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The Top 15 Movies of 2013 — Part Three!

Click here for part one of my list of the Top 15 Movies of 2013, and click here for part two!  And now, let’s complete my list:

The_Wolf_of_Wall_Street

5. The Wolf of Wall Street This is a very polarizing film.  I’ve had a lot of debates with folks ever since I published my very positive review of the film.  I stand by every word I wrote.  This is Martin Scorsese back at the very top of his game, telling a raucously entertaining but also fiercely angry story about Wall Street scumbags.  This is an epic film, three hours long, but I felt that it flew by and felt like a film half its run-time, so engaged was I by the story unfolding before me.  There are some spectacular performances in this film, particularly a very, very funny Jonah Hill and an absolutely magnetic Leonardo DiCaprio, using every watt of his charisma to show us how this man, Jordan Belfort, rose from nothing to become a man of huge wealth, all on the backs of others.  This is a film that might offend some, as Mr. Scorsese and his team don’t flinch away from showing us the sex-and-drugs-fueled antics of Jordan and his cronies.  How great is it that 71-year-old Martin Scorsese is still making movies that can push people’s buttons!  Personally, I was spellbound by the bravura filmmaking on display.  (Click here for my original review.)

GRAVITY

4. Gravity Speaking of bravura filmmaking: Alfonso Cuaron’s thrilling survival story in outer space is a visual effects extravaganza, gloriously beautiful and dazzlingly ambitious.  Mr. Cuaron’s filmmaking is beyond anything I have ever seen before, taking full advantage of the 3-D to pull the audience right into the middle of the story.  Watching this story unfold in IMAX 3-D was a riveting experience.  Mr. Cuaron’s lengthy, seemingly uninterrupted takes are incredibly inventive and impressive from a filmmaking aspect, but they’re not just empty cinematic exercises — they give this fantastical, sci-fi story a you-are-right-there-in-the-middle-of-it reality that is extraordinary.  All of this would be useless, though, were not this sci-fi story balanced by a small-scale, deeply personal tale of one woman’s struggle to find a reason for living again in the wake of grief, and were it not anchored by Sandra Bullock’s gripping, gritty performance (and great supporting work from George Clooney).  This is a marvelously original movie that pushed the boundaries of cinema while also telling a heart-pumpingly engaging story.  I loved it.  (Click here for my original review.)

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3. Much Ado About Nothing Joss Whedon’s adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, filmed on a low budget over twelve days in Mr. Whedon’s … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews The Wolf of Wall Street

At seventy-one years old, Martin Scorsese has unleashed upon us a work of towering ambition and accomplishment, with a rabble-rousing energy and anger that far outstrips most films made by filmmakers half his age.  The Wolf of Wall Street is a three hour epic, fiercely entertaining and stomach-churningly upsetting all at the same time.  This is Mr. Scorsese working at the very top of his game, crafting a story that is at once epic in scope and profoundly intimate.  This is a crime saga that stands tall next to Goodfellas and Casino, films that I never thought Mr. Scorsese would be able to equal in the later years of his careeer.  (And yes, like most of the rest of you, I agree that Goodfellas is a stronger film that Casino, but I unabashedly love Casino and find it to be a remarkably under-appreciated masterpiece.)

But whereas Mr. Scorsese’s previous films about the rise and fall of men involved in organized crime always felt, to me, like stories that took place far outside of my personal frame of reference, the genius and power of The Wolf of Wall Street is that Mr. Scorsese has found a crime story that strikes much closer to home, at least for me.  I don’t work on Wall Street, but crime-without-guns seems much closer to the world of my day to day life.  This crime story is mostly populated by men and women who I feel like I could have known.  This particular crime story doesn’t involve bullets and dead bodies, but rather bloodless financial transactions that, nevertheless, affected arguably a far wider number of every-day Americans.  The story is all the more horrifying because of it.

The center of the film is Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort.  Wen the film opens we see Mr. Belfort at his opulent height, but the film quickly flashes back to several years earlier, to a young Mr. Belfort’s first day on Wall Street.  He catches the eye of a senior man in the firm, Mark Hanna (played by Matthew McConaughey).  Hanna takes Belfort out to a booze-filled lunch, and lays out for the young man the fuck-your-clients, earn as much money for yourself as you can principles by which he operates.  We can see Belfort buy in immediately.  (Mr. McConaughey is only in a few scenes at the start of the film, but he is absolutely fantastic, and this lunch scene is astounding.)

