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Top 20 Films of the 2010s–#13

16 Dec

By Tanner Smith

Continuing my countdown of my top 20 favorite films of the decade, here’s a recap: 20) Mad Max: Fury Road, 19) Fruitvale Station, 18) Hugo, 17) Parasite, 16) Spotlight, 15) Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, 14) Midnight Special…from one Jeff Nichols masterpiece to another, my #13 choice is…

13) TAKE SHELTER (2011)

In the fall of 2011, my family and I drove three hours from small-town Manila (in Northeast Arkansas, whose cinemas rarely showed limited-release indie films) to big-city Little Rock (Central Arkansas, where just about every indie film played in Arkansas) just to see Take Shelter for two reasons: 1) its writer-director Jeff Nichols was from Arkansas and he was already practically a filmmaking legend by that point, and 2) I was a big fan of Nichols’ previous film (and debut) “Shotgun Stories” and I eagerly awaited to see what he would do next. Was it worth it?

It’s on this list, isn’t it? It was definitely worth it. We were all blown away by this film.

“Take Shelter” is a great blend of family drama and psychological thriller with a possible-apocalyptic vibe running throughout. It also features my favorite performance from Michael Shannon as a man who doesn’t know if he’s predicting a terrible storm coming to destroy everything he holds dear or if he’s going crazy. The actions he takes for the sake of caution make for an interesting character study—one that enthralls me each time I watch it.

This is an effectively disturbing psychological thriller about how fear encapsulates a man who may slowly but surely be going insane, as he has recurring nightmares about a terrible storm and even has visions of it while he’s awake. They push him to the point of building a tornado shelter in his backyard to protect his family, in case these visions are accurate warnings of a future apocalypse. The film is handled extraordinarily well, showing us the life of this man (played brilliantly by Shannon) and his family, giving us a little background so we’re not sure what to think at the moment, and further making us ask the question of what’s real and what’s not. By the time it gets to a point where Shannon wants to know if the subject of his fears are truly happening, I got chills.

Now…what about the ending? Fans of this film have discussed the ambiguity of the final scene–what does it mean? What happens? And so on. After eight years, I’m still not entirely sure of it. But it’s still very interesting to think about. All I know is that the characters know what’s happening and Nichols also knew what was happening–that’s good enough for me…I guess.

“Take Shelter” was the best film I saw in 2011 and it’s one of my favorite movies, period. It’s inspired, unpredictable, chilling, wonderfully-acted, well-executed, intriguing, thought-provoking, and one of Jeff Nichols’ absolute best.

Top 20 Films of the 2010s–#18

1 Dec

By Tanner Smith

Continuing my countdown of my favorite films of the past decade, here’s a recap: 20) Mad Max: Fury Road, 19) Fruitvale Station

18) HUGO (2011)

Well, I couldn’t find room for a 2010s Steven Spielberg film on this list (as solid as “Bridge of Spies” was), but at least I still found a lovely treasure from another filmmaking master still going strong about 50 years later: Martin Scorsese.

Not “Shutter Island” (solid, gripping thriller). Not “The Wolf of Wall Street” (as ambitious as that was, it didn’t do much for me). Not “Silence” (which I haven’t seen…yet). Not even the recently released “The Irishman” (which WILL end up on another list soon).

Nope…it’s “Hugo”–the one you wouldn’t think was made by Scorsese.

Next, you’ll be telling me Francis Ford Coppola made “Jack”!

Martin Scorsese’s films were best known for being dark, violent, gritty, lively, very profane, and commenting on both corruption and guilt. That’s why it’s surprising to see something like “Hugo” come from Scorsese.

“Hugo” is a film made for the whole family, in that both children and adults will gain something from this–insight, emotion, whimsy, magical realism, and a fun, pleasant experience that wouldn’t leave their minds easily. And it certainly made an impression on me, hence the placement on this list. This is a beautiful movie.

