Top Movies of 2015

So my goal for 2015, seeing as I graduated college and had no immediate job prospects, was to watch basically every movie of note that was released in the calendar year. While I did end up breaking my own personal record for new movies watched in a year, I ended up lucking into a job in August that took away most of my free time during the part of the year where most of the more interesting films are usually released. The result being that this year’s list is both shorter, and features fewer great movies than previous year end lists. I missed several acclaimed films released at the end of the year that had a strong chance at making this list, and from August on didn’t watch as many smaller films as I generally do. So, apologies for not having quite the best list this year, but for now, here are the 16 movies that stuck with me the most from 2015.

16. Phoenix

phoenix

I didn’t think too highly of Phoenix when I first watched it a couple of months ago. I didn’t dislike it by any means, but it kind of blended into all the other movies I was watching at the time. In the months since it has grown on me significantly and I’m very interested in watching it again. The film’s plot bears an interesting resemblance to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo in its depiction of obsession with the past.

15. White God

White God

Perhaps the most original film I saw last year, White God tells, for lack of a better term, the story of a dog rebellion. It sounds silly and preposterous, but White God plays it completely straight and the result is a unique, one of a kind experience, as the trailer (somewhat clumsily) shows https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kIGz2kyo26U.

The way that the filmmakers are able to effectively realize their vision for this film, despite the obvious practical difficulties of directing up to a hundred dogs at a time, and still create a truly impressive film is one of the most praiseworthy achievements of last year in terms of movies.

14. Wild Tales

wILD tALES 3

Don’t worry all you subtitle averse people out there, this is my last Foreign film in this article. A brilliant, hilarious, movie from Argentina, Wild Tales is an anthology film, telling 6 short stories about the effects of revenge (among other themes), all of which are great in their own way. Full of black humor and colorful characters, Wild Tales was one of the most fun discoveries of 2015 for me.

13. Creed

Creed

More and more often, studio blockbusters these days lack two necessary ingredients for successful filmmaking: a strong director allowed to do what he wants to do, and a sense of telling its own story and nothing else. Creed succeeds magnificently at both. Not only does it feature some of the most virtuosic filmmaking of any Hollywood film this year, but it tells a truly effective story at the same time. Michael B Jordan gives one of the best performances of the year, and Ryan Coogler establishes himself as one of the more intriguing new directors to emerge recently. While I think Stallone’s possible Oscar win is a travesty, Creed on the whole is a winning example of popular filmmaking done right.

12. It Follows

It Follows

It Follows has one of the most inventive concepts for a horror film I’ve ever seen, and is handled capably enough to become one of the best films of the year. While I think it doesn’t play as well on multiple views (although it by no means becomes bad), It Follows is among the best made of recent horror films. The music and performances in particular are top notch in relation to the generic, cheap examples of the Horror film that generally receive wide releases.

11.The 100 Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared

100 year old man

Just kidding, here’s one more foreign film that I watched literally this morning on the recommendation of Cineblather “editor” James. A hilarious, absurd Swedish film reminiscent of Forrest Gump, The 100 Year Old Man is a story of the namesake old man as he escapes his retirement home, and immediately fumbles into the possession of millions of dollars, leading to much hijinks and mayhem. At the same time, the old man narrates his life up to that point, covering many key moments in world history that he has also stumbled into. It’s a delightful, oddball film that I very much enjoyed.

10. Ex Machina

ExMachina

While I’m not completely sure Ex Machina is as smart as it, and many others, believe it to be, it’s a very inventive, extremely immersive science fiction film that features 3 of the best performances of the year. Alicia Vikander in particular might be my favorite supporting performance of the year. Oscar Isaac and Domnhall Gleeson occupy most of the screentime and, as 2 of my favorite actors, also turn in admirable work. I think the most impressive aspect of Ex Machina is its production design, and the makeup/effects used to make Vikander’s Eva character look so real, supposedly done without the use of CGI.

9. Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs

While most of the talk of Oscar snubs this year centered on Creed or Straight Outta Compton (in Creed’s case for legitimate reasons, for Compton more for political reasons IMO), Steve Jobs certainly deserved more than its 2 acting nominations. While screenwriter Aaron Sorkin is someone people either love or hate, his prowess at writing fast paced, hard hitting dialogue is 2nd to none. Aided by strong directing from Danny Boyle and a great central performance from Michael Fassbender, Steve Jobs is arguably the most entertaining of this year’s “prestige” films.

8. Carol

Carol

Carol is arguably the most critically beloved film of the year, and for good reason. While I didn’t personally respond to it in the same rapturous way as did many others, I still highly value and respect its exquisite craftsmanship. Todd Haynes, a director I’ve never quite understood the praise for, directs the crap out of this movie, and the performances from Blanchett and Mara in the lead roles are as good as any from 2015. In terms of pure filmmaking prowess, Carol is as good as anything from last year, but again, I personally found it a little too distant to rank it higher than this.

7. Blackhat

Blackhat 3

Michael Mann is one of the truly great modern directors, blending a hugely stylish directorial personality with one of the most cerebral and interesting minds in moviemaking, Blackhat is his latest triumph. Unfairly maligned for its opaque narrative and at times, almost avant garde in its depiction of the networks and grids that run the modern world, Blackhat is, in my opinion, the best thriller of 2015.

6. The Revenant

The Revenant

The likely Best Picture winner this year, The Revenant is a film I’m surprisingly mixed on despite ranking it this high. I’m in awe of the technical abilities on display from director Alejandro Innarritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (one of my favorite artists in the industry), but I’m split on its narrative virtues and I’m not nearly as high on DiCaprio’s likely Oscar winning performance as most. Predictably, if you know me well, I much prefer Tom Hardy’s deranged supporting performance and Domnhall Gleeson’s overmatched captain in terms of acting highlights for this film. That being said, The Revenant is one of the most immersive movie experiences of 2015, and as realistic a depiction of frontier life as I’ve ever seen in a film.

5. Magic Mike XXL

Magic Mike XXL

I’ve tried to hide the fact that this was one of my favorite films of the year for awhile now, but I can’t hold it back anymore. This was one of my favorite films of 2015! No film from last year better conveyed the pure joy of creation, and friendship than did this odd little film about a group of male stripper’s last performance. Seriously, this movie made me care about its characters more than any other film of last year. I will fight people over this movie (not physically of course, I’m not Channing Tatum).

4. Spotlight

Spotlight

The other Best Picture frontrunner this year along with The Revenant, the two films are almost polar opposite films stylistically. Where The Revenant is an almost awe inspiring display of virtuoso cinematography, Spotlight takes place almost entirely in cramped newsrooms. Whereas The Revenant has very few dialogue heavy scenes, Spotlight is almost entirely made with conversations, arguments, and interviews. What Spotlight does better than The Revenant, in my opinion, is keep its stylistic elements in better service to its story and characters, and also has a more interesting thematic approach.

Spotlight might be the best written film of the year(my vote is for Inside Out), as well as the best acted. If, on Oscar nomination morning, the Best Supporting Actor category had been entirely actors from this film, I wouldn’t have been too upset. Liev Schreiber and Mark Ruffalo are the highlight in my opinion, but Michael Keaton, Stanley Tucci, Billy Crudup, and Rachel McAdams are all exceptional as well.

3. Bridge of Spies

Bridge of Spies

If The Revenant is a cinematographer masterclass, and Spotlight is a writing and acting showcase, Bridge of Spies has to be considered the directorial equivalent. Steven Spielberg, as good as ever in his 29th film, draws every bit of tension and intrigue out of a story that could have been an otherwise run of the mill thriller. Bridge of Spies shows off so much of Spielberg’s underrated versatility. Just in the opening scenes, he masterfully pulls off a 10 minute, mostly dialogue free chase across New York, and then in the next scene makes a conversation about insurance fascinating. I’ve long maintained that Spielberg is not only among the best ever action directors, but one of the best at shooting conversations between 2 people. That later skill is on full display in Bridge of Spies, which I wish was up for many more awards than it is. Tom Hanks, in particular, turns in one of my very favorites performances of 2015.

2. Inside Out

Inside Out

While Bridge of Spies, Carol, Spotlight, and The Revenant are almost unparalleled technical displays of filmmaking craftsmanship, Inside Out is every bit as accomplished, and has the added benefit of having, in my opinion, the best screenplay of the year. When it comes to Oscar snubs this year, nothing was worse than Inside Out not being featured in the Best Director lineup. It’s the only one of the 80ish movies from 2015 that made me shed a tear.

  1. Mad Max: Fury Road

Mad Max- Fury Road

It’s weird that my top 2 choices for best film of 2015 were both major blockbusters, considering I get less and less enthralled with popular entertainment as I get older and more misanthropic, but for my money, no film released last year was so much better than its genre contemporaries than this was. We see movies like Bridge of Spies, and Spotlight every year pretty much; great dramas are made far more often than great action films, and something like Fury Road comes around much less often. Of my favorites images of 2015, at least 3 or 4 of them come in Fury Road. From the flamethrower guitar to the henchman on pikes, this movie has more memorable images than any other film from 2015. It’s not all eye candy though, Fury Road has an incredibly understated screenplay that keeps the narrative simple, but kinetic, perfectly balancing the action with stops for the audience to catch up. The acting is as good as can be expected in this type of movie, and Junkie XXL’s deliriously over the top score is just the icing on the cake. I’ve seen this movie 4 times and its shown no hint of slowing down.

