Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Charles Lee

Number 3 - Guardians of the Galaxy

This was on my radar since they first announced it a Comic-Con in 2012. The main reason? Rocket Raccoon. I remember the character from his four-issue mini series very soon after I started reading comics. What could make more of an impression on an eleven year old than a bad-ass, gun-toting raccoon?

As Lancey Kisses has mentioned, and it's in his blog post about Guardians of the Galaxy, a lot of how the general public would perceive the whole movie rested on Rocket. He couldn't be silly. He couldn't be Howard the Duck or Jar Jar Binks. He's funny, but as a smart-ass instead of a clown.

I knew about Rocket, but I wasn't as familiar with the other characters. My personal trepidation was with Bautista as Drax. When I think wrestler in a comic book movie, the Bane of Batman and Robin immediately comes to mind. That's not an image anyone should have in their minds. But as it turns out, he's perfect, and he delivers some of the best lines of the movie.

In addition to introducing the characters of the Guardians, they need to introduce the entire universe that exists outside of the other Marvel movies. There are plenty of cool new worlds and characters out there who could easily become part of the Avengers movies or would work well on their own. There are also plenty of other Guardians to look forward to in the sequels. I think Vance Astro/Major Victory would look pretty spectacular on the screen and also create the perfect visual tie-in to the Avengers.

But after all of that, the movie won me over in the first five minutes. I'm listening to Redbone's Come and Get Your Love as I write this paragraph. The opening scene will always be zapped into my head when I hear that song. Chris Pratt is pretty damned good throughout the movie, but his dancing to this song is a magic moment in the movie. He spins, he stomps, he plays in puddles, he uses an alien as a microphone, and it's all a brilliant introduction to a character that I look forward to seeing in the sequels and probably another movie or two.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Levi Lincoln, Sr.

Number 4 - The Imitation Game

The poster to the left features a quote at the top that summarizes it for me. "Benedict Cumberbatch is outstanding." Yeah. He is. And he's different from so many other roles he's played. This isn't Sherlock Holmes with a stutter. This isn't nice Khan. This isn't Smaug as a gay genius. Cumberbatch becomes Alan Turing in this movie.

There were some pretty amazing performances this year, and I look forward to the Best Actor noms coming out later this week. Even through Steve Carell, Jake Gyllenhaal, Eddie Redmayne, and David Oyelowo were all amazing (and those should be your five nominations), I think this is the better movie.

If I have one complaint about The Imitation Game for me it's that I would have liked to have seen more of the Enigma cracking. I wanted a crack at the puzzle. Most of that work is done on unseen papers and other gadgets. But I might be too nerdy for the general audiences.

There are a lot of war movies, obviously. But I don't think there have been quite enough war movies that don't really feature much of the fighting. This movie does have some great scenes showing the Blitz, but those are more plot points. While a lot of these movies feature some really brave and memorable men and women and special effects fighting, this movie shows who really won the war.

But just like modern day vets, Turing wasn't treated like much of a hero. That leads to the heart wrenching ending of the movie. This guy who helped win World War II and pretty much invented the computer got a pretty crappy deal. There have been several attempts over the past few years to place Turing in his rightful place in history, especially now that we know about his success in breaking Enigma. I think The Imitation Game is another huge step in putting his name up where it should be in the world's lexicon.

John Breckinridge

Number 5 - Life Itself

There's something a bit meta about writing about a movie about a guy who wrote about movies. Life Itself received a really high Rotten Tomatoes score. It's sitting at 97%, with 100% of the top critics giving it a fresh rating. I had to wonder before seeing it if the reviews were an homage to the movie or to Roger Ebert himself. It's both.

I learned quite a bit about the life of Roger Evert from Life Itself that I didn't know previously. It does a fine job of laying it all out, the good and the bad, and from an early age, too.

It's the scenes from then end of his life that will fascinate the most, however. Ebert and his wife were extremely open and candid toward the filmmakers as he sat in the hospital with a big part of his face missing, to be blunt. And the movie doesn't hold back from it either. So often we try to hide away the end of people's lives. We want to remember them a certain way, and the time soon before death in a well lived life isn't the image we want to remember. But it's such an important part of him and what we'll take from his life.

Perhaps its because he continued to write up until the end. Even if he didn't look like "The Fat One" from At the Movies anymore, his wit was still there. In many years that I wrote this list, I would read Ebert's reviews before writing about it myself. If I didn't like a movie that he did, I knew I would at least understand it better. I don't get that with any critics today.

And, for those who don't know, he wrote about quite a bit more than movies in his blog. He's the writer, not NdGT or BNtheSG, who gave me a clearer understanding of evolution. I miss his writing quite a bit, and this movie helped me to miss him as well.

