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Josh’s Favorite Movies of 2017 — Part Three!

Click here for part one of my list of my favorite movies of 2017, and click here for part two!  And now, onwards into my TOP TEN:

10. It 2017 brought two Stephen King adaptations that I was super-excited about.  Sadly, The Dark Tower was a dud, but It was even better than I had dared hope.  The film is very scary and filled with the sorts of nightmare-inducing imagery that you might expect.  But the reason the movie works as well as it does is that, just as the original novel did, it takes the time to develop every one of the seven kids who are involved in the story, so that by the end you know and care about every single one of them.  There isn’t a weak link in this remarkable assemblage of child actors.  I am almost sorry that the sequel will feature these characters as adults (the original novel tells two parallel stories, but this first film adaptation wisely chose to only tell the half of the story set when the kids were thirteen), because I’d love to see lots more movies with this cast!  Like all the best fantasy or sci-fi stories, the fantastical elements in It are an allegory.  It is a story about growing up, about that moment in which one leaves childhood behind and takes that first, tentative step into adulthood and the wider world beyond.  I was hooked into this film from the first frame until the last.  (Click here for my full review.)

9. Baby Driver  That Edgar Wright has not directed a film since his vastly-underrated 2010 film Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is a crime against humanity, a fact reinforced by how terrific his long-awaited return to cinemas, Baby Driver, is.  This is a fiercely entertaining rush of a film, with every instant of screen-time packed to the gills with great music, exciting action sequences, and witty dialogue.  The cast is spectacular (Jon Hamm is a stand-out), the dialogue is razor-sharp, and the film’s score is magnificent, a marvelous array of music that comes together to create a distinct world and vibe for the film.  The main character Baby’s identity is wrapped up in the music he listens to (particularly when working as a get-away driver for criminals) and the music he makes, and so too is Baby Driver the film completely of a piece with the music in its score.  And who knew Edgar Wright could direct action so well??  The car-chase action in the film is extraordinary, visceral and thrilling.  Baby Driver is pure cinematic joy from start to finish.  (Click here for my full review.)

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Josh Reviews Lady Bird

Set in 2002, Greta Gerwig’s film Lady Bird tells the story of a teenaged girl, Christine (though she prefers to go by “Lady Bird” — her given name in that, as she says in the film, “it was given to me, by me”) growing up in Sacramento.  Lady Bird is desperate to get out of Sacramento, and she has plans to attend a liberal arts college on the East Coast, though the combination of her family’s tight finances and her own poor grades seems like an insurmountable obstacle to that dream.  The film unfolds over the course of Lady Bird’s senior year in high school.  We see her move through two romantic relationships and different friend circles, an often tumultuous relationship with her mother, and an exploration of various interests (such as her involvement in the school’s drama troupe, in which she finds that the only roles she can get are made-up parts like “the tempest” in The Tempest).

I have always enjoyed Greta Gerwig’s work as an actress, but in Lady Bird (her first film in which she is solo-credited as a writer and director) we see the announcement of an extraordinary talent behind-the-camera.  I absolutely adored this film.  It’s a riveting, wonderfully honest look at adolescence-on-the-cusp-of-adulthood.  The film is very funny, and also deeply emotionally affecting.  I was in tears for much of the second half.  I love a great coming-of-age film, and Lady Bird steps instantly into the pantheon.

The film is anchored by yet another incredible performance by Saoirse Ronan (who was so great in Brooklyn).  The film is blunt in depicting how annoying a super-sure-of-themself teenager can be; how selfish and destructive and clueless even a sweet, trying-to-be-good teenager usually is.  This wouldn’t work if the actress playing Lady Bird wasn’t able to win us over with the character’s inner life, with her warmth and the passion with which she feels everything in her day-to-day life.  Ms. Ronan is brilliant in the role, taking what is already a well-written, thoughtfully crafted strong female character and elevating it into an instantly memorable performance that truly sings.  It’s a fantastic piece of work.  And Ms. Ronan’s effortless skill at her accent (masking her natural Irish accent) is quite impressive.

