Sunday, December 27, 2015

Standout Films of the Decade: 2012

WRITER'S NOTE: Historical events, comic-book pandemonium, and adaptations of books. (What this year in film consists of.)

1. Lincoln
Daniel Day-Lewis is towering and phenomenal as the 16th president of the United States in Steven Spielberg's meticulous drama set during the last few months of Abraham Lincoln's life, against the controversial passing of the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery. Unlike any film Spielberg has ever made sans sentimentality in favor of respectability and honor. A terrific cast and an impeccable score by John Williams help make this, perhaps, the year's greatest triumph in film.

2. Argo 
Ben Affleck's third directorial effort (after Gone Baby Gone and The Town) is a gripping and engrossing drama about the Iranian hostage crisis of the late-Seventies and a CIA team's efforts to rescue and bring home six American hostages who managed to escape. Uses a surprising amount of restraint and respectability in its subject matter, and features terrific performances and execution.

3. Marvel's The Avengers 
Easily the most entertaining, action-packed, and crowd-pleasing blockbuster of the year. Featuring an impeccable ensemble cast of Marvel characters (not to mention the actors who play them) and a great balance of humor, action, and humanity, writer-director Joss Whedon proves himself a fanboy filmmaker to be reckoned with.

4. The Impossible
A powerful and profound true story of a family's survival during the 2004 Tsunami in Thailand. Told from the perspective of the Belon family, their story is a reminder of the power of perseverance, love, and grace amidst such unexpected horror and tragedy. Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts lead with such affection and emotion.

5. The Dark Knight Rises 
An epic, challenging, and worthy conclusion to director Christopher Nolan's now-infamous Dark Knight trilogy. Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale, the third time around) takes up his mantle as the Caped Crusader after seven years in hiding and goes up against the villainous Bane (a menacing Tom Hardy) for the fate of Gotham City, all the while finding a mysterious ally in Selina Kyle a.k.a. Catwoman (a superb Anne Hathaway). Although it falls short of the mind-blowing themes of its 2008 predecessor, it is nonetheless an explosive entry in an ever-growing collection of films that are more than just action, superheroes and/or comic-book characters.

6. Arrietty (a.k.a. The Secret World of Arrietty) 
A beautiful fantasy-drama from Studio Ghibli, based on Mary Norton's classic children’s book "The Borrowers." While most of the year's animated features have either dazzled (Brave, ParaNorman, Rise of the Guardians) or overwhelmed (Ice Age 4) with CGI or handmade stop-motion, the creators of Spirited Away and Ponyo remind viewers of the beauty and value in hand-drawn characters and worlds that transcend art and reality. The film's characters, for one, are appealing, adventurous, and believable. 

7. Life of Pi
An emotionally-engaging and spiritually-challenging story, not to mention a visually-breathtaking experience. Director Ang Lee and screenwriter David Magee adapt Yann Martel's bestselling (and, supposedly, unfilmmable) novel into a faithful and epic drama that stands on its own. It's the story of a young Indian boy who survives a shipwreck and is stranded in the Pacific Ocean with a Bengal tiger as his lone companion (and fierce enemy).

Previous post: Standout Films of the Decade: 2011

Next post: Standout Films of the Decade: 2013

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Standout Films of the Decade: 2011

WRITER’S NOTE: This was arguably an exceptional year for movies, particularly for women, nostalgia, and recalling early twentieth-century film.

1. Moneyball
Compelling and winning true story of the Oakland A's unconventional streak in 2001-2002 baseball season, by means of spreadsheets and on-base percentages. The cast (headed by Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, and Philip Seymour Hoffman), writing (by Aaron Sorkin and Steve Zaillian, based on Michael Lewis's book), and direction (by Bennett Miller) knock it out of the park. Now a personal favorite of mine.

2. The Artist
A favorite at the Cannes Film Festival (where Jean Dujardin won Best Actor), Michel Hazanavichias’s loving tribute to the silent film era and Hollywood’s transition to “talkies” is entertaining and engaging—and (mostly) without even a single word! Dujardin is wonderfully supported by Berenice Bijo, John Goodman, James Cromwell, Malcolm McDowell, and Uggie the dog.

