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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–#11

17 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


OK, let’s address the elephant in the room first. IS David Fincher’s The Social Network 100% accurate, now that there have been reports long since its release about supposedly way too much creative licensing? Even Mark Zuckerberg, upon whom the film is based, noted one thing captured from the real-life story about his creation of Facebook: the clothing. Ouch…but of course he would say that, especially if he doesn’t want to admit he was (or even still is) what everyone around him proclaimed him to be–an “asshole.”

But whatever. How is “The Social Network” as *a movie?* It’s really damn brilliant.

“The Social Network,” directed by Fincher and written by arguably our finest dialogue writer today (Aaron Sorkin), is based on the creation of Facebook and the lawsuits that followed over who thought of it first and who got the shaft as it expanded. And it makes for a great modern American tragic comedy, almost Shakespearean in the way it portrays backstabbing. I’m not sure if everything (and everyone) portrayed in this film is dead-on accurate, but it strangely makes sense when you consider the different points of view of how everything happened (the film is intersected with future hearing sequences, which help narrate the story).

The script is excellent with informative, witty dialogue that the actors deliver in such a quick manner that is not necessarily “realistic” but always fascinating because it keeps the film going and you know there’s hardly any B.S. in what these people say (or maybe there is and it’s just too quick for me to catch on).

Jesse Eisenberg puts his trademark dry wit to terrific use as Mark Zuckerberg, creating a credible nerd/a-hole trying so hard not to be. Is the film unfair to the real Zuckerberg in showing him like this? Well…maybe, but honestly, it’s in the eye of the beholder.

Critics were praising this film left and right when it came out in the fall of 2010, but when I was among those talking about how great it is, I had a very difficult time convincing my friends about that. They saw it as “the Facebook movie,” nothing they were interested in (which is ironic, considering they lived half of their lives on Facebook). This film is not about Facebook—that’s just on the surface. Beneath the surface is a story about envy, ego, dependability, betrayal, and control. Historical accuracy be damned. Amadeus didn’t need to be totally accurate to get its points across.

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


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–#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–#14

12 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


Yet another film that didn’t make my initial year-end list is now recognized years later as one of my favorites of the decade. First, it was “Spotlight”; now, it’s Midnight Special. It’s always great to have your feelings about a movie change after subsequent viewings, isn’t it?

Jeff Nichols (“Shotgun Stories,” Take Shelter, Mud) had two films released in 2016: “Midnight Special” and Loving. I initially gave three-and-a-half stars to “Midnight Special” and gave it credit for being what it was even if it didn’t exactly leave so much of an impact on me upon first viewing. And I gave four stars (my highest rating) to “Loving” simply for being a well-made drama with excellent acting and a timeless message.

How many times have I seen “Loving” since its original theatrical release three years ago? Once…but that’ll probably change soon.

Now, how many times have I seen “Midnight Special” since its original release? Well…I’ve lost count.

There are movies that I know are great because all the right elements are in place (and I will give them credit for that, hence my four-star review of “Loving”)…but with a lot of those movies, I feel like as time goes on, I realize they hardly require more than a couple viewings, because once I have the movie I expect to be great, there aren’t many surprises. As a result, I “admire” the movie more than I “like” it.

Then there are movies that I don’t have many expectations for or that I hardly know anything about, and then I get pleasantly surprised by what’s presented to me. Maybe I won’t think much of it at first, but as time goes on, I’ll feel the urge to watch it again and learn something more the second time. Then, I think to myself there’s probably far more here for which I originally gave credit. More time goes on, and I watch the movie a few more times, and I don’t realize until later…it’s becoming one of my new favorite movies.

That kind of movie is so fascinating, especially when I think back to when I originally saw it for the first time. Little did I know it would become one of my favorite films of the decade.

My point is Jeff Nichols’ “Midnight Special” gets better and better each time I see it. In a track record of five great films, Nichols is always interesting and rarely disappoints. With “Midnight Special,” he’s given me something to absorb, think about, and enjoy more times than I can count.