Ms. Ronan is surrounded by a spectacular ensemble of actors, just as Lady Bird’s character is surrounded by a wonderful group of supporting characters who have each been crafted by Ms. Gerwig with attention and love.  After Ms. Ronan, the film’s next stand-out is Laurie Metcalf (Roseanne) as Lady Bird’s mother, Marion.  This is a phenomenal performance, richly textured.  Marion and Lady Bird have an often antagonistic relationship, and Ms. Metcalf plays those dramatic moments with … [continued]

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The Top Twenty Movies of 2016 — Part One!

I am very excited to present my list of my Twenty Favorite Movies from 2016!  While I don’t think 2016 was quite as strong a year for movies as 2015 was, there were still a heck of a lot of great movies released this year!  I debated cutting back and presenting a list of my fifteen favorites this year, but I found that I was easily able to fill a list of twenty, just as I did last year.

Though I have seen a ton of movies in 2016, as always there is still a boatload of movies that I wanted to see but didn’t get to.  These include Silence, Live By Night, Fences, Twentieth Century Women, Collateral Beauty, Moonlight, The Edge of Seventeen, Rules Don’t Apply, Hidden Figures, Everybody Wants Some!, Keanu, Denial, War Dogs, American Pastoral, Frank & Lola, Cafe Society, Whisky Tango Foxtrot, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, and more.  So if you’re wondering why any of those films aren’t on this list, well, now you know.  I am hopeful that I will be able to see many of those films I just listed in the coming weeks, but I couldn’t wait any longer before publishing this list.

Meanwhile, there were plenty of wonderful 2016 movies that I did see and enjoy and yet didn’t make this list.  Those include Jackie, Green Room, The Lobster, Midnight Special, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Office Christmas Party, For The Love of Spockand many others.  (In a few weeks, after I finish posting my Best of 2016 lists, I’ll be posting reviews of many of the films that I saw in my end-of-the-year rush to catch up with as many 2016 films as I could.)

Honorable Mention: Brooklyn This was a 2015 film that I didn’t get to see until well into 2016.  But if I had seen it earlier, it surely would have been one of the top films on my 2015 list.  This gentle story of a young Irish immigrant to the U.S. in the nineteen-fifties was gorgeous and very moving.  Saoirse Ronan makes an extraordinary impression in the lead role, elevating herself from great character actor to true movie star.  In a modern era in which so many American politicians like to demonize the “other,” fostering suspicion and mistrust of anyone not born in the United States, Brooklyn tells a story that brings the immigrant experience to life in a positive way.  This is an important film, and one that is truly alive with joy and pain and a wealth of human emotion.  I loved it.  Click here for my full review.

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20. The Jungle Book[continued]

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Josh Reviews Brooklyn

February 22nd, 2016
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There were so many interesting movies released in the final weeks of 2015 that I couldn’t possible see them all, try as I might.  Brooklyn was definitely on my list, but I wasn’t able to get to it before writing my end-of-the-year Best Movies of 2015 list.  But it remained high on my want-to-see list, and I’m glad that I was able to catch it a few weeks ago.  It’s marvelous, and it would have surely made my list had I seen it in time.

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The film was written by Nick Hornby (who wrote the novels High Fidelity and About a Boy), adapting the novel of another writer, Colm Tóibín, and it was directed by John Crowley.  Brooklyn stars Saoirse Ronan as Eilis Lacey (her name is pronounced ay-lish), a young Irish woman who emigrated to the United States in the early nineteen-fifties, looking for a better life.  The film follows the hardship of this transition, and her eventual adjustment as she settles into life in a new country.  Eventually, she even finds love with a young Italian plumber, Tony (Emory Cohen).  However, a tragedy forces Eilis to return to Ireland, where she catches the eye of another young man, Jim Farrell (Domhnall Gleeson), and finds herself caught between her old life and her new one.

