Wonder (2017)

20 Nov


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

When I saw “Wonder,” a film featuring a boy with a facial deformity, it was in a theater packed with parents and children. Seated in the row behind me were a mother and her children, who were probably around 7 or 8 years of age. The film had barely started when I overheard the children whisper loudly and repeatedly to their mother, “I don’t want to see what he looks like!” They were referring to the boy with the facial deformity whose face hadn’t been revealed yet. (I’m guessing they didn’t see any promos for the film…?)

Those kids are the exact group of children that need to see “Wonder.”

Stephen Chbosky’s “Wonder,” based on the novel of the same name by R.J. Palacio, does feature a troubled but brave 10-year-old boy with a genetic facial deformity as he attempts to tough it out in public school after being homeschooled for so many years. And some readers have probably stopped right there, because they think they know what kind of film this is—a manipulative, cloying melodrama that uses a physical handicap for exploitation and forced sentiment. But they’d be wrong, because not only is “Wonder” full of familiar elements now done fresh and original, but it also does something else very important that elevates it from the afterschool special that it could’ve been: it shows all that the boy affects around him. That makes the overall lesson we’re supposed to take from the film (that nobody is “ordinary”) all the more stronger. Everyone has their own issues, no matter what their physical differences.

August “Auggie” Pullman (Jacob Tremblay) has undergone 17 operations in his 10 years of life, and his face still alarms everyone around him. His mother (Julia Roberts) decides it’s finally time for him to attend public school, while his father (Owen Wilson) isn’t so sure. They both love their son and want what’s best for him—he’s afraid the other kids will mock or be feared by him; she feels he has to adjust to the outside world more regularly; they’re both understandable in their reasoning. Nonetheless, Auggie begins the fifth grade and is given the looks and the mocking by his fellow classmates, until he slowly but surely starts to adjust and make friends.

Typical, yes. But “Wonder” switches focus from time to time, giving us insight into other characters. We see what goes through the mind of Auggie’s older sister Via (Izabela Vidovic), as she wishes just once that her parents would ask about her day. She loves her brother but silently resents the spotlight that’s always been given to him. And their parents are loving and trying their hardest to be there for both of them; they just don’t always notice when their daughter needs them.

And then we wonder (forgive the pun) about Via’s former best friend Miranda (Danielle Rose Russell), who neglects her after a summer away. We see why there’s this change in her, and suddenly we’re feeling for her.

And then there’s Auggie’s friend at school, Jack Will (Noah Jupe). When something unexpected comes up, we see his point of view and feel for him too.

All of these detours help make “Wonder” even stronger when we realize the full story surrounding Auggie, who at one point has to be reminded that not everything is about him and everyone else is going through hard stuff as well. It’s more than welcome to see the perspectives of those surrounding Auggie as well as Auggie. It’s a very effective way of presenting to the audience that no one person is just “ordinary.”

Appealing characters is only aided by solid acting, and the cast as a whole is terrific. Little Jacob Tremblay continues his string of winning performances, showing that his breakthrough role in 2015’s “Room” was no fluke. And once you see past the odd disfigurement (done with convincing makeup work), you see the genuine sweetness within this character. Julia Roberts delivers her best work in years, playing a genuinely sweet (and thankfully knowing, unlike most naïve parental characters in movies of this sort) mother who tries to be there for both her children. Owen Wilson plays an endearing dad. Other adult actors such as Daveed Diggs as a teacher and Mandy Patinkin as the principal are solid. And all the other young actors, particularly Izabela Vidovic, are very impressive.

My only problems with the film come near the final half. The big final moment is handled well, with of course a big speech and a standing ovation (it earns it), but a couple moments leading up to it feel forced. One involves a meeting between the principal and a bully’s parents (painful), and the other involves a fight followed by a silent moment on a beach (overly whimsical). Also, there are a few lines of dialogue that spell out all the lessons we’re supposed to take from the film, way before the final speech already does it well enough and we get the point by then. “Don’t blend in when you’re made to stand out.” “Between what’s right and what’s kind, do what’s kind.” And a couple more I noticed.

But overall, “Wonder” works “wonders.” (Forgive that pun also—or use it as an article headline.) By the time it ends, you feel that Auggie is going through a positive change in his life and will continue with it through junior high, high school, college, and ultimately adulthood. And you also feel that his friends and his family are going through the same change. Maybe the film will be powerful enough to teach it to the aforementioned children in the audience who saw it along with me.


My Top 100 Favorite Movies

8 Nov

From a 2017 perspective, I present to you…MY TOP 100 FAVORITE MOVIES!

cropped-10151537_10100316206882202_966228584_n1.jpgThese are the movies that mean so much to me. Movies that strike a chord with me every time I watch them. Movies that maybe from a critic’s standpoint aren’t entirely great. (And some movies I previously gave “three stars” to are on the list too, because even if they aren’t great, I do enjoy them wholeheartedly.)

The thing is, no one can tell you what your favorite movies are. Only you can do that. And you can’t let anyone say you should like one movie better than another. That’s what it means to have “personal favorite movies.” If you disagree with or even hate some of these choices, that’s because they’re my choices, not yours. If I were making an opinion-based “best-movies-of-all-time,” then you might have a slim (*slim*) reason to argue. These are the movies that I personally enjoy.

There’s a lot to go over, so let’s get started…


100) LET THE RIGHT ONE IN (2008) – LET ME IN (2010)

Yes, both the Swedish arthouse original and the American mainstream remake are my favorite vampire movie. Both are different but also similar and terrific not only in getting the horror aspects across but also the dramatic aspects. That the focus is on a lonely 12-year-old boy makes it even more effective. That time in adolescence when you’re confused about where to go in life, everything’s changing, you develop new feelings toward certain people and things, you’re going through puberty…bringing a vampire into the mix just makes it all the more complicated, and that’s what makes both films truly fascinating. They both leave me with much to admire and think about after watching them.


99) 127 HOURS (2010)

Even though I love the film overall, I have a very hard time watching the most crucial, important part. If you heard of this film, you know I’m talking about the scene in which Aron Ralston, played by James Franco, does what he has to do in order to break free when his arm is stuck in a canyon. But this is not a film about a guy who cuts off his own arm. It’s a film about a guy who learns to appreciate life as he finds himself closer and closer to death. That the film is so effective is not only thanks to the unique direction by Danny Boyle but also the brilliant performance by James Franco, who makes us feel for him as he gets scared, angry, upset, and pretty much every emotion he can convey to keep us with his character every step of the way.


98) THE 400 BLOWS (1959)

I’m a big fan of coming-of-age films (and you’ll see plenty more on the list as it goes on), so why wouldn’t I appreciate this French film by Francois Truffaut as one of my favorites? It’s a neatly done, small gem about a schoolboy who’s trapped in an adult world that doesn’t understand him. We feel bad for this kid because we get to know him more than the adult characters do, even his ignorant parents. The ending of the film is brilliant—leaving it open to question where the kid’s future leads when he’s at the end of his road. I know there are sequels to the film (which I still haven’t seen yet) featuring the character of Antoine Doinel, but personally, I’d rather be left wondering what became of him.


97) GREMLINS (1984)

Many movies on this list are movies that I grew up with, and Gremlins is one of them. I loved it as a kid, and I love it even now. (Just ignore the original three-star rating in my review; I was trying to act like “a critic.”) It’s a fantastic concept—start off as a family fantasy involving a boy and his mysterious pet; then take a hard left turn into black-comedy/horror-film territory when the three important rules in caring for the little creature are broken, thus accidentally letting a bunch of little monsters run amok. I enjoy a good chunk of director Joe Dante’s work (and there’s another film of his coming soon on this list), and I always have a ball watching it every Christmas…and yes, I do consider Gremlins a Christmas movie. Why not?


96) BLUE VELVET (1986)

I was 16 when I saw this film for the first time on TV, and I saw it because I originally saw the infamous Siskel and Ebert debate about it and became fascinated. Ebert thought it was a mess that didn’t know what it wanted to be, while Siskel praised it as one of the best films of the year and admired that director David Lynch wanted to explore all these different, disturbing areas. Sorry, Ebert; I’m siding with Siskel. This is a film that disturbs me and makes me ponder and is just oddly fascinating to watch each time.

Batman Mask of the Phantasm phantasm


Mask of the Phantasm is one of the best Batman movies I’ve ever seen, it captures the characters of Batman and Joker perfectly, and with a tight 75-minute running time, it wastes no time giving us an intriguing story, an intense mystery with action and character development, and of course, Batman being Batman. It’s a wonderfully-done animated film that definitely deserves more attention.



Yet another film I discovered because of Siskel and Ebert. And once again, it was a film they disagreed on, with Siskel praising it and Ebert not falling for it. Once again, I side with Siskel (but don’t worry, Ebert—we’ll get to something we both agreed with soon). Everyone loves the first half set at Marine training camp, with the intense performance by R. Lee Ermey (spouting off some of the greatest insults I’ve ever heard in a movie) and the brilliant performance by Vincent D’Onofrio as a private that is pushed way too far. But I can’t ignore the second half, which goes into the Vietnam War. It captures how horrific the war was but also inserts some light comedy as well. And I really admire that the character we follow is a cynical, wisecracking journalist who sees the horrificness firsthand and then is forced to make an ultimate decision in the end that questions his humanity. It makes it all the more interesting. It’s one of Kubrick’s best and my favorite film having to do with the Vietnam War.


93) MATINEE (1993)

Definitely my favorite Joe Dante film, and it astounds me that he was able to get away with so many story elements that by themselves would make their own movies—family drama, the premiere of a horror b-movie, teenage romance, and the Cuban Missile Crisis. It’s just impressive that the film didn’t turn out to be a tremendous mess and is actually quite funny and entertaining all the way through. It also features my favorite performance from John Goodman, an actor whom I’ve always enjoyed. Here, he plays a b-moviemaker who just wants to put on a show and takes many chances in giving his audience a great time. The scene in which he discusses with the main character the benefits of seeing a scary movie is one of my favorite scenes in a movie, period.

Halloween 1978 3

92) HALLOWEEN (1978)

What can I say about this horror classic that I haven’t already in a review (or what anyone else hasn’t said about it already)? It’s brilliant in its atmosphere and its portrayal of its evil essence, and it’s a great film to watch on Halloween to get into the right mood. It’s one of the best horror films I’ve ever seen and one of my personal favorites…I like to pretend the sequels don’t exist (well, for the most part).



I would probably enjoy the film if I saw it anytime (and I have, don’t get me wrong). But the first time I saw it in a theater (and I saw it three times in a theater) was a time when I needed to feel good about myself, and this high-school comedy-drama was just what I needed. But also, the characters are endearing, the actors are great (especially Ezra Miller who is a damn good actor), and it’s very powerful in the way it teaches us that we’re not worthless and we can find our own self-worth through soul searching and the friends you keep your heart close to. We are infinite.


90) SAY ANYTHING (1989)

Many people know the iconic moment of this ‘80s teenage romance film, in which John Cusack’s Lloyd Dobler holds a boombox over his head to let Peter Gabriel sing the things he wants to say to his lost love, Diane Court…many people also seem to forget that that didn’t quite work…or did it? Maybe it was the gesture that was Lloyd’s last desperate act to get her back; maybe it was what made Diane decide to come back to him. It’s something that a friend and I used to talk about whenever we heard the song “In Your Eyes” on the classic radio station in Little Rock. But overall, this is one of the best teenage romances I’ve ever seen, with two immensely interesting characters at the center, plus a compelling father figure you don’t see in many movies of this sort. But this isn’t even necessarily a “teen movie”; it’s a movie…with teens in it. And you see them grow and you wonder what happens to them in the future when they set off on their trip overseas. I, for one, am an optimist and I think that smoking-sign ding was a good omen.


89) THE LAST DETAIL (1973)

There are two big things about this movie that make it stand out to me in such a way that I’m putting it on the list. For one thing, it has hands-down my favorite Jack Nicholson performance as a rogue Navy lifer who does what he wants, gets away with everything, takes what he wants, and also possesses a moral center that makes him even more interesting. And the best part? His nickname…Bad Ass! That is awesome. The other thing I take away from it is the ending. This film doesn’t end the way conventional Hollywood movies might end. It’s a downbeat, realistic ending in which life goes on and the characters just have to deal with it because that’s just how it goes. And it was the first time I truly appreciated the “life-goes-on” ending. After entertaining me with some good laughs and neat misadventures with Nicholson and his two co-stars Randy Quaid and Otis Youngs, it gave me something that was worth discussing and inspired me upon seeing it for the first time.