“Midnight Special” is a sci-fi road-trip drama featuring two men who are on the run with a little boy (the son of one of the men) in tow who seems to have special abilities. The government seeks him because he seems to possess secret information, the religious cult that held him and raised him want him back because they see him as a savior, and the boy’s father (Michael Shannon) just wants to keep him safe.

“Midnight Special” was Nichols’ first studio achievement (making a film for Warner Bros.). And unlike many indie filmmakers who get their time to shine in the studio system, he was able to maintain final cut. (The budget needed for the production was small, so WB agreed to give him plenty of room.) Part of me doesn’t want to be so cynical as to how limited space directors are given when working in the mainstream…but another part of me truly appreciates the freedom that Nichols was given. At the very least, couldn’t you imagine the vagueness of this story’s execution thrown out the window for simple explanations? (At its worst, they probably would’ve had Adam Driver’s NSA character deliver every possible answer to each raised question, a la the psychiatrist’s deduction in Hitchcock’s “Psycho.”)

What I love about “Midnight Special” is exactly that: its vagueness. There is development upon development upon development in this story, and none of it feels forced or tacked-on. It feels very well thought-out, and I admire Nichols for putting faith into his audience to stay with the oddness (and the realism added to the strange and unusual) all the way through to the end. Why is the boy wearing goggles? Why do his eyes glow? How is he able to do the things he does? How does he know what he knows? Why does the government want him so badly? What were the cult’s intentions? And so on. It’s a delight seeing this story unfold–instead of being angry for getting more questions than answers, I’m actually intrigued by what’s already happening in front of me. That’s a sign of great filmmaking (and it reminds me of why Nichols is one of my favorite filmmakers).

Even the characters are somewhat vague–we just know enough about why we should root for them and yet we have to fill in the blanks ourselves about what brought them here. That’s another thing I love about this movie: all the central characters–Roy (Michael Shannon), Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), Lucas (Joel Edgerton), Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), and Sevier (Adam Driver)–are so interesting and beautifully realized while still leaving much for me to think about with them. I don’t know if I have everything right involving their backgrounds or even their true intentions…but it’s fun to think about.

All of that leads to the ending, which confused many people (and most critics who somewhat resemble people) even more than when 10 Cloverfield Lane ultimately gave its audience what it was secretly building up to. Like “10 Cloverfield Lane,” “Midnight Special” ended its story with so much and yet so little at the same time. And that’s a good thing.

Something else I love about this movie (and what I touched upon in the review originally) is the theme of parenthood. While the agents see this little boy as a weapon and the cult sees him as the second coming, the heroes are the ones who want to look out for his wellbeing. And it’s during this journey that they have to ask themselves what truly is best for this special child. Even if Roy worries about him when he has no choice but to let him fulfill his destiny, he knows that’s part of being a parent as well.

However, that does lead me to my one little nitpick of the film. Alton’s mother, Sarah, reveals to Lucas in one line of dialogue that she was broken apart from the cult that raised Alton and that Roy couldn’t do anything but watch as the cult leader practically took him as his own. (This also indicates that Roy was part of the cult long before he met Sarah, and perhaps she ultimately didn’t belong.) “He watched another man raise Alton for two years,” she says, “something I couldn’t even do.” She’s reunited with her son for less than 24 hours on this desperate trek when she realizes she may have to let him go. She’s the one to tell Roy that they all have to be ready to lose him… I don’t know if I buy her acceptance of that, considering she’s probably been leading a lonely life ever since she was separated from her son for two years. But still, that’s only a minor nitpick I have with the film.

On a deeper level, “Midnight Special” is more than mainstream sci-fi entertainment. It’s a wonderful, brilliant film that deserves more credit than I originally gave it. Better late than never, but I embrace this film wholeheartedly.

Top 20 Films of the 2010s–#15

12 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


Avengers: Endgame was originally going to make this list. The Marvel Cinematic Universe came so far this decade, and with “Endgame,” they gave us one hell of a wild ride that worked as an emotional (as well as thrilling) climax for the whole franchise (as least for this phase, anyway). It was also my favorite film of 2019…and then “Parasite” came along and blew me away by how original and new and brilliant and wonderful it was.

