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Top 20 Films of the 2010s–#1

31 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, 13) Take Shelter, 12) The Spectacular Now, 11) The Social Network, 10) Frances Ha, 9) Get Out, 8) Gravity, 7) The Dirties, 6) Boyhood, 5) Whiplash, 4) Inside Out, 3) Ruby Sparks, 2) Life Itself

And my favorite film of the 2010s is…

1) BEFORE MIDNIGHT (2013)

Yes, it’s the latest (final, perhaps?) chapter of Richard Linklater’s much beloved “Before…” trilogy that is my personal favorite film of the 2010s. The whole trilogy of films is among my absolute all-time favorite movies, so for this decade-end list, there was no question that my #1 choice would be Before Midnight, released in 2013.

But wait. In my post about The Spectacular Now, I mentioned that I had trouble choosing between four films for my #1 pick of the 2013-end list. Why didn’t I choose “Before Midnight” right away? Well, for one thing, time changes minds unpredictably, and so obviously, it’s what I would pick for the best film of 2013 now. Second of all, I didn’t have a very pleasant time when I first saw this movie in a theater (with a very talkative and irritable little girl sitting a few rows behind me–I’m guessing her parents dragged her to see this sequel to two other movies that I assume she would have no interest in whatsoever??)–I still reviewed the film the way it was meant to be (or the way I wanted it to be), but I was “looking” at the film rather than “seeing” it. Now that I’ve “seen” “Before Midnight,” I can’t deny it–it’s an excellent film that made its mark on me (better late than never).

“Before Sunrise” (1995) was a wonderful romance about two young people (Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy) who meet by chance and spend a wonderful night together before separating…until nine years later, with “Before Sunset” (2004), where they finally meet up again and wonder if this is a second chance. Now it’s another nine years later, and we have “Before Midnight.” Jesse (Hawke) and Celine (Delpy) have been together all that time, they have twin daughters, and this is a film about what *is*, rather than what might have or could have been.

By this point in their relationship, the honeymoon phase is over and now they have to think about what the future holds. It begins as Jesse says goodbye to his vacationing son, with whom he attempts to maintain a relationship with after divorcing his ex-wife. (The boy lives in Chicago with his mother–Jesse and Celine live in Paris.) Jesse feels a disconnect between him and his son and feels he’s failing as a father to him. Leaving the airport, he mentions to Celine a potential move to Chicago, which Celine immediately turns down. But that’s not the end of that debate. This scene, which is made up of about 15 minutes of dialogue (none of which is improvised–all of it is as written by Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy), is wonderful. Not only do Hawke and Delpy exhibit the same chemistry as we’ve seen in the previous “Before…” films, but they also show how it’s developed over time–bitter and knowing, but still with charm to themselves that they can’t deny to each other.

For a good chunk of the film, Jesse and Celine are in the company of friends in the Greek Peloponnese peninsula, discussing life and love. The things they talk about in this middle portion of the film are explored as someone as innovative as Linklater would write–and with Hawke and Delpy themselves aiding him, I’ll listen to these people talk anytime.

And then, it’s back to Jesse and Celine, as they’re to have a romantic night alone in a prepaid hotel room. It starts pleasant enough, as they walk around outside and talk about whatever; they still enjoy each other’s company, even if they’re tired of each other’s certain characteristics, and then…they get to the room. A chance at romance is gone as soon as an action is mistaken for another meaning, the wrong thing is said, and the debate about whether or not to move to America is brought back again. This escalates into a fierce argument that goes on…and on…and on…and I don’t know who to side with. They both make strong points…even if those points could have been expressed a little differently.

This is the final act of the film: a heated argument in which a couple’s present and future are brought to question. Is this a rough patch? Will it mend? Is this the end of their relationship? I don’t know, but I’m on edge to find out, especially since I’ve gotten to know these two people for three whole films!

“Before Midnight” is a film that illustrates that love is easy but relationships are very difficult. Once the honeymoon stage is over, there’s still the present and future to consider. That we’ve gotten to know and love these two characters through these movies makes it all the more effective when we see this issue brought to light with them. The passage of time is evident with them, and that makes this third film the most powerful of the “Before…” trilogy because it’s the most eye-opening and thought-provoking.

Will there be a fourth “Before…” film? It’s possible this is the end of a trilogy, as it ends on a beautifully ambiguous (but somewhat hopeful) note that challenges both romantic viewers and cynical ones. But then again, I wouldn’t mind seeing what would become of them nine years after the most important argument of their relationship (if they’re still together by then). Perhaps Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy are ready to leave these characters behind, or maybe they have yet to let them go. All I know is I’m down for another chapter in this story.

As time goes by, I have no doubt that movies like “Life Itself” and “Ruby Sparks” will stay with me. But not quite like “Before Midnight” surely will. For that reason, among many others, “Before Midnight” is my favorite film of the 2010s.

Top 20 Films of the 2010s–#7

23 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, 13) Take Shelter, 12) The Spectacular Now, 11) The Social Network, 10) Frances Ha, 9) Get Out, 8) Gravity

7) THE DIRTIES (2013)

If anyone’s continually checking these decade-end Top-20 updates and thinking “WHAT?!” in regards to this selection, well…I can’t help it; Matt Johnson’s “The Dirties” is one of my favorite movies, period.