Greatest Living English Language Directors

To get out of my writing funk, brought on a job that leaves me with much less free time, I’ve decided to assemble a breezy, easy to write, faux clickbait post. In this case, I’ve chosen a subject that always interests me, movie directors. The single most important person in a uniquely collaborative art form, a good director is in many ways a glorified manager with artistic sensibilities. They are simultaneously politicians, businessmen, and artist,  and I’ve always considered the study of film irrevocably intertwined with the study of film directors. While good directors often make bad films (a movie is, after all, influenced by hundreds of people), I think a great director will generally elevate the quality of a film.He (or she) should be able to make an other wise poor film mediocre, an otherwise mediocre film good, and an otherwise good film great. More than any other single figure, the director is the driving force behind a movie’s quality.

This list is obviously highly subjective and, like all rankings of artistic oeuvres, also depends on whether you prefer peak or longevity. How do you rank someone who’s made 6 films in 40 years vs someone who’s made 40 films in 40 years. Or how about someone who directed 4 cornerstones of american cinema in a decade before making practically nothing of consequence since? For this list I tried to be as objective as possible and rate peak and longevity equally. I also took into account significance of the directors filmography; my estimation of their ability as an artist outside the confines of the material they worked with, and of course I inserted a little bit of my own biases into the ranking. I also gave consideration into the general consensus around each directors(there are a few on here that I’m not particularly enamored with but are just too central to American critical consensus to leave off in good faith) as well the reception of their work in terms of awards, placement on all-time lists etc…

I’d have really liked to have made this list just Living Directors, period. Unfortunately, I’m not familiar enough with most of the well regarded foreign directors (Abbas Kiarostami, Michael Haneke, Wong Kar Wai, etc…) as I’d need to be for such a ranking. For the purposes of this list, only English language work was considered, eliminating directors like Guillermo Del Toro and Alfonso Cuaron, who probably wouldn’t have made the top 25 anyway but would definitely make honorable mention.

So without any further ramblings, here are my choices for the most “Important” living English language film directors

Most likely to join in the future: Steve McQueen, Alfonso Cuaron, Guillermo Del Toro, Kathryn Bigelow

25. Richard Linklaterrichard-linklater2 

Richard Linklater is obsessed with time and how its passage effects us. From his debut film Slacker to his recent Boyhood, Linklater plays with time and place in ways that no other director does. One of the few great modern directors equally comfortable working as a director for hire on major projects or writing his own scripts, Linklater has put together an eclectic filmography riddled with classics. His first two films, Slacker and Dazed and Confused, are deceptively complex high school/college comedies. His work on the Before Trilogy (Sunrise, Sunset, and Midnight) first showed his ability to imbibe otherwise experimental films with extraordinary devotion to character. School of Rock is one of the funnier studio comedies of the 00’s and his most recent effort, Boyhood, is considered one of the great films of the 2010’s. Linklater combines very American stories with a European storytelling sensibility that has yielded one of the more eclectic filmographies of any modern, major director.Richard-linklater

-“I’ve always been most interested in the politics of everyday life: your relation to whatever you’re doing, or what your ambitions are, where you live, where you find yourself in the social hierarchy.” – Richard Linklater

Film Year
Slacker 1991
Dazed and Confused 1993
Before Sunrise 1995
SubUrbia 1997
The Newton Boys 1998
Waking Life 2001
Tape 2001
School or Rock 2003
Before Sunset 2004
Bad News Bears 2005
A Scanner Darkly 2006
Fast Food Nation 2006
Me and Orson Welles 2009
Bernie 2012
Before Midnight 2013
Boyhood 2014

24. Clint Eastwood2ol-clint-eastwood-with-movie-camera

The definition of a living legend, Clint Eastwood has been directing movies since the 70’s and as a director redefined the western and has become a perennial Oscar favorite. He’s directed a Best Picture winning film twice, while directing three other films to nominations. His films have an old fashioned stateliness about them that is becoming more and more rare. Although his recent output has declined significantly in quality(and personally I’m not the biggest fan of even his major work) he’s put together one of the longest, and most celebrated filmographies of any living director. His films encompass a wide variety of genre, from the revisionist western Unforgiven to the boxing drama Million Dollar Baby to the crime saga Mystic River and many, many others. His resume looks more like the directors of classic Hollywood like Howard Hawks or John Ford who jumped between different studio projects than it resembles modern directors who often pick films more in line with their innate directorial personality.Clint-Eastwood-07fc0229c513a8bea4cfe51f5abc8041

“In America, instead of making the audience come to the film, the idea seems to be for you to go to the audience. They come up with the demographics for the film and then the film is made and sold strictly to that audience. Not to say that it’s all bad, but it leaves a lot of the rest of us out of it. To me cinema can be a much more friendly world if there’s a lot of things to choose from.”-Clint Eastwood

Film Year
Play Misty For Me 1971
High Plains Drifter 1973
Breezy 1973
The Eiger Sanction 1975
The Outlaw Josey Wales 1976
The Gauntlet 1977
Bronco Billy 1980
Firefox 1982
Honky Tonk Man 1982
Sudden Impact 1982
Pale Rider 1985
Heartbreak Ridge 1986
Bird 1988
White Hunter, Black Heart 1990
The Rookie 1990
Unforgiven 1992
A Perfect World 1993
The Bridges of Madison County 1995
Absolute Power 1997
Midnight in the Garden of Good & Evil 1997
True Crime 1999
Space Cowboys 2000
Blood Work 2002
Mystic River 2003
Million Dollar Baby 2004
Flags of Our Fathers 2006
Letters From Iwo Jima 2006
Changeling 2008
Gran Torino 2008
Invictus 2009
Hereafter 2010
J. Edgar 2011
Jersey Boys 2014
American Sniper 2014

23. Spike Lee

Brash, controversial, and outspoken, Spike Lee somehow managed to make some of the most understated, yet devastating movies of three separate decades. Like Eastwood,  although his films have rarely reached the same heights over the last 10 years (although his most recent film Chi-Raq has some fervent admirers), he’s been around long enough to assemble a potent resume. His breakout film Do The Right Thing is considered one of the most important films about Race in America. His film Malcolm X  is considered one of the best biopics of the 1990’s. 25th Hour, made in 2002, is considered one of the great movies of the new century as well as a touching homage to New York City in the aftermath of 9/11.

spike-lee-610x225

“What’s the difference between Hollywood characters and my characters? Mine are real.” –Spike Lee

Film Year
She’s Gotta Have it 1986
School Daze 1988
Do The Right Thing 1989
Mo’ Better Blues 1990
Jungle Fever 1991
Malcolm X 1992
Crooklyn 1994
Clockers 1995
Girl 6 1996
Get on the Bus 1992
He Got Game 1998
Summer of Sam 1999
The Original Kings of Comedy 2000
Bamboozled 2000
25th Hour 2002
She Hate Me 2004
Inside Man 2006
Miracle at St. Anna 2008
Red Hook Summer 2012
Oldboy 2013
Chi-Raq 2015

22.  Ridley Scottridley_scott_29164

One of the all-time inconsistent directors, Ridley Scott is a fascinating director, in much the same way as Eastwood’, in that his filmography looks much more like one from the older days of Hollywood. His career goes from classic films like Blade Runner to forgotten flops like Legend, from Gladiator to Hannibal, Thelma & Louise to 1492. His strengths are production design and world building, which prove integral to his 3 most widely celebrated films: Alien, Blade Runner, and Gladiator.Ridley-Scott All three are exemplars of the best kind of popular action/sci-fi world-building. Unfortunately, Scott is also a lackluster dramatist. He generally is much too dependent on having a good script to make a good film for me to be too high on him personally. That being said, he made 2 of the great Blockbusters of all-time, both of them largely due to his strengths. He’s also been around long enough to assemble a wealth of very good films to pad his resume and he’s undoubtedly made an extremely large, mostly positive impact on Hollywood. A list without him would feel incomplete.

“People say I pay too much attention to the look of a movie but for God’s sake, I’m not producing a Radio 4 Play for Today, I’m making a movie that people are going to look at.” – Ridley Scott

Film Year
The Duellists 1977
Alien 1979
Blade Runner 1982
Legend 1986
Someone To Watch Over Me 1987
Black Rain 1989
Thelma & Louise 1991
1492: Conquest of Paradise 1992
White Squall 1996
G.I Jane 1997
Gladiator 2000
Hannibal 2001
Black Hawk Down 2001
Matchstick Men 2003
Kingdom of Heaven 2005
A Good Year 2006
American Gangster 2007
Body of Lies 2008
Robin Hood 2010
Prometheus 2012
The Counselor 2013
Exodus: Gods and Kings 2014
The Martian 2015

21. George LucasDirector George Lucas is shown standing next to a digital movie camera used to shoot, 'Star Wars: Episode II Attack of the Clones,' on the set of the film, in this undated photo. Lucas shot the entire film using digital cameras and hoped to have the film shown with digital projectors in theaters. Studio and theater executives counter that the technology is not ready for mass use and that complex questions remain on setting industry-wide standards, avoiding piracy and financing digital-projection systems, which can cost up to $150,000 for each screen. (AP Photo/Lucasfilm Ltd.)