Brooklyn is a gorgeous film, sweet and very moving.  The film eschews big dramatic movements for a softer pace and a more gentle, realistic look at the life of a young woman and the choices that she makes.  I loved it dearly.

I’ve always admired Saoirse Ronan’s work as an actress, though she has often appeared in films that didn’t interest me very much.  (Though she killed it in the little-seen Hanna.)  Brooklyn is a tremendous showcase for her, and she absolutely crushes it.  She is in almost every scene of the movie, and her work is extraordinary.  Eilis is a very quiet girl, and so Ms. Ronan has to convey so much of Eilis’ internal life through simply her face, a challenging acting task that she makes look so very easy.  It’s hard for an audience not to fall in love with this young woman, just as both Tony and Jim do.  In lesser hands, Eilis could easily have been a blank cipher, but Ms. Ronan opens herself up so that we can see Eilis’ inner life, her hopes and her dreams and her fears.  This is phenomenal work.

The two men in Eilis’ life are also terrific.  You know, as the Harry Potter film adaptations progressed I, like many, was quite taken by the three main leads (Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint).  And yet now, looking back a … [continued]

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What fun this has been, looking back at all of the amazing movies from 2014!  Click here for part one of my list of the Best Movies of 2014, numbers twenty through sixteen.  Click here for part two, numbers fifteen through eleven.  Click here for part three, numbers ten through six.

And now, at last, it’s time to draw this list to a close with my five favorite films of 2014.  Here we go:

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5. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes I dearly love every film in the Planet of the Apes series, even the terrible ones.  (Though the least said about Tim Burton’s disappointing entry, the better.)  But I was bowled over by the greatness of Dawn, the eighth Planet of the Apes film and the second in the rebooted prequel series.  What a rare thing it is to see a sequel with such ingenuity, such creativity, such narrative power.  Director Matt Reaves has come in and crafted an astounding piece of speculative fiction.  Ten years after the events of the last Apes film, a plague has wiped out most of humanity.  Caesar and his apes have crafted for themselves a utopian civilization, deep in the woods of San Francisco.  But when a small group of humans wanders into Caesar’s community, the struggling human community and the developing ape community find themselves on a collision course, and Caesar’s belief that the apes are naturally superior to the flawed humans leads him to the precipice of a disastrous misjudgment.  Yes, this is a film that features talking apes, but Dawn is a rich human drama with Shakespearean levels of emotional complexity and power.  When everything goes to hell in the third act, it is tragic.  Andy Serkis does some of the best work of his career as Caesar, bringing such pathos, such richness of feeling to this ape character.  The mad geniuses at Weta Workshop and all the countless visual effects artists and crafts-people who brought the visual effects of this world to life have outdone themselves, creating one of the most impressive visual effects achievements I have ever seen.  Those apes look so real it is staggering.  Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a spectacular achievement, and I can’t wait to see where this series goes from here.  (Click here for my original review.)

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4. Guardians of the Galaxy What was it I said back when writing about Captain America: The First Avenger about Marvel Studios making it look easy?  They took a comic book team fairly obscure even to comic book fans, one that has not been able to ever support its own comic book series for very … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Grand Budapest Hotel

Ever since seeing The Royal Tenenbaums in theatres and being absolutely blown away, I’ve been a big fan of Wes Anderson.  Over the last few years, the filmmaker has been on a particularly special, can’t-do-any-wrong winning streak.  I thought Fantastic Mr. Fox was his strongest film since The Royal Tenenbaums (click here for my original review), then I fell just as deeply in love with Moonrise Kingdom (click here for my review), and now I’m here to tell you that his latest film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, is an equally magnificent concoction.

