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The Top Twenty Movies of 2016 — Part Two!

On Wednesday I began my list of my Top Twenty Movies of 2016! Let’s continue:

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15. Weiner It’s remarkable that this film exists.  For some reason, disgraced former Congressman Anthony Weiner allowed a documentary crew full access to himself, his family, and his political team during his campaign for the Democratic nomination to be the Mayor of New York City in 2013.  Weiner’s attempt at political resuscitation came crashing down around his ears in spectacular fashion when, a few weeks into the campaign, new sexting scandals came to light.  The film is a you-can’t-look-away story of personal and professional catastrophe, and there’s something mesmerizing about it.  It’s a fascinating how-the-sausage-is-made look behind the scenes of a modern political campaign, and a devastating story of a very flawed man destroying himself.  It’s exhilarating and terrifying, funny and deeply sad.  Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg have crafted a remarkable film that has so much to say about the political and human realities of our current age.

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14. 10 Cloverfield Lane Somehow J.J. Abrams’ production company, Bad Robot, was able to create this film almost entirely in secret, only announcing it’s existence a few months before its release.  That’s an incredible magic trick all its own in today’s internet spoiler era, but even putting all of that aside and judging the film strictly on it’s own two feet, this is a great movie that really hit me in my movie-going sweet spot.  For much of the film’s run-time, it’s a gripping character piece and exercise in escalating tension.  Michelle, played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Scott Pilgrim vs the World) wakes up after a car accident to find herself locked in an underground bunker with Howard (John Goodman) and a young man, Emmett (John Gallagher).  Howard is a survivalist who tells Michelle that a deadly virus or nerve agent has been released by a foreign attack and that, if she leaves the bunker, she will die.  Is he telling the truth or is he lying?  Is Howard Michelle’s savior or a terrible villain?  Dan Trachtenberg’s film (written by the great Drew Goddard) keeps turning the screws on Michelle and the audience, and it’s a magnificent thing to watch.  All three main actors are fantastic, 100% invested in this story and these roles.  Then there are the film’s final twenty minutes, which are absolutely bonkers and yet absolutely perfect.  I love the idea that Bad Robot will be periodically releasing Cloverfield films, creating a movie anthology series of weird and suspenseful tales.  I loved 2008’s Cloverfield, and this new film — which totally stands on its own and yet also feels 100% “of a piece” with the first Cloverfield[continued]

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Catching Up on 2010: Josh Reviews True Grit

This week’s issue of Entertainment Weekly features a brief interveiw with the Coen Brothers, in which the writer congratulates Joel & Ethan Coen on True Grit, a “four-quadrant” movie (meaning a flick that appeals to men and women, young and old), and the biggest box-office success of their careers.

It’s delightful to see the public embracing True Grit to the degree that it has, because while this film might be more easily categorizable than the last several Coen Brothers films (A Serious Man, Burn After Reading, No Country for Old Men), it’s still a Western that has been filtered through their unique and sometimes bizarre sensibilities.  And I love it all the more for that!

Hailee Steinfeld plays fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross.  Her father has recently been murdered by an outlaw named Tom Chaney, but despite her efforts, it doesn’t seem like any lawman seems much interested in pursuing him.  So Mattie hires herself a bounty hunter: the aging, cranky, one-eyed Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges).  She also encounters a Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf, who has been pursuing Chaney, under a different name, for another murder that he committed.  At first she takes a strong disliking to the pompous Ranger, but as the chase commences and she & Cogburn continue encountering LaBoeuf, Mattie begins to wonder if she hasn’t hitched her wagon to the wrong horse.

I found True Grit to be great fun from start to finish.  There’s a strong emotional throughline — Mattie’s increasingly desperate efforts to find someone who will help her achieve vengeance for her father’s death — and the film is very well-paced.  I thought it was intriguing and engaging throughout.  As always, the Coens know how to stage an action scene, and there are several sequences that are true nail-biters (including the shoot-out outside of the cabin about half-way through the film, and of course the climactic encounter with Tom Chaney and Lucky Ned Pepper’s gang).  The film is intense and violent at times, but it’s never gory.  True Grit is rated PG-13 (in that EW interview, Joel Coen comments: “It seemed obvious to us that because it’s a movie where the main character is a 13-year-old girl, 13- and 14-year-old girls should be able to see the movie”), but it never feels dumbed down or softened the way I often feel PG-13 movies are.