George Lucas was one of the more challenging directors to rank. His filmography consists of a tiny number of films (he didn’t direct 2 of the original Star Wars trilogy and took a 20 year gap without directing anything) but he’s without a doubt the single most impactful individual in the movie industry of the last 50 years. Star Wars changed Hollywood in ways that are still developing over 35 years later. In addition, the Star Wars prequels, whatever their faults, are incredibly well directed films. On a frame by frame basis, they look better than almost any other recent blockbuster. What’s strange about Lucas is that he was considered one of the most promising young directors of the early 70’s, on par with Spielberg and Coppola. His 1973 film American Graffiti got him a Best Director nomination and in a different universe he might be a renowned director of experimental films. Star Wars though, made him the most important person in American film and after Spielberg directed his screenplay about an adventurous college professor, he was the creator of the 2 most profitable franchises of the 1980’s; the equivalent today of owning both Marvel and DC films. GeorgeLucasee45b26e4085edd86117336446b4e5efLucas’s strength comes from a prodigious imagination, influenced by a bizarre amalgamation of classical mythology and pulp 1930’s sci-fi/fantasy. Although a weak writer at the dialogue level, all his Star Wars films have a sweeping scope, classical formula, and a rich feel for drama that his imitators lack and his critics overlook. Lucas is a great director in his own right, but because of his limited filmography and self-imposed hiatus, I can’t place him higher than this even though I think he’s painfully underrated. At some point I sincerely believe there will be a re-evaluation of the Star Wars prequel trilogy, which are some of the most imaginative blockbusters of modern times.George-LucasPanavision-MOSW

“People say my movies are just like Hollywood movies. And I say, “I can’t help it if Hollywood copies.” – George Lucas

Film Year
THX 1138 1971
American Graffiti 1973
Star Wars 1977
Star Wars Episode 1-The Phantom Menace 1999
Star Wars Episode II-Attack Of the Clones 2002
Star Wars Episode III- Revenge of the Sith 2005

Spotlight, Creed, The Good Dinosaur, Brooklyn

Creed:Creed

Somehow 2015 has seen two long running film franchises, Mad Max and now Rocky, turn in arguably their best entries. As the 7th movie in a franchise, Creed somehow not only reinvigorates the series, but explicitly ties its central narrative thread around the idea of a tortured legacy. As the title indicates, Creed shifts the main point of view from Rocky Balboa to the son of his rival Apollo Creed. Played by Michael B Jordan, the son’s name is Adonis(Donnie) Creed. Why the Creed’s are named after Greek mythology escapes me, but it’s almost helpful in setting the stage for the central conflict of a son having to live up to the reputation of a near godlike father, someone described by Rocky as a “perfect” fighter. Adonis comes to Rocky after being rejected by other boxing clubs; a clearly talented self-taught boxer, he needs professional polishing before having a chance in a real match. Rocky reluctantly accepts, perhaps because after the death of his wife as well as his best friend, Donnie is now the closest thing to a link to his happier past. From the fateful meeting in Rocky’s modest restaurant, Creed follows a predictable but powerful storyline that results in what is probably the best Rocky movie (although I’m hardly an authority on the franchise).

Creed is a pretty remarkable showcase for some major up and coming talent. While he has to deal with some pretty iffy characterization (I never quite understood his motivation), Michael B Jordan gives a pretty fantastic performance as Adonis. Director Ryan Coogler also manages to transcend his own good but not great screenplay with some outstanding direction. The boxing scenes in particular are among the best the genre has given in awhile, standing up well with the fights in movies like Michael Mann’s Ali. Tessa Thompson (playing Adonis’s neighbor and eventual girlfriend) isn’t given too much to do, but also delivers a very good performance. Sylvester Stallone meanwhile, mumbles his way through his lines well enough to not get in the way.

Creed doesn’t quite manage to land in the upper tier of boxing movies; the screenplay too dutifully hits the all too standard narrative beats and I had problems with some of the characterizations, but it’s a showcase film for Jordan and Coogler who, with their previous collaboration Fruitvale Station, have a chance to be one of the more interesting actor/director duos in Hollywood.

My Rating: 4/5

The Good Dinosaur

The Good Dinosaur2

Speaking of powerful legacies, The Good Dinosaur is not only the most recent film from the Pixar miracle factory, it’s coming only a few months after Inside Out revitalized the studio after their first real stretch of mediocrity. Unlike Creed, The Good Dinosaur isn’t quite up to the task, and it might very well be the worst of Pixar’s original films.

The plot is a classic Pixar what-if. In this case, the movie is about a world where the dinosaurs survived extinction and now live side by side with more modern animals. While the plot is novel, the characters and narrative beats are anything but. The whole crux of the film is whether or not the main dinosaur, a runt of the litter sauropod named Arlo, will be able to overcome his natural cowardice and, literally, leave his “mark” on his families farm. While there’s still wiggle room in that synopsis for a potentially interesting story, the finished screenplay is boorishly safe and much more reminiscent of a mediocre Disney animated film than the best Pixar offerings.

What’s more is that a lot of scenes and characters in The Good Dinosaur feel a little out of place at best. There’s an odd encounter with a deranged Styracosaurus, a prehistoric acid trip, and several very abrupt scenes of matter of fact violence. In addition to the odd animation decisions (near photorealistic backgrounds and environment with equally cartoonish renderings of the actual dinosaurs), The Good Dinosaur has a bizarre dissonance that is hard to shake.

That’s not to say that it’s a bad film all around, but the good parts are few and far between (Sam Elliot’s T-rex feels like he’s part of a better film) and the ultimate product is disappointingly simplistic. This was supposedly one of Pixar’s most troubled productions and it shows, especially coming only a few months after one of the studio’s best films.

My Rating: 3/5

Brooklyn

BrooklynHere’s a very well-made, extremely competent film that I honestly don’t have much to say about. It’s about an Irish girl (played by the always excellent Saoirse Ronan) who moves from Ireland to Brooklyn and her attempts to make a new home for herself in America. It’s a lush period piece with an interesting central dilemma of finding where your “home” actually is. A year later, as Ronan’s character begins to get settled in to a new job and a new marriage, she’s suddenly recalled home after the death of her sister. There she has to decide whether to stay in her old home, or return to her new one. That synopsis leaves quite a lot of detail out of what is a genuinely good melodrama, but as I said I don’t really have too much to say about it other than that it’s a fantastically realized depiction of a different time and place. There’s not really anything to criticize it for, and quite a few reasons to recommend it, but as a complete piece of moviemaking, it didn’t ever quite become anything particularly memorable to me.

 

My Rating: 3.5/5

Spotlight

Spotlight

And finally, the clear choice as movie of the week and one of the best movies of the year is Spotlight, a film about the 2001 Boston Globe investigation of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. To me it didn’t sound like a particularly appealing film, but as the odds on Best Picture favorite at this point I felt compelled to go. Spotlight ended up being one of my favorite movies of the year so far, with one of the most compelling and provocative screenplay’s I’ve seen in awhile.

The most immediately obvious feat Spotlight shows it’s that it’s a complete acting showcase; every major cast member does incredible work, and even some of the bit players turn in memorable scenes or cameos as well. In my opinion, Leiv Schreiber turns in the most complete performance as the new editor of the globe who brings the issue to the attention of the Spotlight team, a group of reporters who spend months or even years researching and investigating one major issue at a time. The team is headed by Michael Keaton’s character, arguably the most interesting in the film, and is staffed by three full time reporters, played by Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, and Brian d’Arcy James. Ruffalo in particular is excellent, as is McAdams. James turns in a fine performance as well, but he perhaps unfairly gets overshadowed by the rest of the cast. Stanley Tucci plays an embattled lawyer who is years ahead of the Spotlight team and whose attempts to do the right thing before anyone even admits there is a problem give him a reputation as a paranoid troublemaker. As a sort of mirror, Billy Crudup plays another lawyer who mediates settlements between the victims and the Church. His character is wonderfully enigmatic and the film denies the audience the easy pleasure of condemning or absolving him. Both are excellent examples of making a big impression in limited screentime without resorting to sensationalism.

In addition to the cast the screenplay is a minor miracle in how it makes a movie that is mostly tense interviews and digging through archives into a compelling and entertaining film. Even more impressively is how it manages to be an “issue” film without lionizing its protagonist, making any sweeping judgements or simplistic assumptions about it’s real-life characters, or treating the end as some kind of final achievement. More than most films, Spotlight serves as more of a call to arms than most films dare to do. As the reporters find more and more evidence for the scandal, they encounter people left and right who, at some level, knew what was going on but decided that it wasn’t their responsibility to help with. In the end, even the Spotlight reporters have a share of the responsibility, and part of what makes Spotlight such an impressive movie is how it manages to take a firm moral stand on what should be done, without making any simplistic assumptions about whose “fault” anything was.

Spotlight is a pretty incredible accomplishment. It succesfully builds on itself scene by scene, building  up to something that ends up being a fairly remarkable film.

My rating: 4.5/5

 

Quick Thoughts: Sicario, The Walk, The Martian

It’s been awhile since I’ve written anything here, but that’s what happens when you move to a new state and start a new job during the movie dead zones known as August and September. But, since it’s October and I’ve settled into my new surroundings, it’s time for some new writing.This weekend, multiple movies, including the first with real Oscar hopes,got released on the same weekend. Since this has been a really slow movie year, I went and saw all of them. Interestingly, I have almost the same criticism of all 3 movies: superb technical achievements, but on the nose, and uninteresting screenplays. I’d like to point out that I’ve never been a big fan of knee jerk reviews. I think all good film criticism occurs after you’ve had time to digest a movie, and preferably have seen it multiple times. That being said, there is a value in being able to analyze as much of a movie as possible on first watch, so it’s something I’ve been making an effort to do recently. So, here are my immediate impressions of these three films.