And it’s strange, because when I first saw it on TV, I wasn’t all that impressed by it. But then I watched it again…and again…and then I wrote a review for it (which was mildly positive at best)…and then I wrote an in-depth analytical essay for it (much more positive than the first review)…I’ve lost count of how many times I streamed it on Netflix before it was randomly removed from the service…and then after a while, I wanted to own it so badly that I spent $40 on a Blu-Ray for the movie via Amazon!

3 stars? Puh! 4 stars all the way! I LOVE this movie! WHY do I love this movie? Let’s see if I can explain.

For one thing, it’s an example of passionate, resourceful, independent filmmakers using everything to their advantage. “The Dirties” was made for cheap, with the film’s financing coming “out of pocket.” The film is executed in the style of a documentary–but not just any documentary; a documentary made by a bright high-school kid…made by a guy in his 20s playing a bright high-school kid.

The kid is Matt (played by Matt Johnson, who also wrote and directed the film)–he’s a goofy, energetic movie geek who lives for movies to the point where he has cameras on him all the time in order to become the star of his own movie. (I give up wondering who’s constantly filming him within the context of the movie. Another classmate? An older documentary filmmaker? Who is cinematographer Jared Raab supposed to represent here? It doesn’t matter anymore–but it’s fun to think about.) He and his best (and only) friend Owen (Owen Williams) are making a wish-fulfillment fantasy film in which they exact revenge on a gang of bullies called The Dirties, based on bullies they frequently encounter in campus hallways. When the beatings continue, Matt gets the idea to plan his own school shooting–he’ll go into the school with guns and shoot “only the bad guys.” Owen doesn’t think he’s serious about this, but as Matt digs deeper into this crazy idea (practicing with multiple firearms, measuring hallway lockers, marking school-building blueprints, keeping pictures of the bullies marked on his wall, etc.), it gets really disturbing. It also doesn’t help that Matt always seems to be acting for the cameras, which Owen ultimately calls him out on. Where their friendship goes from there and how the film ultimately concludes…if you want spoilers, check out my essay again.

The story of how this film was made is fascinating. Apparently, writer-director-actor Matt Johnson and his co-star Owen Williams, amongst many of the crew and other actors, actually went to a public school and posed as students (“21 Jump Street” much?) in order to make this film.

Now…how they were able to get away with filming the ending, which involves a school shooting, I’m not entirely sure. If I could get my hands on one of those out-of-stock Limited Edition Blu-Rays of the movie, with all sorts of extra content, I would love to get answers to the questions like that which have been on my mind more often than I’ll admit.

The film is very entertaining, but most importantly, it’s more than that. Its subtext is equally disturbing and effective. It raises an interesting social commentary about the issue of youth psychology and how it’s never always how we interpret it. Even when Matt plays up his own craziness on-camera (by reading aloud the very definition of “psychopath” and asking his mother if she thinks he’s “crazy”), you still have to wonder what’s really going on inside his head as he performs his actions. No matter what clues may seem obvious, there will always be questions that we will continue to ask without ever getting clear answers about why something as horrible as this happens.

The genius of “The Dirties” is it ends where the typical news story would begin…and even if we think we know how it all came to be, there are still some things we’re still not sure about. What did Matt write down while reviewing some of the footage? Why did Owen call Matt the night before the shooting? All of these things could have given us a much clearer perspective, but instead, while we know some things for sure, other pieces of the puzzle are still left a mystery. And that’s why I believe the film is so special: it tells an important story but it doesn’t pretend to have all the answers either.

So there you have my reasoning for placing “The Dirties” on this list–it’s every bit as thought-provoking as it is entertaining. And I look forward to seeing what else the mega-talented filmmaker Matt Johnson has in store for us in the future.

NOTE: Oh, and there’s also the end credits…these may be the very best closing credits to a movie I’ve ever seen.

Top 20 Films of the 2010s–#8

22 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, 13) Take Shelter, 12) The Spectacular Now, 11) The Social Network, 10) Frances Ha, 9) Get Out

8) GRAVITY (2013)

“I hate space.” Yeah, I’m not too fond of it either.

Can you imagine being stranded in SPACE? I try to. Completely lost in empty oblivion with no hope of rescue or resource? It’s terrifying to process. I can’t imagine I’d be as lucky as Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) in Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity”–but it’s a movie, and if you don’t go along on this extremely treacherous journey for her to find her way back down to Earth, you’re not going to like the movie as much as you appreciate the utterly convincing visual effects. And you’re not going to root for her to try something that may be totally improbable in order to get out of her horrible situation.

Well, I did, and I loved “Gravity” as a result.

For about the first hour in this hour-and-a-half long survival flick (in SPACE), “Gravity” works wonderfully as an experience–at one point, Cuaron even puts us in the eyes (and helmet) of Stone as she helplessly wanders through space uncontrollably and we wish for something–ANYTHING–to stop her or slow her down. Bullock’s acting is always convincing, and we really feel her anxiety and terror as it overflows through this horrible ordeal and she tries to figure out what to do next in order to stay alive. And probably the most important factor of it all–it FEELS real. If you had told me this was literally, physically filmed entirely on location in space, I would have believed you. (I would’ve had SO many questions, but I would’ve been gullible enough to consider it.)