I can’t choose between these three excellent, energetic, hilarious British comedies, all of which are directed by Edgar Wright, who has a great style in keeping the jokes going and hiding things from sight upon first viewing that you have to pay more attention to later, and all of which feature Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, who are always great whether they’re separate or together. They also have some of the best editing I’ve ever seen in a comedy, with many jokes coming quickly one after the other. If I had to pick one to favor over the other two, it’d be really difficult. Every time I see one of these treasures, I have a blast, and that’s why they’re part of a three-way tie on this list. “Anything from the shop?” “Cornetto.”



Jason Reitman’s controversial film that makes me laugh and makes me think. A film that touches on all sorts of taboos, such as smoking, mass manipulation, even cholesterol, does it in such a fresh, fun way that also has something important to say about freedom of choice, in that we should learn the dangers of things in our lives and be allowed to decide for ourselves whether or not we want to keep them in our lives. Aaron Eckhart is very charismatic in getting that point across. This is a film that does what many other films about the dangers of many vices try and fail to do, and it does so in a unique, sharply funny way that gets me every time I watch it. “The great state of Vermont will not apologize for its cheese!”


86) DIE HARD (1988)

How can I not enjoy what many people describe as one of the best action films ever made, if not the absolute best? Well, there are some little things I don’t enjoy, like how many of the side characters are needlessly idiotic just to give Bruce Willis’ John McClane even more of a hard time. But the stuntwork, the action sequences, the performance by Bruce Willis as our badass hero, and the performance by Alan Rickman as the despicably smart but overall petty villain Hans Gruber are all top-notch. Yippee-kai-yay indeed! And yes, I see this as a Christmas movie too. At least this one ends with Let It Snow!



When this movie was rising in popularity, I was right there on the bandwagon. I was always quoting the movie with my friends and I bought a bunch of merchandise including the final shooting script and a flipbook of Napoleon’s dance. As I got older, I still enjoyed the movie thoroughly. Because I see it as an anti-feel-good-high-school-movie, where everything feels off intentionally and nothing is as they seem in other movies about high school outcasts. That’s why it became so popular in the first place, and that’s why I enjoy it even now. Vote for Pedro!


84) TAKE SHELTER (2011)

I’m a fan of Jeff Nichols’ work, and around the time this was coming out, I fell in love with his first film Shotgun Stories (which will appear on this list later). So you better believe my parents and I drove all the way from Manila, Arkansas to Little Rock, Arkansas (the only place in Arkansas the film was showing) just to see it, and we were blown away. It’s a great blend of family drama and psychological thriller with a possible apocalyptic vibe running throughout. It’s also 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.



Another high-school drama, and yet again, it all comes down to the characters. When I showed this film to a friend, the main character of Sutter Keely played by Miles Teller 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, which wasn’t in the book by the way, is one of the most heartbreaking I’ve ever heard in a movie of this sort.


82) MISERY (1990)

Definitely a classic; one of my favorite Stephen King adaptations and one of the most suspenseful films I’ve ever seen. I not only admire the work of Oscar-winning Kathy Bates for playing a psychotic presence whose mood switches from sweet to insane, but I also admire the work by James Caan who has to rely on his wits in order to survive this horrific ordeal, as an author being held against his will to write a new book that satisfies his self-proclaimed “number-one fan.” And of course…that hobbling scene…yikes.


81) GET OUT (2017)

This film isn’t even a year old as of the making of this list, and yet I think it’s definitely going to stay on it for years to come. This has everything I look for in a thriller and great entertainment—likable characters, neat atmosphere, social commentary, effective comic relief, and best of all, a feeling of nervousness as you wait on-edge for something you know is bound to happen…but you don’t know when it’s going to happen, how it’s going to happen, or when it’s going to happen. That it uses uncomfortable issues such as liberal guilt and jealous racism to craft its story and create a balance of comedy and terror makes for a film that is just flat-out entertaining while also delivering a subtle social message. I also love to watch the reactions of those who are seeing it for the first time and discussing it with them afterwards. 2017 is still here, but it’s going to take a damn impressive film to knock this one off my best-of-the-year list.


80) CAST AWAY (2000)

When I was younger, I didn’t appreciate the beginning and final acts of this film. I got into the entire middle portion in which Tom Hanks is stranded on a desert island for four years, finding the will to stay alive before he finally gets himself off the island and back to civilization. It’s great filmmaking. Lovely cinematography that helps you get the loneliness of Hanks’ situation, a top-notch performance by Hanks, and no music score telling you how to feel because the scenario tells you itself. But as I got older, I realized the beginning and final acts were absolutely necessary and even made the film better than what I made it out to be. It’s tragic and bitter but also intriguing and thought-provoking. What would you do if you had a second chance in life and started something entirely new?



Maybe you see this film as leftist propaganda, which would make sense considering director George Clooney’s political activism. I see it as a battle against high-powered politicians that abuse their authority. It’s a simple film based on the time TV newscaster Edward R. Murrow took on Joseph McCarthy when everyone else was afraid to, and it led to a success in many ways. Sadly, McCarthyism still lives on today and there are many forms of news media that bring out the dumbest things that no one should care about. That’s why this film is still important today—to remind us that if we don’t learn from history, then we’re doomed to repeat it. The dialogue in this film, and there is a lot of it, is pitch-perfect in pushing the film forward.

The Social Network


Critics were praising this film left and right, 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 live half their lives on Facebook). This 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.



One of the sharpest satires I’ve ever seen, and it gets a laugh and a smile from me each time I watch it. and thankfully I’m not alone in this. Who doesn’t hear this line and think of The Princess Bride? “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” I love the fourth wall jokes, I love how they play with convention in fairy tales, I love the characters, and of course, I love the jokes. My favorite has to do with the battle of wits between Westley and Vicini—it’s Wallace Shawn at his most slimy.


76) THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939)

Yet another film that stayed with me since childhood, and strangely enough, I don’t think it’s a film that could work today. It’s like lightning in a bottle—such a thing just can’t be replicated. It’s visually striking, the symbolism is nicely handled, and the metaphors that got over my head as a kid fascinate me as an adult. And there’s just such a magic to it that is infectious and easily heartwarming. There’s no place like home, but for the movies, it’s a good try.



I like the original ‘50s classic based on the book fine, but the 1978 version starring Donald Sutherland and directed by Philip Kaufman is more impressive to me, because of its ever lingering and ultra realistic sense of dread. The slow build of something surely taking over the city with so few people even knowing it is chilling, and it makes the scares all the more impactful and frightening. And that feeling of being alone in a world that seems to be turning against you is captured perfectly here. It’s a scary film that cranks up the tension higher and higher as it goes on, and it continues to give me the creeps even to this day.



If there’s anything more important than how much a comedy can make you laugh, it’s a how much a comedy can make you feel. There is a lot to laugh at in this film, such as Steve Martin and John Candy waking up in bed together or them going the wrong way on a freeway or Martin’s breakdown at a car dealership among others. But with the characters, particularly Candy’s character of Del Griffith, there’s something more. You like them, you feel for them, and the more you watch the film, the more you feel for them…and I have to admit, the ending gets me a little teary eyed. It’s a wonderful comedy that knows the right buttons to push to make me both laugh and feel.



Two kids from the ‘90s are magically teleported into a television show set in “pleasant” ‘50s Americana, and the generation gap brings forth changes no one would have ever expected. This begs the question, How is our generation going to look to a generation 40something years from now? It’s an interesting thing to think about, and with Pleasantville, it’s even more interesting, now that we look back at the ‘90s trends and think about the way things are today. We’re in a different age, we notice the differences, and so we realize that some things change and some attitudes change, and as much as we like to think things were easier “way back when,” we forget how unpleasant things were too, because the utopia we all want doesn’t exist and we just have to make the best out of what we got. That’s what I mainly took away from Pleasantville, which is also funny, insightful, and beautiful to look at, especially in the way they blend color with black-and-white.


72) OLD YELLER (1957)

When I was a little boy, I learned about death from two movies: The Lion King and Old Yeller. (Thanks, Disney.) Old Yeller is a slice-of-life frontier family drama about the good times and the tough times surrounding a family and a dog, and chances are you probably know how it ends even if you haven’t seen it. But if that’s all you take from the film, then you miss the point entirely. This is a film that teaches kids not to waste the good moments in life feeling upset about the bad, because that makes it all bad. That’s something our young main character of Travis learns the hard way, and that makes for a great coming-of-age story that I’ve treasured since childhood…but I hate Arliss, the little brother. That kid was annoying.


71) GRAVITY (2013)

This film blew me away both times I saw it on the biggest screen in a theater. Space looked so realistic that I could’ve sworn it was shot right on location (and I would’ve believed it too; it’s that convincing). True, the film becomes less of an experience toward the end and becomes…well, a movie. But I didn’t mind so much, because by that point, I felt for the character played by Sandra Bullock as she’s stuck in the worst place you could ever possibly be and just hopes for another chance. Maybe I’m just a sucker for survival stories, seeing as how I’ve already mentioned Cast Away and 127 Hours on this list, and surviving space is quite a task indeed, to say the least.


70) BOYHOOD (2014)

The film that took 12 years to make, and it’s ingenious. I know a lot of you might be thinking, “Do you really like it that much or do you just admire it?” My answer is both. I admire the efforts of director Richard Linklater to make something unique and show a passage of time as a boy grows into a man and I love the film because it reminds me of the times I went through growing up and shows that the little moments are important in helping to shape your life for the future. Life is full of precious moments and film’s job is to capture that life. It inspires me with my craft and my life.



The highest voted movie on IMDb? Kinda hard not to like it, isn’t it. There’s just something about this amazing movie that really connects with film lovers and just people in general. Not your typical prison movie; it’s about much more than being locked up. It’s about finding a way to free yourself, both physically and mentally. It’s a lovely film and another Stephen King adaptation done wonderfully.



I didn’t quite get this film when I first saw it as a teenager, but as time went on and I watched it again, I was blown away by how profound and energetic it was while showing the harshness of racial tensions in a mostly black neighborhood. It starts out as a slice of life when you meet all these characters and see how they live and how they relate (or don’t relate) with each other, and then by the end of the film, a character has died, another character has started a riot, and there’s no clear answer to what really went down that night. The filmmaking is very lively here, with lots of neat little techniques thrown in to make it more active, such as when people are speaking right to the camera about someone or something. It’s a bitter message that is delivered at the end and we don’t know why racism exists, but to the film’s credit, I don’t think the racists know why it exists either. There’s a crucial scene in which Lee’s character Mookie talks to John Turturro’s character Pino about how little sense he doesn’t make when he makes racist remarks since his favorite actor and basketball player are black—Pino’s defense is one of the most pathetic things I ever heard. And I imagine other people like Pino saying the same thing.


67) PHANTOM TOWN (1999)

This may be the most embarrassing title I ever put on this list, and for a long time, I didn’t want to admit this straight-to-video late-90s family-horror cheesefest was one of my favorites. But I have to be totally honest here and say that despite its flaws, such as bad CGi and some inconsistencies here or there, this movie’s a lot of fun. I used to rent this movie a lot when I was a little kid (er, my parents rented it for me) and I thought it was both very scary and very fun. It was a family horror film but it was one that actually wanted to scare the kids. From the eerie music to the grotesque makeup to the ending that includes a little girl screaming in terror before the credits, I just thought the film was awesome! Even better than Goosebumps, which I also used to watch a lot as a kid. I found it at a used-dvd sale recently and revisited it for the first time in years, and the feelings I had as a kid, I still have to this day. Sure, I’m able to notice the numerous flaws, but I still appreciate the overall spirit of it.

No review available…because how can I defend this one more than I tried to already?