So, I had to remove one title off the list–“Endgame” or “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.” One Marvel-hero cinematic property or another. I chose “Spider-Verse” simply because…I like it a little better.

By the way, I categorize these choices–with the exception of #1 (my favorite film of the decade), each selection on this list is chosen for being the best of a certain theme or genre or even formula. (Though, there are exceptions–for example, I can’t think of another film like “Parasite.”) I think a part of me found enough of a gap in between “Endgame” and “Spider-Verse” to differentiate them and attempt to place them both on the list.

(And that’s also the reason I couldn’t make room for other 2010s films I hold dear to my heart–like The End of the Tour, Inside Llewyn Davis, Black Panther, Lady Bird, The World’s End, Mud, The Artist, Boy Erased, The Hate U Give, The Way, Way Back, Short Term 12, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, The Stanford Prison Experiment, Hush, 127 Hours, Arrival, True Grit, The Big Sick, Sing Street, Logan, It, The Disaster Artist, Three Identical Strangers, and 50/50. There you have it–an Honorable Mentions list.)

OK, enough stalling–let’s talk about how awesome “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” is!

In the 2000s, we had Sony’s “Spider-Man” film franchise of three movies involving the Marvel web-slinging superhero. In the early 2010s, Sony decided to reboot the franchise with The Amazing Spider-Man, which went in a gritty direction that worked well…until the disastrous “The Amazing Spider-Man 2.” Then came the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which brought Peter Parker/Spider-Man into the same mix with Iron Man, Captain America, and so on, in Captain America: Civil War, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and Avengers: Infinity War (with two more movies to come). And it was very satisfying to see a new, flat-out entertaining rendition of one of my favorite superheroes…but even I thought there could be something more.

Enter “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” a weird, zany, ultra-creative, beautiful, inventively animated, great big ball of entertainment that was like nothing I expected to see in a cinematic “Spider-Man” movie and became the “Spider-Man” movie I didn’t know I was waiting for.

I’ve already lost count as to how many times I’ve seen it!

The story–Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore) is a Brooklyn teenager who gets bitten by a radioactive spider and suddenly gains (of course) spider-like abilities not unlike Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Chris Pine), the costumed hero of New York. Spider-Man tells Miles he can help him get used to these powers, but soon after, he is killed by Kingpin (Liev Schrieber), which Miles witnesses. Miles decides to be the new Spider-Man in respect to his fallen hero, but he doesn’t know where to start. That changes when he encounters ANOTHER Peter Parker (Jake Johnson) from another dimension–only this one is cynical, heartbroken, not Spider-Man anymore, heavier and out of shape, and more or less selfish. Miles has the key to sending Peter home, and so Peter decides to coach Miles into being Spider-Man in exchange for his help.

Oh, but there’s more–they also gain a team of allies, each one from their own alternate dimension. There’s Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld) aka Spider-Woman; Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage–YES!!), a shadowy Spider-Man from the ’30s; Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn), anime heroine with a spider-like robot companion; and even Peter Porker aka Spider-Ham (John Mulaney)…a pig with spider-like abilities. I want a movie about each and every one of these characters!

The visual style of “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” is stunning! It’s rich with vibrant colors, filled with very clever inside jokes and comic-book traits, and very active with energy. (You want watching a movie to equal the experience of reading a comic book–here it is!) The blend of 2D and 3D animation works wonderfully too–when I first saw it, it took a little while to get used to the character movements, but when it really got going, I was invested.

Miles is a great lead to follow. Voiced by Shameik Moore, who was great in 2015’s “Dope,” he’s a very likable kid with a lot of charm and also plenty of vulnerability to make us care about him and root for him when he ultimately becomes Spider-Man.

And I also buy into the plight of the cynical, heartbroken Peter, voiced by the often-reliable Jake Johnson. You can tell this guy has seen it all and lost a lot and already given up on life. And it’s Miles that gives him purpose: as a teacher. When he knows he needs to do better, it’s hard not to root for him as well.

With the exception of Gwen, who becomes Miles’ friend upon meeting her at school, the other Spider-heroes aren’t given plenty of time to develop. But they make a great team that provide support and their own individual kick-ass (sometimes hilariously so) action moves. (Speaking of which, the action is both thrilling when it needs to be and also lots of fun for all the right reasons.)

