Monday, January 10, 2011

溥儀 (Pǔyí - also known as Henry)

Number One: Toy Story 3

Expectations can change your outlook on a movie; I've written about this before. I think my expectations were down when I saw Toy Story 3, but probably not too much. It really is an amazing, brilliant, and perfect third movie, and I think I would still rank it number one even if I were ready for something great.

Three things possibly lowered my expectations. The first was the trailer. To me, it made Toy Story 3 look like it should have been direct-to-video. Looking back, though, the trailers seemed purposefully vague. Perhaps they knew that it needed no real marketing. Simply its title and the word Pixar would guarantee an audience.

My second reservation was the idea that third movies can't be great (though I do know that there are exceptions). This is the new benchmark. Nobody can ever again say that third movies are always horrible. You can, however, say often.

The third is related to the second. The first two movies are so good - how can they possibly strike gold a third time? But perhaps I forgot that Pixar has done it again and again. For me, their only disappointment was Cars. I will still watch Cars 2 this summer. Why? It's Pixar. Cars, while it didn't speak to me, was still better than so many other movies.

With the first Toy Story movie, I really liked it, but didn't love it right away. The thing that sticks in my mind the most is actually a couple CGI scenes. One of them is simply when the car pulls into the gas station. On the big screen, it looked amazing. Upon watching it on a TV, I was much less impressed. It was the first time that I really "got it" when people say that special effects are so much better on the big screen. I confirmed this when the first two movies were rereleased in the theaters a year or so ago. That scene looked cool again.

I haven't seen Toy Story 2 nearly enough times. For some of you, that might be a funny thing for someone to say. How many times do you need to see a movie? With movies like these, lots. There's so much to see. I saw it in the theaters then when I first got it on DVD. I showed it in class the year I "taught" computers, but I was probably grading papers while it was on. But then I didn't see it again until the theatrical rerelease. I had forgotten how cool it was.

Spoilerish here: Toy Story 3 starts pretty darned good. And then it does something rare in movies. It gets better and better as it goes along. And I have to admit that they really sucked me in in the final, climactic scene. For a brief moment, as the toys approached the incinerator, I was actually concerned. I started to wonder if they were actually going to let the toys die. I knew it couldn't be a sad ending, so I wondered if they were going to try some kind of toy magic reincarnation type of thing where the toys live on in other versions of themselves. And yes, I know how silly that sounds. But man - they sucked me in. I was there.

And then the final ending is... perfect. There was no better place for the toys and no better way to show it. It's perhaps the most perfect movie scene since the opening of last year's Up. Pixar is just brilliant. For a while, I fought with making Toy Story my top movie. For some reason, it felt like I was giving in to "The Man" or something. It's a freakin' kids movie! It's a stupid cartoon! But, dammit, Toy Story 3 was incredible, and I've happily accepted that. I'm perhaps happier with picking this as my Number One movie than I have been in a few years.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

載湉 (Zǎitián)

Number Two: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

Here's a really simple test to see if you might just enjoy Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. I'm going to explain one of the nerdiest things about me (and there are many). If you understand it without having to explain it, you will like Scott Pilgrim. Every once in a while, like everyone else, I misplace something and need to look around for it. Or perhaps something simply falls under the couch. Or since I just moved, I'm constantly looking for things in the yet-to-be-unpacked boxes. And when I finally find that item, I hold it over my head and sing or whistle four notes rising in chromatic order. (Of course, if there are people around, it's all in my head)

In the Legend of Zelda, every time Link finds something, you hear this sound. When you play yourself some Zelda, you hear that often. And it's a GOOD thing.

In Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Scott Pilgrim lives in a video game inspired world. That sort of thing happens, but for real. The movie is filled with video game references and sound effects. The name of his band is Sex Bob-omb. Again, if you get the reference, you'll probably like the movie (it's a Super Mario thing). I loved this world and I loved the way this movie looked and sounded. I loved the story and the characters.

And if you don't like video games, it's also a comic book movie. Is there anything better than comic books? Well yes, but not a whole lot of things! I have to admit that I haven't read of the graphic novels. I want to, but I just haven't gotten there. It's a money thing - anyone have them and want to let me borrow them?