I saw this film twice on the biggest screen with the greatest sound system (not IMAX, but close enough)–it’s the best way to see it, to say the least.

The final half-hour or so is more “movie” than “experience,” as Stone ultimately decides to try something outrageous to bring herself back home in order to fulfill a redemptive character arc set up before and continue living a new life if she survives this whole thing. But it’s still a gripping movie with emotional complexity. I wanted her to keep going, not give up, and be able to come back as a brand new person.

People will complain that “Gravity” works less on the small screen. Maybe it does. But I still watch it (on a regular TV screen) every now and again, and the effect isn’t COMPLETELY lost on me. I can still admire the marvelous effects and get into the story/experience at least almost as much as I did on the big screen.

“Gravity” is a unique film experience that can be enjoyed no matter how big or how small the screen it displays upon.

Top 20 Films of the 2010s–#10

18 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, 13) Take Shelter, 12) The Spectacular Now, 11) The Social Network, and we are now at THE TOP 10 FILMS OF THE 2010S!

Let’s begin with yet another film that got better and better each time I saw it (and I’m still seeing it again and again to this day):

10) FRANCES HA (2013)

In my Top-13-of-’13 list representing my favorite films of 2013, Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha tied with Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine for the #13 spot. My description: “Similar films aided by great dialogue and convincing acting.” How many times have I seen “Blue Jasmine” since its original release? About two or three. How many times have I seen “Frances Ha”? If I had to guess, I’d say about 30-40.

Why many critics are ashamed to admit when their feelings change towards a certain film is beyond me, but I have to share my absolute love and appreciation for “Frances Ha,” which is now one of my favorite films of the decade.

“Frances Ha” is about a New York aspiring dancer who sets out to accomplish her dreams and the ups and downs that come with it, such as moving from place to place and taking odd jobs along the way…that’s about it. Simple, yet very effective.

(Oh, and there’s a brief trip to Paris too. Not so simple.)

There was a time when writer-director Noah Baumbach’s films sort of tested me. I’m still not 100% clear as to why his 2007 dysfunctional-family dry comedy Margot at the Wedding worked so well for me and yet why I’m indifferent towards arguably his most infamous film “The Squid and the Whale” or why I’m in no hurry to revisit “Greenberg” anytime soon, for example. Sometimes I love his material, and sometimes I don’t think I hate it and maybe I liked it but I wouldn’t necessarily see myself watching it repeatedly in the future. But there was something to “Frances Ha” that I could even notice from the start, so much so that I didn’t mind that (at the time) the only way I could revisit it a year after I first saw it was by buying the Criterion Blu-Ray at Barnes & Noble (albeit at a cheaper price than usual–it was on sale, thank God).

After this, I was able to guess what to expect from his subsequent works (While We’re Young, Mistress America, The Meyerowitz Stories, “Marriage Story”) and still be flabbergasted and yet fascinated enough to revisit them every now and then.

So, what is it about “Frances Ha” that I admire so much?

Well, one thing I noticed upon first viewing is that it wasn’t as shamelessly frank as a lot of indie films were (or still are, for the most part). It was a nice change of pace to be sensitive. Oh, there are still issues present and life in this film is often a pain, but the film doesn’t go out of its way. That makes it all the more easy to care for the character of Frances Halladay (Greta Gerwig, who also co-wrote the film with Baumbach) and her ways of dealing with hardships such as loneliness, debt, lack of acceptance, and work confusion, because they’re not presented as depressing but rather seen through a careful eye. In that respect, this film reminded me of some of the best Woody Allen films–maybe that’s why I tied it with “Blue Jasmine” on my 2013 list.

Greta Gerwig is now seen as a superstar, not only as one of our most reliable character actors (in films like Mistress America and 20th Century Women) but also a wonderfully impressive writer-director (Lady Bird, “Little Women”), but back then, she was the “mumblecore queen” trying to find her footing in more film opportunities. So, like a lot of actors who struggled to find the right roles for them (Zoe Kazan, Rashida Jones, Lake Bell, Jason Segel, Seth Rogen, Kristen Wiig, among many others), she wrote one for herself–the right role and performance that would show everyone, critics and audiences, what she has to offer as an actor. And she is GREAT as Frances Halliday. She has an odd, offbeat, fun personality that doesn’t hide vulnerability or sweetness. I don’t know if that’s what she’s really like in person, but that usually comes through in her work. She gets to play that persona to further dimensions here–you see a character learning, thinking, reasoning, absorbing, etc. all throughout the film.

And in the end, I just can’t help but hope that Frances finds the happiness she’s pursuing even if it’s not the kind she expected or necessarily “wanted.” (I mean, let’s face it–life always has other plans for us when we think we have our own.) And that’s why the ending, which explains the meaning of the film’s title, affects me so deeply and even brings a little tear to my eye each time I rewatch the film (which is so often–I’m always happy to watch the film, whether on the Criterion Blu-Ray or on Netflix). Frances doesn’t get the very thing she dreamed of, but she does get her life on track by accepting change. And these changes have been ready for her all the time, and it was time she fully realized and accepted them so that she can have something fulfilling in life. And the label that simply reads “Frances Ha” represents this great development in her life, and I can’t help but cry a happy tear for Frances.

