Mudbound review

I have a confession to make. I’ve grown a little weary of “racially sensitive” dramas. They’re often heavy-handed, obvious and rarely convey much of a meaningful message beyond “racism is bad.” But look at the headlines any given day and you’ll see that, in some way or another, we need these stories and these conversations. I’m all for that, but the art that spurs such conversations needs to be engaging and unique enough to continue to draw audiences. Jordan Peele showed how you can make a film about race relations in America while delivering something new and special with his breakout hit Get Out earlier this year. Now comes Mudbound, Dee Rees’ new Netflix drama based upon Hillary Jordan’s novel. Set in Jim Crow-era Mississippi during WWII, the film could have easily been another dry period piece. Instead, it’s a vibrant, moving, essential work of art, one that no fan of film or history should miss.

Mudbound is the cinematic equivalent of a great American novel—epic and sweeping in scope, yet acutely aware of how a single choice can have effects that ripple across generations. The film opens on rural farmer Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke) digging a grave for his deceased father alongside his younger brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund). Tagging along for the simple wake is Henry’s wife Laura (Carey Mulligan) and their children. Through the rain-drenched mist comes a black family riding a carriage, including Hap Jackson (Rob Morgan) and his wife Florence (an excellent, almost unrecognizable Mary J. Blige). Henry asks Hap to help get the coffin into the grave, and the look he responds with is ice cold. He begrudgingly assists, but Florence doesn’t move a muscle, refusing to even acknowledge the white folks’ existence.

We soon find out this intense scene is a flash forward, but thematically it echoes of things to come. This is a film of people talking past each other, often ignoring each other because to acknowledge someone else, especially someone different, often means digging up something in our own souls that we’d rather not unearth.

The remainder of the film focuses on the relationship between these two families. The Jacksons, it turns out, are (paid) servants for the McAllans, but Henry’s father Pappy (Jonathan Banks, excellent as always) isn’t too thrilled about having black people anywhere near him. In his world, black folks have to use the back door, should never ride in the front seat, and sure as hell should never copulate with or even befriend a white person. Tensions continue to rise as Laura enlists Florence’s midwifing skills to help take care of her children’s’ whooping cough.

Then, of course, there’s the boys. Jamie McAllan and Hap’s son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) both return from the war disillusioned and ill-at-ease in the America they thought they knew. Jamie soon turns to the bottle and Ronsel attempts to push down his anger over returning to a country he served faithfully whose citizens still see him as something sub-human. These boys seem to be the only two who understand each other anymore, and a friendship quickly blossoms. Such a relationship would all be well and good if they were in a different time and place than 1940s Mississippi.

Mudbound is an urgent, essential, skillfully told tale that ranks among the year’s best films.

Mudbound tells its story through layered voiceovers, creating a kaleidoscopic tapestry of voices and perspectives. It’s a technique very reminiscent of Terrence Malick, and indeed this feels like the type of film Malick used to make. Rees, who co-wrote the script with Virgil Williams, seems painstakingly committed to ensuring every voice is heard. This is one of the major effects that make the film extraordinary. This isn’t a simple story of poor mistreated blacks and white villains. It’s as much about the plight of the white rural farmer as it is the black man who can’t even look at a white man sideways for fear of physical harm or death.

This is a historically important film, because it does such an incredible job at pulling us into a palpable sense of time and space. It’s hard to imagine an America like this existed, and yet it was not so long ago. Rachel Morrison’s moody cinematography along with the soulful performances draw the audience in and don’t let go. Every scene is filled with tension, because one look, one word, even one moment of silence can change everything.

Particular praise should go to Mulligan, who acts as somewhat of a neutral audience surrogate, and Hedlund and Mitchell, whose characters’ relationship anchors the film’s emotions. Their scenes together are among the most moving I’ve seen this year. A simple conversation between two men who have much in common if you can look past the color of their skin. A scandalous act of kindness, camaraderie and affection in an environment where such virtues are in short supply.

In less delicate hands, the film’s climactic eruption into violence could topple the emotional high-wire act the rest of the story so expertly balanced. But Rees’ hand is so deft, her characters so richly drawn, that I was more than willing to go with it.

