer, a wicked dragon named Jabberwocky. This story is darker than the usual fairy tale and perhaps too frightening and violent for young children. However, the digital animation is magnificent, especially in 3D, and there are good performances by Mia Wasikowska (Alice), Johnny Depp (the Mad Hatter), and Helena Bonham Carter (the Red Queen).
All Is Lost (2013) is a skillful exercise in pure cinema of a kind rarely seen since the silent-film days. Except for sound effects, music, and a few brief lines of dialogue, it's an uncluttered visual experience. Robert Redford stars as an aging sailor whose solo voyage across the Indian Ocean is interrupted by a derelict shipping container that gores the fiberglass hull of his sailboat. The movie says nothing about his previous life, his occupation, or the purpose of his journey. Of his personality, we learn only by watching his reactions to adversity. And the sea soon becomes a formidable adversary when a gale threatens his emergency repairs. In lesser hands than those of writer/director J.C. Chandor (Margin Call, 2011), this picture might resemble an interesting film-school experiment in minimalism. Instead, the screenplay, direction, cinematography, soundtrack, and cast all come together to create a finely crafted drama that's almost a film-school education in itself.
Almost Famous (2000) based on the actual experiences of director Cameron Crowe, joins the time-worn loss-of-innocence theme with a story about a teenage journalist making his debut in Rolling Stone magazine in the 1970s. It works surprisingly well, and this movie would make a rockin' double feature with High Fidelity.
Amadeus has been re-released as a director's cut (2002) that restores several scenes omitted from the original 1984 version. The new scenes give us closer views of Mozart's decline and the unsavory relationship between court composer Salieri and Mozart's wife, Constanze. Still one of the best films ever madeit won eight Academy Awards, including Best PictureAmadeus has lost none of its power, drama, and spectacle.
Amazing Grace (2006) is an outstanding historical drama about the successful effort to outlaw slavery in the British Empire. Welsh actor Ioan Gruffudd plays William Wilberforce, a British member of Parliament who struggled for decades in the late 1700s and early 1800s to pass an antislavery bill. Gruffudd plays the role with verve and insight. All the performances in this film are excellent, with Albert Finney in an especially good supporting role as the former slave-ship captain who repented his sins and wrote the hymn "Amazing Grace." When the credits roll, be sure to stay for the great bagpipe rendition of the hymn in front of Westminster Abbey, where Wilberforce is interred.
Amelia (2009) is a middling biopic about Amelia Earhart, the famous aviatrix who vanished over the Pacific Ocean in 1937 while trying to become the first woman to fly around the world. Hilary Swank is credible in the title role, though she looks a little young. (Earhart was 40 when she died.) Richard Gere comfortably plays her husband, a smarmy book publisher eager for the income of Earhart's career but worried about the risks she takes. Ewan McGregor plays an upper-crust love interest to whom Earhart is inexplicably attracted. The soap opera tends to overpower Earhart's flying adventures, and the conclusion misplaces some blame for her failure. (She left behind important equipment.) What I liked best: Earhart's Lockheed Electra.
Amelie was one of the best foreign films of 2001. It's a whimsical tale about a young French woman in Paris who decides to perform random acts of kindnessand sometimes revenge. She is inspired by the chance discovery of childhood relics from the distant past. Her eccentric interference in other people's lives is tempered by her innocent, almost angelic philosophy. Although this film is virtually a fairy tale, it never abandons plausibility and is always entertaining.
American Hustle is one of the best films of 2013. Often compared with The Sting (1973), it's not quite as sublime but holds its own. It's very loosely based on the Abscam scandal of the 1970s, in which the FBI trapped several members of the U.S. Congress taking bribes from a fake Arab sheik. The cast is uniformly excellent: Christian Bale as a small-time con man who is unwillingly pulled into the big time; Jennifer Lawrence as his spectacularly clueless wife; Amy Adams as his sexy lover and brilliant partner in crime; Bradley Cooper as an ambitious FBI agent; Jeremy Renner as a populist New Jersey mayor; Robert De Niro as a mob boss; and numerous supporters who make the most of their smaller roles. As with The Sting, the plot gets complicated and ends with a surprise, so pay attention. The opening scene of Bale meticulously prepping his toupee symbolizes the cheap subterfuge that nevertheless fools the gullible. In addition to its great performances, this film's strength is its portrayal of money and power flowing behind the wedded worlds of hardball politics and greasy business.
American Sniper (2014) is the most representative movie yet made about the Iraq Warbecause, like the war, it's a pack of lies. It's based on the autobiography of Chris Kyle, a U.S. Navy SEAL sniper who scored more than 160 kills during four combat tours. But director Clint Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall start hallucinating from the very first scene, when Kyle must decide whether to shoot a child carrying a grenade. (Never happened, according to Kyle's book.) They continue by fabricating additional characters ("The Butcher") and by building much of the drama around an enemy sniper who gets only passing mention in Kyle's book and whom Kyle never killed. Hollywood filmmakers always fictionalize true stories to some extent, but this film is shameless. As a final insult, Eastwood doesn't show us how Kyle died, probably because this genuine war hero didn't fall heroically in combat. Instead, he died by foolishly thinking that a shooting range would be good therapy for a shell-shocked veteranwho abruptly lost control when a gun was placed in his hands. Although the movie is filled with graphic combat scenes, the climax of Kyle's life story was apparently too ironic and contradictory to merit the same treatment.
American Splendor (2003) is one of the best films of the year. Part documentary, part drama, part animation, it's the autobiographical story of Harvey Pekar, author of the autobiographical comic books "American Splendor." Yes, this movie is endlessly self-referential, but it never seems gimmicky. The real Pekar appears in some scenes and narrates the flashback episodes dramatized by actor Paul Giamatti. It's hard to believe that a chronically depressed file clerk at a VA hospital in Cleveland could become a cult figure in underground comics. But it really happened, and this artfully made film shows how, without losing its sense of humor.
American Teen (2008) is the best documentary about the pressure on young people to succeed since Hoop Dreams (1994). Filmmaker Nanette Burstein follows several high-school seniors in a conservative middle-class town in Indiana. She focuses on a socially wicked beauty queen, a nervous basketball star, a girl who wants to be an artist but is starting to feel trapped, a nerdy misfit who's clumsy with girls, and their circle of friends. As in Hoop Dreams, all these teens are beginning to realize that their futures depend on choices they make nowand on circumstances they cannot control. Will the beauty queen fulfill her father's fantasy of entering Notre Dame? Will the basketball star win a college scholarship or settle for the army? Will the art girl escape her small town for an expensive education in San Francisco? Will the pimply nerd find love? The drama is emotional and all too real. It's terrifying when these kids begin to perceiveor are toldthat their futures aren't limitless.
Amy (2015) is a revealing documentary about Amy Winehouse, the talented jazz singer who died of alcohol abuse in 2011 at the unripened young age of 27. For this era of ubiquitous media, director Asif Kapadia dispenses with the customary talking-head interviews. Instead, he constructs his entire film using home movies, amateur video, news footage, paparazzi photos, and snapshots. He overlays these ready-made cinéma vérité clips with audio-only interviews of Amy's family, friends, colleagues, and a bodyguard. The result is an uncommonly intimate retrospective of Amy's journey from childhood to stardom to flame-out. Although she released only two albums during her brief career, this film confirms her talent and leaves us mourning the unrealized potential of her artistry and her life.
Anger Management (2003) pairs juvie-humor boy Adam Sandler with old pro Jack Nicholson, and Sandler looks like cardboard in comparison. He plays a timid, underachieving 35-year-old executive secretary who ends up in court-ordered anger-management therapy with shrink Nicholson after a trumped-up charge of assault against a flight attendant. Sandler never seems to come alive in this tepid flick, while Nicholson romps like a crazed buffalo. Let's hope master Jack passed on a few tips about real comedy to Sandler, whose adolescent routines are wearing thin.
The Anniversary Party (2001), shot in a few weeks in digital video, is spontaneous, energetic, satiric, and tragicbut never boring. It's the story of a recently reconciled Hollywood couple that throws a sixth-anniversary party with their friends and neighbors. Powerful emotions are always flowing beneath the surface and often bubble to the top as the party swings out of control. It reminds me of Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolff?, though less claustrophobic, and with the setting transferred from academia to the Hollywood entertainment elite. You don't need to be an insider to get the jokes.
Anomalisa (2015) is an unusual independent film that uses puppet stop-motion animation to tell a rather bleak story of a man with a bleak life. The main character is a semifamous author of a business book on customer relations. During a trip to deliver an inspirational talk to customer-service reps, he has a potentially life-changing experience. Although he suffers from a disorienting brain disorder that makes every person's face and voice seem identical, he meets a young woman whose actual face and voice are distinct. To him, she's an anomaly, and her name is Lisa (thus "Anomalisa"). This interesting film was funded as a Kickstarter project and is thoroughly professional, but it's vaguely unsettling. Be forewarned that it's not an animated movie for kids. The language and sex scenes are definitely for adults.
Another Earth (2011) poses a fascinating question: What would happen if we suddenly discovered in our solar system an exact duplicate of Eartha real planet with identical people and our same history? Unfortunately, the movie never answers this question. Instead, the science-fiction aspect becomes a mere backdrop for a personal drama about a teenage girl who wrecks her bright future in a horrific car accident. The new question: Can she atone for her sin? The result is a good drama, but the backdrop is more tantalizing than the action on center stage. And instead of meeting the challenge of writing their final scene, the screenwriters abruptly cut to black and roll credits. Nevertheless, there is some promising filmmaking here, so maybe they will make another film that's better than Another Earth.
Any Given Sunday (2000) is an old-school football movie that's jazzed up with choppy Oliver Stone editing; at times I half-expected to see a young Ronald Reagan reprising his role as the Gipper.
Apocalypto (2006) is a startling film directed by Mel Gibson and cowritten with Farhad Safinia, a heretofore unknown screenwriter. It faces the same challenge as science fiction: depict an alien world that is different enough to be fascinating, but familiar enough so the audience can identify with the characters. In this case, the alien world is from the past, not the futurethe Mayan empire on the cusp of its downfall to Spanish conquistadors. But white men make only a token appearance in this extraordinary picture. The main characters are primitive hunter-gatherers whom the Mayans ruthlessly conquer, enslave, and sacrifice to pagan gods. The story centers on one victim who tries desperately to escape so he can save his pregnant wife and young son. It's a compelling drama of epic proportions that always remains very personal. It's also frequently violent, sometimes gratuitously so. Will the Christians who embraced Gibson's The Passion of the Christ (2004) forgive this film's extreme violence, even though it's not against Jesus?
Argo (2012) is based on the true story of six Americans who were rescued after the U.S. embassy in Teheran was seized by Iranian revolutionaries in 1979. While their embassy colleagues were captured and held hostage, these six people slipped away and found temporary refuge at the Canadian ambassador's house. In an audacious rescue mission kept classified until the 1990s, the CIA worked with the Canadians to spirit the Americans out of the country. Ben Affleck directed and stars in this well-made drama, which remains suspenseful even when you know how it ends. Be sure to stay through the final credits to see side-by-side pictures of the actors and the real escapees they portrayand to hear a voiceover by former president Jimmy Carter, who personally approved the mission.
Around the World in 80 Days (2004) is a mediocre Disney remake of the classic Jules Verne adventure story. A Victorian Englishman wagers that he can circle the globe in less than 80 days, but this version stars martial-arts acrobat Jackie Chan as the Englishman's servant, which spawns a Chinese subplot about a stolen Buddha. Arnold Schwarzenegger has a cameo role as a Middle Eastern prince on the prowl for additional wives. This movie is passable entertainment for children and tolerable for adults.
The Artist took balls to producea silent film made in 2011. And black-and-white, of course. But the palette suits the subject. French actor Jean Dujardin is thoroughly convincing as a 1927 silent-film star loosely based on Rudolph Valentino. Even as he is idolized by a much younger actress (perfectly played by Berenice Bejo), the advent of talkies threatens his stardom. This remarkable film expertly imitates a 1920s silent movie, complete with title cards, music, visual effects, art direction, characterization, humor, and plotting. It's not just a gimmickit really works, and it's gorgeous.
Atonement (2007) is a tear-jerker that's artfully done but doesn't quite live up to its hype. James McAvoy stars as a young groundskeeper on an English estate in the 1930s. He falls in love with the upper-class young lady of the house, played by Keira Knightley. Class division is usually the lovers' obstacle in dramas of this ilk, but Atonement veers in another direction by presenting a series of events that a child eyewitness misinterprets. As a result, the lovers are separated and spend the rest of the movie yearning to reunite. The ambiguity of observation is a common thread in this story, with things often turning out differently than they first appear to be. Ironically, the best performance is by Vanessa Redgrave in one of the film's smallest roles.
August: Osage County (2013) is a depressing drama based on a stage play about a dysfunctional Oklahoma family. Meryl Streep plays the matriarch, an aging wreck addicted to prescription drugs. Her husband (Sam Shepard) is an alcoholic poet who peaked in 1965. Her three adult children include an embittered daughter with a crumbling marriage (Julia Roberts), a clueless floozy with a creepy fiancee (Juliette Lewis), and a spinster in love with her first cousin (Julianne Nicholson). And then there are the crass in-laws... Things go from bad to worse as the family gathers at the mother's house in 108-degree summer heat and engages in reverse group therapy. Even the casting is perverse. Benedict Cumberbatch, a very British actor who plays Sherlock Holmes as an insensitive genius in the popular PBS series, here plays a sensitive dunce from the American heartland. A double feature of this movie and another bleak film made in the same county in 2012 (To the Wonder) should be enough to keep anyone away from Oklahoma.
Austin Powers: the Spy Who Shagged Me (2000) is moderately funny, though too heavy on the juvenile toilet humor.
Auto Focus (2002) is a sordid film about the sordid personal life of Bob Crane, star of the 1960s TV sitcom Hogan's Heroes. On the surface, Crane was a happily married, religious family man. But when he was off the set and away from home, he reveled in a dark world of sex orgies, strip clubs, and one-night stands. His best friend was a sleazy video-camera salesman, expertly played by Willem Dafoe. For years, they avidly photographed and videotaped their female conquests. Unfortunately, lead actor Greg Kinnear never quite captures the wisecracking charm of the real Bob Crane, which undercuts the incongruity of Crane's double life. We're left with the sleaze, but not much else.
Avatar (2009) is the most spectacular special-effects extravaganza yet. And it's available in 3D, too. Actually, the effects aren't "special"they are the whole movie. Director James Cameron of Titanic fame has crafted new techniques and cameras that merge live action with computer graphics so seamlessly that Avatar lives up to its considerable hype. The story is basically the same as Dances With Wolves (1990), except the wounded combat veteran controls a genetically engineered body, the Indians are blue-skinned space aliens with tails, the wolf is a flying dragon, and the unsympathetic U.S. Cavalry are corporate mercenaries riding helicopter gunships. The conflict rages over a valuable mineral on a faraway planet, with the indigenous people simply in the way. Avatar is a genuine technical achievement that has soul. (Although the villain is overdrawn.) But is it the future of filmmaking, as Cameron claims? Only in this genre. Real faces of real actors will never go out of style.
The Avengers (2012) is an extravagant summer blockbuster based on Marvel Comics characters, including Nick Fury, Iron Man, the Hulk, Captain America, Thor, Black Widow, and Hawkeye. They unite as agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to repeal an invasion of Earth by evil space invaders. Action scenes dominate the movie, interrupted mainly by the team's intramural squabbling. But Marvel Comics fans know the climax is never in doubt. Although the special effects are spectacular, these summer action movies are like watching someone else play a videogame.
The Aviator (2004) is a fascinating biopic about millionaire Howard Hughes, though it ends in the late 1940s before he became the world's most famous recluse in Las Vegas. Instead, it focuses on Hughes' early life as a would-be film mogul, seducer of Hollywood actresses, and aviation pioneer. This phase of his life was later obscured by his bizarre eccentricities, which only makes the film more fresh and interesting. Although it foreshadows his mental illness, it also highlights his brilliance. A star-studded cast includes Cate Blanchett, whose portrayal of Katherine Hepburn is startling.
Away We Go (2009) is a cute but substantial film about a couple in their 30s expecting their first baby. Impending parenthood weighs heavily on their shoulders, spurring them to make changesmainly, to find a new city in which to live. They travel to Arizona, Wisconsin, Canada, and Florida, visiting old friends and family. Each trip brings surprises as they discover that normalcy isn't as normal as they thought. John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph deliver offbeat but believable performances as the expectant couple, aided by an unusually good supporting cast. The story swings from comedy to philosophy, often in the same scene, rarely losing its balance. Although the ending feels a bit strained, there's a lot to like here.
Babel (2006) is a disappointment. Too bad, because the directing, acting, cinematography, score, and sound editing are first-class. Even the writing glows. The problem is that screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga had three good stories and couldn't decide which one to emphasize, so he mashed them together into a loose chain of subplots. Then, to smooth over the rough joints, the stories unfold out of order. One story is about an American tourist in Morocco wounded in a shooting; another is about the Mexican nanny who cares for her children back home; and the third is about a deaf Japanese schoolgirl in search of sex. The sum of these parts is a messall the more frustrating because this could have been a great picture. Indeed, it's so brimming with talent that it was nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award, despite its flaws.
The Banger Sisters (2002) is a bawdy comedy starring Goldie Hawn and Susan Sarandon, and even a sugar-coated sappy ending can't spoil the fun. They play two old friends, separated for 20 years, who used to be rock groupies. Now Sarandon's character is a staid upper-class housewife in Phoenix and Hawn's character is...still a groupie. She arrives in Phoenix like a blast from the past, shaking up her friend's family life. Geoffrey Rush plays a repressed, eccentric writer who's along for the ride.
The Barbarian Invasions (2003) is a pretentiously named film about a middle-aged Canadian college professor who is dying from a terminal disease. The film tries to establish a "barbarian" connection with the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but it's weak. This is really a story about the regrets of a dying intellectual, the shortcomings of the Canadian health-care system, the privileges of wealth, and how a pending death can reunite a shattered family and dispersed circle of friends. Although it has its moments of comedy and drama, overall it's hard to see why this movie won the Academy Award for best foreign-language film of 2003.
Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012) is an unconventional drama about poor Southerners living off the grid while coping with the rising waters of climate change. But this isn't a strident documentary like An Inconvenient Truth (2006) or a preposterous science-fiction flick like The Day After Tomorrow (2004). Global warming is merely the backdrop. Instead, the story stays small by focusing on a loose community of poorly educated people who revert to primitive subsistence living while rejecting civilization's sterility and restrictions. The main character is a young girl (ably played by Quvenzhane Wallis) who struggles for survival and quarrels with her erratic father. Depending on your viewpoint, these folks are either rugged individualists or ignorant misfits. Some allegorical imagery (ancient animals freed from Arctic ice) adds a touch of the bizarre. Recommended only for aficionados of unusual cinema.
A Beautiful Mind (2001) has a forceful performance from Russell Crowe, who nevertheless seems out of place in this true-life drama about Nobel Prize mathematician John Nash. Crowe is way too muscular for a math nerd who makes frequent trips to mental hospitals, and his undisguised Australian accent sounds bizarre in a character who's from West Virginia. Still, the film bravely portrays schizophrenia from the patient's point of view and is an uplifting story of love and intellect overcoming adversity. Now if only Crowe could get voice lessons from Meryl Streep...
Before I Go to Sleep (2014) is yet another spin on the Hollywood affliction that's as common as the fluamnesia. This time Nicole Kidman plays the sufferer with the blank-slate mind. She remembers new things for only one day, then forgets them overnight. And, of course, she's trying to solve a mystery: How did she become so damaged? Was her husband (Colin Firth) to blame? Or her brain doctor (Mark Strong)? Or a forgotten person who may be named Mike? It's a dandy puzzle that has her wavering back and forth, and you will, too. Although the performances are good and the amnesia angle is above average, a similar story was done better in Memento (2000). They would make a great double feature.
Begin Again (2014) is a great example of a modern musicala film centered on music that doesn't interrupt the story with unrealistic song-and-dance numbers. Keira Knightley stars as a young singer-songwriter in the shadow of her rock-star boyfriend. Mark Ruffalo co-stars as a down-and-out record producer who discovers her latent talent on open-mike night at a noisy bar. Both characters are in the dumps and looking for an escape route. They find it in her music, which is more like ore than gold but is ready to shine. The redemptive quality of music carries this film, although it glosses over some problems (alcoholism, a broken marriage) that aren't so easily solved. Irish writer/director John Carney builds on his previous success with a musical movieOnce (2006), which launched the Oscar-winning song "Falling Slowly." Begin Again is a bigger production that borders on the formulaic but has enough charm to overcome its clichés.
Being John Malkovitch (2000) is too bizarre to describe and too good to miss.
Being Julia (2004) is a sometimes slow-moving but ultimately enjoyable movie based on a novel by M. Somerset Maugham. Placed in the West End theater district of London in 1938, it's a romantic comedy about a famous stage actress, her affair with a much younger man, and the trouble that ensues. Annette Bening is superb as the middle-aged femme fatale, and it's a shame her Academy Award nomination for Best Actress couldn't overcome Hilary Swank's nomination for Million Dollar Baby. Jeremy Irons has a supporting role as her uninvolved husband, and Shaun Evans is perfect as her young lover. The intrigue slowly builds to a hilarious conclusion.
Bend It Like Beckham (2003) is "brilliant," as the Brits would say. It's a well-written ethnic comedy-drama in the vein of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, except the family is Indian-English, not Greek-American. The main character, fetchingly played by Parminder K. Nagra, is a teenage girl more interested in English football (soccer) than in learning the traditional ways of a house-bound Indian woman. When she secretly joins a semiprofessional girl's team, it turns her family upside-down. A great ensemble cast and a socially aware screenplay make this film enjoyable and genuinely touching.
Beowulf (2007) combines live action with computer graphics to retell the Old English epic poem from the first millennium A.D. The castincluding Anthony Hopkins, Ray Winstone, John Malkovich, and Angelina Jolieplayed their roles in motion-capture suits on a blue-screen stage. The overlaid graphics vary in quality. Action scenes resemble a good videogame but don't match the realism of live action. Static closeups resemble photorealistic paintings. Some special effects look more like pure computer animation. Although this technique artfully blends human action with dragons and other mythical creatures, it hides good acting behind a mask of pixels and distracts attention from the story. The movie hews roughly to the poem, in which a sword-slinging hero (Beowulf) fights a deformed monster (Grundel) and its seductive mother. It's not a bad film, but I prefer to see live actors in their skins.
Bernie (2012) is a strangely compelling dark comedy based on true events in the 1990s. Jack Black plays a mortician who ingratiates himself with a cranky widow in a small Texas town. Unlike almost all other reviewers, I won't reveal what happens next, but it's gripping. The highlight is Black's performance, the best of his career so far. He restrains his slapstick side to skillfully portray a quiet man whose waters run deep. Shirley MacLaine, always fun to watch, plays the widow, and Matthew McConaughey is equally good as a straight-shooting district attorney. Even if you've seen a plot spoiler elsewhere, Black's excellent character study makes watching this film worthwhile.
Best in Show (2000) is a roaring-funny parody of dog shows and especially of dog owners. Christopher Guest assembles a cast of exaggerated stereotypes in his best work since Waiting for Guffman. It's much funnier than the adolescent toilet humor that passes for comedy these days.
Beyond the Sea (2004) is a jumbled musical about Bobby Darin, the nightclub crooner and rock 'n' roll teen idol whose career peaked in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Kevin Spacey cowrote the screenplay, directed, and plays the lead role. Spacey bears a strong resemblance to Darin, and he sang all the songs instead of using original recordings. His performance is remarkable, one of the most uncanny portrayals in any biopic. Unfortunately, Spacey's clumsy attempts to bridge time with flashbacks to Darin's childhood are often a distraction. Still, this flawed film is worth seeing, even if you're not a Bobby Darin fan.
Big Eyes (2014) is a satisfying drama based on the true story of artist Margaret Keane, whose paintings of big-eyed children first became popular in the 1950s. Dismissed by art critics as kitsch, Keane's paintings nevertheless were a hit with middle-class buyers. But director Tim Burton focuses on Keane's tumultuous relationship with her second husband, who publicly claimed he painted the works, shoving Margaret into the background. Her story parallels the subservience of wives in the 1950s and the emergence of feminism in the 1960salthough this film attributes her awakening to a religious conversion, not a political movement. Amy Adams, as Margaret Keane, advances her growing reputation as a skilled actress. She is matched by the always-excellent Christoph Waltz, who plays Walter Keane, Margaret's domineering husband. Historical accuracy is always questionable in Hollywood movies, but I appreciated the balanced portrayal of Walter as a glib opportunist who slips into his sham somewhat reluctantly, not from premeditated malice.
Big Fish (2003) is an interesting disappointment. Director Tim Burton (Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands) tries hard to make a coherent movie out of a wandering screenplay by John August (Charlie's Angels) based on a fanciful novel by Daniel Wallace. It doesn't quite work, but it's often fun to watch. Albert Finney and Ewan McGregor team up to play an eccentric man at different ages who turns his life story into colorfully embellished tall tales. His straitlaced son (Billy Crudup) is frustrated that he never knows the truth about his father. The main problem with this film is that the tall tales are outlandishly tall. Borderline believability would have made the half-truths more intriguing and the final scenes more paradoxical. Also, McGregor's horrifically fake Southern accentacceptable in Down With Love (2003), when he's supposed to be faking itis a constant distraction.
The Big Short (2015) recounts the Crash of 2008 from the viewpoint of maverick investors who bet big bucks against the fast-rising housing market. While almost all the experts ignored the growing bubble, these money managers bought credit-default swaps (in effect, insurance policies) that would pay off when the bubble burst. But this movie isn't a dry documentary. It's a fictionalized story based on true events from Michael Lewis's best-selling book of the same name. It actually makes complex financial maneuvers understandable and entertaining, and it even warns when the story deviates from reality. The stellar cast includes Ryan Gosling, Steve Carell, Christian Bale, Brad Pitt, Marisa Tomei, and Melissa Leo, all of whom are Oscar winners or nominees. This film would make a great double feature with 99 Homes (2015), which recounts the crash from the viewpoint of a typical Florida homeowner.
Billy Elliot has stunning performances by the entire cast, making it one of the best films of 2000. Billy is an 11-year-old English working-class kid who prefers ballet to boxing, upsetting his father and drawing the ridicule of most of his friends. It's a classic rags-to-riches story, dramatic and funny. Even the bit players excel in this film.
Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is dynamiteone of the best films of 2014. Michael Keaton plays a has-been action-movie star who's trying to make a comeback by writing, directing, and acting in a serious Broadway play. No more plot summary is necessary, because this film is all about the acting, cinematography, and suspense coiled by the play within the play. All the performances are revelations. Keaton has never been better; Naomi Watts nails the role of his long-suffering ex-wife; Emma Stone reveals new talent as his recently rehabbed teenage daughter; comedian Zach Galifianakis transforms himself into an intense dramatic actor; and the always-excellent Edward Norton almost steals every scene he's in. All this energy needs no further amplification, but Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu (Biutiful, 2010, Babel, 2006) amps it up anyway by editing the film to appear as nearly one continuous tracking shot. The unusual score adds still more tension with its barrage of drum solos and a perfectly calibrated piano piece comprised of single notes without accompaniment. It'll be a crime if this movie doesn't gather Oscar nominations for acting, cinematography, film editing, sound editing, visual effects, and original score.
Biutiful (a child's misspelling of "beautiful") belongs to that film genre that uses terminal illness to seek meaning in life and death. The impressive Javier Bardem stars as a poor man in Barcelona who works various schemes to earn a meager living for himself and his two young children. His greatest talent is that he can briefly communicate with the recently deceased, but this supernatural ability generates surprisingly little income and even less celebrity. The film's explorations of life, death, and afterlife are elliptical, managing to be depressing and hopeful at the same time. Bardem's Oscar-nominated performance carries this exceptional film, which was also nominated for a 2010 Academy Award in the foreign-film category. (In Spanish with English subtitles.)
The Black Dahlia (2006) is atrocious, but in such an intriguing way that one feels compelled to keep watching, as if it were a slow-motion train wreck. Loosely based on a famous Hollywood murder in 1947, The Black Dahlia strives to imitate film noir and later revivals like Chinatown (1974) and L.A. Confidential (1997). It misses so badly that it nearly spawns a new genre, film bizarre. The cast is superb: Scarlett Johansson, Hilary Swank, Josh Hartnett, Aaron Eckhart, and Fiona Shaw, among others. Yet inexplicably, they fall flat. Worse, the story is riddled with confusing subplots and minor characters. As the film builds to its gory climax, the plot not only thickens, it solidifies. Director Brian De Palma resorts to a rapid-fire sequence of flashbacks, voice-over narration, and startling revelations to make the conclusion vaguely comprehensible. Film students will debate this movie for years to come, much as shipwrights study the Titanic.
Black Hawk Down (2001) is an intense war movie based on the true story of an ill-fated mission by U.S. peacekeepers in Somalia in 1993. It shows how even the most elite troops (U.S. Army Rangers and Delta Force commandos) can quickly find themselves overwhelmed by the unexpected twists and turns of combat. Other than offering a brutal and bloody look at modern urban fighting, however, the film doesn't offer any insight into the politics or ethics of such missions. And it's definitely not for the squeamish.
Black Swan (2010) is a bizarre ballerina drama starring Natalie Portman as a dancer vying for the lead role of the Swan Queen in Swan Lake. To impress her director (perfectly played by Vincent Cassel), she must overcome physical and mental obstacles that are driving her mad. The boundary between reality and hallucination is ambiguous in this film. Indeed, it's possible that nearly the entire story is her deranged fantasy. Bodily injuries, whether real or imagined, are vividly portrayed, so this isn't a movie for the squeamish. Portman delivers an Oscar-worthy performance, with strong support from Barbara Hershey as her controlling mother, Winona Ryder as an embittered has-been, and Mila Kunis as a seductive rival.
Blade Runner: The Final Cut (2007) is the third theatrical release of this 1982 noir science-fiction thriller. And three's the charm. Director Ridley Scott cleans up the special effects (for example, erasing visible cables supporting the flying cars) and makes other small changes to sharpen his film. As in the second releaseknown as the "Director's Cut"he deletes the original Harrison Ford voice-over narration. Although Scott's modifications are minor, they polish the film's reputation as a cult classic. Placed in Los Angeles in 2019, the story features Ford as a cop who specializes in killing genetically engineered humanoids known as replicants. Rutger Hauer excels as the leader of a renegade band of replicants. But the real impact of this film is its dramatic art direction and lifelike vision of a dystopian future.
The Blair Witch Project (1999) is overrated and overhyped, but it's still a fascinating film that's sure to be imitated by Hollywood filmmakersand I think it's the opening shot in a rebellion against overproduced, special-effects extravaganzas like The Haunting and Star Wars, two other films released the same year.
Blood Simple (1984) was re-released as a director's cut in 2000, and it shows why the Coen brothers are masters of crime drama. Their bad guys are real-life bumblers, not the criminal masterminds typically seen in other films.
Blue Jasmine (2013) is a showcase for Cate Blanchett, who instantly becomes the leading Oscar contender for Best Actress. In this exquisitely emotional drama written and directed by Woody Allen, Blanchett plays Jasmine, a high-society woman whose rich husband was imprisoned for financial fraud. Shorn of her wealth and stunned by her fall from grace, she seeks shelter with her sister in San Francisco. But the sister is barely better off, recently divorced with two children and an uncouth boyfriend. Jasmine struggles to reboot her life, frustrated by her lack of job skills, troubled by her culpability in her downfall, and weakened by a fragile mind. Then she meets someone and life looks brighter... Blanchett wears this role like a second skin and gets the mood swings just right. Although the dramatic conclusion at first seems abrupt, on reflection it's a logical climax that puts everything in context. We've all seen people like Jasmine and wondered how their fortune turned.
Blue Valentine (2010) is a bleak but realistic story of a eroding marriage. The always-impressive Ryan Gosling stars as a manipulative but often well-meaning man disturbed by his wife's retreat from their relationship. Michelle Williams matches Gosling's performance, playing a young wife whose teen motherhood and hasty marriage have severely limited her life options. The couple is drifting apart, but they can't break free or even decide if they should. The great accomplishment of this film is its harsh truth. It exposes the character flaws of each spouse without finding exclusive fault with either of them.
Bobby (2006) is a meandering drama about the assassination of Senator Robert F. Kennedy in June 1968. Moments after his victory in the California presidential primary, RFK was shot dead in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. His murder was a tumultuous event in a tumultuous decade, and this movie does a good job of resurrecting the period. Writer/director Emilio Estevez weaves archival footage together with re-created scenes filmed in the hotel before it was recently torn down. Unfortunately, Estevez tells the story in the form of several parallel subplotsan often effective technique, except when most of the subplots have little or no bearing on the main event. This movie ignores RFK's assassin and his motivations, and it overlooks other people (such as RFK's bodyguard, football star Rosey Grier) whose stories would have been more interesting. It's not a bad film, but it could have been so much better.
The Book of Eli (2010) is a disturbing but well-crafted post-apocalypse movie starring Denzel Washington. A survivor of a near-future global war, he's spent 30 years trudging across a sparsely populated wasteland that was once the U.S. His lone trek is dangerous. Civilization has broken down, crime is rampant, the environment is devastated. His precious payload: a Bible. This story has strong religious and political overtones. Did religion cause the cataclysm? Is religion mankind's salvation, or a weapon for a new breed of despots? It's a compelling film, open to interpretation. Christians may like the theme, but I haven't seen such a mix of religion and violence since The Passion of the Christ (2004).
Born Into Brothels (2004) deserved its Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature of 2004. It's a tragic but hopeful film about children in the red-light district of Calcutta, India, who are forced into prostitution by their poverty and even by their own parents. Filmmakers Dana Briski and Ross Kauffman are photographers who have lived in the district on and off for years, documenting the lives of the people there. They became so upset at the plight of the children that they started a photography class, equipped the kids with cameras, and encouraged them to expand their horizons by documenting their own lives. They have also found boarding schools willing to rescue some of the children. This well-made documentary is filled with unforgettable images of children and adults trying to cope with a cycle of despair.
Bowling For Columbine (2002) is an outrageously funny and thought-provoking documentary about gun violence in America by ambush-journalist Michael Moore. Like Moore's famous Roger & Me (1989), it pulls no punches and never lets dry facts or complex issues get in the way of good street theater. Moore's position is that guns aren't necessarily bad (he's a lifelong member of the National Rifle Association), but that some unique flaw in American culture makes Americans kill each other with guns at a much higher rate than anyone else in the world. To solve this mystery, he travels to such places as Columbine High School (site of a horrific mass murder by two students), a neighborhood of unlocked front doors in Canada, a target range with the Michigan Militia, and the home of Charleton Heston, president of the NRA. Ultimately, though, he delivers more satire and sarcasm than answers.
Boyhood (2014) is a movie unlike any other. Writer/director Richard Linklater (Fast Food Nation, School of Rock, Dazed & Confused) spent 12 years filming the story of a boy growing up to adulthood. No makeup tricks needed here. In 166 minutes, we see the cast of children and adults genuinely grow older before our eyes. Although some documentaries have achieved similar feats, Boyhood is a feature film that required its actors to rendezvous every year to play a few scenes. And it's not just a gimmickthe screenwriting is exceptional, too. Ellar Coltrane stars as the young boy who begins the film at age 7. Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke are brilliant as his star-crossed parents. The supporting cast, including many child actors, is equal to the challenge. The 12-year story arc dramatizes the difficulties of growing up, of parenting, and of maintaining relationships. It mixes documentary realism with fictional storytelling so successfully that it's almost a new film genre.
Boys Don't Cry (1999) is emotionally painful to watch, but it has better acting and a more compelling story than almost any film of the year. Hilary Swank deserved her Oscar for Best Actress. (Chloe Sevigny was also nominated.)
Bread & Tulips (2001) is a subtitled Italian film about a housewife who experiences a midlife crisis. Accidentally left behind at a highway rest stop during a family vacation, she decides to hitchhike to Venice only because she's never been there. Before long, her solo vacation starts turning into a whole new life. But how can she reconcile it with her existing life, which includes a husband and two teenage children? This is one of those gentle, funny, and romantic kind of movies that Hollywood rarely makes any more.
Bridesmaids (2011) is a surprisingly funny comedy with a serious side, too. Saturday Night Live regulars Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph lead a mostly female cast of characters who are organizing a wedding for their friend. Predictably, everything goes wrong, usually with hilarious results. Less predictably, the movie goes a little deeper into the women's relationships with each other and with the men in their lives. Melissa McCarthy is particularly good as an overweight tomboy who seems to be included only for reliable laughs but later shows emotional depth. Although there's an element of Sex in the City, frequent comic scenes keep the drama from getting too catty.
Bringing Out the Dead (1999), directed by Martin Scorcese, wastes good acting and filmmaking on a meandering plot. Nicolas Cage, Patricia Arquette, and John Goodman are lost in a fuzzy tale about life and death in the modern health-care system. It didn't help that the San Francisco Chronicle's review gave away the ending, which was the main point of the movie.
Brokeback Mountain (2005) is outstanding, but its success is a surprise. A romance about two homosexual cowboyseven one that isn't a gay subculture filmwould appear to have little chance of becoming a crossover hit. But it's happening. Although director Ang Lee's previous work (such as Hulk and Sense and Sensibility) seems incongruous with Brokeback Mountain, he builds strongly on a short story by E. Annie Proulx (who also wrote The Shipping News) and a methodical screenplay by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, veterans of Westerns. The unlikely lovers are played by Jake Gyllenhaal (Jarhead and Donnie Darko), who's weird enough to fit perfectly in a film like this, and Heath Ledger (Monster's Ball and The Patriot), who grunts and murmurs his way through a minimalist performance that's actually quite studied. Big-sky scenery makes the story loom larger than it is. Actually, it would work almost as well as a nonromantic buddy picture about two blue-collar cowboys struggling to make a life in a modern American West that offers them dwindling opportunities.
Broken Flowers (2005) is an examination of middle-age ennui by writer/director Jim Jarmusch (Stranger Than Paradise, Dead Man, Coffee and Cigarettes). Bill Murray plays a retired computer-industry millionaire and bachelor who one morning receives an anonymous letter from a former girlfriend claiming he fathered a son 20 years ago. Prodded by a nosy neighbor, he embarks on a journey to figure out which former girlfriend may have written the letter. The girlfriendsexpertly played by Sharon Stone, Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange, and Tilda Swintonrun the gamut from a sexpot NASCAR widow to a now-fossilized real-estate agent imprisoned in a desolate suburban marriage. Murray deftly deadpans his character, who pursues the search more out of boredom than from any desire for self-discovery. The mystery is superb, but the film is weighed down by the Hollywood cliché of the Don Juan bachelor. Jarmusch implies that the bachelor's free-love days led to his bleak life as a male spinster, but another conclusion is that marriage to any of these girlfriends would have been worse.
Brooklyn (2015) is a beautifully made drama about a young Irish woman who emigrates to America in the early 1950s. At first she's hopelessly homesick, but soon she meets a handsome young man and begins settling into her new life. When she returns to Ireland for a visit, however, she becomes torn between both worlds. Which future should she pursue? The preview trailers reveal that much of the story, which is almost the whole story. What the trailers don't (and can't) reveal is the artfulness of this film. The writing, acting, art design, makeup, and costumes are superb. Saoirse Ronan is pitch-perfect as the timid, lonely immigrant who slowly blossoms into a mature young woman as the film progresses. No scene is wasted, and no plot development seems abrupt or unrealistic. It's one of the best movies of 2015.
Brothers (2009) is an intense drama about a U.S. Marine who suffers a traumatic combat experience in Afghanistan. At home, his brother is on parole after robbing a bank, and his wife struggles to cope with two small daughters. Emotional collision is inevitable as these very different lives intersect. Tobey Maguire is outstanding as the weary Marine, showing a dimension far surpassing his better-known role as Spider-Man. Natalie Portman ably plays his beleaguered spouse, and Jake Gyllenhaal is perfectly cast as his ne'er-do-well brother. Sam Shepard rounds out the troupe as their strict ex-Marine father. This is a tightly written story of ordinary people pushed to the precipice of human existence.