The film chronicles the bond that forms between Gustav H. (Ralph Fiennes), the refined concierge of the Grand Budapest Hotel — an expensive hotel high in the mountains of the fictional European nation of Zubrowka — and the young lobby boy, Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori).  The young Zero idolizes Gustav, who takes the lobby boy under his wing.  Gustav is a master of his profession, with a sixth sense as to how to provide his customers with what they need before they even realize they need it.  He also has a habit of sleeping with the wealthy, elderly women who frequent the hotel.  When one of his paramours, Madame D. (Tilda Swinton, under some impressive old-age make-up) dies, she leaves much of her estate to Gustav in her will (including, most notably, a beloved family heirloom, the painting called “Boy with Apple”).  This, of course, irritates her nasty children, who conspire to cause much trouble for the concierge.  

The Grand Budapest Hotel is a delightful romp, filled with a lot of humor and some terrific set-pieces.  The film is a historical drama and a murder mystery and a chase film and a prison break story and much more, all at once.  It’s also a surprisingly winsome, bittersweet piece of nostalgia for an idealized world that has passed.  The film is structured as a series of stories within stories, a structure than not only gives the film a bit of mind-bending fun but also emphasizes the nostalgic nature of the story being told.  We’re reminded repeatedly that the world of Gustav H. no longer exists, and that drapes the story in a layer of sadness, no matter how much fun we’re having as we watch his adventures.  I love the extra bit of emotional power that gives to the proceedings, and I was particularly taken by the specific note upon which Mr. Anderson chose to end the film.  It’s a surprisingly somber moment, and I loved it.

Wes Anderson has developed a very distinct visual style, and part of the secret of the success of his last several films in particular has been how well … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Hanna!

Hanna (Saoirse Ronan) is a young girl who has been raised in total isolation in a frigid, rural setting by her father Erik (Eric Bana).  When we first meet Hanna, it becomes immediately clear that Erik has been training her to be a fierce warrior — tough, smart, and fearless, with a keen tactical mind and skills with all manner of different weaponry.  Erik has apparently been in hiding from government agent Marissa (Cate Blanchett) for years, but now that Hanna has become a teenager she has grown tired of her isolation.  So Erik allows Hanna to let Marissa know where they are hiding, setting young Hanna on a violent collision course with Erik and Marissa’s secret past.

Hanna is a violent, fast-paced thriller.  This story could have been a slow-burn story of intrigue and subterfuge, but while there is no shortage of intrigue and subterfuge in the tale, Hanna is a kinetic, adrenaline-pumping film right from minute one.  The throbbing, techno-beat pumping of the score reminds me of Run Lola Run, and it drives the action scenes forward with at a propulsive pace that is also reminiscent of that terrific German film (read my review here).

This was not exactly the type of movie I expected to see from Joe Wright, the director of Pride & Prejudice and Atonement.  But his second collaboration with Saoirse Ronan is incredibly potent, and Mr. Wright brings extraordinary skill and style to spare to this film.  And truly, Hanna is an exercise in cinematic style from start to finish.  There’s nothing exceedingly unique about the story of spies and their dark secrets, but the execution by Mr. Wright and his team give the film a truly distinct flavor all its own.

They are ably assisted, of course, by the terrifically talented threesome of Saoirse Ronan, Eric Bana, and Cate Blanchett.  I haven’t seen Atonement, the first film that brought Ms. Ronan national attention a few years ago, but she is a captivating presence here.  There’s a bright intelligence to be seen behind her piercing blue eyes, and she is entirely convincing as the brutal, feral warrior she has been raised to be.  She also completely sells the moments of naive innocence exposed in Hanna when she’s confronted with aspects of the modern world that she’s never before experienced.

Cate Blanchett is touch as nails and entirely unlikable as Marissa, which of course is exactly what the role calls for.  Ms. Blanchett dials back her charisma to create, in Marissa, a woman who is clearly a shell of a human being, totally devoted to her job and her pursuit of secrets that has become her whole life.  She’s a great villain.… [continued]