Mudbound is a tough, gritty, tragic film, but its ending is unexpectedly hopeful and moving. It says that we don’t have to continue to talk past each other, that people can change. Actions are ultimately more important than words, but we tend to have an abundance of the latter and precious little of the former. In an America that is still quite far from “post racial,” it’s far past time for that to change.

Dunkirk review

It’s hard to make a good World War II movie, and even harder to make a great one. It’s easy to see what would draw a filmmaker to this storied sub-genre: ready-made dramatic conflict, easily defined heroes and villains and inspiring stories of courage and valor are often the name of the game. But everyone seems to make one at some point, and such ventures are often lacking in originality or new ideas.

With Dunkirk, however, the veteran filmmaker Christopher Nolan manages to make a war picture feel fresh again. He pulls this off with a combination of pure craftsmanship and creative storytelling and sound design, resulting in the best war film since, at least, Letters from Iwo Jima, and one that may go down as one of the best ever made.

Nolan takes no time dropping us into the heart of the conflict (at a surprisingly brief 106 minutes, it’s his shortest movie besides Following, his very first film). Hundreds of thousands of Allied soldiers are stranded on the beach and Dunkirk, awaiting rescue. The British troops can see their homeland across the waters, so close and yet so far away. But the conflict is not over yet: German airplanes are bombing the beaches and making it difficult for any large military vessels to get close. Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) is leading the effort to evacuate the troops, but time is running out, and he resigns himself to the possibility that only a handful of troops will ever leave Dunkirk.

We also spend some time with a group of young soldiers trying desperately to survive. These lads are played by some very strong unknowns, including Fionn Whitehead, Aneurin Barnard, Tom Glynn-Carney and a surprisingly good Harry Styles (yes, THAT Harry Styles).

For a while, it seems as though Nolan is going to have the audience view the conflict mostly from the perspective of Whitehead’s Tommy. This type of painfully intimate style has been used to great effect in foreign classics like Come and See and the recent holocaust film Son of Saul. But it’s soon clear that Nolan is reaching for a much grander scope, something more along the lines of The Longest Day or The Thin Red Line.

Nolan utilizes three intersecting perspectives and timelines to give us a full scope of the conflict. In addition to the soldiers on the beach, we also spend some time inside the cockpit of pilot Farrier (Tom Hardy) and in a schooner manned by Dawson (Mark Rylance). While Farrier tries desperately to take down the German planes bombing the beach, Dawson is one of dozens called by the military to man their personal vessels to get as many soldiers off the beach as possible.

Dunkirk is a gripping experience, and another masterpiece from director Christopher Nolan.

This twisting structure gives us bits and pieces of the full picture at a time, and allows us to see the same events, such as a plane crash and a sinking ship, from multiple perspectives. This is a risky way to structure a film, and an easy way to confuse your audience, but Nolan is a master at pulling multiple threads without letting any of them go, and his script is air tight and perfectly paced.

Speaking of masters, Hans Zimmer provides one of the film’s most memorable characters. His musical score is an active instigator in the action, providing ominous heavy bass and tight strings that slowly rise in speed and intensity until the effect is almost unbearable. It’s a brilliant piece of work, and one that contributes a great deal of the film’s emotional heft.

Along with the gripping score, the overall sound design is some of the best ever put to screen. I watched the film in IMAX, and I jumped in my seat every time a bullet was shot. Every sound element is designed to drop us directly into the conflict, and, in one unbearably tense scene in particular, I felt like an actual soldier whose escape vessel was slowly being riddled with gunfire.

This immersion extends to the cinematography, which is breathtaking. Nolan and Hoyte Van Hoytema shot the film with IMAX cameras, and the result is a sense of realism and scope that is unparalleled in modern cinema. The camera may have us inside the cockpit of a fighter plane one moment, and then in the air, taking in the beauty of the landscape the next. The claustrophobia underneath the decks of a sinking battleship, as water slowly rises and soldiers gasp for their final breaths, is quickly juxtaposed with sweeping shots of the beach and the vast ocean that laps its shores.

All of these elements combine to make for one relentlessly intense viewing experience. Theaters should post a warning outside conveying the risk of heart failure. The cumulative effect is almost unbearable, and I’ve never seen a war film that has done a more effective job at immersing me in its time and space.

