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Josh’s Favorite Movies of 2018 — Part Three!

I hope you’re enjoying my journey through my Favorite Movies of 2018!  Click here for part one of my list, and click here for part two.

10. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs This latest film from the Coen Brothers consists of six short-stories, all set in the Old West.  I thought the film was marvelous — it’s weird and funny and heartbreaking… and did I say weird?  The film’s heart beats with the Coen Brothers’ uniquely off-kilter sensibility.  I can see how it might strain the patience of someone looking for a more standard, traditionally structured narrative film.  But I loved pretty much every minute of it.  Each one of the six stories surprised me, and I loved how easily the film shifted gear from whimsy to melancholy and back again.  The cast was amazing:  Tim Blake Nelson, James Franco, Liam Neeson, Tom Waits, Zoe Kazan, David Krumholtz, Clancy Brown, Stephen Root, Harry Melling, Jefferson Mays, Tyne DalyBrendan GleesonSaul Rubenik, Chelcie Ross, and Jojo O’Neill each did fantastic work in their (mostly small) roles.  I love what a unique film this is.  I am thrilled that Netflix supported the Coen Brothers in following their vision to create it.  (Click here for my full review.)

9. Green BookGreen Book is a warm fable the likes of which is a little out of style these days, but I was captivated by this sweet, funny story of the unlikely friendship formed between two very different men of different races and different social strata: Mahershala Ali as the musician Don Shirley and Viggo Mortensen as his driver, Tony Vallelonga.  The film is anchored by the tremendous performances of its two leading men.  Mr. Ali embodies Don Shirley’s incredible core of strength and dignity as he struggles daily against vicious prejudice and pushes back against those ignorant attitudes.  Meanwhile, Mr. Mortensen bowled me over, yet again, with his incredible ability to transform his voice and his entire physicality to inhabit the role of the dim but well-meaning Tony.  There has been backlash against this film recently for misrepresenting who Don Shirley was and not involving the Shirley family in the making of the film.  I’d probably have ranked this film higher on my list if I felt it was more accurate to the true story.  These accusations, if true, are troubling, but even when I thought this film was based more strongly on a true story, it was clear to me when watching it that I was watching a Hollywood fairy-tale rather than historical fact.  I am OK with that.  The story depicted in the film remains moving and powerful, and with an … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse!

Is it possible that I just saw the very best Spider-Man movie ever?  I think I did!  I have huge love for Sam Raimi’s first two Spider-Man films, and the recent Spider-Man: Homecoming was also terrific.  But, my friends, I think we may have a new champion!

The animated Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse tells the story of Miles Morales.  Miles is a young man from Brooklyn, son of an African American father and a Puerto Rican mother.  His life is turned upside down after witnessing the death of Spider-Man, revealed to the world as Peter Parker.  With Spider-Man out of the way, it seems there is no one who can stop the Kingpin’s evil schemes.  So Miles steps to the plate, assisted by an unlikely team of Spider-allies from across the multiverse…

I am blown away by how amazing Into the Spider-Verse is.  Don’t dismiss it because it’s animated!  This is an extraordinary piece of work.  It is hilarious and joyous, while also frequently attaining an emotional richness far beyond what is found in most blockbuster films.  The animation is gorgeous, approaching genius-level in creativity.  This film works in every possible way.  I truly couldn’t have asked for anything more.

Miles Morales, the African American/Puerto Rican Spider-Man, was created by Brian Michael Bendis and Sara Pichelli.  For a long while, this character appeared in Marvel’s “Ultimate” universe, an offshoot of the main Marvel universe that allowed creators to rethink many of Marvel’s most popular characters.  (However, following the events of 2015’s Secret Wars crossover, Miles was brought over to the main Marvel universe.)  I’ve been a huge fan of the Miles character ever since issue one.  (Which was, technically, Ultimate Fallout #4.  Don’t question my nerd credentials!)  I am beyond thrilled to finally see Miles brought to life on-screen!  I never quite thought I’d see this day.

Not only is Miles finally appearing in a movie, but his story has been adapted in such a faithful manner!  I am blown away!  The Miles in Into the Spider-Verse is 100% the comic-book version created by Mr. Bendis and Ms. Pichelli.  They got the character absolutely perfect here.  I can’t believe how many great Miles storylines from the comics, many of which unfolded over the course of years, were incorporated into the film!  For instance, I was delighted that Miles’ complicated relationships with his father and his uncle Aaron was such an important part of the film.  And they even found a way to use the story of Miles’ friendship with the Spider-Gwen character!  Wow!

