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The Top 20 Movies of 2014 — Part One!

2014 was a fantastic year for movies.  I had so many films that I wanted to make mention of in my end-of-the-year best-of list, that I’ve decided to expand my usual Top 15 list into a Top 20.  Cheating?  Perhaps!  But it’s all in the service of spreading love for a great group of terrific films, so I hope you’ll forgive me.

Even with a Top Twenty list, there are still plenty of great films that I saw in 2014 that didn’t make this list: They Came Together, Gone Girl, Interstellar, Noah, Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon, Harmontown, Neighbors, Snowpiercer, Chef, A Million Ways to Die in the West, The Fault in Our Stars, The One I Love, Obvious Child, and lots more.

There were also plenty of 2014 movies that interested me but that I just didn’t have a chance to see.  These include, but are by no means limited to: Selma and Inherent Vice (neither of which had yet opened near me when I wrote this list), Whiplash, Foxcatcher, Rosewater, Fury, St. Vincent, Nightcrawler, Laggies, Big Hero 6, The Homesman, Force Majeure, Only Lovers Left Alive, Men Women & Children, and plenty of others.

With those caveats out of the way, let’s begin!

Her.02.cropped

Honorable Mention: Her This was technically a 2013 film but, like Selma and Inherent Vice this year, it did not open near me until well into 2014, so it wasn’t until late January 2014 that I saw it.  Had I been able to see it before writing my Best of 2013 list, it certainly would have been high on that list.  I wasn’t sure whether or not I should include it on this year’s list, so I’ve settled for giving it an “Honorable Mention”.  This gorgeous, gentle, heartbreaking story from writer/director Spike Jonze is mesmerizing, a fascinating piece of speculative fiction in which we see a vision of a society not very far removed from our own.  Joaquin Phoenix is wonderfully affecting as Theodore, a lonely man who has just been divorced from the woman he thought was the love of his life.  He purchases a new OS (Operating System), and gradually finds himself falling in love with this A.I. (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) who is with him everywhere he goes.  Is Theodore retreating dangerously from real life into fantasy?  Or is this a beautiful story of a man and a woman falling in love with the essence of each other’s character, entirely separate from any physical attraction?  That’s up to the viewer to decide.  Me, I was touched and intrigued by this a beautiful, unique film.  (Click here for my original review.)… [continued]

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Josh Reviews Her

There’s no doubt in my mind that Spike Jonze is one of the very finest filmmakers working today.  Like most of the rest of the world, I was quite taken by his loopy first film, 1999’s Being John Malkovich (I can’t believe it came out so long ago — I need to find the time to see that great film again some-time soon!), and I loved Adaptation even more (click here for my review).  But it was his 2009 adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are that shot my appreciation of Mr. Jonze’s skills into the stratosphere.  I absolutely adored that film (click here for my review), and I named it as my very favorite film of the year.  I was so taken by Mr. Jonze’s singular vision in adapting that story.  I can’t imagine any other director creating such a remarkably tender, poignant piece of work.

So I’ve obviously been looking forward to Mr. Jonze’s next film for some time.  And while Her might not have been, for me, at the level of Where the Wild Things Are, I still found it to be a riveting piece of work, and another gorgeous, emotional film from this talented director.  (And writer.  Mr. Jonze also wrote the film, his first time as a solo-screenwriter.)

Set in the not-too-distant-future, Joaquin Phoenix stars as Theodore.  Theodore seems a nice young man, and he is a talented writer who does well at his small-time job.  But he is lonely.  Taken by an advertisement he sees for a new operating system with an artificial intelligence, Theodore purchases the system and finds that his life quickly begins to be changed by the vivacious new personality in his life (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), who names herself Samantha.  Theodore and Samantha’s bond gradually becomes more intimate, and the film charts the course of the relationship between the two.

I was quite struck by the gentle love story Mr. Jonze has created with this film.  There’s a sci-fi hook (“Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with his cell phone!”) and there is certainly some commentary in the film about the direction of our electronics-obsessed culture.  Will our technology help connect us to one another, or make us more distant from each other?  This is not a “message” film, but Theodore’s job (writing intimate letters to loved ones from people who can’t or won’t write them themselves) is a powerful statement as to where Mr. Jonze might stand on that particular debate.  Even more striking than that are several memorable long-shots, scattered throughout the film, in which we see crowds of people moving (down streets, through halls), with everyone’s eyes glued to their phone/mobile … [continued]

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From the DVD Shelf: Josh Reviews Adaptation (2002)

I was extraordinarily taken with Adaptation when I first saw it in theatres back in 2002, but I hadn’t seen it since.  I had been waiting for there to be a follow-up to the initial bare-bones DVD with nary a single special feature (save the film’s theatrical trailer) — if ever there was a film that left me desperate for a behind-the-scenes peek at just how the film came to be, it’s this one — but no special edition DVD ever arrived.  Shame!  Still, when I saw the disc in the five dollar bin at Newbury Comics a few months ago, I couldn’t resist.

Adaptation centers on screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s struggles with adapting Susan Orlean’s novel, The Orchid Thief.  How can he possibly make a movie out of the plot-free novel about flowers, without selling out by employing tired Hollywood cliches of action sequences and characters falling in love and learning important life lessons?

The above two-sentence summary really fails to do the film’s weird, complex, sprawling narrative justice.  The film swims deliriously in-and-out of real life events.  Adaptation is of course written by screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, who really was hired to adapt The Orchid Thief only to find himself totally stymied in his attempts, and he did decide to write himself into his screenplay (Adaptation is the film that resulted), as does the Charlie in Adaptation.  Still with me?  And yet much of Adaptation is pure fiction — Charlie Kaufman doesn’t really have a twin brother Donald (despite Donald’s name being listed in the film’s credits, a clever touch), and of course none of the insanity at the end of the film with Susan Orleans and her subject Laroche (in which drugs and murder come into play) has any basis in reality.