But the real joys of True Grit are the tremendous performances.  Jeff Bridges proves once again that he is unbeatable when directed by the Coen Brothers.  His protrayal of Rooster Cogburn is one of those iconic performances that I suspect we’ll be seeing clips from in highlight reels for years to come.  Rooster is tough and cunning, but … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Tron: Legacy

December 27th, 2010
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The original Tron (read my review here), released in 1982, boasted incredibly stunning special effects but was hamstrung by a pretty simplistic story.

The new Tron: Legacy, released last week, boasts incredibly stunning special effects but is hamstrung by a pretty simplistic story.

I’ve got a lot more to say about Tron: Legacy, but really, it all boils down to that.

At the end of the original Tron, Flynn (Jeff Bridges) and his friends (Alan and Lora in the real world, and their digital counterparts Tron and Yori in the digital realm inside of computers) had defeated Ed Dillinger and his Master Control Program.  The programs residing in the digital realm had been freed, and Flynn had seized control of his company Encom back from Dillinger.  All was well.  But, as we learn in Tron: Legacy, he mysteriously vanished several years later, leaving his son, Sam, an orphan.  Though Alan tried his best to mentor his lost friend’s son, Sam has grown into an angry young man whose only association with his father’s company is his repeated attempts to prank and sabotage Encom’s initiatives.  He’s grown to disbelieve his father’s wild stories of “the grid” that he heard as a child — but, of course, we know it won’t be long until Sam finds himself sucked into that computerized world himself.  There he will encounter the father who he thought abandoned him as a youth, and do battle with the dictatorial program, Clu, that wears his father’s face and has taken control over the grid.

If I were only to judge Tron: Legacy by the visuals and the music, then this would be a fine film indeed.  The visual effects are, quite simply, astounding.  (With one notable exception, which I’ll get to in a few moments.)  The whole look of the original Tron, which was so ground-breaking back in 1982, has become quite dated when viewed in 2010.  Director Joseph Kosinski and his team had an enormous challenge before them of capturing the “feel” of the digital world created in Tron, but updating that for modern audiences and expanding it using the most cutting-edge tools available to them.  They succeeded admirably.  The thirty-minutes after Sam is sucked into the grid represent the high-point of the movie, as we find ourselves stunned, along with Sam, at this astonishing world we have entered.  It’s a blast seeing several classic images from the original Tron — the interceptors, and of course the light-cycles — brought to a whole new level of life.  In short-order, Sam finds himself captured and forced to compete in a series of disc-wars and, finally, a light-cycle chase.  These sequences are … [continued]

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From the DVD Shelf: Josh Reviews the original TRON (1982)

December 20th, 2010
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Before seeing the new, big-budgeted sequel Tron: Legacy, being released this week by the Walt Disney Company, I decided that I really needed to go back and watch the 1982 original.

That proved a little more difficult than I had anticipated!  I’d assumed that Disney would cash in on the building excitement by releasing a snazzy new DVD/blu-ray edition of the film in advance of Tron: Legacy‘s release, but that didn’t happen.  (There’s speculation that Disney was afraid that people would watch the dated 1982 Tron and get turned off on the idea of seeing the new film.)  Either way, the decade-old previous DVD edition is out-of-print and apparently fiendishly hard to get a hold of.  Thank heaven for my phenomenal local video store, the Video Underground.  They had a copy of Tron, and though it took me a few visits until it was finally in, I was ultimately able to rent the film.

I’ve seen Tron a few times before, but it had been quite a while since my last viewing, so I was excited to give it a whirl.

Jeff Bridges (yes, that Jeff Bridges) stars as Flynn, a brilliant but sort of slackerish computer programmer who has recently been fired from Encom, a large computer company.  Flynn has been trying to hack into Encom’s computer systems, in an attempt to prove that the new head of the company, Ed Dillinger (David Warner), stole his work as part of his rise to power.  Unbeknownst to Flynn and the rest of the world (but, as Mel Brooks would say, knownst to us), in taking over the company, Dillinger has allowed an emergingly-sentient computer program, the Master Control Program, to take control of all of the company’s systems and begin a process of taking over other powerful computer systems across the globe.  Meanwhile, Flynn’s ex-girlfriend Lora (Cindy Morgan), and her new boyfriend Alan (Bruce Boxleitner), both of whom still work for Encom, learn that Dillinger has discovered Flynn’s hacking attempts, and they try to warn Flynn to stop what he’s doing.  But Flynn convinces them that Dillinger needs to be stopped, so the three of them break into Encom in an attempt to find the evidence Flynn needs to bring Dillinger down.