She made it.

And so did Greta Gerwig. Everything she does, I’m happy to see. I’ve seen “Frances Ha” over a hundred times now; I’m sure I’ll see it a hundred more times in the future…I’ll even watch it again after publishing this post.

“Ahoy sexy!”

Top 20 Films of the 2010s–#12

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, 13) Take Shelter

12) THE SPECTACULAR NOW (2013)

2013 was a great year for film–I already talked about Fruitvale Station for this list, and there are FOUR other films from that year that will appear somewhere on the remainder of this list, but there’s also “Prisoners,” Inside Llewyn Davis, The World’s End, Frozen, The Way, Way Back, Short Term 12, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, “Stories We Tell,” Mud, “When I Walk,” “Her,” Joss Whedon’s “Much Ado About Nothing,” “Nebraska,” and there was even a new chapter of the Up documentary series released that year.

WOW! And that’s just to name a few!

I’m not going to lie–at the time I had to create a year-end list (which was published not on this blog, but for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette–link here), it was tough for me to pick a #1 choice. I had FOUR options…..FOUR!!

I mean, it’s easy to pick my favorite film of 2013 now that 2013 is long past and I’ve had plenty of time to rewatch these films and single one out as “the best” or “my personal favorite.” But back then, it was tough. I think the reason I chose The Spectacular Now because it was the one of the four that I wasn’t able to see again before making my top-13-of-’13 list (and the one I really wanted to see again).

I don’t know why most film critics are ashamed to admit they’ve rewatched movies they’ve reviewed and had their opinions change even slightly–we can like a film a little more or a little less after seeing it again or a few more times after that. This happens to everybody, not just film reviewers, and we need to be proud to admit that!

Blah blah blah, ramble over (or just beginning). Let’s talk about “The Spectacular Now”…now.

Obviously, this isn’t my #1 favorite film of 2013 anymore (like I said, I still have 4 more 2013 films to talk about amongst the other 11 selections for this decade-end top-20–obviously, there’s a film or two that I’ve learned to like better after subsequent viewings). But it is still on this list nonetheless, because it is still a film that means a lot to me.

When a film truly captures what it’s like to be a teenager in high school, or in a high school romance, it’s something special. Generally, most of us come of age in a major way in our high school days and so, a film that captures certain dilemmas or relationships (either platonic or romantic) can make for a great, effective coming-of-age story, given the right amount of detail in writing and characterization. I can think of many such films that are great examples of such, a lot of which even came out this decade (seriously, I think people are going to look at the 1980s and the 2010s for some truly great high-school movies); another to add to the list is “The Spectacular Now,” a truthful, incredible film about forming a high school senior forming a new relationship with someone he’d never met before, and learning to fully prepare for his own future.

High-school senior Sutter Keely (Miles Teller) lives in “the now.” He’s charismatic, full of himself, and constantly buzzed (he keeps a flask in his pocket and pours it into his soda cup much of the time). He gets dumped by his girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson) because she wants more than “now”–she wants “tomorrow,” and she can’t have it with Sutter. After drinking his pain away, Sutter is found lying on a random front yard in the suburbs by wallflower classmate Aimee (Shailene Woodley), who wakes him up, thankful that he’s not dead. From there starts an interesting friendship that blossoms into somewhat of a romance (though Aimee is more into it than Sutter is), which then leads Sutter to confront his own issues, starting with meeting up with his father (Kyle Chandler), whom he hasn’t seen since childhood…

The trip to meet Sutter’s father is what makes the film far more than a high-school romantic comedy. Some very serious undertones are developed with this portion of the story, and it’s all the more deep and complex because of it. It shows the kind of person Sutter could become if he’s not careful, and it also shows glances of his former attitude and how he’s not treating his girlfriend the way he should. And so on.

When I showed this film to a friend, the main character of Sutter Keely was a difficult one for him to understand until the very end when he felt empathy for him. That’s what makes him so interesting, and when he gets his development in the final act, you really feel it and it hits you hard. The final speech he gives about his change is one of the most heartbreaking I’ve ever heard in a movie of this sort.

“The Spectacular Now” was directed by James Ponsoldt, who also made the solid dramedy “Smashed” and The End of the Tour (one of my honorable mentions for this list)–something I notice about his best works is that he’s not afraid to let his actors play with their characters and hold our attention for long single takes on-camera; you can sense he communicates well with his talent. The screenplay was adapted from Tim Tharp’s novel of the same name by screenwriting duo Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber, who have become very reliable in adapting both YA novels (such as this, The Fault in Our Stars, and Paper Towns) and biographical works (The Disaster Artist, for which they were nominated for the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar).

And I’ll say this–I like this film adaptation a lot better than its original source material. My reason as to why has to do with the film’s ending, different from the book. The book’s ending is tragic, yes, but it also made the rest of the book rather pointless and left me kind of empty. But the film’s ending, while ambiguous, gave me a lot more to think about. Where will Sutter end up? Will he truly change for the better? Will he relapse to his old manners? Will he and Aimee get back together? If so, how long will it last? Will it last?