“Hugo” is based on the Brian Selznick novel “The Invention of Hugo Cabret,” which itself is an unusual book, in that it’s more of a combination of historical fiction, a graphic novel, and pictures. Scorsese bought the rights to the novel soon after its publication and made it into a film, with his unique vision and using 3D technology to the way he saw fit. He found 3D to be interesting because of the way actors could be more forward with their emotions, and so, he shot “Hugo” in 3D to present those emotions.

The story for “Hugo” is set in the early 1930s in Paris, mostly in the Monparnasse train station, where our hero, a young orphan named Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), lives/hides within the walls in hidden passages. Since the death of his father (Jude Law), he works the clocks around the station and keeps them working all the time to keep from being discovered by authorities, mostly the Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), who menacingly (along with his equally menacing dog) patrols the station and will send Hugo to an orphanage if he ever catches him. Hugo’s main goal is to mend a broken automaton bought from his father at a museum long ago. To accomplish this, he steals material from a station shopkeeper (Ben Kingsley) and gains assistance from the shopkeeper’s goddaughter Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz). It turns out she holds the key (both figuratively and literally) to solving the mystery of the mechanical man.

Where that leads and what happens after (essentially, the second half of the film) is where the film gets even better. It was already engaging me with its whimsy and Dickensian charm, as well as its gorgeous cinematography and art direction (I mean, WOW, does Paris look its most bedazzling here!). But what it all amounts to is a reminder of cinematic magic.

I mentioned that 3D was used by Scorsese to bring the actors’ emotions upfront, but what also helps is that the City of Lights feels so magical and wondrous seeing these already likable characters walk through such a mystical place makes for a remarkable theatrical experience. I’ve seen 3D done wonderfully (with “Avatar” in particular)–this is one of its greatest examples.

Ultimately, “Hugo” is Scorsese’s homage to legendary filmmaker Georges Melies, one of the pioneers of early filmmaking methods and an early king of special effects–his 1902 masterwork, “A Trip to the Moon,” plays a big role in this story. But it doesn’t stop there. We see the wonders and joy of early film techniques. We learn what film meant to Melies before he hit hard times. We see what it means to everyone who goes into a movie theater and wishes to see their dreams come to life. It’s Melies’ story told through Hugo’s eyes, and it’s very effective that way.

It’s easy to see that “Hugo” is Scorsese’s love letter to the art of the film, and it turns out to be one of his finest works in a career filled with fine works. Simply put, “Hugo” is magical.

Looking Back at 2010s Films: Super 8 (2011)

25 Nov

By Tanner Smith

2011–J.J. Abrams’ “Super 8” was one of the biggest hits of the summer and one of my new favorite films. I saw it three times in the theater, I had a great time each viewing, I watched it several more times on DVD, I absolutely adored this movie…

Well, now that time has passed, I don’t think I would rate it four stars today. But I still enjoy it and I’d only tone the verdict down to three-and-a-half stars.

When I first saw this film in a theater, it blew me away. The effects were great (that train crash is still spectacular!), the mystery is well-handled, the buildup is nice, the kids are perfectly portrayed (that pyromaniac kid Cary constantly cracks me up), and it’s just the Spielberg-Abrams collaboration I was waiting for and got….But with that said, there are some major problems that became more clear to me, watching this again. First and foremost is the subplot involving the personal “vendetta,” if you will, Deputy Lamb (Kyle Chandler) has against this one guy, Louis Dainard (Ron Eldard). Maybe it’s just me, but his reasons for feeling (and acting) this way toward not only him but his generally nice daughter could be stronger. I know that it’s because Lamb’s wife had to fill in for Dainard at work and she was killed in an accident as a result, but really, it wasn’t his fault. I get it; Lamb’s a flawed man, as is Dainard, but I just couldn’t sympathize with him, because of his incredibly harsh attitude toward him and his daughter (as sort of guilt by association, I guess). This plot element simply doesn’t work for me anymore and I fast-forwarded through any scenes that bring it up.

That’s my biggest problem with the film. Other little problems include certain plot elements that don’t pay off as well as they should, and…I’ll just say it, I think the ending is kinda anticlimactic. There, I finally admitted the very thing that people have the most issues with about this film. (Though, I still think the last scene is clever and leads to a heartbreaking moment where Joe has to let go of his late mother once and for all, so that made up for it.)