66) THE LORD OF THE RINGS (2001-2003)

In my opinion, you can’t have one Lord of the Rings movie without the others. They can be seen together as one long nine-plus-hour-long epic journey, because that’s really what it is. And this was released at a time when fantasy epics were box office poison, and so director Peter Jackson took a big chance that paid off big-time. A game changer to say the least. If I watch Fellowship of the Ring, I have to watch Two Towers. Then I have to watch Return of the King. And I have no problem with that. The characters are all fun and likable, Gollum is a great tragic figure, the visual effects are spectacular, and I don’t even mind the multiple endings of Return of the King. It had to tie up all loose ends after giving us one hell of an adventure with many twists and turns and characters and monsters and so on.


65) JURASSIC PARK (1993)

Steven Spielberg is my personal favorite director, and among the many films of his I watched over and over, Jurassic Park was among the most entertaining (and we’ll get to some others soon enough on the list). This is a great thrill ride: a monster movie mixed with family adventure and just lots of terror and fun. The special effects are spectacular with a great mix of CGI and practical effects. Props have to go to Stan Winston’s creations—reportedly, Winston didn’t set out to make “scary” dinosaurs but “real” dinosaurs. And it worked so well. Those raptors were scary…and real.


64) THE KARATE KID (1984)

Many of the sports kid movies I used to watch a lot as a kid just didn’t hold up well as time went on, but with The Karate Kid, I still feel this instant connection every time I turn it on. Much of that has to do with the characters. Daniel, Mr. Miyagi, Ali, Daniel’s mother, and even Johnny are all relatable in some way or another and they’re fleshed out perfectly. Kreese is the one that’s kind of off and a bit over-the-top but even then you could make an argument that he’s an insecure douche that feels the need for victory, but that is something that’s improved in the remake with Jackie Chan and Jaden Smith. Even so, here, I don’t mind so much. And another reason for its power is the execution. Much of it feels very real, like these actors are giving natural performances and delivering their lines as if we were eavesdropping on a real conversation. The quiet moments are excellent here. And with all that said, it gives me a real rooting interest in seeing Daniel find balance in life while gaining his self confidence and self worth.


63) BIG (1988)

When I was a kid, I loved this movie for the jokes and the feel-good spirit. But as an adult, I still find it funny but more importantly, I find it more insightful, in that this kid becomes an adult because he sees it as achieving the highest points in life, but he learns that most adults want to return to childhood and he should live those moments while he still can before facing adult responsibilities. It’s really well-done here, and I give props to director Penny Marshall, writers Gary Ross and Anne Spielberg (yes, Steven’s sister), and lead actor Tom Hanks for giving me a film I can treasure as a kid for one reason and still treasure as an adult for another reason.


62) THE OUTSIDERS (1983)

To be more specific, it’s the director’s cut of The Outsiders that’s one of my favorite films, called The Outsiders: The Complete Novel. I like the original cut fine, but the director’s cut just has more to offer in terms of character and environment, and I love it for the same reasons I love the book of the same name written by S.E. Hinton. The characters are memorable, the actors are great, the cinematography is gorgeous, and the tone makes it seem like a juvenile version of Gone With the Wind, which is mentioned here a few times. It’s a film that stayed with me since I was 14 years old when I read the book in 9th grade English class and watched both versions of the movie.


61) STAR WARS (1977)

Oh what do I even need to say about this one? It’s Star Wars. It’s A New Hope. It’s a fun action-filled space opera that I love for the same reasons everyone else loves it. It’s fantastic and I love watching it. Enough said. It’s a classic for many reasons, it influenced a lot of filmmakers, and it’s still well regarded today and spawned even more chapters in its universe. Right on, George Lucas…just know your limitations if you decide to make any new ones yourself.



It’s strange that this movie is so great, because the story, when you really get down to it, is ridiculous and over complicated. But at the same time, most comedies over simplify their stories anyway, so why should I complain when I’m still laughing at the behavior and dialogue of the main characters? It’s just a real treat. “We came, we saw, we kicked its ass!”



I’m a big Harry Potter fan ever since my mom read me the first book as a bedtime story and the whole family & I saw the first movie in theaters twice. It’s a fantasy universe that still enthralls me even today. And while a lot of people see the later films as the best, it’s the second film, The Chamber of Secrets, that I’ve always admired for the sheer craftsmanship in further shaping the world, developing likable characters like Harry, Ron and Hermione, and giving us a riveting mystery-adventure to follow. And it’s always baffled me that most people think of this as the worst in the series. I still don’t get it.


UNITED 93, Peter Hermann, Christian Clemenson, Cheyenne Jackson, 2006. ©Universal/courtesy Everett Collection

58) UNITED 93 (2006)

I have to be honest…I only watch this film once a year. So why is it on my list of favorites? Because it’s a film that made a damn big impact on me and it’s one that I can never forget or ignore. The directing style behind a film that reenacts what most likely happened on the doomed Flight 93 on September 11, 2001, makes you feel like you are there seeing everything with your very eyes, experiencing the terror firsthand. You feel like you’re in the crowd watching the plane hit the Twin Towers or on the plane fearing for your life as it’s taken over by terrorists. And the last shot, I swear…when I first saw it, I couldn’t move for a long time. I was in a state of shock, not believing what I just saw, as the film totally stunned me.


57) FARGO (1996)

Yet another film I saw because of Siskel and Ebert’s review. In this one, they praised Fargo like it was the best thing they had seen all year, which it was, as they both called it the best film of 1996. And I definitely see what they mean. I love the way the film is crafted, starting out with the concoction of the scheme that sets everything up, introducing the main antagonists and giving us over a half-hour of everything starting to go very wrong, and then we’re introduced to our main character, a quirky cop played by Frances McDormand in a fabulous performance. And then it shows things getting worse and worse as the film’s message is gradually revealed to us as we realize what we know from watching McDormand and William H. Macy’s character and what we should know that most of us probably don’t want to acknowledge: that it’s the little things that make life worth living and not a load of money. It’s a wonderful film that is easily one of the Coen Brothers’ very best.


56) TAXI DRIVER (1976)

Who is Travis Bickle really? Is he a hero? Is he a psycho? Is he an anti-hero? I don’t know, he doesn’t know, and that’s what makes him a fascinating character. What goes through his mind as he drives through the city in his taxi cab and the conclusions he comes to in order to make things right in his eyes are not as simple as you might think from a similar character in most movies. It’s more complicated than that, which is the key to the success of Martin Scorsese’s ‘70s classic, on top of a great memorable performance by Robert De Niro. “You talkin’ to me?…You talkin’ to me? I’m the only one here.” His portrayal of the character is darkly funny, sad, and intensely disturbing. What’s even more disturbing yet fascinating is that it feels real.


55) HOLES (2003)

You’re probably thinking to yourself, “This guy’s tastes in movies are all over the place, and his favorite movies range from silly b-movies to notorious classics.” Well, that’s because I’m only human, I love movies, and my favorite movies don’t have to be yours. But anyway, here’s another movie I cherished since childhood, based on the popular kid’s novel by Louis Sachar, who also wrote the screenplay for the adaptation. I enjoy this movie for the same reason I enjoy Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets so dearly—it’s a mystery-adventure with so much going on with interesting characters, several hints and clues that lead to an ultimate payoff. And it’s done so well, with intriguing sideplots that add to the main story, that I never get bored despite all the things that happen in this movie. I also really like the kids in the movie; they feel like real kids, not unlike the acting in The Goonies. The way they interact and relate with each other is impressive. They feel more real than the adult villains, played by Jon Voight, Sigourney Weaver and Tim Blake Nelson, but I think that adds to the fantasy aspect of the movie that really works in its favor.


54) TITANIC (1997)

I can’t help it, it really got to me. This film has gotten a backlash since it swept the Oscars in its time, but I can’t take part in it; I love Titanic. I love how director James Cameron makes you feel the weight of one of the biggest disasters of the 20th century, and that the climactic sinking of the great ship feels like it’s taking place in real time, which causes the dread and tragedy to escalate to the point where you really feel something. It’s quite an experience. I don’t think the characters played by Leonardo DiCaptrio and Kate Winslet really existed on the actual Titanic, but I like that we see the counterparts of the real-life passengers through their eyes. But something else I really admire about it from a filmmaking standpoint is how they build up the sinking by showing through computers, in an early scene set in the present, how it happened and how it was inevitable. And yes, I even like the Celine Dion song My Heart Will Go On. This film was popular for reasons, you know.


53) MASK (1985)

This is a film about a disfigured teenage boy and just how he and his messed-up mother live their life. And that’s it—it’s a slice of life that I was invested in from beginning to end. The actors are all fantastic, from Cher as the mother Rusty to Eric Stoltz who’s brilliant as the boy Rocky. They’re appealing, they feel real, and I felt as if I knew them, and I feel sorry for them when things don’t go their way. And the film works so well at establishing these characters and their relationships with other people that you didn’t really need the physical handicap at all. Put a normal face on this kid, and you still have a hell of a good film.


52) MAGNOLIA (1999)

It’s been almost three years since I first saw this three-hour P.T. Anderson ensemble character drama…I’m still not quite sure how to label it. It’s weird, it’s unusual, it has the climactic phenomenon at the end that took everyone off-guard—in fact, some people hated this movie when they first saw it because of that. But repeated viewings caused some naysayers to change their opinion because the film really is that impactful. I’m usually not all for movies with different characters and subplots because some are more interesting the rest, but strangely, with this one, I find myself interested in what’s going on with all of the characters, who are connected one way or another. The smart kid under pressure by his father on the game show, Tom Cruise as a misogynist who reconnects with his father on his deathbed, Melora Walters as the coke addict who hasn’t spoken to her parents in years, and many more. The characters are well developed, the themes of regret and loneliness, mainly brought on by failed relationships with parents and children, are fascinating, and that infamous climax? It’s strangely one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.


51) GOODFELLAS (1990)

As much as I admire The Godfather, personally, Goodfellas is the best gangster movie I’ve ever seen, brought on by the visionary director Martin Scorsese, who directs this film as a harsh slam against the Mafia. They’re scum, they profit off of violence, they betray their own, they do all sorts of bad things…and Scorsese isn’t afraid to show it’s like, through a character played by Ray Liotta who wants to do these things to get respect, falls in with the family, and even when stuff gets real bad in the end, he finds he still wants to do those things. And we get a clear inside perspective of what things are like as a gangster, and all the perks and downsides are brought to one particular character played by Joe Pesci who is nothing short of brilliant—funny but also very frightening. And that describes the whole movie itself.



The film that won several Oscars for the Coen Brothers, and it’s real easy to see why. I admire this taut thriller for the simplicity and the meanings underneath the surface—that’s also why I don’t mind the ending like a lot of people do. This is more than just a guy on the run from a vicious sociopath, though there are some really neat close calls here and there—it’s a film with a demented philosophy about the balance between good and bad, and what makes it all the more chilling is the character who thinks he’s supposed to keep the balance intact: Anton Chigurh, played with sinister deliciousness by Javier Bardem, who won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. And I admire the differences in the three main characters—an obvious hero in a cop played by Tommy Lee Jones, an obvious villain played by Bardem, and an anti-hero played by Josh Brolin. These differences make the overall piece all the more exciting.



And speaking of the Coen Brothers, we have something here that’s in a similar style. Shotgun Stories was Jeff Nichols’ first film, filmed on a small budget in Arkansas, and it’s a neat little drama/thriller about how a feud between two sets of half-brothers escalates to disaster when the father dies and the sons he abandoned years ago come to the funeral and say unpleasant things. The subtleties of both the developments and the performances really make the film, and it brings about the question of whether or not violence is the only way to fix true conflict. The result is unforgettable. And not only was it the film that introduced me to Jeff Nichols and made me excited to see Take Shelter (in fact, I even saw a public screening of this film followed by a q&a with Nichols and two clips of Take Shelter), but it was also my introduction to actor Michael Shannon, who is Nichols’ go-to actor nowadays, even right down to a cameo in his latest film Loving.



Oddly enough, even though I grew up with many, many Disney movies, I didn’t grow up watching Beauty and the Beast so much. I actually began to truly admire and love it as I was turning 19. And it’s, for lack of a better word, “beautiful Disney magic.” The animation, the art design, the songs, the characters—everything about this movie is memorable and appealing. I love Belle, I love the Beast, and the romance between them is played perfectly. It’s just a treasure of a movie—a Disney animated film that appeals to both kids and adults.