(Fun fact: both actors Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley have their own different opinions as to what happens with Sutter and Aimee after this story ends.)

I love “The Spectacular Now.” I love the acting. I love the dialogue. I love the way the characters relate with each other. I love the story themes. And I love how it makes me feel by the time it’s over. It may not be my favorite film of 2013 any longer, but it will always be one of my favorites of the 2010s.

Top 20 Films of the 2010s–#19

29 Nov

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 (2013)

The first time I saw Ryan Coogler’s “Fruitvale Station,” it broke me. Even when I knew how it was going to end, I still wasn’t ready for it. I was sad, angry, and frustrated that what happened at the end of this film actually happened in real life.

“Fruitvale Station” is based on the events leading to the death of Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old man who was killed by Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police officers within the early morning hours of New Year’s Day 2009. The murder was witnessed by the present transit passengers stopped at the Fruitvale station where it happened. Many of these onlookers recorded the incident on their phones and shared it online, sparking a ton of interest and controversy.

Before writer-director Ryan Coogler begins his dramatized telling of what led up to this event, he makes the bold choice of showing us a recorded video of the incident (and cutting it off just as we hear the gunshot).

“Fruitvale Station” was Coogler’s feature debut. He was a graduate student at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts when Grant was shot and killed. Since then, he held a passion for making a film about Grant’s last day, with the intent of telling the story that you usually wouldn’t find in the media: who Oscar Grant was. Coogler met and worked with Grant’s family to learn more about Grant, and then he had a big opportunity in 2011 when Forest Whitaker decided to support the project when his production company was looking for new talent to mentor.

In 2013, “Fruitvale Station” premiered at Sundance, where it won the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award for drama, and screened again at Cannes before it was released in theaters in July. It received a ton of praise from critics and audiences, and it’s easy to see why. This is a terrific film.

And it introduced us to a truly talented director in Ryan Coogler, who went on to revive the “Rocky” franchise by taking it in a different direction before making a Marvel Cinematic Universe movie that would challenge its audience (no, the other movie)–an impressive track record, to say the least!

All three of Coogler’s movies so far feature actor Michael B. Jordan, another great young talent who broke through this decade. In “Fruitvale Station,” he portrays Oscar Grant, a young parolee trying to stay out of trouble. It’s impossible to dislike him–he feels all too real, and it’s also to Jordan’s credit as a natural actor that we see him as a regular guy, flaws and all. He can get angry and impatient, but he also shows a genuine love for those who love him. When you make a film based on a real person, it’s easy to turn that person into a saint. But with “Fruitvale Station,” it seems Coogler was more focused on showing us who he was and who would miss him.

Nothing dramatic happens to Oscar in the day leading up to his death. He goes about his day preparing for his mother’s birthday party and a New Year’s night out with his girlfriend and their friends, and he’ll also spend time with his four-year-old daughter in the meantime. But there is something else to this day as well–he wants to turn his life around. He’s on parole, so he seeks to get a legitimate job–he was fired from a supermarket position, apparently weeks ago, and so today he’s trying to get his job back; and he even throws out the last of his drugs, which he was going to sell. He tells his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz), who isn’t very pleased that he’s been selling drugs in the time since he was fired, and he assures her that he’s going to find a way to keep going…and before they drop their daughter off at Sophina’s sister-in-law’s for the night before meeting their friends, Oscar tells Tatiana that they’ll go to Chuck E. Cheese the following morning…

Because we know how this story will end, each of these actions feel all the more meaningful and tragic because we know these are Oscar’s final moments of his life. The family and friends that Oscar interacts with are never going to see him again after this day.

What aids in the film’s effect is the use of handheld cameras to add some rawness to the proceedings, rather than rely on polished cinematography (which a lot of film-school graduates love to show off). And thanks to the first-rate acting from everyone involved (not just Jordan and Diaz but also Octavia Spencer as Oscar’s mother), “Fruitvale Station” both looks and feels real. When the incident finally occurs in the last 15 minutes of the film, even though I knew it was coming, I still wasn’t ready for it.

And…OK, let’s talk about the incident as it truly happened. The reason the BART officers arrived at the Fruitvale station to apprehend Oscar was because he was involved in a fight on the train with a thug he was in prison with. (Actually, they didn’t single out Oscar–they pulled off the train everyone they thought might have been involved in the fight.) The cops had their tasers out, pointed toward their detainees against the platform wall. One thing led to another, and Oscar was pinned to the floor by a cop who tried to arrest him for “resisting an officer.” He couldn’t reach Oscar’s hands, he unholstered his gun, and shot him in the back.

It was a time of confusion that led to ultimate tragedy. The officer who fired the shot was sentenced to two years for involuntary manslaughter after claiming he mistook his gun for his taser and released after 11 months. And the other officers involved were fired. All I can say is…that’s three less inept police officers in the world. Because, that’s what they were: inept. Whether Oscar disrespected them or not, that doesn’t matter. Whether the officer truly was reaching for his taser or not, that doesn’t matter. They panicked, they handled it all wrong, and they weren’t meant to be cops.

Whew. Glad I got that out of my system.

“Fruitvale Station” isn’t an easy film to watch. But it’s one that definitely made an impact on me. I will see it again a few more times, but it depends on the mood I’m in. But when I play the DVD, the ending has the same impact on me each time. And that’s why it’s on my decade-end top 20.