Thankfully, Dunkirk isn’t the type of experience you endure and then forget. Like most of Nolan’s work, it reaches much farther into the guts of what it means to sacrifice. Seeing dozens of civilian boats come to the aid of desperate soldiers is inspiring, but the scenes that most grabbed me were the ones of quiet redemption. Without giving much away, a scene where Dawson decides to avoid telling a rescued soldier the most heartbreaking news imaginable reminded me of the grace and beauty of everyday acts of kindness. There is just as much honor and heroism in forgiving your enemy as there is in saving yourself from them.

Don’t let the July release fool you: Dunkirk is a powerful work of art, and Nolan’s least commercially palatable film since Memento. His contemplative, poetic approach will not be for everyone. In both scale and theme, it very much recalls Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line, which is my all-time favorite war film. The fact that any movie could begin to approach the brilliance of Malick’s masterpiece shows just what a rare and wonderful experience Dunkirk really is, and what a true visionary we have in Christopher Nolan.

Spider-Man: Homecoming review

Peter Parker sure has been through a lot. Since Sam Raimi’s original 2002 take on the character known to the world as Spider-Man, the wall crawler has survived two sequels and a failed two-film franchise reboot. Now, as an official part of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, the third take on the character in 15 years arrives on the big screen. Originally introduced in last year’s Captain America: Civil War, this version of the hero, played by Tom Holland, is a young, inexperienced fanboy, one who doesn’t exactly cut an imposing figure. Holland’s cameo was a highlight, but can this new version of Spidey anchor his own film, especially since audiences seem to have grown so weary of his antics?

I’m happy to say that the answer is a big “yes.” In the competent hands of Marvel Studios, this Spidey manages to be fresh and fun, and offers a different take on the character that is compelling in its own right without copying what has come before.

One of the smartest decisions director Jon Watts and his cavalcade of writers made when re-booting this property yet again was to avoid another origin story. We’ve seen that already. Twice. It’s old, and every time a new superhero is introduced, we’re forced to weather the same old clichés, though often in very different clothing. This film, however, takes place right where Civil War left off, seeing 15-year-old Parker geeking out after returning home from that film’s epic brawl (we revisit some of this through Parker’s adorable home videos). Recruited to the battle by Tony Stark aka Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Parker is now placed under the care of Happy Hogan (an always great Jon Favreau), and left with a high-tech Spidey suit. Parker returns home to his surprisingly hot Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) to await his next big mission.

Alas, such a mission appears to be nowhere in sight. Peter waits for month for a call that may never come, and he has difficulty adjusting to the life of a normal high schooler after such a high (homecoming dances and Academic Decathlon tournaments don’t seem so exciting when you’ve met Captain America). Then there’s the normal teen problems, such as putting up with bullies like Flash (Tony Revolori) and nursing a crush on brainy-but-beautiful Liz (Laura Harrier).

But Peter’s alter-ego isn’t staying hidden. He’s out there being a friendly-neighborhood type of hero, busting car thieves and bank robbers alike. His humble story quickly changes, however, when he encounters dangerous explosive alien weaponry being sold on the black market. Thirsting for a truly heroic adventure, Spidey follows the breadcrumbs back to Adrien Toomes (Michael Keaton), a brilliant inventor and entrepreneur whose business took a major hit after his company was abruptly booted from the cleanup efforts of the original alien attack from The Avengers, a cosmic clash referred to as “the event.” He was shown the door by none other than The Avengers themselves, who founded their own clean-up crew in order to properly handle the foreign tech. Years later, Toomes is still holding a grudge, and taking matters (and dangerous technology) into his own hands, no matter who gets hurt along the way. Peter, with the help of his web-slinging prowess, cutting-edge suit and best friend Ned (a scene-stealing Jacob Batalon), hopes to get the guns off the streets and keep New York City safe.

Homecoming borrows as much from the John Hughes playbook as it does the world of comics, and this is a very good thing. The last thing we want is another self-serious, introspective do-gooder. This Spidey is light on his feet, fast and quippy, his voice almost cracking with pubescent, over-eager excitement. Peter is having fun, and we feel that joy of discovery, something the filmmakers smartly convey without resorting to training montages or flights of power-discovery fancy (we don’t see how Peter got his powers, no Uncle Ben or Mary Jane or Gwen Stacy). We get the emotions of an origin story while being treated to something new.