Despite his skills, though, young Belfort finds himself out of work after the terrible day on Wall Street in October, 1987, that resulted in the firm that employed him (L.P. Rothschild) shutting its doors.  With no Wall Street firms looking to hire stockbrokers, Belfort finds himself … [continued]

 

From the DVD Shelf: The Color of Money (1986)

After watching The Hustler (click here for my review of that 1961 film), I immediately had to watch Martin Scorsese’s The Color of Money. This has to be one of the weirdest sequels ever made.  Released twenty-five years after the original film, made by a different director, shot in color as opposed to the original’s black-and-white, The Color of Money is a completely different film than The Hustler. And yet, I was impressed by how connected the two films were, mostly because of the story — which, though set years later, seems to draw a direct line from the end of The Hustler — and, of course, Paul Newman’s reprisal of his classic role as “Fast” Eddie Felson.

Like The Hustler, The Color of Money was adapted from a novel by Walter Tevis.  Following the events of The Hustler, Eddie stopped being a pool shark.  He seems to have made a fine (though not especially successful) life for himself, but when he sees an incredibly talented young pool player, Vincent (played by Tom Cruise), Eddie begins to hunger once again for the action.  He convinces Vincent to let Eddie take him on the road, so he can teach Vincent the pool shark game and hopefully make the both of them a lot of money.

As in The Hustler, the film succeeds primarily because Paul Newman is so fantastic in the role of “Fast” Eddie.  Mr. Newman may be an older man, but he’s still incredibly compelling and charismatic.  You can see in the way he talks, and the way he moves, the powerful young man that “Fast” Eddie once was.  As the film progresses, the narrative keeps the audience in genuine doubt as to whether Eddie still has what it takes to beat the odds and get the score, or whether he’s just a washed up old man with memories of glory.  Mr. Newman’s powerful yet subtle performance allows the audience to envision both possibilities.

The beating heart of The Color of Money, of course, and the film’s whole reason for being, is the pairing of elder statesman Paul Newman with the young Tom Cruise as Vincent.  Mr. Cruise is electric in the role.  Vincent is brash and loud, full of energy and enthusiasm and lust for life, but totally without patience and not exactly possessing of a plethora of brains.  The twenty-four year-old Cruise commands the viewer’s attention, and when he and Paul Newman share the screen (as they do for much of the film’s run-time), their chemistry is palpable and exciting.  It’s a terrific dynamic, and certainly one that helps you understand why the filmmakers felt like a return to “Fast” Eddie and the world of … [continued]

 

From the DVD Shelf: Raging Bull (1980)

Well, after finally watching, for the first time, Martin Scorsese’s seminal 1976 film Taxi Driver (click here for my review), I decided to move on to another gaping hole in my film-watching history: Raging Bull.

I of course knew that Robert De Niro starred in the film as real-life boxer Jake La Motta.  Raging Bull follows Jake’s life for about twenty-five years, from his early days as a lean, hungry-for-a-chance boxer to his middle-age as an over-the-hill, over-weight ex-con.  As was Taxi Driver, Raging Bull is a tour de force acting performance by Robert De Niro.  (It’s amazing to me that the Robert De Niro we see today in the Meet the Parents films is the same man as this incredibly intense, powerful actor seen in these films from three decades ago.)  I suspect everyone reading this blog know the stories of Mr. De Niro’s astonishing weight-gain (during a planned hiatus in filming) so that he could portray with full emotional honesty the fat failure De Motta became after the collapse of his boxing career.  Frankly, it feels to me like a bit of overindulgent actorly nonsense that Mr. De Niro believed the only way he could portray the over-the-hill De Motta was by gaining the weight himself (rather than using any prosthetics).  I could name many great actors who have created AMAZING performances when buried under prosthetics, thus bringing all manner of often-otherworldly characters to incredible light.  And I’m not just talking about actors in sci-fi or fantasy movies.  Yes, there were some tremendous prosthetics-enhanced performances in, say, the Lord of the Rings films (John Rhys-Davies as Gimli comes to mind), but how about Orson Welles in Citizen Kane?? (Read my thoughts on Citizen Kane here.)

Be that as it may, there is something viscerally shocking when we get our first glimpse of the rotund late-in-life La Motta, knowing that the flabby form we’re seeing is Mr. De Niro’s real body.  It’s hard to believe that the lean, well-muscled boxer we saw earlier has transformed into this sorry sight, and even HARDER to believe that one actor made the same transformation in just a few months.