All of that is really just set-up for when the Master Control Program zaps Flynn with a laser and digitizes him, sending his conscience into the mainframe of the system itself.  There Flynn learns that, inside the world of the computers he has spent his days and nights programming, exists an entire universe of life.  Programs that he and others have written as lines of data exist here as individuals, trying their best … [continued]

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2009 Catch-Up: Josh Reviews Crazy Heart

Last week I wrote about Moon, one of the 2009 films that I hasn’t succeeded in catching before the switch-over to the Year We Make Contact.  Today I’m here to write about another 2009 film that I’m glad I found a chance to see before getting too far into 2010: Crazy Heart.

Jeff Bridges plays “Bad” Blake, a once-great country singer who, through a combination of bad luck and his own hard-living, has been reduced to singing in bowling alleys.  Bad is a pretty pathetic figure when we first encounter him in the film, pulling up to his latest small-town gig in his battered old pick-up truck and dumping out a jug full of his urine.  But drunk and washed-up though he may be, when he starts to perform we can see the embers of his greatness.  Until he has to run outside to puke, that is.

It’s not too hard to guess that, over the course of the film, Bad will be able to claw his way up to some small form of redemption.  But the pleasures of Crazy Heart aren’t in any big dramatic plot twists or emotional epiphanies.  They’re in the way that, through a million small choices, Jeff Bridges brings this broken-down man to fully-realized life.  Bad isn’t really a cliched scoundrel-with-a-heart-of-gold.  He makes a lot of poor choices, and we see him fully live up to the name he has taken for himself.  But Mr. Bridges brings such humanity to the performance that one somehow can’t help rooting for Bad nonetheless.  Can anyone deny that Jeff Bridges is one of our finest actors working today?

Maggie Gyllenhaal is solid, as she always is.  But I was really pleasantly surprised by Colin Farrell’s excellent work as Bad’s former protege Tommy Sweet.  It’s a very well-written part.  Tommy is talked about a lot in the film before we ever see him on-screen.  While Bad has hit hard times, Tommy has become a country music super-star.  I was expecting fireworks when these two finally met up in the film, but I was really pleased that the film went in another direction.  There’s friction between the two, but also reservoirs of affection.  I was quite taken with Mr. Farrell’s work, giving Tommy the arrogance one might expect of an on-the-rise mega-talent, but also a deep core of loyalty to his former mentor.  I’ve always been a big fan of Colin Farrell (I even love him in Daredevil!), and between this and his role in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (read my review here), it’s nice to see him getting some decent roles these days.

Crazy Heart has a heck of a soundtrack, featuring an array … [continued]

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Double Feature Club!

My brother Dave had the great idea, recently, to start a Double Feature Club.  This is a movie-version of a book club, in which a group of friends will gather, approximately once a month, to enjoy a Double Feature on a certain theme.

Dave hosted the first installment last week — two movies starring Jeff Bridges: Arlington Road and The Big Lebowski.

Arlington Road (1999) — Jeff Bridges plays Michael Faraday (no connection to the time-traveling Daniel Faraday on Lost), a widowed college history professor who teaches courses on terrorism in America.  He becomes friends with new neighbors, Oliver and Cheryl Lang (Tim Robbins and Joan Cusack).  However, he grows increasingly suspicious of Oliver, and when he begins looking into Oliver’s background he becomes convinced that Oliver is plotting a terrorist act on American soil.

Arlington Road is a nice taught thriller that has a dynamite twist ending.  It really stunned me when I first saw it in theatres back in ’99.  Because movies like these, with twist endings, tend to lose something upon repeat viewings… and also because the film is, frankly, quite a downer, I’d never re-watched it in the years since.  I was very curious, now, to see how the film held up.  

No surprise, it loses a lot of its power once you know the ending.  However, there is still fun to be had in watching the film through while knowing the end, and seeing how that knowledge colors scenes that you’d previously thought of differently.  The plot holds up pretty well to scrutiny.  In a post 9-11 world, this story about the fear of terrorism, and possibility of hidden dangers even among our suburban neighbors, has a lot of extra weight.  The film is completely colored by that now, but I don’t think that’s altogether a bad thing.

The main joy of the film is watching Bridges slowly unravel as Faraday becomes more and more obsessed with his neighbors.  Robbins and Cusack are also a blast, alternately playing friendly & gregarious and very, very creepy.  

The Big Lebowski (1998) — Jeff Bridges is Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski, a stoned LA lay-about who gets mixed up in a Chandler-esque tale of intrigue and mistaken identity.  I’d loved this film back in college, but it had been years since I’d seen it last.  As with Arlington Road, I was eager to see how well this film held up.  

Well, I am pleased to say that it remains ferociously entertaining.  Bridges is just terrific as The Dude, conveying an eminently likable slacker/stoner without laying on the shtick too thickly.  As always in a film by the Coen Brothers, our lead is surrounded by an ensemble of … [continued]

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Top 10 Movies of 2008! — Part Two!