As great as the rest of the movie is, the star scenes in this movie have to be the classic Siskel and Ebert clips. Life Itself discusses their love/hate relationship as it shows some of their absolute best, and often cut, clips. Watch this for those alone.

Caesar A. Rodney

Number 6 - Begin Again

I'm forced to compare this movie in every way to Once.

If you've seen Once, you've seen this movie. Actually, you've seen a slightly better version of Begin Again. This time, the struggling musician trying to create her first album is, as the word her implied, a woman played by Kiera Knightley. And as the gender roles are reversed, she is aided by Mark Ruffalo, in this case a record label exec.

The characters aren't quite as charming. The music isn't quite as fresh. The relationship between the leads isn't quite as dynamic. Though the writer and director, John Carney, is the same for both movies, he doesn't hit the same grand slam that he hit with Once.

But it doesn't have to be. I still like the characters. I really love the way the opening scene is shown from both points of view. It's a fresh take on an introduction. And the music, even though a lot of it has a bit of a generic pop feel to it, starts to grow on you.

I've listened to the soundtrack several times since seeing this back in July. I must compare it with Once once again, as that soundtrack is a permanent part of any playlist I make. But still, a few of the songs have really grown on me. The main song, Lost Stars, I really like. I prefer the Kiera Knightley version to the Adam Levine version, but I like them both. Tell Me If You Wanna Go Home is a bit poppy, but it really worked in the context of the movie.

Yeah, it isn't Once. It isn't a grand slam. But it's a solid standup triple with the bases loaded. I liked it quite a bit.  You can listen to the soundtrack on the youtube clip below.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

William Pinkney

Number 7 - Captain America: The Winter Soldier

As far as the comic book movie genre is concerned, this is the movie that will be seen as the turning point. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is more of a spy thriller than a super hero movie. For quite a bit of it, you could replace Cap with, say, James Bond or Jack Ryan. Plenty of the stunts are unique to Cap, and the overall plot is from the comics and other movies, so it wouldn't be. But one who exclusively likes spy thrillers would also enjoy it. And it was successful.

I guess within the Marvel movie universe, the Thor movies could be seen as movies about Norse mythology. The Hulk films could be seen as monster movies. But those descriptions are stretches. This movie is a  spy thriller first, comic book second.

That, I think, allowed for the success of Guardians of the Galaxy, which is much more of a sci-fi than a superhero movie. This gives me great hope that many of the upcoming announced Marvel movies, such as Dr. Strange and Black Panther, can be of another genre than just super hero movies.

One point I make when writing this blog is that I have to see the movies in the theater. Even though I have a big enough TV, nice enough sound, and a comfortable enough place to sit at home, there's no substitute for watching a movie in the theaters. I was reminded of this a couple days ago when I read a movie review from a fairly minor newspaper. This person rated the movies on a scale of 1-5, with 5 being "Must watch in the big screen." And most of his reviews which received five stars seemed to focus on movies that technologically should be seen on a big screen, such as Gravity.

But that takes away such a key part of watching a movie in the theater. The audience. This is something that's pretty obvious for a comedy. A better crowd laughing in all the right places makes the experience that much better. But it also works in other ways. For example, the really annoying ladies in the audience of Big Eyes, who actually booed and hissed (literally - they hissed) at the screen at points, made me dislike the movie even more.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier, has a point in which there's a major reveal. The trailers and the media I saw did a pretty good job of avoiding this spoiler, so I don't think anyone who hadn't read the comic books would have seen it coming. That's also why I'm dancing around it now, just in case you haven't seen it. In the theater where I saw it, at the moment of the reveal, there were several audible GASPS from the audience. I like being in the middle of that. It really adds to the movie going experience. I'm going to talk a little more about that with my number one movie, I think.

Richard Rush

Number 8 - The Grand Budapest Hotel

Wes Anderson has created an unmistakable style to his films. I remember first seeing the trailer for The Grand Budapest Hotel. It was obvious within the first few seconds that this was his next movie. You both see it on the screen and feel it in the way the actors speak.

There are quite a few things to admire about this movie, but I think I most appreciate the story within the story... within the story. You have three levels of story going on, but it doesn't feel like a forced storytelling technique. It just feels like... Wes Anderson.

Some of Anderson's earlier movies are too quirky. With his last couple movies, he's hit just the right level of quirkiness. While I appreciated movies like The Darjeeling Limited, I didn't enjoy them as much as I've liked The Grand Budapest Hotel and Moonrise Kingdom. I think he's also opened the door for plenty of new viewers.