Sicario

Sicario 1

Plot: An idealistic FBI agent is enlisted by an elected government task force to aid in the escalating war against drugs at the border area between the U.S. and Mexico.

Sicario, the latest film from Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Incindies, Enemy), is a good example of the two skill necessary to make a good narrative film: craftsmanship, the ability to compose a scene, direct good performances, and edit a coherent film, and a keen sense of drama and an understanding of storytelling. Villeneuve, in addition to legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins on his 2nd collaboration with the director, display an incredible sense of craftsmanship on Sicario, but fail to display a similar sense of storytelling. The actual filmmaking though is some of the best of the year. Villeneuve and Deakins weave together shot after shot of imagery that is both striking to look at, but also tells a story in its own way. Some of the best scenes in Sicario are also among the best scenes of any film this year.


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Unfortunately, Cinematography is the best thing Sicario has going for it, and it’s not quite enough to boost Sicario from a good to a great movie. The performances are a mixed bag; Blunt is a very good actress, yet she never really seems to fit into this movie (this might be a purposeful choice because of the role her character serves in the film, but it’s distracting on a scene by scene basis). Josh Brolin and, in particular, Benecio Del Toro are much more enjoyable in this film, even as they play the de facto villains. Del Toro in particular gives on of the year’s best performances and reminds everyone that he might very well be the most under-appreciated modern actors. The tonal shift of the last act, while undermining the rest of the film, does give a glimpse of an awesome Del Toro action franchise that never existed. The last thing that makes Sicario one of the year’s better films is the score by Johan Johannson, a brooding, horror-esque piece of electronic music that effectively underscores the almost otherworldly atmosphere of aspects of the drug war.

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What drags Sicario down is terribly on the nose screenplay that adds nothing that previous drug war movies haven’t hammered into cliches. Even worse, Sicario’s screenplay has a slightly obnoxious sense of profundity surrounding it, as if it’s letting you in on an amazing secret, even though everybody knows it. To mirror Blunt’s sense of confusion over her circumstances, the audience itself is also frequently kept completely in the dark over what’s actually happening on screen. This of course is an attempt to serve a thematic purpose, but as a practical consequence the audience is hard pressed to be invested in most action sequence for the first 2/3’s of the movie.

My overall first impression of Sicario- It’s a stunningly crafted movie that goes out of its way to tell the audience exactly what it want’s them to think. Unfortunately, what it wants us to think isn’t anything that other, better movies haven’t already told us with significantly more grace.

My Rating: 3.5/5

The Walk

The Walk

Plot: In 1974, high-wire artist Philippe Petit recruits a team of people to help him realize his dream: to walk the the immense void between the World Trade Center towers.

As I said in the introduction, The Walk shares a lot of the problems that Sicario did; it’s a stunning display of the technical side of moviemaking, but doesn’t do as well as the storytelling part. Compared to  Sicario, The Walk tries much harder to give its audience something to hold on to. It’s sentimental in a good way and doesn’t try to hammer home its ugly side to audiences. However, The Walk has its own set of flaws, mostly due to subpar character work on the part of its screenplay and supporting cast. While most of the supporting characters are played by good actors (Ben Kinglsey for one) they exist in this movie almost exclusively to help Joseph Gordon Levitt’s Phillipe on his “coup”, as he calls his attempt to walk between the two towers of the world trade center. Phillipe himself, who we know from the documentary Man on Wire was a fascinatingly oddball character, really only comes to life because of Levitt’s charming central performance. To foreshadow my upcoming criticisms of The Martian, a good portion of The Walk is simply characters figuring out things, or preparing for the upcoming feat. It’s basically a heist movie without much of the character interactions that the best films of that genre contain. That being said, the actual walk itself, with CGI perfectly reconstructing the twin towers, is among the best 20 minutes of any film this year. Rarely has distance, or heights, felt so tangible in a CGI landscape. Despite me already knowing he finishes his walk unharmed, Zemeckis manages to extract an enormous amount of tension. Like Sicario, The Walk also is heavy handed in how it tries to convey its themes to its audience, repeating over and over again the importance of going after your dreams. If you don’t get it the first time, don’t worry, The Walk will repeat it every 10 minutes until you do.

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My overall first impression of The Walk- Like Sicario, The Walk is a great technical feat mired by an underachieving screenplay. That being said, it manages a charming sense of tone that won me over, and in its final minutes it turns into a touching tribute to the Twin Towers and the city of New York. It’s undeniably a flawed movie, but I enjoyed it regardless.

My Rating: 3.5/5

The Martian

The Martian

Plot: During a manned mission to Mars, Astronaut Mark Watney is presumed dead after a fierce storm and left behind by his crew. But Watney has survived and finds himself stranded and alone on the hostile planet. With only meager supplies, he must draw upon his ingenuity, wit and spirit to subsist and find a way to signal to Earth that he is alive.

Let me get this out of the way at the beginning; The Martian is hopelessly, shamelessly in love with science and the process of figuring things out. It’s more infatuated with it than God’s Not Dead is infatuated with evil liberal professors or M Night Shyamalan is with twist endings. If you think you’ll like watching 2 hours of people figure things out, The Martian is for you. If you want an interesting drama, you’ll probably be bored. The Martian, I’d imagine, could serve as sort of a litmus test for what people actually want to get out from movies. I for one was less than satisfied with what kind of movie The Martian chose to be. I love sci-fi, and I love science; my favorite TV show is Star Trek, I have a STEM degree, and I enjoy technobabble in movies as much as the next guy, but even I got tired of the constant “yes we can” problem solving attitude of The Martian.

I think the core problem of The Martian stems from how safe it is. The Martian knows exactly who its audience is, scientists, engineers, and people who complain about sci-fi movies not caring enough about scientist. The Martian plays very, very effectively to that audience, but I disagree that it ever objectively turns into an effective drama or an example of good storytelling. It depends on hitting the big crowd pleasing moments (an observation: scene with large crowds of people cheering and applauding are the filmic audience shortcut equivalent of the laughtrack in sitcoms) and making people who watch it “feel” smart.

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The problem is that it never even feels like a real movie. There’s no real drama or any palpable sense of danger (except in a few, admittedly good scenes) surrounding Damon’s stranded astronaut. It plays almost like a Bear Grylls episode on Mars; you get to see Matt Damon and NASA display survival techniques, except this time it’s for 2 hours instead of 30 minutes. This movie will undoubtedly be compared, probably favorably by general audiences, to Gravity and Interstellar, the most recent big space movies. The problem is that the ambition found in Gravity and Interstellar puts The Martian to shame; they attempt to be real movies, not science porn. When it comes to dialogue, The Martian falls to every cliche possible, even as it attempts to circumvent Hollywood’s reluctance to showing “real” science. The screenplay leans much more comedic than dramatic; it’s the kind of movie where the characters refuse to stop spouting wise cracks even when they’re in mortal danger. Despite having one of the best casts I’ve ever seen in this kind of movie; half of the actors in this movie could legitimately play the stranded astronaut with no loss in the movie’s quality. Yet, the almost constant technical talk keeps any of them from actually being able to do anything on-screen. The only actor who really stands out, due to the most screentime and the best jokes, is Damon, and even he depends mostly on his natural charm than any great character writing.

That being said, I should point out that, yet again, The Martian is a bit of a technical marvel. I legitimately could not tell if the landscapes were computer generated or filmed on Earth and made to look like Mars (I looked it up. A lot of the movie was filmed in Jordan). The editing and directing flawlessly manage 3 different stories: Damon’s stranded astronaut, the crew of the Hermes on their way back to Earth, and NASA’s attempts to mount a rescue. This is a harder task than it sounds, but the filmmaking and, to give the screenplay some credit, The Martian pulls it off brilliantly. There’s a lot of old-school, competent filmmaking that went into making The Martian, but unfortunately there’s not a lot to work with.

My overall first impression of The Martian- It’s basically a 2 hour combination of a science lecture and a Bear Grylls episode on Mars. There’s not a whole lot of dramatic tension or storytelling heft. It lacks most of the ambition that the great sci-fi movies have, but I can tell it’s already going to become an audience classic (cue my inner snob). It is, however, an incredible technical accomplishment, which keeps it from being a complete snooze fest, while the incredible cast manages to salvage a completely ordinary script. Despite all my criticisms, I would say that The Martian is worth watching once, but it’s not a movie I’ll really remember this time next year.

