Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Best of '16: Cafe' Society

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Unrequited love kills more people in the year than tuberculosis.

I know, I know.... it's so easy to hate on Woody Allen. He is an awkward, stubborn grump with plenty of reasons to refuse to separate disdain for the artist from his art. What can I say? He just does this one thing better than anybody in history. The movies aren't for everybody, but I will never tire of people awkwardly falling in and out of love while talking in monologue. Jesse Eisenberg and Kristin Stewart are perfect and I hope they each go on to make more films with Woody.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Best of '16: Midnight Special

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-You don't have to worry about me.
-I like worrying about you.
-You don't have to anymore.
-I'll always worry about you Alton. That's the deal.

I sat behind David Garrard in college Physics. My sister was close friends with Mandy Moore's stand-in in a Nic Sparks movie. I once met Peter "Chewbacca" Mayhew. I used to play backyard basketball with the guy racing Dale Jr. in the Taxslayer commercials. Still, perhaps my most cherished brush with fame is that throughout school I was a couple years behind Neil Moore. He has been the second-unit director of photography for Jeff Nichols' last four films. If you don't know who Jeff Nichols is, I highly suggest you check out Mud and Take Shelter immediately.

Midnight Special is a modern day fairy tale about a little boy with special powers, the cult that wants to worship him, the government that wants to study him, and the Daddy that wants to love and protect him. It is as gorgeous as it is moving. I've said it before and I'll probably say it again, but these are the movies we get when little artists are raised on a steady diet of Spielberg, Kubrick, and Malick. Movies just keep getting better and better. This was one of my favorites of the year, and part of the credit goes to my fellow Grifton Bulldog, Neil Moore.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Best of '16: Swiss Army Man

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But maybe everyone's a little bit ugly. Maybe we're all just dying sacks of $&#*, and maybe all it'll take is one person to just be okay with that, and then the whole world will be dancing and singing and farting, and everyone will feel a little bit less alone.

So you're tired of "run-of-the-mill", cookie-cutter Hollywood movies. "Boy-meets-girl....blah, blah, blah..." You feel like you've seen it all before....  My goodness, have I got a movie for you!

Paul Dano plays a doomed depressed shipwrecked sad-sack who happens upon a dead body (Daniel Radcliffe) while trying to commit suicide. But maybe the body isn't dead.....

This movie certainly isn't for everyone but it is a beautifully shot fable about relationships, affluence, and survival in our world.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Best of '16: The Birth of a Nation

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Brethren, I pray you'll sing to the Lord, a new song. Sing praise in assembly of the righteous. Let the saints be joyful in glory, let them sing aloud on their beds. Let the high praise of God be on the mouths of the saints and a two-edged sword in their hand to execute vengeance on the demonic nations! And punishment on those peoples! To bind their kings with chains, and their nobles with fens of iron! To execute on them this written judgement! This honor have all his saints! PRAISE THE LORD! PRAISE THE LORD! SING TO HIM A NEW SONG! PRAISE THE LORD! PRAISE THE LORD!

Anyone who knows me knows that I am a strict pacifist. It's just how I'm wired. Simply the thought of physical violence between myself and another makes me quite literally sick. That being said, I identify quite a bit with Nat Turner's story in this movie. He grows up thirsting for knowledge, learning to read, and eventually becoming the plantation owner's right-hand-man. Nat's knack for leadership translates perfectly to his ability to share the word by preaching to his fellow slaves. He then falls in love with a troubled fellow slave that is brought to their plantation, eventually marries her, and starts a small family. 

Inquisitive, speaker, romantic. As I said, I identify with Nat Turner. So with that in mind, I have to ask myself how far I would have to be pushed to enter his next phase: Violent Rebel. That is, after all, how this man is remembered. The AP identification term even bears his name: Nat Turner's Rebellion. I have never endured anything close to the mistreatment that was felt by these men and women. If I did, I may very well follow down the dangerous path that led to his demise. One of the most significant mistakes that people (especially people of privilege) make is thinking we know what we would do in someone else's shoes. The best we can do is educate ourselves about others' plight, treat them with love and kindness, and try to avoid the mistakes that were made both by them and to them. This movie does a magnificent job at humanizing someone who has been at best neglected and at worst demonized by history. I don't know Nat Turner, but I know Will Tyer and I'm gonna read and preach and love. And I'm also going to pray every day that I am never put into a position to need to rebel.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Best of '16: Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life

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Rules aren't for everyone.

Okay, so hear me out on this one. Abby (my 8-year old daughter) is my go-to movie partner. Most of the time she is perfectly happy seeing whatever I want to see at the theater, but a couple of times she has been pretty adamant about seeing a specific movie that I would otherwise skip. Usually, these movies are terrible (sorry Abby, but "Legends of Oz: Dorothy's Return" and "Nine Lives" were two of the worst movies I have seen in years), but a couple of times she has hit on a gem. This movie is actually pretty good. It is a solid tween comedy with a twist ending that caught me off gaurd and, I admit, pried a few tears from my ducts.