Bubba Ho-Tep (2003) is one of the oddest films you'll ever see, a sly concoction of campy horror and dark comedy. B-movie actor Bruce Campbell plays an Elvis impersonator (or is he really Elvis Presley?) wasting away in a shabby nursing home in Texas. Ossie Davis, the only other recognizable star, plays another patientan elderly black man who thinks he's President John F. Kennedy. They join forces to battle an evil entity that seems to be a reincarnated Egyptian mummy. The scriptpenned by Libyan-born Don Coscarelli, screenwriter of the eerie Phantasm seriesranges from gross humor to creepy terror to philosophical ramblings on aging. The quality is equally variable, but Bubba Ho-Tep deserves credit for being different.
Bug (2007) is a disturbing film about paranoia, conspiracy theories, and mental illness. A barely recognizable Ashley Judd skillfully plays a white-trash barmaid living in a cheap desert motel. She meets a stranger (played with creepy reticence by Michael Shannon) who finds her run-down rooms infested with tiny bugs. When he offers to eradicate them, her precarious life starts spiraling out of control. Harry Connick Jr. and Brian F. O'Byrne have small but strong supporting roles. But there's no escaping that this movie wallows in sleazesome people abruptly left the theater during my viewing. The point that madness can be contagious has been made with more subtlety.
Burlesque (2010) is a flashy (shall we say Flashdancey?) musical carried almost entirely by its numerous song-and-dance numbers. Cher stars as the stern but motherly owner of a Hollywood burlesque club that improbably thrives without strippers or pole dancers. Stanley Tucci aces an unchallenging role as her devoted gay assistant. But the real star is singer Christina Aguilera, who lights up the screen as a poor immigrant from Iowa who arrives with latent talent just as the club's bankers are threatening to foreclose. To make the Great Depression allusions complete, Aguilera's penniless character studies the great burlesque queens of bygone days. Expect no surprises from the well-worn plot, but do expect sexy musical performances that revive memories of Hollywood's golden age.
Burn After Reading (2008) is another outstanding movie from the Oscar-winning writer/director team of Ethan and Joel Coen. It's more in the spirit of their cult hit Fargo (1996) than their more recent No Country For Old Men, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2007 but was bleak and violent. Burn After Reading has a few moments of violence, but the overall tone is lighter and funnier. As usual, the Coen brothers' theme is the foolishness of small-time criminals. Brad Pitt is marvelous as a dingbat health-club trainer who stumbles on the first-draft memoir of a former CIA analyst (the delightfully menacing John Malkovich). His partner in a hare-brained blackmail scheme is a colleague who needs money for cosmetic surgery (Frances McDormand, a Coen brothers regular). George Clooney and Tilda Swinton contribute additional talent. The results are quirky but always entertaining.
The Business of Strangers (2001) is an outstanding showcase for veteran actress Stockard Channing and newcomer Julia Stiles. It's an emotional drama about two businesswomen who compete in very different ways against men. Channing is the cold, competitive executive who sacrifices her personal life to succeed in a man's world, yet never feels secure in her position. Stiles is the rebellious youngster with tattoos, an attitude, and a questionable past. When they collide on a business trip, sparks flyand woe to the man who gets caught in the middle. The plot is a hybrid of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1956) and Extremities (1986).
The Butterfly Effect (2004) is an interesting drama about a college student who discovers he has the supernatural ability to relive critical moments in his life. He uses his powers to correct past wrongs and create a better future for himself and his friendsor at least, he tries. As the film's title suggests, he quickly runs afoul of chaos theory. His every attempt to fix the past only damages the future. As with most time-travel stories, there are holes and discrepancies, but overall it's a suspenseful and thought-provoking film.
C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America (2004) is a fascinating view of alternative history. Styled as a British TV documentary, it depicts a world in which the Confederacy won the Civil War and conquered the North, establishing a nation that never abolishes slavery. Abraham Lincoln, convicted of war crimes, eventually dies in exile in Canada. During an expansionist period, the CSA defeats Spain and conquers Mexico and South America. Sharing Adolf Hitler's philosophy of white supremacy, the CSA stays neutral in the European theater of World War II but counters Japanese imperialism in Asia by preemptively attacking the Japanese fleet in Tokyo Bay. The alternative history continues to our present time, when slaves are auctioned on TV shopping networks and on the Internet. Commercials advertise property insurance for slaves and prescription drugs to keep them docile. Although this film is brilliantly made and historically informed, at times even hilarious, it's also a sharp indictment of institutional racism that will likely not be welcomed by those who revere the Southern cause.
Capitalism: A Love Story (2009) is Michael Moore's attack on capitalist economics, corporate greed, predatory banking, exotic finance, and money-driven politics. Even more so than his previous films (Sicko, Fahrenheit 9/11, Bowling for Columbine, Roger and Me, etc.), it's relentlessly provocative. Some scenes elicit sympathy, while others stir anger, arouse humor, or appeal to reason. In arguing that society should be organized for the greater good of the many, not the greater good of the few, Moore turns Christianity against the Christian Right and free enterprise against the Wall Streeters. This powerful polemic is an uncompromising frontal assault on capitalism, sweeping aside the moderate view that our economic woes can be remedied with regulation. Instead, Moore proposes a radical but workable alternative: democracy.
Capote (2005) is a remarkable biopic about writer Truman Capote. Instead of trying to compress his life story into a couple of hours, it wisely focuses on a pivotal six-year period from 1959 when Capote repeatedly visited rural Kansas to report on the mass murder of a farmer and his family. Capote was immediately drawn into the tragedy, which eventually became the subject of his most famous book, In Cold Blood. He called it a "nonfiction novel," and it's a landmark work of deep investigative reporting. It also changed Capote foreverhe never finished another book. Philip Seymour Hoffman is stunning as Capote, whose effeminate mannerisms and elegant apparel make him seem like a Martian to the small-town Kansans. Most remarkable is the way this film shows Capote using his quirky personality to ingratiate himself with the townspeople and the murderers, gradually winning their trust and mining them for information. He veers from genuinely sympathetic to disingenuously manipulative, sometimes in the same scene. Yet Hoffmandefinitely an Oscar contendernever fails to make it seem authentic.
Captain Phillips (2013) stars Tom Hanks as the skipper of a container ship attacked by Somali pirates in 2009. Based on a true story, this intense drama shows both sides of the confrontationpoor Somalis mesmerized by the potential reward of millions of dollars in ransom money, and merchant sailors who find themselves fighting pirates while skirting the Horn of Africa. Hanks is superb as the steadfast Captain Phillips, but his performance is matched by Barkhad Abdi, a native-born Somali who plays the pirate leader. Although Abdi had no acting experience and was working as a chauffeur when he took this role, he is unbelievably believable. This film revolves around the interplay between Hanks and Abdi, who duel with their wits and wills. Even if you remember how this misadventure ends, the suspense is powerful. The final scene shows the emotional toll of a deadly ordeal and is more realistic than a conventional Hollywood climax.
Casino Royale (2006) is a sharp departure from previous James Bonds films, especially those made in the post-Sean Connery era. Gone are almost all of the gimmicks and subcurrents of self-parody that turned recent Bonds movies into near farces. Daniel Craig plays a young, tough Bond newly promoted to double-oh status who doesn't give a damn if his martinis are shaken or stirred. Although he can passably mingle with the jet set, you get the impression he would be more at home in an organized-crime street gang. The only major flaw in this movie is a long, drawn-out ending that continues for 15 minutes after the story reaches a climax.
Cast Away (2000) delivers Robinson Crusoe to a desert island by FedX in this liberal adaptation starring Tom Hanks. After a tedious intro, the movie gets interesting when Hanks becomes the lone survivor of a FedX plane crash in the South Pacific. His executive skills aren't very useful for Stone Age living. He struggles to make fire and stay alive while pining for girlfriend Helen Hunt, who thinks he's dead. His only companion is Wilson, a soccer ball. Then the film slows down again, and the ending fails to wrap up an important loose end. It's not a bad film, but I think the wrong footage was left on the cutting-room floor.
The Cat's Meow (2002) re-creates an infamous weekend in 1924 aboard newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst's yacht. Was somebody really murdered? If so, whodunnit? This meticulously detailed and witty drama by Peter Bogdanovich doesn't pull any punches as it suggests a controversial hypothesis. Even if it's yellow journalism, it's fun to watch. Muddy sound that obscures some of the smart dialogue is the only flaw worth mentioning.
Catch Me If You Can (2002) is a finely crafted tale of a young con artist (played by Leonardo DeCaprio) who poses as an airline pilot, doctor, and lawyer while cashing millions of dollars' worth of fake checks. He is relentlessly pursued by a humorless G-man (Tom Hanks, striving with mixed results to imitate a Brooklyn accent). Steven Spielberg directed this comedy-drama, based on real events from the 1960s. It's always entertaining. Even the opening credits are better than most other whole movies.
Cats & Dogs (2001) is mainly for kidsa live-action film about intrepid dogs who foil a world-domination plot by cats. It's cute and clever, though sometimes overdonebut then, so are all the recent James Bonds films, which Cats & Dogs parodies.
Cecil B. DeMented (2000, directed by John Waters) is about a gang of underground filmmakers who kidnap a glamorous Hollywood star and force her to act in their bizarre indie film. The parallels with the Patty Hearst kidnapping of the 1970s are hard to missand in fact Hearst has a bit part. This movie starts with great verve, but runs out of clever ideas and ends in an incoherent orgy of sex and violence.
The Changeling (2008) is a powerful drama directed by Clint Eastwood, whose recent directorial efforts are beginning to eclipse his long and respected acting career. Angelina Jolie stars as a single mother in Los Angeles whose only son disappears in 1928. Months later, a lost boy turns up. The LAPD claims it's her sonbut she is certain the cops are wrong. Then the real agony begins. Although this movie is based on a true story, it's riddled with holes. Doesn't the missing boy have relatives who could confirm or deny the mother's doubts? Why does it take so long for other members of the community to step forward with their testimony? Also, the dates of events flashed on the screen don't seem to match the passage of time in the film. Despite these problems, the acting is uniformly excellent and the images of L.A. in the Roaring Twenties are remarkable.
Chappie (2015) is a violent but fascinating science-fiction film about artificial intelligence. Dystopian director Neill Blomkamp (District 9, Elysium) places this near-future story in Johannesburg, South Africa, shortly after the world's first robotic police have halted a crime wave. The robot manufacturer employs a brilliant but poorly supervised engineer (Dev Patel, Slumdog Millionaire) who secretly endows a badly damaged robot with his new AI software. The machine awakens with a childlike intelligence but is a very fast learner. Soon the story becomes a morality tale that pits nature versus nurture (favoring John Locke's "blank slate") and poses age-old theological questions ("Why did you create me if I have to die?"). However, the philosophizing is nearly lost in a cacophony of action-movie violence and special effects. The best effect is Chappie himself, a remarkably lifelike creation who nearly outshines the human actors.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) is wickedly funny and one of the weirdest films ever made. Imagine how strange The Wizard of Oz must have seemed in 1939then update it with a sense of humor sharpened by modern life. Strictly speaking, this isn't a kiddie flick, and some kids might find a few scenes more frightening than the Wicked Witch of the West. This is a delirious film that wields cultural references and humor like a knife, slashing at greedy consumerism, violent videogames, and overcompetitive parenting. But its message is costumed in otherworldly special effects, subtle dialogue, and the oddest song-and-dance numbers you've ever seen. Johnny Depp plays Willie Wonka as a demented cross between Captain Kangaroo and Michael Jackson, guiding five lucky children on a tour through his secret chocolate factory. The factory is a bizarre world unto itself, like Oz in an antimatter dimension. Just when you think this movie can't possibly get any weirder, it does.
Charlie Wilson's War (2007) is a superbly acted drama with a light touchperhaps too light. Based on a true story, it stars Tom Hanks as Charlie Wilson, a Texas congressman who almost single-handedly steered the CIA into supporting Afghan guerrilla fighters in their war against Soviet invaders in the 1980s. Wilson used his influence to dramatically increase funding to the mujahadeen and arm them with sophisticated Stinger antiaircraft missiles. Julia Roberts co-stars as a wealthy Texas socialite who backs Wilson, and Philip Seymour Hoffman portrays a CIA covert-ops man. It's a great story. However, many critics attack this film for underplaying the consequencesafter the Russians leave Afghanistan, the mujahadeen morph into the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Actually, the film does end on a cleverly scripted cautionary note, but I agree it's too subtle for the many Americans who pay scant attention to world events.
Chasing Mavericks (2012) is a watchable drama based on the true story of Jay Moriarity, a California teenager who became one of the world's youngest big-wave surfers in the 1990s. Jonny Weston, a relative newcomer, plays Moriarity with great earnestness and energy. Moriarity is mentored by an older surfer (played by a suitably gruffy Gerard Butler), setting up a familiar Karate Kid-type plot in which a rigorous training regimen leads to triumph. The film keenly captures the atmosphere of Santa Cruz, California, a famous surfer haven, but does even better when the action shifts 50 miles north to Mavericks, one of the world's biggest surf breaks. Without help from digital enhancements, the cameras reveal these mighty waves for the monsters they are. But they weren't the only monsters this young man had to overcome, and the movie shows us that, too.
Cherish (2002) is clever, tense, and ironic. It might be this year's Mementoa film that instantly attracts a cult following. Robin Tunney skillfully plays a woman under house arrest with an ankle bracelet that alerts police if she strays more than 57 feet from her telephone. Yet somehow she must prove herself innocent of a killing while being stalked by a creepy admirer. Tim Blake Nelson (O Brother, Where Art Thou?) co-stars as a civil servant who periodically checks her electronic leash. The soundtrack of love songs from the 1960s and '70s is more than just background musicin this context, the lyrics become menacing. The claustrophobia and desperation of her dilemma are reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window.
Chicago (2002) is a lush, hyperactive musical in the modern tradition of Moulin Rouge and as frankly sexual as The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Based on the stage play, it's about two women accused of murder in 1920s Chicagoone a famous cabaret dancer, the other a frustrated wannabe. But don't expect historical accuracy or deep drama. This is an outrageously funny production with flashy, frenetic dance numbers and uncommonly witty lyrics. It's easily one of the top films of the year and a leading contender for Best Picture.
Chicken Run (2000) is a punny claymation sensation from England. It's a great parody of The Great Escape, Stalag 17, Flight of the Phoenix and Animal Farm. Imprisoned chickens on an English farm plan an elaborate escape to freedomif they can only outwit the despotic farmer and his wife.
Children of Men (2006) is a bleak and vivid drama placed in the near future of 2027, when all the world's women are suffering from inexplicable infertility. No babies have been born for 18 years. The result is political turmoil, social breakdown, and universal despair. The story takes place in Great Britain, which has become a police state that ruthlessly imprisons illegal immigrants fleeing worse fates elsewhere. Clive Owen plays an apolitical government clerk who is reluctantly drawn into the plotting of an underground resistance group. Owen is perfect as an action hero who doesn't kill but only seeks to preserve life while violence swirls around him. The dystopian vision of this film is extremely powerful and disturbingly plausible. It's a brilliant variation of George Orwell's 1984 and is much better executed than another apocalyptic British film, 28 Days Later (2003).
Chocolat (2000) gathered a well-deserved Oscar nomination for Best Picture, although it lost to the epic Gladiator. This is a rich drama with a talented cast. It's about a fiercely independent woman who opens a sensual chocolate shop in a conservative French village, circa 1960. Her clashes with the villagers and the mayor range from funny to tragic. There are exceptional performances all around, with Johnny Depp making a good turn as a soulful river drifter.
The Chronicles of Narnia: the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (2005) is a fantasy tale based on the series of children's books by author C.S. Lewis (1898-1963). Two brothers and two sisters evacuated to a rural English estate during World War II discover a portal to a strange world of mythical creatures. They soon discover, however, that this new world is as embroiled in conflict as the one they left. The oppressed subjects of an evil witch greet the reluctant children as saviors. Although Chronicles of Narnia is a passable morality tale, several scenes are too violent for young children, and the Christian subtext of Lewis's original books is barely evident.
The Cider House Rules (1999) was one of the best movies of the year. It has first-class acting and a compassionate story without being trite or schmaltzy.
Cinderella (2015) remakes the classic French fairy tale in lavish fashion. Lily James as Cinderella and Cate Blanchett as her cruel stepmother are perfect foils. They get amusing supporting performances from Helena Bonham Carter (fairy godmother) and Sophie McShera (one of the step-sisters, more famous for her servant's role as Daisy in Downton Abbey). Highlights include the spectacular grand ball at the duke's palace and magical special effects when Cinderella's carriage reverts to a pumpkin. The story avoids excessive meanness and preaches forgiveness. Although it's rather long for young children, it's lively enough to keep them interested.
Cinderella Man (2005) is one of Ron Howard's best films. Based on a true story, it dramatizes the comeback of heavyweight boxer Jim Braddock in the 1930s. After injuries and other mishaps, Braddock tumbled from fame in the Roaring Twenties to desperate poverty in the Great Depression. Living in a squalid tenement and reduced to manual labor on the docks, Braddock literally fought his way back to title contention against the famous Max Baer. Yes, Cinderella Man has all the tired fight-film clichés, plus the hoary heartstrings of downtrodden workers searching for hope in the depths of America's worst economic crisis. It's a mash-up of Million Dollar Baby and Seabiscuit. But the performances by Russell Crowe, Renee Zellweger, and Paul Giamatti are so good that it seems fresh, and the art direction is superb.
City By the Sea (2002) stars Robert De Niro in a typically strong performance. Based on a true story, it's about a New York cop who's the son of an executed murdererand who discovers that his junkie son has also killed a man. There would be Oscar rumors about any other actor who played this role as well. But De Niro seems able to portray tough, emotionally wounded characters in his sleep. In this well-balanced drama he gets top-notch support from Frances McDormand as his girlfriend and James Franco as his troubled son. Though placed in a fictional New York beach town, it was actually filmed in Asbury Park, New JerseyBruce Springsteen's stomping grounds.
The Clearing (2004) is a somber drama about an executive kidnapping. It's definitely an actor's movie, with keen performances by Robert Redford as the snatched millionaire, Helen Mirren as his distraught wife, and Willem Dafoe as the inscrutable kidnapper. In strong supporting roles are Matt Craven as an FBI agent and Alessandro Nivola as the angry son. There are no superheroes, unbelievable exploits, or gratuitous car chases in this carefully crafted but somewhat depressing film. Instead, the story gradually builds up tension and remains realistic to the end.
The Closet (released in the U.S. in 2001) is one of the funniest movies of the year. It's a subtitled French film (Le Placard, 2000) starring Daniel Auteuil and Gerard Depardieu. An accountant at a condom factory accidentally learns he's about to be fired and hits upon a novel solution: by spreading a false rumor that he's gay, he spooks the company into fearing a discrimination lawsuit. His ploy works at first, but a series of unintended consequences soon turns his life upside-down. The film exploits many opportunities for comedic situations without the crudeness that's currently fashionable in American comedies.
Cloud Atlas (2012) is a complex film about the eternal struggle between good and evil, both on an individual scale and within our civilization. It is complex because it follows several storylines in different time periods ranging from the 1800s to the far future. Scenes from each story are freely intercut with little apparent connection until nearly the end of this three-hour epic. The same actors in different makeup play different roles, and the film implies that at least some characters are reincarnations of others. (The actors, all marvelous, include Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant, and the stunning Donna Bae.) Pay close attention, because the narrative jumps all over the place and little clues matter. Frankly, many viewers will find it frustrating and pretentious. I was fascinated, but much of my fascination was the rapt attention required to follow the scrambled storylines. Reassembling the stories sequentially would make them more coherent and the movie less gimmicky, but it would challenge the audience in a different wayto identify the connections over a greater length of time. Either way, this film's structure overwhelms its theme.
Cold Mountain was easily one of the best films of 2003. Diehard Southerners may not like it, however, because it realistically depicts a rarely told dark side of the American Civil Warthe internecine strife and brutality in the mountains of North Carolina. Jude Law plays a hard-fighting Confederate soldier who receives a letter from his girlfriend (Nicole Kidman). She desperately needs his help. With the war nearly over, he deserts the army to return home and save her. But the mountains are another battleground, as undisciplined Home Guard paramilitaries and Yankee raiders prey on the local populace. The violence is disturbing but historically accurate. Cold Mountain is the antidote to the ludicrous historical revisionism of Gods & Generals, the other major Civil War film of 2003. Kidman, Law, and their supporting cast deliver Oscar-quality performances, and the cinematography is stunning.
Collateral (2004) is an excellent film-noir thriller placed in present-day Los Angeles, the modern noir substitute for New York City or Chicago. Tom Cruise coldly plays a professional hit man who hires an innocent cab driver to ferry him from one target to the next, all night long. This film is really a slowly unfolding morality play, although it's a little light on the message and heavy on the action. The cabbie (Jamie Foxx) is an ordinary person trapped in an ordinary life who until now has devoted little thought to morality. Suddenly he's confronted by a sociopath who is not so much immoral as amoral. Their conflict eventually spurs him to respond in ways he never thought possible. Every aspect of this movieincluding the writing, directing, cinematography, and actingis first-rate.
The Company You Keep (2013) stars several Hollywood veterans (including Robert Redford, Julie Christie, Nick Nolte, Sam Elliott, Susan Sarandon, and Chris Cooper) as former Weather Underground radicals who have been living under false identities since the 1970s. When one is arrested by the FBI, the others fear exposure. Hanging over their heads is the death of a security guard during a long-ago bank robbery. Who shot the guard, and who will take the rap? With such a stellar cast, this film can't fail to be a well-acted drama. But the story detours when a reporter uncovers another secret. Although this one seems trivial compared with the murder, somehow it seizes center stage and muddles the conclusion. Nevertheless, it's fun watching these geezers show that their acting skills are as vigorous as ever.
The Conspirator (2011) is an exceptional dramatization of the trial of Mary Surratt, the only woman implicated in President Abraham Lincoln's assassination. In 1865, Mrs. Surratta widowed Southernerran a Washington D.C. boarding house where the plot was hatched by assassin John Wilkes Booth and his fellow conspirators. The government accused her of conspiracy and denied her a civilian trial, bringing her instead before a heavily prejudiced military tribunal. I admired this film's attention to historical detail and the excellent performances by Robin Wright as Mrs. Surratt, James McAvoy as her earnest attorney, Kevin Kline (barely recognizable) as War Secretary Edwin Stanton, and Evan Rachel Wood as Mrs. Surratt's adult daughter. This 150-year-old story is relevant to any time in which threats to national security erode Constitutional rights.
The Constant Gardener (2005) is a John Le Carre thriller filmed in semidocumentary style, which too often means the camerawork is jerky and blurry in a bid for authenticity. Too bad, because the African footage (most of the story takes place in Kenya) is actually quite good. But the plot is thin, revolving around a conspiracy by transnational pharmaceutical companies to use Africans as human guinea pigs. To disguise the skimpy story, Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles hacks the film into a mishmash of flashbacks. Fortunately, the acting surpasses the material, with Ralph Fiennes, Rachel Weisz, and Danny Huston giving first-class performances. A better thriller wouldn't make the bad guys so obvious or the conclusion such a downer.
Contagion (2011) is a fairly realistic tale about a virulent epidemic that rapidly spreads worldwide via business travelers. Despite this film's global scope, writer Scott Z. Burns and director Steven Soderbergh personalize the drama of loved ones suddenly stricken by a frightening and often fatal disease. Initial public skepticism over the plagueis this another bird-flu false alarm?soon gives way to panic. The all-star cast includes Marion Cotillard, Matt Damon, Jennifer Ehle, Laurence Fishburne, Elliot Gould, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Kate Winslet. An interesting theme is conflict between the establishment (as represented by the scientific community and mainstream news media) and a challenger (an aggressive Internet blogger promoting a cure). This movie is an above-average drama that never loses its balance.
The Contender (2000) is a taut political drama about a Washington sex scandal involving a vice-presidential candidate. The plot would have seemed ludricrous before the Clinton/Lewinsky affair. The ending still seems ludricrousand too preachy, as well.
Control Room (2004) is a rough but thought-provoking documentary about al-Jazeera, the international TV news channel that has transfixed the Arab world. By showing a behind-the-scenes look at al-Jazeera's coverage of the U.S. war against Iraq in 2003, this film tries to debunk the popular American view that al-Jazeera is nothing but strident Arab propaganda. It doesn't entirely succeed, but it does a better job at showing something else: that tailoring the news for a target audience is a game played equally well by other news outlets and the U.S. government.
The Cooler (2003) is a modern film noir placed in Las Vegas. But it's not the family-friendly Las Vegas that plays to middle America with sidewalk attractions and Disneyesque casinos. In this Vegas, the Shangri-La casino is a throwback to smoky gambling dens owned by slick-suited thugs. William H. Macy breaks out of his usual character roles by playing the romantic lead, and his performance is a revelation. He plays a professional "cooler"a meekly inconspicuous man who's so unlucky that the Shangri-La hires him to bring bad luck to gamblers on a winning streak. When he falls in love with a waitress, played by the sexy Mario Bello, his luck begins to change. Alex Baldwin is wonderfully creepy as the casino owner, and Paul Sorvino has a small but juicy part as a lounge singer. Occasionally violent, but truly suspenseful to the last minute.
Coraline (2009) is an extraordinary stop-motion animated film that masquerades as a children's movie but will be more appreciated by adults. Indeed, some scenesand the overall storymay be too frightening for younger kids. The title character is a precocious girl whose perpetually busy parents move the family to a strange old apartment house in Oregon. Their neighbors are eccentric, but weirder still is a hidden doorway to an alternate world that seems too good to be true. Coraline's mother and father have cheerful doppelgängers that appear impossibly perfect. The parent-replacement theme may disturb some impressionable young viewers, but the filmmakers have created a spectacular fantasy world that's like Alice in Wonderland on LSD. Coraline is a serious challenge to Pixar's recent supremacy in animated features.
The Corpse Bride (2005) resembles a computer-animated feature, but it's actually stop-motion photography painstakingly recorded with a digital still camera. Directors Tim Burton and Mike Johnson make the old technique seem new again. (Watch for their subtle homage to stop-motion artist Ray Harryhausen in the first piano scene.) The story is a Halloween-flavored tale about a shy young man (voiced by Johnny Depp) who accidentally marries a bride (Helena Bonham Carter) who was murdered by her greedy groom (Richard E. Grant). Other voice actors include Tracey Ullman, Albert Finney, and Christopher Lee. It's funny, eccentric, and imaginative, and filled with strange characters. One song-and-dance number stars a one-eyed skeleton who's a dead ringer for Sammy Davis Jr., and a maggot inhabiting the corpse bride's brain sounds an awful lot like Peter Lorre.
The Count of Monte Cristo (2002) is reminiscent of a classic Errol Flynn swashbuckler and is surprisingly good. Set in Napoleonic France, the story follows the Alexandre Dumas novel fairly closely: an innocent sailor betrayed by his friends seeks revenge after spending years in a brutal prison. James Caviezel (best known for his starring role in The Thin Red Line) plays the lead and is well supported by Guy Pearce, Richard Harris, and Luis Guzman, among others. Of course, it's unlikely that someone held captive for so many years under such harsh conditions could stage such a physical prison escape, but it's worth sacrificing some plausibility for good drama.
Cowboys & Aliens (2011) finds an original twist in a well-worn genre, which isn't easy to do. Why are virtually all movies about invading space aliens placed in present timeor, less often, in future time? Aliens could have attacked us at any time in history, right? Hence the inspiration for this simple but delightful action flick. Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford star as ruthless cowboys in a desolate Western town of the late 1800s. Suddenly their feuding is interrupted by UFOs, cattle mutilations, and alien abductions. In an era when science fiction was almost unknown, they have no frame of reference for these weird events. Still, they know a threat when they see one, and they don't shrink from a fight. The result is a romp but not a self-conscious parody, so the basic concept stays pure and the drama remains intact. It's the best movie about space invaders in years.
Crazy Heart (2009) stars Jeff Bridges as Bad Blake, an aging country-western singer who's once-great career is waning. Broke, alcoholic, and sick, he drives a rusty station wagon hundreds of miles to play gigs at bowling alleys and dive bars. Then a young woman reporter (a perky Maggie Gyllenhaal) enters his life. Can redemption be far behind? This movie retails every Hollywood cliché. But, like The Wrestler (2008), it's saved by good acting and the drama of a downtrodden character fighting back against life's obstacles. The music is pretty good, too, with Bridges performing many of the songs. Robert Duvall and Colin Farrell have small but pivotal parts.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) is a mystical martial-arts movie with uncommonly good acting, music, and cinematography. Don't expect a campy Bruce Lee fight-em-up. It's more poetic, but not without some light touches. It won several Academy Awards, including Best Foreign-Language Film, Original Score, Cinematography, and Art Direction.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is one of the best pictures of 2008. It's about a baby who is born old and gradually grows younger as he ages. Although the premise is preposterous, this film makes it seem surprisingly plausible. Brad Pitt stars as Benjamin, the odd foundling who lives his life backward. Superb makeup and special effects make Pitt's measured performance more believable, but the biggest factor is that this tale deals in essential truths. Indeed, other aspects are more fanciful than the premise. (Could a tugboat seaman afford to live in the same fancy hotel as the British consular in Murmansk?) Cate Blanchett is convincing as Benjamin's life-long admirer, and Taraji P. Henson is wonderful as his adoptive mother. Although other reviews made me reluctant to see this three-hour movie, I found it excellent. The moral: nothing stays the same.
The Curse of the Jade Scorpion (2001) is a hazy-yellow vision of New York in 1940a caper comedy with Woody Allen, Helen Hunt, and the usual host of stars attracted to Allen's auteur style of filmmaking. This is not Allen's funniest movie, nor even his best caper tale; many lines of dialogue fall flat. But it's a pleasant diversion from the relentless car chases, explosions, gratuitous violence, and juvenile jokes that pass for entertainment these days. Still, I missed Mia Farrow in the Helen Hunt role.
The Da Vinci Code (2006) is probably more satisfying for people who have read Dan Brown's bestselling novel. Perhaps they will be able to decipher, or at least tolerate, all the religious and historical mumbo-jumbo that bleeds too much suspense out of this disappointing film. Things get off to a promising start. A mysterious murder in the Louvre brings an American symbologist (perfunctorily played by Tom Hanks) into the investigation. But almost immediately, the story bogs down in weird clues, puzzles, rituals, legends, plots, betrayals, and conspiracies. Every turn requires so much explanation and historical context that the movie threatens to become a PBS documentary. In fact, it would be more effective as a documentary, except then there wouldn't be an excuse for car chases and absurd plot twists.
Dancer in the Dark (2000) has an Oscar-caliber performance by Icelandic singer Bjork in a tragedy about a Czech immigrant to the U.S. who escapes from her life problems by fantasizing herself in Hollywood high-fashion musicals. The supporting cast is strong, too. The film is also a brutal examination of the death penalty in America.
Danny Collins (2015) is loosely based on a true story about a 1970s folk singer who didn't receive an encouraging letter from John Lennon until 34 years after it was mailed because it was intercepted by a Beatles collector. Al Pacino plays the singer, who's now a famous but fossilized performer who hasn't written an original song in decades. When the long-lost letter finally arrives, it makes him reflect on a career that's financially successful but creatively irrelevant. Annette Bening plays a hotel manager who urges him to rediscover his muse. Although this movie is well acted, a cliché family subplot soon demotes the main plot, spoiling what could have been a more interesting story about the conflict between art and commerce.
Dark Blue World (2001), based on a true story, is about Czech fighter pilots who escape the Nazi takeover of their country in 1939 and join the Royal Air Force during the Battle of Britain. After the war, they return home in triumphonly to be imprisoned without trial in forced-labor camps by the new Communist regime. Told as a series of flashbacks, with dialogue in Czech and English, this drama indulges in a few war-movie clichés but is still an engaging account of a little-told tale. A romantic subplot adds spice.
The Dark Knight (2008) is a blockbuster-hit Batman movie by writer/director Christopher Nolan, who reinvented the Caped Crusader in his previous film, Batman Begins (2005). Although popular and critically praised, these movies are the latest additions to a growing category of cinema that I call "noninteractive videogames." Their imagery is lifted wholesale from first-person shooterslong scenes of breakneck action, violence, and destruction. Viewers don't get to control anything with a joystick, but they do get to endure brief interludes of dialogue consisting mostly of pop psychology. The only bright spot in The Dark Knight is the frightening performance of the late Heath Ledger as Batman's nemesis, the Joker. Too bad his serious effort is forever imprisoned in a movie that doesn't even take itself seriously.
Dark Shadows (2012) remakes a vampire-themed TV soap opera that became a pop-culture phenomenon in the late 1960s. Under Tim Burton's eccentric direction, this reinterpretation mashes Edward Scissorhands (1990) with Beetlejuice (1988), two of Burton's famous fantasy films. Johnny Depp reprises the role of Barnabas Collins, a vampire from 1776 who awakens in 1972. More campy than scary, the story revolves around a 200-year-old feud between Barnabas and the spurned lover whose witchcraft cursed him to undead misery. A secondary theme is the vampire's befuddlement over 1972 American culture, now far enough removed to provide equal amusement to present-day audiences. Depp's performance is suitably droll. Although this movie is a fun romp, it collapses into a silly special-effects wrestling match that is supernatural but not magical.
The Day After Tomorrow (2004) is a typical summer blockbuster: extravagant special effects, aggressive film editing, fanciful plot. Writer/director Roland Emmerich (Stargate, Independence Day, Godzilla, The Patriot) has created a spectacular disaster film that shows the world entering an ice age at cataclysmic speed. It happens when global warming disrupts ocean currents, triggering an environmental backlash. Emmerich lampoons conservative politicians who dismiss the threat of climate change as junk science, but his movie is a showcase for junk science. (Hint: the troposphere is the lowest and warmest layer of the Earth's atmosphere, not the highest and coldest.) But who expects a science lesson? It's fun, and the scenes of New York City flooding and freezing are remarkable.
The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008) is an uninspired remake of a classic science-fiction movie from 1951. Keanu Reeves stars as Klaatu, a space alien in human form who dramatically lands on Earth and wants to speak to our leaders. Reeves stamps his tiresome stoneface technique on a role played with more empathy in 1951 by Michael Rennie. As in the original film, Klaatu is accompanied by a powerful robot ("Gort") with a low tolerance for military bravado. But the story has changedfor the worse. In the original, Klaatu makes a plea for peace and invites Earth to join an interstellar United Nations. In this remake, the aliens are a cross between the Environmental Protection Agency and the Martian invaders of War of the Worlds. And nowhere is heard the famous line, "Gort! Klaatu barada nickto!"
Death At a Funeral (2007) is a funny British farce about a family gathered for the requiem of its patriarch. Even before they arrive at the country manor where the services will be held, things get off on the wrong foot. A hopeful fiance takes a dose of the wrong pills; his rival entertains foolish notions of reviving a dead romance; an elderly uncle in a wheelchair is a curmudgeon; a mystery guest bears bad tidings. Except for some coarse language and one overindulgence in potty humor (literally), this is a lightweight and enjoyable comedy.
The Debt (2011) is a well-told thriller about Israeli Mossad agents trying to snatch a Nazi war criminal in East Berlin during the Cold War. The story straddles two periodsthe 1960s, when the dangerous mission takes place, and the 1990s, when a book celebrating the mission is published. But a secret hidden for 30 years suddenly becomes worth killing and dying for. Brilliantly told with flashbacks, this film stars Helen Mirren and Jessica Chastain as one of the Mossad agents during both time periods. Plot twists and gradually dissolving mysteries maintain the suspense. Unlike many modern spy thrillers, the action scenes in this one are believable. It will keep you guessing until the final credits roll.
The Deep End (2001) is an outstanding murder thriller about a harried housewife whose ill-considered decisions get her into deeper and deeper trouble. Unlike most movies in which the characters focus on nothing but the main events of the plot, this film is a more realistic view of a busy soccer mom who is frequently interrupted by her young children, a clueless father-in-law, car-pool obligations, and other distractions of everyday life. These exasperating diversions may seem oblique to the main story, but actually they help explain her manic reactions to unimagined problems. All of the acting is superb, and Tilda Swinton stands out as the bedeviled housewife.
The Departed (2006) is another urban gangster drama by Martin Scorsese, the master of this genre. It's as intense as Goodfellas (1990) and as rife with brutal characters as Gangs of New York, but the former film remains Scorsese's masterpiece. The Departed never quite delivers the same barrage of unforgettable scenes. The cast is awesome: Alec Baldwin, Matt Damon, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jack Nicholson, Martin Sheen, Mark Wahlberg, among others. Their acting is superb. But something subtle is missing, perhaps lost in translation from the original Hong Kong movie on which it's based, WuJianDao. And the conclusion is a bloodfest that makes the audience wonder why the movie invests so much time developing its characters.
The Descendants (2011) is an emotional family drama starring George Clooney as the husband of a thrill-seeking woman who has been stricken comatose in a speedboating accident. As the "runner-up parent," he must take charge of their unruly adolescent daughters while coping with other family pressures and a momentous business deal. The mood shifts frequently from Kleenex scenes to comic relief without seeming strained or contrived, and all the performances are well done. Anticipating plot developments isn't too hard, though, especially if you have seen the trailer. What I liked about this film is that by the end, almost imperceptibly, all the major characters have grown in some way.
Despicable Me 2 (2013) is an animated feature that will entertain the kids without boring the adults. The sequel to Despicable Me (2010), it continues the story of former villain Gru (voiced by Steve Carell), now reformed and the single parent of three young adoptees. Drafted to fight a mysterious super villain, he is paired with a manic woman agent (perfectly voiced by Kristen Wiig) and assisted by his usual gang of babbling minions. It's funny and well rendered (released in both 2D and 3D). Like almost all of today's animated features, however, it's a bit too frenetic for my taste. Sometimes the artwork is so interesting that I just want to admire the view.
Destino (2003) is a surrealistic animated film that began in 1946 as an improbable collaboration between Walt Disney and Salvador Dali. It had never progressed beyond the storyboard stage until taken up again by Disney's nephew, Roy Disney, and it was executed with a combination of traditional hand-drawn animation and computer graphics by Disney's studio in Paris. Only seven minutes long, the film was released in 2003 and nominated for an Academy Award in the animated-short category. There is no dialogue, and the story is almost plotless, but the animation is beautiful and intriguing. Destino was distributed with The Triplets of Belleville, a feature-length animated film from France.
The Devil Wears Prada (2006) is a smartly written comedy about a young journalism graduate (played with aplomb by Anne Hathaway) who lands her first job as an editorial assistant to a fashion-magazine editor who's the boss from hell (expertly played, as always, by Meryl Streep). Plunged into the snobby, back-biting world of high fashion, the bright-eyed youngster soon finds her life upended. Her boss is impossible to please. Her colleagues cut her down at every opportunity. Her raggedy boyfriend offers little sympathy. Driven to tears, she redoubles her efforts and relents to a fashion makeover by the magazine's art director (Stanley Tucci at his flaming best). Then her turnaround causes new trouble in her personal life. Women bond with this movie, but it's not just a chick flick. Hasn't everyone had a job like this?
Die Another Day (2002) is a typical James Bond romp with eccentric villains, unbelievable spy toys, sexy women, fast cars, and jackhammer pacing. Halle Berry is the new "Bond woman," and Pierce Brosnan continues his successful rule as the latest incarnation of Agent 007. The storyline involves African conflict diamonds and North Korean bad guys, but that's not important. Ever since the Bond movies became self-parodies in the post-Sean Connery era, the plots have been secondary to the action. As an amusement-park ride, this one is as good as any.
Dinosaur (2000) is an odd beasta Disney film that's too scary for small children and a bit too cartoonish for dinosaur-enthusiast adults.
District 9 (2009) is a wrenching science-fiction film with strong social overtones. Filmed in quasi-documentary style, it begins after a huge spaceship appears over Johannesburg, South Africa. Inside are thousands of half-starved intelligent aliens who walk upright like humans but resemble reptilian lobsters. Their mission is unclear, so they are removed and segregated in a refugee camp. Twenty years later, their population is rapidly growing, and humans view the squalid camp with rising dread. A heavily armed attempt to move them to a more secure location leads to trouble. This powerful film can be interpreted as a commentary on illicit weapons trading, apartheid, illegal immigration, or even the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Though gory, it is vividly rendered and has great spirit.