Today we continue my list of the Top 10 Movies of 2008!  Scroll down (or click here) to read yesterday’s installment, listing numbers 10-6 and several honorable mentions, if you missed it.

5.  Tropic Thunder — Ben Stiller’s evisceration of Hollywood actors and their quest to win Oscars by making “serious” movies is one of the funniest films in recent memory.  Somehow Stiller was able to corral an astonishing group of actors and comedians (Jack Black, Nick Nolte, Steve Coogan, Danny McBride, Jay Baruchel, Bill Hader, Matthew McConaughey, and many more) into the project, creating one of those special films in which every single scene has about ten funny things going on.  Special attention must be paid to the brave work by Robert Downey Jr. (as Australian actor Kirk Lazarus, a man so “method” that he dies his skin black to become the Afrian-American character Sgt. Osiris) and Tom Cruise (buried under a hilariously hideous hairy fat-suit as studio head Les Grossman), who turn in two of the best performances of the year.  Though not the type that will win Oscars!  (Click here for my full review.)

4.  Religulous — Comedian Bill Maher partnered with director Larry Charles (Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Borat) to create this movie in which Maher travels around asking people questions about religion.  You might not agree with Maher’s views, but it is impossible not to respect someone willing to ask straight, tough questions of believers.  (Well, not impossible, apparently, as Maher’s film certainly angered some.)  Maher speaks with members of various different religions and denominations, both religious leaders and common people.  He demonstrates a surprising (to me, at least), gentleness with most of the people he questions.  Whatever your faith, the issues that Maher raises are important ones to consider, and it doesn’t hurt that the film is also absolutely hysterical.  (Click here for my full review)

3.  Man on Wire — This extraordinary documentary looks behind-the-scenes at Philippe Petit’s incredible achievement of walking on a high-wire strung between the roofs of the Twin Towers in NYC back in 1974.  The audacity of Petit’s artistic crime is astounding to contemplate, and this film provides an insightful peek into the years that Petit and his friends spent planning the event.  It also explores a variety of ideas about art and human accomplishment.  Amazing.  (Click here for my full review.)

2.  Iron Man — Director Jon Favreau and actor Robert Downey Jr. created one of the best, most joyful comic book movies I have ever seen.  A fun, funny epic that is also a serious film filled with great character work (as opposed to a camp-fest), Iron Man is everything that a super-hero film should … [continued]

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I saw Iron Man tonight.

Wow.

What follows is as spoiler-free as I could make it.   But if you want to go into this flick totally devoid of any knowledge, why don’t you check back in after you see it and let’s see if we agree?

OK, now, let me get right to it: the film is tremendous.   Director Jon Favreau was able to create a very intense, serious film (one not aimed just at the little kiddies) that is also quite funny and endearing.   There’s a lot of humor, but its not the type of forced “stand back, here comes the wakka-wakka” type of humor that so often makes me cringe in comic book films.   Much of the credit for this must go to the man in the lead role.

I’ve already read a number of reviews that emphasize how perfect Robert Downey Jr. is as Tony Stark, and I most vigorously agree with the chorus. Not only is he a visual dead ringer for the character (the goatee is perfect), but he’s able to convey just the type of rich, spoiled, brilliant, cocky bastard that is Tony Stark.   As I alluded to above, there’s a tremendous amount of humor is this performance – I love his banter with his “lab assistants,” and with Jarvis – but also a lot of weight.   Like most superhero origin stories, this movie centers on “the turn” – when the hero character has to change from the person he was to the more righteous person he will become.   That can be a tough moment to play, and not every superhero movie – or ever actor assaying a superhero – can sell that.   But Downey Jr. just nails it.

The whole rest of the cast is dynamite as well.   The casting of Jarvis was dead-on.   Terrence Howard is terrific as Stark’s buddy Jim Rhodes.   I love how he’s able to nudge Stark on his behavior without being a total stick-in-the-mud himself.   (In the plane-ride scene early in the movie, you can really see why he and Stark are friends!)   Gwyneth Paltrow is also very strong as Pepper Potts, Stark’s assistant.   She maybe gets a teensy bit too damsel-in-distressy towards the end of the flick, but she is a lot of fun to watch throughout the film.   Just as Terrence Howard does in his role, her performance hints at a long shared history with Tony Stark – and that really helps to flesh out the “world” that these characters inhabit.

Jeff Bridges brings a lot of charisma and energy to his role of Obadiah Stane, Stark’s mentor.   I just love Jeff Bridges, and it looks like he was having a lot of fun in the … [continued]