With that said, I still enjoy “Super 8” for much more reasons than my personal issues with it. I still recommend it, just…slightly less highly than I did before? Take that for what it’s worth.

P.S. The kids’ short film played during the end credits? Awesome!

Looking Back at 2010s Films: Drive (2011)

23 Nov

By Tanner Smith

Did you know some disgruntled movie patron tried to sue the filmmakers of “Drive” because it wasn’t what she expected it be?

No, I’m serious–she said it “bore very little similarity to a chase, or race action film … having very little driving in the motion picture”.

To be fair, the film’s trailer made audiences believe it was some type of typical action picture, when really, the film itself only had about two car chases, slow-building tension, atmospheric quiet moments, and some very, VERY violent sequences.

“Drive,” directed by arthouse aficionado Nicholas Winding Refn, won high honors at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival–I don’t think Cannes would even want to recognize your “typical action picture.” (There are exceptions, obviously–they did premiere “Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.”)

Ryan Gosling shines in the lead role, known only as The Driver. With minimal dialogue and hardly any background, everything we need to know about him is through his actions and his facial reactions (sometimes, not even that–mostly, his face is emotionless). What we catch onto is that he’s an anti-hero. He will get his hands dirty when he knows there’s a way out and if no one gets hurt (and if it pays well), but what he wants for the most part is a quiet life.

We see in the opening scene that he has things figured out pretty quickly. He’s a getaway driver for a robbery, which leads to the scene everyone remembers–the camera remains with the car as it escapes and is pursued by police, making for one of the most suspenseful car chases in film history.

That’s the scene movie-theater audiences remember because it’s exactly what they wanted. Then, “Drive” is going to give them something different.

Two things happen to the Driver that get the story going–one is he meets his neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her son Benicio; the other is he meets the mobster Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks), whom the Driver’s friend Shannon (Bryan Cranston) convinces to purchase a car for the Driver to race. The Driver doesn’t trust Rose, especially after finding out that he might have been connected with Shannon’s limp. When he’s with Irene and Benicio, his world is much brighter–he finally has companions; people in his life. But now, Irene’s husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) is being released from prison, and the Driver’s world starts to unravel. Standard gets attacked by some criminals who want him to pull off a new heist. The Driver agrees to help in order to protect him, Irene, and Benicio. But something goes terribly wrong, which results in the Driver’s descent into darkness…

The Driver knows he tends to do some bad things–nowhere is that clearer than in a scene in which he watches TV with Benicio and asks if a cartoon shark is “a bad guy.” Benicio says yes, because he’s a shark. “Aren’t there any good sharks?” the Driver asks. He wants to be a good guy, but he knows he hasn’t done much to declare himself in that regard. And when things go from bad to worse, he snaps and does some very, VERY nasty things towards his antagonists.

All of this is told with great directing from Refn, subtle understated acting from Gosling, and a great deal of atmosphere. Admittedly, as a movie theater patron, I was perplexed. But as a film lover, I was fascinated. And it took just one more viewing for me to declare “Drive” as something special.

Oh, and the soundtrack? Fantastic. “Nightcall,” “Under Your Spell,” and especially “A Real Hero”–all of these techno songs add to the style and grit “Drive” is going for. (I work at a theater where the “Drive” soundtrack often plays over the stereo–my attention is always drawn to it when I should be getting back to work!)

Looking Back at 2010s Films: Attack the Block (2011)

11 Nov

By Tanner Smith

Joe Cornish’s “Attack the Block.” This. Film. Kicks. Ass!

OK, I’ll admit, when I first saw this British import on DVD, I turned on the English subtitles because the accents were a little too thick for me to understand a lot of the dialogue, and there was a lot of British slang I didn’t get at first either. (Don’t blame me for being a dumb American.) But it didn’t matter; I still enjoyed the film. Then I watched it again; I liked it even more. Then I watched it again; I loved it even more. And I kept watching it again and again and again, and soon enough it became one of my favorite movies!