Looking Back at 2010s Films: Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

26 Nov

By Tanner Smith

The Coen Brothers’ ode to the late-’50s/early-’60s folk-music scene, “Inside Llewyn Davis,” has become somewhat of a trading secret between movie lovers. Not enough people talk about it, but those that do usually praise it to high heaven. And I can certainly see why. It’s as offbeat and ridiculous as many of the Coen Brothers’ best-known works, but there’s something else to it as well–something that speaks to people (particularly those trying to make it in the arts) through the lead character, who is surly, depressed, and either trying so hard or not hard enough to make a name for himself in folk music. It’s the kind of film (and character) that wouldn’t work for a mainstream audience, because it’s so downbeat and also zigzagging, but would delight indie-scene individuals because both its narrative and characters are identifiable.

The setting is Greenwich Village, 1961. Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is a broke, homeless folk singer. With his guitar, he comes alive by performing a song. Without his guitar (hell, even WITH his guitar, which he often brings with him), he’s a bum crashing from place to place. And the film is just pretty much following this guy around for about a week as he interacts with friends, family, acquaintances, and new people he comes across. We see his offbeat relationship with an old flame, fellow musician Jean (Carey Mulligan), who is pregnant and doesn’t want the baby if it’s Llewyn’s and not her current boyfriend’s. (“Everything you touch turns to SH*T!” she snaps at him at one point.) We see him collaborate with other musicians–Jim (Justin Timberlake) and Al Cody (Adam Driver)–for easily the best song in the movie (which admittedly has a very strong soundtrack–I’m humming at least three of these tunes as I write this post), “Please Mr. Kennedy.” We see his rocky relationship with his sister (Jeanine Serralles), from whom he tries to borrow money. We even see him go on a bizarre road trip to Chicago with Roland Turner (John Goodman) and Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund).

Oh, and there’s a cat too…I don’t know why the cat is there, but he’s a great supporting cat.

So many aspiring artists wish to do what they love doing for a living, and they’re often faced with a choice–continue struggling until something great happens to come along and set them for life…or get a “real” job with steady income. Sometimes, the choice is difficult to make because so many of us want to use our talents to our benefit. (Yes, I include myself–I want to make movies, not write about them forever.) That’s the choice Llewyn has to make in the end. (What’s beautiful about the resolution is that there hardly is a resolution–we don’t know the choice Llewyn ultimately makes.) There is a possibility that Llewyn will continue to struggle because he’s gotten used to it, as Jean bluntly insinuates at one point, but if he does make it in the field, he may actually turn out more miserable than he already is. It’s interesting to think about, and that’s one of the main reasons I think people love this movie. This is not your basic “star-is-born” story.

The cast is perfect, the songs are memorably well-suited, Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography is wonderful, and it’s a Coen Bros. movie through and through. And upon seeing it again, I’m not gonna lie…it came close to making the decade-end top-20 list.

Looking Back at 2010s Films: Frozen (2013)

25 Nov

By Tanner Smith

It’s the big one! “Frozen” became Disney’s most popular, most profitable, most phenomenal animated film since “The Lion King.” For the past six years, it’s been impossible to get away from it–with a ridiculous amount of merchandising in every retail store, theatrical re-releases with sing-along pop-up lyrics for the musical numbers, and of course…”Let It Go,” an inescapable song so overplayed that it even drives people who like the film crazy just from the first few opening notes alone!

Because of the insane amount of popularity “Frozen” has received, there came the inevitable backlash. Is it really that good? Does it deserve this much attention? And so on.

Personally, I don’t think any movie deserves THAT much attention–sometimes, a movie should just be a movie; other times, a movie should be more than a movie; the case for “Frozen” is that it’s even more than that, so of course it’s going to welcome a crazy amount of backlash. So, even with all of that in mind, what do I think of “Frozen”?

It’s very good. In fact, much of it is great. So let’s talk about it.

Anna (voiced by Kristen Bell) and Elsa (Idina Menzel) are two princesses who grow up separated from each other in their large castle, because Elsa has a magical ability that controls the cold and she almost killed Anna with it while they were playing together (and Anna’s memory of both that and Elsa’s power was wiped out). The two grow up as polar opposites–Elsa is an introvert after keeping her powers secret for so long, and Anna is a wild extrovert, ready to open herself to anyone who will give her attention. During Elsa’s coronation as queen, Elsa’s powers are accidentally revealed, causing her to run away and leave the kingdom in ice. Anna sets out after her so she can convince her to come back and fix everything, with help from an iceman named Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), his reindeer Swen, and a magic, live snowman named Olaf (Josh Gad).

OK, what do I talk about first? Well, I guess I can start with what I haven’t mentioned yet: Anna’s fiance Hans (Santino Fontana). I don’t even think an hour has passed upon Anna and Hans meeting each other before deciding to marry–not too surprising for an animated fairy tale from Disney. What IS surprising and VERY refreshing is everyone’s reaction to it. Wouldn’t you know it, everyone is shocked and appalled that Anna would marry someone she just met! (Imagine that!) This is something Disney romances usually never touch upon, so that’s one of the things that make “Frozen” fresh and worth talking about.