I can only laugh and wonder what the real Susan Orleans thought of this sort-of adaptation of her novel, or of her depiction in the film.  Former executive Valerie Thomas (played in the film by Tilda Swinton), told Variety: “I’m 10 pages in, and suddenly realize, ‘Oh my God, I’m in this.”  That Variety article goes on to comment that Ms. Thomas got off easy in the film, though perhaps they’re forgetting the scene in which Charlie masturbates to the thought of her having sex with him.

Nicolas Cage turns in one of his finest performances ever (well, two of his finest performances ever, actually), in the dual role of Charlie Kaufman and his twin brother Donald.  It is astonishing to me how completely Mr. Cage is able to create and inhabit two entirely different characters despite their identical features.  Cage’s Charlie is depressed, anxious, and self-loathing, whereas Donald is happy, outgoing, and … [continued]

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The Top 10 Movies of 2009 — Part Two!

Yesterday I began my list of my Top 10 Movies of 2009!  Let’s continue, shall we?

5.  Inglourious Basterds — Quentin Tarantino demonstrates, once again, that no one can wring more nail-biting tension out of simple conversation than he can.  What I thought would be  a simple men-on-a-mission story wound up being a much more complex, intriguing tale.  Filled with astounding, unforgettable performances (Brad Pitt as the tough-talking Aldo Raine, Melanie Laurent as the fiercely intelligent Shosanna Dreyfus, and of course Christopher Waltz as Col. Hans Landa, one of the most unforgettable film villains of the past decade) and some great Tarantino touches (yep, that is a Samuel L. Jackson voice-over at one point), the film is ridiculously compelling.  And that ending.  Ho boy.  Read my full review here.

4.  District 9 — With a budget reportedly in the ballpark of 30 million dollars (which, if my information is correct, is about a third of what was spent on the Alec Baldwin/Meryl Streep comedy It’s Complicated), first-time director Neill Blomkamp fashioned one of the most gripping sci-fi tales I have ever seen.  The film is set in Johannesburg, almost thirty years after an enormous alien spacecraft appeared over the city.  The aliens, nicknamed “prawns,” have been settled in slum-like conditions in a refugee camp called District 9.  When the corporation MNU bows to public pressure to remove the aliens from the vicinity of Johannesburg, the hapless Wikus Van De Merwe (who participates in the forced evictions) finds his life turned upside-down.  As a sci-fi fan I am always looking for smart, original new works of sci-fi, and this film has both qualities in spades.  With jaw-dropping special effects (I am amazed at how well the alien “prawns” are brought to life), a career making performance by Sharlto Copley (who plays Wikus), some terrific action, and edge-of-your seat intensity from start to finish, District 9 is a magnificent and haunting creation.  Read my full review here.

3.  Fantastic Mr. Fox — A deliriously fantastic combination of Roald Dahl’s story (about a family of foxes menaced by three vicious farmers) and director Wes Anderson’s unique sensibilities, Fantastic Mr. Fox feels to me like the film Mr. Anderson has always wanted to make.  He has filled the movie with his specific style — detail-filled sets and precise, stage-like staging — and the foxes are a classic addition to Mr. Anderson’s repertoire of wonderfully idiosyncratic, somewhat disfunctional families.  The script is complex and sophisticated (with characters who all possess strengths as well as character flaws, and no easy answers to their dilemmas in sight), and the voice-actors (including George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Michael Gambon, Willem Dafoe, … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Where The Wild Things Are!

October 19th, 2009
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I’ve been reading about Spike Jonze’s adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s deservedly beloved children’s book Where The Wild Things Are for a long time — years, now — and I am so thrilled to be able to report that the finished film which has finally been unveiled for the world to see is every bit as wonderful as I could have hoped.

Quite a lot has been written about this film’s torturous path to the big screen.  A few weeks ago I posted a link to this lengthy piece from the New York Times that charted the almost decade-long journey of Mr. Jonze to bring this film to life.  I remember reading the post from CHUD (Cinematic Happenings Under development) that the Times article refers to in its opening paragraph.  Click here to read that article, from February 20, 2008, in which Devin Farici broke the story that executives at Warner Brothers and Legendary Pictures were seriously considering abandoning Mr. Jonze’s version and entirely reshooting the film.

Thank the movie gods that that moment of crisis for the film came and went, and Mr. Jonze was able to bring his vision to completion.

The result is a delightfully unique, idiosyncratic film, truly unlike any other childrens book adaptation I have ever seen.

The film is enormously epic, a visual feast, but it is also astonishingly intimate.  Right from the very beginning (with the wonderfully messed-with opening titles which lead into Max’s wild rumpus with his dog), Mr. Jonze puts the viewers right in the face, and the mind, of young Max.  Max (played by Max Records) is clearly a very imaginative, creative little boy.  He also seems to be extraordinary lonely and, like any nine-year-old who doesn’t yet know how to express all of the feelings roiling around inside of him, he is prone to terrible outbursts.

This early, pre-Wild Things section of the film is an intriguing — and very, very clever — elaboration upon Mr. Sendak’s original book.  In Tim Burton’s film version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, he added a flashback that fleshed out Willy Wonka’s backstory (a sad childhood with his terrible father) that I felt was ridiculous and completely out of place.  But these early scenes with Max, in which we get to know him and understand his situation and why he feels the way he does, are wonderful and, I would argue, totally critical to the film’s success.  We need to understand who Max is, and why he is ultimately driven to run away from his family and escape (for a time) into fantasy.

What makes this early section of the film work, is Mr. Jonze (and co-screenwriter Dave Eggers)’s care to … [continued]