3. The Descendants
George Clooney headlines director Alexander Payne’s adaptation of Kaui Hart Hemmings’ novel as lawyer Matt King, who tries to reconnect with his estranged daughters, only to learn that his comatose wife has recently been cheating on him. Brilliant and moving dramedy on family relationships, connections, and walking together through difficult circumstances. Breakout film for Shailene Woodley.

4. The Tree of Life
Director Terrence Malick's ambitious project on the creation of life (a la 2001: A Space Odyssey) juxtaposed with a Texas family in the 1950s didn’t play well in theaters (its non-linear direction reportedly caused several walkouts, as well as several boo’s at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Palme D’or award). Rotten Tomatoes says it very well: “Terrence Malick's singularly deliberate style may prove unrewarding for some, but for patient viewers, Tree of Life is an emotional as well as visual treat.”

5. The Interrupters
Hard-hitting documentary from director Steve James (Hoop Dreams), centered on a year in the life of "violence interrupters" in inner-city Chicago. Three main subjects include Eddie Bocanegra, Ameena Matthews, and Cobe Williams.

6. The Help
Worthwhile female-led ensemble story of African-American maids in 1960s Louisiana during the civil rights movement, as a young author decides to write on their daily experiences and hardships. Stellar cast headed by Viola Davis, Emma Stone, and Octavia Spencer.

7. Hugo
Another love letter to early 20th-century cinema, based on the award-winning book "The Invention of Hugo Cabret" by Brian Selznick, and directed by Martin Scorsese. Hugo Cabret lives in a train station, winding the clocks daily, while searching for a key to an automaton left by his late father. He soon meets a young girl whose guardian (the local toy shop owner) carries a mysterious past, and possibly the key Hugo’s been looking for. Visually stunning and cinematic. Brilliant cast includes newcomer Asa Butterfield, Chloe Grace Moretz, Ben Kingsley, Sasha Baron Cohen, and Christopher Lee.

8. Super 8
Director J.J. Abrams follows his successful revamp of Star Trek with a nostalgic homage to Spielberg classics of the 70s and 80s, as a group of young kids witness a train crash in their small town one evening while filming a monster movie. This amalgamation of sci-fi action, mystery and drama combines memories of Jaws, Close Encounters, and The Goonies, while standing on its own. They haven’t made summer blockbusters like this in a long while. (Could’ve done without the language, though.)

9. The Adventures of Tintin
Steven Spielberg recalls his adventurous Indiana Jones series with a surprisingly entertaining and action-packed adaptation of Herge’s classic comic book boy detective. Aside from The Lord of the Rings and the recent Planet of the Apes films, this is the best use of motion capture I've ever seen in a feature film. Produced by Peter Jackson.

Other Honorable Mentions

Another Earth
Intriguing and moody sci-fi drama of a young woman with a checkered past, and the discovery of a replica of Earth in space.

Jane Eyre
Beautiful and haunting adaptation of Charlotte Bronte’s classic novel, starring Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender.

Kung-Fu Panda 2
A rare sequel that matches (and possibly improves on) its predecessor, as Po the panda takes the next step in his kung-fu journey and faces an even greater threat, while trying to piece together his past. Entertaining, funny, and surprisingly moving.

Mission: Impossible--Ghost Protocol
The previous outing in Tom Cruise’s film series started to get things on the right track, but it’s this fourth installment from director Brad Bird (The Incredibles) that scores a home run. Cruise is backed by Jeremy Renner, Paula Patton, and Simon Pegg, as the remaining members of the IMF (Impossible Mission Force) go rogue after being framed for a global disaster.

The Muppets
Writers Jason Segal and Nicholas Stoller (Forgetting Sarah Marshall) revive Jim Henson’s endearing characters (including Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, and Fozzie Bear) and idiosyncratic brand of humor as the gang is brought back together to save their old theater from an oil business tycoon (Chris Cooper). A real treat for kids and adults.