Homecoming is a great spider-Man film, giving us a fun and relatable version of the classic character.

Speaking of new, while Tom Holland may not be the best actor to ever sling a web cartridge, he is certainly the most appropriate. The 21-year-old actor looks like he could past for 15 (no one ever bought Tobey McGuire as a high schooler, right?), and he brings the youthful charm and awkwardness that helped define the early days of Spider-Man’s comic exploits. Our most relatable superhero is grounded here by a relatable and charming performer, and I’m looking forward to seeing where Holland takes the character in the future.

Holland is helped by the smart writing, which grounds Peter in real-world issues. This is no billionaire or alien from another planet. This is a kid, dealing with the angst and confusion of adolescence, forced into nigh-impossible circumstances. One of the most impactful lines in the film is uttered by Ned after Peter rails against Tony Stark for treating him like a kid. “But you are a kid,” Ned replies, something that’s easy to forget when Spidey’s acrobatic antics are in full swing. This is the kind of flick that dares to offer its hero a high tech super suit before the plot’s events force him to weather the climactic battle in his homemade crime fighting undies. A ballsy move, but it’s choices like this that help to make this screen version of Spidey the most relatable and likeable we’ve yet seen.

This is still a superhero movie though, and the action here doesn’t disappoint. There may not be as much of it as some fans hope for, but the set piece moments are uniquely thrilling. In particular, a bravura sequence set aboard a Staten Island Ferry will go down as one of the most exciting in any Spidey film to date. Holland is a trained dancer, and his finesse on the battlefield gives his hero an appropriate sense of speed and fluidity.

What really knocks this film up a notch, in my mind, is its humor. This isn’t necessarily a laugh-out-loud knee-slapper (not nearly at the level of Guardians of the Galaxy, anyways), but I loved getting to know these characters, their quirks and ticks and foibles. It’s gentle, amusing and tons of fun, and the most kid-friendly version of the property yet.

The film’s flaws mostly have to do with Marvel’s multi-film world-building. This is not really a stand-alone Spidey flick; much of its plot centers on events from previous Marvel films. If you’re a franchise fan, this is no trouble, but it’s a tad less approachable for people who just want to see a Spider-Man film. It’s not that intimidating, but it is worth noting. I suppose Keaton’s Toomes/Vulture isn’t quite as well-developed as I would have liked. Keaton is marvelous (and quite terrifying), a perfect casting choice, but his motivations aren’t probed with the depth and sensitivity given to many other characters. The same can be said for Aunt May, who doesn’t hold a candle to previous screen incarnations (Tomei barely even registers in this, sadly).

Marvel had to pack a lot into this re-booted Spidey story, and you can tell they’re thrilled to have him on the team (after Sony agreed to share the rights following their own somewhat disastrous re-boot starring Andrew Garfield). Not everything works, but for the most part the result is a rousing success. As a Spidey fan, I appreciated this light-hearted and unique approach to the character. Spider-Man: Homecoming lacks the operatic grandeur of Raimi’s original trilogy, but it’s closer in spirit to the comics. It’s a fast and fun thrill ride, and proof that the ol’ web-head still has a few surprises up his web cartridge.

Baby Driver review

It’s hard to find a truly original action movie these days. The vast majority are some sort of variation on Rambo or The Fugitive. Like songs featuring the word “baby,” they all tend to start feeling the same. But, every so often, the world of cinema is blessed with a truly original and refreshing action voice. Think of Luc Besson’s Leon: The Professional, Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, The Wachowskis’ The Matrix or Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive.

Add to that list writer/director Edgar Wright, who apparently didn’t get the memo when it comes to the action movie playbook. The British filmmaker has spent his career crafting wildly original and completely delightful comedy-action combos like Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. His films often combine action thrills, quirky laughs and even some profound cultural commentary.

Wright’s first film in four years, Baby Driver easily overcomes its odd title by exuding Wright’s patented blend of nerdy-cool. It’s also, in all the ways that count, his most accomplished film to date, blending jaw-dropping car stunts with an infectious soundtrack, whip-smart dialogue and memorable characters.