Disturbia (2007) is a surprisingly good riff on Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window (1954). Updated for the Internet age, with the starring roles played by teenagers, Disturbia shifts the story of amateur surveillance and suspicion from the big city to the suburbs. A troubled high-school boy under electronic house arrest spies on his neighbors for amusement and gradually comes to believe that the man next door is a serial killer. Is the boy right, or merely paranoid? This version isn't as classy as Hitchcock's classic and drops the interesting little subplots, but it's still a masterful thriller.
Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood (2002) is a real emotional roller-coaster, careening from outrageous humor to tearful dramaoften in the same scene. Sandra Bullock is a young playwright who spills the story of her unsettling childhood to Time magazine, sparking a rift with her mother, played by Ellen Burstyn in the present and Ashley Judd as a depressed young woman. Her mother's lifelong friends try to rescue the relationship. There's some good writing and acting here, if you can overlook two annoying flaws: it overplays the joke of Southern ladies swearing like drunken sailors, and it suffers from a serious time warp. Bullock's character is a 12-year-old in the 1950s, yet is only 30ish almost 50 years later, while everyone else has aged at the normal rate. Still, women in particular seem to love this movie.
Dogma (1999) proves that not everything touched by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon turns to gold. This mess of a movie is ruined by a few vile scenes and cheap philosophy, wasting what could have been an intriguing story about two fallen angels trying to get back to heaven.
Dogtown and Z-Boys (2001) is a brilliant documentary about the renaissance of skateboarding in the 1970s. The unorthodox, abrasive film editing and hard-rock soundtrack are perfect complements to the story: how a group of vagabond teenagers (the Zephyr Team) from a tough Santa Monica neighborhood (Dogtown) catapulted skateboarding from a pale imitation of surfing into a thrilling, extreme urban sport. Filmmaker Stacy Peralta combines archive film footage and photographs with amusing interviews of the skaters today.
Double Jeopardy (1999) doesn't suck, like remakes of good old movies usually do. Tommy Lee Jones and Ashley Judd bring the 1955 original up to date.
Doubt (2008) is a rare pleasurea true actor's movie. No special effects, action scenes, violence, or choppy editing are allowed to interfere with the uniformly outstanding performances of the players. The camera lingers on their faces, often in taut close-ups, and sometimes in dramatic scenes lasting several minutes. And the players are equal to this scrutiny. Meryl Streep stars as a Catholic nun who is the principal of a parish school, ruling with an iron hand. Philip Seymour Hoffman co-stars as a priest whom she suspects of having an improper relationship with a young altar boy. Both performances are superlative, and Amy Adams matches their skill in her role as a younger nun caught between these two powerful figures. Viola Davis has a brief but stunning part as the boy's world-weary mother. Director John Patrick Shanley also wrote the screenplay and stage play on which this movie is based, avoiding the ruin that usually befalls good dramas when translated into film by ham-handed Hollywood directors.
Down With Love (2003) is the kind of smart and funny movie that Hollywood rarely makes these days. Set in Manhattan in 1962, it's a clever parody of the madcap romantic comedies of that era, starting with the supergraphic opening credits and carried through the dialogue, costumes, art direction, and music. Renee Zellweger plays the Doris Day-like lead role of a pixie-blonde librarian from Maine who writes a sex-and-love advice book for women. When it unexpectedly becomes a bestseller and she achieves celebrity status, a man-about-town bachelor who writes for a men's magazine (Ewan McGregor) tries to slyly seduce her. You don't have to be a film buff to dig the wit of this meticulously crafted satire.
Downfall (Der Untergang, in German with English subtitles, 2004) is a stunning and historically accurate drama about Adolf Hitler's last days in his Berlin bunker near the end of World War II. It's by far the best German film about Hitler since the seven-hour "Our Hitler" (Hitler: ein Film aus Deutschland, 1978), which was a highly experimental work best appreciated by film buffs. Downfall is a more conventional historical drama, though its acute attention to detail is refreshingly unconventional. Told mainly through the eyes of Hitler's personal secretary, Traudl Junge, it portrays both the personal side of Hitler and the better-known image of a ruthless dictator lost in his hate and delusion. The acting is universally superb, the drama taut, and the cinematography succeeds in capturing the claustrophobia of the Fuhrer bunker deep beneath embattled Berlin. That we know how the drama ends only strengthens the foreboding that Hitler and his entourage are living in their tomb.
Dr. Seuss' The Lorax (2012) brings computer animation to a 1971 book written by the famous author of The Cat In the Hat. Published a year after the first Earth Day launched the modern environmental movement, the book is about a world that chops down all its trees to make a silly consumer product. Years later, a boy tries to find a surviving tree. The film adaptation (released in both 2D and 3D) has the same environmental zeal, adding musical numbers and voices by Danny DeVito, Zac Efron, Taylor Swift, and Betty White. By preaching against clear cutting, blind consumerism, and corporate greed, it has won the embrace of tree-huggers and the ire of conservatives. Putting politics aside, however, it presents a contradiction: Who wouldn't want to live in the ersatz but wonderful city portrayed in this movie?
Dreamgirls (2006) is an overlong adaptation of a hit Broadway musical. It's loosely based on the Supremes and other Motown singing groups from the 1960s that became crossover pop acts. As a motion picture, Dreamgirls would work better with more spoken-word dialogue and less sung dialogue, preserving the suspension of disbelief so necessary to a successful story told in film. The live performances and recording sessions depicted in the movie would provide plenty of opportunities to stage the exquisitely produced musical numbers. Eddie Murphy is a surprise standout in a supremely talented cast that includes Jamie Foxx, Beyonce Knowles, Danny Glover, Jennifer Hudson, and Keith Robinson. Fans of Motown, R&B, and flashy dancing will love this rousing production.
Driving Lessons (2006) is a quirky British film about a teenage boy (played by Rupert Grint, of Harry Potter fame) who finds a part-time job as a household helper for an eccentric older lady (played by Julie Walters). She draws him into a series of misadventures that breaks him loose from his strict religious upbringing. Although both stars do their bestGrint can do more acting with only his eyes than most actors can do with their whole bodiesthe screenplay can't match their efforts. One problem is that the film seems to preach that the only alternative to strict religion is irresponsibility. Another flaw is the waste of the talented Laura Linney, who is relegated to playing the cardboard character of an uptight religious mom who's really a hypocrite.
Edge of Tomorrow (2014) is the evil twin of Groundhog Day (1993). Tom Cruise plays a cowardly U.S. Army public-relations officer who pisses off a general and finds himself busted to private and assigned to an infantry squad on the eve of a major battle. The enemies are invading space aliens well on their way to conquering Earth. Through a quirk of fate, Cruise's character discovers that when he's killed in combat, he relives the same day again and again but can alter his actions to survive. In Groundhog Day, Bill Murray's character discovered the same unexplained ability and used his reincarnations to become a better person and a worthy lover. In Edge of Tomorrow, Cruise's character uses his reincarnations to become a better killer. Both films may be regarded as Buddhist allegories, but the new one seems to replace nirvana with Valhalla. Normally, it's unfair to judge one movie against another that has an unrelated storyline. In this case, however, they're so similar and so different that they're almost mirror images of parallel universes. Starting now, it's unthinkable to see one without seeing the other. Both are good in their own ways. But Edge of Tomorrow is the more unsettlingit shows a weaponized twist on the Buddhist quest for enlightenment.
Eight-Legged Freaks (2002) is a campy film that harkens back to the monster movies of the 1950s, and it never stops poking fun at itself. Like all classic horror flicks, it builds slowly, postponing a close look at the monsters. Then it explodes like a firecracker. This time, a small desert town is invaded by spiders made giant by spilled toxic waste. While the bugs run amok, a gutsy woman sheriff (one of the few nods to modern times) and an intrepid mine owner fight to save the town. Thankfully, Eight-Legged Freaks avoids the gore of modern horror films and limits most of the graphic bleeding to the spiders.
Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007) stars Cate Blanchett reprising her role as Queen Elizabeth I in Elizabeth: The Virgin Queen (1998). The Golden Age takes place in 1585, when the Queen is threatened by assassination plots and England is attacked by the Spanish armada. As usual, Blanchett is brilliant, alternating between moods of self-confidence and self-doubt, fear and courage, cold-hearted resolve and emotional vulnerability. She is wooed by Sir Walter Raleigh, played as a swashbuckler by Clive Owen. However, the movie goes overboard in portraying the Spanish as bad guys, dressing them in black Darth Vader costumes. Inexplicably, Spanish plotters seem to spend all their time dyeing red cloth. And the climactic battle with the armada is highly condensed. But overall, this is a good historical drama.
Elysium (2013) is an dystopian science-fiction drama placed about 200 years in the future. Earth's wealthy have retreated to a lavish gated community in orbit, leaving the overpopulated mass of humanity to fend for itself on the polluted planet below. It's really an allegory of today's disparity between First World and Third World health care. In this future world, the rich own machines that can instantly cure any disease or repair almost any injury, whereas the Earth-bound people are lucky to get approximately the same level of care offered in the emergency rooms of today's inner-city hospitals. Matt Damon plays a sick parolee on the surface who desperately needs the cure available only in orbit. Jodie Foster plays a scheming bureaucrat who ruthlessly blocks health-care refugees and other illegal immigrants from sneaking onto the idyllic space station. The conflict quickly escalates but gets bogged down in too many gunfights and fistfights. And although this future world is plausible, the climax is not. The filmmakers prove no better at solving these problems than today's politicians.
The Emperor's Club (2002) resembles Dead Poets Society (1989) with its story of a inspiring teacher leading teenage boys toward manhood at an exclusive boarding school. But the second half of the film leaps forward 25 years to show how the boys turned out. Although this drama strives to be a lofty morality tale, the climax is unsatisfying. Ultimately, the noble teacher shirks his civic responsibility and his own sermons of courage by remaining silent in the face of corruption.
Ender's Game (2013) is an excellent adaptation of the 1985 science-fiction novel by Orson Scott Card. Screenwriter/director Gavin Hood (Tsotsi, 2005) and child star Asa Butterfield (Hugo, 2011) bring life to the central character, Andrew "Ender" Wiggin, a videogame prodigy recruited by the military for his special skills. Placed 40 years after Earth repels an alien invasion at great cost, the story begins with Ender's difficult path through military school en route to a counterattack on the alien's home planet. Butterfield's performance not only captures the physical and mental stresses on a child soldier but also a moral dilemma that does not trouble his pragmatic adult leaders. Co-stars Harrison Ford, Viola Davis, and Ben Kingsley add weight to the cast, and the shiny special effects fully visualize the novel, but this picture hinges on Butterfield, who doesn't disappoint. The only discordant note is the final scene, which is implausible but paves the way for future adaptations of the two sequels in Card's trilogy: Speaker for the Dead and Xenocide.
Enemy At the Gates (2001) is about a duel between German and Russian snipers during the Battle of Stalingrad in World War II. It's worth seeing if only because it's a rare example of an American-made war movie told from the Russian point of view. Jude Law and Ed Harris excel as the Russian and German snipers with their own scores to settle. A love-story subplot meshes well with the main plotanother rarity in war movies. Still, I'd like to see an epic motion picture about Stalingrad, which this film looks like until the story focuses on the private battle of the snipers.
Enigma (2001) is based on the true story of British codebreakers who cracked the secrets of the German "Enigma" cipher machine in World War II. But the real enigma is how a story with so much real-life drama could be turned into such a preposterous and jumbled plot. Could an unstable mathematician and a lowly clerk really steal the only Enigma machine in Allied hands from the codebreaking headquarters at Blechley Park? Could they hide such a large machine in a small roadster so that even veteran cops and intelligence agents couldn't find it? Could they appear unannounced at a top-secret military listening post and walk away with valuable documents? What's even more unbelievable is that Enigma was written by Tom Stoppard, whose outstanding credits include Shakespeare In Love (1998), Empire of the Sun (1987), and Brazil (1985). Somebody must have run this script through an Enigma machine without decoding it.
Erin Brockovich (2000) is a well-made tale about a single mom who becomes a crack legal assistant on the warpath against a big utility company. Poor people are getting sick from pollution, and they need help. Julia Roberts dresses like a Pretty Woman and won an Academy Award for Best Actress; thank heavens they cast Albert Finney instead of Richard Gere as her lawyer-boss.
Evolution (2001) is afflicted with moronic Hollywood toilet humor as it tries but fails to imitate Ghostbusters. It has a few laughs, though, and the special-effects wizards show off their technology by creating a veritable zoo of rapidly evolving alien creatures who arrive on a flaming meteor. David Duchovny (The X Files) is the wry community-college instructor who leads the battle against the invaders. Years from now, the only thing more embarrassing to Duchovny than acting in this movie will be remembering that he didn't use a stunt double for his mooning scene.
Ex Machina (2015) is an intriguing science-fiction film about a wealthy Internet entrepreneur who's trying to invent an artificially intelligent android. To test his invention, he recruits one of his brightest young programmers to conduct a Turing testan evaluation of artificial intelligence first proposed by Alan Turing, the British math genius who helped crack the Nazi's secret codes in World War II. From the start, this eerie film hints that neither the programmer nor the movie audience should take things at face value. And sure enough, the plot soon begins to unwind. Some twists are expected, but clever misdirection leads to surprises. This film is artistic without being arty and uses special effects without being flashy. It could almost be a prequel to the classic Bladerunner (1982).
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (2011) personalizes the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks by focusing on the emotional debris of one shattered family. The main character is a precocious young boy (precociously played by Thomas Horn) whose father (Tom Hanks) was killed in the World Trade Center. After finding a mysterious key in his father's closet, the boy embarks on a seemingly hopeless quest to find the secret it unlocks. Sandra Bullock plays his bereaved mother to perfection, and Max von Sydow has a strong supporting role as a mute stranger. The climax manages to be satisfying and unsatisfying at the same time, which is appropriate. Moral: some things just don't make sense.
Eye in the Sky (2016) stars Helen Mirren and the late Alan Rickman as British military officers waging antiterrorist warfareby remote control. Using real-time satellite links, they coordinate with drone pilots at a U.S. Air Force base in Las Vegas, intelligence officers at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., a national security adviser at the White House, a British cabinet minister visiting Singapore, and Kenyan Army special forces in Nairobi. Their joint mission to capture some high-value terrorists suddenly changes when they discover a suicide-bomber plot. Now they face a decision: Should the drone fire missiles at the terrorists despite the high probability of civilian collateral damage? This tense, well-made drama explores every aspect of this dilemma except oneit's nothing new. All weapons cause collateral damage, and all military commanders waging war from remote locations make decisions that will kill innocent people (including soldiers). Some historical context would have made this good film even better.
The Eyes of Tammy Faye (2000) is a documentary about former televangelist Tammy Faye Baker by two gay filmmakerswhich might seem ridiculous. But it's surprisingly genuine, sympathetic, and funny without mocking its strange subject.
Eyes Wide Shut (1999) is bizarre, twisted, and possibly brilliant if you're into Stanley Kubrick. It's also subject to multiple interpretations, so pay attention, especially during the orgy scene.
Factotum (2005) is the best movie about barflies since...well, since Barfly (1987). It's no coincidence, because both are based on the life and writings of Beat poet and novelist Charles Bukowski. In Factotum, Matt Dillon plays the Bukowski-like character, portrayed so brilliantly in Barfly by the king of down-and-out roles, Mickey Rourke. Dillon's interpretation is surprisingly good, even when compared with Rourke's in Barfly or Dillon's Oscar-nominated performance in Crash (2004). Dillon gets strong support from the talented Lili Taylor, who plays a lush reminiscent of Faye Dunaway's character in Barfly. Both films show an alcoholic writer wallowing in self-destruction, yet never losing his dark humor. Also rewarding are the numerous small roles played by character actors who make the most of their brief screen time.
Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) is director Michael Moore's unabashed attack on President George W. Bush, his administration, and his war on Iraq. Almost all the information in this documentary is old news: the financial ties between the Bin Laden family and other Saudi Arabians with the Bush family; the Bush administration's secret movement of Bin Laden's relatives out of the U.S. in the days following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks; the token military forces deployed against al Qaeda terrorists in Afghanistan; Iraqi civilians killed in U.S. air strikes; lies about weapons of mass destruction; abuse of Iraqi POWs; no-bid multibillion-dollar contracts awarded to VP Dick Cheney's former company; and on and on. But never has everything been assembled into one hard-hitting package for a mass audience, so lots of this information will come as a revelation to viewers. The tone swings from outrageously funny (Moore asking skeptical congressmen to enlist their sons and daughters in the army) to tragic (a Michigan mother reading the last letter from her dead son, an American soldier in Iraq who opposed the war). Fahrenheit 9/11 is undeniably powerful. But will it persuade anyone to change their mind about Bush? I think it willthe illusion that our invasion of Iraq was part of the war on terror is slowly cracking.
Fair Game (2010) would be a thrilling drama even if it weren't true: a U.S. president repeats a lie in his State of the Union address, spurring the nation toward an unnecessary war; a former diplomat exposes the lie in The New York Times; a top White House aide retaliates by revealing that the former diplomat's wife is a CIA agent, ruining her 18-year career. All of it actually happened in 2003. This dramatization stars Sean Penn as Joe Wilson, the former diplomat, and Naomi Watts as Valerie Plame, his wife. The long chain of events is easier to understand when compressed into a two-hour movie. More important, the filmunlike most of the news reportingholds focus on the central issue, which was the cooked intelligence about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, not Wilson's exposé or his wife's job.
Far From Heaven (2002) is a film about the 1950s that wouldn't have been made in the 1950s. It peels back the glossy exterior of an upper-middle-class American family to tell a story about forbidden loveboth interracial and homosexual. But it tries too hard to draw a sharp contrast between the Life Magazine image of the 1950s and actual reality. Even on the surface, the decade was never as formal or as rose-colored as this movie makes it appear. The overdrawn, cartoonish portrayal undercuts the emotional drama. Still, it's almost worth seeing just for the marvelous set design and classic cars.
Femme Fatale (2002) is a clever heist film in which director Brian De Palma once again returns to the creative well of Alfred Hitchcock. This time, De Palma combines elements of Rear Window, Vertigo, and Double Indemnity in a sharply cut drama about jewel thieves in Paris. The Hitchcockian references, multilayered plot, and surprise ending will thrill film buffs. The gratuitous sex and violence also make the movie trashy enough to entertain modern audiences. (Hint: watch the clock!)
The Fifth Estate (2013) is a fictionalized drama that tries to tell the inside story of Wikileaks, the mysterious organization that has exposed voluminous government and corporate secrets on the Internet. Among those leaks were the Iraq War "collateral murder" video and the 250,000 U.S. diplomatic cables that led to Private Bradley Manning's 2013 court-martial. British actor Benedict Cumberbatch plays Julian Assange, the eccentric Australian leader of Wikileaks. Spanish actor Daniel Brühl plays an early Wikileaks recruit who becomes disillusioned with Assange's behavior and unbending vision. Cumberbatch's role is the more difficult, because Assange's public persona gives us a reference point. But the screenplaybased on two exposé booksgoes beyond the public image to portray the Wikileader as a rude, arrogant zealot. Assange is reportedly livid over this movie's portrait of him and his organization. The movie's worst flaw, however, is its jumbled plot, amplified by frantic film editing. It assumes the viewer is thoroughly versed in the Wikileaks controversy and international events. It's hard to follow and is unflattering to almost everyone.
Fight Club (1999) = Freedom Club. Tyler Durden = Ted Kaczynski. Operation Mayhem = the short path from personal rebellion against civilization to forcing everyone else to live without civilization. This surprisingly good but seriously misinterpreted film is what American Beauty wanted to be.
The Fighter (2010) is based on the true story of Massachusetts welterweight Micky Ward. It follows the template of boxing moviesa working-class underdog must battle adversaries both inside and outside the ring to prove his doubters wrong. Mark Wahlberg stars as Ward and clearly prepped for his role by adding muscle and learning the moves. But his measured performance is outpunched by his co-star, Christian Bale. While Wahlberg was bulking up, Bale lost 60 pounds to play Ward's crack-addict half-brother and flaky trainer. Melissa Leo adds more family drama as Ward's helicopter mom, abetted by a bevy of rowdy sisters and half-sisters. The performances are so entertaining that the boxing matches are almost a diversion. This film doesn't quite score a KO, but it's a respectable TKO.
Finding Forrester (2000) stars a masterful Sean Connery in a fictional tale that's reminiscent of the 1994 documentary Hoop Dreams. Connery plays a reclusive novelist, and newcomer Robert Brown excels in his role as a black urban teenager who loves writing as much as basketball. He gets critical help from Connery. F. Murray Abraham plays the villain, a private-school instructor who doubts the kid's talent.
Finding Nemo (2003) is another success for Pixar Studios, which seems to have discovered a secret formula for making animated feature films (Toy Story, Toy Story 2, A Bug's Life, Monsters, Inc.). Actually, it's no secret: the ingredients are clever writing, state-of-the-art computer graphics, instantly likable characters, and an adventurous sense of humor. This time the story takes place in the ocean, where a nervous clown fish embarks on a perilous journey to find his lost son, Nemo. Ellen DeGeneres almost steals the show as the voice of Dory, a forgetful fish whose imitation of "whale language" is one of the funniest scenes in any movie you'll see this year.
Finding Neverland (2004) is a biopic about Sir James Matthew Barrie, the British author of Peter Pan. Johnny Depp plays Barrie in an uncharacteristically subdued manner, practically sleepwalking through a role that cries out for more life. (His Oscar nomination for Best Actor was probably a redress for so many oversights of his superlative past performances.) Kate Winslet costars as a single mom whose children inspire Barrie to write his famous play, and Julie Christie has a cameo as the starchy grandmother. The conclusion is so well-crafted it almost makes you forget the well-worn clichés and the underdeveloped subplot of Barrie's unhappy marriage. Overall: flawed, but worth seeing.
Finding Vivian Maier (2014) is an intriguing documentary about an elderly Chicago woman who died in 2009 and left behind a storage locker filled with personal effects. Among them were more than 125,000 photographic negatives, color slides, 8mm movie films, and self-recorded tapes. Vivian, it turns out, was an extraordinary amateur photographer whose workespecially her urban street photographycompares favorably with that of the best professionals of the 20th century. Yet she never published, exhibited, sold, or shared her work with anyone. She labored her whole life as a nanny, caring for the children of affluent families. And she was mysterious. She never dated or married, never discussed her own family or background, and sometimes used an alias. What were her secrets? Why did she hide her talents? John Maloof, the young man who discovered Vivian's artwork, explores her life in this startling but ultimately puzzling film.
Flags of Our Fathers (2006) is another unfortunate example of a historical drama botched by Hollywood. In this case, director Clint Eastwood starts with a ready-made great storythe famous flag raising at the battle of Iwo Jima in 1945and turns it into a confused mess of flashbacks, flash-forwards, and flash-sideways. All continuity of storytelling is lost as the film jumps in a different direction with almost every successive scene. In addition, viewers unfamiliar with the details of World War II receive no explanation or historical context for one of the bloodiest battles in American history. To muddle things further, the film revolves around the controversy of the flag raisingwho was actually in the picture?without answering the question in an understandable way. Too bad, because good editing could have saved this film.
Flash of Genius (2008) falls decidedly in the middle of the bell curve, as movies go. It's more generic than genius. Greg Kinnear stars as Bob Kearns, a mechanical engineer in Detroit who perfected the intermittent windshield wiper in the 1960s. Initially, Ford executives seemed interested in using the invention. Then they dropped Kearns like an untouchable and introduced a strikingly similar wiper design. Thus began a long emotional and legal battle that pitted a little guy against a big corporation. Kinnear is believable in the lead role, but compressing years into minutes is always difficult, and the plot is always predictable. I admired the art direction, which reproduces the interiors of middle-class homes in the 1960s and 1970s with startling realism.
For Love of the Game (1999) masterfully juggles two sports: love and baseball. It's destined to become one of the great baseball movies, and it's another home run for Kevin Costner, who has now completed a trilogy that started with Bull Durham and Field of Dreams.
For Your Consideration (2006) is a light comedy from the ensemble of improvisational players who made A Mighty Wind (2003), Best in Show (2000), Waiting for Guttman (1996), and other intellectual satires. This time, they mock the cast of a low-budget Jewish-themed art film ("Home for Purim"). Seizing upon an obscure Internet rumor, the small-time members of this cast manage to convince themselves that Academy Award nominations are in the wing. Media hype reinforces their delusion. Soon they become jealous of each other, and everyone from the director to studio execs begins tinkering with the project. For Your Consideration isn't as hilarious as the ensemble's previous films, but it's passable, and best appreciated by fans of ethnic (Jewish) humor.
The Forgotten (2004) is a passable thriller about parents of missing childrenor are they really missing? Family photos and videos suddenly seem altered, the children deleted. One mother, played with tenacity by Julianne Moore, learns from her husband and her psychologist that memories of her nine-year-old son are delusions caused by the trauma of miscarriage. Then she finds a man who appears to share the same delusion. This film plays heavily on the fear of unseen powers that is such a common thread in modern American cinema. The conclusion is typical, too, with its unsettling mix of partial victory and unresolved mystery.
Freaky Friday (2003) is a seemingly frivolous comedy about a middle-aged single mom (Jamie Lee Curtis) and her teenage daughter (Lindsay Lohan) who awake one morning to find themselves inhabiting each other's bodies. It is indeed a comedy, with plenty of laughs, but it also has a serious side. Mom learns that her daughter's complaints about school and wicked friends aren't just adolescent angst, and the girl learns that her mother's worklife and pending second marriage aren't as rock-solid as they seem. Inevitably there's a true meeting of the minds.
Frequency (2000) has a clever time-travel twist that elevates it above the average Hollywood cop thriller. It's about a New York cop who cracks a decades-old serial-killer case by getting advice from his dead father over a shortwave radio from the Twilight Zone.
Friends With Money (2006) is a rare character drama about middle-aged womenand a rare opportunity for a cast of veteran actresses to shine. They do. Joan Cusack, Catherine Keener, and Frances McDormand play successful, wealthy women in L.A. whose younger friend, played by Jennifer Aniston, is struggling to find her way in life. Aniston's character has dropped out of teaching and is barely scraping by as a cleaning maid, while her friends casually donate large sums to charity. Worst of all, she's still unmarried and hung up on a married man she dated only a few months. Some reviewers complain that nothing much happens in this film. But it's thrumming with the kind of drama that flows under everyday lives.
Frost/Nixon (2008) tries hard to dramatize the TV interviews that British talk-show host David Frost conducted with Richard Nixon three years after his resignation from the U.S. presidency in 1974. Although the interview scenes are faithful to actual transcripts, the backstory is fictionalized to show the financial and professional risks that Frost and his crew undertook. Michael Sheen is miscast as Frost, a larger man who was more self-assured and less flippant than Sheen portrays him. Frank Langella is the standout, creating an eerily accurate picture of Nixon despite having only a passing physical resemblance. Overall, director Ron Howard has made an interesting but flat adaptation of the stage play by Peter Morgan, who also wrote the screenplay.
Funny People (2009) is the first Adam Sandler movie I've really likedmaybe because he plays a more serious role, and I've never found Sandler particularly funny. But he's perfect for this film. He plays a spoiled, rich comedian who's diagnosed with a terminal disease, prompting regrets of his past mistakes and insulated life. His supporting cast (including Seth Rogen, Eric Bana, Jason Schwartzman, and Leslie Mann) is wonderful. Despite the heavy plot, this movie has lots of laughs, and it's an especially good look at the competitive world of entertainment. The only disappointment is the fixation on penis jokes, which cheapens the laughs. If the writer/director weren't Judd Apatowwho also wrote Knocked Up (2007) and The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005)it might be an intentional comment on the state of stand-up comedy.
Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus (2006) is another Hollywood distortion of history. What a shame. A faithful biopic of documentary photographer Diane Arbus would be fascinating. To its credit, at least, this bizarre film admits that it's almost pure fictionboth in the title and in two disclaimers during the opening and closing credits. Knowledgeable fans of Arbus will find only a few tidbits of truth. Nicole Kidman is an improbable choice to play Arbus, but she does her best with an offbeat script. Robert Downey Jr. plays a former freak-show attraction who falls in love with Arbus and introduces her to the world of circus freaks. You won't see any genuine Arbus photos; apparently the filmmakers couldn't get permission from her estate. Diane's husband, Alan Arbus, suffers a great injusticeunlike his portrayal here, he was extremely supportive of her work.
Fury (2014) stars Brad Pitt as an American tank commander fighting in Germany in the waning days of World War II. The plot is classic war movie: hard-nosed sergeant (Pitt in top form) shapes up bright-eyed young replacement who gets his first baptism of fire. Unlike movies made by the actual WWII generation, however, this one strives for greater realism. That means more gore, of course, but it also tries to show the soul-hardening effects of mortal combat. These tank crewmen are beyond war weary; war is their normal life now. We won't be surprised by anything they do, which is portrayed most effectively by a nerve-racking scene in which they barge into the apartment of two young German women. Writer/director David Ayer artfully extends this scene much longer than you can hold your breath. But as the film rolls toward its climax, the old war-movie clichés emerge, and you'll almost wish these soldiers will die heroically so they won't have to face a bleak life of maladjustment back home.
Galaxy Quest (1999) is a funny satire about actors on a TV science-fiction show who suddenly find themselves enmeshed in a real galactic adventure. Tim Allen and Sigourney Weaver star. Although it's not a Star Trek movie, it's best appreciated by self-effacing Star Trek fans.
Gangs of New York (2002) is a masterful look at a scarcely remembered chapter in American history: the clash between Irish immigrants and anti-immigration "nativists" in the 1860s. Leonardo DeCaprio stars in his most mature performance to date. Daniel Day-Lewis co-stars in a truly brilliant portrayal of a brutal nativist gang boss. The violence is gory, but historical. Conservatives who were outraged by protests against the Vietnam War will be stunned by this film's faithful retelling of the much more violent antidraft riots during the Civil War. However, a few plot points don't ring true: DeCaprio's character probably wouldn't survive his knifing, and it's doubtful that Day-Lewis's one-eyed character could throw knives so accurately. Still, director Martin Scorsese deserves to win his first Oscar for this epic.
Garage Days (2003) rocks! This Australian comedy-drama is about a rock 'n' roll garage band that desperately wants a big break. They seem to get it when the bandleader accidentally meets Australia's hottest record producer. Then everything goes wrong: tensions among the band members explode into serious arguments, old romances break up, new romances form, mental illness cripples one musician, drugs take their toll, and the band's manic manager is demoted to roadie. It looks like curtains, but the bandleader struggles to keep things together. A great ensemble cast and raunchy Australian humor bring this flick alive. It's a great flip side to this year's other hilarious musical comedy, A Mighty Wind.
Get Low (2010) is an actor's film and a joy for audiences who love good acting. Robert Duvall plays an aging but feisty hermit who has lived in a remote cabin for 40 years, hiding from the world and atoning for secret sins. Sissy Spacek is a former beau from his youth; Bill Murray is the local undertaker; Bill Cobbs is a wise old black preacher. When the hermit wants to stage his own funeral party before his death and invite everyone in the county, he sets in motion a chain of events that leads to a public and private revelation. The story isn't particularly strong and the climax isn't earthshaking, but the veteran actors make the most of their screen time, and the re-creation of small-town America in the 1920s is particularly good. Relax and enjoy the view.
Ghost World (2000), a quirky tale of teenage angst, follows the adventures of best friends Enid and Tiffany during their first summer after high school. Although the girls couldn't wait to put school behind them, they begin to realize that their lives have irrevocably changednot always for the better. Enid develops an odd friendship with a middle-aged collector of curios, while Tiffany struggles to establish her independence in the adult world. The theme and especially the ending are reminiscent of The Graduate, which did a better job of portraying generational conflict.
The Ghost Writer (2010) is a political drama starring Ewan McGregor as a freelance writer who agrees to help a former British prime minister (Pierce Brosnan) finish his memoirs. It seems like a stellar assignment, but there's one catch: the previous ghost writer turned up dead under mysterious circumstances. This is a well-paced suspense story with unusually good supporting performances by Olivia Williams (the prime minister's disillusioned wife), Tom Wilkinson (a college professor with suspicious political connections), Robert Pugh (a former British cabinet minister), and others. Directed by Roman Polanski, it reeks with intrigue and paranoia.
Girl, Interrupted (1999) drags teenage angst to new depths and is an above-average tale of mental illness and mental institutions, but it's a far cry from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest..
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest (2010) is the third and last installment in the Swedish "Millenium" trilogy of violent thrillers, based on the novels by Stieg Larsson. (Previous episodes were The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, 2009, and The Girl Who Played With Fire, 2010.) Noomi Rapace returns as Lisbeth Salander, the spunky punk babe who helps a journalist (reprised by Mikael Nyqvist) solve a murder mystery and expose a long-hidden conspiracy. The previous installments are prerequisites to comprehending the tangled plot, which is difficult to follow in any case. The movie needlessly prolongs crucial developments, particularly during a murder trial, when damning evidence is withheld interminably. These obvious attempts to heighten suspense only slow the action and require the talented actors to play unnecessary scenes. Nevertheless, all loose ends get tied up, so anyone who saw the first two films might as well see this one. (In Swedish with English subtitles.)
The Girl Who Played With Fire (2010) is the second film in the "Millennium" trilogy of Swedish novels by Stieg Larsson. It picks up where the first film, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2009), left off. Renegade computer hacker Lisbeth Salander (spookily played, as before, by Noomi Rapace) returns to Sweden from her tropical hideaway and soon is suspected of multiple murders. She hunts the real killers but gets deeper enmeshed. Meanwhile, her journalist friend (reprised by Mikael Blomkvist) tries to prove her innocence. This sequel is faster paced than the first film and explains more about Salander's mysterious past. It's a good thriller and seems less violent, but only because the first one was over the top. It strains credulity, however, when one character seems to rise from the grave. (In Swedish with English subtitles.)
Girl With a Pearl Earring (2003) is a showcase for Scarlett Johanssonthe young, moody actress whose quirky talents contributed so much to Lost in Translation (2003) and Ghost World (2000). This time she plays a Dutch maid in 1665 who inspires the artist Johannes Vermeer to paint his famous portrait from which the movie draws its name. A modernist actress like Johansson might seem out of place in a historical drama, especially one that frankly portrays the brutishness of 17th-century city life, but she rises to the occasion with an irresistible performance. Although the story is pure fiction, it's a plausible speculation about an inspiring artwork and the anonymous girl whom it immortalizes.
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2009) is a surprisingly dark and violent Swedish murder mystery. The elderly head of a wealthy family hires a crusading journalist to investigate the 40-year-old murder of his favorite niece. The reporter gets reluctant help from a goth computer hacker (the girl with the dragon tattoo) who is ruthless when crossed. A brutal rape scene and its aftermath are detours from the main story, which already is complicated by a surplus of suspects. After what seems like the dramatic climax, the story continues for a little too long, deflating the drama with a redemptive coda that doesn't quite fit the film's darker tone. Sometimes less is more. Another 15 minutes of footage should have been left on the cutting-room floor. Two sequels based on novelist Stieg Larsson's "Millenium" trilogy were released in the U.S. in 2010: The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest. (All three in Swedish with English subtitles.)
The Girlfriend Experience (2009) is an interesting but disappointing indie film directed by Steven Soderbergh, who climbed to fame on Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989). Both are explorations of sex and lies about sex. This time, real-life porn star Shasha Grey plays Chelsea, a pretty "escort" who charges $2,000 a nightbut not just for sex. She pretends to be their girlfriends, too. Most clients are middle-aged businessmen. She goes on dates with them, cuddles with them, tolerates their incessant worrying about money, and sometimes just talks with them. A few men become so enamored that the fantasy flirts with reality. The same delusion tugs at young Chelsea, who mistakes her sexual experience for life experience. Is she a savvy career woman, a professional escort who offers optional sex, a high-class call girl, a common prostitute, a gold digger, or a potential Miss Right? A disordered timeline keeps us from sharing Chelsea's self-discovery, and the indie-film obsession with ambiguity is too much like Chelsea's confusion.
The Giver (2014) is a mediocre science-fiction tale about a future society that has eliminated crime, war, civil strife, and poverty by also eliminating emotion, free enterprise, most personal freedom, and all memories of human history. It's a wrap-around society in which utopia meets dystopia. The sole exception is The Receiver, a special person chosen to receive all the memories and experiences of the past in order to offer occasional advice to the political leaders. Despite adequate performances by Meryl Streep (the Chief Elder), Jeff Bridges (the aging Receiver), and Brenton Thwaites (the next-generation Receiver), this movie goes downhill fast after the young man discovers his society's secrets. Huge plot holes start appearing, and the climax veers from science fiction into sheer fantasy. Similar films (The Village, 2004) have suffered similar fates; the classic in this genre is Logan's Run (1976).
Gladiator (2000) is a must-see if you thought that film spectacles like Ben Hur had gone the way of 25-cent popcorn. Russell Crowe even improves on Charlton Heston in this Roman epic. The battle scenes are realistic but not gratuitously gory.
Gods and Generals (2003) is a ridiculously awful film about the early days of the Civil War, 1860-1863. Produced by Ted Turner, it's the prequel to Gettysburg, a much better work. It's told mostly from the Southern point of view, heavily sanitized. In this fantasy version of history, no unhappy slaves appear, a black cook eloquently prays for freedom with Confederate General Stonewall Jackson, army officers quote long passages from Roman memoirs before joining battle, the Confederates conveniently forget they turned a secession crisis into civil war by firing the first shot at Fort Sumter, and everyone speaks in stilted dialogue, even under the most dire circumstances. As a final insult, the four-hour film ends with credits that flash by so quickly they're impossible to read.
Godzilla (2014) updates the 1954 originalagain!with a bigger incarnation of the monster and better special effects. This time, however, Godzilla is almost a minor character. Two other prehistoric monsters revived by radiation take center stage as the main baddies, leaving a trail of destruction from Tokyo to Honolulu to San Francisco. Godzilla, their natural predator, pursues them toward a climactic showdown. The human star is Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who plays a U.S. Navy ordnance-disposal specialist amazingly cross-trained as a HALO paratrooper and Minuteman ICBM expert. But realism isn't the point of this movie; it's pure summer blockbuster fun. Still, I miss the Japanese guy in the rubber Godzilla suit.
Gone In 60 Seconds (2000) is a tolerable Hollywood action film about professional car thieves who have to steal a bunch of cars before a deadline to keep a loved one from getting rubbed out by bad guys. There's a better-than-average car chase at the climax, but otherwise this movie rarely rises above average.
Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson (2008) is an interesting but inconclusive documentary about the "gonzo journalist" who is best known for his stories in Rolling Stone and for his reportage in such books as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, 1968. This is an honest documentary that examines Thompson's personal foibles (heavy drinking, drug abuse, philandering, destructive tantrums) as well as his talents for deep reporting and entertaining writing. But it avoids judging the most vital aspect of Thompson's workcredibility. Gonzo journalism blurs the boundaries between fact and fiction, between point of view and self indulgence. Ultimately, Thompson's writing undermined the effectiveness of his reporting, which perhaps explains why he has few imitators today.
Good Bye, Lenin! (2003) is a brilliant commentary on the reunification of Germany, the lies of totalitarianism, the broken promises of communism, the greed of capitalism, and the joys and sorrows of freedom. But that description makes Good Bye, Lenin! sound like a pedantic documentary, which it most certainly is not. Instead, it's a witty drama about an East German mother and her teenage son. When she awakens from a long coma after a heart attack, she is unaware of recent events: the collapse of the Berlin Wall and East Germany. To protect her from a potentially life-threatening shockshe is a devoted communisther son goes to extreme lengths to maintain the illusion that East Germany still exists. His deceptions soar to incredible heights, creating many comic situations and subtle comparisons to life under a totalitarian regime. By the end, he becomes poignantly ensnared in his own well-meaning deceits. (German with English subtitles.)