I should contain myself, but this is a retrospective after all–can’t I be a little excited?

It’s funny because thick accents aside, I can understand why people wouldn’t get into this film at first. The main characters, who are streetwise teenage thugs in South London, are violent, cruel, vulgar, and unlikable. When you first see them, they’re mugging our secondary main character, nurse Sam (Jodie Whitaker), and bragging about how tough they are…or how tough they THINK they are. It’s when the aliens arrive that we actually see them as real, scared kids. They realize they’re hardly a match for these numerous, gigantic, vicious beasts who want nothing more than to maim and kill anyone that they come across. (Btw, how DO these things travel through space? They don’t seem to be that intelligent. It’s like if the shark from “Jaws” was an alien.) The kids are scared; they think quickly; they trust their wits; they perform deeds that they think are so tough before they get a couple of them killed; and so on. As the film continues, these kids do become worth rooting for, which is very important.

By the end of the film, after a night of mayhem and surviving, even if a couple of them haven’t learned anything and will probably stay the same, at least the leader, Moses (John Boyega, a few years before his breakthrough as a defective Stormtrooper), has learned the error of his ways and will most likely rehabilitate himself. And it’s to Boyega’s credit that we can see the transformation through his performance; he’s great here. And so is Alex Esmail who plays pyromaniac Pest and makes for effective comic relief (I love when he’s trapped in a room filled with weed but with no papers).

And speaking of comic relief, there is plenty of that, mostly provided by Nick Frost as a drug dealer and Luke Treadaway as a preppie druggie who has no idea what the hell’s going on until it’s too late to run away easily. BUT “Attack the Block” is also an effective thriller/horror film. The tension builds with each scene, the monsters are nicely-done and pose as a legitimate threat, and there are some good boo-scares (such as when a creature suddenly appears through a peephole).

More importantly, “Attack the Block” is a ton of fun! It’s thrilling, it’s funny, it’s tense, it’s engaging, it’s even dramatic at times, it has good effects, even better acting, the action and characters go well together, the creatures are suitably gruesome, and it’s over in less than an hour-and-a-half. I’ve seen it a hundred times already, and I’ll definitely watch it a hundred more! What else can you say but “That’s a alien, bruv! Believe it!” See? It’s even making me saying those British slang words I didn’t even know were real.

Looking Back at 2010s Films: The Artist (2011)

8 Nov

By Tanner Smith

WHAT?! “The Artist” isn’t on my decade-end top 20, either?! C’mon!

What a wonderful piece of cinema. This is a silent film that is not only homage to silent film but also a riveting, touching story that works no matter if it’s in sound or silent. This is a movie about the dawning era of “talkies,” a time when silent films were put to an end and those who were famous for their work had to adjust to being heard in these new films. This has also been covered in movies like “Singin’ in the Rain,” which was about how actors learned to adapt to this change, but “The Artist” does something more complicated; it tells the story of a silent-film actor who couldn’t make that transition, and whose career was ruined because of it.

It’s a deeply effective portrait of a man who had everything and wound up with close to nothing. That’s not to say the whole film is a downer, because there are many comic moments to be found here as well, particularly those that mimic the style of silent films in the earlier scenes. I love that the people who made this movie actually went out of their way to craft something creative and remarkable. Do you really need dialogue (and color) to tell a story? “The Artist” says no–it allows the performances and scenery to assist in telling a story that you can easily get caught up in. If you haven’t seen it, do yourself a favor and rent this astonishing treasure of a movie.

And as much as I’ve mocked the Oscars for ignoring certain films or performances (all in good jest, mind you), I applaud them for recognizing the majesty of this film, even awarding it the Best Picture statue.

Looking Back at 2010s Films: Fright Night (2011)

12 Oct

fright_night-still_2-1160x480.jpg

By Tanner Smith

Continuing my series of Looking Back at 2010s Films…you know something? Ratings hardly mean diddly. I like the “Fright Night” remake much better than the “Fright Night” original, and I originally gave them both the same 3-star rating!