But there’s far more to Mr. De Niro’s performance than just the gimmick of his weight gain.  In fact, in some ways, I think all that focus on the weight gain distracts from what a phenomenally compelling performance Mr. De Niro delivers in the film.  As in Taxi Driver, Mr. De Niro’s intensity reaches out from the screen and grabs the viewer by the throat, forcing you to keep watching him, daring you to look away.  In his own way, the angry, jealous, wife-beating La Motta is just as … [continued]

 

From the DVD Shelf: Taxi Driver (1976)

Can you believe I’d never seen Taxi Driver?

I’m fairly well-seen when it comes to famous films, and I’m a big fan of Martin Scorsese.  But somehow I’d never seen Taxi Driver or Raging Bull. Well, last month I finally saw them both.  I’ll be back next week with my thoughts on Raging Bull, but for now let’s dive into Taxi Driver.

Holy cow, what a great movie!!

The film feels just as potent and dangerous as it must have felt back in 1976.  I was on edge right from the very beginning.  From the first instant we meet lonely, insomniac Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), it’s clear this young man is a time bomb just ticking down the moments until it’s going to explode.  Mr. Scorsese and Mr. De Niro’s partnership has never been more powerful than it was in this film, their focus laser-sharp on the roiling emotions of this lost young man.

Robert De Niro is simply astounding as Travis, jaw-dropingly fierce as the self-descibed “God’s lonely man.”  He seems almost gentle when we first meet him, quietly applying for a job driving a taxi.  When we see him start to somewhat haplessly woo the young campaign-worker Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), though, it’s more uncomfortable than comic, since it’s clear this isn’t going to end well.  We see a hint of charisma, and an intriguing intensity, when he marches into Palantine’s campaign office to ask Betsy out on a date, and watching that intensity turn brittle and then angry at the world around him is the tragedy of Taxi Driver.

The film is not a war movie, but I found it impossible to watch Taxi Driver without feeling constantly that the film was deeply rooted in the social and psychological ramifications of the Vietnam War.  Travis is a vet, and although his experiences in ‘Nam are never explicitly discussed in the film, to me that piece of backstory flavored everything I was watching unfold.  This character who is a stranger in his own skin, who had difficulty fitting in to society’s expectations, feels similar to the struggle that countless Vietnam veterans must have gone through following their return home.  That Travis also finds himself drawn towards violence feels all the more tragically unsurprising because of his Vietnam experiences.

As was often the case with Mr. De Niro’s early performances, the physicality that he brought to the part was a critical combination with his riveting intensity.  Much has been written, of course, of Mr. De Niro’s dramatic weight gain to depict the late-in-life Jake La Motta in Raging Bull, but in Taxi Driver Mr. De Niro brings exactly the opposite physical presence.  There’s a scene late in the film, … [continued]

 

The Top 10 Episodes of TV in 2011 — Part One!

Well, we’ve finally arrived at my last Top 10 list for 2011.  I hope you’ve enjoyed the previous lists!  (Follow these links to check out my Top 15 Movies of 2011: part one, part two, part three, my Top 15 Comic Book Series of 2011: part one, and part two, and my Top 10 DVDs/Blu-Rays of 2011.)

To be honest, I wasn’t sure I was going to put together a Top 10 Episodes of TV list this year.  For a whole host of reasons, I don’t watch nearly as much TV as I used to.  I’m super-busy, and there just aren’t that many shows that interest me enough to want to watch religiously these days.  And a whole heck of a lot of the TV I watched this past year was OLDER TV — in the form of DVD box-sets (of It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, The Larry Sanders Show, Party Down, etc.).  There’s a lot of current TV that interests me that I just haven’t had time to watch: Boardwalk Empire, Breaking Bad, Community, Homeland, Louie (season 2 — I have watched season 1 on DVD and LOVED it — I’ll be posting a review soon), Bored to Death (I also just finished season 1 on DVD and loved it — I’ll be posting a review of this soon, as well, and I’m hoping to get to seasons 2 and 3 soon).  All of those shows look interesting and I do hope to eventually sink my teeth in them all via the magic of DVD.

So I felt weird putting together a list, seeing that there’s so much probably-great TV out there that I haven’t seen.  But when I sat down to start to compile the list, I was pleasantly surprised by how easily the top ten choices manifested themselves.  I guess I DID watch some great TV this year!  But keep the above list of TV-I-haven’t-yet-seen in mind when perusing my choices.  OK, enough intro, let’s dive in:

10. Game of Thrones: “You Win or You Die” (season 1, episode 7, aired on 5/29/11) – I’ve never read any of the A Song of Ice and Fire novels by George R.R. Martin, and I wasn’t immediately taken by the first few hours of the HBO adaptation.  But after a few episodes, the complex fantasy story started to get its hooks in me, and by the time I arrived at this stand-out episode I was loving this show like few other things on TV.  Pretty much all of the show’s continuing story-lines jumped to the next level in this installment, which left me absolutely desperate for the next episode … [continued]

 

The Top 15 Movies of 2011 — Part Three!