My Rating: 3/5

Steven Spielberg Retrospective Part Two: Duel-Temple of Doom

No director has had more of an impact on popular filmmaking, from 1970 on, than Steven Spielberg. Even more impressively, there might not be a better filmmaker woking during those years, period. His ability to make films that are both cinematically brilliant, yet incredibly popular, is unmatched by any other director in cinema history. Many directors, even the great ones, often find themselves making the same movie over and over again. Spielberg on the other hand moves in between genres as well as any of them (even if his comedies leave a little to be desired). I recently re-watched (or watched for the first time) every theatrically released directorial effort of Steven Spielberg (with the exception of The Terminal, because of a Netflix mix-up). I wrote a brief ranking of his films a few days ago, but now I’d like to go a little more in-depth. Since he’s made so many movies, I’ve decided to split his career into 3 chunks: Duel-Temple of Doom, The Color Purple-Saving Private Ryan, and A.I-Lincoln. My goal is to go into (relatively) short analysis of each of his films as well as show how each fits into his overall career as a whole. Spielberg is one of the most studied filmmakers out there, but hopefully this can serve as a brief introduction into just why he’s such an important filmmaker. The period this post covers starts with his debut film Duel in 1971 and concludes with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom in 1984. During these 13 years, he put together one of the most legendary runs in cinematic history. 3 of the top 20 highest grossing films of all-time were directed by Spielberg in this period, and he became one of the few directors to take multiple genre films to Oscar glory. While there were some missteps along the way, Spielberg made more classic films during this period than all but a few directors have made in their whole careers.

Duel (1971)

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It’s fitting that Spielberg’s first full length involves almost no dialogue, and is basically a 70 minute car chase. He might be the most natural director of modern times, and one of the few active directors who I think would have been fine making movies in the silent age. He directs Duel with an assured sense of filmmaking craft that instantly show him a force to be reckoned with.

Duel is about a man driving on a business trip, who is antagonized by a ruthless truck driver. As he fights for his life, the man gradually reclaims a masculinity that modern society has stolen from him; this theme is brilliantly, and subtly, hinted at throughout the film both in visuals, and in dialogue spoken by other characters through phones and the radio.

Filmed in just 13 days as a TV movie, Duel was well received enough to gain a limited theatrical release. It marked the 25 year old director as a talent to watch and, even after four decades of directing some of the biggest films of all-time, it’s startling to go back and watch his first film and see how clearly talented he was at such a young age.

In many ways, Duel is actually a more sophisticated film than many of Spielberg’s later, more entertainment driven movies. Described by Spielberg as “an indictment of machines”, it also functions as meditation on masculinity, or at least, how one character feels that his is under attack, and his gradual reclamation of it. Everyone jokes that people with big or expensive cars are making up for something, and that idea is played out visually here, as Mann’s (yep, the main character’s name is Mann if there was any confusion about the existential crisis on display) tiny car is pursued by the massive tanker trunk.

The success of Duel (a Golden Globe nomination for Best TV Movie among other accolades) enabled Spielberg to move on to bigger, starrier films. Yet, Duel is more than an interesting step in the evolution of a great director. It’s a great film in its own right, and might Spielberg’s most underrated movie.

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The Sugerland Express (1973)

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Spielberg’s 2nd film, and the first made with a decent size budget and with a major studio, is not a bad film at all, but it was a clear step up in terms of difficulty. Faced with a film with much more dialogue, as well as having to work with major stars, extras, and much more sophisticated stunts, The Sugerland Express isn’t quite as gripping as Duel, and not as firmly directed as his later films.

It is interesting, however, to see early signs of some of the themes that would repeat themselves throughout Spielberg’s early career. Although it’s cooled off in his later films, Spielberg rarely depicts a healthy, functioning family and, at least in his early films, seems to view it almost with distrust. It’s something the male characters often can’t wait to escape. In Duel, Mann’s family is seen as emasculating hassle. In Jaws, Chief Brody loves his family, but can’t really accomplish anything until he leaves his family to hunt the shark. In Close Encounters of The Third Kind, Roy leaves his family to go explore the galaxy with aliens. Divorce, and family squabbles, play a part in almost every Spielberg film and, while they appear briefly in Duel, The Sugerland Express is the first film where a dysfunctional family takes center stage.

Spielberg has gone on record saying that of all his films, The Sugerland Express is the one he would make completely differently if he could do it again. While it’s not a bad film, it’s mostly a forgettable one.

Sugarland Express

Jaws (1975)

Jaws

Jaws is one of the most unlikely hits in film history. Few great movies have had more troubled productions, yet few films have come out more flawless. In the words of Richard Dreyfuss  “We started the film without a script, without a cast and without a shark.” Somehow, Jaws ended up with an all-time great script, and an incredible cast. While the shark was never quite figured out, it ended up helping the movie because it had to be seen as little as possible, starting an entire genre trope of keeping the monster hidden until the 2nd half of the movie.

A sort of spiritual sequel to Duel, Jaws is also concerned with ideas of masculinity, and man vs. an unstoppable machine (although this time it’s a shark instead of a truck. Spielberg verifies this by pointing out how the sound effect used as the shark sinks to the ocean floor is the same as the one played at the end of Duel when the truck is finally defeated). Three different types of men are compared and contrasted: Brody is the common man, similar to Mann in Duel, Hooper is a man governed by logic and science, and Quint(played by Robert Shaw in an all-time great supporting performance) is run by his instinct and an over the top sense of manliness.

One of the first great extended sequences comes during the 2nd shark attack, which I’ve included a link to (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rW23RsUTb2Y). This is a remarkable scene for several reasons, most notably it’s incredible grasp of rising tension, using fake scares, a disappearing dog, a shot from the point of view of the shark, and then finally a zoom shot of Brody’s face as he realizes what’s happening. It’s worth noting that this scene basically only features two POV’s: Brody and the Shark. Since it’s this scene that sets up their conflict for the rest of the film, it’s interesting to see how that’s expressed visually in this scene. One other interesting tidbit, and a great piece of character detail, is that Brody never gets in the water in this scene(his fear of the water is pointed out several times), even as he’s trying to get others out.In fact, Brody doesn’t ever get more than ankle deep in the water until the climax of the film.

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There are multiple scenes like this in Jaws, and it’s one of the best directed genre films of all-time. There might not be a film, with the exception of Star Wars, since 1970 that has had more of an impact on the movie industry as a whole.  It broke U.S box office records and, along with Star Wars ushered in the era of the blockbuster film, where younger viewers, summer releases, merchandising opportunities, and high concepts genre films are prized. It remains the 7th highest grossing film of all-time domestically, adjusted for inflation, and it was the rare genre picture(especially at the time) to get significant Oscar attention. It won Oscars for Original Score, Editing, and Sound, and was also nominated for Best Picture, although Spielberg failed to receive a nomination due to intense competition from other films that year.

Regardless, Jaws immediately made Spielberg one of the most powerful directors in Hollywood, and he was given the rights to make basically any film he wanted. Over the next decade, he’d make some of the most iconic blockbuster films of all-time.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

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After the unprecedented success of Jaws, Spielberg had the freedom to do anything he wanted with the full financial support necessary. He finally had the resources to make a passion project about peaceful encounters with UFO’s, influenced by his childhood fascination in the phenomenon.

Close Encounters continues Spielberg’s early trend of Men leaving their families(although for the first time in Close Encounter’s case, permanently) to achieve a goal. In many ways, it’s Spielberg’s most simplistic film so far, without much of the richness of Duel or Jaws, or even some of the satire of The Sugerland Express, but Close Encounters is also one of the most unabashedly earnest of his career, and also one of the best. Close Encounters contains some of Spielberg’s best imagery (the famous shots of a boy silhouetted in a doorway by alien light is one of my favorite shots), and the last twenty minutes is one of the best extended climaxes in movie history. Spielberg grabbed on his unprecedented creative freedom to make a super expensive film that ended with no violence, death, or destruction, but rather a peaceful meeting between two different species.

If Jaws announced Spielberg’s arrival, Close Encounters ensured that its success was no fluke. It became the third highest grossing film of 1977, and received 8 Oscar nominations, including Spielberg’s first Director nomination. It lost many of its awards to Star Wars, but it illustrates how well Spielberg’s career started that was able to make back to back genre films that succeeded both critically and financially.

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1941 (1979)

1941

After his unprecedented early success, Spielberg became slightly overconfident in his own abilities and made his first real disappointment. While Spielberg more than learned his lesson from the troubled production, 1941 remains one of the few black marks on his career. Contrary to popular opinion, 1941 wasn’t an outright flop at the time of its release. It earned back its budget and even received 3 Oscar nominations for its technical merits, but compared to the outrageous success of Jaws and Close Encounters, the lack of tickets or critical acclaim made it a huge letdown.

In retrospect, 1941 isn’t a terrible movie, it’s just that it’s an over the top comedy that just isn’t all that funny. It also gave more evidence to Spielberg’s only real weakness at this point of his career. Early on he was terrible at getting his films done on time and under budget. Jaws had famously gone 100 days over schedule, and Close Encounters and 1941 both went wildly over budget and over schedule. His previous films had been huge hits and Spielberg’s inefficient productions were overlooked, but with 1941 this flaw received much more attention.

The relative failure of 1941 made Spielberg resolve to make his much film in a much tighter, more controlled environment, and he decided to direct a film he and George Lucas had been working on for several years about an adventurous archeologist.

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

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Raiders of the Lost Ark started as George Lucas’s homage to the serials of the 30’s and 40’s, making it similar in inspiration to Star Wars. Lucas and Spielberg had discussed the idea for years as it went through various iterations, while at the same time Spielberg tried to direct a James Bond film but was turned down. After the relative failure of 1941, Spielberg wanted his next film to be a simple, efficient production and he agreed to direct Raiders, with a story provided by Lucas and screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan. The production went fine and in Spielberg’s words it proved he could make a movie “responsibly, and economically.” The fact that he made another popular masterpiece while being fiscally responsible, along with George Lucas’s evolution into more of a producer than director, confirmed once and for all that Spielberg was the most important mainstream director of his generation.