The titular driver is one Baby (Ansel Elgort, never better), a charming street rat and music junkie who frequently indulges his penchant for fast cars. When he is caught red-handed by Doc (Kevin Spacey) during one of his escapades, he is compelled to work for Doc to pay off his debt. Unfortunately, Doc’s line of work is of the…less than legal variety. Specifically, he is the mastermind behind a series of bank heists. Nonetheless, he takes Baby under his wing, and is soon a sort of father figure to the young rascal, who, as a child, lost his parents in a car accident and suffers a hearing disorder as a result of the crash (music drowns out the humming, apparently, so Baby just keeps his earbuds in at all times).

When we meet Baby in the film, he is one score away from settling his debt with Doc and wining his freedom. But his deaf adoptive father (CJ Jones) fears for his safety, and Baby is forced to keep new love interest, Debora (Lily James) in the dark about his shady associations.

Doc employs a variety of experienced thugs to pull off these increasingly ambitious heists, including Griff (Jon Bernthal), Darling (Eliza Gonzalez), Buddy (Jon Hamm) and the murderously unhinged Bats (Jaime Foxx). But none is more important that the getaway driver. Behind the wheel, Baby is in his element, a combination of Steve McQueen’s Bullitt and Vin Diesel’s Dom. He pulls off his final heist in spectacular fashion, but will Doc really let his number one driver off so easy? And will the kind-hearted Baby be able to stomach Bats’ increasingly risky acts of extreme violence? He dreams of riding off into the sunset with Debora, no destination in mind, but Baby soon finds that reality is a bit messier than his sepia-toned reveries.

Baby Driver is a wildly original and completely successful action-comedy.

The thing that immediately draws you into Baby Driver’s world is just how cool it is. Effortlessly so. It feels like Wright and company barely even tried. Considering how many action flicks try and fail to be “hip,” that is no small feat. The film owes its vibe, largely, to the soundtrack. This is the kind of flick that wouldn’t be possible without its music. Like Guardians of the Galaxy, the movie uses every opportunity to let music do the bulk of the heavy lifting. Even more so than Galaxy, it integrates the music into the story in ways both big and small. Obviously, thanks to Baby’s hearing condition, music plays a huge part in how he views the world. This dude is frankly obsessed. Who else would create mixtapes based on samplings of random conversations he has throughout the day? Who else would, after a successful heist, refuse to drive away until the song playing hits the right section?

Baby’s musical obsession also transfers over to the film’s visual style. Several scenes would feel at home in a musical, as machine guns pop to the beat during an intense shootout, or stacks of cash hit a table with rhythmic precision. It’s an editing technique unlike any I’ve ever seen, and Jonathan Amos and Paul Machliss should be given major kudos (and an Oscar) for their pioneering work.

The tunes themselves are fantastic, ranging from retro R&B to the current indie scene. Baby’s tastes are eclectic, and so are Wright’s. It’s always fun to see a filmmaker geeking out about something they have passion for, and Wright is clearly the music junkie to end all music junkies.

Sure, the film has style to spare, but thankfully everything else in the film is equally impressive. These are, simply, some of the finest car chases ever put on film, and they’re only heightened by the kinetic energy of the soundtrack and energy. Seeing a sports car drive up a multi-level parking garage backwards at high speed is one for the books.

Wright also assembled an enviable cast, and everyone here is fantastic. I especially loves seeing Jon Hamm’s suave criminal turn into an unhinged psycho, but Jamie Foxx’s one-note, over-the-top baddie is also entertaining. But Elgort is the true star, and here he shows he can be a truly engaging actor. I wasn’t much of a fan of his previous work, but maybe he just needed the right project to allow him to shine.

Baby Driver is a fire-on-all-cylinders thrill ride. Much like Wright’s previous films, it can be hard to recognize what a brilliant piece of craftsmanship it is when you’re having so much fun watching it. But brilliant it is. For a good chunk of the film, I was disappointed that the film didn’t feel like a signature Wright flick, but when the last third kicks in, we’re treated to the insane, balls-to-the-wall chaos we expect him to deliver.