About Scott Pilgrim, Kevin Smith said, "Nobody is going to understand what the fuck just hit them." I agree. It looks unique in a beautiful way. Cool, cool movie!

Saturday, January 8, 2011

載淳 (Zǎichún)

Number Three: The Social Network

If I were picking the best movies of 2010, The Social Network would be number one. It is the best of the year, for sure. I liked my top two on a deeper level, but this movie was fantastic.

I'm not sure if it will win Best Picture, but it needs to win Best Screenplay. The best part of Aaron Sorkin's TV shows that I've seen, as well as his movies, is the dialogue. A year ago last November, I spent the Thanksgiving Break watching Sports Night. While it wasn't always the best TV show, the dialogue was always snappy.

But great dialogue can fall apart if it isn't delivered by the right people. This cast is also amazing. In my mind, Jesse Eisenberg has always been kinda like Michael Cera, but a better actor. He really delivers here, as does Justin Timberlake and Spider-Man. And then you have the amazing special effects work to create the twins. It was flawless and never noticeable, the way CGI should be.

Much like Green Zone and Casino Jack I'm surprised that this movie was made as quickly as it was. On one hand, it makes the subject matter much more accessible if the subject matter is still fresh in our heads or still around, as is the case with Facebook and Zuckerberg. But the possible negative is that we haven't had time to find out some of the details from some potential whistle-blowers somewhere down the line. Does that take away from the movie? I don't think so. And I guess they can always remake it down the line. In fact, isn't it inevitable?

Friday, January 7, 2011

奕詝 (Yìzhǔ)

Number Four: Inception

I have one regret about Inception. It has nothing to do with the film itself. I wish I hadn't known as much as I did about the movie going in. And I didn't really know too much. But I can only imagine what a great experience it would have been trying to figure out what was going on for the first fifteen minutes or so. With a movie as big as this one, would it have been possible for me to have even avoided knowing the basic idea?

I really respect Christopher Nolan for being as ambitious as he was, but also for mapping out all of the details. If you argue that some of the rules of the levels of dreams were ambiguous or arbitrary, I wouldn't argue too strongly against you. But my argument is simply that I'm glad there were rules, and within that world, they were clearly defined. Nolan did his homework. He obviously ran the ideas past people who told him which things weren't explained, and they worked toward an explanation. All it took was a couple lines of dialogue to explain a couple things. (ARE YOU LISTENING, WRITERS OF LOST? Just a couple throwaway lines of dialogue per episode would have been courteous!)

Inception at the very least proved that you can have an effects filled action movie that also has a plot. SPOILER ALERT! And the ending. I love that the ending is ambiguous. I've been to so many movies where I've said, "If the movie ends exactly here, it's perfect." But they always keep going. I love not knowing. I've read some theories and ideas online, and that's part of the fun. I also enjoy reading the people who are truly adamant that there is a correct answer, as if Nolan had run out of film at that moment and just couldn't get to show us. Inception left me thinking and it kept people talking. And it made a buttload of money.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

旻寧 (Mínníng)

Number Five: True Grit

Last year, the Coen Brothers' A Serious Man was my favorite movie. Their movie this year, True Grit, was also great.

After seeing the trailer, I thought it looked cool, but the actors seemed to be playing caricatures instead of characters. It doesn't do their work justice.This cast might be a bit too small to call it an ensemble, but they worked so well together. I saw this just a few days after Tron, and Jeff Bridges is a completely different person. Matt Damon is different from any other character he has ever played. Hailee Steinfeld was great at Mattie, the girl who is leading the hunt. I was most concerned with her from the trailer, but she ends up stealing the movie from the other actors.

You can't help but love the way True Grit looks. The locations are beautiful all the way through. I think that one of the difficulties with going back and watching Westerns is that their locations are pretty generic. I wouldn't be surprised if most of the Hollywood were filmed in the Mojave Desert. Or more likely, the same Hollywood backlot designed to look like the Mojave Desert. I wonder exactly where the Spaghetti Westerns were filmed. I don't remember seeing any deserts in Italy, and a Google search for "Italian Desert" only shows me Italian Desserts. Mmmm... gelato.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

顒琰 (Yóngyǎn)

Number Six: The Town

What's the deal with Ben Affleck? He started cool with his roles in Chasing Amy and Good Will Hunting. Then he got really lame with Armageddon and Pearl Harbor. Now he has reemerged as a cool, first with Gone, Baby, Gone (which I thought was OK) and now with The Town. His most underrated role in the past few years was in Hollywood Land. It looks like he tried to be the lead actor thing and made his money. With cash in hand, now he can pick good projects.