Raiders introduced several new tropes that would reappear throughout Spielberg’s filmography: the use of Nazis as villains, and the use of WWII setting (while this takes place before WWII, it still used the threat of Hitler’s imperialist tendencies as a main plot point).While a relatively simple film, Raiders of the Lost Ark continued to show how much of a natural Spielberg was at staging an exciting action scene. (illustrated here by fellow director Steven Soderbergh http://extension765.com/sdr/18-raiders)

Raiders of the Lost Ark once again brought Spielberg both acclaim and financial success. It grossed nearly twice as much as the next highest grossing film of 1981, and is still the #20 movie of all-time after adjusting for inflation. It received 9 Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director. Once again, Spielberg had the freedom to make pretty much any movie he wanted, and once again he would direct another science fiction film that would prove to be arguably his most successful yet.

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E.T (1982)

ET

E.T would become as big a cultural phenomenon as Jaws or Star Wars. It marked the 2nd time Spielberg had directed the highest grossing film of all-time, and when it lost Best Picture to Gandhi at the Oscars, director Richard Attenborough later declared “I was certain that not only would E.T. win, but that it should win. It was inventive, powerful, [and] wonderful. I make more mundane movies.” It marked the 4th genre film that Spielberg had directed to either a Best Picture or Best Director nomination at the Oscars, a still unprecedented achievement at mixing popular appeal and critical acclaim.

E.T also showed another side of Spielberg that since become one of his defining traits. Although hinted at in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T showed just how effective Spielberg was at manipulating audiences emotions. While he had the audience eating out of his hand in Jaws and Raiders, E.T showed that Spielberg could make audiences cry as well as he could make audiences scream. While E.T has a reputation as one of the all-time great tearjerkers, Spielberg’s sentimental streak has sometimes made him a target for critics, but here, the tone is almost perfect.

E.T is also the early culmination of Spielberg’s fascination with broken families. Elliot’s parents are going through a divorce, while E.T has been stranded without any of his family, or even his species, there to help him. The friendship they forge is almost as much for survival as it is anything else. E.T continued a trend, started in Close Encounters of the Third Kind and continued through film’s like the Color Purple, Schindler’s List and others, of making films depicting the struggle for tolerance and kindness. Although not nearly as drastic as anything he would make later, a major theme of E.T is the struggle for both E.T, and Elliot, to be accepted by those around them despite their differences.

The success of E.T marked the height of Spielberg’s popularity and power. Although he went on to make many more classic films, his run from Jaws-E.T might never be equaled in terms of broad appeal to both audiences and critics. Although he would go on to make several more blockbusters and genre films, after E.T Spielberg made a conscious decision to prove himself as a more “serious” artist, and after a sequel to Raiders of the Lost Ark he wouldn’t make a traditional Blockbuster for several years.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)

Temple of Doom

Temple of Doom occurred at a darker time in the lives of both Spielberg and George Lucas, and the resulting sequel helped establish the tradition (along with The Empire Strikes Back) of 2nd films being “darker” than the originals. Temple of Doom was criticized by critics at the time as being “ugly”, something echoed years later by Spielberg and at the time by Raiders screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan. Part of the problem with Temple of Doom might have to do with a rushed production, done to prevent Spielberg, fresh off the monstrous success of E.T, from losing interest in directing before it was ready. The resulting film, while still better than the average blockbuster, was arguably Spielberg’s weakest film up to that point. Throw in some truly terrible supporting characters, and it’s one of Spielberg’s least pleasant movies to watch.

That being said, Temple of Doom was still a hit for Spielberg as it was the 3rd highest grossing film of the year, even as it received a more mixed reception from critics than his last few films had, although over time it has generally been accepted more favorably by many. After Temple of Doom, Spielberg spent the next few years trying to taken more seriously and would not direct a blockbuster again until he made another Indiana Jones sequel, to better results, in 1989.

Steven Spielberg Retrospective: Part One

No director has had more of an impact on popular filmmaking, from 1970 on, than Steven Spielberg. Even more impressively, there might not be a better filmmaker woking during those years, period. His ability to make films that are both cinematically brilliant, yet incredibly popular, is unmatched by any other director in cinema history. Many directors, even the great ones, often find themselves making the same movie over and over again. Spielberg on the other hand moves in between genres as well as any of them (even if his comedies leave a little to be desired). I recently re-watched (or watched for the first time) every theatrically released directorial effort of Steven Spielberg (with the exception of The Terminal, because of a Netflix mix-up). I plan to write a more complete, chronological analysis of his work and have it up sometime this week (depending on when I actually start my new job, and if I’ll even have time to keep writing these), but I’d like to start off with a quick ranking of his films, as well as a few sentences as to what makes them so good (or in some cases not so good). Hopefully it’ll inspire you to watch a Spielberg movie you haven’t seen, or even re-watch an old classic you haven’t seen in awhile.

28. Hook (1991)

Hook

Maybe it’s because I never watched it as a kid, but Hook did almost nothing for me when I watched it for the first time recently. Even Spielberg himself has been blunt when talking about it, saying in an interview “I wanna see Hook again because I so don’t like that movie, and I’m hoping someday I’ll see it again and perhaps like some of it.” There are some redemptive qualities to Hook, but it’s mostly just a cheesy mess and one of Spielberg’s few truly bad movies.

My Rating: 2/5

27. Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

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I avoided this movie for a long time because of its bad reputation (James, the co-founder of this blog, lists it among his least favorite movies ever), and when I watched it recently I mostly agree. While I like a lot of the individual elements within certain scenes, the scenes themselves almost never worked as a whole. Then those faulty scenes in turn failed to connect with the following scenes which in turn led to a very confused film. It does seem like Spielberg and Lucas sort of took a paid vacation on this one, and it’s probably the laziest of all Spielberg’s films.

My Rating: 2/5

26. 1941 (1979)

1941

1941 is Spielberg’s most infamous misfire, coming off the back to back monstrous successes of Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. That being said, it’s not a terrible film, it’s just that it’s a comedy that turns out to not be particularly funny.

My Rating: 2.5/5

25. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)

Temple of Doom

I don’t hate Temple of Doom, but now that I’ve seen it twice, I’m not really sure I’ll ever watch it again. There’s some cool imagery, but it also has one of the most annoying characters I’ve ever seen in a major blockbuster, and it’s not a terribly fun to watch.

My Rating: 2.5/5

24. Always (1989)

Always

Always is often considered to be Spielberg at his worse (i.e, overly sentimental) and it is often an almost embarrassingly schmaltzy affair. But it’s so unabashedly earnest that I couldn’t help but like it for the most part. That being said, I don’t know why I’d ever watch it again, but I would say that it’s better than its reputation suggests. Bonus points for containing Audrey Hepburn’s final screen performance (albeit in a minor role).

23. Amistad (1997)

Amistad

After his career culmination depicting the Holocaust in Schindler’s List, Spielberg depicted another important moment in history regarding oppression and prejudice, only this time to much less acclaim. While Amistad is a mostly fine movie, it’s forgettable and a bit dull. Spielberg has said pretty much the same in interviews “it became too much of a history lesson.”

My Rating: 3/5

22. The Sugerland Express (1973)

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This was Spielberg’s first full movie studio production, and it’s clear from the beginning that he very clearly knows what he’s doing. The Sugerland Express is a very well-directed film, but its screenplay and characters never really rise above average. It’s an interesting film to watch only in the context of knowing just how important a filmmaker Spielberg would become. On its own it’s a fine, but mostly forgettable film.

My Rating: 3/5

21. The Lost World Jurassic Park (1997)

The Lost World

The Lost World starts out relatively strong, bringing back the best character from the first film (Ian Malcolm) and upping the ante in terms of dinosaur mayhem, but a silly screenplay and disastrous last act keep it from becoming more than an average action thriller.

20. War Horse (2011)

War Horse

War Horse has some great cinematography, and a panoply of great character actors coming in and out of the film (Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch,  Liam Cunningham and many, many other), but a dull main character and an average screenplay keep it from becoming “classic” Spielberg. There are some really good sequences in War Horse, and it’s clear that it’s made by a very, very good filmmaker, but the final product isn’t quite as impressive as the sum of its individual parts.

My rating: 3.5/5

19. The Terminal (2004)

The Terminal

Because of it’s relatively recent release, The Terminal is probably the most actively maligned of any of Spielberg’s films. This is the one film of his I haven’t seen recently, but I remember it being a warm, funny film, albeit a relatively slight one. I actually look forward to watching it again.

18. Munich (2005)

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Nominated for Five Academy Awards, Munich is a compelling film that still sort of feel like Spielberg was on autopilot when he made it. It tells an interesting story, with a great cast of characters, but it never quite makes the leap from good to great. It’s definitely a step up from The Terminal, and from this point on in the list, pretty much everything represents some of the best work anyone has ever done in terms of popular filmmaking.

My Rating: 3.5/5

 

17. War of the Worlds (2005)

War of the Worlds

A slightly disappointing last act keeps it from being a “great” movie, but for the most part War of the Worlds is a creepy, visually stunning take on H.G Wells classic alien invasion novel. It has one of Tom Cruise’s best performances (I’m not sure why Cruise and Spielberg haven’t worked together since…) and some of the best imagery of any of Spielberg’s later work.