There’s no use pretending that Baby Driver has much of a rich subtext or deep social commentary. It’s a fairly simple but engaging story told with no small amount of style. But there’s something to be said about a pure genre flick made with this much passion and artistry. This was clearly a labor of love, and it shows in every frame. From beginning to end, Baby Driver ranks with Mad Max: Fury Road as one of the finest action films of recent years. Don’t miss it.

Wonder Woman review

It’s hard to imagine why it took more than 70 years to get a Wonder Woman movie made. Certainly one of our most iconic superheroes, the Amazonian warrior known as Diana is essentially DC Comics’ female counterpart to Marvels’ Captain America. She’s patriotic, savagely intelligent and fiercely committed to the values of justice, dignity and peace. She’s also no slouch when it comes to kicking bad guy booty.

After the utter failure of female-centric superhero adaptations like Electra and Catwoman, comic fans would be forgiven for thinking that all hope of seeing Diana on the big screen was lost. But then, Marvel came with its rich female ensemble heroes like Black Widow and Gamora, and Katniss Everdeen of Hunger Games fame ruled the box office for years.

But DC Entertainment’s road to Wonder Woman was not a smooth one. Fans began to lose hope after a series of disappointing films that betrayed basic tenets of beloved characters. Superman kills now. Batman is a gun-toting vigilante. I, along with many fans, feared that Diana would be betrayed in a similar way. No brooding, tortured Wonder Woman for me, thanks.

I’m so glad my fears were unfounded. Wonder Woman is, simply, a wonder, filled with breathtaking visuals, thought-provoking themes and a sense of fun and gravitas missing entirely from recent DC fare. Any way you slice it, this summer blockbuster is a home run.

The film takes place against the backdrop of Greek mythology, where Ares, the god of war, slaughtered the other gods in an attempt to take the throne. But Zeus defeated Ares, leaving his ultimate fate unknown. As the story goes, Zeus made man in his perfect image, but Ares corrupted the creation, turning men against each other and fostering hatred and fear. A tribe of Amazon women, living on a secluded island, was tasked by Zeus with standing at the ready in case of Ares’ return.

Into this story comes Diana (Gal Gadot), carved from clay by her mother and breathed to life by Zeus himself, or so the story goes. From a young age, Diana longs to wield the god-killer sword and hunt down Ares, or at least obtain proof of his extermination. While her mother, Hippolyta, does not want her to become a warrior, her aunt, the fierce fighter Antiope (Robin Wright), secretly trains her in the art of combat. These skills soon come in handy when a British spy fleeing the Germans during World War I crash lands his plane in the ocean just off the island. Soon, pursuing Germans attack the beach, and the Amazons are forced to defend it with their lives.

The man whom Diana saves from a watery grave is Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), an idealistic young soldier. Diana has never seen a man before, but after the German onslaught, she is convinced that Ares is behind this “Great War” of men, and sets out (much to her mother’s protestations) with Steve to return to the front and take down Ares. Steve, for his part, is happy enough to have an unstoppable badass warrior fighting on his side to hopefully eliminate the nefarious Ludendorff (Danny Huston) and the brilliant German scientist Dr. Maru (Elena Anaya), who has been testing a villainous new mustard gas that, if perfected, could turn the entire tide of the war.

There are certain tropes that almost have to be included in a superhero origin story. Thankfully, the film flies through the typical fish-out-of-water clichés (Diana trying on evening gowns, for example) to spend most of its time on the meat of the story. The film is dramatic but light on its feet and, dare I say, fun. After the success of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy, DC seemed to start thinking that “gritty” and “dreary” were necessary attributes for all their films. But Nolan’s films set up an astonishing and consistent moral universe, something sorely missing from the dull Man of Steel or the tonally schizophrenic Suicide Squad. Thanks to assured direction from Patty Jenkins and veteran TV writer Allan Heinberg’s dense screenplay, Wonder Woman is the first DC film since to present the kind of stark, good-versus-evil weight that put DC on the map.

Wonder Woman nails the balance between gravitas and fun missing from so much modern comic book fare.

Say what you will about Marvel Studios’ often excellent output, but DC has always had the potential to present a weightier, more compelling universe. Marvel is brilliantly done popcorn fare, but popcorn fare nonetheless. DC, at its best, presents something more, and this is what Wonder Woman gets right where so many others got it wrong.