And it actually follows through with a valuable life lesson about being careful who you trust. (I would issue a SPOILER ALERT here, but…eh, why bother? You’ve seen the movie, I bet.) Hans turns out to be the villain–a surprise villain in a Disney movie is not so surprising anymore. But here, it works, because Anna was so open to new ideas and possibilities, including agreeing to marry someone she met in a short amount of time. Put this much trust in somebody, and you’re asking for trouble. Especially for children who watch this movie, that’s a very good lesson.

But it’s not just a lesson for extreme extroverts. Elsa’s extreme introverted nature has consequences as well. Because she never socially interacted, she found herself truly alone with very little means of survival. Good lessons for both sides.

Neither of these two characters are annoyingly extreme, either. Anna is very funny and a lovable lead to follow, and Elsa is respectable and smart. And the side characters are fun too. Kristoff is a bright, resourceful, deadpan sidekick (who also sometimes talks for Swen–this Disney animal sidekick doesn’t talk, which is refreshing). And Olaf…yeah, a lot of people are annoyed by him too. Sometimes, he is a little aggravating, but I don’t mind him overall–for one thing, he’s quieter than most Disney comic reliefs; for another, he’s selfless; and last but not least, his song about waiting for summer (not knowing what the sun will do to a snowman like him) is still funny after all these years.

But that’s only from “Frozen.” For all I know, he’s gratingly obnoxious in “Frozen II,” which I haven’t seen (yet).

OK…let’s talk BRIEFLY about “Let It Go.” It’s a good song. It’s catchy, has a good melody, and is meaningful in terms of serving both the story and character…but WAY overplayed! But to be fair, there are worse songs that have become popular.

The animation is lovely and the visuals are gorgeous–not that I would expect anything less from Disney animation nowadays. The winter in this movie looks like the winter I wouldn’t mind living in. It’s beautiful.

So, yeah. “Frozen” is a very good movie. It’s not its fault people have overpraised, overhyped, and overbought every bit of it…OK, part of that is its fault, as Disney surely loves to manipulate its target audience. But you know what else is overdone in productivity? “A Christmas Story.” “Star Wars.” The Marvel Cinematic Universe. That’s just part of the game, I suppose. I’ll watch “Frozen” again this Christmastime (it is a fitting Christmas movie) and enjoy it just as much as before.

Looking Back at 2010s Films: Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)

22 Nov

By Tanner Smith

I admitted in my review of Abrams’ 2009 “Star Trek” that seeing that film was my first time seeing ANYTHING “Star Trek”-related. And it got me to watch other “Star Trek”-related stuff. I saw a few episodes from the ’60s TV series (on a “best-of” DVD) and a few episodes of “The Next Generation” too (it’s been on my Netflix list for years–I should really watch more of it), and in between, I watched the other movies. (I didn’t review them all, but I see them all.) Here are my quick thoughts on the pre-Abrams Star Trek movies:

“The Motion Picture”–boring+beautiful=beautifully boring
“The Wrath of Khan”–terrific film, one of my personal favorite movies (#215 in my Top 250 Favorite Movies)
“The Search for Spock”–overall pretty solid, though with a few awkward spots here and there
“The Voyage Home”–fun stuff (“Well, a double dumb-ass on YOU!”)
“The Final Frontier”–a pretty lousy movie with hardly anything accomplished…but it contains one of the best moments in any Star Trek movie (“I don’t want my pain taken away! I NEED my pain!” Pretty powerful stuff.)
“The Undiscovered Country”–…I remember seeing it…but I don’t remember what happens in it. (I’ll see it again sometime, surely.)
“Generations”–underrated
“First Contact”–VERY good
“Insurrection”–boring
“Nemesis”–meh

(And no, I haven’t seen a single episode of “Enterprise” or “Deep Space Nine” or whatever other spinoff series there was.)

Then came J.J. Abrams’ “Star Trek,” which something old and brought in something new, which resulted in a fun adventure that respected the familiar characters. He was called back to make a new film, which became “Star Trek Into Darkness.”

What am I getting at with all of this? “The Wrath of Khan” is the film that I (and a lot of other movie lovers) get the most out of when it comes to quality “Star Trek” entertainment. And I feel like “Into Darkness” came really (and I mean REALLY) close to being the “Dark Knight” of the rebooted franchise.

But it failed. Why?

Because it ended up with nothing more than a reminder of how great “The Wrath of Khan” is. Can we say “irony”?

I rewatched “Star Trek Into Darkness” recently. It was my first time seeing it in six years, since it was first released, when I wrote the review. I forgot how much I truly enjoyed the first 90 minutes (or so) of this two-hour-12-minute movie. I loved it! It was taking the characters in deeper waters than expected, the action was just as exciting as the previous film but even more tense because the stakes were raised, the villain was great and I loved the parallel connections between him and Kirk…why didn’t I watch this film again in the last six years??

Oh, right…the ending. The final 20 minutes brought the whole film down like a house of cards. (Even so, I still can’t pan the movie overall, but everything that came before it was entertaining as hell. So…3 stars, I guess.)