My Oscar Nominations.... and a short commentary on why I care about all of this...

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"We live in divisive times." "Never has our nation been so divided."

Quotes like these are bouncing around more than ever. My response is: Really? By nearly every statistical measure we are living in the most connected, peaceful, and prosperous time in our nations history. So why do we propagate, believe, or even tolerate this mantra of division? There are numerous logical explanations (we want to be on the "winning team, it is human nature to think things were better in the "good ol' days", etc.), but I am more concerned with preaching the anti-message. We are one. We are United. Our common goals are so much more important than our petty differences.

Why on Earth am I writing this in a movie blog? Because Meryl Streep.

Nothing presented in her acceptance speech at the Golden Globes was divisive, but it immediately split the country onto Team Meryl and Team Trump. I don't know Mrs. Streep personally (though I realize that is surprising), but I am sure she is disappointed by the division caused by her speech. Go back and read the transcript. She didn't say you were a bad person if you voted a certain way. She didn't say you were a saint if you voted the other way. She simply presented that, as a master actor, she knows perhaps more than most that our actions are important. In the backlash to her speech, many have moved to boycott awards shows because they are self-congratulatory celebrations of everything wrong with the Liberal Elites.

While some of that may be true (obviously the "self-congratulatory part), we can't lose sight that awards shows are a celebration of the art of the moving picture. This is one of the most important art forms of our modern age. If you want to know what the Great Depression was like, you watch "The Grapes of Wrath", World War I - "All Quiet on the Western Front", inner-city racism - "Do the Right Thing", Facebook - "The Social Network". These films are not "divisive" they are unifying. We all understand what Tom Joad was feeling when he tearfully said goodbye to Ma. We feel Paul's fear as he sees the mustard gas creeping his way. We empathize with Mookie as he heaves the trashcan through the window. And we see ourselves reflected in the computer screen for better or worse as Mark Zuckerberg unleashes a new era of internet connectivity.

When times seem tough, a smart person once told me, "Look to the artists", not for salvation or self-fulfillment, but for empathy, love, and peace. It isn't always pretty or funny or exciting, but the best films are those that unite us in our humanity. So join me in celebrating another year of my favorite art-form. Let yourself go in the nostalgic steps of "La La Land", be thankful for your family even though it may not be as strange as "Captain Fantastic"'s, soar past the weak confines of racism with the strong women of "Hidden Figures", discover that fear can be defeated with "Kubo", and find prevenient grace where it seems the hardest to come by on top of "Hacksaw Ridge".

The Academy Award nominations come out next Tuesday, and I still have quite a few movies to see in the next month, but these would be my personal nominees:

Best Picture: La La Land
Best Actor in a Leading Role: Andrew Garfield, Hacksaw Ridge
Best Actress in a Leading Role: Emma Stone, La La Land
Best Actor in a Supporting Role: Jeff Bridges, Hell or High Water
Best Actress in a Supporting Role: Janelle Monae, Hidden Figures
Best Animated Feature: Kubo and the Two Strings
Best Cinematography: La La Land
Best Costume Design: Captain Fantastic
Best Director: Damien Chazelle, La La Land
Best Documentary: Weiner
Best Film Editing: La La Land
Best Makeup and Hairstyling: Florence Foster Jenkins
Best Original Score: La La Land
Best Original Song: Audition, La La Land
Best Production Design: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Best Sound Editing: Hacksaw Ridge
Best Sound Mixing: La La Land
Best Visual Effects: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Best Adapted Screenplay: Hacksaw Ridge
Best Original Screenplay: Captain Fantastic

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Best of '16: Hell or High Water

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-You fellas robbin' the bank?
-What's it look like old man?!?
-But you ain't Mexicans.

Any devoted reader of my movie blog knows I am a sucker for a bank-robbin' movie. This is especially true when the perpetrators are logical (banks are insured, insurance companies are crooks, we're just robbing the robbers), noble (this money is just going to help my family/sick cousin/lame dog/etc.), and charismatic (it helps if you cast somebody like McConaughey, Willis, or, you know, Chris "Capt. Kirk" Pine). It's even better when the robbers are pitted against an equally logical, noble, and charismatic lawman (extra points if you can find the money for Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin, or, you know, "The Dude" himself.

This movie is darn near perfect. I can't imagine anybody who likes a good "western"-type movie disliking it. This movie is on DVD and streaming services. Close this browser, put down your phone, get off the computer, go watch this now!

Best of '16: Kubo and the Two Strings

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He looked into my eyes and uttered four simple words. These words changed everything... You are my quest.