I was so excited when this film was announced, but then, when I learned of the Spider-Verse title, I was worried that Miles would wind up getting … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Green Book

Set in 1962, the film Green Book tells the story of the eight weeks that African-American jazz pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) and Italian-American Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) spent on the road together.  The out-of-work Tony was hired as Don Shirley’s driver, as Shirley’s jazz trio embarked on a tour of the Deep South.  Tony’s assignment, from Don’s record label, was to make sure that Don made it to each of his pre-booked dates, and to take care of any trouble that might arise along the way.  The men at first seem like oil and water, but as their weeks on the road progress, they eventually strike up an unlikely friendship.

The film is based on a true story, and the screenplay was written by Tony’s son Nick Vallelonga, along with Peter Farrelly and Brian Hayes Currie.  The film’s title refers to the Negro Motorist Green Book, a handbook used by African-American travelers in that era

Green Book is a warm fable the likes of which is a little out of style these days, and I suppose one could find fault with the film for the way it follows very familiar beats.  You know from minute one that the very different Tony and Don will overcome their initial mutual dislike, and very different ethnic and class backgrounds, to become friends by the time the end-credits role.  Trust me, I’m not spoiling anything by revealing that here in the opening paragraphs of my review.

But while it’s story-beats might feel a little familiar, I found Green Book to be a delight, primarily because of the exceptional work of the two lead actors.

I have been a fan of Mahershala Ali’s since his days as the best part of The 4400 (a sci-fi show that was never quite as good as I’d hoped it would be).  Mr. Ali has been doing consistently great work for years, but he’s really shot into the spotlight recently with his amazing work in Moonlight and a fun recurring role on the first season of Netflix’s Luke Cage.  He’s terrific here as Don Shirley.  What I love about this film, and Mr. Ali’s performance, is that they have avoided the stereotype of the perfect, angelic African-American character.  Don Shirley is not Hoke (from Driving Miss Daisy).  No, Don Shirley is… well, an uptight prick.  He’s an extraordinarily talented, genius-level musician, but he’s also stuck-up, curt, isolated and lonely.  This is not an easy-to-like character.  Mr. Ali’s work (and the strong script), however, allow us to understand him and empathize with him as we gradually learn more about who Don Shirley is and why he is that way.  We see his daily struggles against vicious prejudice and … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Moonlight

February 20th, 2017
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In Barry Jenkins’ riveting, heartbreaking film Moonlight, we follow the journey from childhood to manhood of a gay, African-American boy Chiron.  The film presents Chrion’s story in three parts.  At first, we meet Chiron as a quiet, lonely boy who is bullied by his peers and being raised by a single mother.  Chiron forms a connection with a drug-dealer, Juan (Mahershala Ali), who takes Chiron under his wing.  In the second part, we see Chiron as a high school student, struggling to come to grips with his homosexuality while dealing with his mother, now lost to drug abuse, and the increasingly brutal torment from the other boys at school.  In the third part, we see Chiron as a muscled drug-dealer himself, styled after Juan, who is drawn back to his home town and a re-connection with a childhood friend, Kevin.

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Moonlight is a triumph, a deeply emotional film that is a richly affecting character study of this lost boy, Chiron.  The central question of Moonlight is of Chiron’s identity.  Who is he, at heart, and who will he become?  The three chapters are each titled with one of his names or nicknames (part one is “Little,” part two is “Chiron,” and part three is “Black”).  In a critical scene in the first chapter, Juan tells a story of how he earned the nickname “Blue” as a child.  When Chiron asks him if that’s the name he then went by, Juan responds by saying that you can’t let others define your identity for you.  In that chapter, we see that Chiron as a boy is known as “Little” by the other kids because of his small stature and quiet, gentle nature.  They look down on him, and bully him.  “Black,” meanwhile, is an affectionate nickname that his friend Kevin gave him.  But in chapter three, the persona of “Black” that Chiron has created seems to be a striking recreation of Juan, the role model who, briefly, meant so much to Chiron as a little boy.  But none of these personas represent who Chiron is as a person; “Black,” the hardened drug-dealer, least of all.  The wrenching question raised by the film, and running across all three chapters, is whether Chiron can somehow navigate the tough circumstances in which he has grown up in order to find himself.  The movie’s ambiguous ending does not allow us any happy, easy answers.