The Town is a really cool heist movie, (though it's never really explained why Hawkeye and Daredevil want to rob banks), but it has a lot more than that. At its core is an intersting relationship between Affleck's character, a bank robber, and his hostage. It isn't some kind of Stockholm Syndrome type of relationship. She doesn't know he was one of the bad guys. The ultimate conclusion to the movie (ambiguous here to avoid spoilers) is a bit suspect. Would she really make the choice she does in the end? To me, I find it to be a bit of a stretch, which possibly dropped this movie down a notch or two on the list. But there's enough great stuff to strongly recommend this, and I look forward to watching it again.

Another great element of the movie is the neighborhood. It takes place in the Charleston neighborhood of Boston around Bunker Hill. There are some great aerial shots of the Bunker Hill Monument - better than any images I've been able to find online. After the movie, I searched for a few overhead shots of the monument to place into my Powerpoint for discussing the Revolutionary War. I couldn't find anything nearly as good, though I didn't spend too long looking. So I know that I'll watch this again at least once before next September so that I can take some screen grabs.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

弘曆 (Hónglì)

Number Seven: The Millennium Trilogy

OK, so I'm cheating with number seven. It's actually three movies. If they had been released in different years, I would have categorized them separately. And I'm not exactly sure that any of them would make the list in any average year. But as it is, all three movies were released in the US in 2010, so I'm ranking them this way.

First, I must explain what made me the most upset with the beginning of the first movie. I didn't see it. And it wasn't my fault, either. I showed up for a 5:15 movie at 5:10. When I bought my ticket, the ticket person told me that the movie had already started. I assumed this meant the previews were showing. Nope. The movie was already moving along when I made my way into the theater. I have since gone back to find out how much I missed. Even five minutes early, I missed the first five minutes. It's tough enough following a movie that I have to read, dammit. Luckily for all of us, I'm a smart guy and was able to figure out enough of what was going on.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was first, and it's a complete movie on its own. However, many of the elements introduced are brought back in the second and completed in the third movie. The movie starts by taking some time to establish the two main characters individually before bringing them together for the main story. I really like the way the characters' relationship was able to develop from that point on.

The basic plot of the movie is a mystery/thriller that these two characters are thrust into, and it's a pretty good story at that. But combined with the other two movies, this plot turns out to be simply a backdrop that allows Blomkvist and Lisbeth to establish their relationship. And it's a complicated relationship, at that. They are sort of lovers. They are sort of friends. As the trilogy expands, he turns into more of a father figure or guardian, make their relationship in the first movie more interesting.

The Girl Who Played with Fire tells us a lot more about Lisbeth's background. As we can easily tell from the first movie, she probably had a messed up childhood. This one confirms it as we start to meet her family. Blomkvist's part of the story starts and investigation that will lead into Lisbeth's family and give us more background for the third movie.

The second movie has a much faster pace than the other two movies. Looking back, it's more of a bridge between the two movies that a movie all to itself, as a lot of it looks back and forward to those. The faster pace, with a bit more action, makes it a better movie.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest is mostly Blomkvist's story. Because of story elements from the second movie (attempted spoiler avoider there), Lisbeth takes a back seat for much of this movie. I found that to be rather bold since the movies are named after her character, though she does appear enough.

While each film is watchable and quite enjoyable on its own, the trilogy becomes a complete story. I didn't enjoy the first movie as much as I did after seeing all three, and that's a pretty strong feat for the filmmakers. To me, it's about these two characters and watching them grow through the movies. As I mentioned before, the second and third movie really brings back some of the storylines from the first movie that seemed like character development moments.

I definitely have a strong interest in reading the books. At the moment I have a pretty sizable stack of books that I want to get through, so I'm putting it off for the time being,as well as waiting for the third to come out of paperback. There is enough interesting action and character moments in the movies that I'm sure the books will be fun, and I'm curious to see what else I can get out of them.