My Rating: 3.5/5

16. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

Title: INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE ¥ Pers: FORD, HARRISON / CONNERY, SEAN ¥ Year: 1989 ¥ Dir: SPIELBERG, STEVEN ¥ Ref: IND011AC ¥ Credit: [ LUCASFILM LTD/PARAMOUNT / THE KOBAL COLLECTION ]

The most purely fun entry in the Indiana Jones franchise, The Last Crusade also nailed one of the best casting decisions by deciding that Sean Connery should play Indiana’s distant father. While there are some undeniable silly moments, The Last Crusade is a good example of just how fun Spielberg can make a movie.

My Rating: 4/5

15. Catch Me If You Can (2002)

Catch Me If You Can

Catch Me If You Can is another great example of just how “watchable” Spielberg can be when he’s on his game. There’s not too much to analyze, but Catch Me If You Can is really good in just about every area of filmmaking you can think of.

My Rating: 4/5

14. Empire of the Sun (1987)

Empire of the Sun

In the mid 80’s, Spielberg consciously distanced himself from the more genre driven work that launched his career and tried to become more “serious”, to mixed results. One of his better films from that period is Empire of the Sun, about a British boy(a 12 year old Christian Bale) who endures the occupation of Manchuria by the Japanese military. It’s a harsh coming of age tale concerned with the complete loss of innocence endured during WWII and it’s told with an almost elegiac tone and some stunning images. Bonus points for the character being an airpLane enthusiast (as am I), and the centerpiece action scene, where he watches American P-51’s strafe the POW camp he’s in, is one of my favorite scenes Spielberg has directed.

My Rating: 4.5/5

13. The Adventures of Tin-Tin (2011)

TinTin

A very under-appreciated late gem from Spielberg is this comedic action film based off the popular comics. I’m not sure why the planned sequel (supposedly with Peter Jackson directing) has yet to get off the ground, considering that TinTin was both a critical and financial success. Regardless, this is still a great film even if it does end up being the only entry in the series.

My Rating: 4.5/5

12. Duel

duel 2

The first full-length movie Spielberg ever made (originally a TV movie, but later released theatrically), it shows off just how natural a filmmaker he is. It’s basically a 70 minute car chase, but it’s so well directed and edited that it never loses its edge. In a way it’s pure cinema, told more in images, sound, and tone than in words. It also has some fascinating subtext, but I’ll bore you with that later in the next installment.

My Rating: 4.5/5

11. Saving Private Ryan

Saving Private Ryan

I confess, I don’t like Saving Private Ryan as much as most. While I won’t deny that it’s an incredible feat of moviemaking, for me it starts to get repetitive after the incredible opening scene, and I also never really cared for any of the characters. That being said, Saving Private Ryan is also an objectively astonishing movie with some of the best war scenes ever filmed, and with an interesting, if unsolvable, philosophical question at its core.

My Rating: 4.5/5

10. Lincoln (2012)

Lincoln

Another under-appreciated modern Spielberg film, Lincoln is one of the most fascinating biopics I’ve ever seen. I remember seeing it in theaters and being slightly underwhelmed, but after watching it recently for this retrospective, I think its one of the best things Spielberg has ever done. It manages to make a “great man” biopic, that somehow transcends the limitations of those films, while still showing how special a man its main character was. More on this in the next installment.

My Rating: 4.5/5

9. The Color Purple (1985)

The color Purple

I watched this for the first time recently, and so my opinions are based solely off of recent, first impressions, but I think that The Color Purple might be Spielberg’s most underrated film. It’s an emotionally overpowering depiction of resilience, perseverance, and courage in the face of all the terrible things people can do to each other. Maybe I’ll re-watch it and find it terrible manipulative, but for right now, it’s one of my favorite Spielberg films.

My Rating: 4.5/5

8. E.T (1982)

ET

Arguably Spielberg’s most iconic films, E.T is a movie that doesn’t do as much for me as it did when I was younger, but it’s still an undeniably great film. It’s filmed with memorable scenes and shots, and it’s easily one of the best popular tearjerkers. It’s one of the best examples of Spielberg’s uncanny ability to manipulate the viewers into exactly the emotions he wants them to feel without overdoing it, and that is the best reason why he’s the most financially successful filmmaker of all-time.

My Rating: 5/5

7. A.I Artificial Intelligence (2001)

ARTIFICIAL

Written by Stanley Kubrick and directed by Spielberg, A.I is an uncanny mixture of two of the greatest filmmakers of all-time. It’s a devastating reimagining of the Pinocchio story in a sci-fi setting, and it has one of the most perfectly bittersweet endings I’ve ever seen in a “popular” film. It also confirms again Spielberg’s oddly specific ability to film characters backlit by oversized moons (see above and E.T’s iconic shot).

My Rating: 5/5

6. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

close-encounters-2-06102011

Close Encounter of the Third Kind has one of the great final acts in cinema, and the first few acts aren’t exactly shabby either. The famous shot of a boy silhouetted by alien lights(seen above) is one of my favorite shots in cinema history. The central themes of exploration and the potential for peaceful encounters with alien beings are also ideas that resonate strongly with me. I’ll talk more about this one later.

My Rating: 5/5

5. Minority Report (2002)

Minority Report

Minority Report is a textbook thriller, as well as one of the most realistic and engaging Sci-fi films of all-time. It’s Spielberg at the height of his powers filming story ripe with dramatic and philosophical ideas. In the words of Roger Ebert, Minority Report “reminds us why we go to the movies in the first place.”

My Rating: 5/5

4. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

Raiders 2

Arguably the most iconic adventure film ever made, Raiders of the Lost Ark proved once and for all the Spielberg was the best popular filmmaker of his (or any) generation. So many of Raiders scenes and images have entered the public imagination that it’s almost impossible to imagine a modern movie world without its influence.

My Rating: 5/5

3. Jaws (1975)

Jaws

Despite endless production problems, including the beginning of principal photography without a finished script, Jaws is arguably the most flawless blockbuster ever made. There’s literally almost nothing to complain about, and so many things that work exceptionally well. It has some of the best characters, directing, scores, and screenplay of any film ever, regardless of genre or budget. It marks a dividing line in film history. After Jaws, nothing would ever be the same. I’ll talk more about it later.

2. Jurassic Park (1993)

Jurassic Park

I’ll admit I’m biased towards this film because of dinosaurs, but I genuinely think its one of the greatest movies ever made. Like a spiritual sequel to Jaws (Spielberg has said that’s one of the reasons he made it), Jurassic Park does so much, so well, that it affected just about every blockbuster that came after it. It’s also aged so much better than it has any right to, in large part because of how well Spielberg directed it.

1. Schindler’s List (1993)
Schindler's ListI think a lot of people feel like they’re “supposed” to like Schindler’s List because of the serious nature of what it depicts. Schindler’s List is a great film, not because of what it depicts, but in how it depicts it. It’s a film so rich in pure filmmaking that there are cuts in it more affecting than entire scenes in other films. It’s simply one of the greatest films ever made, and the crowning achievement in arguably the most successful and acclaimed filmmaker of all-time. Excuse the hyperbole, but if I knew how to say it more succinctly without using it I would. Hopefully, I’ll be able to explain it more thoroughly in the next post.

 

Top Movies of the Decade: #10-1

Well, here’s my final installment of my Best of the Decade series. I’ve been busy, so it’s my shortest entry by word count, but I made sure to include twice as many pictures to provide an illusion of comprehensiveness. I’ve noticed I have a harder time talking about my favorite movies than other movies, so hopefully this won’t sound too much like gibberish. So, my final list of the best of the decade is:

50. Foxcatcher (2014)

49. Nebraska (2013)

48. Frances Ha (2013)

47. Animal Kingdom (2010)

46. The Cabin In The Woods (2012)

45. Blue Jasmine (2013)

44. The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

43. Nightcrawler (2014)

42. The Double (2014)

41. Django Unchained (2012)

40. The Guard (2011)

39. The Raid: Redemption (2012)

38. Moneyball (2011)

37. Frank (2014)

36. The Town (2010)

35. Captain Phillips (2013)

34. Skyfall (2012)

33. Starred Up (2014)

32. The Master (2012)

31. Lincoln (2012)

30. Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

29. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

28. Interstellar (2014)

27. To The Wonder (2013)

26. Upstream Color (2013)

25. The Grey (2012)

24. Only God Forgives (2013)

23. Black Swan (2010)

22. A Seperation (2011)

21. Birdman (2014)

20. Mud (2013)

19. Gone Girl (2014)

18. Calvary (2014)

17. Gravity (2013)

16. Inside Out (2015)

15. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

14. Whiplash (2014)

13. Shame (2011)

12. Under the Skin (2014)

11. 12 Years a Slave (2013)

10. Her (2013)

Her 2

Spike Jonze has made a career out of making eccentric, yet accessible films. Her, his 4th film, and it might be his best yet. Starring Joaquin Phoenix as a lonely man who falls in love with an artificially intelligent operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), Her is a bizarrely affecting look at both modern alienation, and modern relationships.

Her

9. The Lego Movie (2014)

Lego Movie

If you’ve seen The Lego Movie, you know why it’s amazing.