Previous post: Standout Films of the Decade: 2010

Next post: Standout Films of the Decade: 2012

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Standout Films of the Decade: 2010

Recently, the American Film Institute released its annual list of what they consider to be the ten best achievements in film and television of the year. According to their website, this is “an annual celebration of outstanding achievements in the moving image arts that recognizes the year’s most culturally and artistically significant works of both film and television.” Since I’ve always been a film person over T.V., I’m obviously going to focus on the former here. The AFI’s official selection of 2015 films includes The Big Short, Bridge of Spies, Carol, Inside Out, Mad Max: Fury Road, The Martian, Room, Spotlight, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and Straight Outta Compton. For the most part, this is a pretty diverse and intriguing collection of films (about half of which make my own list in terms of those that stand out to me this year).

I generally don’t issue my selection of films until January or February (which I will hold to). But until then, since we’re almost halfway through the decade already, I thought this would be a good time to recap on films that have stood out to me each year since 2010, beginning with said year.

WRITER’S NOTE: Not every list in each respective post to follow will have the same number of films, since (for one) I didn’t see every film in theaters each year. After all, where is it written that you have to have a top-ten list? Basically, nowhere. In addition, some of my choices aren’t necessarily a means of recommendation or an endorsement for their worldviews, but they do standout in terms of their thematic arc and other related elements. Lastly, these lists are likely to be updated in time, and subject to change with time.

So, to start things off, here are my choices for 2010.

1. Toy Story 3
Third time proves the rarest charm in this third outing in the popular Pixar series of toys coming to life when owners aren't looking. With Andy off to college soon, the remaining toys question what will become of them, and accidentally get shipped to a day care center, headed by the tyrannical Lots'O Huggin' Bear. The results are an amalgamation of different genres, childhood memories, and themes of ownership, independence, death, and life. A great ensemble cast of characters in a truly universal story.

2. The King's Speech
Director Tom Hooper and screenwriter David Seidler bring to life the true story of King George VI (a worthy Oscar-winning performance by Colin Firth), whose speech impediment stood in the way of ruling England in the early 20th century. Aided by his wife (Helena Bohnam Carter) and an unconventional speech therapist (Geffory Rush), this is the true story of a man who finds his voice and the courage to lead a nation. A great film.

3. Tangled
The Walt Disney Animation Studios made a surprising comeback with the fairy tale genre, this time with the classic story of Rupunzel (voiced and sung by Mandy Moore). With a slightly modern, but still reverent, twist, this film features some truly breathtaking character and background animation (think a mending of hand-drawn and CGI), winning characters (Pascal the chameleon and Maximus the horse steal the show), and rousing emotion that results in the best Disney fairy tale adaptation since Beauty and the Beast.

4. Waking Sleeping Beauty
Extraordinary documentary on the Disney Renaissance of 1984-1994, focusing on the new management, successful comeback, and hardships endured at the Walt Disney Studios, resulting in a string of hits from The Little Mermaid to The Lion King. Consists of mainly archival footage and the avoidance of "talking heads," a worthy element that helps put the viewer in the time period. Directed by Disney veteran Don Hahn, and produced by Hahn and former Disney executive Peter Schneider.

5. Inception
Christopher Nolan's ten-years-in-the-making project about criminal masterminds who steal ideas by going into peoples' dreams. A provocative and pulse-pounding thriller with layers (and I MEAN layers) of depth, complexity, and ingenuity. Featuring a brilliant international cast, headed by Leonardo DiCaprio, and shot on 35mm film by Nolan collaborator/cinematographer Wally Pfister.

6. Winter's Bone
A bleak and gritty, yet hopeful, story of an Ozark teenage girl who fights to keep her family (two siblings and a disabled mother) together after her jailed father mysteriously disappears. A breakout performance from Jennifer Lawrence.

Next post: Standout Films of the Decade: 2011

Thursday, December 3, 2015

REVIEW: "The Peanuts Movie" (2015)

About two years ago, news came out that a new animated film starring Charlie Brown, Snoopy and the “Peanuts” gang was being made by Blue Sky Studios (the animation team behind the Ice Age movies and Rio), and that it would be computer-animated. If your reactions to this news were anything like mine, it may have been something like, “Nooooooo! They cannot do that to ‘Peanuts’!” The late Charles Schultz’s classic characters have long been immortalized and best remembered in 50 years of comic strips and countless television specials (the 1965 Christmas special celebrates its 50th anniversary this month), as well as four feature films (from 1969-1980) and a stage musical. On the other hand, Hollywood has certainly had a poor track record when adapting cartoons or comics for the big screen in recent years, from Scooby-Doo to Garfield to Alvin and the Chipmunks and The Smurfs. So the very thought of seeing “Peanuts” in three-dimensional form seemed like another swan song. 