It ticks me off, because I keep thinking of other ways this could have worked. Keep what they were going for, but throw out the “Wrath of Khan” callbacks (in that they recite the lines of dialogue practically word-for-word!!)…and have NO dialogue in the scene! Just focus on the emotions alone–everything that we’ve seen before would’ve been part of a puzzle that this would have been part of!

And most importantly, THROW OUT THE EPILOGUE! That’s the part that REALLY killed the movie for me. It’s like everything that we’ve been through before and everything we’ve learned (everything the characters themselves learned in the process)…suddenly meant nothing. If the writers (who also wrote “The Amazing Spider-Man 2″…that makes so much sense the more I think about it) wanted to leave a memorable impact on movie audiences, they should’ve given us more to think about than easy resolutions.

If they had, again, this could have been the “Dark Knight” of the rebooted “Star Trek” franchise! But alas…it made me want to watch “The Wrath of Khan” again.

But it came SO close!

Looking Back at 2010s Films: All the Boys Love Mandy Lane (2013)

14 Oct

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By Tanner Smith

“All the Boys Love Mandy Lane” is a horror slasher film that is best known for its long-awaited release. It generated a ton of positive buzz at festivals in 2006, including TIFF and SXSW, and then…the studio that bought the rights decided not to release it for some reason. (Damn it, Weinsteins.) Then after it had already had a UK release long before, it was already released briefly in limited theaters before hitting VOD and DVD in late 2013 (thus barely making it qualify for my series of Looking Back at 2010s Films). And then the film that garnered a ton of good press at these festivals didn’t seem so special, with many reviews that said there’s hardly anything special about it apart from the gritty, grindhouse-like cinematography is top-notch.

What do I think of it? Well, at first, I didn’t think it was anything too special (though the cinematography was pretty nifty)…but that didn’t stop me from revisiting it again a few more times on Netflix. Much of the reason I like to watch it again has to do with the ending (which I’ll get into in a moment).

The film is well-directed, by Jonathan Levine. This was Levine’s first film, and while it’s a shame his debut got shelved for seven years, I am glad he made three well-received films (“The Wackness,” “50/50,” “Warm Bodies”) while waiting for this one to get released. By the time most of us got to see “All the Boys Love Mandy Lane,” we already knew it’d be well-directed. It’s well-acted, from actors who’d go on to other things in the waiting, including Amber Heard, Michael Welch, Whitney Able, Edwin Hodge, and Luke Grimes (who I’ll always know as Enoch from “War Eagle, Arkansas”–Fifty Shades of what?). But what did throw a lot of people off upon seeing it for the first time in 2013 was that up until the ending, it’s…well, let’s be honest, just another horror slasher film–a bunch of teens go partying at a secluded farmhouse, try to get their hookups, drink, do drugs, and then get slaughtered by an unknown psycho. (Though, unlike most modern horror films, it was shot on film and given a gritty aesthetic that calls back to horror films of the ’70s.) So why did it get all that hot buzz at festivals? I think it has to do with the ending and what the film means in hindsight–that’s why I revisited it myself. It seems like a teenage coming-of-age story disguised as a slasher film–it’s like “Dazed and Confused” meets “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.”

The “Mandy Lane” in the title refers a high-school girl (Amber Heard) who was very awkward before she blossomed over the summer. Now, every guy wants her and, as evidenced in an opening scene, will do anything for her. Some guys invite her to a ranch out in the country, and some other guy starts to kill them one-by-one. Is there some kind of connection between the killings and Mandy Lane? Is she next?

SPOILER ALERT!!!!

Mandy was a social outcast before every jerk on campus wanted to sleep with her. When her friend Emmet (Michael Welch) convinced one of them to jump off a roof to impress her, Mandy started to realize the lengths these jackasses would go to for her. Watching the film again, a few looks she gives early in the film actually did hint that she was more devious than she was letting on (it’s also hinted that she had a messed-up childhood, though it’s not really explained). In the end, it all turns out that this night was part of a murder-suicide pact, with Emmet enacting all the murders of the partygoers, most of which were guys who were trying to one-up each other for the alpha-male position in attempts to seduce Mandy. They’re all like predators…only they didn’t realize Mandy was the predator, manipulating everyone’s emotions, both the guys’ and the girls’, everyone who thought they had a chance at scoring with her, getting her to try some other things, etc. But when Mandy and Emmet reunite, she realizes that Emmet did all this for her, showing her that he’s no better than the rest of them. So, Emmet dies, while Mandy survives, with the local farmhand, Garth (Anson Mount), getting her out of there…and it seems she can control his emotions too.

Seeing the film again with that knowledge made it more interesting, as I realize there’s more on this film’s mind than graphic violence (there isn’t even that much gore to be found). It actually captures both male and female insecurities (guys trying to one-up each other, girls’ body issues) in a unique way that could actually speak well and directly to high-school teens. The characters aren’t bad people; they’re just dumb, naive, insecure high-school kids, which makes their tale all the more tragic.

“All the Boys Love Mandy Lane” deserved more than it got. It definitely didn’t deserve to spend seven years on the shelf, when all the studio execs could’ve done was sit on it for a little bit, rather than let their minds be influenced by a negative test screening…ONE negative test screening…did they forget all the positive press from some of the highest-ranking film festivals in the country??

Again, nice move, Weinsteins.