For a much more in depth analysis… (http://birthmoviesdeath.com/2014/02/11/film-crit-hulk-smash-the-real-awesomeness-of-the-lego-movie)

The Lego Movie

8. Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

Moonrise Kingdom

I admittedly have a weakness for Wes Anderson films, and immensely enjoy even his slighter works like The Life Aquatic and The Fantastic Mr. Fox. Moonrise Kingdom marked a return to form, or at least to critical praise, for Anderson and perfectly encapsulated what makes him a special filmmaker. His storybook sets, eccentric characters, and slight surrealism all work so well and make what is essentially a cute children’s movie into something so much more touching and memorable than it would have been with just about any other director.

moonrise-kingdom

7. Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World (2010)

Scott Pilgrim 2

Some movies have no business being good, yet turn out to be anyway. Scott Pilgrim is one of those movies, and probably both the most surprising and most underrated film of the decade.I’m not sure if there are many movies that are more consistently funny, and that land a higher percentage of their jokes. Scott Pilgrim plays with and often ignores any type of narrative normalcy, and is one of the closest things to an abstract mainstream comedy I can remember from any Hollywood film. Also, bonus points for having quite possibly my all-time favorite female cast (Anna Kendrick, Mary Winstead, Brie Larson, Aubrey Plaza etc…)

Scott Pilgrim

6. The Social Network (2010)

Andrew Garfield (Eduardo Saverin), left, and Jesse Eisenberg (Marck Zuckerberg)  sin The Social Network.

Using a great script by Aaron Sorkin, David Fincher delivered arguably his best film yet. It’s one of the great examples of editing and directing this decade. The music, by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is one of the best scores of recent years.The Social Network also has great performances from a mostly unheralded cast, and it functions as an insightful look at how people communicate and interact.

5. Drive (2011)

Drive 2

In my opinion, Nicolas Winding Refn might be the most overlooked and underestimated filmmaker working today. Drive is the best of his films I’ve seen, and it transcends a pretty basic story, and becomes one of the most memorable and imaginative crime thrillers of all-time. It’s so well-made it makes me jealous. My top 5 on this list could be in almost any order and I wouldn’t complain, so Drive is just about as good a movie I’ve seen from this decade.

Drive

4. The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

grand budapest hotel

In terms of pure watchability, The Grand Budapest Hotel is arguably the best film this decade, and my top five from this list are so close that they can be placed in almost any order and I wouldn’t have too much of a problem with it. In the end, I think the 3 movies above Wes Anderson’s best film are just very, very slightly more interesting, but that shouldn’t take away from just how great a movie it is. The Grand Budapest Hotel features incredible production design, one of Wes Anderson’s best scripts, a career performance from Ralph Fiennes, one of Alexandres Desplat’s best scores, and immaculate cinematography.

Grand Budapest Hotel

3. Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

Inside Llewyn

It feels strange for me to feel such a fondness for a film that follows its main character through an endless cycle of disappointment and failure, but Inside Llewyn Davis is a film of a strange power that manages to work on just about every single emotional level, as well as an intellectual one. It’s the rare film that manages to succeed profoundly at the technical, emotional, thematic, and character level, and easily one of the great films of the 21st century.

For a better analysis than I could ever hope to write, here’s a link to a really brilliant piece by one of my favorite critics (http://nilesfilmfiles.blogspot.com/2014/03/inside-llewyn-davis-outer-space-orbital_21.html)

Inside Llewyn Davis2

2. Inception (2010)

Inception 2

This movie is so good, that it feels almost a disservice to not have it at #1. It goes beyond the “is it real/is he dreaming or awake” conversation that everyone seems to be concerned with and becomes a vital display of how to make intelligent, yet mainstream, entertainment. The genius of Inception lies in the way it can be approached from so many different angles and interpretations, and be just as satisfying no matter which direction you take. Many films have aped its ambiguous ending without realizing, or being able to replicate, the impeccable development that went so perfectly into ordering the narrative in a way that set up the last shot. Whether or not the top falls over isn’t irrelevant, but it’s not entirely the point. Whether or not Cobb cares about what reality is anymore isn’t irrelevant, but it’s also not entirely the point. Nolan understands that not only are the characters in the film all experiencing their reality at a subjectively different level than the other characters, we the audience are also experiencing it in a different way than the people around us. Inception can be viewed as a microcosm of the creative process, with Cobb’s team as a microcosm of a film set. Inception can be viewed as a psychoanalysis of Cobb, or the story of Cobb returning to his children, or a hundred other interpretations, all of which probably have the same level of merit. Inception’s narrative itself is as much a paradox as the mazes it presents to its characters.

Inception also manages to be one of the best directed, shot, and acted blockbusters of the decade as well, filmed with memorable scene after memorable scene. The zero gravity hallway fight, the reflecting mirrors on the street of paris, the exploding cafe, and the ending shot that has rightfully entered cinematic lore are all among the most indelible images of the decade. I feel like there’s been a slight backlash to Inception because of its popularity and reputation as a “confusing” film. People eager to seem smart dismiss Inception as all style and no substance, and yet few things could be farther from the truth. If you look at Inception at a surface level, and think its mysteries extend to only trying to sort out the barest plot points and which reality events are being portrayed in, then Inception will probably disappoint. In truth, Inception is as deep as you care to look; and the genius of Inception is that no matter how you look at it, it still finds a way to reward the effort.

Inception

1. The Tree of Life (2011)

TreeOfLife

My favorite movie of the decade, and one of my favorite artistic creations, regardless of medium, is Terrence Malick’s 2011 The Tree of Life. I’m not usually one who gets directly emotionally affected by a movie; I can usually keep them at an intellectual arm’s length. That does not work for me against The Tree of Life, a film that, for lack of a better word, is about everything.

Tree of Life 2

On the surface, The Tree of Life is clearly one of the most beautifully shot films of all-time. Terrence Malick has made his name, amidst all the scrutiny over his films meaning/possible lack of meaning, on making films that everyone can agree are at the very least visually stunning. Here, working again with wunderkind cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, Malick has made arguably his most beautiful film. From its centerpiece Creation sequence, to its idyllic magic hour photography of 1950’s suburban life in Texas, The Tree of Life might not have one commonplace shot in its entire 139 minute runtime. Yet I don’t think Malick’s imagery is purely eye candy. I think his visual abilities both aid, and sometimes even create, his intensely earnest rumination on the human condition.

Tree of Life 3

In The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick parallels the journey of one man, from his childhood to his disillusioned adulthood in the modern era, with the cosmological evolution of the universe. It asks us to ponder why are problems, in the grand scheme of things, mean anything in the vastness of space and time. Why does the death of brother or son mean anything compared to the myriad extinctions that have happened over the course of Earth’s evolution, or a supernova that happens galaxies away. One of the miracles of The Tree of Life is that it presents us with these questions and yet still manages to make the argument that people do in fact matter. This film, and Malicks films in general are often criticized for showing more attention to cutaway shots of nature, or for not following conventional narrative structure. But to Malick, at least as far as I can tell, there isn’t really a difference between the two. One can’t talk about humanity without talking about nature and our relationship to it.

Tree of Life 4

Malick’s films are often described as spiritual, and The Tree of Life begins with a verse from Job “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth?….When the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?”  The Tree of Life follows Jack (played by Hunter McCracken as a child and Sean Penn as an adult) as he searches for meaning in his life. As a disillusioned architect working in the modern day, Jack remembers his childhood. His parents, played by Jessica Chastain and Brad Pitt, embody 2 philosophies; stated as the way of Nature, and the way of Grace. Jack is more like his father, his brother resembles his mother.  This film follows Jack as he searches for reconciliation of his dual nature.

Tree of Life

The Tree of Life is a difficult film, and I completely understand much of the criticism directed at it, I just happen to disagree with it. I’ve said before that movies rarely directly affect me emotionally. As a general rule I’m too aware of the mechanisms filmmakers use to elicit emotional responses and I’m just in general not a terribly emotional person to begin with. One of the few movies to completely overwhelm me emotionally is The Tree of Life, and because of this, it’s hard for me to properly discuss it as I would other films. It sounds cheesy, but it’s a film that really does make me want to be a better person, and it’s a film that I wish everyone would watch, even though I have no illusions about most people enjoying it. It has only the bare bones of narrative. It’s opaque, ethereal, and concerned with ideas typically too uncomfortable for a medium more concerned with entertainment and escapism than poetry, art, and theology. But I can’t think of a film, maybe ever, more concerned with humanity itself than The Tree of Life.

Tree of Life2

Seeing as how it’s one of the most thematically wonderful films ever made, there’s no way I would be able to properly explain this film in just a few paragraphs, even if I had the skill to explain it at all. Luckily, I know a few links that can at least scratch the surface of this remarkable film, so if you’re at all interested, I’ve included them below.

http://nilesfilmfiles.blogspot.com/2011/06/song-of-himself-terrence-malicks-tree.html

https://mubi.com/notebook/posts/terrence-malick-theologian-the-intimidating-exhilarating-religiosity-of-the-tree-of-life-and-to-the-wonder

http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/the-tree-of-life-2011

For anyone who has paid attention through all five entries, here’s how the breakdown goes by year. It seems I need to watch more movies from 2010 and 2011 and that 2015 needs to stop slacking.

2010: 6

2011: 6

2012: 10

2013: 13

2014: 13

2015: 2