Click here for part one of my Top 15 Movies of 2011 list, numbers fifteen through eleven, and here for part two, featuring numbers ten through six. Buckle up, now, as it’s time for the home stretch, the best of the best (at least in my humble opinion) of 2011!

5.  Young Adult Juno writer and director Diablo Cody and Jason Reitman re-team for a deliciously dark comedy about a twisted, pretty-much irredeemably terrible young woman named Mavis Gary (a magnificent Charlize Theron) who returns to the small hometown she left years before, in an attempt to win back her old jock boyfriend (Patrick Wilson). He’s married with a young baby, but so what?  During her week back in town, Mavis bumps into another high school classmate, the nerdy, disabled Matt (Patton Oswalt). The two strike up a weird sort-of friendship, and the way the arc of that pairing avoids any of the typical movie cliche ways that those sorts of relationships usually unfold on-screen is only one way in which this movie is unremittingly awesome.  The running gag about the way Mavis wakes up each morning, the terrific chemistry between Ms. Theron and Mr. Oswalt, and that pitch-perfect ending are just a few others.  A phenomenal film.  (Click here for my full review.)

4.   The Adventures of TintinShould anyone be surprised that the team-up of cinematic titans Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson produced gold?  This deliriously joyful, madcap adventure is non-stop pulpy fun from start-to-finish.  The film just zips on by, one incredible sequence after another, with Mr. Spielberg showing us once again how he is an absolute master at staging an action scene and assembling a crowd-pleasing adventure film.  The animation is gorgeous, the voice-work is impeccable (highlighted by another brilliant performance by the great Andy Serkis — I also praised his work in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, when I wrote about that film earlier on this list), and when the closing credits ran I couldn’t believe the film was over already.  This one is going to get a lot of play in my household in the coming years, of that I have no doubt.  I can’t wait for the sequel, in which Mr. Spielberg and Mr. Jackson will apparently switch roles (so that Mr. Spielberg will produce the film and Mr. Jackson will direct).  (Click here for my full review.)

3.  BridesmaidsKirsten Wiig and co-writer Annie Mumolo, working with brilliant comedy director Paul Feig (creator of Freaks of Geeks), producer Judd Apatow, and a tremendous cast of women, hit every note exactly perfectly in this comedic home-run.  The film is … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews Hugo (3-D)

Martin Scorsese isn’t exactly the first name I think of when I think about family-friendly adventure films, but with Hugo, the master proves once and again his incredible control of the medium of film, no matter the genre.  Hugo is a breathtaking work of genius, and I found myself enraptured by the film’s propulsive energy and the exuberant love for film and, indeed, for all works of art, that pores out of every frame of the movie.

The Hugo in Hugo (adapted from from The Adventures of Hugo Cabret, which was written and illustrated by Brian Selznick) is a young boy living in the walls of a Paris train-station in the 1930′s.  His parents are dead, and the uncle who adopted him is a drunkard who eventually abandoned him.  But not before teaching young Hugo how to mind all of the clocks in the station, a task which Hugo has secretly continued to do.  All the while he has scrounged tools and supplies to work on repairing a broken automata (an elaborate wind-up figure), which he and his father were working on together before his father’s death.  When Hugo is caught, mid-theft, by the crochety old man who runs a small toy booth in the station, Hugo agrees to work for him to repay what he has stolen.  He is quickly befriended by the intelligent, well-read young girl, Isabelle, in the man’s care.  The bond between Hugo and Isabelle grows as they start to realize that the old man, whom she refers to as Papa Georges, hides secrets of his own, including a possible connection to Hugo’s automata.

In my first paragraph I described Hugo as a family-friendly film, but don’t take that to mean that the film is childish or simplistic.  Quite the contrary, I found Hugo to be richly layered and nuanced.  There is fun adventure to be had as the tale unfolds, but also great sadness and melancholy.  (If you’re looking for something to compare it to, in tone, I would direct you to Pixar’s Up.)

Right from the opening frames, the film is gorgeous.  Mr. Scorsese uses visual effects with extraordinary aplomb.  The opening shots juxtapose the gorgeous city-scape of 1930′s Paris with the complex gears and inner mechanisms of a clock, and the sequence is thrilling and clever.  The environment of the city, and of the city-within-the-city that the train station represents, is brought to fully-realized, teeming life.  I don’t know where the beautiful costumes and sets end and the computer-generated effects begin, and that’s just the way I like it.  Every frame of the film is packed with fascinating imagery — if my eye ever wandered from the main action, there was always … [continued]

 

Catching Up on 2010: Josh Reviews Shutter Island

March 4th, 2011
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And so we come at last to the final installment (for now, at least!) of my “Catching Up on 2010″ series, in which I’ve been writing about all of the 2010 films that I watched in my very busy January attempt to catch up on as many of the 2010 films that I’d missed as possible.