This was released in March. I saw it in April. It's January, and even though it's out on home video, it's still showing in a local theater. I think that certainly speaks to this movie.

Monday, January 5, 2015

William Wirt

Number 9 - Wild

I might be have Wild as high as it is due to low expectations. The trailer and name gave me the idea that this was the female version of Into the Wild. In addition, Reese Witherspoon has never been impressive as an actor. She was good in Walk the Line, but that's still a relatively light role. I was wrong on both accounts.

The similarities between Wild and Into the Wild end at the basic idea of leaving civilization. A big part of this movie is exploring Cheryl Strayed's reason for walking the trail. She comes to the trail from a really dark place, and Witherspoon is really great in showing that side. This is absolutely her best work.

A danger in a movie like this is that there will be too many big nature shots or shots of Witherspoon just walking. I remember when the Lord of the Rings movies were announced and in finding out that they were three hours long. I pictured two and a half hours of just walking. I think the makers of Wild did a nice job of avoiding that in a couple ways. The first is in using the flashbacks to tell her story. Whenever she just walks, we go with her mind to visit her past.

The second is in the use of the soundtrack. Strayed just walked the Pacific Crest Trail without headphones. She didn't have music in her ears. But she was always hearing music. We know this because she hums a few different songs. When the movies starts, the songs are barely recognizable. They start to come together as the movie progresses until you hear the songs played. There was some satisfaction is "guessing" what those tunes were. But their coming into focus goes right along with the clarity in her head.

If you've read A Walk in the Woods, you have a great companion for Wild. And if you haven't read it, check it out. The two walkers go for completely different reasons, walk different trails, have different experiences, and reach different conclusions. But I still flashed back to that book while watching Wild. Both kind of make you want to leave it all behind and just start walking. OK, not enough for me to actually do it...

John M. Berrien

Number 10 - Interstellar

I geeked out at the beginning of Interstellar in a way that most normal people probably wouldn't. It basically starts with these seemingly odd clips of people talking about all the dust and dirt. I immediately recognized the person giving the comment. No, this isn't some famous person that people would recognize walking around the streets. I probably wouldn't, either. But I know those clips and people from The Dust Bowl by Ken Burns really well.

Having just finished another Winter Break, I look back on the past two weeks and think about what I accomplished. Eh, not a whole lot. What could I have done? What could I have created? How could I have helped the world? All right, so maybe I don't feel quite that way, but there's still that idea of lost time.

That's a huge part of Interstellar. One of the scenes involves a huge loss of time. It isn't for the characters themselves. It's even worse. It's the world around them. As they play with time travel, time travels past these characters faster than they experience in. MUCH faster. And that's a weird concept to me that just crushes the inside of my skull when I think about it. I only partially mean wrapping my head around the whole theory of relativity. It's the emotional sweeping away of time that can never be returned.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

2014 Movies - Runners Up!

These received the Top Ten mark when I saw them, but it was a good year for movies. I wish that "ten" had fourteen numbers in it.

Number 14 - The Lego Movie

Everything is Awesome about this movie. There are two different layers of the Lego Movie that make it work. The first is the overall plot idea involving the "real" Lego bricks. In case you haven't seen it, I won't give away too much. If someone wanted to make a cool short movie about playing with Lego bricks, that would have worked. It would have been sweet.

Someone was smart. They realized that it wouldn't have worked as a full length film. In addition, it could have been about so many other kinds of toy, including  the Tinker Toy Movie or just the Toy Model Movie.

So then you get all of the fun with the Lego toys themselves. How about they throw in Batman and the rest of the JLA? What about Star Wars figures? In reality, Disney COULD make an Avengers/Star Wars movie. But remember that the JLA/Star Wars movie came out first. Or in reality, a JLA/Star Wars/Shaquille O'Neil movie.

The voice work is great. Chris Pratt, will return to this list, gives a non-generic, fun voice to the lead Lego. I have my fingers crossed that he's be on the 2015 list with Jurassic Parks and Rec. Will Arnett is one of the best on screen Batmans. You have Morgan Freeman, Nick Offerman, Liam Neeson, Channing Tatum, and Johah Hill. And if Lando Calrissian isn't in the upcoming Star Wars movies, at least Billy Dee Williams got to play him again.

And one more thing is the great social commentary that comes from the Everything is Awesome song about conformity vs. individuality. But that's too deep. Lego!

Number 13 - Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

These movies have no right to be as good as they are. The Charlton Heston movie is fun but cheesy. The Marky Mark version removed the cheese but took the fun with it.  These two movies have nailed it.