Oh boy, how am I going to explain this choice? Well, maybe like this—I grew up with this movie, it stayed with me over the years, and I still enjoy the hell out of it even to this day. I remember being in high school when the two-disc 20th anniversary edition DVD was released and being really excited about it—the movie came on TV once when I was a kid, I wore out the tape after watching it so many times, and as soon as the DVD came out, my dad took me to the nearest Best Buy and bought it for me. It’s a totally fun ‘80s movie about a bunch of kids on a mission to take down Dracula, Wolfman and other Universal Monsters. They even get Frankenstein’s Monster to join them—how awesome is that?? This movie has its flaws, but it’s also just all sorts of fun. It stayed with me over the years, and I have no shame in calling it one of my absolute favorite movies.


46) TOY STORY (1995) – TOY STORY 2 (1999) – TOY STORY 3 (2010)

The Disney/PIXAR films that I grew up with. The toy characters of Woody the Cowboy, Buzz Lightyear the spaceman, Mr. Potato Head, Hamm the Piggy Bank, Rex the Dinosaur, they’re all fun company to spend movies with! They took these CG creations and these stories about toys that come alive when people aren’t looking and made them into fables of envy, of regret, of growing up, of growing apart, all these things that kids need to know in order to get by in life. That they’re also fun adventures helps a lot too. If I had to pick one as my favorite, I would say the second one just barely fits that spot. The stuff with Buzz and the toys racing to save Woody and encountering many things on the city street and in the toystore is a lot of fun, but also, the scenes with Woody and Jessie the Cowgirl are surprisingly heartwarming. That song sequence “When Somebody Loved Me” is one of those moments where I get a little teary-eyed. You heard right—Toy Story 2 made me cry!



When I first saw this as a young teenager, I didn’t see why everyone was saying it was one of the best comedies of all time and really inventive and stuff. As time went on, however, I grew more of a fascination with the art of documentary as well as rock music, and this mockumentary/rockumentary about a lousy rock band just hit all the wrong notes and I suddenly found it to be hilarious. The things director Rob Reiner and his crew and cast went through to make it all seem authentic alone makes it a pure joy to watch, and I laugh every time we get those interviews with the band talking about their pasts, their bad habits, and whatnot, particularly in the ways all their drummers keep dying. (“He choked on vomit… it was actually someone else’s vomit.”) It’s a film that’s gotten better with time—one of my favorite comedies and one of my favorite films, period. “These go to 11.”


44) REAR WINDOW (1954)

This Hitchcock classic was one of the first films that taught me that a lot can be done with very little, and in this case, you can make a film that takes place in one location, in one room, and go from there in keeping the suspense alive when you have nowhere else to go. It’s almost like a well-thought-out play. And I can also thank the similarly-themed 2007 film Disturbia for introducing me to this film, probably the best Disturbia had to offer. (OK, that’s not fair—Disturbia is a fine film on its own. But Rear Window will always be the truer classic.)


43) HOOP DREAMS (1994)

I mentioned with Spinal Tap that I was getting really into the art of documentary film, and I love documentaries, particularly because there’s a lot you can do with very little, shape the film however you want, make anything mundane fascinating, show the lives of real people and how interesting they can be especially in comparison to most characters in fiction movies. And one of my favorites is definitely Hoop Dreams, a documentary following the lives of two boys as they go through high school and try to make their dreams of playing pro basketball into a reality. It’s a lot tougher than it sounds, and we get a good nearly-three-hour-long tour into their lives and the lives of their families. And it’s easily identifiable because we all have dreams and ambitions and won’t stop until we achieve them, and so we root for these boys to make their dreams come true, even though it’s clear that they won’t. And there’s a very prominent line that closes out the movie—“People say ‘if you make it in the NBA, don’t forget about me.’ I like to say to them, ‘If I DON’T make it, YOU don’t forget about ME.’”


42) JAWS (1975)

My favorite director? Steven Spielberg. No question about it, not even a moment of blinking first. I’m gonna say my favorite director is Steven freaking Spielberg. And there’s more of his movies coming up higher on the list. But let’s begin with the very tense, very suspenseful shark movie Jaws. This is a fantastic thriller—wonderfully well-made, likable characters, and a great final hour out at sea fighting off a killer great white shark. Yeah, the shark looks a little fake toward the end, but the fear it generates building up to its ultimate appearance can’t be ignored. “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.” It created the term “summer blockbuster” and made Spielberg a household name, both for very good reason.


41) WITNESS (1985)

This film is just ripe with originality. The story, I don’t think anyone’s even tried to copycat. It goes like this—an Amish widow and her little son get mixed up in a murder case after the boy witnesses a murder in a Philadelphia train station; Harrison Ford is a cop on the case only to find that the murderer is a fellow cop, thus putting his own life as well as the lives of the woman and boy in absolute danger; so Ford hides out in the Amish country with them, and while he figures things out, he falls in with the villagepeople and even starts to fall in love with the woman; and that makes things even more tricky because they don’t belong with each other. Witness is a movie that has a lot to offer—it’s a tense thriller, it’s a tragic romance, it’s a fish-out-of-water story, and like Matinee, it takes all these different elements and blends surprisingly well together. I feel something when the relationship between Ford’s John Book and Kelly McGillis’ Rachel Lapp is threatened by the real world. And I feel scared when three men with rifles approach the country, bent on causing mayhem to kill someone. I love this movie so much that I actually am sort of jealous of it.


40) RUNAWAY TRAIN (1985)

This movie gets better and better every time I watch it. It also features my favorite performance by Jon Voight, as a lifer in a maximum security prison who breaks out and heads for freedom. But he and his cohort, played by Eric Roberts, end up stowing away on a train that turns into a runaway when the conductor dies of a heart attack and the brakes get blown off, and so now they have to fight to survive. What’s odd and quite fascinating to me about this movie is that it starts out as a standard prison picture and then works its way into an action film. But this is more about characterization than it is about action, though there are some pretty damn good stunts in this movie. Particularly, the Voight character of Manny is older and more insightful in life than the younger, more naïve Roberts character, and so he’s able to teach the “youngster” a thing or two. But due to a sick mind and serving a long sentence, he himself walks the fine line between “human” and “animal.” And the ending of Runaway Train is just great. Without giving it aqway, it involves Voight making a choice between life and death. I always get a little tense when I watch it. I just love it.

Up Wallpaper-15.jpg

39) UP (2009)

I mentioned movies with moments that get me a little teary-eyed. You want to see me get really choked up? Just show me the first few minutes of Up! And then show me the rest of the film, and I’ll start to sob at the very last shot. What it means, what it symbolizes, what everything ultimately amounted to in this zany adventure film really gets to me. Who would think that an animated family movie that also features talking dogs that fly bomber planes would get me so emotional? But it really does. And Up is pretty much a movie that has everything—drama, comedy, fantasy, adventure, just a lot to make for a very entertaining film. That it means something due to the characters and their main emotional plight is a big plus.


38) SIGNS (2002)

This M. Night Shyamalan film has gotten a lot of backlash ever since its successful theatrical run in 2002, mainly having to do with the fact that the ominous threat is taken out so easily by a common element. And there are other things about it that don’t seem like a big deal to me but a VERY big deal to many others. I just don’t get it. And I will defend this movie until the day I die. I think it’s an excellent film with a strong subtext about faith, a solid family dilemma, and good chills and thrills, in this alien-invasion thriller told from the perspective of one family. And since some of you are probably more baffled that I have this on the list…even though I already mentioned Phantom Town and The Monster Squad with high regard…I’m just gonna say why it doesn’t bother me that the aliens came to our planet even though it’s mostly covered in water, which harms them. Well, I think I just answered my question with that very question: they’re ALIENS! You think they’ve even heard of water?



“No…I am your father!” As if the Star Wars follow-up couldn’t get any more dark, complex and thought-provoking, we suddenly get the reveal that the main villain our heroes have been going up against this whole time…was the protagonist’s father. What does it mean, what does it say about interpretation and such, so many questions were brought up by this reveal and left audiences talking about it for hours and hours. And yes, it’s well known now, but that doesn’t make it any less great to comprehend. It actually makes it better if you know about it first, because watching the film while knowing the twist gives you more of an experience when Luke Skywalker is being taught by Yoda not to rush into things without thinking about them first, learning to put mind over matter when using the Force, and so forth. I showed it to my girlfriend, who already knew about it before seeing the movie, and she found a lot out of it.



When I first saw it, I couldn’t even make it past the scene in which the kid gets his tongue stuck on a flagpole; it was a little too much for me at age 8 and I begged my mom to turn it off…after she got it for me as a Christmas gift. (Sorry, Mom.) But when I finally worked up the guts to watch it again, I enjoyed it just as much as everyone else does…well, mostly everyone. People are tired of it getting so much TV time every Christmas, including my dad. But not me. I always love watching it every year.



A part of me wishes I didn’t have so many classics on my list, because I keep thinking, “What can I say about them that no one else has already?” Well, here we have Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Shortest reasoning for why this is one of my favorite movies: it’s clever, imaginative, has brilliant usage of cartoon characters, is visually interesting, and I immensely enjoy watching it every time. Let’s move on… Smile, darn ya, smile!


34) THE LION KING (1994)

This was THE Disney movie I grew up with. It was the first movie I ever owned on video, so I watched it all the time, I know it inside and out…it still gets me to this day. This animated movie is glorious—the animation just pops right off the screen and makes the environment feel so epic. It’s beautiful to watch. And it makes me feel something too. Kind of an African safari fable that mixes Bambi and Hamlet, it uses adult themes in a way that actually speak to kids, and it’s for that reason among many more that I admire this film now as much as I did when I was a kid. Hakuna-matata—it means no worries.


33) INSIDE OUT (2015)

I did NOT think that Disney and PIXAR would find a way to top Toy Story and Up, but there is just something about Inside Out that, for me at least, makes it stand out among the rest. The way it uses personalized emotions to teach a very important lesson about the significance of sadness and what it means to grow up and adapt in life is just brilliant. I saw the movie once in a theater and fell in love with it, I saw it a second time in a theater and loved it even more, and it topped my best-of-2015 list with no competition whatsoever. It’s very clever in the way it visually represents a subconscious and what it means to lose certain things in it, it’s very funny in how you see what goes on in other people’s heads, and it’s all the more heartwarming when the emotions of this pre-teenage girl have to help her in facing the frightening changes of reality. And I think it was snubbed of a Best Picture Oscar nomination. Best Animated Feature is not enough for me.



Yet another Spielberg classic; one with excitement and joy just leaping off the screen. When you really get down to it, the story is pretty silly. But the execution and Harrison Ford’s persona make it much more than what it could’ve been, and it’s one of the best adventure films of all time. I even see it on the big screen whenever it comes up as a “classic” screening.


31) THE DARK KNIGHT (2008)

They made Batman into a crime thriller and showed the world that the superhero movie is capable of much more than high-quality or just-plain-silly entertainment. Kudos to them. I was blown away when I first saw it on the big screen at age 16, and I felt like I was seeing something that was too good for me. The way the line between hero and villain becomes blurred is haunting and I’ll never forget it. And of course, there’s Heath Ledger’s unbelievable performance as The Joker. What else can I say but…I hate clowns.


30) AMADEUS (1984)

Funny story—I showed this to a friend who’s a big-time movie buff, like me. He hadn’t seen it before and he kept guessing out loud what was going to happen with Mozart and Salieri in this movie, and I kept having to tell him “no, that’s not what happens.” It’s just one source, but it shows that what Amadeus isn’t is “predictable.” What it is is one of my favorite films. I’m not even a big fan of classical music, which isn’t to say I don’t like it; I just don’t listen to it that often. But I still adore this movie both as a story about the creative process and a character study about an ingenious but immature artist and a mediocre but dedicated one who’s very envious of the other. Either way you look at it, it’s still an engrossing film—so engrossing that I often forget how long it is when I’m watching it. I haven’t seen the director’s cut, and truth be told, I don’t really want to. I got the one that swept the Oscars, and that’s the one I’m going to stick with.