There's something about an art-form that is as tedious and time-consuming as stop-motion animation that brings out the best in storytellers. I have long been a fan of Aardman studios (most famous for Wallace & Gromit) and the Rankin/Bass specials from the '60s are downright timeless.  Laika studios has joined this tradition with their animated models that take the practice to incredibly detailed levels. Seven years ago they scared my pants off with their "button-eyed" creepy debut Coraline. Both ParaNorman and The Boxtrolls were respectably fun, but Kubo sets a new bar. This story transcends the film and would have succeeded as live-action, traditional animation, a novel, or even a comic. I foresee that we will be hearing plenty about Moana and Zootopia coming up this awards season, but a little boy and his magical guitar represent the one of the very best films of the year.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Best of '16: Hail, Caesar!

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Would that it were so simple.

I was genuinely concerned with the Coen brothers' newest movie was pushed to the movie graveyard of an early 2016 release. This usually means there is something wrong with the movie or a big star doesn't want it released to embarrass them and thus their award chances. After seeing the film, I can only guess that studio execs were simply taken aback by the brothers' return to silly comedy that hearkens back to their early career. I, for one, welcome the return. Llewyn Davis, True Grit, and A Serious Man were beautiful, slow-burning near-masterpieces, but this film channels the fun of O Brother, Barton Fink, and Raising Arizona. The movie is worth the watch if for only the scene referenced in the quote above where Ralph Fiennes stuffy British director struggles to get a young studio heartthrob to speak in a way befitting a "true" thespian. I truly believe future Coenites will look back on this one as an underrated gem.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Best of '16: Arrival

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If you could see your whole life laid out in front of you, would you change things?

I wouldn't suggest Hollywood gets into the habit of translating cerebral sci-fi short stories into prodding, beautiful, feature-length films. Still, if you're gonna do that, THIS is how it is done. Yes it is slow, but purposeful. Dreamy, but beautiful. Light on story, but successfully tells its delicate little tale in a way that sticks with the viewer long after the final credits have rolled.  

This is also another entry into what is quickly becoming the golden age of science fiction: The Martian, Interstellar, Moon, Edge of Tomorrow, Midnight Special, Ex Machina, etc.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Best of '16: 10 Cloverfield Lane

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...I accept your apology.

Most of the time, when a movie is released in February or March it is usually either a mindless piece of drivel or an attempt by the studio to hide what turned out to be an embarrassing waste of money. This year a significant handful of quality cinema was released very early in the year. I don't really know why, but I certainly welcome this exception to what is usually a Hollywood graveyard.

This film is a sequel to 2008's viral marketing victory Cloverfield, but shares little with its predecessor other than name and universe. Original, claustrophobic, twisting, and shocking, "Lane" offers a diverting entry into the horror/monster genre.

Best of '16: Moana

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I know the way! I AM MOANA!

Disney is on a pretty solid win-streak in this decade. Purchasing Marvel and Lucasfilm while keeping the Pixar folks on board may prove to be the most financially lucrative decisions of the new millennium. Combine that with actually telling solid stories in their tentpole features (aka "the Pixar method") and you are on a roll.

As for this film, it is the best of the new Disney. It does everything the classic films did right and avoids nearly all of their unfortunate paternalistic lessons. I actually think it would have been even better without the Rock's Maui character. His motivation was a little unclear (he actually caused the entire conflict), and he is little more than comic relief or an excuse to have a central "boy" character. The movie still succeeds at being the most inspiring and beautiful mainstream animated film of the past few years.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Best of '16: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

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-Mr. Scamander, do you know anything about the wizarding community in America?
-I do know a few things, actually. I know you have rather backwards laws about relations with non-magic people. That you're not meant to befriend them, that you can't marry them, which seems mildly absurd to me.

At long last! It is time for the annual return to blog-life for a recap of the year in film and countdown to my favorite night of entertainment self-congratulation: The Oscars! Without further ado, I present the twenty or so films that qualify for my prestigious label of "Best of '16":

The first Harry Potter film came out in 2001. I had not read the books, but I am a sucker for just about any film that comes prepackaged with the amount of fanaticism that requires midnight showings and cosplay at the theater. I was underwhelmed, but I kept coming back over and over. I really enjoyed Goblet of Fire, but fell asleep during Half-Blood Prince. I rediscovered the series when Abby wanted them read as bed-time stories, and although I'm still not a huge fan, I still appreciate Rowling's fantastic world. 

With that in mind, it only took fifteen years for the franchise to release a truly exceptional movie. That's right, Fantastic Beasts is easily the best film set in the Wizarding World. Maybe it is because Rowling wasn't bound to fan expectation, but nearly every aspect of this film is superior to the Potter stories. I look forward to what these characters and this corner of Rowling's universe have in store for us next.