To be fair, there’s still much to like about the 1985 original film, starring Roddy McDowell and Chris Sarandon. Two of the reasons are…well, Roddy McDowell and Chris Sarandon. They’re a ton of fun to watch and they were clearly having fun themselves while making the film. McDowell is a riot as a classic-horror icon who finds himself up against real classic-horror monsters and mostly runs away screaming before he finally performs some action, and Sarandon is a suave figure; calm, cool, and collected, thus making him uneasily identifiable as a killer vampire. Then there’s Stephen Geoffreys as the wacky drugged-out kid who becomes a vampire, Evil Ed…I’ve also seen this guy act in films like “At Close Range” and I still don’t know if he was a good actor or not, but by God was he entertaining!

They’re certainly better than the main character, his girlfriend, and his mother, who are so gratingly annoying that I want to embrace the remake even more for making them both likable AND interesting!……Well, OK, I don’t know if they’re THAT interesting, but they are likable enough. That they’re played by likable actors such as the late Anton Yelchin, Imogen Poots, and Toni Collette makes it even better. (Whoa–Yelchin and Poots in the same film five years before “Green Room?” Nice!)

I like Colin Farrell fine as an actor, but I like him more when he’s playing someone who’s a total ass. Here, he’s a vampire. And while he’s not as subtle as Sarandon in hiding his identity, he’s not terribly obvious either. He walks that fine line between brooding (*cough* Edward Cullen *cough cough*) and actually menacing. He’s also sarcastic and makes snide remarks that seem more threatening in hindsight. Also, and this goes without saying, he is an asshole! (That smiling face he makes when one of his fresh bites vainly attempts to escape is simply priceless.)

Then there’s the matter of Peter Vincent, the reluctant “vampire killer.” In the original, he’s an old out-of-work horror-movie actor who is roped into a situation with real vampires, and he was one of the main characters. Here, he’s an illusionist who is said to be an expert in the dark arts, and he’s more of a side character than anything else. Oh, and he’s played by David Tennant, one of the coolest people in show business today–because of that, it does sort of bother me that he isn’t given as much to do as he could’ve had. However, he is funny and fun to watch and he does lend a helping hand when the chips are down, so I can’t say he’s “wasted” in the role. (“Let’s kill something!”)

Giving Charley (Yelchin) more of a character arc than his original counterpart makes it all the more interesting than if he were just some kid who randomly discovered a monster lives next door to him (and also wanted to get laid). And while we’re on the subject of positive character changes, I also like that his girlfriend Amy (Poots) is more understanding and supportive than her original counterpart (and not so whiny and shrilly all the time). (I mentioned this in my review of the original film–I really don’t like the Charley or the Amy of the 1985 film.) And Charley’s mother is more realistic than the passive, Vicodin-hooked loony the original came off as. Then there’s Ed, who’s more of a nerdy McLovin this time around (fitting–he’s played by McLovin himself, Christopher Mintz-Plasse), but no matter–no one can replace the original Evil Ed and I’m glad they didn’t even try to.

I also like that the remake’s story is set in Vegas and the main characters live in a suburb surrounded by desert. A) As characters mention, it’s the perfect hiding spot for vampires. (“People work the Strip during the night and sleep all day.”) B) Horror movie watchers complain that not enough people call for help; well, there’s hardly any reception in the desert when characters are chased in there, so there’s that.

Speaking of which, that desert chase scene is technically well-executed, with one of those one-shot wonders we reviewers love to marvel upon. Just forget about the subpar CGI and remember the awesomeness of this well-crafted scene.

So, yeah. I like this film. A lot, actually. And honestly, I even forget that it IS a remake until they bring in some obvious callbacks (“You’re so cool, Brewster!”). It’s a fun, entertaining thrill ride (or as someone puts it, “a f**ked-up night”), and I like to pop the DVD in every once in a while for some good vampire fun (well…after “Near Dark,” “The Lost Boys,” and “From Dusk Till Dawn,” obviously).