29) FANTASIA (1940)

What an experience! And simply the best Disney offered in his early days of animation. Syncing visuals with great music worked out perfectly, especially in the final segments of The Night on Bald Mountain and Ave Maria. Twist my arm and ask me to choose between seeing this on the big screen, which my girlfriend Kelly and I did, and seeing a live performance of the same musical pieces, I’ll choose the big screen for the remarkable visuals and animation. It’s nothing short of amazing.


28) DAY FOR NIGHT (1973)

Being on many different film sets in Arkansas and being a filmmaker myself, I understand the ups and downs of filmmaking. Granted, in the case of Francois Truffaut’s Day For Night, it’s a little more complicated, seeing how it’s more high-profile than the indies I worked on. But I recognize many of the problems faced in this film about what it’s like to make a movie, such as actors having a hard time mastering their lines, schedules being turned around, crew members feuding with each other, or even getting the cat to do what needs to be done on camera. There’s a lot of truth in this film and that’s why I both enjoy and identify with it.


27) Y TU MAMA TAMBIEN (2002)

There’s something very special about this Spanish film directed by Alfonso Cuaron. It’s more than a coming-of-age film about two horny teenage boys who get a chance to score with an attractive older woman. Beneath the surface is a commentary on Mexican society, with an ever-present narrator giving background info at the places they visit. And also, without giving anything away for those who haven’t seen it, it’s about how to behave when facing death. Oh, and there’s a lot of sex…er, quite a bit of onscreen sex. But it’s not used for exploitation purposes; it’s more like a way of showing how meaningless it can be given the circumstances. There’s more to this film than that.


26) A SIMPLE PLAN (1998)

Yet another thriller that has me tense from beginning to end, brought on by Sam Raimi, who learned from the Coen Brothers about how to shoot in the snow, since they did it for Fargo. This is a fascinating, unbelievably effective portrait of good people doing evil things when faced with greed, such as Bill Paxton and Billy Bob Thornton deciding to keep a duffel bag full of money they find in the woods. How far will working-class folks go to protect the secret of millions of dollars? There’s betrayal, jealousy, even murder. At what point do they draw the line? Add that to great acting, especially from Billy Bob Thornton giving his best performance as a mentally unstable person who feels the most guilt, and this is one hell of a film.


25) THE DIRTIES (2013)

I mentioned with Spinal Tap that much can be done when playing with the art of documentary in fiction and I mentioned with Rear Window that much can be done with very little, and now we come to an underrated independent gem called The Dirties. It’s a faux-documentary about the making of a movie that blends with the psychosis of an alienated teen that wants to take revenge on his hallway tormentors—like a found-footage movie, except it uses a more documentary approach in terms of editing, with music and clever edits among other little tricks here and there. It takes what it has in terms of resources and uses them to its advantage, and I highly respect filmmaker Matt Johnson, who also stars in the film, for pulling it off. I have so much to say about this film, I could do a whole commentary on it. And it has a lighthearted sense of humor about itself in how the hero sees his life as a movie and allows himself to be filmed as if it were such. But at the same time, there’s a looming sense of dread in the way it seems inevitable that what he’s thinking of doing is probably what he’ll end up doing. And what’s scary is we understand why, and it feels real, much like Taxi Driver. And it’s strange to me that this is so high up on the list, because when I first caught it on TV, I thought it was simply…OK. But the more I watched it, the more I noticed beneath the surface, and the more I became fascinated with what it was intended to be. And it got better and better with each viewing to the point where I look to Matt Johnson as the underrated master of the faux-documentary.



Yet another film about teenage alienation, but this one goes a little darker. It’s a film about a young man who enjoys doing sick, dastardly things until he undergoes a program that turns him off from even the thought of doing such things. But on top of taking away his free will, his newfound pacifism makes him an outlet for everyone else’s frustrations. This is Kubrick at his best, getting under our skin with muted tones and scathing social commentary. Top it all off with an unnervingly good performance by Malcolm McDowell and you got a film that is so unpleasant to watch yet too captivating to look away from. And needless to say, I don’t think of Singin in the Rain the same way anymore.


23) PSYCHO (1960)

Psycho is my favorite of Hitchcock’s films. Maybe something like Rear Window or Vertigo is his best, but Psycho is my favorite, and much of it has to do with two things: one is how the story is told and how it teases you and lets you down when the supposed main character is out of the picture after the infamous shower scene; the other is the character of Norman Bates, played brilliantly by Anthony Perkins. The more I watch this film, the more I try to understand him, because I really want to. He’s such an interesting individual that he practically begs to be talked about. The only thing I don’t like about it is the ending, with the drawn out explanation given by the psychiatrist. Maybe it’s what audiences needed in the early ‘60s but not anymore. Still a pretty impressive film, though.


22) ED WOOD (1994)

As much as I love Day for Night and The Dirties, I’d say Ed Wood is my favorite film about filmmaking. It tells the tale of Edward D. Wood, Jr. who made some of the worst, most laughably bad movies of all time, such as Glen or Glenda and Plan 9 From Outer Space. And it’s just about what he loves doing and how he won’t let the critics or pessimists bring him down. I love how Johnny Depp portrays the character, as a constantly grinning optimist who simply loves what he does and is glad to share anything with anyone who will listen to him, and I enjoy the relationship he has with actor Bela Legosi, played marvelously by Martin Landau. It’s my favorite Tim Burton film, and it teaches me a very important lesson as a filmmaker: no matter how good I think my work is and no matter how bad others think it might be, I should always do it because I want to. That’s one I’ll remember for the rest of my life and career.


21) PULP FICTION (1994)

Whenever I think of great screenwriting, this is one of the movies that instantly come to mind. It doesn’t go for just the necessary lines of dialogue; it makes it somewhat relatable by adding more to it, like the moments in which John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson talk about a French McDonald’s restaurant or even foot massages. And the storytelling (in the way it uses parallels) makes it all the more fascinating. Memorable moments all around, much like writer-director Quentin Tarantino’s best work. Pulp Fiction is an unforgettable film that may be weird and talkative, but it definitely has a soul.


20) THE SIXTH SENSE (1999)

M. Night Shyamalan’s claim to fame, one of the highest grossing movies of all time, and dammit, it truly is beautiful. It’s far from a typical ghost story or horror film. It’s a winningly effective drama about redemption and relationships. It showed me when I first saw it at a young age that the horror genre can be used for much more than people give it credit for. Everything about it works, from the color scheme and clever use of the color red, to the great performances from Bruce Willis and Haley Joel Osment, to the scary moments when the kid “sees dead people,” to the dramatic moments when Willis tries to connect with his wife and the kid tries to connect with his mother. And the twist? I have to be honest; I didn’t even know it was a twist when I first saw it. Everyone had talked about it so much, I thought it was a plot point to know from the start. But the film still impressed me from beginning to end.



Yes, another Spielberg classic, and for a while, this was my favorite film. I still love it; it’s in the top 20 after all. Again, what can I say about this film that so many others haven’t already? It’s magical, it’s greatly developed, it’s a great fantasy, it has unique techniques in the director (like keeping the adults, except the mother character, obscure until much later on when they’re important), it’s pure movie-magic and just great Spielberg. And…yeah, I love this one. Moving on!


18) TEX (1982)

This is a Disney film that hardly anyone has even heard of, but it really is a gem. I like it for the same reason I love Mask; it’s a nicely done slice of life with engaging characters. It’s based on a novel by S.E. Hinton who also wrote The Outsiders, and it stars Matt Dillon and Jim Metzler as two teenage brothers who are left on their own and find ways to get by. And that’s pretty much it. It’s more about focusing on the lives of these two boys as they live with one another, and how the youngest brother, Tex, comes of age and realizes how much his older brother Mason is putting on the line for him. It’s amazing how insightful and true to life this film seems to be. It was released in the early ‘80s, a time when movies about teens were focused on losing virginity—this one, on the other hand, was about becoming a man, something the other films only claimed to be about. It tackles issues such as teenage sex, teenage parenting, even drug dealing—it’s an effective portrait of troubled teenagers, brought to us by Disney! How weird is it to say that…


17) THE HAUNTING (1963)

This is my personal favorite horror film. It’s a film that’s basically a haunted-house thriller, but it’s all psychological, and I truly love that. You don’t see the beast that’s lurking outside, and you don’t even know which of the haunting is real and which is just inside the head of the main character of Eleanor, who’s mentally stressed. It’s really clever that way. But overall, I do find the film truly frightening in how this haunting is portrayed. I watch this movie every Halloween night, with the lights turned off, and it always gives me the chills. The moment the final monologue is over and the movie ends, I want to step outside and see signs of life again. That’s how effective the movie is for me.


16) 12 ANGRY MEN (1957)

Yet another film that does a lot with very little, like Rear Window, but this one is actually based on a real play. How the film handles such a heavy situation such as what truly matters in a murder case when it seems just too easy to vote guilty makes for a film that lessons that are important even to this day. You can’t just rely on fact alone in a case that could send someone to death; you have to really talk about it, think about it, discuss it with your fellow jurors. It’s a more important job than people realize. The acting from all 12 actors playing the titular characters are top-notch, the cinematography is tight, making for a claustrophobic feeling as you’re stuck in that room with them, and the writing? Outstanding. The discussions these 12 people have about facts, ideas, etc. are fun to listen to. I could listen to this film as an audiobook, it’s that interesting.


15) RUBY SPARKS (2012)

This was the film that taught me to be the best I could possibly be in a relationship with a wonderful woman, and I owe the directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris and the writer Zoe Kazan so much for that. This is a film about a hopeless romantic who doesn’t know the first thing about women except what it comes up with in his own mind. Then his dream girl materializes out of nowhere and it’s just what he wants…until he realizes there’s more to her than what he wanted, and that frightens him. So he has to learn the hard way that his dream girl will never be real and if he loves someone, he has to accept her, flaws and all. I was much like this character, having my own idea of what the perfect woman for me should be like, only to realize down the road that she’s not real and there’s something better out there for me. And I give credit to this movie for showing me that. And I love my girlfriend, with whom I’ve been in a relationship for three years, for this very reason: she’s more than the girl of my dreams—she’s real.



This is my all-time favorite action movie. The stunt work is awesome, the action sequences are incredible, the heroes and villain are great, and even the dramatic moments, as well as the question of whether or not humanity is worth saving, are really, really impressive. This movie is just amazing, and it’s a sequel that improves upon everything set up by the original Terminator movie, which I also really like. The lighting, the action setpieces, the special effects—everything is an improvement. The villain is even scarier than Schwarzenegger’s Terminator of the first movie, because he proves more difficult to go up against because he seemingly can’t be destroyed. And it’s also welcoming to have an action movie in which Schwarzenegger has to learn not to kill people, and while keeping true to his word, he learns the value of human life. But of course, we also get his awesomest moments, such as the infamous “Hasta La Vista, Baby.” Oh and let’s not forget that kickass music score!



You don’t have to be familiar with Monty Python humor, such as the TV series Flying Circus (and I’ll admit I’m not), but whenever I watch Monty Python and the Holy Grail, I just laugh and laugh and laugh. I laugh at the absurdity of the production and the brilliant comic timing. For me, there was hardly a moment in the film when I wasn’t cracking up. I’m even cracking up just thinking of certain scenes from the movie, like the Black Knight duel, the witch-talk, the attack of a cartoon monster, and more. There are literally so many memorably funny moments that it’s hard to think of one that made me laugh the most. Every time I watch it, it’s just a delight.


12) THE UP SERIES (1964-2013)

As I’m making this list, I don’t know if there’s going to be a 63 Up or not, but I’d love to see one. This is like a growing project that continues to grow every seven years, catching up with the same people and seeing how they’re doing in their individual lives. This is one of the best uses of documentary film that I’ve ever seen, if not the absolute best. And it’s just these people sitting down and telling us about what changes and what doesn’t change as time goes by. My favorite subjects are Tony, Neil, and Suzy. Tony is very charismatic and is willing to share pretty much anything with the director, Michael Apted. Neil has had an interesting life, even being homeless at one point before finding a career in politics. And Suzy’s story just shows that life is stranger than fiction, because in 21 Up, she’s bitter and cynical, and in 28 Up, she’s happy and perky now that she found a husband—that’s just incredible; it doesn’t even seem like the same person. “Give me a child until he is seven, and I will give you the man.”