A big reason has to be the level of expertise that creators have hit with CGI. We're able to make Caesar the focus of the movie. He's the hero. He's the one we want to sympathize with. That never would have worked with a latex mask.

That gets expanded in Dawn. We also have a legitimate villain, Koba. We see the badguyness in his eyes. He's the one we want to root against.

Yes, there are human good guys and bad guys in here. But we're almost at the point that they aren't as necessary to the story. The third movie has been announced for 2016. I hope to see the apes continue to push even more humans off of the screen. I want them to develop even more interesting ape characters.

Number 12 - Gone Girl

There are plenty of moments where Gone Girl teeters on the ridiculous. It may even go over a few times, but the actors are really, really good.

Ben Affleck carries this movie in what isn't an easy role. If there weren't so many other great performances this year, I would whisper Oscar nom.He's got the chops. Can he out Batman Will Arnett? Maybe.

Here's the other newsflash. David Fincher is good. Damn good. Remove that ridiculous crapfest Benjamin Buttons from his IMDB page and you have a really special career. I keep hoping they'll bring him back for another Girl Who movie.

And hey - Rosamund Pike and Neil Patrick Harris are also pretty good, though a lot of their stuff is the stuff that gets close to ridiculous.

So has anyone out there read the book? Is it worth reading?

Number 11 - X-Men: Days of Future Past

Comic book movies. Here's your warning: there will be more in the top ten.

These movies started moving in the right direction with First Class. Days of Future Past brings one of the most classic comic book stories to the screen, and keeps moving the right way. Just like heading to the 60s was a great movie in Class, the 70s hit the spot in Past.

A little comic book lesson for y'all. Back in the day when Stan Lee was writing a comic, each story was usually self contained in a single comic. There were usually bigger storylines that continued through the books, but you didn't need it to understand that single comic. This story, though, took TWO full issues to tell. Yeah. That's how important it was. (No, it wasn't super rare. The first Galactus story from the Fantastic Four was three issues, and the Kree-Skrull War from The Avengers was nine issues).

I mention this because many movies are made from books which are several hundred pages long. This story was 43 pages long, and a lot of that is art. So yeah, they need to add stuff. They need to change things. Personally, I would have been OK with Kitty Pride keeping the starring role instead of Woverine. It would have been a bigger risk for the movie, but the studios never would have approved.

I'm very curious about the next planned movie, Apocalypse. In the comic books, that's when the X-Men started getting too many different books and too many different characters. It became more and more confusing to understand what was going on. It actually got even worse for the next 20 years, with a few exceptions. So I don't know the story nearly as well.

On a brief tangent, as I've started rereading Marvel books over the past six months, X-Men comics and Avengers comics have flipped around. I'm really enjoying the different X-Men books while the Avengers books are getting more and more convoluted. Every story is a time travel story with way too many characters. Comic book lesson continued, today comic book stories take five or six issues to tell. It's rare to get a single issue story. This is so they can sell trade paperbacks with those stories bound together. The Avengers books are trying to create stories that are way too big with consequences that are way too big, and I think its to justify the story being five or six issues long. Except these stories are continuing until ten, twenty issues. And they aren't good. When the Marvel movies get to these Avengers stories, that's when the movies will decline.

People are taking about the direction Sony is taking with Spider-Man, and mostly want them to give him back to Marvel. The upcoming Fantastic Four movie looks like a disaster. I hope it's some elaborate troll and the movies are actually nothing like what has been described. So people want the FF to revert back to  Marvel.

But the current direction of the X-Men movies? I dig it. Yeah, I want Fox and Disney to play nice so that characters can cross over. Marvel and DC have worked together in the past, sometimes with really cool results. I hope these studios can move past ego and instead view the huge bags of money that we are offering them to get along. I have hope that money might actually start to influence a few people in Hollywood.

NEXT: Number TEN!

Thursday, January 1, 2015

2014 Movies - A Bunch of Good Movies!

I really enjoyed these movies, but I didn't mark them down as a top ten film when I watched them. In a different year, many of them could have made it.

I watched Philomena and Captain Phillips after they were nominated for Best Picture. I briefly wrote about both here, and I don't have too much to add other than both are still in my memory after a year. I think they both hold up well, and I still recommend watching either one. The Philomena case is still an interesting one that people should be aware of. The action scenes from the end of Captain Phillips were quite intense.

Muppets Most Wanted was a surprise for me. I didn't expect to like it very much, and if it had been released later in the year I probably wouldn't have seen it. Much like the previous Muppets movie, it comes down to the music. I like it. This is the opening song from the movie, "We're Making a Sequel." Take a quick listen. The opening of the song sound like typical Muppets fare. In that clip, it starts at 13 seconds. But then at 40 seconds, when you reach the chorus, it feels like Flight of the Conchords.I loved that mesh from the first movie, and it works again here. That particular song has a good line from Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, who points out that this is actually the seventh sequel.