With so many alternate Spideys and a complicated plan to send them all back home (lest they disintegrate from existence in this dimension), you’d think this would all be hard to keep track. But that’s another reason this Oscar-winning (for Best Animated Feature) “Spider-Man” flick is as celebrated as it is: the screenplay is fantastic. The storytelling is “marvelous” (pun intended), it’s great for both comic-book fans and general movie audiences, the characterization is wonderfully told, it’s sweet when it needs to be, it’s often hilarious with great comedic (and comic) writing, and like I said before, it’s just one great big ball of entertainment that I can’t help but come back to again and again.

It’s been a year since I first saw “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” and I’m sure it will continue to be my friendly neighborhood Spider-Man classic.

And I can’t wait to see the sequel.

Top 20 Films of the 2010s–#16

3 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 (2015)

I could begin this post four different ways–I could mention how strange it was that writer-director Tom McCarthy’s Oscar-winning “Spotlight” was released within the same year as his turkey “The Cobbler” or that “Spotlight” didn’t make my best-of list for that year (2015) and yet it’s on my best-of list for the decade or that it means something when a film has a bigger impact on you after subsequent viewings…or that it’s the only Best Picture Oscar winner on my list (with all due respect to other winners like “The King’s Speech,” “The Artist,” “Argo,” and “Moonlight,” all of which I really like and admire).

When I first saw “Spotlight” in a theater, I was already in kind of a surly mood with much on my mind. So while I could recognize its first-rate dialogue-driven screenplay, brilliant understated acting, and equally understated directing, its dramatic impact didn’t quite hit me. But because of all of those reasons I could recommend the film, I listed it as an Honorable Mention in my 2015 Review because I did recognize its potential even though there were 10 films I felt I liked better.

It wasn’t until I watched the film again on DVD, alone in my room, and with an open mind that I realized just how excellent “Spotlight” was and that it deserved a high ranking on my best-films-of-2015 list.

Based on actual events, “Spotlight” involves the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team—editor Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton) and reporters Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James). They’re a small group of journalists who write in-depth investigative articles after spending months conducting an abundant amount of research. In 2001, their new story comes after the Globe’s new editor-in-chief, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), learns of a lawyer, Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci), who represented numerous families alleging their children were sexually abused by Catholic priests. Baron wants the Spotlight team to investigate. Rezendes meets with Garabedian, who reluctantly tells him that there’s much more going on here than meets the eye. The Spotlight team interviews victims and lawyers, and it becomes clear that this isn’t just a 4-13 case number. It’s a widespread conspiracy, with at least 90 cases of scandal and cover-up. The team realizes how risky it is to go after such a powerful institution as the Catholic Church, but they go ahead with the story anyway, spending months to get the full scoop and expose the truth.

So what is it about “Spotlight,” a film about the process of investigative reporting, that moves me deeply? Why is it on my decade-end list? What is there to this film that is mostly directed with a down-to-earth low-key tone, extended amounts of dialogue exchanges, and very little characterization?

Ambition. Drive. Drama. Nerve. Credibility. Passion. To name a few.

It’s one of the best movies about what it means to be a reporter. You see all the hard work that’s put into investigating a story–all the research, all the interviewing, all the pushing of people who will give a reporter the time to talk to them, all the doors being slammed in their faces, all the detective work put into the struggles, all the hours spent into it all, and determination to see it through no matter how long it takes. And it’s a story that’s worth following–these people learn how deep this conspiracy goes, that so many horrible people have used the cloth to manipulate and molest children…and so many other people did nothing about it. It’s also just not enough that a few priests and lawyers are exposed for their wrongdoings (there are already some survivor’s groups that are formed and not enough people are even interested about that). They need to get the full scoop and every possible resource that will prove all guilt. It’s great that these hard-working journalists see it through.