Mahershala Ali has had a hell of a 2016.  He was phenomenal as the villain in Luke Cage, and very solid in a small but important role in Hidden Figures.  But man oh man does he crush it here in this role of Juan.  I’ve been a fan of Mr. … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Netflix’s Luke Cage!

Season one of Netflix’s Daredevil was a revelation.  I was blown away by that gritty, intense, adult take on Marvel’s blind super-hero.  Season one of Jessica Jones was just as good if not better: a riveting take on a character whose life was torn apart by a trauma and a chronicle of her achingly slow, step-by-step effort to put her life back together.  I also quite enjoyed the second season of Daredevil, with its great take on the Punisher (presented as he should be: not as the hero of his own story but as the complicated villain of Daredevil’s story), though they dropped the ball somewhat with the season’s ending.  So I was pumped to watch Luke Cage, Netflix’s third super-hero show and fourth super-hero season.

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There is a lot to like about Luke Cage.  I love the atmosphere of this show, the characters, the music, the idiosyncratic camerawork.  I love that this show, about a proud, strong African-American super-hero, has so many African-Americans involved creatively, both in the cast and behind the scenes.  This gives Luke Cage a strikingly different look and feel from the other three Netflix super-hero seasons we’ve seen so far, and I love that.

The problem is that the story-telling here in this first season of Luke Cage is extremely weak.  Character-arcs are disjointed and disconnected, and plot twists are either head-scratching obvious or so out of left-field as to be equally frustrating.  This show makes the narrative stalling of Lost seem incredibly fast-paced; shockingly little actually happens over the course of these thirteen episodes.

The result is that while I certainly enjoyed watching this season of Luke Cage, this was unquestionably the weakest of the Marvel Netflix shows so far.

Let’s circle back to what’s good.  The cast is phenomenal.  Mike Colter was immediately amazing and iconic as Luke Cage when he appeared in Jessica Jones, and he easily shoulders the burden of being the lead now in his own series.  I love Mr. Colter’s performance as Luke, he absolutely nails this character.  He is noble and courageous while never losing the reality of what it would be like to be this man, gifted with bulletproof skin but who doesn’t consider himself a hero.

I have been a fan of Mahershala Ali ever since he appeared in the short-lived sci-fi series The 4400.  (Back then he was credited by the even longer and more amazing name of Mahershalalhashbaz Ali.)  He was phenomenal back on that show, probably the best thing about it, and I have enjoyed his work in the years since in films like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Predators, and the Hunger Games sequels.  He’s terrific here … [continued]

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The Top 15 Movies of 2013 — Part One!

Hello, everyone!  I have been working very hard over the past several weeks to prepare all of my annual Best of 2013 lists!  First up: my list of the Top 15 Movies of 2013!

I saw a lot of movies in 2013, and in particular, over the past month-or-so I have been scrambling to see not only all of the big end-of-the-year releases, but also to try to catch up on as many 2013 movies that I had missed as possible.  Even so, there are still a number of 2013 films that I just wasn’t able to find the time to see, including but not limited to: Saving Mr. Banks, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Only God Forgives, Short Term 12, Stories We Tell, Prince Avalanche, Nebraska, Rush, Under The Skin, and more.  I also have yet to see Spike Jonze’s new film Her, which hasn’t been released here in the Boston area as of this writing.  (It opened in NYC and LA at the very end of December, but wasn’t released anywhere else until this week.  Though many people included Her on their end-of-the-year best-of lists, I sort of feel like, if I enjoy it, it should go on 2014’s list!  But we’ll see.)  So, anyways, if you loved one of those films and wish it was on my list, my apologies!

There were a lot of movies that I enjoyed in 2013 that didn’t make this list.  These include: Blue Jasmine, Captain Phillips, All is Lost, Man of Steel, The Heat, Elysium, Machete Kills, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Frances Ha, The Kings of Summer, 42, The Bling Ring, and others.  (That last bunch of films were among the many movies I watched in the last few weeks, as part of my “Catching Up on 2013” project.  I hope to post reviews of all those films, and more, on the site in the coming weeks.)

But for now, without any further delay, let’s dive into my list of the Top 15 Movies of 2013!