The Good Girl (2002) stars Jennifer Aniston in a sordid morality tale about middle-class angst. Aniston plays a bored 30-year-old discount-store clerk and wife of a pot-smoking oafish husband (John C. Reilly). A casual fling with a younger man (Jake Gyllenhaal, who plays an identical character in Lovely & Amazing) leads to predictable trouble. Would any sensible, attractive woman have an affair with a college dropout who obsessively reads Catcher In the Rye and even renames himself after Holden Caulfield? This film tries to make a statement about the restrictive boundaries of life in middle-class America, but it's hard not to notice that the characters are fencing themselves in.
Good Night, and Good Luck (2005) reconstructs the historic confrontation between U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy and CBS TV's seminal newsman, Edward R. Murrow. Placed in the 1950s, it shows a crusading journalist using a new medium to question the abuses of the anticommunist "witch hunts" during the Cold War. But the battle of principles between Murrow and McCarthy is really a sideshow. Director and co-writer George Clooney puts TV on trial in this highly charged film. The Murrow-McCarthy affair is overshadowed by the clashes between Murrow and his profit-minded corporate bosses at CBS. And the story is bracketed by Murrow's uncompromising speech to a crowd of broadcast-industry swells, in which he challenges them to make TV more than a wasteland of shallow entertainment and diversion. Filmed in lush black-and-white, this drama convincingly re-creates an era that's more relevant today than ever. David Strathairn deserves an Oscar nomination for nailing Murrow's on-screen persona with eerie realism.
Gosford Park (2001), a gorgeous Robert Altman film, is a social drama set in 1932 England among the upper-class gentry at a splendid country estate. It's a time of great homes staffed with well-trained servants who fulfill every whimand who fill the relative emptiness of their own lives with endless gossip about the private lives of their employers. The film's examination of this society is almost documentary, though almost certainly oversexed. The plot seems to have no particular direction until a dramatic event reveals hidden relationships and passions. English accents make it difficult for American audiences to follow the dialogue, but the rewards are worth the effort.
Gran Torino (2008) is a well-crafted drama with a heart. It stars Clint Eastwood as a grumpy, racially prejudiced, retired autoworker who clings to his modest house in a declining Detroit neighborhood. Bad memories of combat trauma in the Korean War are never far from his mind, and now he's surrounded by poor Asian immigrants. The recent death of his wife hasn't improved his disposition. He kills time by drinking cheap beer and polishing his 1972 Ford Gran Torinolike himself, a no-nonsense relic from another age. Then a clash with a local gang begins changing his outlook. Eastwood also directed this morality tale, which shows the dilemma of urban violence without overindulgence. His character could just as easily be a retired Dirty Harry. Moral: heroism is costly.
The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) is a stylish comedy written and directed by Wes Anderson. Like his previous film, Moonrise Kingdom, it combines elaborate art direction with quirky characters, a starry cast, and a lively plot. It's placed in a fictional world based on 1930s Eastern Europe during the rise of fascism. Ralph Fiennes stars as the conniving concierge of an ostentatious hotel catering to Old Europe aristocracy. Tony Revolori co-stars as the Lobby Boy, a lowly assistant who gradually gains the concierge's trust. The sudden death of a wealthy widow (played by an almost-unrecognizable Tilda Swinton) throws them into conflict with her greedy heirs and the changing political climate. The brilliance of this picture is its odd combination of absurdity, fantasy, and realism. It's like a cartoon that really happened. It also avoids gross-out humor and respects its characters' humanity.
Grandma (2015) stars Lily Tomlin as an eccentric grandmother whose teenage granddaughter desperately needs $630 for an abortion. Both are nearly broke, so they embark on a journey to collect old debts or borrow money from friends. It sounds depressing, but the movie is pitched as a comedy-drama that finds dark humor in quirky personalities and relationships. Much of the humor, though, revolves around the Hollywood cliché that coarse language and outrageous behavior are endearing in older people. Tomlin steals the show, as intended, and it's a good show. But it would be much better if writer/director Paul Weitz (About a Boy, 2002) had exploited more dimensions of Tomlin's comedic talent.
Gravity (2013) is the best and most realistic outer-space drama since Apollo 13 (1995), which had the advantage of being a true story. Although Gravity is science fiction, it's as plausible as the historic Apollo mishap. Debris from a shattered satellite turns a routine NASA orbital mission into a fight for survival. A veteran astronaut (George Clooney) and a rookie mission specialist (Sandra Bullock) must battle weightlessness, inertia, dwindling oxygen, and the prospect of a very lonely death. Whereas Clooney plays to type as a self-confident pilot, Bullock's performance really carries this film. Finding the perfect mix of fear and determination, she plays a scientist who is competent in her field but not a professional astronaut. When trouble strikes, this newbie must rely on her trainingonly six months' worth. Besides Bullock's performance, another highlight of this movie is the special effects. See it in 3D on a big screen.
The Great Gatsby (2013) takes place during the 1920s Jazz Age, but this movie's soundtrack makes it seem like the Rap Age or Disco Age. Mashups of modern and contemporary music form a strange backdrop to elaborately staged scenes of epic parties at the Long Island mansion of Jay Gatsby, the central character of F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic 1925 novel. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Gatsby, the mysterious millionaire who mesmerizes New York's high society. Tobey McGuire plays Nick Carraway, a Wall Street bond salesman who falls into Gatsby's circle and narrates his story in flashbacks. Fitzgerald's morality tale of upper-class extravagance would seem to be especially relevant after the 2008 Wall Street crash and subsequent concentration of wealthhence, perhaps, the mashup soundtrack. But Gatsby's obsession with a lost love (played by a curiously unmagnetic Carey Mulligan) overshadows the social commentary. Fitzgerald's novel, like Tom Wolfe's 1987 homage, The Bonfire of the Vanities, inevitably loses some power when adapted to film.
The Green Mile (1999) is overlong, cliché-ridden, and wastes several good performances on an overwrought story about saintly convicts and evil prison guards.
Greendale (2004) is the eccentric film version of Neil Young's hard-rockin' concept album of the same name. It's not a music video, but a visualization of the stories told in the lyrics. Young's Crazy Horse band supplies the grungy soundtrack. Shot in gritty Super 8 film, with no dialogue save for the lyrics, Greendale weaves a drama of small-town moral tragedy, political machination, and environmental activism. Though it swings wildly back and forth from literalism to allegorical fantasy and isn't for everyone, it kept me riveted through the final credits.
Haiku Tunnel was one of the best comedies of 2001. It's an indie film co-written and co-directed by Josh Kornbluth, who also stars. Kornbluth shows potential as the new Woody Allen in his neurotic role as an office temp at a San Francisco law firm. After the firm unexpectedly hires him full-time, his carefree life as a rootless temp starts to rapidly go downhillwith hilarious results. Despite a few inside jokes about law firms and San Francisco, the movie still works as a topical satire of the modern office. Vote independent and see Haiku Tunnel.
Half Nelson (2006) is one of the best films about drug addiction ever made. It's not preachy, it avoids stereotypes, and it has great soul. Ryan Gosling delivers a stunning performance as an inner-city schoolteacher addicted to crack cocaine. He struggles to hide his drug habit and steady descent into dereliction. He gets help from an unexpected source: one of his 13-year-old pupils, a black girl played with insightful reserve by Shareeka Epps. Gosling's performance teeters on the edge of excess, but never loses balance. This is a serious film that doesn't pull punches. It's marred only by a series of abrupt history-lesson scenes that seem forced and out of place.
The Hangover (2009) is a rollicking comedy that could have been better with less juvenile humor. Four men descend on Las Vegas for a bachelor party, which predictably veers out of control. To its credit, the movie departs from the usual formula by not showing the party. Instead, the men awaken the next morning with terrible hangovers and drug-induced amnesia. Their hotel room is a wreck. And one manthe groomis missing. For the rest of the movie, they hunt for him and try to reconstruct what happened. It's a great premise and very funny at times. But too often the scriptwriters couldn't think of a joke and resort to teenage slapstick.
Harry Brown (2010) stars Michael Caine as a British pensioner living in an urban apartment complex that has seen better days. Now overrun by vicious youth gangs and drug addicts, its law-abiding residents withdraw in fear. Caine plays a retired Royal Marine who reaches the breaking point. Although this is a vigilante movie, it's not as wanton as most other examples of the genre. Caine's character is motivated as much by despair and weariness of living as by a thirst for revenge. His performance is well-rounded and sympathetic. Even the bad guys are well drawn. Though graphically violent, this film says more about life than about death.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (2001) is a lavish special-effects production that hews closely to the best-selling children's novel of the same name. But it's awfully long and intense for very young or impressionable children. And although it's a better-than-average story about magical people in a fantasy land, it lacks the same sense of wonder and delight that marks true classics like The Wizard of Oz. Better luck next time.
The Haunting (1999) is a haunted-house movie that relies too heavily on special-effects pizzazz. You're better off renting the truly spooky 1963 original starring Julie Harris.
He's Just Not That Into You (2009) feels like an overlong episode of Friends. It even stars Jennifer Aniston. All the characters are affluent yuppies in newly renovated Baltimore apartmentsthink lots of skylights and unpainted brick interiors. At heart, it's a romantic comedy that riffs on the different male/female "signals" emitted by twenty-somethings cruising in the hook-up culture. The premise is interesting, but it's awkwardly implemented. Occasional voiceovers and direct-to-audience narrators try to explain the characters' motives or offer amusing teaching moments. Overall, it's a pleasant date movie, not much more.
The Heat (2013) stars Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy in a buddy-cop chick flick. Bullock plays a tightly wound FBI agent on assignment in Boston, where she's unwillingly paired with McCarthy, a wild-child police detective. Normally, Bullock would have the lead role, but she yields equal screen time to McCarthy, who charmed audiences as the crude misfit in Bridesmaids (2011). McCarthy delivers another over-the-top performance in this film, winning hearts by playing a thoroughly abrasive character. Her chemistry with Bullock is explosively funny. Although this comedy has lots of laughs, its relentless profanity and occasional violence will bother some viewers.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001) is a tragic transsexual love story, but the catchy tunes are the true heart of this harsh rock musical. Hedwig is a sexually abused German boy who finds a novel way to escape East Berlin during the Cold War: marry a U.S. Army sergeant. Now he/she is the lead singer in a rock band whose songs are stolen by a former lover. Hedwig's pursuit of justicein matters of both law and of loveleads to a series of complicated personal relationships. Some scenes are uncomfortably raw, but the music is always redemptive, especially the allegorical "Origins of Love."
Hello, My Name is Doris (2016) stars Sally Field as an aging spinster who becomes infatuated with a much younger co-worker. It's a drama, it's a comedy, and it's good. Leading roles for 70-year-old women don't come along very often in Hollywood, so Field seizes the day. She nails her character's combination of bleak loneliness and residual youthfulness. Max Greenfield plays her object of affection in a cool straightforward fashion, creating room for Field's more lavish performance. Tyne Daly contributes atmosphere as Doris's close friend. Although the story is fairly predictable, screenwriters Laura Terruso and Michael Showalter resist the temptation to be crude or unkind.
Her (2013) stars Joachin Phoenix as a lonely dot-com worker who falls in love with the artificially intelligent operating system on his cell phone. Voiced by Scarlett Johansson, the OS is a clever computer program that learns and adapts to the user's personality. It's also capable of phone sexbetween the user and the phone, that is. Although this story certainly has its comedic and romantic moments, the overall tone is rather morose. Writer/director Spike Jonze (Adaptation, Being John Malkovich) explores the meaning of love and the depth of object personification. His premise is not as far-fetched as it may seem. The technology is attainable, and emotional attachments to nonpersons are as common as household pets and religions. In the end, this cerebral film makes the point that love really is a two-way street.
Herbie: Fully Loaded (2005) is a reasonably good update of the long-running movie series about "Herbie," an old Volkswagen Beetle with a spunky personality. The original Herbie from 1966 spawned six sequels through Herbie, the Love Bug in 1982. In the latest version, an equally spunky young woman (Lindsay Lohan) rescues Herbie from a junkyard and helps her mechanic friend (Justin Long) restore the car to NASCAR specs. But her father (Michael Keaton), a race-team leader, forbids her to compete. This sets up the usual madcap conflict that ends predictably, but it's still funnyif you like the silliness of an old Beetle racing against modern NASCAR vehicles. Overall, this movie is no sillier or cornier than the originals.
Hereafter (2010) is a spiritual but not religious drama about life, death, and life after death. Clint Eastwood directed this addition to his impressive body of work behind the camera. He masters a difficult screenplay that tells three parallel stories and gradually connects the dots to draw a mysterious but fulfilling picture of broken lives mended. Matt Damon plays a psychic who can communicate with dead people but doesn't like to; Cecile De France plays a French journalist who suffers a life-changing trauma; and Frankie and George McLaren play young twins struggling to cope with troubles beyond their years. Although this film is suspenseful, it's not a schlocky thriller. It works on multiple levels and seems crafted to inspire thoughtful debate.
Hero (2002-2004) is a gorgeous film about an ancient Chinese warrior, three super assassins, and the Chinese Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi, who first united China. The story is told in a series of repeating flashbacks, each with a different version of events, reminiscent of the Japanese classic Rashomon (1950). Mixing elements of history and fantasy, Hero explores the ambiguity experienced by people who are living through historical events, not studying them long afterward. The cinematography and art direction are spectacular, and the battle scenes glow with an artistry rarely seen in American film. Originally produced in 2002, this movie was released in the U.S. (with English subtitles) in 2004.
High Fidelity (2000) has John Cusak's best performance since The Grifters. He's the music-obsessed owner of a small record store catering to collectors, and anybody who hoards vinyl will identify with the cast of warped characters.
Hitchcock (2012) dramatizes the story behind director Alfred Hitchcock and one of his most famous films, Psycho (1960). After the triumph of North By Northwest (1959), Hitchcock hungered for something different. Psycho, inspired by a real mass murderer, was a controversial project with little studio support, but its slasher horror spawned a new genre of American cinema. Anthony Hopkins excels as Hitchcock, playing the role expansively alongside Helen Mirren as Hitch's wife and Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh, the shower-scene victim. James D'Arcy adds an uncanny impression of Anthony Perkins, who played the spooky psycho killer. Although fans of Hitchcock and Psycho will love this back story, there's little else for others.
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (2005) tries hard to reproduce the cleverness and humor of Douglas Adams's classic science-fiction novel, and sometimes it succeeds. At times it seems choppy as it struggles to visualize the literary detours and casual asides sprinkled through the book, but any screen adaptation ignoring those devices would be a travesty. Even so, it's obvious that the film relies heavily on the nonfilm device of voice-over narrationin the form of whole passages from the novel quoted verbatimto capture the absurdist spirit of Adams's story. The screenplay is generally faithful to the book, starting with the destruction of Earth for a galactic superhighway, followed by the misadventures of a tepid Englishman who finds himself caught up in a bewildering galaxy of eccentric space aliens. (Hint: Don't leave when the credits roll. At my screening, I was the only person in the theater to remain for the coda.)
Hollow Man (2000) is a cheap and sleazy remake of The Invisible Man, ruining the best special effects of the year with a raunchy script. Still, it has those great special effects.
Hope Springs (2012) is advertised as a romantic comedy but is actually a deeper drama about a long-married couple struggling to rejuvenate their relationship. Although there certainly are laughs, don't expect a light-hearted romp. Meryl Streep is excellent (as always) in her portrayal of a Midwestern housewife disenchanted with her 31-year-old marriage. Tommy Lee Jones, as her tax-accountant husband, rises to the level of Streep's performance. He shows us a loyal but emotionally withered middle-aged man who is comfortable with stasis. Steve Carell plays their marriage counselor, but his comedic talents are suppressed in this unusually straight role. Although this is a very good film that should be a popular couples movie, it has been miscast as a fluffy chick flick.
Hotel Rwanda (2004) is a powerful and compassionate drama about the 1994 Rwandan genocide, in which thousands of people identifying themselves as Hutu massacred about 500,000 fellow citizens identified as Tutsi. (They are not African tribes; modern Hutus and Tutsis are descendants of native Africans divided into two groups by former Belgian colonists.) Don Cheadle richly deserves his Best Actor nomination for playing the Hutu manager of a luxury hotel who shelters hundreds of Tutsis from the slaughter. Based on true people and events, this superlative film reveals the horror and absurdity of the killing without drifting from its central threadthe story of one man's humanity amidst madness. It's the Schindler's List of the Rwandan holocaust.
The Hours (2002) wastes superlative acting on a muddled story. It takes place in 1923, 1941, 1951, and 2001 in England, Los Angeles, and New York. The tenuous link is Virginia Woolf's novel "Mrs. Dalloway." Nicole Kidmandisguised in a fake nose that's sometimes visibly putty-coloredplays Woolf. Julianne Moore plays a quietly desperate 1950s housewife, her second such role this year (see Far From Heaven). Meryl Streep is a modern New Yorker who's nursing a male friend dying of AIDS. All are depressed, confused lesbians, and the story spasmodically lurches toward an emotional epiphany. Tears reign over coherence, but the performances are so good, most viewers don't care.
The House of Mirth (2000) is a 19th-century costume drama about an upper-class woman who falls on hard times. Too bad it's so incomprehensibly edited that even a strong performance by Gillian Anderson (The X Files) can't save it.
Hugo is an odditythe second movie of 2011 to honor silent film. (The other was The Artist). It's also the first children's movie directed by Martin Scorsese, more famous for his violent gangster pictures (Goodfellas, The Departed, Gangs of New York ...) But kids reared on today's fast-moving animated features and action flicks may find Hugo tough going. Placed in 1930s Paris, it's about an orphaned boy who secretly lives in a train station, maintaining the huge clocks looming over the lobby. Then the story veers toward an old man and a forgotten silent-film era. Children are too young for nostalgia and may be puzzled by the tribute to antique films, unable to appreciate an emerging technology that seems primitive by modern standards. For adult film buffs, however, Hugo is a marvel.
The Hunger Games (2012) is based on popular young-adult novels about a dystopian future in which the U.S. has dissolved into several districts ruled by a totalitarian government. To punish the districts for a past rebellion, each must send two young people to compete in an annual survival game from which only one contestant emerges alive. The violent games are televised and promoted like gladiatorial dramas. Jennifer Lawrence brilliantly plays a contestant from a poor Appalachian district who must rely on guile instead of fighting skills. The supporting cast (including Josh Hutcherson, Stanley Tucci, and Wes Bentley) is superb. Although the handheld cinematography is annoying, and one critical scene is inconsistent, the storytelling is powerful. The most obvious inspiration was reality TV, but perhaps teens find this movie and the novels allegorical. In our day, we splurge fortunes on wars and weapons while slashing educational budgets and sacrificing the future of our youths.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013) is the second installment in a novel-based trilogy that eventually will be stretched to four films. In other words, don't expect a neat ending to this one. Jennifer Lawrence reprises her role as Katniss Everdeen, a young archer who lives in a future dictatorship that televises annual "games" in which the youthful contestants fight to the death. Having won the most recent competition (The Hunger Games, 2012), she now must endure a government-sponsored victory tour she despises. Although her fellow survivor (played again by Josh Hutcherson) is equally dispirited, they must pretend to be national heroes or face punishment. But their defiant victory has stirred a popular rebellion, and the government is brutally cracking down. This fast-moving film skillfully captures their moral dilemma and is a creepy extension of our own media-mad culture. It doesn't really catch fire, though, until it repeats the first film's greatest drama: the deadly games. The brewing revolution is a less interesting subplot that wants to be the main plot, probably to the detriment of future sequels.
The Hurricane (1999) is worth seeing, as long as you don't take it too literally. With such dramatic real-life material to work with, why do Hollywood directors insist on fictionalizing a story like this?
The Hurt Locker (2009) is an exceptional drama about the U.S. occupation of Iraq. Filmed in a quasi-documentary style, it follows a U.S. Army team of bomb-disposal experts led by a skilled but reckless young soldier (well played by Jeremy Renner). By killing off a star's character early in the picture, The Hurt Locker creates tensionany character can die at any time. Mark Boal wrote this masterpiece, a huge improvement over his previous work (In the Valley of Elah, 2007). Boal's screenplay is brilliantly visualized by director Kathryn Bigelow. War movies directed by women are rare, but this one ranks with the best. Although it's nonpolitical, the subtext is inescapable: Why are we there?
I Am Legend (2007) is a big-budget remake of Omega Man (1971), which was a medium-budget remake of The Last Man On Earth (1964), which was a low-budget adaptation of a science-fiction novel by Richard Matheson (I Am Legend, 1954). Recycling is good for the environment but often toxic for movies. In this case, computer-generated special effects overwhelm the story. And the story has changed from the lethargic, cultish zombie flick of 1964 into a killfest freak show resembling 28 Days Later (2002). A cancer cure goes bad, felling most of the world's population and transforming nearly all the survivors into homicidal zombies. Oddly, the genetic virus gives the zombies superhuman athleticism, except in daytime if they're not wearing SPF-1,000 sunscreen. Will Smith stars as the last normal human, a role originally played by Charleton Heston and Vincent Price in earlier versions. This adaptation would have done better to rely more on Smith and less on cheap-thrill pixels.
I Am Sam (2001) has Oscar-quality performances from Sean Penn and child actress Dakota Fanning, though only Penn was nominated. The dialogue, by screenwriters Kristine Johnson and Jessie Nelson, is powerful and honest. Unfortunately, Nelson didn't stick to writinghe also directed. Some of Penn's best scenes are massacred by Nelson's amateurish, herky-jerky film editing, which at times makes it difficult to even focus on Penn's face. Fortunately, the material is strong enough to prevail. Penn plays a retarded man trying to retain custody of his young daughter, who is rapidly overtaking her father's limited mental capacity. Michelle Pfeiffer plays his fast-living attorney. An excellent supporting cast helps to put this emotional movie over the top.
I Heart Huckabees (2004; also known as I Love Huckabees) is a strange, intriguing movie that aims high but sometimes descends into silliness. The cast is formidable: Dustin Hoffman, Lily Tomlin, Jude Law, Mark Wahlberg, Naomi Watts, and Isabelle Huppert, plus relative newcomer Jason Schwartzman in the leading role. Broadly speaking, the story is about a young environmentalist who engages an "existential detective agency" to investigate a coincidence: his three chance encounters with a tall, black African man. Schwartzman's character wants to understand the significance of these events. From this slim thread, the film launches into a philosophical exploration of personal connections, introspection, political activism, jealousy, love, and other weighty subjects. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. The dumbest scene is a muddy sex romp involving Schwartzman and Huppert, a French actress 27 years his senior.
I, Robot (2004) is a sorry interpretation of Isaac Asimov's classic science-fiction stories about robots and their interactions with humans. Although this movie claims Asimov's stories as parentage, the only significant vestiges are his famous Three Laws of Robotics, and even they get short shrift. Instead, we're subjected to an ordinary action movie with overproduced special effects and improbable action scenes. Will Smith plays a wisecracking Chicago police detective in 2035 who suspects that wayward robots killed a famous scientist. But apparently, technology has reached such a state of absolute perfection in his time (only 30 years distant from our own) that no one believes his suspicions are even remotely possible, much less plausible. From this absurd premise, everything goes downhill.
Ice Age (2002) is a lively animated feature about a woolly mammoth and a sloth who join forces during a winter migration in prehistoric times. When the unlikely pair unexpectedly rescues a human infant, they become a threesome that draws the interest of hungry saber-tooth tigers. The story is predictable, but the snappy dialogue and funny intervals with a hapless squirrel manage to keep it interesting for adults as well as children.
An Ideal Husband (1999) is a good choice if you're looking for a dose of Victorian drama with intelligent humor. Cate Blanchett and Minnie Driver star in this adaptation of an Oscar Wilde play.
Identity (2003) is an average thriller with a clever twist ending that skips by a little too quickly to tie up all the loose ends. John Cusack and Ray Liotta star as two "guests" stranded at a rundown Nevada motel during a storm. One by one, fellow guests start turning up violently dead. The surprise climax requires a stretch of imagination that seemed to confuse or disappoint the audience I saw it with. And it's not campy enough to be truly endearing.
The Illusionist (2006) is an artfully crafted film without the pretension of an art film. Set in Vienna during Victorian times, it stars Edward Norton in a role he was born to playa brooding, mysterious magician whose stagecraft seems supernatural. When his love affair with a duchess (played by Jessica Biel) turns into a murder mystery, he plays coyly with a principled but pressured police inspector (the always wonderful Paul Giamatti). The only significant flaw in this film is a rather hurried series of flashbacks that tie up loose ends at the conclusion. Follow the story carefullysmall details matter.
The Imitation Game (2014) is another misguided account of the British cryptographers who cracked Nazi Germany's Enigma-machine cipher to help win World War II. This film focuses on math genius Alan Turing, who helped design the machine that defeated the machinethe world's first programmable electronic digital computer. Benedict Cumberbatch delivers an Oscar-worthy performance as the brilliant but eccentric Turing. Kiera Knightly ably plays one of his assistants. But the screenplay, adapted by Graham Moore from a book by Andrew Hodges, commits the same sins as Enigma (2001), a previous film adaptation. It bastardizes a true story already dripping with drama by inventing things that never happened and needlessly altering things that actually did happen. A truer account would have been just as dramatic and more intelligent. Nevertheless, a thread of truth survives, and Cumberbatch's performance is not to be missed.
In America (2003) is a wonderful film about an emotionally damaged Irish family that emigrates to New York City and struggles to make a fresh start. Traumatized by the loss of their youngest child, the parents deal with their grief in different (mostly unhealthy) ways. Their two young daughtersinsightfully played by real-life sistersinvest a touch of magic in the story. It's a truly touching drama about life, death, and rebirth.
In the Bedroom (2001) is a well-acted but overrated drama that stars Sissy Spacek, Marisa Tomei, and Tom Wilkinson. It's about a family tragedy in a small fishing town in Maine. Although the vignette-style editing is a little annoying, the film's main flaws are that it feels too much like a soap opera and has an unsatisfying conclusion. A much better recent film in this vein was The Deep End.
Inception (2010) is a mind-bending drama about industrial spies who can enter the dreams of their targets to steal their most hidden secrets. Leonardo DiCaprio stars as the team leader who accepts an even more challenging assignmentplant an idea in an industrialist's mind and make it seem his own. This film glories in complex storytelling, unfolding a series of dreams within dreams. In an especially impressive special effect, a dream architect played by Ellen Page folds the city of Paris in half. Writer and director Christopher Nolan is famous for his mind benders, starting with Memento in 2001. But Inception would have been better with the low budget of Memento, a tightly edited film. Inception is filled with gratuitous combat, car chases, and explosions, as if Nolan forgot he wasn't making another of his Batman movies.
An Inconvenient Truth (2006) is an unusual documentary film that swings back and forth between science lecture and autobiography. Mostly, it's a filmed version of a presentation on global warming that former Vice President Al Gore has been delivering all over the world for several years. Those segments are packed with the results of 50 years' scientific research into climate change, enlivened by Gore's surprising humor and well-executed computer graphics. Interspersed with those segments are montages about Gore's childhood, personal life, and political career. Although the montages keep the film from overwhelming the audience with science, they also encourage the suspicion that Gore is preparing for another presidential bid. Nevertheless, this is an interesting and important film.
The Incredibles (2004) is incredibly inventive and entertainingas we've come to expect from Pixar, the creators of Toy Story, A Bug's Life, and Finding Nemo. In this computer-animated feature, a secretive community of superheroes idled by lawsuits and ungrateful citizens returns to action and glory. The stars are Mr. Incredible (voiced by Craig T. Nelson) and his flexible wife, Elastigirl (Holly Hunter). Their children include Violet, with her powers of invisibility and force fields, and Dash, a superfast runner. Their nemesis is Syndrome (Jason Lee), a commoner with dreams of superheroism. The story, animation, and dialogue are first-rate, although there's more action and less emotion than in previous Pixar films. Hint: Watch the cape!
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) is a disappointing movie that flattens the characters into cardboard cutouts and buries the story under extravagant computer graphics. The special effects and wonderful sets are frequent distractions from the predictable plot and wasted actors. Harrison Ford seems to sleepwalk through his starring role as the adventuring archaeologist on the trail of an ancient crystal skull with mysterious powers. Cate Blanchett is woeful as a KGB femme fatale in leotards. Shia LaBeouf is annoying as the switchblade-slinging, hair-obsessed young sidekick. Steven Spielberg directed, but he's either out of practice or overenthralled with the latest technology. This series should have ended as a trilogy with Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989).
Inglourious Basterds (2009) is gore-porn director Quentin Tarantino's romp on World War II. Tarantino also conceived the story and wrote the screenplay. Entirely fictionalized, it's about a U.S. Army team of Jewish guerrillas who parachute into Nazi-occupied France to terrorize Germans. Showing no mercy, they scalp their enemies and commit other war crimes. Meanwhile, the lone survivor of a French Jewish family plots her own revenge against the Germans. Naturally, these two story arcs collide in a gory climax. From the start, this film glows with intense acting, but it frequently flirts with parodylike a mash-up of The Dirty Dozen (1967) and Little Big Man (1970). Tarantino is generous with his camera, giving the actors plenty of screen time to play their scenes. However, as often happens in his films, when Tarantino runs out of ideas, the default denouement is a bloody rampage. The moral of the story is that there's no moral of the story.
Inside Job (2010) is a clear-eyed documentary on the 2008 financial meltdown and its global aftermath. Filmmaker Charles Ferguson (No End in Sight, 2007) and his crack writers (Chad Beck and Adam Bolt) carefully explain the complex derivatives that torpedoed the real-estate market. They show Wall Street's greed and arrogance and review the role of government deregulation across multiple administrations. For those who have already studied the crisis, there's relatively little new information, but Ferguson's on-camera interviews with people involved in the machinations are revelatory. In particular, he shines an uncomfortable spotlight on business-school professors at major universities who are paid large sums by Wall Street to give speeches and write papers promoting self-regulation. Too bad this film won't be seen by those who need to see it.
Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) is another quirky film written and directed by the Coen brothers (No Country for Old Men, Fargo, The Big Lebowski...). Placed in Greenwich Village, 1961, it's a week in the life of a fictional starving-artist folk singer, Llewyn Davis (played to perfection by actor-singer Oscar Isaac). Unlike most Coen brothers films, it's not about crime. It's funny in a rather bleak way as the hangdog guitarist struggles toward elusive stardom, couch surfing and scrounging meals from a small circle of friends and acquaintances. These are the days before Bob Dylan broke the folk scene wide open, and it's a tough life. All the acting is superb, especially a cameo by John Goodman. The period is reconstructed with uncanny detail and includes several inside jokes for folkies. As usual, don't expect a Hollywood ending from the Coens.
Inside Out (2015) is the brainiest animated feature ever made. Literally. Its main characters are four basic emotions inside an 11-year-old girl's brain: Joy, Sadness, Fear, and Disgust. Contending with each other for control, they steer the girl's behavior as she navigates her family's difficult move from suburban Minnesota to urban San Francisco. When a mishap leaves Fear and Disgust in total command, things go awry. Like almost all Pixar movies, Inside Out is intelligent enough to keep adults interested without going over the heads of children. In fact, it's fairly educational, but don't tell the kids that. (Its metaphors for memories are particularly clever.) Pixar keeps pleasantly surprising us and enlarging the once-tired genre of animated films.
The Insider (1999) gives you a chance to see Mike Wallace and 60 Minutes squirm for a change. It's a tense, sensational retelling of CBS's infamous retreat in the face of intimidation from Big Tobacco.
Insomnia (2002) is the first big-budget Hollywood film by Memento director Christopher Nolan. It's an above-average detective story that fails to match the offbeat attraction of his earlier work. Not that there's anything wrong with Insomnia. It stars Al Pacino as a sleepless LAPD detective who's out of water in a small Alaska town, Hilary Swank as an earnest local cop, and Robin Williams as a creepy villain. Insomnia is a well-crafted psychological thriller. But it lacks the innovation and energy of Mementowhich only goes to show how difficult it is to make a truly exceptional film, regardless of the budget.
The Interpreter (2005) is a well-crafted thriller reminiscent of Charade (1963), whose main character was also a United Nations interpreter caught in a web of intrigue. But there are key differences. Charade used comic banter to forge a wary relationship between a government agent (Cary Grant) and the interpreter (Audrey Hepburn). In contrast, The Interpreter uses unhealed grief over lost loved ones to stitch an even more tentative relationship between the interpreter (Nicole Kidman) and the government agent (Sean Penn). Also, in The Interpreter, it is Kidman's character, not Penn's, who gradually becomes the focus of suspicion. After she overhears an apparent plot to assassinate the president of an African country, her involvement begins to seem less and less accidental.
Interstellar (2014) is an ambitious science-fiction film that strives to get the science approximately right while tempering it with a warm father-daughter relationship. Matthew McConaughey stars as an ex-astronaut who's now a cornbelt farmer in a near-future Dust Bowl II. He doesn't like farming, but climactic changes are making Earth untenable for humans, and every food crop is precious. The only hope seems to be finding another world to colonize. McConaughey dominates the screen with his space-cowboy persona, and the excellent supporting cast includes Michael Caine, Anne Hathaway, Matt Damon, and Jessica Chastain. In its epic scope, storyline, and length (almost three hours), this movie invites comparisons with Stanley Kubrick's classic 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). But Interstellar is tidier, leaving no room for interpretation. That choice doesn't necessarily make it a worse film, but it will likely provoke less discussion, so it's unlikely to become another classic.
Interview (2007) is a superb indie film adapted from a play by Dutch writer Theodor Holman. Steve Buscemi co-authored the adapted screenplay, directed the film, and stars as a magazine journalist assigned to profile a B-movie actress (perfectly played by Sienna Miller). Buscemi's character would rather be covering Washington politics than writing fluff pieces about celebrities, but he gets pulled into an intense drama at the actress's Manhattan loft. Buscemi and Miller alternately feed and bleed on each other like Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966). Highly recommended.
Into the Wild (2007) is a powerfully made film and perhaps the best movie of the year. It's based on Jon Krakauer's book about Christopher McCandless, a disillusioned young man who journeyed alone into the Alaskan wilderness in 1992 to live off the land. Although McCandless' intentions were good, his ignorance and arrogance led him to tragedy. Woefully unprepared for survival in the wild, he soon discovered why our hunter-gatherer ancestors invented agriculture. This beautifully filmed adaptation, expertly directed by Sean Penn, loudly celebrates McCandless' passion for nature while quietly dropping hints that he didn't understand or respect nature's power. The opening scene sets the stage, as McCandless stomps into the snowy wilderness without boots. Emile Hirsch delivers a stunning performance as McCandless, anchored by a uniformly strong supporting cast. This is top-notch cinema. And it delivers an easily overlooked message: just because you love nature doesn't mean nature will love you back.
The Invasion (2007) is a competent but mostly predictable remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956, 1978). Nicole Kidman stars as a psychiatrist who gradually becomes aware that a mysterious alien spore is infecting people, turning them into emotionless doppelgangers. Newbies who haven't seen the earlier films will probably like this remake, but it's not as campy as the 1956 original or as creepy as the 1978 version. One missing element is the alien podsin this film, victims are transformed, not duplicated. Although it's a minor departure, somehow it detracts from the horror. And although the new ending is more plausible, it's less satisfying.
The Invention of Lying (2009) is a rare modern example of intelligent comedy. Fans of adolescent Hollywood humor should move along. This thought-provoking film posits a world much like our own, except lies are unfathomable. There's not even a word to describe it. Then one man learns to lie, and a wealth of possibilities opens up. He discovers the differences between bad lies and white lies, small lies and big lies. He wrestles with the law of unintended consequences. One consequence has to do with religiona weighty subject, even for a weighty film. Still, an undercurrent of humor keeps the story from toppling. Two flaws: although people can't lie, civilized social interaction would seem to require the ability to hold their tongues; and the religion angle might have worked better with a bit more ambiguity near the end.
Invictus (2009) stars Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela when he became president of South Africa in 1994. To help unite his racially torn country, Mandela encouraged a mostly white rugby team to compete for the World Cup championship in 1995. Matt Damon stars as the white team captain who met with Mandela and inspired his teammates to make a serious run for the trophy. This movie is a pretty standard sports drama with all the usual clichés, but the underlying theme of redemptionbolstered by good performances from Freeman and Damonlift it above average. For viewers unfamiliar with rugby, the matches are a little tedious and confusing, though.
Iris (2001) stars Judi Dench as an English author and philosopher afflicted with Alzheimer's disease, and she deserves her Best Actress nomination. Kate Winslet also shines in her role as Dench's character at a younger age. Although the movie is an accurate account of the mental and physical decline wrought by Alzheimer's, it can't avoid compressing a ten-year ordeal into an hour or so, which makes it harder to identify with the emotions and motivations of the patient's friends and family.
The Iron Lady (2011) is an unsatisfying biopic of Margaret Thatcher, Great Britain's conservative prime minister from 1979 to 1990. Instead of focusing on Thatcher's remarkable rise to power and her reign as Britain's longest-serving P.M. of the 20th century, the movie wallows in her waning years of dementia. Flashbacks abruptly summarize her careerone moment, she wins her first election to Parliament, then suddenly she's a cabinet minister, and then suddenly she's vying for the top job. We get little insight into her appeal or political savvy. Conservative commentators blame the odd storytelling on liberal filmmakers, but actually the script does give voice to Thatcher's conservative philosophy on business, economics, terrorism, and the Falklands War. Put aside the shortcomings, though, because this film has one redeeming highlight: Meryl Streep's superb performance as Thatcher. It will be a crime if Streep doesn't win an Academy Award.
Iron Man (2008) is an above-average summer blockbuster based on the Marvel Comics character. Although it embraces the usual clichésthe tortured-soul superhero, the admiring girlfriend, the turncoat villainits lively dialogue and self-deprecating humor keep it interesting. Props and special effects are outstanding, especially the robotic suit that turns Robert Downey Jr.'s billionaire-CEO character into a formidable fighting machine. Jeff Bridges leads a wonderfully crazed supporting cast. This movie is stiff competition for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Those who wait until the final credits end will get a surprise.
Iron Man 2 (2010) brings back Robert Downey Jr. as the Marvel Comics hero in the mechanized flying suit. A star-studded cast that includes Don Cheadle, Gwenneth Paltrow, Scarlett Johansson, and Mickey Roarke tries to breathe life into a lifeless story that's mostly an excuse for pyrotechnic special effects. Roarke ably plays the villain, a nearly superhuman Russian scientist who builds his own super suit to seek revenge against Iron Man. Cheadle, Paltrow, and Johansson are slumming in this movie, playing secondary characters who exchange rapid-fire dialogue with Downey whenever there's a break in the action. Gary Shandling has a nice bit part as a smarmy U.S. Senator. This movie is a good amusement-park ride but not much else.
It Happened Here, lost since its making in 1966, is a realistic and frightening portrayal of what life in England might have been like under Nazi occupation in World War II. The most striking aspect of this little-known British film is how it explores the ambiguity of collaboration with the enemy.
Jarhead (2005) is based on Anthony Swofford's best-selling book about his experience in the U.S. Marine Corps during the Persian Gulf War. It's the kind of war movie that shows things rarely seen in traditional Hollywood war movies: the mind-bending boredom of waiting for something to happen, the irrationality of the combat that finally does happen, and the hint that wars are largely fought by immature young men emotionally unprepared for the consequences. In this case, it's also a war fought by young Americans raised on war movies, so Jarhead makes telling references to Apocalypse Now, The Deerhunter, Full Metal Jacket, and other pop-culture views of previous wars. One source of frustration for the Marines in this movie is that their warthe Persian Gulf Warends too quickly to generate a similar aura.
Jennifer's Body (2009) is a strange but compelling tale of teenage angst, high-school blues, and demonic possession. From the start, during a scene in a mental asylum, one line of narration sets the tone: "Hell is a teenage girl." Expect lots of dark humor. The dialog is sharp, witty, and trendy, penned by Diablo Cody, the former stripper turned screenwriter who won an Oscar for Juno (2007). Megan Fox plays the school sex queen in a rousing performance that's perfectly snobby, slutty, and menacing. Nearly as good is Amanda Seyfried as her dorky but devoted best friend. The demonic-possession angle leads to major bloodletting, though the violence is often suggested, not flaunted. This movie takes Heathers (1988) a demented step further. If you see it, be sure to persist through the closing credits, or you'll miss a classic ending.
Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work (2010) is a revealing documentary about the influential comedienne who doggedly continues to pursue her career at age 75. Rivers broke boundaries with her coarse humor in nightclubs and on The Tonight Show in the 1960s. This film provides historical context but focuses on the present, as Rivers pounds the pavement looking for work, work, and more work. She's possibly the heaviest user (or abuser) of plastic surgery since Michael Jackson, and the camera is at times unflattering, but she doesn't shy from risking public rejection. Show biz is a tough biz, and this film shows why.
The Joneses (2010) is an indictment of American consumerism and consumer marketing, packaged in an unusual mix of comedy, drama, and romance. David Duchovny and Demi Moore star as the apparent heads of an affluent family that moves into an upscale suburban neighborhood. Their teenage son and daughter seem as perfect as their parents. Before long, the family's showy lifestyle makes them trendsetters. Everyone wants to wear the same clothes, buy the same gadgets, drive the same cars, and throw the same lavish parties. But their image is a false front for subliminal consumer marketing. As their new friends strive to keep up, the story turns darker. This is an entertaining and clever movie that makes you think.
Joyride (2001) has little to offer but cheap thrills. It's about two pranksters on a road trip who provoke the wrath of an anonymous truck driver. As the evil trucker seeks revenge with his seemingly godlike powers, the movie descends further into idiocy, stretching the audience's suspension of disbelief to the breaking point. Recommended only for those who like urban legends.
Juno (2007) was one of the best pictures of the year. Ellen Page stars as Juno MacGuff, a sassy 16-year-old who unexpectedly finds herself expecting after one tryst with her shy boyfriend. She considers abortion, then decides to give the baby to an affluent but childless yuppie couple. Although the subject is weighty, Diablo Cody's sharply written screenplay (which won an Oscar) uses sarcastic humor and teen slang to keep things from getting too ponderous. The soundtrack provides additional comic relief and actually plays a role in the story. Occasionally, however, emotions get raw. One scene with an ultrasound technician turns mean. In another serious moment, Juno asks a timeless question: "Is it really possible for two people to be happy together, forever?" This movie would have stood a better chance of winning a Best Picture award if Oscar voters didn't have a predilection for films with epic sweep and dramatic violence.
Jupiter Ascending (2015) makes me wish that someday Hollywood will outgrow its obsession with computer-graphics special effects. I'm tired of waiting for the story to resume while an overdone action scene veers into videogame modeespecially when the story is as interesting as this one. Channing Tatum, Mila Kunis, and Eddie Redmayne star in this science-fiction drama about a present-day immigrant house cleaner who unwittingly becomes the focus of galactic intrigue. It seems that Earth is merely an "estate" owned by capitalistic space aliens intent on economic exploitation, and a deceased owner has reincarnated to reclaim ownership. But whenever the story gets rolling, Tatum gets into a repetitive fight with various pixelsaurs. A lower budget that shortened the fight scenes would have actually helped this movie. It's not all bad, but it's not a must-see.
Jurassic Park III (2001) has something even more amazing than its special effectsthe absurd premise that people as stupid as the characters in this movie could actually survive on an island with vicious dinosaurs. You will go mad watching these idiots stumble into one deadly situation after another, never seeming to learn that discretion is the better part of valor. The only thing that can save this waning series is a Jurassic Park IV that pits the dinos in a full-scale battle for dominance against humans on the mainlanda sequel that Jurassic Park III seems to foreshadow.
Jurassic World (2015) meets expectations. Faint praise, perhaps, but sequels to sequels to sequels can be dreadful. This fourth installment since Jurassic Park (1993) sticks to the successful formula: genetic engineers breed extinct dinosaurs for a theme park; the creatures escape their enclosures and eat people; some intrepid youngsters are repeatedly endangered; and the creatures eventually lose but leave an opening for another sequel. Also, as usual, the people frequently seem dumber than the Jurassic wildlife, calling into question 65 million years of evolution. Luckily, the main characters compensate for their stupidity with amazing talents, such as outrunning a T-rex in high-heeled dress shoes and squeezing rapid semiautomatic fire from a lever-action rifle. Just sit back and enjoy the ride.
K-PAX (2001) stars Kevin Spacey as a visiting space alien or a spaced-out mental patient, depending on your point of view. Confined in a Manhattan psychiatric hospital, he captivates his fellow patients and even his doctor (played by Jeff Bridges) with his plausible stories of life on K-PAX, his home planet. Is he the real thing, or merely delusional? The movie toys with both possibilities. Spacey's performance is smooth, but Bridges is downright wooden. Maybe he remembers that he played Spacey's role even better in Starman (1984).
The Kids Are All Right (2010) is a family drama about an unconventional familyAnnette Bening and Julianne Moore convincingly play the lesbian parents of a teenage daughter and son. Without consulting their moms, the kids find their biological father, a long-ago sperm donor played by the twitchy Mark Ruffalo. Naturally, the family reunion has unforeseen consequences. On the surface, lesbian parenthood isn't central to this film, because the story of an absent father reunited with his anonymous offspring would offer dramatic possibilities in any case. But the lesbian angle is actually the whole point. By dwelling on the women's taste in porn and a torrid affair, the film suggests that lesbian relationships are unfulfilling. Sexual guilt and perceived moral disapproval lead to an unjust firing. Another plot device uses oral gratification as a proxy for morality (cigarettes = evil, veggies = holy, wine = liberal). Indeed, the movie portrays California metro-culture to the point of satire. It's not a stretch to read this film as a clever attack on alternative lifestyles.
Kill the Messenger (2014) is based on the true story of a newspaper reporter who linked the Reagan administration's secret funding of the Contras guerrilla war in Nicaragua with drug dealers who exported tons of cocaine to the U.S. in the 1980s. His exposé of guns, money, and drugs initially won accolades but soon was attacked by the rival news outlets he had scooped. Jeremy Renner skillfully plays reporter Gary Webb as a crusading journalist with a flawed character who finds himself overwhelmed by the opposition he stirs up. Although the movie glosses over some inaccuracies in his reporting, it gets the basic facts right in an almost forgotten scandal.
King Arthur (2004) advances the controversial theory that Arthur wasn't a native Briton with a contingent of knights in shining armor, but instead a Eurasian horseman pressed into military service by the Romans in the sixth century A.D. At the end of his 15-year hitch in Britannia, Arthur and his fellow conscripts must carry out a final mission to earn their discharges and return home. In the process, they begin to rethink their loyalty and their destiny. This questionable retelling of Arthurian legend is hampered by a predictable plot and some historical inaccuracies, such as Saxons armed with crossbows, battle axes hacking through stone walls, and Romans using saber tactics with long swords. Somehow, though, the earthiness of this film seems more realistic than the flashier portrayals of King Arthur and his knights.
King Kong (2005) is an impressive remake of a classic picture, with state-of-the-art special effects and a closer relationship between the giant ape and the young woman offered to him as a human sacrifice. Kong is now a fully developed character displaying a range of emotions, including anger, amusement, frustration, and (ultimately) resignation. Naomi Watts, reprising the Fay Wray role, forges a bond with Kong that at times makes each one seem like a beloved pet of the other. But despite all the spectacle and character development, director Peter Jackson undermines his homage with some poor decisions. At three hours eight minutes, the film is overlong, with redundant dinosaur battles and distracting bit parts. The derring-do sometimes gets ridiculous, and Jack Black seems miscast as the schemer who captures Kong and brings him to New York City as a tourist attraction. Still, this is a must-see film for any King Kong fan.
The King's Speech (2010) is a superbly acted drama based on the true story of King George VI and his Australian speech therapist. George's frustrating stammer grew worse when his elder brother, King Edward VIII, unexpectedly abdicated the throne in 1936 to marry an American socialite. With World War II looming, the new king's speech impediment became a national handicap at a time when master orators like Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini were using mass rallies and radio to mesmerize their millions of followers. Colin Firth excels as the tongue-tied king, ably supported by Geoffrey Rush as his unrelenting therapist, Helena Bonham Carter as his supportive wife, and Guy Pearce as his impetuous and overbearing brother. David Seidler's witty screenplay breathes life into what is essentially a historical footnote.
Kinsey (2004) dramatizes the groundbreaking work of Dr. Alfred Kinsey, whose extensively researched books on human sexuality in the 1940s and 1950s provoked controversy and scandal. Liam Neeson stars in the title role, with Laura Linney as his wife and strongest supporter. The film is more educational than entertaining, although it definitely has its moments of comedy and drama. Kinsey is portrayed as a dedicated scientist who becomes overwhelmed by the ramifications of his work, eventually to the point of obsession. His objectivity suffers, and his research staff grows self-indulgent. In these ways, the film hints at the social, psychological, and moral effects of Kinsey's battle against sexual Puritanism. Kinsey's fans and critics can both walk away with reinforcement for their beliefs.
Kissing Jessica Stein (2002) begins with the usual Hollywood cliché that two beautiful, amusing, and intelligent women can't find Mr. Right. Then it blossoms into a wonderfully funny and brainy film. Out of desperation, the two women tentatively explore a same-sex relationship. Their clash of egos, morals, and libidos makes this movie a romance that anybody who isn't too conservative will enjoy. The two stars, Heather Juergensen and Jennifer Westfeldt, also wrote the quick-witted screenplay.
The Ladykillers (2004) is an amusing remake of the 1955 comedy starring Alex Guinness and Peter Sellers. This version indulges in a more twisted brand of dark humorwhich isn't surprising, because the film was written and directed by the infamous Coen brothers (Fargo, The Man Who Wasn't There, Raising Arizona, Blood Simple, et al). This time, the story about a gang of misfit thieves is transplanted from England to Mississippi, and it stars Tom Hanks, Irma P. Hall, and Marlon Wayans. Hanks is the eccentric brains behind a plot to steal gambling money from a riverboat. They suffer one misadventure after another, and their worst foil is a clueless old black woman hilariously played by Hall. Although not as gloomy as Fargo or Blood Simple, the movie retains the Coen brothers' touch of the bizarre.
Lars and the Real Girl (2007) is a moving film about a quietly disturbed young man and the tightly knit town that lives with his delusion. The talented Ryan Gosling plays Lars Lindstrom, who is barely noticed until he buys a lifelike sex doll on the Internet. But Lars is a pathological introvert, not a pervert. He believes the doll is a real person, to the point of imagining her half of their conversations. Gradually, the town goes along. Although this movie is promoted as a comedy and has many comic moments, it's a deeper examination of emotional trauma and community empathy. Gosling, who excelled in Half Nelson (2006), gives a standout performance as Lars. Patricia Clarkson invests the character of his doctor/psychologist with great subtlety and strength.
The Last Castle (2001) is yet another in a long line of cliché-ridden prison dramas. As usual, the prisoners are the mistreated good guys and the warden is the evil villain. This time the setting is a military prison, but that's the only original twist. The outraged prisoners stage a revolt, led by a convicted but still-revered three-star general played by Robert Redford, who already explored this territory in Brubaker (1980). The acting is competent, but the denouement is never in doubt.
The Last King of Scotland (2006) is a fictional drama about a young Scottish doctor who impetuously travels to Uganda in the 1970s and unexpectedly becomes the personal physician to dictator Idi Amin. The only reality is Amin's sudden rise to power and growing brutality, which eventually killed 300,000 Ugandans. But the fiction is compelling. The restless, inexperienced Scot (well played by James McAvoy) is rapidly seduced by Amin's generosity and the luxurious lifestyle his inner circle enjoys. Then things turn ugly. Forest Whitaker delivers an Oscar-worthy performance as a dictator whose mood swings keep his followers (and the movie audience) in a constant state of suspense.
The Last Samurai (2003) occasionally slips into melodramaespecially toward the endbut still ranks among the best movies of 2003. Tom Cruise stars as a disillusioned U.S. cavalry officer in 1876 who accepts a lucrative offer to become a military adviser to the Japanese army. Japan is struggling to modernize and Westernize, but a rebel band of samurai warriors is resisting. Cruise's character, haunted by U.S. atrocities against American Indians, soon questions why he is supporting a similar war in a strange land. The film foreshadows today's controversies over international arms sales, American interventionism, war profiteering, and the dark side of progress.
Laurel Canyon (2003) is a light drama as directionless as its characters. Frances McDormand plays a middle-aged record producer who's a relic from the 1960s, still partying every night, smoking pot, and having affairs. Her adult son and his fiance move into her sprawling house in L.A. to launch their careersone is a resident psychiatrist, and the other is writing a dissertation on the reproductive functions of fruit flies. They're both wound pretty tight, and sure enough, they loosen up as the story progresses. The acting is competent, but the plot never reaches a satisfactory conclusion or offers much insight into their lives. Take it or leave it.
Leatherheads (2008) is a passable comedy about the early days of pro football. Overshadowed by college football and major-league baseball, pro football in 1925 was a backwater sport. Small-town teams located mainly in the Midwest frequently moved or folded, unable to find an audience. Leatherheads (named for the leather helmets then in vogue) is loosely based on Red Grange, a thrilling college star lured to the pros by a huge salary, bringing new attention to the struggling league. George Clooney stars as the aging player/manager who hires the young man. (Clooney also directs.) Renee Zellweger plays an aggressive reporter for a big-city paper who doubts the college star's reputation as a World War I hero. Although this movie isn't bad, it never quite rises to the zany heights to which it aspires.
Les Misérables (2012) is the big-budget film adaptation of the hit stage musical inspired by Victor Hugo's classic novel. Despite its journey from 19th-century French literature to 20th-century Broadway theater to 21st-century Hollywood film, the story doesn't lose much in the translations. Hugh Jackman (formerly of Saturday Night Live) blossoms as Jean Valjean, a desperate Frenchman condemned to prison for stealing bread. The movie actually opens 20 years later, when he is reluctantly paroled by Javert (Russell Crowe), an overzealous gendarme. Valjean soon breaks parole, leading Javert on a chase that lasts 17 years. Although Valjean reforms, it means nothing to the obsessed Javert, whose misguided sense of justice blinds him to injustice. Some critics knock this film's vocal performances, which really aren't bad but were somewhat compromised by the unique approach of recording them live during filming instead of lip-syncing them later. Anne Hathaway, who plays a downtrodden woman, bursts forth with a surprisingly good solo. This aptly named story contains so much drama and truth that it can transcend any medium.
Letters From Iwo Jima (2006) is the companion picture to Flags of Our Fathers (2006), both directed by Clint Eastwood and partly filmed on location at the site of one of World War II's most vicious battles. Letters is by far the better work. It's a rare view through Japanese eyeseven the dialogue is in Japanese, with English subtitles. Unlike Flags, it's not a confusing mishmash of flashbacks. Letters stays focused on the plights of a low-ranking enlisted man and his commanding general, whose fates become intertwined as the great battle unfolds. Particularly by Hollywood standards, the movie is accurate. It shows the bitter interservice rivalries between the Japanese army and navy, as well as the declining morale but rigid fanaticism of Japanese troops as the war reached its climax. One flaw, however, is the lack of historical context, which may lead some viewers to wonder why the U.S. was so intent on taking Iwo Jima.
The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg (2000) seemed especially relevant in an election year with the first major-party Jewish vice-presidential candidate. This is a first-class documentary about Hank Greenberg, the great Jewish slugger for the Detroit Tigers in the 1930s and '40s who almost broke Joe DiMaggio's hitting-streak record. In many ways, Greenberg was the Jewish Jackie Robinson.
Life of Pi (2012) has stunning visual effects, especially when viewed in 3D. But the story, adapted from Yann Martel's mystic novel, is the main attraction of this outstanding film. The trailers sum it up: a teenage boy is the sole human survivor of a shipwreck, stranded on a small lifeboat with a live Bengal tiger. Although it appears to be a bizarre survival tale that only a writer could contrive, the climax reveals a much deeper contrivance. With a few deftly written lines of dialogue, the story suddenly assumes a whole new dimension that recasts everything seen before and invites different interpretations. Young Indian actor Suraj Sharma is nuance-perfect as the teenage boy, especially considering that his primary co-star (the tiger) was rendered later by computers, making his already difficult role a virtual solo performance.
Life Or Something Like It (2002) stars Angelina Jolie as a miscast and unbelievable Seattle TV reporter. Her life turns upside-down when a homeless man who claims to be a prophet predicts she will die in one week. Suddenly her skyrocketing career, pending marriage to a ballplayer, and personal relationships all come into question. This film tackles a worthy subject with a sense of humor. But though she's a fine actress, Jolie isn't right for this role, and the story gets weak-kneed at the wrong moments.
Lincoln (2012) is the best dramatic film ever made about our greatest president, although some viewers may find it too cerebral. It focuses on just a few months near the end of the Civil War when Abraham Lincoln wrestled with Congress to permanently abolish slavery by passing the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. In an early scene, Lincoln admonishes his skeptical cabinet with a lengthy legal discourse on the urgency for the amendment and the flaws of his Emancipation Proclamation. It's an impressive explanation and an equally impressive scene that most screenwriters wouldn't write and most directors wouldn't film. Throughout the movie, Daniel-Day Lewis plays Lincoln more realistically than any previous actor. He gets uncanny support from Sally Field (as Mary Todd Lincoln), Tommy Lee Jones (as radical Congressman Thaddeus Stevens), David Strathairn (as Secretary of State William Seward), and many others. Although the film shows us the grubby backroom lobbying to gather the votes needed for passage, somehow Lincoln and his helpers appear all the more heroic for making such an effort in the cause of freedom.
Lions For Lambs (2007) is an unsatisfying drama about the war on terror, directed by Robert Redford, who also stars as a college professor. Most of the movie consists of two long conversations, reminiscent of My Dinner With Andre (1981). In one exchange, a college professor questions a student's commitment to education and society. The other conversation pits a slick Republican U.S. Senator (energetically played by Tom Cruise) against a disillusioned liberal network-TV reporter (lethargically played by Meryl Streep). To relieve the tedium of talking heads, action scenes show U.S. Army soldiers fighting in Afghanistan. Although some reviewers reflexively dismiss this film as a liberal diatribe, it actually promotes a conservative viewpoint that poorly represents liberal arguments. At the same time, it undermines the conservative arguments with a shallow presentation. Ultimately, this movie contributes little to the war debate and even less to the body of cinema.
Little Miss Sunshine (2006) is an offbeat comedy about a family of well-meaning losers. Dogged by bad luck, unrealistic dreams, and plain old stupidity, they struggle with one setback after another. Then the youngest member, ten-year-old Olive (perfectly played by Abigail Breslin), wins a regional beauty pageant and the opportunity to compete in the nationals. They pack up an old VW bus and set out for California. Result: more setbacks. It's frequently funny, sometimes touching, and occasionally laugh-until-you-cry hilarious. The cast is inspired, with Greg Kinnear as the ambitious but clueless father, Toni Collette as the sensible but confused mother, Alan Arkin as an eccentric grandpa, Paul Dano as an alienated teenager, and Steve Carell as a suicidally depressed gay uncle.
The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen, 2006) well deserved the Academy Award for Best Foreign-Language Film that it surprisingly won. It's a near-perfect drama about the Stasi secret police, which intimidated millions of people when East Germany was a communist state. With informants numbering in the hundreds of thousands, the Stasi was pervasive and ruthless. This German film brilliantly dramatizes the Stasi's reach by focusing on a playwright, his girlfriend, his suspicious friends, and a Stasi officer who spies on them. Ulrich Mühe is extraordinary as the rigid Stasi man, while Martina Gedeck excels in her strong supporting role as the actress/girlfriend. This film's portrayal of the Stasi's businesslike bureaucracy and the official corruption it served is chilling and believable.
Lone Survivor (2013) spoils its climax with its title, but most historical accounts have the same problem, so don't worry about it. The suspense is in learning what happened. This fact-based drama tells the story of four U.S. Navy SEALs who penetrated a remote region of Afghanistan to capture or kill an important Taliban leader. Obviously, their mission went tragically wrong. The numerous combat scenes are superb, as are the performances, led by Mark Wahlberg. Even so, this movie can't help but be a downer. It struggles to end on a high note by showing that the lone survivor was aided by Afghan villagers whose custom is to protect guests from their enemies at all costs. But the film doesn't note a terrible ironythat the same custom led to the Afghanistan war in the first place, when the Taliban declined to surrender Osama bin Laden to the U.S. after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Stubborn devotion to culture can be a sword that cuts both ways.
The Longest Yard (2005) is a close remake of the well-known film from 1974 starring Burt Reynolds, who appears as the coach in this version. The story hasn't changed: hard-luck inmates at a brutal state prison form a football team to challenge the prison-guard team. The lead role is played by Adam Sandler, perhaps the unfunniest comedian ever to succeed in Hollywood. Sandler deadpans his way through the film as a former NFL quarterback sentenced to prison and assigned the task of recruiting the inmate team. Everyone else is funnier than Sandler, especially Chris Rock, who plays a fellow prisoner. Although the movie is fundamentally a comedy, the sudden death of a main character briefly saddens the mood. Too bad the producers settled on Sandler to carry this projecthe doesn't rise to the occasion.
Looper (2012) is an intriguing science-fiction drama in which future mobsters send their enemies back in time to the year 2044 for quick execution and untraceable disposal. The executioners are called "loopers" because someday they loop back in time for execution by their younger selvesdead men tell no tales. Like most time-travel stories, this one is occasionally difficult to follow as it confronts the inherent paradoxes. But it tries harder than most such stories to portray the emotional aspects. Bruce Willis stars as a retired looper who attempts to thwart his execution by his younger self (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Good supporting performances by Paul Dano, Emily Blunt, Noah Segan, and Jeff Daniels keep this movie watchable, but it doesn't quite reach the heights of its genre.
The Lorax (2012): see Dr. Seuss' The Lorax.
Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring (2001) might be required viewing for J.R.R. Tolkien fanatics, but for almost everyone else it's a ponderously long fable about mythical creatures and quests. The battle scenes are largely incoherent, substituting special effects and jerky editing for true drama. Rare are the pearls of wisdom for which Tolkien's novels are admired. Perhaps the next two installments in the trilogy (already filmed) will be better.
Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002) is a violent installment in which the forces of evil wizard Saruman clash with humans, elves, dwarfs, hobbits, and various other inhabitants of Middle Earth. As with the first film in this trilogy, the special effects are superb and there's plenty of action. But the plot will seem chaotic to those who aren't familiar with the J.R.R. Tolkien novels, and there's little evidence of the philosophical insight for which his writing is treasured.
Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) is an overlong but fitting conclusion to the ambitious Lord of the Rings trilogy. The special effects are outstandinghigh praise in this age of ubiquitous screen magic. The acting is a little stiff, mainly because the characters rarely veer from their narrowly defined personalities. Fans of the J.R.R. Tolkien novels on which this film trilogy is based will almost certainly like Return of the King, but I find the genre highly contrived. The best example of lazy plotting is when the good guys suddenly remember that a large unbeatable army that owes them a favor is nearby. When nothing is impossible, can there be any real suspense?
Lost in Translation (2003) is a lost opportunity. Bill Murray plays a middle-aged Hollywood actor who travels to Tokyo to endorse a Japanese whiskey. Scarlett Johansson (The Horse Whisperer, Ghost World) plays the young wife of a photographer who's also in Tokyo on business. It's supposed to be a story about two lonely people, disoriented by a strange culture, who try to bridge the gap between mid-life world-weariness and youthful ennui. Instead, we get a passable travelogue, numerous shots of Johansson loafing around her hotel room in her underwear, and a vacant script that relies on the life experience of the audience to fill in the blanks. Writer/director Sofia Coppola did much better with her last film, The Virgin Suicides (1999).
Love & Mercy (2015) is an outstanding biopic of Brian Wilson, the troubled musical genius who wrote most of the Beach Boys' songs. Paul Dano expertly portrays the young Brian in the 1960s who crafts intricate pop hits while struggling against inner and outer demons. John Cusack doesn't look as much like Brian but plays him with grace in middle agea barely functional man who is overmedicated and dominated by a quack doctor. The highlights of this film are the studio recording scenes, which show the measure of Brian's talent in arranging music that sounds light and breezy but is heavily layered and lovingly wrought. Paul Giamatti has a good turn as the overbearing shrink, and Elizabeth Banks convincingly plays the Cadillac salesperson who becomes a guardian angel. No Beach Boys fan should miss this.
Lovely & Amazing (2002) is about neurotic women and the men who don't love them. The story revolves around an unhappy former homecoming-queen housewife, her self-obsessed Hollywood starlet sister, her fat-phobic mother, and a younger adopted sister with an eating disorder. As if they don't have enough problems, the men in their lives always say and do the wrong things at the wrong times. Then the housewife gets involved with a teenage boy. The only thing that saves this soap-opera mess is good acting. It's the perfect date movie for couples who are breaking up.
Lucy (2014) starts with the dubious premise that humans use only 10% of their brains and soon becomes even more dubious as a young woman gradually increases her utilization far beyond that amount. Scarlett Johansson stars as Lucy, the innocent girlfriend of a stupid drug courier. When she accidentally gets involved with Taiwanese drug dealers and overdoses on a freaky new substance, her brain goes hyperactive and develops unbelievable new abilities. Most of them defy any extrapolation of existing abilitiesbut hey, this is a summer action flick, not a science documentary, despite some scenes in which Morgan Freeman plays a brain expert delivering a college lecture. Some people interpret this film as an allegory of female empowerment. But it would serve that role better if Lucy used her new mental skills to outthink her foes instead of overwhelming them with brute-force telekinesis. Nevertheless, it's entertaining if you don't mind the fantasy and some gory violence.
Luther (2003) is an intelligent, well-acted drama about Martin Luther's drive to reform the Roman Catholic Church in the 1500s. Although the ultimate result of his Reformation was to split off various Protestant denominations from the Church, this film accurately points out that Luther's original goal was to make the Church live up to its own ideals. Even hidebound Catholics shouldn't find offense in this uplifting movie. Joseph Fiennes excels in the title role, with strong support from Peter Ustinov as Prince Friedrich and Alfred Molina as a fire-and-brimstone indulgence-hawker. The medieval costumes and makeup are top-notch, too.
Magic in the Moonlight (2014) is an entertaining "Woody Allen movie," which means it's a light romantic comedy that sometimes veers philosophical. Actually, this one is more philosophical than most. It explores the conflict between reason and faith, and it pits the stagecraft of illusionist magic against hopeful belief in the supernatural. Colin Firth plays a famous English magician recruited to debunk a young, attractive psychic (Emma Stone in an equally fine performance). There's some intrigue, and some surprises, but the overall tone is carefully reserved, in keeping with the refined upper-class characters and historical setting (south of France, 1928). As with nearly all Woody Allen movies, this is a skillfully made actor's film that will please his fans.
The Majestic (2001) ironically celebrates an America that most Americans have abandoned: luxurious single-screen movie theaters, nonfranchise short-order diners, big-band swing music, community dances, walkable downtowns, passenger trains, and politically incorrect resistance to government intrusions on privacy. The storyline masquerades as a feel-good fable, with Jim Carrey miscast as a Hollywood screenwriter who runs afoul of Congressional commie-hunters in the 1950s. Struck with amnesia after a car accident, he starts a new life in a small town, where he helps to restore a dilapidated theater to former glory. But between the lines, the story drips with irony: the theater is too splendorous for a small town, the diner is a caricature, and a teenage clarinet player is said to have a "bright future," even though any modern filmgoer should know that clarinet-playing band leaders are about to become as obsolete as radio serials. But this film is so sugar-coated that few people will likely perceive its sly stabs at modern America.
Maleficent (2014) retells the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale from the viewpoint of Maleficent, the wicked witch who cursed the beautiful young Princess Aurora to eternal sleep. But in this revisionist history for the modern age, the wicked witch is not so much wicked as emotionally damaged. Betrayed by a lover, Maleficent (played with delicious verve by Angelina Jolie) becomes embittered and bent on revenge. Aurora (Elle Fanning) just gets in the way. Unlike Sleeping Beauty, Disney's 1959 animated adaptation of the legend, this live-action remake is noteworthy for showing good versus evil as shades of gray, not black or white, and for offering a path to redemption. Is it too Freudian for little kids? Probably not; they're more perceptive than we realize. But the computer-animated fire-breathing dragons and other violent scenes go far beyond the 1959 version, which was scary enough for small children. This movie is better suited to adolescents and adults.
Malena (2000) is almost identical to Summer of '42 (1971), only it's based in Sicily instead of the U.S. and has a different ending. It's a tragicomedy about teenage boys sexually obsessed with a beautiful woman whose absent husband is fighting in World War II. Director Giuseppe Tornatore is famous for Cinema Paradiso (1988). Monica Bellucci excels in the role played by Jennifer O'Neill in Summer of '42.
The Man Who Wasn't There (2001) is a black-and-white film-noir homage starring Billy Bob Thornton and Frances McDormand. Based in Santa Rosa, California, 1949, it continues the Coen brothers' long-running theme of crime as opportunistic misadventure, not mastermind plotting. Thornton plays the central character, a bored-of-life barber whose spontaneous grab for money triggers a chain of unintended and tragic consequences. McDormand excels as his disengaged wife. Somehow the movie goes overboard in imitating film noir without falling into comedic parody or high-art pretension. It has a lyrical, haunting quality not found in other Coen films. The only scene that rings untrue is a gratuitous sex tryst in a speeding car. Still, no film lover should miss this masterwork.
The Manchurian Candidate (2004) is a respectable remake of the 1962 cult classic starring Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, and Angela Lansbury. In this version, Denzel Washington plays the Sinatra role with equal intensity, Liev Schreiber is a reincarnation of Harvey, and Meryl Streep is as creepy as Lansbury was in the original. The story has been updated: instead of Korean War veterans brainwashed to assassinate a candidate for president, Gulf War veterans are the unwitting participants in a similar plot. It's a gripping thriller with a slightly different ending, so fans of the original film should be as intrigued as new viewers. But one thing I missed from the first version was the spooky business with the deck of cards.
March of the Penguins (2005) is a fascinating documentary about emperor penguins in Antarctica. Filmed in grueling conditions averaging 54 degrees below zero, it follows a typical year in the lives of these flightless aquatic birds, focusing on their reproductive cycle. After waddling 70 miles to their tribal breeding grounds, the penguins breed only once a year, each female producing only one egg. That precious egg becomes the sole focus of the breeding pair during the harsh winter months. The whole process is incredibly precarious and a supreme test of endurance. Although this film seems like a common PBS documentary, its skillful storytelling and dramatic footage have made it an unexpected hit.
The Martian (2015) is a survival tale that surpasses Robinson Crusoe: an astronaut is stranded alone on Mars with short supplies, and the next mission isn't due to arrive for four years. How can he survive? Luckily, he's a botanist! This refreshing science-fiction movie emphasizes the science, not the usual conflicts with space aliens, although it does stretch the truth at times. (Mars's atmosphere is too thin to generate the hurricane-force winds depicted.) Nevertheless, The Martian is a well-made drama starring Matt Damon as the lonely castaway and Jessica Chastain as his steely mission commander. It's a cross between Apollo 13 (1995) and All Is Lost (2013). Worth seeing in 3D, too.
The Master (2012) is above all else an actor's movie, with Joachin Phoenix delivering a highly mannered performance that is surely Oscar worthy. This powerful film has no need for quick cuts, shaky cameras, or other cinematic distractions to inject faux drama into poor performances. Phoenix plays a deranged World War II veteran who alienates people but often evokes their sympathy, too. By chance, he meets a charismatic but volatile cult leader (a brilliant Philip Seymour Hoffman) who is reminiscent of Scientology's L. Ron Hubbard. Each man is immediately fascinated by the other's madness. Amy Adams shines as the leader's wife and back-stage manipulator. Unfortunately, writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will Be Blood, Boogie Nights) has trouble bringing his story to a satisfactory conclusion. While it lasts, though, it's an amazing ride.
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003) falls short of matching such seafaring classics as Moby Dick (1956) and Mutiny On the Bounty (1935, 1962). But it's way above average, thanks to a tight script, serious acting, and attention to historical detail. Russell Crowe plays the stoic Captain Jack Aubrey, master of a British warship during the Napoleonic wars of the early 1800s. He's pursuing a larger, faster frigate manned by French privateers. His friendship with a doctor humanizes the story, though at times it detours the main plot. Battle scenes are realistic, but claustrophobic, and the overquick editing tries too hard to portray the chaos of combat at the expense of coherence. Still, anyone who likes historical epics shouldn't miss this picture.
Match Point (2005) ranks with Manhattan and Annie Hall as one of Woody Allen's best films. It's also a major departure. Gone are the neurotic characters mouthing clever one-liners and pseudo-psychological self analysis. Neither Allen nor any character remotely like him appears. And the setting is London, not New York. Instead, Allen has written and directed a fast-moving drama with the tight plotting, suspense, and moral dilemmas of a Hitchcock film (with references to Frenzy, 1972). Jonathan Rhys-Meyers stars as a young social climber who falls in lust with a struggling actress played by the sensual Scarlett Johansson. This sets up a love triangle that soon has the young man agonizing between two moral roads, both low. The writing, acting, and pacing are superb. Theme: it's better to be lucky than great.
Matchstick Men (2003) is a great comedy/drama about con artists. Although it's not as classic as The Sting (1973), it's still quite good. Nicholas Cage plays an obsessive-compulsive small-time con man in L.A. who reluctantly agrees with his partner to try a "long con"an elaborate scheme to steal tens of thousands of dollars in a currency-trading scam. Any further plot synopsis would risk spoiling the surprises. Cage does a fine if not superlative job of portraying a con man nearly overwhelmed by his mental and emotional handicaps, and the supporting cast is strong, too. Ridley Scott directed. If you liked Catch Me If You Can (2002) and The Grifters (1990), you'll like Matchstick Men.
The Matrix Reloaded (2003) is a little more interesting than watching someone else play a martial-arts videogame, but not much. In this sequel to The Matrix, our hero Neo (Keanu Reeves) and his fellow rebels continue their battle against space aliens who have enslaved the oblivious human race in a virtual-reality fantasy world. The slo-mo special effects are fascinating at first, but they fail to hide the pointlessness of the frequent fights between Neo and various aliens or computer programs disguised as humans. Everything gets broken in these tiresome thrashings except the sunglasses everyone wears, and Reeves replaces Clint Eastwood as the valedictorian of the rigor-mortis school of acting. Worst of all, the movie never really ends but simply stops abruptly in the middle of a scene, promising a less-lazy conclusion when the third installment (The Matrix Revolutions) is released later this year.
Meet the Parents (2000) is funny but could have been funnier. Ben Stiller stars as the hapless boyfriend who seeks approval from his girlfriend's impossibly demanding father, played by Robert DeNiro. There are some good laughs, but too many flat spots.
Megacities (1998) will make any job, no matter how bad, seem like a joy. This is a raw but revealing German documentary about the survival strategies of the poor in large cities all over the world.
Melinda and Melinda (2005) is a typically philosophical Woody Allen movie based on a clever idea: tell two parallel tales about a troubled woman named Melinda who arrives uninvited at a private dinner party in Manhattan. One scenario is a tragedy, the other a comedy. Which offers more insight into the human condition? Unfortunately, the storytelling can't match the concept. One problem is that both scenarios have tragic and comic aspects, so they become difficult to distinguish from each otherespecially because the same actress (Radha Mitchell) plays both Melindas, and their characters aren't very different. Another problem is that Woody writes and directs but doesn't star. Will Ferrell struggles unsuccessfully to fill a role that Woody obviously would play if he were younger. The result is a potentially interesting film that falls flat.
Memento (2001) is daring, disturbing, original. A blow to the head leaves a man unable to store new memories after an intruder rapes and murders his wife. Bent on revenge, but weirdly handicapped by a short-term memory only 10 minutes long, he resorts to numerous tactics to keep his train of thought on track: important facts tattooed on his body, handwritten notes everywhere, and a pocketful of Polaroid photos so he'll remember the new people he meets, the motel where he's staying, and even his car. To give the audience a sense of what it's like to experience life with no memory of what happened before, the whole story unwinds backward, starting with the conclusion as the opening scene. You won't forget Memento.
Metropolis (1927), Fritz Lang's silent masterpiece, was re-released in 2002 with digitally restored film, a freshly recorded version of the original score, newly translated title cards, and the addition of long-lost footage. The results are startling. The black-and-white images and orchestration are lush; the new title cards bring more coherence to the story; and the restored footage resurrects whole scenes that disappeared after the 12-reel film was slashed to only 7 reels shortly after its premiere. About one-quarter of the film is still missing, probably forever, but this is certainly the most definitive version seen since 1927. Metropolis is the seminal ancestor of all science-fiction movies. Its themes of out-of-control technology, oppressed working people, oblivious wealth, religious prophecy, and good vs. evil remain as relevant as ever.
Michael Clayton (2007) is an above-average potboiler starring George Clooney in the title role. Clayton is a "fixer" for a big-city law firma street-wise attorney who will do almost anything to fix problems. He's also a indebted gambler and wheeler-dealer nearing the end of his rope. His latest assignment is to salvage a large corporate client unnerved when one of the law firm's attorneys flips out and disrobes during a deposition. The mess spawns dark plots, with Clayton caught in the middle. This movie vibrates with Hitchcockian suspense, but it's confusing, and the main character is not a wholly sympathetic figure. The primary attractions are good performances by Clooney, Tom Wilkinson (as the unbalanced attorney), and Tilda Swinton (as the corporate counsel).
Midnight in Paris (2011) is an interesting and entertaining romance written and directed by Woody Allen but starring Owen Wilson in the comic Woodylike role. Wilson plays a Hollywood screenwriter vacationing in Paris with his chilly fiancee (Rachel McAdams). One night, wandering alone, he finds himself mysteriously transported to the Paris of the 1920s, hobnobbing with the likes of Ernest Hemmingway, Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Salvador Dali, and other period luminaries. This clever film explores the attraction of nostalgia and is best appreciated by the nostalgic and those well versed in the art and literature of the Roaring Twenties.
A Mighty Wind (2003) is a mockumentary that riffs on 1960s-style folk music in the same way that This is Spinal Tap mocked heavy metal in 1984. It features many of the players from director Christopher Guest's previous comedies, Best in Show (2000) and Waiting for Guffman (1996). Although not quite as hilarious as those films, A Mighty Wind is still a first-rate laugher for anyone who enjoys satire. In documentary style, it tells the story of three 1960s folk groups reuniting for a present-day memorial concert. The mock 1960s album covers are particularly clever, and the specially written folk songs are right on target.
Milk (2008) is a top-notch biopic starring Sean Penn as Harvey Milk, the first openly gay person elected to major public office in the U.S. This film picks up his life story as he turns 40, moves to San Francisco, opens a camera shop on Castro Street, and becomes a neighborhood activist. In 1977, Milk was elected a city supervisor in San Francisco. Penn is outstandingfriends of Milk say Penn's portrayal is uncanny. Josh Brolin delivers another good performance as Dan White, the conservative city supervisor who assassinated Milk and Mayor George Moscone in 1978. Milk pays close attention to historical details and owes much to a documentary, The Times of Harvey Milk (1984), which was based on a book, The Mayor of Castro Street (1982). The documentary film won an Academy Award. Milk seems Oscar-bound, too.
Million Dollar Baby (2004) is two good movies spliced together, but the sum is less than the whole of the parts. Clint Eastwood directed and stars as a boxing trainer and manager, with Hilary Swank co-starring as a poor waitress who craves to be a champion fighter. Morgan Freeman plays Eastwood's sidekick, a former boxer who's down to one eye and janitorial work. The first half of the film is witty and exuberant. The second half abruptly turns somber and depressing. By the end, the characters have learned the extremes to which misfortune can drive the human soul. Although the movie is skillfully wrought, its two parts don't seem to belong together on the same reel. Nevertheless, it won the Academy Award for Best Picture of 2004, with Clint Eastwood winning Best Director, Swank winning Best Actress, and Freeman winning Best Supporting Actor.
Minority Report (2002) is an edgy science-fiction flick in the vein of the classic Blade Runner (1982). Both are based on stories by Philip K. Dick. Although Steven Spielberg directed Minority Report, it's not a kid's movie and he keeps his schmaltz at bay. Tom Cruise stars as a cop in 2054 who arrests people before they commit a crime, thanks to the visions of three genetic-freak psychics. This raises all sorts of ethical dilemmas, especially when Cruise's character finds himself caught in a web of intrigue and the psychics turn out to be fallible. Max von Sydow (The Exorcist) and Jessica Capshaw excel in supporting roles.
Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day (2008) is a wonderful romantic comedy that seems like a picture made in the 1940sand not just because it's placed in 1939. It's a spiritual link to the light comedies of Frank Capra and George Cukor. Frances McDormand stars as Miss Pettigrew, an unsuccessful English governess who desperately needs a job. She stumbles into a position with an American party girl (played very brightly by Amy Adams) who's posing as a blue blood in high-hat London society. Soon the formerly prim governess is caught in a social whirl of romance and intrigue. To say more would spoil the fun of this short and sweet film.
Mission to Mars (2000) is a ponderous sci-fi disaster, and an unbelievably bad soundtrack is only one of its flaws. Too bad, because it wastes some great actors.
Mongol (2007) is a stunning Mongolian film about the rise of the greatest Mongolian in history, Genghis Khan. Starting with his boyhood, the film traces the hardships that molded Temudjin (his real name) into a leader who united the Mongols and conquered much of Asia. Filmed on location, Mongol effectively portrays life on the Mongolian steppes of 800 years ago. Supposedly it's based on Mongolian records written shortly after his death, but no one is certain about his background in this detail. Nevertheless, Mongol is an impressive work intended to be the first installment in a trilogy. I won't miss the next two. (Mongolian with English subtitles.)
Monster (2003) is based on a true story about a Florida prostitute who became a serial killer. This is no Hollywood Pretty Woman fantasy about high-class call girls and their handsome billionaire customers. Charlize Theron plays a lowlife highway whore who releases years of pent-up rage by murdering her redneck johns for wallet cash. At the same time, she falls in love with a naive young woman played by the always-fascinating Christina Ricci. But the real stars of this shoestring production are Theron, who uncannily nails the mannerisms of a white-trash hooker, and Patty Jenkins, who wrote and directed the film. Their work is raw, realistic, and brilliant.
Monster's Ball (2002) has a superb performance by Halle Berry, who deserves her Best Actress nomination. She dominates the film, even with the excellent work by co-stars Billy Bob Thornton, Peter Boyle, and Puffy Combs. Berry plays the impoverished wife of a convicted killer (Combs) who struggles to rebuild her shattered life. She's on a collision course with Thornton's character, a Georgia state corrections officer whose own life is transformed by equally tumultuous events. Although the second half of the movie isn't very believablecould a middle-aged man change so dramatically overnight?it's still worth seeing.
Monsters Inc. (2001) doesn't quite measure up to Pixar's first two hitsToy Story and Toy Story 2, which are a tough act to follow. Not that there's anything wrong with the computer animation, although the rapid-fire editing rarely gives you a chance to admire the gorgeous artwork. Not that there's anything seriously wrong with the script, although the rapid-fire delivery rarely gives you a chance to admire the clever wordplay. And not that there's anything seriously wrong with the characters, although the rapid-fire pacing rarely gives you a chance to know them. The whole thing just moves too fastfor adults or for kids. Wait for the DVD and keep your finger on the pause button.
The Monuments Men (2014) is a worthy World War II drama about a U.S. Army unit recruited to save art, cultural artifacts, and important buildings from destruction or theft. Based on a true story, it stars George Clooney as the unit's inspirational leader. The skilled cast includes Bob Balaban, Cate Blanchett, Hugh Bonneville, Matt Damon, Jean Dujardin, John Goodman, and Bill Murray. With that lineup, only clumsy writing or direction could bomb this picture. But Clooney was the co-writer and director, and he tells the story well. Although cramming a year's worth of action into two hours of screen time is a challenge, the real people who tackled this mission were hurried, too, as they scrambled to rescue artifacts from the desperate Germans and reparations-minded Russians. Clooney persuasively argues that preserving art and culture is a vital wartime goalone that the U.S. Army forgot 58 years later when it entered Baghdad.
Moonrise Kingdom (2012) is a wonderfully quirky comedy about a pair of preteen runaways and the frantic people who try to find them. The story takes place on a fictional New England island in 1965 and is highly stylizedthe fashions and props bring the period to life with a meticulously art-directed flair. The star-studded cast includes Harvey Keitel, Frances McDormand, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Tilda Swinton, and Bruce Willis, but the real stars are newcomers Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward as the runaway misfits. Snappy dialogue and eccentric characters keep things lively. At its heart, this film is a romance, and it skillfully plays the unlikely relationship for laughs without mocking the genuine love that develops.
The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers (2009) is an Oscar-nominated documentary about one of the biggest scandals of the Vietnam War. In 1969, a top-secret history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam was leaked to newspapers by Daniel Ellsberga former U.S. Marine officer, Rand Corporation analyst, and Pentagon war planner. A more unlikely antiwar crusader could hardly be imagined. Ellsberg was turned by the futility of the war, civilian casualties of U.S. bombing, and the lies of five U.S. administrations. This documentary is a bit confusing as it jumps around in time, but it captures the turmoil of Ellsberg's conscience and the drama of his unprecedented action. The wonder is that Ellsberg would be so condemned for leaking an official history of a foreign-policy catastrophe that killed more than 58,000 Americans and two million Vietnamese.
A Most Violent Year (2014) isn't as violent as the title implies, even though the backdrop is New York City in 1981, when a local heating-oil business is under attack by mysterious criminals. This film is a work of art in every way, right down to the muted colors that mimic a faded color photograph from that era. Writer/director J.C. Chandor (All Is Lost, 2013) gets skillful performances from Oscar Isaac as the harassed business owner and Jessica Chastain as his mobster-daughter wife. Halfway through, I thought I had this crime story figured out, but I was surprised by the climaxand by Isaac's character, which turns a 360-degree twist. (I dare not say more.) The biggest crime is that this film garnered no Academy Award nominations. It ranks among the best efforts of 2014.
Mother and Child (2010) is easily dissed as a weepy chick flick, but it's more like a relationship-rich foreign film. Writer/director Rodrigo Garcia pursues multiple storylines about relationships between mothers and daughters, then weaves the threads together. Annette Bening and Naomi Watts are excellent as one long-separated mother-daughter pair. Kerry Washington brims with emotion as a hopeful adoptive mother. The well-rounded cast also includes Samuel L. Jackson, Jimmy Smits, and an impressive Shareeka Epps. Plot-hole spotters will object to an improbable adoption scenario, but this film's strengths outweigh its weaknesses.
Mrs. Henderson Presents (2005) is loosely based on a true story about a London theater that staged daily song-and-dance shows with nude women during World War II. But the performances weren't crude burlesques or strip shows. British authorities permitted the theater to operate only if the nudes remained stationary while visible on stage. The theater's director, intensively portrayed by Bob Hoskins, worked around this seemingly impassable obstacle in amazingly creative ways. Judi Dench stars as theater owner Laura Henderson, easily earning her Oscar nomination for Best Actress. This strongly English-flavored film resurrects the 1940s so effectively that it feels like a motion picture made in that era.
Much Ado About Nothing (2013) transports William Shakespeare's romantic comedy to the present day, complete with automobiles and smart phones. The intricate dialogue is authentic, however, and the cinematography is black-and-white. Director Joss Whedon, a veteran of TV as well as feature films (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, The Avengers) secretly recruited several actor friends for a quick shoot at his Santa Monica home. Although their acting is quite good, they spew their lines a little too quickly for viewers who haven't seen or read this play since high school. Nevertheless, the timeless story survivesfamily intrigue tries to derail one wedding while arranging another, fueled by romantic tension and wry humor. Mainly for Shakespeare fans and those who aspire to be.
Mulholland Drive (2001) reinforces writer/director David Lynch's reputation as a brilliantly bizarre filmmaker. It's another installment in his series of dreamlike character dramas (Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks, Lost Highway). This time, Lynch focuses on the impromptu relationship between two Hollywood starlets whose lives become intertwined in increasingly mysterious ways. One woman survives a murder attempt but loses her memory; the other becomes her friend, lover, and possible rival. By presenting the story out of sequence and even switching the roles of the characters, Lynch creates an almost incomprehensible plot that's nevertheless intriguing and open to multiple interpretations. Is the whole thing a dream? An illusion? Who cares, when it's this good.
The Mummy (1999) has great special effects but a stupid script, and it's way too violent for kids. The conclusion is so condescending toward Egyptians that the writer and director deserve a mummy's curse.
Munich (2005) is a gut-wrenching drama about the Palestinian murders of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, Germany. The murders are seen mostly in flashbacks, because the main story is about the Israeli response: a small team of undercover agents tries to hunt down and kill the Palestinians responsible for planning the terrorist attack. This movie is fairly long (164 minutes) and often difficult to watch, but for a purpose. Killing the targets is rarely easy and always dangerous. As the operation consumes a year and more, it begins to wear down the agents' physical and mental stamina. Some begin to doubt the rightness of their vengeance. Director Steven Spielberg and his screenwriters (Tony Kushner and Eric Roth) do a commendable job of balancing multiple points of view in this controversial conflict. Eric Bana (Hector in Troy, 2004) excels as the determined leader of the Israeli assassination team.
My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002) is enjoyable even if you aren't Greek. And if you are Greek, you'll enjoy it even more. This light comedy is about a 30-year-old Greek-American spinster (apparently, 30 is spinster territory for Greek women) who finds love with a dashing schoolteacher. Their romance isn't welcomed by the woman's thoroughly Greek father, who wants his daughter to marry "a nice Greek boy." Although there are few comedic surprises, the satire is so witty and fast-paced you won't care.
My Week With Marilyn (2011) is based on the recollections of Colin Clark, a low-ranking director's assistant during the filming of The Prince and the Showgirl (1957), a British movie starring Marilyn Monroe and Laurence Olivier. Clark claims he developed a brief but close relationship with Monroe at a time when she yearned to become a serious actress. Michelle Williams gives a surprisingly plausible performance as Monroe, a challenging role. It helps that most scenes depict Monroe's offstage life, which few people saw and was never filmed, giving Williams a virtual blank slate. Kenneth Branagh is equally believable as Olivier, and Eddie Redmayne energetically plays the young Clark. But the true star is "Monroe" as she struggles with a stormy marriage, pills, self-doubt, parasitic servants, and the stern demands of Olivier, who also directed Monroe in the 1957 film. The whole drama would fall apart if we couldn't accept Williams as the quintessential Hollywood sex goddess, and Williams delivers.
Mystic River (2003) fumbles some powerful acting by Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Marcia Gay Harden, and Laura Linney. Screenwriter Brian Helgeland (Blood Work, The Postman, L.A. Confidential) adapted this murder mystery from the novel by Dennis Lehane, but something got lost in the translationmainly, coherence and continuity. The plot and dialogue are needlessly confusing. Director Clint Eastwood wastes time on convoluted scenes instead of devoting more attention to character development and motivation. Even so, Penn deserves a long-delayed Best Actor Academy Award, and Robbins deserves a nomination for his supporting role.
The Namesake (2006) is a wonderful Indian film that spans two generations of Bengalis living in America. It begins in the 1970s, when a young engineer emigrates to New York, accompanied by his bride after an arranged marriage. For reasons that become important later, they name their first-born son after the Russian novelist Nikolai Gogol. As their son grows into adulthood, he struggles with his Indian heritage and odd name, setting the stage for an emotional family drama. The acting is superb, with exceptional performances by Irfan Khan as the father, the beautiful Tabu as his wife, and Kal Penn as Gogol. Hollywood filmmakers could learn a lot from the straightforward storytelling and subtle characterizations in this picture.
Napoleon Dynamite (2004) is a quirky movie about high school nerds. Not computer nerdsjust nerds. Athletically impoverished, socially crippled, they struggle daily against the mighty forces of bullies and the beautiful. But a few odd twists set this indie film apart from numerous other examples of the genre. Two of the nerds have an older uncle who's a high-school has-been quarterback, and his attempts to reverse the misfortunes of his life are simply unbelievable. Even more unrealistic are the pretty girls and women attracted to the hapless characters, in defiance of all logic. By the endand you must keep watching after all the credits have rolled to see the endingthe story degenerates into a nerd's fantasy. This is a movie with many funny scenes that doesn't add up to the sum of its parts.
National Treasure (2004) is good fun, if you aren't too annoyed by the usual absurdities in such an elaborate conspiracy theory. Nicolas Cage stars as a sixth-generation treasure hunter searching for a fabulous cache of ancient gold and artifacts supposedly hidden in the U.S. by Freemasons during the American Revolution. To find the treasure, he must steal the original copy of the Declaration of Independence and decode a map written in invisible ink on the back. The tale gets more and more far-fetched as it progresses, but if you bring a strong suspension of disbelief, you'll enjoy the ride.
National Treasure: Book of Secrets (2007) is the sequel to National Treasure (2004). Both are entertaining adventure films that channel Indiana Jones. Once again, Nicolas Cage plays Ben Gates, a maverick historian on a treasure hunt. This time, he's also trying to clear his family name, after a rival offers evidence that one of Gates' ancestors plotted to assassinate Abraham Lincoln. The lost treasure in this adventure is a fabled Native American city of gold. The shaky historical premise is that the city's discovery by the Confederacy would have won the Civil War for the South. This isn't the only historical nonsense in the story, but this movie is supposed to be an amusement-park ride, not a documentary. On the other hand, only a little extra effort would have made it more educational for the millions of children who will see it.
Nebraska (2013) is an outstanding example of back-to-the-roots filmmaking. It stars Bruce Dern as an elderly alcoholic with early dementia who becomes convinced he's won a million dollars in a junk-mail sweepstakes. To claim his prize, he keeps trying to walk from his Montana home to the sweepstakes office in far-away Nebraska. Unable to dissuade him, his adult son (perfectly played by Saturday Night Live alum Will Forte) finally relents and agrees to drive him there. The journey becomes a tragicomedy of mishaps and strange encounters with old friends and relatives. June Squibb and Stacy Keach have standout supporting roles as Dern's long-suffering wife and his slippery former business partner. The writing, acting, directing, and black-and-white cinematography are universally excellent.
The New World (2005) is a strangely dreamlike film about the first permanent English colony in North AmericaJamestown, Virginia, founded in 1607. The historical drama is merely the backdrop for a love story about Captain John Smith and the young Native American girl credited with saving his life, Pocahantas. In this retelling, Smith and Pocahantas share an emotional bond that's uncommonly spiritual and equal, despite cultural differences bordering on interplanetary. Their love grows so exclusive that the colony's struggle for survival and the rising conflict between the English and natives become irrelevant distractions. But reality is invasive, in more ways than one, and soon the promise of new life in a new world develops tragic overtones. This stream of consciousness film is unhurried and artistic without being pretentious. It relies on emotive acting, strong imagery, and thought-dreams expressed in voice-over narration to build a haunting vision of what was and what might have been.
Night at the Museum (2006) is an above-average comedy starring Ben Stiller and Robin Williams, with smaller roles for Dick Van Dyke, Bill Cobbs, and Mickey Rooney (still fiesty at age 86). Stiller plays a night watchman at a natural history museum where the exhibits magically come to life after dark. His job is to keep them under control and, later, to foil a plot to steal the magic. Amusing special effects compensate for the frequent moments when Stiller lapses into his signature lockjaw acting method. Williams gets ample screen time as Rough Rider Teddy Roosevelt, but the script suppresses his manic style. Overall, this is a good, clean comedy with a minimum of the gross-out humor that's common in today's popular entertainment.
Nightcrawler (2014) stars Jake Gyllenhaal as the creepiest urban night-shift worker since Robert De Niro's Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (1976). In his best performance yetwhich is saying somethingGyllenhaal plays Louis Bloom, a small-time thief and glib sociopath who becomes a freelance video paparazzo in Los Angeles. "If it bleeds, it leads," says the ratings-hungry TV news director (a wonderfully sleazy Rene Russo) who eagerly buys his gory footage of auto accidents, crimes, and fires. This movie isn't merely a commentary on yellow journalism updated for the sound-bite era, though. Bloom's trendy business-babble and psychological con games also mock the corporate amorality that monetizes everything in our world, not least human misery. But don't expect these messages to resemble a preachy sermon. Nightcrawler is always a skin-crawling thriller.
The Ninth Gate (1999), directed by Roman Polanski, is a tense thriller with typically good acting by Johnny Depp. But is it just a coincidence that it seems to lampoon Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut?
No Country For Old Men (2007) is another Coen brothers (Joel and Ethan) crime thriller. But it lacks the wry humor of their 1996 classic, Fargo, and the bad guys are really really bad, not just stupid. Trouble begins when a trailer-dwelling knockabout (Josh Brolin) encounters a gruesome crime scene and recovers something valuable. The bad guys want it back. The baddest guy is a sociopath (Javier Bardem) with uncanny powers of pursuit. Tommy Lee Jones plays a rural sheriff who tries to intervene. Every role oozes character, and all the performances are first rate. Yet somehow, the sum is disappointing. This movie feels unfinished.
Notes on a Scandal (2006) is a superbly written, directed, and acted film, but also a depressing one. Cate Blanchett plays an attractive new teacher who commits indiscretions with a 15-year-old male pupil. Judi Dench plays the school's strictest and most senior teacher, who becomes a confidante to her younger, self-destructive colleague. Neither character is very likeable. But the film seems to cast Dench as a devious predator of vulnerable younger women, when actually the "old battle-ax" she portrays is a desperately lonely spinster, nearly at her breaking point. This tale is a tragedy, times two.
The Notorious Bettie Page (2005) is a biopic about a 1950s pin-up girl who became famousor infamousfor her S&M photos and soft-core stag films. While most of her contemporaries were photographed in modest swimsuits, their sex appeal merely suggested, Bettie was arrayed in spiked heels and black-leather corsets, often brandishing a whip over bound-and-gagged women. But her life wasn't as sordid as her photos. Bettie was a religious girl from the South who initially found her work amusing and harmless. Gradually, she was forced to reconcile her vocation with her faithand eventually did so in an original way. Gretchen Mol's career-topping performance as Bettie complements a fine screenplay by Mary Harron (who also directed) and Guinevere Turner.
Nowhere Boy (2010) is a meticulously researched drama about the boyhood of John Lennon and is best appreciated by serious fans of The Beatles. Made in the U.K., and partly filmed in his hometown of Liverpool, it focuses on his tumultuous teenage years. Lennon was raised by his Aunt Mimi because his parents weren't ready for parenthood. Most of the drama revolves around a reunion with his absent mother that inspired his music career but aroused his already volatile emotions. This film adheres closely to historical accounts, so well-educated Beatles fans won't learn much new. Still, it's a fascinating reproduction of pivotal events in rock 'n' roll history.
The Number 23 (2007) is an entertaining thriller about an average man (Jim Carrey) who becomes obsessed with the number 23 after reading a strange novel. He gradually goes off the deep end, frightening his wife and teenage son as he tries to find the novelist and resolve odd coincidences involving the number 23. The numerology is bogus and the plot has holes, but this film is so intense and fast-paced that few people will notice. The visual effects are particularly good, evoking the stark look of a graphic novel during flashbacks and fantasies. Carrey manages to suppress his trademark smirk while playing this dramatic role, but casting a less-comedic actor might still have been a better choice.
Nurse Betty (2000) is a hilarious and original film about a soap-opera fan whose fantasies become real as she's pursued by two contract killers played by Morgan Freeman and Chris Rock. It's marred only by a tasteless, gratuitously bloody murder scene.
O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) is another quirky film by the Coen brothers (Fargo, Barton Fink, Raising Arizona, Blood Simple)except it's more broadly a comedy. Based loosely on Homer's Odyssey with funny allusions to The Wizard of Oz, this story about three prison escapees in 1937 Mississippi kept me smiling all the way through. George Clooney reveals a previously unseen talent for sophisticated slapstick. I've seen this movie twice, and I bought the outstanding soundtrack. Now that's an endorsement!
Oblivion (2013) is an above-average science-fiction drama placed in 2077, several decades after a pyrrhic victory over alien invaders leaves Earth devastated and nearly lifeless. The few survivors have retreated to Jupiter's moon Titan, leaving behind a small mop-up crew to kill the remaining aliens. Tom Cruise stars as a heavily armed mechanic who repairs the unmanned drones defending several large machines that are trying to cleanse the environment. But when the aliens bring a prewar NASA ship back to Earth in a fiery crash, things start getting weird. Cruise is credible in this role, though it's far from his best performance. Morgan Freeman turns up later as one of the wise-man characters he often plays. If the first half of this movie seems to drag, just hang on, because the twists and turns in the second half will reward your patience.
Ocean's 11 (2001) is another caper movie following closely on the heels of The Heist and The Score, also released in 2001. Ocean's 11 has the distinction of being a remake of the Frank Sinatra/Rat Pack movie from 1960, with George Clooney usurping the Sinatra role of Danny Ocean. Fresh out of prison, con-man Ocean recruits a team of ten accomplices for an elaborate robbery of three Las Vegas casinos. Brad Pitt, Carl Reiner, Julia Roberts, Andy Garcia, and other stars add up to a strong cast. The filmmaking is slick and breezy, with a jazz soundtrack that echoes the 1960 original. Overall, it's a fun romp, but it falls short of my all-time favorite caper film, The Sting.
The Omen (2006) is a remake of the classic 1976 horror film. Having seen the original during its first theatrical release, I couldn't resist seeing the remake and comparing them. Both screenplays are by the same writer (David Seltzer), so not surprisingly, they are very similar. The visual effects have been upgraded, as expected, but the cast has been downgraded. Instead of Gregory Peck and Lee Remick as the American diplomat and his wife who unwittingly adopt the child of Satan as their newborn son, we get Liev Schreiber and Julia Stiles. Schreiber is stiff, and Stiles seems out of place. The only highlights are Mia Farrow as the evil nanny and Pete Postlethwaite as the cursed priest. Despite a few good frights and the same graphic deaths, the remake lacks suspense. And its theme seems less credible today, when the violence of religious fanaticism is all too real.
On the Road (2013) is the long-awaited adaptation of Jack Kerouac's 1957 autobiographic "beat" novel. Many readers enthralled with Kerouac's stream-of-thought writing style and beatnik philosophizing have doubted that the book is filmable. They will be vindicated by this valiant but mixed attempt. Screenwriter Jose Rivera and director Walter Salleswho previously collaborated on The Motorcycle Diaries (2004)dutifully portray the novel's wild parties and chaotic road trips, but they have more trouble conveying Kerouac's neo-Buddhist philosophy. They fill some gaps with voice-over narration, including excerpts recorded by Kerouac before his death in 1969. The acting is superb, with Sam Riley as Sal Paradise (Kerouac), Garrett Hedlund as sidekick Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassady), Kristen Stewart as Dean's girlfriend, and Kirsten Dunst as Dean's wife (Carolyn Cassady). Viggo Mortensen and Amy Adams have small but meaty parts as the beat writer Bull Lee (William S. Burroughs) and his doomed wife. Despite its shortcomings, this movie is mandatory for Kerouac fans, who can recall the deeper insights it fails to visualize. Strangers to the novel may enjoy the spectacle but will probably wonder what all the fuss is about.
One Day (2011) boy meets girl. Boy is a flake, but girl instantly falls in love with him anyway. After a few uneventful hours together, they go their separate ways but rendezvous or phone each other on the same date each year. Boy continues to be a flake. Girl continues to love boy. Neither does much about it. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat... Screenwriter has trouble breaking out of this loop with a good climax, so he resorts to a lazy plot device. Still no good. So, to explain girl's fixation on flaky boy, director adds flashback to the very first day. In other words, this movie may make more sense if you arrive 100 minutes late and leave 15 minutes early, because even the writer and director couldn't stick to their chronological theme. The result isn't a bad movie, but it's overrated.
One Hour Photo (2002) will sell you on digital cameras. Robin Williams plays a creepy photo-lab technician at a discount store who becomes obsessed with a family whose snapshots he develops. He keeps trying to inject himself into their life to fill the vacuum of his own lonely existence. But the happy snapshots that feed his fantasy don't tell the whole story. This is Williams' second and best attempt this year (after Insomnia) to play a villain, and the film's photographic attention to detail and stark imagery make it a winner.
Open Water (2004) is a low-budget thriller based on a true story: a young couple on a Caribbean vacation are accidentally left behind when scuba diving from a tour boat. Stranded at sea, they struggle to survive against fear, thirst, hunger, and sharks. The water is deep, but the story is shallow, and the climax isn't worth the near seasickness induced by the fast-cut editing and rocking camera work.
The Others (2001) has the makings of a classic haunted-house thriller, but nothing disappoints more than superlative filmmaking with a disappointing climax. The story is about a woman and her two children in a secluded English mansion at the end of World War II. Mysteriously abandoned by their servants, they accept the services of three new servants who arrive unbidden at their door. It's immediately apparent that there's something strange about every character in this powerfully told tale. The psychological plot and spooky atmosphere are reminiscent of The Innocents. Nicole Kidman, the central character, could almost pass as Grace Kelly. Everything is fine until the ending, which is so unoriginal that anyone who loves horror films is sure to see it coming from a mile away. What a letdown.
Oz, The Great and Powerful (2013) is a Hollywood-fabricated prequel to the beloved classic The Wizard of Oz (1939). It explains how a Kansas carnival magician from 1904 became the ruling Wizard of a magical land despite lacking any magical powers. Although this isn't a bad movie, it fails to match the wonder of its predecessor. For one thing, it's not a musical. Indeed, when the Munchkins break out a lively song-and-dance routine, the Wizard shuts them down. Another problem is that the lead character is not an innocent child like Judy Garland's Dorothyhe's an adult con man with weak morals. Then there's the usual Hollywood overindulgence in computerized special effects, including some violent creatures that may frighten young children. Although fans of the 1939 picture will find this backstory interesting, it makes the old classic look even better.
Pan's Labyrinth (El Laberinto del Fauno, 2006) is a gloomy, gory fairy taleor rather, the tale of a young girl's journey into a vivid fantasy life to escape a harsh reality. The setting is Spain in 1944, when Generalissimo Franco's fascist regime is hunting down the remnants of resistance fighters after the Spanish Civil War. Ivana Baquero is outstanding as Ofelia, a preadolescent girl whose stepfather is a brutal captain in the Spanish Army. She and her pregnant mother are summoned to his isolated mountain outpost. Although her imagination conjures up all manner of fantastic creatures and adventures, even her escapist life is dark and dangerous. Ultimately she finds the violence in both worlds unavoidable. This Mexican picture (subtitled in English), nominated for Best Foreign Language Film of 2006, is brilliantly made but relentlessly downbeat.
Panic (2000) is a limited-distribution sleeper that stars William H. Macy, Donald Sutherland, Neve Campbell, John Ritter, Tracey Ullman, and Barbara Bain in a sometimes-funny, ultimately dramatic story about a middle-aged hit man who grows a conscience.
The Passion of the Christ (2004) isn't your usual Jesus movie. It's gory, not a tale of glory. Except for brief flashbacks and scenes involving Judas, the entire film is a graphic depiction of the arrest, beating, whipping, humiliation, crucifixion, and death of Jesus. The blood flows in streams and spurts as sadistic Roman soldiers and Jewish paramilitaries vent their brutality on him. The Roman consul Pontius Pilate is portrayed as a conflicted occupation governor who can't understand the hate directed at the seemingly harmless prisoner. Pilate's wife, a character unseen in the Bible, is sympathetic but unable to sway her husband. The Jewish clergy and mobs are corrupt or fickle. We all know what happens in this story and how it ends, so the only innovation of the film is its sickening portrayal of ancient justice. The movie isn't overtly anti-Semitic, but when an earthquake at the moment of Jesus' death wrecks the Jewish temple, some viewers may conclude that God aimed his wrath at the Jewish religion, not its sinful followers. Director Mel Gibson derived that scene and others from writings about a 19th-century mystic nun, whose visions are unsanctioned by the Roman Catholic church. The pre-release anti-Semitism controversy has fooled many Christians into supporting a film that they otherwise would have boycotted for its departures from scripture and degrading violence.
The Patriot (2000) stars Mel Gibson as a reluctant guerilla fighter during the American Revolution. It's realistically gory, occasionally hokey, and somewhat interesting, but always predictable. The British come off looking as bad as Nazis.
Paul (2011) is a passable comedy about two British nerds who find a space alien in the desert after visiting a comic-book convention in San Diego. Friendly but frequently obnoxious, the scrawny alien is running from government agents and only wants to get home (somewhere in the Andromeda galaxy). There are lots of misadventures as the travelers encounter hostile locals and other obstacles. Although some of the humor misfires, there are enough hits to keep things going. This movie takes nothing seriously but may offend some believers in UFOs and supreme beings.
Pearl Harbor (2001) is riddled with historical flaws and isn't satisfied to tell a straight story that already has enough drama. Instead, it offers the usual Hollywood mishmash of truth and lies. On top of that, the movie is overlong, because it follows the Pearl Harbor attack with a fictionalized account of the Doolittle raid on Japanwhich happened four months later. Apparently, the filmmakers couldn't bear to end their movie with an American defeat, so the Doolittle coda reminds everyone that the U.S. won World War II. The only high points in this film are the special effects in the battle scenes.
The Perfect Storm (2000) is an action thriller based on a true story about a New England fishing trawler caught in a tremendous confluence of gales. It's suspensful, even if you already know how it ends. The startling special effects don't look like special effects, and while the acting isn't superlative, it's adequate.
Persepolis (2007) is an animated French drama about a young girl living in Iran during the Islamic revolution of 1979. After the hated Shah is overthrown, hope for the future quickly turns bitter as Iran becomes an Islamic theocracy. Everyday life for women becomes particularly oppressive. Told as a series of flashbacks, Persepolis is a good example of a film that personalizes historic events through a child's innocent eyes. The animation may appear crude by modern standards, but it's actually creative and expressive, and most scenes are appropriately drawn in black-and-white. Overall, though, it's a depressing storyespecially because little has changed in Iran since 1979.
Phone Booth (2003) is an above-average thriller that literally takes place in a public phone booththe last of its breed on a New York City street. Colin Farrell stars as a slick-as-oil celebrity publicist who answers a ringing phone and suddenly finds himself held hostage by an unseen sniper. Equally unseen is Farrell's outstanding costar, Keifer Sutherland, who makes this movie work by breathing life into the creepy voice of a sociopathic killer. Phone Booth was intended for release in 2002 but postponed until 2003 because of the real-life sniper killings in the Washington, D.C. area.
The Pianist (2002) is a stunning masterpiece. Unlike other dramas about the Holocaust, it eschews the grand sweep of historical events and multiple points of view. Instead, it shows the horror as experienced by one person: a Jewish pianist in Warsaw, Poland. The descent begins imperceptibly with the outbreak of World War II on September 1, 1939, and becomes excruciating by 1945. By showing how gradually the situation for Jews deteriorated and how isolated they were from larger events, this movie answers the question of how the Nazis were able to so easily enslave and kill millions of innocent people. Director Roman Polanski and writer Ronald Harwood have created a hard-to-watch but powerful adaptation of the memoirs of Wladyslaw Szpilman.
Pieces of April (2003) is the best and most honest holiday movie in years. April (expertly played by Katie Holmes, of the TV series "Dawson's Creek") is a wayward young woman living with her boyfriend in a Manhattan slum. To make amends for her past misbehaviorwhich the film only hints atshe invites her estranged family to her tiny apartment for a traditional Thanksgiving dinner. The story swings from funny to sad and back again as we see April desperately trying to cook a turkey, her boyfriend gamely striving to be supportive, and her family making an agonizing car trip to New York from a distant suburb. Eccentric neighbors and other characters add even more life to a drama that already seems like real life. Writer/director Peter Hedges also wrote About a Boy (2002) and What's Eating Gilbert Grape (1993).
Pirates of the Caribbean: the Curse of the Black Pearl (2003) is a swashbuckleror should I say "swishbuckler"? Johnny Depp delivers an over-the-top performance reminiscent of Marlon Brando's mannered interpretation of Fletcher Christian in Mutiny on the Bounty (1962), except less effeminate and more demented. Without Depp's deft touch, Pirates would be just another special-effects extravaganza channeling Errol Flynn. As it is, the movie is good, but not great, and perhaps too violent for small children, despite its Disney parentage.
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (2006) is the first sequel to the original 2003 Pirates of the Caribbean, with a third installment soon to follow. Johnny Depp reprises his eccentric role as Captain Jack Sparrow, a swishy pirate trying to escape a curse. Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley also return as young lovers about to wed. This isn't a bad movie, but it's overlong for young children and isn't quite as charming as the first film. Much of the dialogue is so heavily accented that it's hard to understand. Luckily, it doesn't matter, because the inventive action scenes are the driving force.
The Place Beyond the Pines (2013) is a tolerably good drama that loses much of its momentum halfway but persists to become a morality tale about bad karma. Ryan Gosling steals the show as a circus-trick motorcyclist who takes a wrong turn in life when he unexpectedly has a baby son to support. His upward mobility soon veers out of control, and a new character enters the storya rookie cop. Although Jason Bateman ably tackles this role, he can't match Gosling's menacing energy. The moral: What goes around comes around.
Planet of the Apes (2001) could have been made for millions of dollars less by using a no-name cast instead of burying stars like Tim Roth, Helena Bonham Carter, Michael Clarke Duncan, and even Charlton Heston beneath layers of rubber masks and makeup. Very little of their personalities shines through. The plot will be familiar to anyone who has seen the 1968 original: Mark Wahlberg plays a lost astronaut who discovers a planet ruled by intelligent apes and served by human slaves. It's a "fresh" remake, not a continuation of the original story; still, the plot twists aren't too hard to figure out. Overall it's an elaborate effort that lacks soul.
Pollock (2000) has a superlative and emotional performance by Ed Harris (nominated for Best Actor) as the abstract painter Jackson Pollock. But as with most biopics that try to cram a whole life story into two hours, Pollock feels choppy as it skips from one big life event to another. Imagine how your life would look as a highlight reel. Still, it's a good film, and Marcia Gay Harden richly deserved her surprise Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.
Precious (2009; subtitled Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire) is a harsh drama about a 16-year-old black girl from Harlem. She is poor, pregnant, obese, sexually abused, almost illiterate, and practically hopeless. This bleak film pulls no punches. Although Preciousbrilliantly played by newcomer Gabourey "Gabby" Sidibefinds some solace at an alternative school, don't expect a fairy tale in which everything magically turns out okay. The weight of reality is too great. Nevertheless, this movie has redeeming qualities, including some of the best performances of the year. Precious's welfare-queen mother is played by Mo'Nique, who matches her co-star's brilliance. Paula Patton, Mariah Carey, and Lenny Kravitz lead a supporting cast of virtual unknowns who rise to the occasion. Precious is obvious Oscar material.
Prometheus (2012) is a prequel to the Alien series of science-fiction/horror films initiated in 1979 by director Ridley Scott, who also directed this one. Later films, helmed by other directors, were thrilling but never fully reproduced the creepy atmosphere of the original. Prometheus tries to return to form, with mixed results. Heavily loaded with symbolism, it combines several human creation stories (including Greek, Judeo-Christian, and intelligent design) to associate the deadly aliens' origin with our own. Stellar performances by Swedish actress Noomi Rapace (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) and Michael Fassbender (as a hidden-agenda android) will command your attention. Unfortunately, the script can't resist the worst science-fiction clichés, such as an improbably designed spaceship (a billiards room? really?) and a crew of incompetent, squabbling misfits. But the suspense is relentless, and decoding the religious symbolism is an interesting diversion.
Promised Land (2013) stars Matt Damon and Frances McDormand as energy-company lease-buyers who visit a small Midwestern town to obtain natural-gas rights from the landowners, most of whom are struggling farmers. Promises of easy money soon meet opposition from a respected high-school science teacher (Hal Holbrook) and an out-of-town environmentalist (John Krasinski, who collaborated with Damon on the screenplay). Concerns about the side effects of fracking divide the town and set the stage for a popular vote to decide the issue. This movie's real centerpiece, however, is Damon's character. He is torn between his genuine desire to save the town from impending poverty versus growing doubts about his job. Damon's performance is excellent but nearly overshadowed by Krasinski's. This moral drama unfolds rather slowly and, as in real life, leaves some questions unresolved.
Public Enemies (2009) stars Johnny Depp as John Dillinger, one of the most notorious bank robbers of the 1930s. Christian Bale plays Melvin Purvis, a famous FBI agent who eradicates gangsters. French actress Marion Cotillard (who won an Oscar for La Vie en Rose, 2007) plays Dillinger's girlfriend. With such a heavy-caliber castplus othersthis movie should be a killer. Instead, it's merely average. It tries but fails to portray Dillinger as a troubled folk hero in the mold of Bonnie and Clyde (1967) or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969). The romance between Dillinger and his girlfriend never quite catches fire on screen. And Dillinger's violence, even when tempered, makes us want to root for the G-men, but they aren't heroic, either. Rent The Untouchables (1987) instead.
The Pursuit of Happyness (2006) is powered by a compassionate screenplay and a career performance by Will Smith, who portrays the struggling father of a young boy in San Francisco. Money problems are destroying this man's marriage and eroding his confidence, eventually driving him into homelessness. But he never surrenders to helplessness. He gambles everything on winning a competitive internship at a stock brokerage, despite his lack of higher education and relevant experience. Smith brilliantly plays this character as an imperfect heroan everyday man pressed into extreme circumstances, who wavers between self-doubt of his ability and bravado for the sake of his son. At the conclusion, watch for a brief cameo appearance by the real person whose rags-to-riches journey inspired this story.
Quantum of Solace (2008) is the second James Bond film starring Daniel Craig, following the remake of Casino Royale in 2006. As before, Craig plays a different kind of Bondrougher, tougher, largely uncultured. Except this time, those traits are so strident that Bond seems more like a homicidal thug than a British secret-service agent. Seeking vengeance for a murdered lover, he embarks on a worldwide rampage. He's so obsessed that he almost ignores the main Bond girl, a very hot Olga Kurylenko. Another potential lover merely provides a grisly allusion to a Bond girl in Goldfinger (1964). Bond's main archenemy is well played by Mathieu Amalric, who resembles a demented Roman Polanski but seems too wimpy to be worthy of such a violent Bond. Once again, the Bond franchise has lost its way.
The Queen (2006) is best appreciated by Brits or those who enjoy following the personal lives of the British royals. It's a carefully wrought exposé of the royal family during their gloomy days in 1997 when Princess Diana was killed in a car accident in Paris. Helen Mirren plays Queen Elizabeth II with great skill and subterranean emotion, instantly becoming a front-runner for a Best Actress award. However, the accuracy of Mirren's performance is difficult to judge, because the queen is so remote and unknowable outside her inner circle. Mirren's portrayal seems real, even if it isn'tquite an accomplishment in itself. Her supporting cast is excellent, too. Overall, this film reveals the aloofness of the queen without being wholly unsympathetic.
The Quiet American (2002) stars Michael Caine as an aging British journalist with a young Vietnamese girlfriend in Saigon, during the French colonial days of 1952. Brendon Fraser plays a mysterious American who presages U.S. involvement. The result is a love-and-war clash that's dripping with intrigue. Caine will probably win his first Best Actor Academy Award. Fraser is a little out of place, but competent. Hanging over it all is a spooky feeling of deja vuthis film depicts another era when a mighty America believed it could fix the world's problems.
Quills (2000) argues that the pen is mightier than the censor. It's a bawdy film about the Marquis de Sade's obsessive need to write pornography. Imprisoned in a French insane asylum, the Marquis (played with zest by Geoffrey Rush) stops at nothing to shock and titillate his eager readers, although his prose is toned down for this movie. The moral of the storyor in this case, the immoral of the storyseems to be that sexual repression is more costly to the body and soul than sexual abandon. The acting and writing are strong, although Joaquin Phoenix's character (a sexually repressed priest attracted to a chambermaid played by Kate Winslet) is a tired cliché. Michael Caine rounds out this talented cast as the brutal asylum administrator.
Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002) is based on a true story about three "half-caste" (mixed-race) Australian aborigine girls who are seized by the government and sent to a remote "education camp"a practice that continued until 1970. The young girls escape and try to walk 1,400 miles across the Australian outback to their home. This is an outstanding film about courage, racism, and a clash of cultures. The child actors are superb, and the cinematography captures the spirit of an almost unbelievable adventure.