This is another film I’ll only watch once or twice a year, but the reason it’s on this list is because of the major impact it had on me. I saw this at a Spielberg retrospective at a local theater in Conway, Arkansas one summer—it floored me. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing in its depiction of the Holocaust and how two halves of human nature were represented. It angered me, it terrified me, and it inspired me to do the best I can to help people whenever I get a chance. And it showed me what else Spielberg was capable of outside of fun entertainment, and it apparently showed everyone else too, as it was the first film that won him the Oscar for Best Director. It’s a film I’ve only seen about five times total, but it’s also one that I’ll never forget.



Traditionally, I don’t watch this movie until around Christmastime, but when I do, it always gets me in a major way, hence its high position on the list. I love the narrative structure and how it sets up everything you don’t think will be important until much later when you realize you’re glad you paid attention. The whole movie has a magical feel to it, saddled with a heartfelt performance by James Stewart, an intelligently written screenplay, and a good touching resolution at the end. It’s one of those movies that just makes you feel good about yourself, even when things seem at their worst. Things are not all that bad and they can even be pretty good, and that’s what this movie wants you to remember.



By any standards, To Kill a Mockingbird is an astounding film. Whether it’s seen as a courtroom drama, a coming-of-age film, or a prejudice story, you can’t deny the power of the film’s structure. Probably the best move to tell this story was to do it from the perspective of the two kids who serve as the protagonists. Scout and Jem are typical children observing how the world works in strange and sometimes ineffective ways. The film also has the advantage of having one of the best characters ever created: Atticus Finch, played by Gregory Peck, Scout and Jem’s father who is a lawyer defending a black man in a case that is overseen by an all-white jury in a racially-tense Southern small town. He goes out of his way to see justice prevail, despite what people think of the case. He stands up for what he believes and has a strong confidence that he will succeed, which makes his question of the system near the end all the more insightful. Great acting, excellent storytelling, a faithful adaptation of the classic novel. I was practically raised by this movie by my parents (who named my sister Scout because of it). I’m glad they did because this movie gets to me always.


8) CITY LIGHTS (1931)

It was only about three years ago when I just randomly checked this movie out at the local library, and I hadn’t even seen a Charlie Chaplin film prior. So I didn’t really know what to expect other than classic silent-film comedy, which I was already a little familiar with. But I hadn’t seen one like City Lights. As soon as I watched it for the first time, I immediately posted about it on Facebook, praising it like it was one of the greatest things I’d ever seen in my life, which…yeah, it kind of was. This film was just so lively and energetic and very, very funny. The scene where the Tramp stops the rich guy from drowning himself and keeps ending up dragged by the weight into the water, and especially the boxing match where he tries to avoid being pummeled—just hilarious! And like I said with Planes, Trains & Automobiles, the comedy doesn’t mean a whole lot if you don’t care for the characters. And I cared for the Tramp, especially when he tries to help a blind girl he has a crush on. It leads to one of my favorite endings in a movie, in which the Tramp and the blind girl connect in a different way and also a heartwarming way. City Lights is still one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen in my life.


7) THE GOONIES (1985)

I can’t help it. I love this movie. I love love love love love this movie. Love it. (That’s an opposite to Roger Ebert’s infamous “hated hated hated” quote, if you didn’t know.) I loved it as a kid. I love it as an adult. I can’t watch it on DVD anymore without watching all the bonus features right after. That’s how much I love it. This “Indiana Jones for kids” is just a ton of fun, and I can’t see myself disliking it anytime soon.


6) LUCAS (1986)

This ‘80s teen movie got me through some tough times in high school. It knows what it’s like to be a teenage outcast and to fall in love for the first time. It’s a touching portrait of a unique 14-year-old who falls in love with an older girl, and then when he realizes he can’t have her, he tries everything to prove himself, including going out for the football team. I love the characters, including a football captain played by Charlie Sheen in a solid performance—you don’t see many jock characters like him in these movies. And it does have the slow-clap at the end, but you know what? It earned it. It also greatly delivers the message that things can work out, though in ways you never expected. Lucas doesn’t get the girl of his dreams, but he does get something more important: he gains his self-confidence.



You know what happens in Before Sunrise? A man and woman meet and talk. That’s it. The whole film just shows them spending one magical night together talking about what they think is important, and they enjoy each other’s company. There’s no filler, no clichés, none of those standard romance elements. It just begins as they meet and ends as they separate. A film like this would be difficult to make interesting, but Richard Linklater and actors Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy completely made me care about this romance. Then we wait nine years later for them to meet again, in Before Sunset, and it seems to be a second chance with a great ambiguous ending that left us wanting more. And then nine years after that, we got Before Midnight, which shows them past the honeymoon stage and puts us in the middle of an important argument between them. I guess time will tell if there’s another Before film in the future with these two at the center, but I certainly hope there is, because I could listen to these two people talk for hours and never get tired of them.


4) LIFE ITSELF (2014)

Roger Ebert was an inspiration to me, and it pained me deeply when I heard he had died. That’s why when this documentary about the last days of his life and the legacy he left behind came to a local theater in Little Rock, Arkansas, I was one of the first people in line. Not only was I moved (I knew I would be), but I also knew things about Ebert through this film that I didn’t before, such as how he used to be an alcoholic, how far the feud between him and Siskel went before they finally acknowledged their mutual respect, and even just how bad Ebert had it when he was being treated for his illnesses. At times, it’s painful to watch, but mostly, it’s beautiful to watch, because you still see Ebert’s passion for film and film criticism, and it’s great to hear his friends and colleagues talk about who they saw him as. And any film that shows the man, the legend, the true hero for film buffs like me, earns a very special place in my heart.



This movie rocked. My. World. I mean, every detail, every setup, every payoff, every comedic time-travel element, imaginative, enjoyable, creative, fun, funny, entertaining, even inspiring! I’m sorry, but that’s really the impact the movie left on me and it still leaves it on me with time. It’s a highly enjoyable, well thought out, fantastic movie that has probably one of the best screenplays ever executed to film. I can just imagine what it must’ve been like for Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale to write this script. They must’ve had smiles on their faces the entire time. And it makes for a fun, entertaining, very well-written, even deep-at-some-points movie that has so much to enjoy.


2) STAND BY ME (1986)

Stand by Me was the first R-rated movie I ever watched, at the early age of nine. My dad really wanted me to see it at that age, even though it had kids swearing and smoking and stuff, because he knew I would thank him someday. And I still watch it every now and again, the reason being very simple—I love every minute of it. When I was a kid, I just saw it as a quiet but fun movie about 4 twelve-year-old boys going along railroad tracks to find the lost body of a dead kid as they overcome many obstacles along the way. But as I got older and kept watching it again and again, I did notice there was more beneath the surface. There was actual character development, with all four leads portrayed in convincing, interesting ways as they come of age and find their self-worth. I like that Stand by Me uses an adventure for these boys to go through this development in life and that it just takes place in a couple days. By the end of this story, based on the novella by Stephen King, maybe half of these boys haven’t learned much, but the other half know where they stand in the future and feel there’s a possibility that things will turn out better. I have a real soft spot for this movie, and I thank my dad for introducing it to me.

And my number-one favorite movie is…



I think I first saw this film at just the right time in my life. It was when I had just finished high school and I wasn’t ready to leave my small hometown with which I had become all too familiar, even though I knew I would eventually have to leave to try other things somewhere else down the road. I rented this film and instantly connected with it. Why? Because it’s about a kid just out of high school who’s being told about all the opportunities in life he would have outside of his small hometown, and he just isn’t ready to leave yet. I related every bit with this kid named Enoch. I grew up in a small town, and I didn’t feel as resentful towards it as others do, and like Enoch’s grandfather, played very well by Brian Dennehy, feels about his hometown. That’s not to say there weren’t times when I felt like it was slowing me down from my ambitions, but I got over it because when all was said and done, this was my home. And I’m so glad that special attention was given to this film to make it seem as real and genuine as it is. This easily could have been a deplorable, generic, wholesome film. But it’s not; it’s excellent. I love everything about this film. I love the characters and the friendship between Enoch and his best friend Wheels. I love the atmosphere of the town; you understand clearly why Enoch sees it as his home while Wheels sees it as his prison and why Pop, the grandfather, sees it as a place of regret. There’s just so much about this movie; I could do a whole commentary on it. It took me a while to admit that this is my favorite film, and it makes it awkward when I tell people the title and they go “huh?” More people should see this film; I’m not saying they’ll love it as much as I do, but I can almost guarantee they’ll get something really good from it.

Review: https://smithsverdict.com/2013/10/04/war-eagle-arkansas-revised-review/

And there you have it! Now please…don’t judge me.

Moonlight (2016)

8 Nov


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Warning—some spoilers ahead!

Oscars viewers who were distraught by the snubbing of the game-changing coming-of-age film “Boyhood” for the Best Picture statue are now redeemed after another groundbreaking coming-of-age film took home the award (but just barely—look up the 2017 Oscars controversy if you don’t know about it already). That film is Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight,” a small indie film that portrays three important moments in time for a young gay black man, as he grows from child to teenager to adult. Critics and film-festival audiences adored it, as did more mainstream audiences when the film hit theaters, and it became the “little film that could (and did).”

And for good reason—it is a REALLY good film. I missed it before I wrote my “2016 Review” post for this blog, but it surely would’ve made my top-5-films-of-the-year.

“Moonlight” shows us three chapters in the life of our main character Chiron. It’s like a trilogy of 40-minute short films in a way, starting with the segment titled “Little,” in which we first meet him as a young boy (played by Alex Hibbert) nicknamed Little. He lives in a Miami ghetto with his single mother (Naomie Harris) but would rather not spend nights at home often, due to his mother being constantly strung out on drugs and knowing more about punishing her son than showing affection towards him. When local drug pusher Juan (Mahershala Ali) finds him hiding from bullies in an abandoned house, Chiron doesn’t want to go home and instead spends the night at Juan’s before he finally tells Juan where he lives. Juan becomes Chiron’s father-figure (and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae) is like a surrogate-mother), as Chiron’s real father is nowhere to be found. He teaches him to swim, gives him crucial advice and tells him he’s going to grow up facing more troubles. But he also teaches him the importance of reacting such troubles.

Then we flash-forward to the next segment, titled “Chiron,” when Chiron (now played by Ashton Sanders) is a high-school teen, still dealing with his angry, drugged-out mother and enduring rougher bullying than before. He also has a sexual awakening after a long period of figuring things out within himself. Juan is out of the picture (though Chiron still spends some nights at Teresa’s), but Chiron still has a friend in classmate Kevin (Jharrel Jerome). But in the midst of his troubles comes peer pressure, which leads to a violent encounter that causes a rift between him and Kevin.

The final segment, “Black,” features Chiron (now played by Trevante Rhodes) as a 20something-year-old man with a new nickname: Black. He’s left Miami and moved to Atlanta after spending some time in juvenile hall, and he’s now a drug dealer, much like his mentor Juan was. He’s still sensitive and thoughtful, but you couldn’t tell by looking at his now-muscular appearance. He returns to his hometown, where he reunites with his mother and Kevin. The reunion between Chiron and Kevin is more meaningful, as the two catch up, Kevin talks about how he turned his life around, Chiron admits his true feelings, and the ending is ambiguously hopeful (more positive than how the film began).

“Moonlight” is not merely an exploration of a man coming to terms with his sexuality. It’s a film that shows how important it is to love yourself before you can love others. It’s often said in other sources that if you don’t love yourself, the insecurities get the better of you, which leads to unpleasant confrontations with the people in your life. That would help explain the behavior of Chiron’s mother Paula—when I saw this film a second time, the scene in the “Chiron” segment in which she goes through mixed emotions while on crack, I couldn’t help but wonder what was on her mind, how she grew up, what brought her to this, and more. This is a person who doesn’t love herself and thus doesn’t treat her son with the love he deserves. And once I considered that, that made their reunion in “Black” all the more powerful. (That’s all I’ll say about that.) And so here you have Chiron, who is going through so many issues in life, doesn’t have many people to call his friends or family, is confused about himself, faces intolerance and poverty, and could easily go down the wrong path for the rest of his life (which is why it’s alarming when he commits a certain act in “Chiron”). With confidence and love, he can overcome these things and turn it all around, which is what we hope will be the case when he reunites with Kevin.