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15. Drew: The Man Behind the Poster This is the very last film I saw, just last week, before making my final decisions about this list.  It’s a documentary about the extraordinarily-talented Drew Struzan, one of if not the very best movie poster illustrators who ever lived.  Mr. Struzan has illustrated so many iconic movie posters: for all of the Back to the Future films, for all of the Indiana Jones films, and for many of the Star Wars films (one of the posters for the original film, the iconic original Revenge of the Jedi poster, and all of the posters … [continued]

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From the DVD Shelf: The Place Beyond the Pines

I didn’t see director Derek Cianfrance’s 2010 film, Blue Valentine, though I certainly read about it when it came out.  (The film got a lot of acclaim, and also a lot of ink due to its NC-17 rating.)  It’s a film I am interested in seeing one of these days, but for whatever reason it’s never been too high on my list, always bumped in favor of other films I choose to see instead.  However, Mr. Cianfrance’s follow-up film that was released earlier this year, The Place Beyond the Pines, immediately struck me as a film I wanted to make it my business to see.  Sometimes it’s obvious why I want to see a film or don’t want to see one, but with this, I’m not entirely sure what grabbed me about it.  Until I saw it a few weeks ago, I never really knew much of anything about what the film was about.  I was intrigued by the top-shelf cast, which includes Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Ray Liotta, Eva Mendes, Harris Yulin (such an indelible part of my childhood from his role in Ghostbusters II),  Mahershala Ali (who I loved in The 4400 and who was also great in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button),  Bruce Greenwood (JFK!  Captain Pike!), Rose Byrne, and Dane DeHaan (so memorable in Chronicle).  I also think I was intrigued by the tone of what looked like a tense little character study/ crime story… and for sure I was grabbed by the mysterious title.

I am glad to have seen The Place Beyond the Pines, because the film really blew me away.  It was not at all the movie I thought it would be.  Usually that spells disappointment, but in this case The Place Beyond the Pines wound up being a far more epic, far more thoughtful film than I’d thought it would be.  The film is dour, and wrenching to watch.  This isn’t a very crowd-pleasing film — I can see why it barely made a blip at the box office.  I loved it, and I am not sure it’s a film I ever necessarily want to see again!  But I am delighted to have seen it and extraordinarily impressed by the work of everyone involved.

The film begins by introducing us to Luke (Ryan Gosling).  The first several minutes of the film are a phenomenally well-crafted introduction to the character.  At first, all we see of him is a well-muscled, tattooed torso, flipping a knife open and shut at rapid speed.  Then we follow him from the back of his head as he walks out of his room (or trailer, hard to tell) and through a crowd … [continued]

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The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

This is the film I’ve been waiting for.

Steph and I took advantage of our vacation to see a LOT of the big Oscar-hopeful films that have been released in the past few weeks.  As usual, there has been a crazy end-of-the-year rush of “serious” films, many of which won’t get a wide release for several weeks yet.  While we enjoyed almost all of the films we saw (and I’ll be writing about them all in the coming days), none of them really stood out.  Until David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

The film is magnificent.  It is emotional and haunting, and it is epic and transporting in all the ways that a truly special film is.  Spanning the years (almost a century) between the last day of World War I and the landfall of Hurricane Katrina, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button tells the life story of Benjamin (Brad Pitt), who is born as a baby with all the features of an extremely aged man, and who proceeds to live his life aging backwards.  But while Benjamin Button gets the film’s title all to himself, the movie is also every bit the story of his true love, Daisy (Cate Blanchett).  Pitt and Blanchett both turn in powerful, subtle performances.  Benjamin Button is a very quiet film — there are not a lot of acting histrionics to be found.  With the help of amazing makeup and absolutely seamless CGI work, Pitt and Blanchett breathe poignant life into these two people through all the many years of their lives, as one gets older and the other gets younger.  This is a story about loss, about loneliness, and about death, and it is made staggeringly powerful by the way that Pitt and Blanchett capture the audience with their performances.

Over the course of Benjamin’s curious life, he meets quite a few other interesting folks, embodied by some wonderful actors.  Taraji P. Henson plays Benjamin’s sweet and powerful adoptive mother, Queenie.  Mahershalalhashbaz Ali (who was the best thing about the cancelled-too-soon sci-fi series The 4400, and good god do I love his name) plays Tizzy, the man who, for too short a while, becomes a father figure for Benjamin.  Jared Harris plays another father figure, the charismatic, often-drunk Captain Mike, who helps the young Benjamin take his first steps out into the wider world.  Jason Flemyng (Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels) plays Thomas Button, Benjamin’s biological father, bringing complexity and depth too this man who we (and Benjamin) should hate but can’t quite do so.  Then there’s Tilda Swinton, who has been getting a lot of press, and rightly so, for her performance as Elizabeth Abbott, a … [continued]