Rango (2011) is a computer-animated "Western" in which all the characters are rats, lizards, snakes, turtles, prairie dogs, and various other small creatures. The title character (voiced by Johnny Depp) is a chameleon. Cast adrift in the desert, he finds a small town under the heel of a conniving mayor and soon becomes the sheriff. The scarce resource is water, setting up a confrontation reminiscent of High Noonone of many classic Western references in this clever parody. Much of the humor is over the heads of young children, and much of the action is too frenetic to follow, but it's fun.
Rat Race (2001) is a throwback to the large-cast, great-chase comedies of the 1960s. It's funny but falls just short of hilarity. It's about a bunch of ordinary people racing from Las Vegas, Nevada to Silver City, New Mexico to claim $2 million hidden in a bus-station locker. As professional gamblers in Las Vegas track their movements and bet on who will win, the hapless racers encounter one misadventure after another, including a busload of Lucille Ball lookalikes, a gang of lesbian bikers, a herd of neo-Nazis, and an eccentric squirrel merchant. In deference to modern audiences, the movie indulges in some toilet humor, but generally it's lighthearted fun.
Ratatouille (2007) is the latest feature film from Pixar Animation Studios and writer/director Brad Bird (The Incredibles, The Iron Giant). In this story, a young farm rat yearns to be a gourmet chef. When circumstances bring him to Paris, he sneaks into a restaurant kitchen and befriends a boy who works there. The results aren't quite as magic as Finding Nemo (2003) or Toy Story (1995)and children will find much of the dialogue over their headsbut it's still a good ride. My favorite character is the food critic, Anton Ego, voiced by Peter O'Toole.
Ray (2004) is a top-notch biopic of Ray Charles, the most beloved American musician since Louis Armstrong. The film alternates between flashbacks of Charles's childhood and a chronological account of his rise to fame and fortune. It doesn't gloss over his character flaws: heroin addiction, philandering, and his susceptibility to the temptations of wealth. Instead, it's a balanced look at a man who refused to be limited by blindness, poverty, and racism. Charles fashioned a life-long musical career that spanned almost every genre of popular music, from R&B and soul to gospel and country-western. It's no wonder Jamie Foxx is everyone's favorite candidate to win an Academy Award for Best Actorhis performance is uncanny.
The Reader (2008) is about two people whose emotional lives are stunted by past traumas and different forms of self punishment. The setting is postwar West Germany, itself a divided nation stunted by the trauma of World War II and the Holocaust. A 15-year-old boy (portrayed with a tad too much maturity by David Kross) becomes the lover of an older woman (Kate Winslet, in her best role yet). She hides two secretsone horrific, the other merely embarrassing. But it's the latter secret that seems to be her greatest shame. Although her casual affair with the boy is only an avoidance mechanism for her, it creates a shameful past for him. Both characters spend years punishing themselves before escaping in their own ways. This is an excellent drama on many levels, with strong undertones of the film Sophie's Choice (1982) and Dostoevsky's 1866 novel, Crime and Punishment.
Rear Window (1954) is one of Alfred Hitchcock's best all-round filmsmy personal favorite, in factand the recently restored version is not to be missed. Jimmy Stewart plays a photojournalist immobilized by a broken leg who sees something suspicious from his apartment's rear window. Grace Kelly is incredibly sexy as the woman who seeks his heart. Watch for Raymond Burr in a pre-Perry Mason role.
The Recruit (2003) is a fast-paced potboiler about a young college graduate (played by Colin Farrell) who joins the CIA. His instructor (Al Pacino) repeatedly warns him that "nothing is what it seems," which also sets up the audience for various plot twists. Unfortunately, after sitting through a plot as twisted as a pretzel, your reward is a climax that makes absolutely no sense: the bad guy deliberately sabotages his own plan. Somebody really goofed on this film.
Requiem For a Dream was the most visually assaultive film of 2000, an American tragedy that makes American Beauty seem tame. Ellen Burstyn deserves an Oscar nomination for portraying an aging widow who desperately wants to make a glamorous appearance on her favorite TV game show. Meanwhile, her son and his girlfriend pursue their own dream of wealth through drug dealing. Nobody escapes unscathed, and some scenes are almost too painful to bear. Some may wonder: What's the point?
Rescue Dawn (2007) is an outstanding war drama written and directed by the great Werner Herzog. It's based on the true story of a German-American U.S. Navy pilot who escaped a prison camp during the Vietnam War. Shot down in Laos in 1966, Lt. Dieter Dengler was captured, tortured, and held for months in a jungle stockade. (In 1997, Herzog made a documentary about Dengler's ordeal, Little Dieter Needs to Fly.) This dramatic retelling has all the essential elements of a Herzog film: bold characters, the human struggle against nature, grueling location work, and superb acting across the board.
The Revenant (2015) is a harrowing drama about an 1823 American frontiersman who struggles for survival after being left for dead by his buddies. Based loosely on a true story, it stars Leonardo DiCaprio in possibly his best performance to dateand certainly his most strenuous. Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu (Birdman, 2014) inflicted extreme conditions on his cast and crew in Alberta and Argentina to make this outstanding film. Better than almost any other, it captures the savagery of frontier life without sacrificing the humanity. At times, though, it tests our credulity. (Where is the frostbite and hypothermia?) But by the end, The Revenant earns its place in the modern re-examination of American frontier history that was shamelessly whitewashed by most Hollywood productions.
Revolutionary Road (2008) is about a crumbling marriage in suburban America in 1955. Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet star as the troubled couple. Though based on a 1961 novel by Richard Yates, this overrated film seems inspired by Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966). The marital pyrotechnics are nearly as vicious, and both dramas have a pivotal plot turn that involves an unseen child. In Revolutionary Road, DiCaprio and Winslet deliver great performances as the husband and wife who feel vaguely unfulfilled and adrift in affluent suburbia. They expect their lives to be special, despite little justification and even less vision. This movie is harsh and unsatisfying by intention. But for me, those qualities make it a letdown.
Riding Giants (2004) is a stunning documentary about big-wave surfing. It traces the history of this little-known extreme sport from the origins of ocean surfing in Hawaii to present-day hotspots like Oahu's North Shore and Northern California's Mavericks. But this film is nothing like a dry history lesson. It combines funny interviews and rare archival footage with spectacular scenes of wave riding on roaring mountains of water up to 50 feet high. In form and style, Riding Giants is much like director Stacy Peralta's earlier documentary on skateboarding, Dogtown and Z-Boys (2001). Whether you're an avid surfer or completely new to the sport, you'll be amazed by this highly entertaining film. EXCLUSIVE: See my photo of big-wave surfers Grant Washburn and Jeff Clark at the San Francisco premiere of Riding Giants.
Rikki and the Flash (2015) stars Meryl Streep as the middle-aged leader of an L.A. bar band that never won fame but that rocks a few dozen ragged fans every night. Although Streep performs several songs, the plot revolves mainly around broken relationships with her estranged family. These characters include her ex-husband (Kevin Kline), an adult daughter (Mamie Gummer, Streep's real-life offspring), and two adult sons. Kline's performance is carefully calibrated, and Gummer is excellent as a woman severely depressed by her husband's infidelity. Streep, as always, is Streep. The dialogue is sharp, having been penned by Oscar-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody (Juno, 2007). Although the climax is predictable, this is an above-average comedy-drama.
Road to Perdition (2002) is the best movie about organized crime since Goodfellas. Tom Hanks plays a bad guyalbeit a bad guy with a good side rarely seen outside his family. This moody film would be even stronger if it explored the ruin of Hanks's character in more detail, but even so, it builds a plausible case that a brutal gangster can be a loving father. Set in the Prohibition year of 1931, the story reveals the conflict between the two sides of Hanks's character and the confusion of his young son, masterfully played by Tyler Hoechlin. Paul Newman and Jude Law add weight to the drama.
Robin Hood (2010) revisits the familiar legend of the archer of Sherwood Forest by casting Russell Crowe as a grimmer, grittier Robin. Don't expect to see merry men in tights gleefully stealing from the rich to help the poor. This Robin is a battle-weary soldier returning from ten years of crusades in the Holy Land, embittered by the atrocities of war. He impersonates a nobleman to get home, then finds himself drawn into conflict and royal intrigue in his own country. This version of the legendactually, a prequel to the traditional taleis probably more realistic. It's darker, more brutal, and a more accurate portrayal of England in the Middle Ages. Battle scenes are particularly well done. Cate Blanchett's Maid Marion looks a little too pristine, though.
Robot & Frank (2012) is a science-fiction film placed in the near future, but moviegoers averse to Hollywood sci-fi should not dismiss it. This is a serious story about an elderly man with early symptoms of Alzheimer's disease who receives a household robot from his adult son. The robot is programmed to cook, clean, garden, and improve the man's health. At first the machine is unwelcome, but gradually an odd relationship develops. Then things take a strange turn. Frank Langella stars as the cranky old man, supported with good performances by James Marsden as his worried son, Liv Tyler as his skeptical daughter, and Susan Sarandon as the local librarian. This movie's strength is its incipient plausibilitywatch the closing credits for actual footage of similar robots in labs around the world.
Rock Star (2001) is a heavy-metal twist on A Star Is Born and Mark Wahlberg's own Boogie Nights (1997). Wahlberg plays a fanatical member of a heavy-metal "tribute band" who's suddenly recruited to replace the lead singer he idolizes. Catapulted into rock stardom, he quickly immerses himself in the debauchery that most young males can only dream of. But soon the lifestyle of sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll begins to wear thin. His loyal girlfriend, played by Friends TV star Jennifer Aniston, tries to bring him back down to earth. Although Rock Star isn't as heartfelt as Almost Famous and the conclusion is entirely predictable, it tells an exuberant story that faithfully re-creates the heavy-metal fury of the 1980s.
Roger Dodger (2002) is a rare treat: a story constructed entirely around a thoroughly unlikable character. Roger is a mid-life ad copywriter who's having an affair with his older boss and makes a game of using slick chatter to lure other women into bed. When he tries to initiate his 16-year-old nephew into the ways of the world, his glib exterior soon falls away to reveal an emotionally empty con man. Everyone has known a Roger at some time; this expertly acted and powerfully written film is an overdue exposé.
The Rookie (2002) is relentlessly predictable, calling upon every baseball-movie cliché to tell the tale of an aging high-school chemistry teacher who gets one more chance to be a major-league pitcher. Yet it's based on a true story. Dennis Quaid stars as Texas teacher Jimmy Morris, who really did pitch for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Quaid proves that Kevin Costner doesn't have a lock on baseball legends brought to film. But The Rookie takes too long to dramatize its predestined story, testing the patience of the young children for whom this movie is otherwise well suited.
The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) is a quirky film about a quirky family. It swings adeptly from comedy to drama and back again while rarely missing a beat. The story is about an aging father who tries to mend his broken family of former child prodigies. The outstanding cast includes Gene Hackman, Anjelica Huston, Gwyneth Paltrow, Danny Glover, Ben Stiller, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, and Luke Wilson. Hackman is particularly effective as the prodigal father. The film's only flaw is that it relies too heavily on voice-over narration for continuity.
Ruby Sparks (2012) is a thought-provoking comedy/drama about a young novelist who dreams of his perfect woman, then writes her as a character into his next manuscript. Suddenly, without explanation, she appears in his house as his real girlfriend, unaware of her fictional creation. Merely by typing new pages, he can reshape her at will. What should he do with his godlike power? Paul Dano (Little Miss Sunshine, There Will Be Blood) stars as the novelist, but the real standout is Zoe Kazan, who plays the girlfriend and who wrote this intriguing screenplay. Although the story is lighthearted and entertaining, it carries weight, too. One aspect is the philosophical conflict between free will and determinism. Another is the novelist's dilemma when his perfect woman turns out to be less than perfect. Allegories to Genesis ariseif even God failed to create the perfect woman, what hope hath a man? Near the end, things get creepy, but Kazan writes a clever resolution. Young Zoe is definitely someone to watch.
Rules of Engagement (2000) ultimately wastes its sharp acting and tight drama on an absurd and disappointing plot twist at the end. It's the story of a U.S. Marine detachment that defends an American embassy in an Arab country by shooting dozens of angry demonstrators. Now the Marine commander faces a court martial and the incident becomes a political football. Tommy Lee Jones, Samuel L. Jackson, and Ben Kingsley lead a skilled cast, but the conclusion doesn't even meet the test of common sense.
The Runaways (2010) tells the rise-and-fall story of the first all-girl heavy-metal rock band. The Runaways emerged from L.A. in 1976 and quickly grabbed attention with their teenage sex appeal, hard playing, and raunchy lyrics. They never achieved superstardom, but rhythm guitarist Joan Jett later enjoyed a successful career with her own band, the Blackhearts. This movie has lots of energy and surprisingly good acting, especially from Kristan Stewart (as Jett), Dakota Fanning (as lead singer Cherie Currie), and Michael Shannon (as Kim Fowley, their aggressive manager). Stewart's portrayal of Jett as a tough, no-compromise rocker is particularly compelling. However, the other band members get short shrift, and the story loses momentum toward the end -- as did the real Runaways. Overall, this is an above-average rock flick.
San Andreas (2015) is an exciting summer blockbuster about earthquakes wrecking California, but don't take it too seriously. Not content to destroy just one city, the filmmakers invent a network of hidden faults that wreaks destruction on Hoover Dam, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and just about everything in between. Meanwhile, our hero is an L.A. helicopter-rescue pilot (Dwayne Johnson, aka "The Rock") who shirks his job responsibilities when he's most needed. Ignoring the beleaguered citizens of his own crumbling city, he first saves his estranged wife, then steals a car, an airplane, and a boat to search for his daughter hundreds of miles away. We're not supposed to notice his reckless behavior or other anomalies, such as the speedboat's ability to zoom through debris-strewn waters without fouling the propellers. Never mind ... it's all in fun.
Saved! (2004) is a comedy-drama about a girl at a private Christian high school who accidentally gets pregnant while trying to convert her gay boyfriend to heterosexuality. Now she questions her religion, which she believes guided her to sacrifice her virginity. The conflict between human nature and religious dogma is the dominant theme of this uneven film, which has many humorous moments but lacks balance. Fundamentalist Christians are an easy target for ridicule, and the movie would deliver a stronger message if it showed some genuine Christians who aren't hypocrites. Ironically, it's the filmmaker who often seems holier-than-thou.
The Science of Sleep (2006) is an uneven French film about a young man who confuses his surrealistic dream life with his mundane waking life. Gael Garcia Bernal is outstanding in the lead role of a young graphic artist who returns to France after his Mexican father dies. (His mother is French.) Almost immediately, he meets two young women in the apartment next door and gradually becomes involved with one of them (played with appropriate reserve by Charlotte Gainsbourg). The acting is good and the dream sequences are inventive. Unfortunately, the film has trouble sustaining its simple narrative. Worse, the dialogue often detours into odd obscenities, as if the writer (Michel Gondry, who also directed) had Tourette's syndrome. Overall, the movie never rises above the level of an interesting curiosity.
Scoop (2006) is a so-so Woody Allen comedy about a recently deceased journalist whose restless ghost tips a young journalism student about the identity of a serial killer. The student, played by Scarlett Johansson, tries to gather evidence that the killer is the attractive and wealthy son of a British lord. Woody's character, a clumsy magician, pretends to be her father. Although this movie has some good laughs, it's only moderately successful. Woody's stuttering delivery is wearing thin, and Johansson strains to break out of her typically dreamlike acting style.
The Score (2001) is a noirish caper movie in which Robert DeNiro, Marlon Brando, and Edward Norton play sophisticated thieves trying to steal a valuable trinket from a government customs house. The story is average; the final plot twist is inevitable; the cast is superbNorton is not out of his depth in this company. But even the strong cast isn't enough to make The Score memorable.
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010) is a bizarre romantic comedy based on Bryan Lee O'Malley's graphic novels. Michael Cera is perfectly cast as a young Canadian nerd who falls in love with an American grrrl far above his cool level. To win her, he must defeat her seven previous suitors in spectacular fights stylized as videogame duels, complete with computer graphics and impossible feats. This movie has lots of quirky characters and clever punch lines, but the frequent fights and their deliberately excessive special effects get tiring. These interludes do little to advance the story and detract from what could have been a cute romantic tale. It's good for laughs, though.
Seabiscuit (2003) is based on the true story of a champion race horse who captured the public's imagination in the 1930s. This feel-good movie recounts the ups and downs of an undersized horse, oversized jockey, written-off trainer, and dumb-luck owner. Allusions to the horse's role as an inspiration to down-and-out Americans during the Great Depression are heavy-handed, including PBS-style documentary interludes that interrupt the flow and are redundant for anyone casually familiar with American history. Overall, Seabiscuit is enjoyable, but it would be better if director Gary Ross had figured out how to end the film.
The Secret Window (2004) wastes Johnny Depp's quirky acting talents in a disappointing thriller based on a Stephen King story. The movie gets off to a promising start, but soon degrades into a cliché-ridden persecution plot before disintegrating entirely at the end. The conclusion is so downbeat that the audience with whom I saw the film left the theater as if retreating from a bad funeral. Save yourself the grief.
Selma (2014) is a dramatization of the American civil-rights movement in 1965. The focus is Dr. Martin Luther King's march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama to protest that state's barriers to black voter registration. Although generally accurate, historians criticize it for showing President Lyndon B. Johnson as overly reluctant to propose the Voting Rights Act to Congress. Nevertheless, the film effectively re-creates a period in which frivolous local laws and prejudiced county registrars prevented millions of U.S. citizens from voting. Oddly, the filmmakers couldn't find Americans to play the lead roles, but David Oyelowo and Carmen Ejogo (both born in England to Nigerian parents) give excellent performances as Dr. King and his wife, Coretta Scott King. Tom Wilkinson, Dylan Baker, and Tim Roth are less convincing as President Johnson, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, and Alabama Governor George Wallace, though only for people old enough to remember that era. This film's strength is its depiction of the backroom maneuvering that underlies every social movement.
A Serious Man (2009) is another dark-humor drama written and directed by Ethan and Joel Coen, the brothers behind No Country for Old Men (2007), O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), Fargo (1996), and other offbeat films. This installment in their running tragicomedy of human existence revolves around a Jewish college professor in 1967 whose life begins to unravel, through no fault of his own. He is a victim of Murphy's law: If anything can go wrong, it will. His dilemmas aren't global calamities. It's just that halfway through a fairly normal life, misfortune begins stalking him at every turn. Although this story is filled with inside jokes best appreciated by Jews, the bleak humor should be perceptible to almost anyone. At root, it's a dark but incisive morality tale about the uncertainty of life and the comfortable illusion of normalcy.
Shadow of the Vampire (2000) is best appreciated by film buffs familiar with the 1922 German silent-film classic Nosferatu. This fictional backstory stars John Malkovich as the creepy director F.W. Murnau and Willem Dafoe as "a vampire playing an actor playing a vampire." Highlight: Dafoe snatches a bat and imitates Ozzy Osbourne.
Shallow Hal (2001) is vastly oversold as a slapstick comedy. Instead, it's a controversial Farrelly brothers' film about love, obesity, and inner beauty. Jack Black stars as Hal, a randy young man in a never-ending search for the perfect woman. When a self-help guru alters Hal's sense of perception so that he sees only a woman's inner beauty, he falls for a grossly overweight soulmate played by Gwyneth Paltrow. It's controversial because the film's visual interpretation of inner beauty is outer beautyHal sees his girlfriend as the slim, gorgeous version of Gwyneth Paltrow. But a worse sin of this one-joke comedy is that it's rarely funny, and the advance previews gave away the best laughs.
Shattered Glass (2003) is based on the true story of Stephen Glass, a young writer for The New Republic who in 1998 was caught fictionalizing his magazine articles by inventing sources, quotes, places, and events. The film portrays Glass as a pathological liar who scammed his editors, but it doesn't point out that only incompetent fact-checking and sloppy editing can explain why he got away with his blatant lies for so long. The New Republic, which styles itself as "the in-flight magazine of Air Force One," evidently had lower journalistic standards than some computer magazines I've worked for. After the movie's final credits roll, a fine-print disclaimer informs us that some characters and events were invented for dramatic purposesthe same transgression for which the film condemns Glass. Another notice says that Glass, fired from his magazine job, has since written a novel about a fictional journalist who invents storiesthus burying the elusive truth of this scandal beneath yet another layer of lies.
Shaun of the Dead (2004) must surely sound the death knell for serious zombie movies. After a stinging parody like this, who can ever take a "living dead" picture seriously again? Shaun is a skillful British farce in which a group of twenty-something friends battle the kinds of zombies made famous by Night of the Living Dead (1968) and imitated countless times since. Recently dead people are staggering back to "life" as slow-moving cannibals, and the only way to stop them is to cut off their heads or destroy their brains. It's not a total farcethere's gore and horror, too, especially near the end of the film. But it's clearly a romp, and the only hint of gravity is the frequent allusions to the vacant, zombielike lives of the main characters.
Sherlock Holmes (2009) is a silly adaptation of literature's most famous detective stories. Robert Downey Jr. could have done much better as Holmes, but he is undercut by a director and screenwriters who would rather be making Jackie Chan movies or superhero summer blockbusters. Their versions of Holmes and Dr. Watson (Jude Law) are martial-arts wizards who perform incredible feats while battling equally improbable villains. The plot twists are so convoluted that only rapid-fire explanations can attempt to straighten out the confusion during the cartoony climax. Too bad, because the Victorian London scenery is spectacular and good actors are wasted.
The Shipping News is among the best films of 2001, despite two improbable plot twists. (How long could a person really survive in the frigid waters of the North Atlantic?) Kevin Spacey is an aimless working stiff with a slutty wife and a neglected daughter until two tragic events interrupt his lifelong slumber. To reconnect with his roots and reconstruct his family, he moves to a small fishing village in Newfoundland. A new job, new friends, a long-lost aunt, and an old house become the center of his second life. This warm, powerful film tip-toes on the fine line of pathos and always stays on course.
Shutter (2008) is a lightweight thriller about a newlywed couple stalked by a ghost, who keeps showing up in their photographs. The ghost is a thoroughly modern manifestation, equally comfortable with film or digital. It haunts the husband's professional-caliber Hasselblad as well as his wife's little digicam, and it even bedevils a darkroom. Although the running time of this film is relatively short (85 minutes), this is one of those movies that seems to end once or twice, then springs another surprise. Overall, it's fun, with lots of real and fake thrills. The screaming teenage girls behind me in the theater seemed to enjoy it.
Shutter Island (2010) is a well-crafted but overlong thriller about a mysterious island prison for the criminally insane. Placed in 1954, the story stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo as federal marshals investigating the impossible escape of a female prisoner. Ben Kingsley plays the head psychiatrist who rules the island like a private kingdom. Max von Sydow has a good supporting role as a German doctor with an uncertain past. Cinematically, this movie has lots of steam, as expected of a film directed by Martin Scorsese. But some plot twists are hard to follow, and it churns slowly toward its climax. Cutting 15 minutes would have built more tension near the end.
Sicko (2007) is firebrand liberal Michael Moore's attack on the U.S. health-care industry. As with previous Moore documentaries (Fahrenheit 9/11, Bowling for Columbine, Roger and Me, etc.), it takes a strong editorial stance instead of presenting an objectively balanced account. But as Moore says, the health-care industry spends billions of dollars a year telling its side of the story, so another viewpoint is overdue. The result is a scathing exposé of greedy insurance companies, uncaring health-care providers, and lobbyist-enriched politicians. It's also an entertaining film, though at times sad and shocking. Perhaps its most vital point is that millions of Americans who consider themselves safely insured can see their life savings quickly wiped out when an insurance company unexpectedly denies a claim. Worse, people can lose their lives. Moore's most famous stunt is transporting sick 9/11 rescue workers to Guantanamo Bay to plead for the same health care that the U.S. government provides to enemy combatants.
Sideways (2004) is one of the funniest and moving films of the year. Two middle-aged buddiesone a former soap-opera actor who's about to get married, the other an English teacher and unpublished novelisttake a weeklong tour of California wineries as a sort of extended bachelor's party. But the groom-to-be can't resist seducing the women they meet, while the teacher wallows in depression and self-pity over his divorce and rejected manuscripts. One misadventure leads to another as their conflicting personalities mix like oil and water. Yet, their friendship is never really in question. The cast is largely unknown, but their acting and the screenplay are brilliant.
Signs (2002) is a tribute to paranoia and stupiditydefinitely a sign of the times. Mel Gibson stars as a farmer whose cornfields are mysteriously marked with crop circles as navigational aids for invading space aliens. But these aliens are dumber than moon rocks. Despite 25 years of scout missions, they fail to notice Earth's most prominent natural feature. Writer/director M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense, Stuart Little) wrecks his masterful imitation of Alfred Hitchcock with a preposterous story that's a crippled combination of The Birds and The War of the Worlds.
Silver Linings Playbook (2012) accumulated eight Academy Award nominations, largely for its polished writing, directing, and acting. Stars include Bradley Cooper (The Hangover series), Jennifer Lawrence (The Hunger Games), and the incomparable Robert De Niro. Cooper plays a lovesick misfit with bipolar disorder whose wife left him after he thrashed her illicit lover. He wants her back but is distracted by Lawrence's character, a young widow who seems equally wobbly. De Niro plays Cooper's football-crazy father. Together, their dynamics provoke laughs as the family teeters on dysfunction, but this movie has a serious side, too. Although the ending is a bit hackneyed, the performances are so good that you won't mind. (Jennifer Lawrence won Best Actress.)
Simone (2002) is a more introspective look at the wavering boundary between reality and virtual realitya theme that Hollywood has been exploring for years in films such as Total Recall, The Matrix, and Vanilla Sky. This time, Al Pacino plays a struggling film director who passes off a digital actress as the real thing. Not only does nobody notice, but the ersatz ingenue becomes a pop-culture phenomenon. Although it stretches credibility at times, Simone flays our fascination with celebrityand Pacino's heavyweight performance seems to mock the story's assumption that digital acting will soon be indistinguishable from the real thing.
The Simpsons Movie (2007) is an undisputed hit, but I think it's coasting on the goodwill of millions of Simpsons fans. The much-loved 30-minute TV show doesn't make a good transition from small screen to big screen. The movie feels like a few 30-minute episodes spliced together, despite a unifying storylineLake Springfield is dying of pollution, provoking drastic measures. Too much humor seems stretched and even rather gloomy. Has "The Simpsons" finally run its course? Remember that "The X-Files" and "Twin Peaks" also appeared as feature films shortly before their demise on TV.
Sin City (2005) is supposed to be a graphic novel translated to film, but it's essentially a noninteractive videogame that substitutes violence for meaningful storytelling. It follows weakly in the footsteps of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004): in both movies, actors perform on a green-screen stage against elaborate computer-graphics backgrounds added later. But whereas Sky Captain was an invigorating vision of 1930s adventure comics, Sin City is a depressing indulgence in sexual depravity, torture, and murder. A stoic performance by Bruce Willis averts total boredom, but Mickey Rourke's considerable acting talents are squandered beneath lumps of ugly makeup. Spectacular visual effects probably account for the film's initial glowing reviews. Artistically, this work is as vacant as Grand Theft Auto.
The Sixth Sense (1999) is an unusually intelligent and carefully paced thriller with a twister endingnot anything like the cheap slasher flicks that pass for horror films these days.
Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004) re-creates the adventure comics of the 1930s by playing live actors against a backdrop of computer graphics and matte paintings. The distinctive look of this film is wonderfully retro, resembling a hand-colored black-and-white photograph. The time period seems to be 1939, but with futuristic technology as imagined in the 1930s. In the opening scene, the German airship Hindenburg III docks at the Empire State Building. Soon, giant robots are attacking New York City. Hero pilot Sky Captain (Jude Law) swings into action, battling the strange robots in his souped-up P-40 fighter plane. His sometime girlfriend, reporter Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow), helps him track down the crazed inventor of the machines, stopping frequently to snap pictures with her trusty Argus C-3. Angelina Jolie has a too-small role as the British commander of a flying aircraft carrier. The film's plot isn't deeper than the comic books it imitates, but the art direction is glorious.
Sleepy Hollow (1999) is the bloody victim of a horrific script and dead acting, despite beautiful photography and art direction.
Slumdog Millionaire (2008) is a brilliant Indian film (mostly in English) about a boy from the slums of Mumbai who's a contestant on the Indian version of the TV show "Do You Want to Be a Millionaire?" Though uneducated, he keeps answering the questions correctly and winning larger cash prizesarousing suspicions that he's cheating. A torture session at a police station reveals his secret, told in a series of flashbacks. He is simply drawing on his life experience, which is brutal. This film is an unsparing look at poverty, crime, and prejudice in India, but it's also an uplifting morality tale woven around a love story. Definitely one of the best movies of the year.
Small Time Crooks (2000) brings back Woody Allen's witty dialogue and sarcastic humor, with strong support from Tracey Ullman, Hugh Grant, and the rest of the cast. I didn't miss Mia Farrow.
The Social Network (2010) is a harsh look at Facebook's young founder, Mark Zuckerberg. Did he steal the idea from Harvard classmates, or was he merely expanding a concept that had existed for years? Is he a talented nerd or an antisocial outcast who preys on other people's privacy? This film is a Hollywood drama, not a documentary, so its veracity is questionable. But screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (working from a book by Ben Mezrich) derived large chunks of dialogue and several scenes from sworn depositions by Zuckerberg's classmateswho later unfriended him by filing lawsuits. The result is a very talky movie that nevertheless accomplishes the difficult task of making an interesting story out of that which seems uninteresting: computer programming and business deals. Not since Oliver Stone's W. (2008) has a Hollywood movie targeted a real person so audaciously. But what fun.
Solaris (2002) is more of a ghost story than science fiction, even though it mostly takes place on a distant space station in the far future. George Clooney stars as a psychologist sent alone to diagnose a mysterious problem encountered by the station's crew. His improbable mission (which follows the disappearance of a security force) leads to the discovery of a strange phenomenon that questions nature and religion. But the drama feels drained of all energy, and the abrupt cuts between scenes give the movie an edited-for-television look.
The Soloist (2009) is based on the true story of a Los Angeles Times columnist who befriends a homeless, mentally disturbed musician. Jamie Foxx delivers an outstanding performance as Nathaniel Ayers, a budding cellist whose schizophrenia drove him out of Julliard and onto the streets. Robert Downey Jr. is nearly as good as Steve Lopez, the columnist who almost goes crazy himself while trying to deal rationally with an often irrational mind. Although this movie typifies the "magic Negro" Hollywood stereotype, it's so well done I didn't care. Of note are special audio/video sequences that try to portray Ayers' inner demons (multiple voices competing for attention inside his head) and the blissful refuge he finds in classical music.
Something's Gotta Give (2003) is a rare romantic comedy about May-September and September-May relationships. Who could resist a love quadrangle with Jack Nicholson, Diane Keeton, Keanu Reeves, and Amanda Peet? Nicholson plays a 63-year-old record executive who's dating a 30-year-old woman (Peet)the upper age range of his female interests. A heart attack makes him rethink his priorities, and he becomes intrigued by his girlfriend's mother (Keaton). But so is his young doctor (Reeves). Writer/director Nancy Meyers (The Parent Trap, Private Benjamin) achieves a delicate balance between the genuinely funny and the honestly emotional. It's the best romantic comedy since When Harry Met Sally... (1989).
A Sound of Thunder (2005) is a middling sci-fi flick about time travel gone wrong. In the year 2055, scientists have invented a time machine, and a slick entrepreneur uses the technology to sell dinosaur-hunting excursions to millionaires. Inevitably, one such trip changes the past in a way that disrupts the future. Evolution veers off on a radically different course, with dire consequences for mankind. There's nothing seriously wrong with the movie, but there's nothing profound, either, and it's fairly predictable. Special effects range from impressive to slightly cheesy. That's OK. Most of all, I enjoyed the vivid street scenes of Chicago in 2055.
Source Code (2011) is a science-fiction drama that turns a new twist on time travel. Instead of actually going back in time, a U.S. Army captain in a secret government project enters the "memory afterglow" of a schoolteacher recently killed in a terrorist attack. Somehow, the captainplayed with suitable intensity by Jake Gyllenhaalis able to relive the victim's last moments while searching a doomed train for the terrorist bomber. The science is vague and confusing, loosely linked to multiverse theory. The uncertain premise makes the story hard to follow as it flirts between traditional sci-fi and pure fantasy. The obscure climax doesn't help. Still, it's a well-played drama that ponders the results of choosing different paths through life.
Spider-Man (2002) is a passable action flick with good special effects, tolerable acting, and a few laughs. It tinkers slightly with the legendfor example, it portrays Spider-Man's web-spinning ability as a natural talent, not a mechanical trickbut only purists will object. The over-the-top storyline is appropriate for a comic-book adaptation. There's nothing deep here, but it's good summer fun.
Spider-Man 2 (2004) is a different kind of superhero movieit focuses on the private life of the superhero, not on his superheroics. And the private life of this superhero is seriously messed up. He's just a poor college student, after all, who finds it difficult to cope with his unusual powers and responsibilities. He can't confide in anyone, and he's having trouble achieving the ideal work/home balance. He loses his pizza-delivery job for being too slow. He can't get a relationship started with his sweetheart. He's in danger of flunking school. And then a new archenemy threatens his existence. Tobey McGuire is great at portraying the uncertainty of Peter Parker, the teenage boy inside the Spider-Man outfit. At the same time, Spider-Man 2 has all the special-effects fireworks and grand battles that one expects of a summer blockbuster. It's better than the first Spider-Man.
Spotlight (2015) is an excellent fact-based drama about the Boston Globe's investigation of pedophile priestsand the cover-up by the Boston diocese. Published in 2002 after months of dogged research, the stories exposed scores of Boston priests as child molesters. More important, the Globe revealed how the local bishop and other clergymen squelched the scandals and routinely reassigned the guilty priests to other parishes, where they repeated their crimes. This movie avoids sensationalism while realistically showing a team of newspaper reporters working hard to break a difficult story. It even faults the Globe for ignoring leads that could have broken the story sooner. Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, and Stanley Tucci headline a strong cast that brings this sordid scandal to life.
Spy Game (2001) pairs Robert Redford and Brad Pitt as marauding CIA agents doing America's dirty work abroad. It's an elaborate production marred by jittery cinematography, an improbable plot, an unbelievable conclusion, and an uncomfortable flashback in which the CIA uses Middle Eastern suicide bombers to kill a terrorist, causing horrific collateral damage. Weren't these kinds of movies supposed to be obsolete after Sept. 11? Maybe it's realpolitik, but if so, it needs more self-examination.
Spy Kids 2 (2002) is a manic comedy best appreciated by children and gadget freaks. The imaginative gadgets and special effects dominate the movie, overpowering the simple storyline. If you've seen the first Spy Kids, you already know the basics: pre-adolescent spies save the world. Be sure to stick around for the final credits, which scroll over some additional scenes and outtakes.
Star Trek (2009) tries to reinvent the 43-year-old Star Trek franchise with a fast-moving prequel that shows Kirk, Spock, Uhura, McCoy, Scotty, Sulu, and Chekov at the beginning of their Star Fleet careers. When powerful aliens threaten the Federation, these inexperienced space cadets and barely experienced rookies are inexplicably assigned to the fleet's newest starshipUSS Enterprise, NCC-1701. Faithful Trekkies are upset because this movie is alternative history, not a true prequel to previous TV shows and films. Despite some gratuitous farcehow many times can Kirk get beat up without getting hurt?it's a good drama. Alternative history enables suspense, because you never know if a major character will be altered or eliminated.
Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) continues the revisionist history that director J.J. Abrams started with his first movie in this series in 2009. The characters are familiarKirk, Spock, Uhura, McCoy, Scotty, Sulu, Chekovbut they are fresh Star Fleet Academy graduates whose adventures do not mesh with the classic Star Trek canon. Also, these movies are less cerebral than the various Star Trek TV series, adopting instead the summer-blockbuster model of frenetic action and special-effects fireworks. The results are thrilling but less filling. This installment's highlight is a ruthless villain ripped off from a previous Star Trek TV show and movieapparently, villains are in short supply in the future. Even the climax rehashes two previous Star Trek movies, albeit with two key characters changing places in the plot. At some point, homage starts smelling like unoriginality. Maybe all the good Star Trek stories have already been told.
Star Trek: Nemesis (2002) reunites the cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation for what may be their last feature film. It's darker and more action-packed than the TV series, with a dramatic space battle, several brawls, andas strange as it soundsa car chase. Captain Jean-Luc Picard is the center of attention as he encounters an evil clone of himself. Earth is threatened by a dreadful new weapon unleashed after a Romulan coup d'etat, and only the USS Enterprise can save the day. It's a good movie, despite occasional stumbles. (To repel a boarding party of nocturnal aliens, why not just turn on the lights?)
Star Wars: Episode IThe Phantom Menace (1999) has great special effects, but so what? It's missing the magic, and some of the characters (such as Jar Jar Binks) are downright annoying.
Star Wars: Episode IIAttack of the Clones (2002) replaces one annoying character with another. It demotes Jar Jar Binks to a bit player, but it passes the starring role to teen heart-throb Hayden Christensen, who lacks the inherent appeal of Mark Hamill or Harrison Ford. Although Christensen tries hard, he doesn't convincingly portray a young Anakin Skywalker teetering on the edge of becoming either a Jedi Master or Darth Vader. His portentous moral dilemma seems more like run-of-the-mill adolescent rebellion. Still, the movie remains entertaining, thanks largely to meticulously detailed action scenes that artfully preserve the look and feel of earlier Star Wars installments. It also has the usual Star Wars idiosyncracieswhy does Yoda hobble around on a cane when he can turn triple back-flips in a sword fight?
Star Wars: Episode IIIRevenge of the Sith (2005) is much better than Episodes I (1999) and II (2002), but that's faint praise. All the prequels fail to match the excitement and innovation of the first three films, which is perhaps inevitable. Part of the problem is lack of suspense. Everyone familiar with the Star Wars saga knows how Episode III must endAnakin Skywalker becomes Darth Vader, and his wife Padme gives birth to Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia. But there's still plenty of drama in the spectacle of Anakin's descent to the Dark Side and the transformation of the Republic into the Empire. As always, the special effects are fabulous, although the action and film editing are so frenetic that it's difficult to appreciate the elaborate detail. When all is said and done, this is probably the last Star Wars movie we'll ever see, and that alone makes it worth seeing.
Star Wars: Episode VIIThe Force Awakens (2015) is the seventh installment in the nine-episode Star Wars saga. Although it's the sequel to Episode VI (Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, 1983), it basically recycles the plot of the original 1977 movie (Star Wars, Episode IV). A young person scratching out a hard living on a backwater planet becomes embroiled in galactic warfare against a brutal dictatorship that has created a planet-destroying superweapon. Rebel forces must eliminate the weapon, and they get both assistance and opposition from a mysterious "Force" that confers supernatural powers on the few people who can control it. Despite the obvious similarities with Episode VI, the sequel succeeds in rejuvenating the series. All of the original actors from the first three movies reprise their roles. That they're nearly 40 years older isn't a handicap. Indeed, it adds gravity while stirring nostalgia in longtime fans. And the new actors hold their own. A surprise ending sets the stage for Episode VIII.
State of Play (2009) is a twisty-turny drama in which Russell Crowe plays a newspaper reporter on the trail of a murder plot in Washington, D.C. As usual in Hollywood movies, his character is a hard-drinking slovenly loner. (OK, so reporters aren't fashionistas, but they aren't hobos, either.) Ben Affleck plays a scandalized Congressman, and Rachel McAdams is a young blogger nipping at Crowe's heels. Their newspaper is under corporate pressure to make money, not to spend time on long investigative pieces. The murder plot involves a private security firm obviously modeled after Blackwater/Xe. The story gets convoluted near the end, but it's passable. As a former newspaper reporter, I appreciated the theme: the world still needs newspapers.