The subject of an African-American male growing up gay is rarely seen in films, and director Barry Jenkins knows just how to tackle it: by making the themes universal so that even audience members who aren’t gay or black or even male can find something big in this small film that they can completely relate with. (And this is an odd observation, but I couldn’t help but notice the lack of camera-shaking in the successful attempts to make the camerawork look/feel more “realistic.”)

But of course, it’s one thing to have a gripping script with a look/feel that seems genuine; it’s another if the right actors can pull off these roles. And boy, do they. The cast is across-the-board excellent, with all three main actors capturing all three sides of Chiron brilliantly. Naomie Harris is also brilliant showing the angry and bitter but also human and sad sides of a single mother with too many problems of her own to show love and affection to her son. And last but certainly not least, Mahershala Ali is outstanding as Juan. It’s not a big role, as he’s only present for the “Little” segment, but to say he makes the most of it would be an understatement. Now, I have a little story I want to share—I missed seeing this film in 2016 and only saw it after it won the Best Picture Oscar; Ali’s Best Supporting Actor Oscar clip convinced me I had to see it as soon as possible.

“Moonlight” is a film that is absorbing, rich, and more importantly, real. Much of it is bleak, but that’s what’s needed for the more uplifting, sobering aspects to take effect. The ending successfully shows that in life, there are no ways of going back (and no reason to either), the things you go through make you who you are, and where you go from here on out is ultimately up to you. That it all comes a film that is this well-acted and well-executed makes it all the more powerful and deserving of the Best Picture win.

Alpha Dog (2007)

19 Sep


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

SPOILER WARNING! (Though it’s based on a true story.)

Most criminals don’t know what they’re doing half the time. Most of them are just kids trying to act tougher than they are. And even if they think they’re unstoppable, they’re too arrogant to recognize that this lifestyle has to end. We’ve learned this lesson in movies before, but there’s still something about Nick Cassavetes’ gritty crime drama “Alpha Dog” that speaks volumes in how unsettling and unforgiving it is in its portrayal of this kind of lifestyle.

Based on the kidnapping/murder of 15-year-old Nicholas Markowitz (though with each name altered for the film), “Alpha Dog” takes place in the late 1990s and focusing on young drug dealer Johnny Truelove (Emile Hirsch, playing a fictional version of real-life Jesse James Hollywood) and his crew, which includes Frankie (Justin Timberlake), Elvis (Shawn Hatosy), and many other young people in it for the money and the drugs (and the guns). One of Johnny’s customers, an addict named Jake Mazursky (Ben Foster), owes him money, which leads to conflict. That conflict leads to the kidnapping of Jake’s 15-year-old brother Zack (Anton Yelchin, playing a fictional version of Nick Markowitz).

Zack, who is tired of the constant suffocating by his loving but overbearing mother (Sharon Stone), doesn’t realize the trouble he’s in; in fact, he actually adapts to his surroundings and doesn’t even try to escape his captors. “I’m just gonna ride it out,” he tells Frankie who becomes his friend, “and see what happens.” Soon enough, more friends are involved in this abduction, including two girls who are turned on by Zack’s situation and his innocent reaction to it all. (“Stolen boy,” one of the girls, played by Amanda Seyfried, declares him.) Zack has a good time—he hangs out with Johnny’s crew, he drinks and does drugs, he has a sexual awakening with the girls, and he basically has the time of his life. But as Johnny realizes the gravity of what he put himself and his crew into by taking this boy, he also realizes the kid may have to be silenced for good in order to avoid jail time.

When you’re young, you feel like you’re indestructible. It’s not until you learn a very harsh life lesson when you understand what you put yourself into and how easily you can be corrupted. Frankie, Elvis and co. think they can get away with anything if they follow the right leader. Unfortunately, that leader happens to be Johnny, who himself has no idea where he’s headed and mostly reacts in anger and fear. They think they’re big-time gangsters and, in a group, they perform violent actions, but the tragic thing about it, when all is said and done, they’re all a bunch of scared kids who make dumb decision after bad decision until they all end up in a world of hurt. Cassavetes successfully (and in an unflinching way) captures that side of this arrogance where real-world consequences seem to elude them until it’s too late.

And then you have Zack, who sort of idolizes these (slightly-) older people, particularly his older brother who is constantly stoned and/or coked out (but also filled with rage). But this is a good kid who is impressionable and corrupted by this lifestyle, blinded from the truth and trapped in a situation he didn’t expect. It leads to the inevitable climactic moment in which Frankie has to assure Zack that everything’s going to be OK for him…when it really isn’t. It’s a powerfully frightening scene that keeps the tension alive even though we know what’s going to happen. And it’s even sadder that this kid learns the hard way what this lifestyle is all about: self-perseverance.

The acting is across-the-board solid. Anton Yelchin is perfect in the role of the innocent caught in a world of both bliss and corruption. Emile Hirsch captures both the ego and the cowardice of this “mastermind” who, it turns out, has nothing under control. Justin Timberlake had many other times to shine in the acting spotlight, such as “The Social Network” just a few years after this film’s release, but this was the film and the performance, as jokester/confidant Frankie, that first showed us there was something more to this guy than popular music. Another performance I want to single out is Sharon Stone as Zack’s mother—her final scene, a mock interview, is definitely among Stone’s finest moments as an actress.

Some parts of “Alpha Dog” can be a little too simple, particularly in the conventional lines of dialogue between the captors talking it out and the victim’s searchers concerns. And I didn’t quite see the point in singling out every “witness” (with subtitles) as they arrive throughout the film. But overall, I can’t deny the power of Cassavetes’ portrayal of such an ugly side of youth in America. And that portrayal concludes with a punch to the gut.

Juno (2007)

11 Sep


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Hard to believe it was almost ten years ago when Jason Reitman & Diablo Cody’s “Juno” took the world by storm, becoming that little indie high-school-drama film that beat the odds, received just as much acclaim from audiences as critics, and even receiving three pivotal Oscar nominations (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress) and a win (Best Original Screenplay)… Actually, on top of that, it’s hard to believe it was this film that received the attention I think should have been received by other, more superior films of the sort. Films like “The Spectacular Now,” “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” or even “Sing Street.”

But it was “Juno” that received the attention, probably more than it deserved. And with that came the inevitable backlash, with people being overhyped/oversold on how “groundbreaking” this film was when it was released (or since then). But a good portion of said-backlash…came from people who were among the cult that made it popular to begin with. Repeated viewings can either increase or decrease viewers’ perceptions of a film, and with “Juno,” it seemed to decrease for people who couldn’t help but notice things about it that annoyed them—things that were there from the beginning.

Now, it’s 10 years later, and we look back on “Juno” with either fond memories or annoyed groans. As for me, even though I feel the film is somewhat overrated (and there are some things to groan about), I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy watching it every now and then as a legitimately good (not great) film.

For those who missed the Juno-craze, “Juno” follows 16-year-old high-school junior Juno MacGuff (a star-making turn by Ellen Page, nominated for Best Actress) when she unexpectedly becomes pregnant, decides to have the baby and give it up for adoption, and endures the ups and downs that follow. We follow her through the important moments of the pregnancy—telling people including her boyfriend and her parents, meeting the would-be adoptive parents, establishing a connection with them, bulging out, getting dirty looks and remarks, and of course, as a teenager in an adult situation, learning some things about herself and about life.

The scene that sold the movie for audiences is the scene midway through, in which Juno and her best friend Leah (played with ditzy appeal by Olivia Thirlby) sit down with Juno’s father Mac (J.K. Simmons, always great) and stepmother Bren (Allison Janney, delightful in everything she’s in) to reveal Juno is pregnant. In any other film, the parental characters’ reaction would be along the lines of heartbroken cries or screams (melodramatic but undeniably real). But in this film, it’s a different kind of heartbreak—shock and disappointment—and it’s followed by a calm, rational discussion about what to do next. This was such a relief to people who were tired of the typical parental reply to a situation like teenage pregnancy. Others were confused about it, wondering if these parents were underreacting to something that should be treated as a big deal. I think Mac and Bren do see it as a big deal and you can see the surprise on their faces (Mac even says he was hoping for Juno to face expulsion from school rather than pregnancy); but I also think they know Juno is going through enough with the situation already that she doesn’t need them to make it worse by yelling at her.

The film is full of unusually calm, quiet moments like that. One of my favorites is when Juno tells the boy with whom she had sex once, Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera), that he is the father. This is a nice, timid boy (the type of character you don’t see in many high-school movies…except for “Superbad,” which Cera starred in a few months prior to this film’s release), and you can tell that the moment he first appears on-screen. The look on his face when Juno announces she’s pregnant is priceless—and thankfully, he doesn’t ask if she’s sure he’s the father. Instead, he simply asks, “What should we do?”

After Juno considers abortion and backs out just as soon as she enters the clinic’s waiting room, she decides to have the baby and give it up for adoption. She comes across a wealthy yuppie couple, Vanessa (Jennifer Garner) and Mark (Jason Bateman), and feels the couple is right for the baby…well, right for her, actually—Vanessa desperately wants to be a mother and Mark seems like a really cool person (he plays guitar and has decent taste in music), so why not? As time goes on, she visits them and gives them updates, while making somewhat of a connection with Mark (almost too uncomfortable, but it’s PG-13, so don’t expect something extreme).

During all of this, Juno learns from her loved ones (Mac, Bren, Paulie) just how difficult the adult life can be, in making tough decisions and especially in relationships. Being a teenager who is growing up so fast due to this experience and not realizing how big of a deal this is, she learns things she didn’t want to learn before, especially about herself, and as a result, she comes of age. This is what truly makes the film special. You do see a change in her when the third act reveals some heavy truths about which Juno has to ponder. And this is a teenager who acts like a hipster in terms of her tastes in music and movies, tries to act cool, thinks she’s better than most people and things, and has an acid tongue. She can even be unlikeable at times, particularly when she stops paying attention to Paulie, who wants to be there for her—at one point, when Juno chews him out after she finds out Paulie is dating someone else, that’s when Paulie finally reveals how hurt he is by being ignored. But it comes from a place of understanding why she would feel the way she feels—being a teen who is growing up too fast, she’s confused and scared, even if she won’t admit it. Juno learns truths she didn’t expect, didn’t see coming, didn’t want to accept…and by the end, she becomes a better person who will enjoy the rest of her pleasant teenage years before making tougher decisions as an adult.

Let’s talk about the dialogue. This is another major issue some people have with the film—Diablo Cody’s screenplay is laced with snappy, witty dialogue that is so quick, so uncommon, so…not like anyone’s ever heard in a movie before. Let me list a few here:

  • “Honest to blog?”
  • “I am forshizz up the spout.”
  • “Phuket, Thailand!” (used as an exclamation)
  • “Thanks a heap, coyote ugly. This cactus stings even worse than your abandonment.”
  • “So what’s the prognosis, Fertile Myrtle? Minus or plus?”
  • “Paulie Bleeker is totally boss.”

And my personal favorite, from a one-scene cameo by Rainn Wilson as a general-store clerk who sells Juno three pregnancy tests:

  • “This is one doodle that can’t be un-did, home-skillet.”

There are even more sassy lines like that, much of which are said in Juno’s constant voiceover monologues. It’s overdone and somewhat dated that it “captured the voice of a generation” (I remember some peers saying stuff like that—I was 15 when the film came out), but it is the key to the film’s humor and much of it did make me at least snicker (more so than the hipster-vocal soundtrack which also scatters throughout the film). Do I think it deserves the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay? Well, it is distinct in its dialogue and characters’ behaviors, so the win is seen as an appreciation for creativity in a situation we’ve all seen in other movies. (Though, personally, I would’ve voted for “Ratatouille”—the closing monologues given in that lovely animated film were more beautiful than anything else written for any other film released in 2007.)

While it is unfortunate that people still see Ellen Page as Juno nowadays (meaning she needs to make an even more memorable turn in future projects), even though she’s been in many other movies since her breakthrough, I can’t deny the good work she puts in the performance. She’s always watchable and fun to listen to as she spouts out a lot of Diablo-isms from the script. But more importantly, when she does get hurt, you can feel the pain—that’s the key to this performance, that she’s able to mask her true emotions with abrasiveness, and it’s completely credible.