I also enjoyed "I'll Get You What You Want", which is pure Flight of the Conchords (Bret McKenzie even sings it). None of the songs are as catchy as "Life's a Happy Song," but it's all fun.

22 Jump Street was another great surprise. People talk about sequels being bad. Some movies even open with a song describing just that. But the real culprit in the bad sequel department is comedies. They don't often measure up to the original. I wrote this about 21 Jump Street: "21 Jump Street was funny enough. I don't think I ever saw the TV show. I considered putting this on the overrated list, because some fools have gone a little too apeshit for this. But I liked it enough to leave it off of there." The sequel is better than the original. It's does some of the stuff from the first movie, but funnier. The new stuff is funnier. The pre-closing credits sequel based montage is funny. If I'm ever in the conversation about Best Comedy Sequel, I'll have no hesitation throwing 22 Jump Street into the mix. It deserves it.

Boyhood was a good movie. It was an interesting experiment that mostly worked. I hope that it gives other writers and producers ideas for future movies. That should be its legacy.

I feel like its going to be an Oscar favorite. I won't be actively rooting against it, but I don't feel like it really deserves it for Best Picture (for Patricia Arquette or Ethan Hawke? Yes.). It's too long. Not too much of interest really happens. And the kid doesn't grow up to be the greatest actor.

I certainly didn't dislike Boyhood. I liked it quite a bit. But there are plenty of others singing its praises out there. It's good, but not amazing.

St. Vincent is another movie that's bring blown up a bit too high. I think there are a lot of people who went to see this thinking that they're witnessing the brilliance of tiny, independent movies. Eh... not really.

But I enjoyed it. Bill Murray is great. Of course. When isn't he? And this role was made for him. Look at the poster to the right. There's nothing that feels out of place for Murray, and that pretty much shows you his character.

The relationship between Vincent and the kid is pretty good, even if the ending is a bit hokey.

Big Hero 6 did a few good things with its marketing. They let you know the feel and mode of the movie without giving away much of what happens. It wasn't like the bait and switch from Frozen last year (though I approved!) because you still knew what kind of movie you were getting into.

I haven't read any of the comics this is based on, but apparently not too many other people have either. I understand that the changes were significant so that this has become its own entity. I wonder if they can still try to make the rest of the MCU fit into any possible sequels. Can an animated Iron Man show up for Big Hero 6 2?  Big Hero 7? I don't see why not.

And oh yeah - it's a lot of fun!

Speaking of movies that totally change a character from the comics, Nightcrawler was also very good. This movie is all Jake Gyllenhaal. He's creepy, and his weight loss for the film exaggerates that even more. His eyes are practically popping out of his face, something that would be necessary to have his night vision.

This movie really takes some chances. It goes places that you don't want it to go with a character you don't really want to go with. Its biggest strength is just that. You don't root for this guy. You don't want to be with this guy. But you stick with him to see exactly what he's going to do next, a lot like watching that grisly news story that guys like him captured for you. Bamf!

Finally, The Theory of Everthing showcases a performance that should win Eddie Redmayne an Oscar nomination, and very possibly the win. He redeemed himself from his Muppet-like Les Mis singing a few years back. And for that reason, I enjoyed watching this movie.

But much like a couple movies above, I feel like people have been over-singing the praises of this movie. First of all, something seemed off with me near the beginning of the movie that pulled me out of the film. Seeing that it was a biopic, I was confused. Did they change the story?

You see, Stephen and Jane meet at a party. He enters and they see each other across the room. They start talking, and things progress from there. Not such a big deal at first, but you also have to remember this. Hawking was a nerd. A huge nerd. And he acted like it in social situations. Jane was a cute girl. Now rethink the scene with those ideas. That just doesn't happen for huge nerds. There HAD to be something more to the story. When I got home, I investigated to discover that they had actually been introduced because she was a friend of his sister. Ah - that makes sense. And that paragraph may also explain why I personally felt like it wouldn't happen that way.

My second issue with the movie was that it was good. But it never wanted to be great. Here is a review that states what I was feeling in such a better way. I pretty much agree with every word Lemire writes, though I think I liked it better than she.

Again, remember that I included The Theory of Everything on this list instead of my disappointed list. It's good and well worth watching. Redmayne's performance was almost good enough to land it on my top list. And if you went to see some crappy movie like Ouiji or Saving Christmas instead of this movie, you're worse than Hitler.

Next: The top 14 begins!