Fortunately—and surprisingly—the teaser trailer for The Peanuts Movie (released in the spring of 2014 during the release of Blue Sky’s Rio 2) proved those initial reactions wrong.

Yes, it would still be (and is) computer animated. But the essential look and personality of the characters from the comic strips, along with Vince Guaraldi’s timeless “Linus and Lucy” score, promised visual and visceral charm. A year-and-a-half later, the resulted film is, like that teaser trailer and those that followed it, charming and wonderful, not to mention G-rated. 

The script for the film was first written in 2006 by Schultz’s son, Craig, and grandson, Bryan, respectfully. Part of the reason was to renew interest in the comics and cartooning. Director Steve Martino (who did a nice job bringing Dr. Seuss’ classic story Horton Hears a Who! to the screen in 2008) led a dedicated team of animators, who all reportedly spent over a year studying the comic strips to translate the “hand-drawn warmth of Schultz’s artwork into the cool pixel-precision of CGI” (IMDb). Again, though it is computer-animated, the look of the characters is still there as it would appear on paper, with CGI pencil lines for such elements as eyebrows and big mouths, thought bubbles, and even dizzying effects. There’s also amazing attention to little details such as hair and clothes—one of the fun parts about looking at the film’s poster (above) with several characters sitting in a movie theater.

I was also delighted to see wonderful homages to the classic specials, from trombone sounds for adult voices, to the way the characters dance, to Lucy’s “psychiatric help” booth, and of course excerpts of Guaraldi’s music. Once again, child actors provide the voices for the characters. The lone adult voice heard in the film, unrecognizably, is that of Kristen Chenoweth (who voices the poodle Fifi), and old recycled recordings of Bill Melendez (who directed over 50 “Peanuts” television specials and films) as the voice of Snoopy and Woodstock are used for said characters. The cast and crew have faithfully done Schultz's legacy justice, while introducing it to a new generation.

(l-r) Franklin, Lucy, Snoopy, Linus, Charlie Brown, Peppermint Patty, and Sally
The story follows Charlie Brown as he struggles with feelings of inadequacy and failure. When a “Little Red-Haired Girl” moves into the neighborhood, he attempts to impress her, as well as his classmates, by proving that he’s a “winner” and not be just a “blockhead”. His attempts include a local talent show, a school dance (with catchy and kid-friendly Meghan Trainor music), and a book report (on Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace,” reportedly Schultz’s favorite novel). At the same time, Snoopy has his own adventure (albeit, fantasy) as he, in his infamous “World War I Flying Ace” persona, chases down the dreaded “Red Baron” to save the girl dog he loves. 

This juxtaposition of fantasy and reality is part of what keeps children and adults in the audience engaged in the story, as well as in learning to accept people for who they are despite their supposed shortcomings. All of the characters were always cute and relatable to children, while their wit, occasional sarcasm and choice of grammar appeal to adults, from Lucy’s bossiness to Linus’s wisdom as well as reliance on his trusty blanket; from Peppermint Patty’s tomboyishness to Schroeder’s piano-playing skills and love of Beethoven; and from Snoopy’s silly antics to Charlie Brown’s determination, despite his self-described failings. 

And although some of the wit and sarcasm is missing in this feature film, in favor of a bit more kid-friendliness, the charm, humor, and sweetness is still there, as are the aforementioned personalities and qualities that define these characters and make them relatable and nostalgic. For one thing, it’s amusing and empathetic to see and remember the little things that made many of us nervous as children, such as talking to a girl or dancing in front of a group of people. We also continue to root for Charlie Brown not because he’s the greatest or the most popular, but because he doesn’t give up, and also because he ends up doing the hard-but-right thing and is commended for it. (Is it any wonder the stage musical was called “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown”?) 

Whether you’re 5 or 95, this movie will fill you with joy. (You may want to stay through the credits for this one.)