But the supporting cast can’t escape praise. Michael Cera has been typecast like crazy since “Juno” and “Superbad” (which makes his crazy cameo as himself in “This is the End” all the more hilarious), but I can’t deny that the roles he became famous for were made so because he’s just so damn likable. J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney are among the best pair of parents I’ve seen in movies about teenagers—I’ve seen movies with parents that try to be “hip” and “with it” (“Mean Girls” even made fun of that trope to perfection), while these parents feel more “real” and respectful than any of those. Jennifer Garner shows more than what her introduction as an OCD yuppie would like us to believe and she has a truly shining moment in which she feels the baby’s kick beneath Juno’s belly. And this is truly among the best of Jason Bateman’s work (right up there with his performance in 2015’s “The Gift”), as he plays a character that eventually can’t deny to Juno or Vanessa that he’s not ready for the adult world, even though he himself is an adult.

So I guess I’m not one of those people who found reasons to dislike “Juno,” but I’m not one of those people who praise it to high heaven either (I’m not sure I can find many who still can to this day either). Parts of it do annoy me, but the strengths of the narrative and characters outweigh the weaknesses. And even the parts that annoy me could also be seen as funny due to how dated they are. Richard Roeper announced on his show “Ebert & Roeper” in December 2007, “Small flaws be damned, I have to say it—I LOVED, LOVED this movie!” I think I would just state in this blog in September 2017, “I see the film’s appeal and recognize the flaws, but I do particularly care for the film and will even watch it once or twice a year.” How’s that for praise?

It (2017)

8 Sep


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

It can be anything. It can be the very thing you fear most. It sleeps for years and then resurfaces to feed on children. It feeds on their fears. In order to do that, it becomes what they’re afraid of. It can be anywhere. It knows what scares you. It uses that to get to you. That is what makes It one of the most terrifying abstract figures in literature.

Best known as its favorite and primary form as Pennywise the Dancing Clown, It comes from the 1986 1000+-page novel by Stephen King, titled “It.” In the novel, it’s a mysterious, frightening entity that can’t be explained (well, technically, it is kind of explained in King’s “Dark Tower” series) and can be vanquished by its would-be victims by one thing: overcoming fear. The lesson here is, in conquering fear, you gain power, which is something the characters learn in King’s novel, the 1990 two-part TV miniseries, and now this 2017 cinematic upgrade, all of which are titled “It.”

However, until you get to that point, there’s a whole lot going bump in the night…

The basic idea of all three platforms of “It” is something that’s fascinated me since I first watched the miniseries at age 10: fears coming to life, terrorizing children and only being defeated by facing them head-on. The miniseries doesn’t entirely work, but there are elements from King’s original novel that still do, and I wondered what could be done with a current theatrical reboot. And how did this 2017 upgrade turn out, directed by “Mama” director Andy Muschietti?

Well, if you saw the Verdict above, you’re not surprised when I say “It” is a blast!

After spending a half-decade in development hell, it’s nice to see that the final product of “It” is very well-made and effective at capturing the essence of the book while also becoming more or less its own thing. The novel and the miniseries told two stories—one involved a group of seven outcast children facing off against It, the other involved those same kids grown up and facing It again upon its return. This film only tells one: the kids’ story. That’s right—this is only “Chapter One,” and it makes way for a “Chapter Two,” in which 27 years later (or in our movie world, 2 or 3 years), both It and our heroes (grown up) will return.

(I would issue a SPOILER ALERT, but who doesn’t know by now that this is part of a two-story…story?)

Thankfully, this “Chapter One” of “It” doesn’t feel like it needs a “Chapter Two.” “It” has the power to stand on its own feet with just enough buildup and payoff to the stories of these characters and does not necessarily rely on a future installment to answer important questions. It’s a strong narrative that satisfies, intrigues, and yes, frightens.

Our protagonists are a group of 11-12-year-old outcasts that form together because they’re bullied, they come from unhappy homes, and their friendship is the best thing they can ask for in an otherwise boring summer. They call themselves The Losers Club and are constantly harassed by adults who don’t understand them and a sadistic bully and his cohorts. They also have each seen It in many different forms (followed by the clown form)—for stuttering Bill (Jaeden Lieberher), it’s his little brother Georgie, who is missing and presumed dead despite Bill’s persistent search for him; for hypochondriac Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), it’s a leper; for Jewish Stanley (Wyatt Oleff), it’s a horrifying painting in his rabbi father’s office; for home-schooled and lone black kid Mike (Chosen Jacobs), it’s his parents being burned alive; for the club’s lone girl Beverly (Sophia Lillis), it’s her demented father and possibly menstruation (…you’ll see in the movie); for overweight new kid Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), it’s the morbid history of his new town (of Derry, Maine); and for cut-up Richie (Finn Wolfhard), it’s…clowns. (Tough break there, Richie.) They come to each other about their own experiences with Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard) and learn more about It. Bill, desperate to get his brother back in the hopes that he’s still alive, rallies his friends together to fight back.

The main strengths of “It” come from the development of these young characters, what they go through in this town, and what they’re most afraid of that they must overcome in order to survive. At 2 hours and 10 minutes, “It” takes the proper time necessary to flesh out all seven of these kids and give the audience a good sense of who they are, what they’ve gone through, and what kind of people they’ll become. When they’re together, it’s gripping material (it’s, I dare even say, of of “Stand By Me” quality, to quote another King adaptation). All of these young actors are excellent and easily watchable, and you really buy them as friends. When they’re alone, it’s unnerving—whenever each of these characters goes through something unsettling, you fear for them because they are terrified. From the opening scene, which pulls a big no-no in modern horror movies (disposing of a young child), you know this thing is powerful, terrifying, and out there. And it’s targeting these poor kids, who have enough to go through already.

Those scenes put a chill down my spine, but that’s not to say Pennywise the Clown isn’t scary. On the contrary. Portrayed by Skarsgard in a nice mixture of performance and CGI, Pennywise is not to be ignored in this film. You don’t see as much of him as you would expect from the trailer, but when he does show up, I’ll just say it’s pretty unnerving. Skarsgard doesn’t imitate Tim Curry’s popular portrayal of the character from the miniseries; instead, he makes the role his own.

I admired “It” for taking the time to carefully establish the horrors faced by the characters instead of simply making it a freak show with a demented killer clown at the center. While there is some gore and some jump-scares, this is a horror film that relies heavily on tension and psychological terror. By the time the film reached its inevitable hard-hitting horror-movie traditional climax, it’s hard not to root for the kids to succeed in both conquering their fears and beating It as harshly as possible. (You could practically call the film a “superhero movie” in how it goes about its final act.) “It” stays true to the essence of King’s scary novel (while making some notable changes and omitting certain questionable aspects from the novel), and it’s a great thrill ride as a result.

Annie Hall (1977)

23 Jun


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Let’s address the elephant in the room first: Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall” won the Best Picture Oscar instead of “Star Wars.” There’s not much I can add to that, so let’s move on.

Well…maybe there is. I’m not going to act like I can’t understand why “Annie Hall” took home the award instead of the ever-popular “Star Wars” (which is one of my favorite films, so calm down). “Annie Hall” was more than just a typical romantic comedy. Hell, it was the 1970s, when typical romantic comedies were the rarity until the 1990s, when “When Harry Met Sally” set a new standard in 1989…thus resulting in the “typical romantic comedies” I can think of, now that I think about it…

Where was I going with this? Oh yes, “Annie Hall.” It was more than just pure comedy. Sure, there are funny lines of dialogue and many unusual comedic sketches (such as a cartoon sequence, fantasy journeys through time and daydreams, and constant breaking of the fourth wall), but considering all of it as the mindset of the narrator, Alvy Singer, played by writer-director Woody Allen, the film is more than a comedy and more like a bitter exploration into his psyche. In that respect, while “Star Wars” was the most fantastic, inventive and fun movie of 1977, “Annie Hall” might have been the smartest and most insightful.

“Annie Hall” represents the pure use of comedy I admire—if done well, comedy can allow audiences to get a real feel for the characters. Comedy can set you up and draw you in, and before you know it, you’re learning more about the characters and also learning from them as well.

If it wasn’t clear from Woody Allen’s films prior to this (“Take the Money and Run,” “Bananas”), Allen is a sad, sad man. The questions he has about life lead to a non-stop pursuit of answers, he has a very low opinion on many aspects of life and existence, and it’s probably fair to say that his therapy in getting through life is by creating characters to live through and writing jokes; first for standup, then for cinema. (Allen has since made quite a few dramatic films later in life, and while jokes may not be a primary focus in them, the way he lives through his characters certainly is.) With “Annie Hall,” written and directed by Allen, the public got a pretty clear picture of Allen’s personality and how close his character of Alvy Singer is to the actual Allen.

Alvy, a comedian, has a very low opinion of himself. As the film opens, he addresses the camera with a couple jokes—one about how short and pointless life can seem and another which is attributed to Groucho Marx: “I would never want to belong to any group that would have someone like me for a member.” All uphill from here, eh?

The film is essentially Alvy’s recollection of previous relationships with women, particularly the one he had the most fondness for: Annie Hall (played by a fabulous Diane Keaton, who won an Oscar for the role). He tries to understand why he and Annie broke up a year ago, and we take this journey inside his head, figuratively speaking, experiencing memories and fantasies (all in non-linear fashion, by the way). We even see the source of his melancholy at a very young age, when he read as a child that “the universe is expanding” and often questioned his mother about the point of existence.

Alvy recalls many pleasant times with Annie, more so than with his first wife (Carol Kane), who disagreed with him about his thoughts on the JFK assassination (maybe Allen felt better when he saw Oliver Stone’s “JFK”), or his second wife (Janet Margolin), a writer who was unable to get an orgasm. Annie talked a little differently (“la-de-da, la-de-da, la-la, yeah”) and dressed a little differently (with a wardrobe that started a trend for a little while after this film’s release), but they shared many fun times with her: frantically trying to cook lobsters, making fun of men from her past, among other things. She feels a loving connection between the two of them, but when the two of them move in together, that’s when things start to get a little tense, leading to their breakup.

But it doesn’t stop there. From that point on, Alvy has bad dating experiences (and bad sex), he’s unsure of what to do with his career, and when Annie calls for him in the middle of the night, it’s to get him to kill a spider (“a spider the size of a Buick”).

Sometimes, the journey through Allen’s (er, sorry—Alvy’s) psyche takes detours. I’m not sure why they’re there, but I find them simply hilarious. For example, Alvy and Annie are standing in line at a movie theater and Alvy is very annoyed by the guy standing behind him and telling his friend about the works of Fellini and McLuhan and his opinion on them. What does Alvy do? He brings in McLuhan himself to talk down to the man, saying “You know nothing of my work!” Why is this there? I don’t know—maybe just to appease Allen’s annoyance of people who try to act smarter than they are, but it’s got nothing to with Annie, other than…she was there.

But then again, maybe this was never really about Annie after all. Maybe this was all just a way of making Alvy feel better about himself. That would also explain the scene in which he revisits his first-grade classroom (with 6-year-old Alvy there as well) and all his old classmates state what kind of adults they became. (“I’m into leather,” a girl states.) Is this a way of Alvy thinking to himself that he could’ve had a worse journey in life than ending up as a comedian? A way of making himself feel better? Could be.

“Annie Hall” is also somewhat of a love letter to living in New York City (something Allen recaptured in the arguably-better “Manhattan” two years later) as opposed to Los Angeles, where Alvy and Annie visit in the final half-hour of this hour-and-a-half film. L.A. doesn’t look very good here, and I think what Allen was trying to say was people in New York City think too much and people in L.A. think very little. Ouch. No wonder Woody Allen never attends the Oscars in Hollywood, despite his numerous wins and nominations for his screenwriting.

Basically, “Annie Hall” is all about Woody Allen. It’s his vision, his dialogue, his persona, his representation of how he feels about love and life in general. And amidst all the talk about how embittered he is about a lot of things and how unsure he is about himself (to the point where he can’t let good things be as good as they should be), there is a lesson to be learned by the end of “Annie Hall”: relationships can be painful, but they’re also worth the pain. He’s not telling us how to feel; he’s telling us how he feels. And maybe we can learn something from him in the process.