The film is based on a true story. There is a Spotlight team for the Boston Globe and they did print a story that exposed a lot of hidden crime within communities, which caused more victims/survivors to speak out. Tom McCarthy and his crew were able to enlist the assistance of the actual Spotlight team members that are dramatized for this film. In fact, Mark Ruffalo even asked his character’s real-life counterpart (Michael Rezendes) to say his lines for him so he could capture his speech patterns, body language, and other mannerisms. (And in a baseball game scene, you can even see the real Rezendes, Sacha Pfeiffer, and Walter Robinson in the background)

In “Spotlight,” we don’t see much of the characters outside of work, and so we don’t know them very well either. But while on the job, we still feel their passions for digging for truth, getting the word out, and helping people. With Steven Spielberg’s 2017 critically-praised journalism drama “The Post,” an obvious comparison, the elements are reversed. There is more characterization at work with “The Post,” but what I don’t feel in that film that I do with “Spotlight” is the drive and ethics behind investigative journalism, which made it more fascinating and worth caring about.

The film is carried by McCarthy’s low-key direction, the effectively convincing acting from everyone on-screen, and McCarthy & co-writer Josh Singer’s gripping dialogue structure, and as a result, “Spotlight” feels real and powerful but not in the ways I would expect. It’s easy to make a film like this and insert a lot of melodramatic elements, like a lot of angry screaming matches or even (God forbid) some type of throwaway assassin hired by the community to prevent the Spotlight team from seeing this thing through. But instead, “Spotlight” is powerful because it simply tells the story that needed to be told as it was. Whenever the team interviews victims, their stories are hard to listen to, and even though their words speak to these reporters, all they can do is sit and listen–and you know in their minds they’re thinking about how serious this all is, and they’re probably sweating from their pits that very moment. That’s what I mean–it’s very quiet that way. The only time one of the Spotlight crew truly breaks and loses his temper is late in the film, when Rezendes is convinced that they have all the pieces together and need to print the story right away, but Robinson isn’t going to rush it. “IT’S TIME!” Rezendes snaps. “THEY KNEW! AND THEY LET IT HAPPEN! TO KIDS!!” This scene was criticized for feeling out of place (probably to earn Ruffalo his Oscar nomination), but it doesn’t bother me at all. It feels like that anger was building up inside throughout the whole film and so it seemed inevitable that it would explode in an isolated incident. If Rezendes didn’t say anything, someone else probably would have.

“Spotlight” is a wonderful film, and I wish I had recognized it as such when I first saw it. But now, I can’t deny that it’s one of the best films I’ve seen this decade. The acting, the directing, the writing, the editing, even the subtly solemn music score (by Howard Shore)–everything about it is top-notch. And I applaud it for being a film that reminds us that whenever something is horribly wrong in the world, there’s always going to be a group of people to do something about it.

Top 20 Films of the 2010s–#17

2 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

17) PARASITE (2019)

This is a tricky one for me. I saw Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite” only once a couple of weeks ago, and I’ve had the rough draft of this decade-end top-20 list for several months…am I *positive* I want to include it so soon? Isn’t there another 2019 film I’ve seen more than once that I hold in high regard? (“Avengers: Endgame,” perhaps?)

I had to think long and hard about this choice before I realized…I’m fairly certain there won’t be a better film for the rest of this year than this.

Having seen some of Bong’s other works, such as “Snowpiercer” and “Okja,” what I admire about this director is his ability to layer each key character and scenario with brilliant effectiveness. I think back to Roger Ebert’s quote, “It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it.” I can’t walk into a Bong Joon Ho film and expect anything predictable. (Even the trailer for “Parasite” was thankfully vague.) To say he thinks outside the box would be an understatement–that’s how creative he is as a filmmaker and as a storyteller.

I love everything about “Parasite.” The commentary. The satire. The filmmaking. The acting. The characterization. The story. The buildups. The resolutions. The script!! This is some of the most brilliant writing of the decade!

Is it a horror? A drama? A thriller? All of the above? Yes.

And seeing as how “Parasite” is still in theaters as of the writing of this post, I still can’t bring myself to even give away the slightest spoilers. So…I’m going to stop here. I know it’s lazy, and I’m sincerely sorry. But I still need to be fair.

Besides, I think I earned myself a break after my angry words in my #19 post.

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.

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


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.