I'm also hesitantly looking forward to the American versions of these movies. American remakes of foreign films can be hit or miss. My worry is that it's possible that it's being rushed, since the first one is supposed to come out at the end of this year. Also, I really enjoyed the two lead actors, and Noomi Rapace and Michael Nyqvist. The first movie is Rapace's showcase, and Nyqvist brings the third movie to a higher level. Daniel Craig? We'll see.

However, David Fincher is directing. With the exception of Benjamin Button (which I hated), he has a really solid résumé. In fact, his latest movie will show up on this list in a few days.

Once again, I'm not sure that individually, none of the three movies would have made the list, but together they are solid. So what about the American release? It's going to need to be really good to make it if only one is coming out this year. Forget the Oscars, Fincher. Your true goal is to make it onto my list.

Monday, January 3, 2011

胤禛 (Yìnzhēn)

Number Eight: Hot Tub Time Machine

On one hand, I have a feeling that I'm adding Hot Tub Time Machine to the top ten list because it was a week year for comedies. Dinner with Schmucks, The Other Guys, and Get Him to the Greek were OK, but not memorable. The only other comedy released that I had any interest in was Due Date, but word of mouth wasn't good enough for me to try it out. So it's possible that I found a funny void in my top ten and threw this movie in there.

On the other hand it IS a damn funny movie. At the very least, it's a great parody of a lot of crappy comedies from the eighties. At best it's a great raunch comedy. Rob Corddry delivers some of the best lines. "It's like Gary Coleman's fucking forearm!" It has great rewatchability, but not if it's replayed on Comedy Central. They'll cut it to shred.

And then there's the title. It's in the same "So horrible it's great" category with Snakes on a Plane. The difference is that Hot Tub Time Machine actually has a good movie to go along with its title.

One last thing. How can you not enjoy a movie that seeks to create a better past by ending the legend of John Elway? Unless you're a Donkeys fan, of course.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

玄燁 (Xuányè)

Number Nine: How to Train Your Dragon

How to Train Your Dragon wins the award for worst marketing of the year. We're living in a time when a lot of animated movies are coming out, and a good handful of them are actually pretty good. If it's Pixar, you know to see it. But how do you drudge through the rest of them? On some ways, you can say the same thing about all movies. But some animated movie makers have finally figured out that animated movies can be good, while others still know that it doesn't have to be good - kids will still want to see it.

The same was true of another really good animated movie from a couple years ago,Kung Fu Panda. If I hadn't happened to have seen some good reviews of that, I never would have seen it. With Dragon, I only looked at reviews because of At the Movies. While people are saying that type of show is needless in modern times because of Rotten Tomatoes and other internet sources, I disagree. It's a shame that it's gone. And not because I agreed with the hosts. In fact, I found myself disagreeing with AO Scott and Michael Phillips quite a bit. But at least it was a weekly roundup of ideas instead of just seeing a number on Rotten Tomatoes.

The trailer made it look generic, but How to Train Your Dragon is much better than that. It ended up having a pretty good main character who goes through a good story arc. It has some great scenes, and the animation is beautiful. Then again, perhaps I will still in a Scandinavia hangover when I saw it and was really into the Viking stuff. Doesn't matter. It was cool.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

福臨 (Fúlín)

Number Ten: The King's Speech

For me, The King's Speech is all about the interactions between Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush. These two actors have done some great work on their own, in The Single Man and Shine. But the way they play off of each other becomes a master class in acting. They have taken these historical figures and turned them into legitimate movie characters.

I also enjoyed the history from this movie. After doing some research, it looks like they played with the time line a bit for dramatic effect. I'm OK with that, as it's not a documentary. They stuck with the important ideas. But the big test for me is that I actually DID some research after watching the movie. It got me interested enough to check it out.

While I have a decent idea of the basics of World War II, I don't really know the details. This movie shows some of the activities that I didn't know anything about. I have an even looser understanding of basic British history, though I find it to be quite interesting. Ever since I visited London in 2005, I've been interested in the history of the monarchy. But beyond King George III's involvement in the American Revolution, I don't have nearly the same foundation. So far, The King's Speech has gotten me on the right path to learn more.