Martin Scorcese’s new film, Shutter Island, didn’t much interest me when it came out last summer.  But it was a new Scorsese picture, so it automatically had my attention.  I never got around to seeing it in theatres, but I was able to catch up to it on DVD last month.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays Teddy Daniels, a US Marshall dispatched, along with his partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), to investigate the disappearance of an inmate at Shutter Island, a mental hospital for the criminally insane located off the coast of Massachusetts.  The woman, Rachel, seems to have vanished without a trace from within her locked cell.

Right away from the beginning of the film, I was a bit put off by the over-wrought score.  Every beat in those early moments was punctuated by bombastic, creepy music that seemed to state loudly, just in case we missed it, that SHUTTER ISLAND IS EVIL and something REALLY BAD is going on there!  I felt that the dour overcast skies, the deranged-looking inmates, the imposing architecture, and the unfolding story would have been more than sufficient to establish a suitably fearsome, unsettled vibe, which is clearly what Mr. Scorsese was going for in those opening scenes.  I didn’t think there was any need for the over-the-top score to shove that in our faces.

But once the plot began to unfold I thought the film settled down into a nice rhythm.  There are some great actors at play in this film, and I enjoyed watching the mysteries of the story develop and deepen.  I was also quite struck by the backstory given to Mr. DiCaprio’s character, Teddy.  It turns out that he was involved in the liberation of a concentration camp at the end of WWII, and he is haunted by the atrocities he witnessed — as well as the reprisals against the German soldiers of the camp that he participated in.  That particular story point caught me off-guard.  I had no idea that the Holocaust played any part in the story of Shutter Island.  (The trailers wisely left that tid-bit out.)  I was intrigued by this revelation of Teddy’s back-story.  It indicated to me that perhaps there was far more going on in Shutter island than just a ghost story, and that Mr. Scorsese and his collaborators (including Laeta Kalogridis, adapting Dennis Lehane’s novel) had … [continued]

 

From the DVD Shelf: The Departed

As with Charlie Wilson’s War (which I wrote about on Wednesday), The Departed is a movie whose DVD has been sitting on my shelf for a while now, waiting for me to revisit it (after really enjoying my first viewing when I saw it in theatres).  I am pleased to say I enjoyed the film during its second viewing as much as I did during its first.

The Departed is a sprawling film that focuses on two young men who are, in many ways, the mirror opposites of one another.  Leonardo DiCaprio plays Billy Costigan, a state cop assigned to infiltrate the mob run by Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson), while Matt Damon plays Colin Sullivan, one of Costello’s men who is assigned to infiltrate the state police.  The film deftly follows their two stories, as each one works to make a name for himself in his new world, all the while scrambling to stay one step ahead of discovery.  William Monahan’s script is taut and smart, giving DiCaprio and Damon plenty of great character material to work with, while also fashioning a throughly entertaining, twisty narrative.  (I am becoming an enormous fan of Mr. Monahan’s writing, by the way.  In addition to his work in The Departed, I thoroughly enjoyed his script for Ridley Scott’s criminally-underrated Kingdom of Heaven.)

As good as Damon and DiCaprio are, though, they almost have the movie stolen right out from under them by Alec Baldwin and Mark Wahlberg, who are both absolutely magnificent playing two gleefully profane Boston detectives.  Martin Sheen is a great father figure as Police Captain Queenan, and Jack Nicholson — well, he’s Jack!  Completely over-the-top but somehow still believable as the dangerous Costello.

Having lived in both Providence and Boston, I really enjoyed the film’s focus on the distinct flavors of those two great cities.  I love movies that dig into a particular subculture, whether that’s a documentary such as Spellbound or Wordplay, or a movie like Adventureland (which I reviewed here) that captures the life of kids working a summer job at an amusement park.  So it’s no great surprise that I was tickled by The Departed‘s focus on life in Providence and Boston, two cities that are both quite different than, say, New York.  Now, I can’t really vouch for the veracity of the depiction of the crime families of those two towns, but I can say that I think Mr. Scorsese and his collaborators really captured the unique FEEL of those two cities.  

This is a big story being told, taking place over many years and with a lot of characters and a lot of narrative twists and turns.  It is … [continued]