The Station Agent (2003) is a quirky film about a dwarf railfan who inherits a dilapidated train depot in a remote section of New Jersey. He seeks solitude so he can pursue his hobby of watching trains, but a series of small-town characters (isn't everyone who lives in a small town a character?) can't stop extending the branch of friendship. Soon he is drawn into their soap-opera lives. The strength of this film is the sparse dialogue, which some viewers may find tedious. Actually, it shows how someone who admits he is boring and inarticulate carefully avoids the social interaction that nearly always results in ridicule for his dwarfism. Peter Dinklage expertly underplays the dwarf, with strong support from Patricia Clarkson and Bobby Cannavale.
Steve Jobs (2015) is an unconventional biopic of Apple's late cofounder. Instead of compressing his entire life into two hours, it focuses on just three days: the Macintosh product launch in 1984, the Next Cube product launch in 1988, and the iMac product launch in 1998. And it doesn't actually depict those events, either. Except for a few brief flashbacks, all the scenes happen backstage, before the events, as Jobs (Michael Fassbender) verbally battles with his administrative aide (Kate Winslet), former Apple CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), cofounder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), an aggrieved ex-girlfriend (Katherine Waterston), a harried engineer (Michael Stuhlbarg), and his rejected daughter, Lisa Brennan (played by three actresses of different ages). Jobs appears as a combative, arrogant, impatient, intense, and demanding person who poisons his business and personal relationships. It's not a wholly false characterization, but it doesn't explain his undeniable charisma or his phenomenal business success. Although the acting is uniformly excellent, Fassbender doesn't much resemble Jobs, which is distracting. Like a famous Apple Macintosh advertising campaign, this film dares to "think different." And like the Mac, its appeal is narrower than that of a more-conventional product. Maybe some personalities are too large for one biopic to contain.
Stop-Loss (2008) is an Iraq war drama about three U.S. Army Rangers from Texas. One of them, after a harrowing second tour of duty, decides not to re-enlist. But his celebrated homecoming is interrupted by a "stop-loss" ordera peremptory order that forces him to stay in the Army and return to Iraq for another tour. He doesn't want to go, and his trouble deepens. This movie is powerfully written and acted, one of the best of the year. It shows the many problems faced by Iraq war veterans and their inner conflicts. Vets are saying it's the most realistic drama they've seen. Unfortunately, another realism is the naivete of the young soldiers. Perhaps they could have avoided their betrayal by reading a newspaper before enlisting.
The Straight Story (1999) has the eccentric characters we expect of a David Lynch film, but otherwise it's not up to his usual standard of weirdness. However, it's definitely up to his highest standard of quality.
Stranger Than Fiction (2006) is a clever comedy/drama about an IRS auditor (played with satirical stiffness by Will Ferrell) who begins hearing voicesspecifically, a woman's voice who narrates his life in real time. Unwilling to seriously question his sanity, he bounces from a counselor to a psychiatrist to a college professor (the always interesting Dustin Hoffman). The mysterious voice seems to belong to a writer (expertly played by Emma Thompson), who is struggling to finish a novel about a character just like Ferrell's. This film is an imaginative allegory about free will vs. predestination, but without religious trappings. It makes you think, and it's fun, too.
Stuart Little (1999) isn't a bad movie, but it bears almost no resemblance to E.B. White's book, and Michael J. Fox is oddly miscast as the adult voice of the talking mouse.
Summer of Sam (1999) is aptly named, because it's not really about the Son of Sam killings in New York in the 1970s. Instead, director Spike Lee dwells on the typically bleak lives of typically bleak New Yorkers. Only this time, most of them are white.
Sunshine State (2002) is an almost documentary look at a fictional small beach town in Florida. The characters and relationships matter more than the thin plot, which is about local residents struggling to preserve their laid-back lifestyle against the relentless pressure of real-estate developers. But this movie is really a collection of occasionally intersecting subplots involving a large cast of well-acted characters. Although it's a satisfying film that feels authentic, it lacks the heavy drama of similar works by writer/director John Sayles, such as Lone Star (1996) and Matewan (1987). That's OKquiet stories are worth telling, too.
Super 8 (2011) is an entertaining sci-fi thriller placed in a small Ohio town in 1979. Some nerdy teenagers are filming their own zombie movie with an amateur Super 8 camera when a train wreck leads to a series of strange and frightening incidents around town. Pretty soon the kids are ensnared in an adventure involving a mysterious creature, government secrets, and heavy-handed military action. Artful special effectsespecially the spectacular train wreckadd to the suspense. The only letdown is the wimpy climax, which goes overboard with uplifting music and lingering close-ups of awe-struck kids. Most theater goers leave after this scene, missing another climax that accompanies the closing credits.
Super Size Me (2004) is a lively, funny, and scathing attack on the fast-food industry. Morgan Sperlock, a young documentary filmmaker, records his experiences while eating nothing but McDonald's food for a whole month. Before-and-after physical checkups confirm the alarming results: measurable damage to his blood and liver, plus a weight gain of 25 pounds (14% of his original body mass). Woven through his video diary is solid reportage about the burgeoning obesity of Americans, school lunch programs, fad diets, and corporate progaganda aimed at children. Super Size Me is the logical followup to Eric Schlosser's bestselling book, Fast Food Nation.
Surrogates (2009) is a satisfying science-fiction film in which people live vicariously through lifelike androids. The machines aren't autonomous. They are merely puppets, remotely controlled by their human owners, who lounge at home in easy chairs and bedssafe from the outside world's accidents and communicable diseases. The sensory response of a surrogate varies from rudimentary to full spectrum, depending on the model. A surrogate's destruction is supposed to leave its operator unharmed, but then something goes wrong. Bruce Willis plays a police detective trying to unravel the mystery. Using an intriguing mix of computer graphics and live action, this movie artfully reflects the graphic novel on which it's based. Though not quite as lyrical as Blade Runner (1982), it mines the same vein.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007) is a depressing adaptation of a Broadway musical by Stephen Sondheim. Johnny Depp stars as Benjamin Barker a.k.a. Sweeney Todd, a London barber intent on avenging his brutal exile on false criminal charges. Years later, he sets up shop on Fleet Street and becomes a serial killer with shiny razorsa sociopathic Edward Scissorhands. Conveniently located below his death room is a meat-pie diner owned by a goth widow (Helena Bonham Carter in pale makeup and fright hair). Blood gushes and sprays as Todd slashes his way toward revenge against the corrupt judge who hijacked his wife and child. We want to feel sorry for him, but his indiscriminate violence is unforgivable. Sympathetic characters are rare in this beautifully art-directed but gory film. Overheard audience comment: "There are only so many throat cuttings a person can take."
Sweet and Lowdown (2000) is a satisfying film with fine acting and wry humor, but it seems too short and doesn't rank with Woody Allen's best work. It stars Sean Penn as a jazz guitarist who's jealous of a competitor and who suffers from the usual personal problems that always seem to afflict jazz musicians.
Syriana (2005) is a mess of a movie. What a shame, because much of the acting, cinematography, and dialogue is superb. George Clooney plays a veteran CIA agent enmeshed in complicated intrigue in the Middle East. Key players include big oil companies and their executives, corporate lawyers, corrupt politicians, ambitious prosecutors, retired spies, rich Arab princes, Muslim terrorists, disaffected Arab youths, disillusioned wives, and more. There are far too many characters and subplots to make a coherent story. Choppy film editing doesn't help, especially when director Stephen Gaghan omits key parts of scenes on the theory that what isn't filmed is better imagined. For me, the best scenes suggest how young, unemployed Arabs are drawn into suicide plots.
The Tao of Steve (2000) is much more than a cheap comedy about a fat guy who scores with beautiful babes. It's a clever, funny, and intelligent love story, and a great date movie.
The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999) is a letdowna clever mystery with a disappointingly unclever ending. Let's take up a collection and buy the screenwriter one more sheet of paper for his typewriter.
Tea With Mussolini (1999) is a very enjoyable story about life in Italy under El Duce. Cher proves once again that she's a talented and under-utilized actress.
Thank You For Smoking (2005) is a clever comedy about a tobacco-industry lobbyist who has the gift of gab. Whether he's on a TV talk show or speaking to his son's elementary-school class on career day, he glibly dismisses arguments against smoking and portrays the tobacco industry as the last bastion of American freedom. This lighthearted satire skewers lobbyists, politicians, tobacco executives, journalists, and Hollywood movie producers with equal glee. Aaron Eckhart stars as the slick tobacco lobbyist, and the scenes in which he teaches life lessons to his young son are precious.
The Theory of Everything (2014) is an Oscar-bound biopic of physicist Stephen Hawking that focuses on his personal travails, not his physics. Afflicted with Lou Gehrig's disease while in college at Cambridge, the young genius nevertheless marries his sweetheart, Jane, who later wrote the book on which the movie is based (Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen). Consequently, her role is large and her treatment sympathetic, even as their relationship deteriorates. As romantic tear-jerkers go, this movie is a good one. But the real attraction is Eddie Redmayne's uncanny portrayal of Hawking's tragic physical decline and mental perseverance. Measured against his outstanding performance, everyone else seems like an extra. Redmayne is sure to be a top contender for a Best Actor Academy Award.
There Will Be Blood (2007) stars the remarkable Daniel Day-Lewis as a ruthless oilman seeking fortune in the hardscrabble American West of the early 1900s. This outstanding but ultimately disappointing film begins with a strong sense of epic drama and almost documentary-like realism. At first, it appears that writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson (Magnolia, Boogie Nights) is drawing an allegory to modern-day petropolitics and Islamic fundamentalism. Paul Dano (the teenage brother in Little Miss Sunshine) costars as a young evangelical preacher who mesmerizes his small congregation of local landowners. The conflict between capitalistic greed and religious fervor builds great suspense. But then this picture runs off the rails. In trying to expose the hypocrisy of two moral poles, it merely degenerates into a vacant amorality. The farcical conclusion is like something from Quentin Tarantino.
The Thirteenth Floor (1999) was the third movie with the same basic idea (virtual reality becomes reality) released in 1999. Does everybody get their ideas by reading Variety?
The Thomas Crown Affair (1999) is slick and sexy and has great energy until the end, when it falls flat and is too predictable.
Thirteen (2003) is a disturbing film about teenage girls that was co-written by a teenage girl. Nikki Reed penned this drama with rookie director Catherine Hardwicke, and she co-stars with fellow teen Evan Rachel Wood. Reed plays the most popular girl at school, an amoral person who lures Wood's character into petty crime, drug abuse, and casual sex. Wood's overwhelmed motherbrilliantly portrayed by Holly Hunteris increasingly alarmed, but she is unable to overcome her confusion and the distractions of everyday life to help her daughter. Both teenage actresses play their roles with uncommon realism, which is amplified by the low-budget cinematography. Thirteen is an outstanding piece of work that every parent and teenager should see and discuss.
Thirteen Days (2000) is another retelling of the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962. It's not bad, but Kevin Costner's attempt to mimic a Boston accent drove me crazy. Meryl Streep he ain't.
Three Kings (1999) is a gory romp in the desert with multiple personalities: action/adventuretreasure huntbuddy comedyantiwar statement. It's all of the above, but it does none very well. The plot involves George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube, and Spike Jonze in a wild treasure hunt during the Persian Gulf War in 1991.
The Time Machine (2002) is a remake of the 1960 original that can't quite match the spirit of its predecessor. Even though director Simon Wells is a descendant of author H.G. Wells, the movie diverges more widely from the famous novel it's based on. In this version, the Victorian Age scientist who builds the time machine is an American motivated by lost love, not an Englishman on a scientific quest. Good special effects obscure a story that loses its way about halfway through. Still, it's worth seeing just for the souped-up time machine itselfthe coolest prop I've seen in years.
Timeline (2003) is based on Michael Crichton's novel about modern archaeologists who time-travel to medieval France. As filmed by director Richard Donner (Superman, the Lethal Weapon series), it's a fast-moving action flick with a thrilling night battle during a castle siege. Unfortunately, it's not as historically accurate as Crichton's novel (the English didn't have cannons in 1357), and no archaeologists would behave as these characters do. Also, it's claustrophobicDonner frames scene after scene with tight shots, denying us a good look at the fascinating world in which the characters find themselves. I was chosen for a focus group to view a preliminary cut of this movie in November 2002, a year before its release. In the final version, an important establishing shot of the castle and some critical dialogue were mysteriously deleted.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011) is best appreciated by fans of the John le Carre novel on which it is based. Others will likely find this Cold War spy thriller as convoluted as the Cold War and as difficult to follow as a well-trained spy. Gary Oldman stars as a high-ranking British intelligence officer in the 1970s who tries to root out a double agent working for the Russians. Critics have praised Oldman's performance, which isn't bad but consists mostly of stone-faced stares. Usually, viewers must read not only between the lines but also between the eyes. There are lots of characters and abrupt scenes, so pay attention. The conclusion is an anticlimax that hardly seems worth the preceding effortbut then, the Cold War ended that way, too.
Tomorrowland (2015) is more likeable for its theme than for its filmmaking. It's a shame, because a better movie is hiding in this jumble. George Clooney and remarkable child actress Raffey Cassidy star in a time-travel story about a bright future that may or may not happen, depending on our actions today. The theme is that pessimism and apocalyptic visions become self-fulfilling prophecies if we fall under their spells. But time-travel stories are always potentially disorienting, so special care is necessary to keep the narrative coherent. Unfortunately, writer/director Brad Bird fails on that count. It's not for lack of talentBird has written and directed several successful animated features for Pixar. In this live-action feature, though, he stumbles through the opening acts and dwells too long on gratuitous fight scenes. The second half is better, but a straightforward narrative would have made everything more comprehensible without diluting the suspense or the message.
The Town (2010) is an above-average action movie directed by Ben Affleck, who also stars as the crooked but not hopelessly immoral leader of a bank-robber gang. His alter ego is a short-fused gunman played to perfection by Jeremy Renner (Oscar nominee for The Hurt Locker, 2009.) Their increasingly bold and violent robberies frustrate an FBI team led by Jon Hamm as a relentless special agent. To multiply the tension, Affleck's character is attracted to a hopelessly moral bank teller (a believable Rebecca Hall). This film could thrive as sheer entertainment but reaches for higher meaning and sometimes achieves it. At other times, impenetrable accents and an unnecessary revenge subplot get in the way. On balance, it's a cut above the typical action flick.
Toy Story 2 (1999) is a must-see for grownups as well as childrenit's not often that a sequel is as brilliant as the original. Another triumph for the animation wizards at Pixar.
Toy Story 3 (2010) completes a trilogy of outstanding animated features that leaves me wanting more sequelsa rare accomplishment for any work in film. In this installment, a grown-up Andy prepares to depart for college and leave his boyhood (and toys) behind. Will his once-loved playthings be retired to the attic in hope of a next generation, or will they be forever entombed in a garbage dump? Turns out there's a third fate that may be heaven or helldonation to a child-care center. Toy Story 3 is an adventure as compelling as any classic fairy tale, and it never lacks wit or cleverness. It's so good that you won't miss much if you skip the 3D version.
Traffic (2000) is perhaps the best film ever made about the impact of illegal drugs. It discards political correctness to bash liberals, conservatives, and Mexicans with equal abandon. Everyone should see it. Benicio Del Toro won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, and Steven Soderbergh won the award for Best Director. Traffic also gathered Oscars for writing and film editing.
Training Day (2001) brought a long-deserved Academy Award to Best Actor Denzel Washington. Although his performance as a gritty LAPD narcotics cop in this film is superlative, I suspect he really won the Oscar for two overlooked performances: Malcolm X (1992) and The Hurricane (1999). Training Day is just another example of the high degree of craft that Washington brings to all his roles. He is strongly supported here by Ethan Hawke, who plays a good-cop rookie. Hawke's character is bamboozled by Washington's bad-cop character, and their ultimate conflict reveals the seamy gray area of undercover police work.
Transamerica (2005) is an offbeat drama about a Los Angeles transsexual who unexpectedly discovers she fathered a son during a brief affair before she became a woman. Now her son is a 17-year-old juvenile delinquent, jailed in New York City. Without disclosing her identity or relationship, she bails him out, and they embark on a road trip to California. Although this movie offers some insight into transsexuals, there's only one compelling reason to see it: Felicity Huffman of the TV show "Desperate Housewives" delivers an absolutely stunning performance as a transsexual man/woman. No wonder she was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Actress.
The Tree of Life (2011) is an ambitious attempt to portray three grand concepts: the universal cycle of life, the moral conflict between selfishness and compassion, and the promise of an afterlife. All this would be a big bite for a college course in philosophy or theology, much less for a 139-minute feature film. But writer/director Terrence Malick (The New World, The Thin Red Line, Days of Heaven) does surprisingly well, pushing film to its limits of artistic expression. First, he introduces his theme: the conflict between nature (struggle for survival) and grace (compassion, civilization). Then he starts at the very beginning, showing the creation of the universe and the evolution of lifeprocesses that are frequently destructive and violent. Next he presents a middle-aged businessman (Sean Penn) haunted by the death of his younger brother and memories of an overbearing father (Brad Pitt) and nurturing mother (Jessica Chastain). Finally, Malick suggests redemption after physical death. Stunning cinematography, fine acting, and acute attention to detail make this film seem both epic and personal. Despite the vast timespan it covers, the story appears to move slowlytoo slowly for some viewers. But The Tree of Life ranks with 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Koyaanisqatsi (1982) as a bold exploration of life in the medium of film.
The Triplets of Belleville (2003) is an off-beat animated film from France, of all places. It has two things in common with Finding Nemo: it has been nominated for a 2003 Academy Award in the animated-feature category, and it's laugh-out-loud funny. Otherwise, it couldn't be more different than Pixar's slick computer-generated cartoon. Triplets is more adult-oriented, though not risque, and the humor and artwork are far more bizarre. In pure animation, with no English subtitles, it tells the story of a matronly French woman who has a stupid dog and a bicyclist son. To say more would give away the numerous surprises, but it stays unconventional until almost the end.
Troy (2004) condenses and distorts the story of the Trojan War as told by Homer in the Illiad. But then, nobody knows how accurate Homer's version is, either. In this Hollywood blockbuster, heartthrob Brad Pitt plays Achilles as a reluctant warrior who fights only for personal glory, not for gods and country. Orlando Bloom plays Paris, a Trojan prince who provokes war by stealing Helen, wife of the king of Sparta. Diane Kruger is Helen, whose "face launched a thousand ships"the Greek invasion fleet dispatched to get her back. Indeed, the strong point of this lightweight but entertaining movie is the computerized special effects, which allow the fleets and armies to seem adequately vast. One disappointment is the lack of explanation for the vulnerability of Achilles' heel.
True Grit (2010) is a grittier remake of the 1969 Western drama that won John Wayne his sole Oscar. Jeff Bridges, another Oscar laureate, reprises the role of Rooster Cogburn, a coarse U.S. marshal who helps a spunky frontier girl pursue the outlaw who murdered her father. Matt Damon co-stars as a flashy but resolute Texas Ranger on the same deadly trail. But good as they are, Damon and Bridges are outstaged by newcomer Hailee Steinfeld. Her steely portrayal of the determined daughter is the best screen debut since Noomi Rapace defined the role of Lisbeth Salander in the Swedish Millennium trilogy. Both girls mix grit with guile. The dialogue, written by Oscar winners Joel and Ethan Coen (No Country For Old Men), sounds unrealistically formal and is sometimes difficult to decipher, yet somehow it rings true. Rarely does a remake overshadow an instant classic by becoming another instant classic.
Trust the Man (2006) begins with childish potty humor in the very first scene. Literally. Surely, one thinks, the lowbrow banter is merely a clever setup for the sophisticated adult humor to follow. But no. Writer/director Bart Freundlich can't tell the difference between trashy sex talk and adult conversation. Even his attempts to stage serious, soul-baring scenes read like screenwriter clip art. He squanders a good cast: David Duchovny, Julianne Moore, Billy Crudup, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Garry Shandling, Ellen Barkin, and more. Hailed by some critics as an ideal date movie in the vein of Woody Allen, Trust the Man isn't even fit for Fox TV.
U-571 (1999) is about a U.S. submarine that tries to capture a German code machine on a U-boat during World War II. Don't take it too literallyin real life, the submarine was British, because the U.S. hadn't even entered the war yet. U-571 is awash in classic submarine-movie clichés and historical inaccuracies, but it's still a tense drama worth seeing.
Up (2009) is Pixar's latest computer-animated feature, and it's unusual for a movie geared toward children: the main character is an old man. But screenwriters Bob Peterson and Pete Docter cleverly begin their story by showing the elderly codger (voiced by Ed Asner) as a young boy. In a rapid series of flashbacks, he grows up, marries, ages, and suffers the inevitable pains of aging. Youngsters can identify with the character and perhaps grasp that old people weren't always old. Soon he gains a young boy as a sidekick. Together, they embark on a journey to a lost world in South America, where the man hopes to fulfill a lifelong dream. Up is quick-witted, surprising, beautifully rendered, and entertaining. The 3-D version is gorgeous without being gimmicky.
Up in the Air (2009) is the first major feature film in which the Great Recession plays center stage (not counting Michael Moore's documentary, Capitalism: A Love Story). It's about a professional layoff expert (deftly portrayed by George Clooney) who flies around the country, delivering bad news to workers whose bosses can't stomach delivering the bad news themselves. However, the recession angle feels like a plot revision, amplified with clips of nonactors who really were laid off. Actually, this movie is about the elitism of first-class business travel, fleeting affairs on the road, and the doldrums of middle age. In a role-reversal twist, Vera Farmiga is perfect as a traveling businesswoman with a roaming libido. Anna Kendrick contributes a good performance as a tightly wound young whippersnapper. The last "layoff" ultimately defines this story, but it's blunted by an unnecessary coda that returns to the recession theme.
Valkyrie (2008) is based on the true story of high-ranking German army officers who tried to assassinate Adolf Hitler in 1944. Tom Cruise plays Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, the combat-veteran officer who led the plot. Surprisingly for a Hollywood movie, Valkyrie hews close to actual history, even including small details that only scholars will notice. Cruise portrays Stauffenberg as a German patriot driven to save his country from the evils of fascism and the consequences of total defeat. His performance is adequate, perhaps a little too strident. The main attraction of this film is its faithful dramatization of a little-known incident that could have changed history.
Vanilla Sky (2001) is the most intriguing mainstream-film exploration of reality and illusion since Total Recall (1990). Tom Cruise stars as a rich playboy who is painfully disfigured in an accident...or is he? Then he's charged with murder...or is he? And who are the mysterious people who haunt his memories? Unfortunately, the filmmakers feel obliged to explain everything in tedious detail in the overlong conclusion, not trusting the audience to tolerate even a bit of the ambiguity that energizes a truly fascinating film like Mulholland Drive (2001). Still, Vanilla Sky is an interesting piece of work.
Veronica Guerin (2003) is based on the true story of an Irish newspaper reporter who was killed by drug dealers in 1996 after writing a series of sensational articles about their underworld. Cate Blanchett deftly portrays Guerin as a fiercely determined woman who conceals her fear and projects a public persona of confidence, even cockiness. At times, however, Guerin acts recklessly, seemingly unaware of how dangerous the subjects of her exposés really arewith tragic consequences. Although the ending of this story is never in doubt, the film is suspenseful, and it presents Guerin as a real human being with character flaws, not just a crusading hero.
A Very Long Engagement (2004) is one of the best movies of the year, and a leading Oscar contender for Best Foreign Film. Audrey Tautou, the lovable star of Amelie (2001), plays the French fiancee of a young World War I soldier condemned to die for cowardice. After the war, she refuses to accept his death and embarks on a heartbreaking search to find him. This is an emotionally moving film about the power of love and the brutality of war, marred only by a storyline that sometimes gets a little too complicated to follow. But the acting, dialogue, and cinematography are exceptional. (In French with English subtitles.)
Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008) is an offbeat romance written and directed by Woody Allen. He doesn't appear in the film, deferring to younger stars like Javier Bardem, Scarlett Johansson, Rebecca Hall, and Patricia Clarkson. Set in Spain, the movie follows two young American tourists (played by Johansson and Hall) who meet an impetuous artist (the amazing Bardem, who was the sociopathic killer in No Country For Old Men). Adding to the volatile mix is the artist's ex-wife, a fiery character played by Penelope Cruz, a highlight of the film. This love quadrangle becomes even more entangled after the arrival of one tourist's American fiance. The results are funny, sexy, and romantic, though these characters seem to exist in a world without money worries or STDs. By the end, everyone seems spoiled and frivolous.
The Village (2004) is a typical film by writer/director M. Night Shyamalan (Signs, Unbreakable, The Sixth Sense): a tense thriller with a surprise ending and huge plot holes. This time, the story is about an isolated village of Amishlike people who appear to live a simple, happy life. Their peace, however, is really an uneasy truce with mysterious monsters who prowl the surrounding forest. Manned watchtowers and burning torches guard the village's perimeter at night. Any human intrusion into the woods might provoke an attack, so the villagers lead their rustic lives against a backdrop of fear and superstition. Unfortunately, the long buildup to the surprise ending has more tedium than tension, and the twist is only slightly more plausible than those in Shyamalan's previous films. Is the villagers' fear of the unseen creatures really any better than another fear the village elders are trying to escape? Is the movie a commentary on gated communities? Or is it a parable about an increasingly isolated America in a world of terrorism? This flawed but curious film might gain meaning as the years go by.
The Virgin Suicides (2000) is an extraordinary debut for writer/director Sofia Coppola. This story about a bizarre teenage suicide and its emotional aftermath evokes the awkwardness and claustrophobia of adolescence more strongly than any film in recent memory.
W. (2008) is director Oliver Stone's biopic of President George W. Bush. Unfortunately, Stone's eagerness to make cheap propaganda blows an opportunity to present a serious analysis of perhaps the worst presidency in American history. Instead of waiting for Bush's term to end, Stone rushed this movie into theaters only two weeks before the November 2008 election, obviously hoping to influence the outcome. One result is that the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression is absent from the film. Another problem is that portrayals of Bush, Condoleezza Rice, and other characters are frivolous parodies, more in keeping with a Saturday Night Live skit than a drama. Particularly annoying is that in almost every scene, Stone shows Bush ravenously eating or drinking while talking. The shame of this shallow hit-piece is that a straight depiction of Bush's presidency would have been more than sufficient to score the points that Stone wants to make.
Waitress (2007) is the artful but tragic legacy of Adrienne Shelly, the 40-year-old writer, director, and actress who was murdered while completing this film. Waitress is her tour de force. It's about a young woman who feels trapped in her sad marriage and dead-end job at a roadside diner. An unwanted pregnancy and potential love affair complicate her life still further. Keri Russell stars as Jenna, the suffering waitress. Shelly, who wrote and directed, plays a comic-relief supporting role as a colleague in search of love. This well-turned drama combines elements of Fried Green Tomatoes (1991), Bagdad Cafe (1987), and Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974), spiced with lots of good character acting. It's a shame we won't see more of Shelly's work.
Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007) is a mock biopic of a fictional rock-a-billy singer patterned after Johnny Cash. It helps if you've seen Cash's 2005 biopic, Walk the Line, but it's not essential. Starting from humble country roots, Cox launches his meteoric career in the 1950s and takes detours into folk music in the 1960s, disco in the 1970s, and even hip-hop mashups in the 2000s. John C. Reilly is superb as Cox, singing original songs that sound authenticuntil you listen closely to the clever lyrics. This movie is lots of fun but would be funnier if writer/director Jake Kasdan and cowriter Judd Apatow had put more trust in their witty satire instead of resorting to adolescent sight gags. This Is Spinal Tap (1984) is better inspiration for a mockumentary than Superbad (2007).
Walk the Line (2005) is an interesting but crippled biopic about the early life of Johnny Cash. Even if you aren't a Johnny Cash fan, it's an entertaining rags-to-riches story that doesn't ignore his troubles with drugs, drink, and women. Unfortunately, it fails miserably to convince anyone that Joaquin Phoenix is Johnny Cash. Phoenix, a good actor poorly cast for this role, looks too slick and cynical to portray a much-loved country-western singer whose face was so distinctive and so rural-American ethnic. It's like knotty-pine paneling pretending to be pine bark. Surprisingly, Phoenix's vocal performancehe sings all the Johnny Cash songs in the movieis better than his character acting. Better yet is co-star Reese Witherspoon as June Carter, Johnny's second wife. Witherspoon nails the look, diction, and manners of a Southern Baptist country-western singer, in the days before cartoon versions of C&W performers became popular.
Wall-E (2008) is a fun computer-animated feature from Pixar. Centuries in the future, "Wall-E" is the last surviving robot on an uninhabited Earth. Unaware that his job is irrelevant, Wall-E spends his days compacting garbage and stacking the cubes in massive piles. A lone cockroach is his only companionuntil a space probe searching for organic life arrives. The story sounds bleak, but it stays lively. I liked the unusual mix of animation styles, from cartoonish to photorealistic. The robot and storyline are reminiscent of the science-fiction cult masterpiece Silent Running (1972). Some wingnuts bash Wall-E for portraying garbage, pollution, and overindulgent consumerism as bad things, but my criticism is the absurd ending. It couldn't possibly have been written by anyone familiar with the amount of work involved in growing food.
War Horse (2011) is the sentimental story of an English farm horse sold to the cavalry during World War I. His previous owner, a forthright farm boy (ably played by Jeremy Irvine), later joins the army and tries to get him back. In adapting this movie from a British novel and stage play, director Steven Spielberg and the screenwriters use the horse as a common story thread. Several people take possession of the animal in turn, only to lose it to someone else. In a Spielberg movie, there's little doubt where the horse will end up. And the final scene is so overdone that it would embarrass a film-school student. Nevertheless, this 146-minute drama stays interesting and doesn't blow its realism with the usual Spielberg fantasy touch. (Warning: the violence and simulated animal abuse may distress small children.)
War of the Worlds (2005) is a disappointing remake of the 1953 classic sci-fi thriller, based on the 1898 novel by H.G. Wells. Instead of portraying the epic scope of a Martian invasion of Earth, this version is claustrophobic, telling the story from the narrow viewpoint of one New York City dockworker (Tom Cruise) and his young daughter (Dakota Fanning). Director Steven Spielberg even cheats us from seeing a much-anticipated battle between soldiers and aliens. He shows tanks, jets, helicopters, humvees, and soldiers furiously firing their weapons, but stubbornly keeps their targets off-screen, to the point that one character pleads with another, "I must see this!"and does, but without the audience. Because we never see the alien force-fields in action, the significance of birds perching on one of their war machines in another scene is unclear (its shields are down). And in a nonsensical twist, the alien machines emerge from underground, where supposedly they have been buried for millions of years, waiting like terrorist sleeper cells. If it's meant to be allegorical, the rest of the film doesn't capitalize on it.
We Were Soldiers (2002) uses the latest special effects to bring the gory realism of Saving Private Ryan to Vietnam. It's based on a true story about the first pitched battle between the U.S. Army and the North Vietnamese Army in 1965. Although dominated by combat, it also shows the impact of separation on the soldiers' wives back home. It can't resist the usual war-movie clichésthe tough training, the crusty old sergeant (played by Sam Elliot), the charismatic leader (Mel Gibson), the religious soldier who's reluctant to kill, and even an implausible bayonet charge. Nevertheless, We Were Soldiers departs from most other war movies by portraying the enemy more realistically and with some humanity. In particular, it shatters the myth that Vietnam was primarily a guerrilla war fought by Viet Cong peasants.
What the [Bleep] Do We Know!? (2004) must be the strangest film of the year. Talking-head interviews with real scientists, scholars, and philosophers are woven together with computer graphics, special effects, and a fictional drama about a deaf woman photographer. The interviews probe the mysteries of life and the universe, emphasizing the effects of our thinking on the organic structure of the human brain. Dazzling computer graphics help illustrate various theories, sometimes to excess. The fictional story about the photographer tries to apply theory to real life, also with mixed results. The role of the photographer is curiously overplayed by Marlee Matlin, who won an Academy Award for Best Actress in Children of a Lesser God (1986). Overall, this movie is a fascinating grab bag, swinging wildly between eloquence and gibberish. It would work better as an episode of Nova on PBS.
What Lies Beneath (2000) is a wonderfully creepy tale about betrayed love and revenge from beyond the grave, with clever allusions to Vertigo, Rear Window, Psycho, and The Shining. When Harrison Ford is the weakest link in a cast, it must be a terrific movie.
What Women Want (2000) is comedy lite, but amusing and a good date movie. Mel Gibson plays an ad exec who suddenly acquires the ability to read women's mindsa skill that helps him create new ad campaigns for women's products. Helen Hunt is his love interest and the main woman whose brain he picks for insight into the ever-mysterious female psyche.
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (2016) is loosely based on Kim Barker, a newspaper reporter who spent years covering the U.S. war in Afghanistan. In this entertaining Hollywood version, Barker is a frustrated TV newswriter who volunteers to become a war correspondent, despite her inexperience. Tina Fey skillfully blends gravity and levity in this role. The focus is on ex-pat life in a war zone, not the war's politics, strategy, or tactics. Between occasional forays into the field, the foreign journalists live in a fortified Kabul "guest house" and engage in drunken parties, casual sex, and tricky relationships with the locals. Change the scenery and it could be the Caravelle Hotel in Saigon in the 1960s or almost any war-correspondent enclave since World War II. Billy Bob Thornton is great as a U.S. Marines general but can't quite match Robert Duvall's U.S. Cavalry general in Apocalypse Now (1979).
Who Killed the Electric Car? (2006) is a worthwhile but unbalanced documentary about California's failed attempt to mandate the sale of zero-emission vehicles. By requiring automakers to sell certain percentages of such vehicles by certain years (10% by 2003), the California legislature hoped to jump-start the electric-car market. Unfortunately, the auto and oil industries fought the initiative. In 2003, California capitulated, and General Motors repossessed hundreds of perfectly good electric cars from people who loved them. Rejecting all offers to purchase the cars for their remaining lease values, GM hauled the sleek vehicles to a desert dump and crushed them. Although this documentary contains good information, it withholds crucial data, such as the high production cost of GM's EV1about $80,000. Better balance would have made a better film.
The Widow of Saint-Pierre (2001) is about a compassionate woman who tries to reform a condemned murderer. It's 19th-century French Canada, and the guillotine looms over the killer's headif the town can find a willing executioner. This moody period piece is well done, but the title is a tipoff that you shouldn't expect a happy ending.
Wild (2014) stars Reese Witherspoon as a broken woman who seeks redemption by hiking the Pacific Crest Trail alonea grueling trek through deserts and mountains for which she is wholly unprepared. Based on the bestselling autobiography by Cheryl Strayed, this is a rare movie in which the central character is an adult woman who isn't primarily concerned with romance. Witherspoon delivers a fine performance as Strayed, and Laura Dern makes the most of her flashback appearances as Strayed's mother. The female viewpoint runs so strong in this film that many of the male characters come across as unsettling, creepy, or downright dangerous, which is probably realistic for a lone woman on such a perilous journey. Gorgeous cinematography and acute sound editing complete the picture. This would be a great double feature with Into the Wild (2007), which tells a similar true story from a male viewpoint.
Wings (1927) deservedly won the first Academy Award for Best Picture in 1927-28 and has been digitally restored and released to select theaters. This superlative silent film follows two young men who become U.S. fighter pilots during World War I. Dramatic aerial footage shot with stunt pilots realistically portrays the fierce dogfights between early biplanes flying high above the battlefields in France. Actual documentary footage augments tragic scenes of trench warfare, too. The restoration includes a newly recorded musical soundtrack and takes a few liberties, adding sound effects and touches of color as burning planes plunge to their doom. Charles "Buddy" Rogers and Clara Bow give lively performances, and Gary Cooper debuts in a bit part. It's one of the best silent films ever made.
The Winslow Boy (1999) is a pleasant but critically overrated Victorian drama by David Mamet, who is out of his neigborhood in this genre.
The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) is an audacious drama based on the true story of Jordan Belfort, an unscrupulous stockbroker. Martin Scorsese directed this bawdy tale of greed and corruption, and it's structured like his classic 1990 mobster flick Goodfellas. Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Belfort, a slick operator who could sell almost anything to anybody. He gathers a team of essentially stupid but wickedly effective salesmen who build a rogue Wall Street brokerage specializing in penny stocks, rigged IPOs, and other flim-flams. Their wild life of money, parties, drugs, and call girls soon attracts attention from the SEC and FBI, but white-collar crooks are nothing if not slippery. Although DiCaprio's performance sheds all restrainttrue to his charactersome scenes are marvelously subtle. He gets fantastic support from Jonah Hill, Matthew McConaughey, Rob Reiner, Jean Dujardin, and many others. This movie is the necessary aboveground sequel to the underground crime world depicted in Goodfellas. Be warned, however: it's laced with obscenity and some sex scenes bordering on porn.
The World is Not Enough (1999) is a shameless self-parody, like all other recent James Bond movies, but it's fun.
The Wrestler (2008) stars Mickey Rourke as an aging professional wrestler struggling to make a subsistence living, 25 years after his glory days in the 1980s. Rourke has made a career of playing downbeat characters, and this role is his masterpiece. As Randy "The Ram" Robinson, he tours the small-time wrestling circuit in New Jersey, subjecting his battered body to further abuse for a few bucks. Rourke has the highest-resolution face in Hollywoodyou can study it for hours, reading the pain and fatigue of his character in every scar and wrinkle. Marisa Tomei ably plays his love interest, an aging stripper who also struggles to keep her marginal career alive. The only serious flaws of this film are two clichés: over-reliance on shaky hand-held cameras, and the cut-to-black missing-page ending.
The X-Files: I Want to Believe (2008) is a respectable feature-film revival of a TV series that was canceled years ago. It is best appreciated by stalwart X-Files fans, although it's not too obscure for newbies. David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson reprise their roles as spooky FBI agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, except now they're former agents recalled to duty. It seems that a psychic is assisting the FBI in an investigation, and skeptical agents need Mulder and Scully to evaluate his authenticity. The long-running alien-abduction theme from the TV series is absent, replaced by an earthier plot that nevertheless strains credulity. To make the story even murkier, the bad guys speak Russian. Be sure to wait through the closing credits to see what really happens to Mulder and Scully.
XX/XY (2003) is a romantic drama about three horny college friends who meet ten years later and get a second chance to mess up their lives. Mark Ruffalo plays the role of an animation artist who seems determined to destroy all his female relationships. Maya Stange plays his oblivious college girlfriend, and Kathleen Robertson is her wild roommate. The choppy film editing is ill-suited to a drama in which we'd rather see the actors play their parts without abrupt jump cuts, and Ruffalo's face-twitching mannerisms don't help. There's more heat than warmth in this story, and the conclusion seems designed to baffle men and irritate women.
You Can Count On Me (2000) is an engaging relationship movie about a single mom and her restless brother whose lifestyles clash over issues of freedom and responsibility. It's funny, sad, and touching without stooping to the level of a soap opera. Strong acting from the whole cast makes it worth watching.
Young Adult (2011) stars Charlize Theron in a great performance as a slutty, alcoholic former prom queen, 20 years removed from her social triumphs in high school. But her flaws are so deep, and her self-delusions so comical, that it's hard not to feel a bit sorry for her. She's a train wreck waiting to happen. The collision looks inevitable when she returns to the small town of her youth to seduce her high-school boyfriend, now a devoted family man. Although the trailers portrayed this film as a light comedy, it's really a drama with rather dark humor. Screenwriter Diablo Cody (Juno, Jennifer's Body) dodges clichés and concocts an audacious conclusion that will dissatisfy some people but actually is perfect, in a real-life sort of way.
Zero Dark Thirty (2012) is the controversial dramatization of the CIA's pursuit and killing of Osama bin Laden. Writer Mark Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow previously collaborated on The Hurt Locker (2008), winner of six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay. Zero Dark Thirty is an equally tense and artful thriller, despite everyone knowing the climax. In fact, the "true story" backdrop undermines this film. No one questions its craft, which is outstanding. Instead, we may be too close to the actual event to judge this movie fairly. Some viewers say the climactic raid reveals too much about U.S. Special Forces tactics, even though it resembles those in many other action movies. Other critics say the interrogation scenes validate torture, even though the film shows it backfiring badly by luring CIA agents into following a false lead to their deaths. Indeed, the film suggests the CIA got nowhere until an ally shared intelligence that led agents to Bin Laden's hideout in Pakistan. Zero Dark Thirty deserves another viewing years from now, when time has cooled its controversies.