Diana’s central moral quandary is, what if humanity is not, on the whole, as flawless as she was raised to believe? What if it is not Ares that drives men to be wicked, but rather something deep inside humans themselves? Something that causes them to kill one another, to be dishonest or cheat and steal? Would such an inherently flawed creature still be worth protecting? This is so much more gripping than the humorous fish-out-of-water shenanigans of say, Thor, and it’s this major conflict that propels the film to a higher level than many that have come before it. Everything is given a spiritual, existential weight, but none of it feels forced. If Diana is meant to embody a messianic motif, this is apparent only in the choices she makes; the heavy-handed Jesus imagery of Batman vs. Superman is blessedly absent here.

But the film’s philosophical heft is only one of its strengths. There’s also the performances, filled with marvelous character actors (hello, David Thewlis and Ewen Bremner) and some of the best work Chris Pine has ever done. There’s a mix of good-humored charm and seriousness Pine possesses that few actors can rival. Then, there’s Gadot. Anyone who made it all the way through Batman vs. Superman know how good she already is in this role. She feels like she was born to play Wonder Woman. This comes through in her physicality, her mischievous smile and her expressive face. She is unbelievably marvelous.

Speaking of marvelous, seeing Diana kick German ass is pretty satisfying. Armed with her glowing lasso of truth, her bullet-deflecting bracelets and her legendary shield (no invisible plane here, sadly), Diana is a force to be reckoned with on the battlefield. The moment where she emerges from the grimy trenches, where the soldiers have barely made any headway in a year, and busts out her shield as bullets bounce harmlessly off of it, is a moment of pure awe. A later scene where Diana leads the soldiers in a takedown of an entire village of German troops is simply astonishing, and should go down as one of the finest action scenes in superhero movie history. The action and visuals are stunning throughout, though I suppose folks who are not fans of slow-mo may tire of the effect. I think it’s used effectively throughout, and, unlike, say, 300, it’s not overdone, but it does occasionally come off as a tad cheesy.

I’m grasping to try to find things to criticize here. There are a few origin story clichés, but they’re easily overwhelmed by all of the good stuff. Wonder Woman does far more than right DC’s rickety cinematic ship. It stands tall as one of the finest superhero films to come along in some time, maybe ever. It’s also proof that the world is ready for female superheroes (and female directors!) as long as they’re attached to a quality product. I say, bring it on ladies, and long live the Queen!

Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 2 review

Given the earth-shattering success of the original Guardians of the Galaxy, it can be easy to forget that the film was quite the gamble. Based upon a relatively obscure property, many wondered whether Marvel’s galactic stories about a bizarre ragtag group of selfish bounty hunters and wannabe heroes would transfer well to screen. Maybe a gun-toting squirrel and an anthropomorphic tree were just a little too strange for audiences to fully embrace.

Aren’t we all so glad we were wrong? Not only did the original film crush it at the box office, it also earned some of the strongest reviews in the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe. That was mostly thanks to the film’s colorful visuals, its likable case of characters and its hilariously irreverent and whip-smart dialogue. But lightning rarely strikes twice, and though anticipation for the inevitable sequel was high, you would be excused for being wary. I’m happy to say that, with a stellar returning cast, writer-director James Gunn’s sure guiding hand and a heartfelt story, Volume 2 is an all-around home run, one that is sure to thrill fans while living up to the pedigree established by its predecessor.

We find our original heroes a few years after the events of the original. They’ve taken their moniker to heart, guarding the galaxy from all sorts of nefarious threats and learning to work as a team after reluctantly banding together. The de-facto team leader is Peter Quill aka Star Lord (Chris Pratt), whose happy-go lucky, retro music loving ways fail to hide his unease over never knowing who his father was. There’s also the green-skinned Gamora (Zoe Saldana), with whom Quill has an “unspoken thing,” according to him, at least. They’re joined by the socially awkward warrior Drax (Dave Bautista), the foul-mouthed raccoon Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and the adorable Baby Groot (Vin Diesel), who has become relatively helpless after being reborn from the ashes of the original intimidating Groot, who sacrificed himself to save his team.

In one of the most creative openings credit sequences I’ve seen, the team is fighting off a large tentacled beast while Baby Groot dances in the foreground. This beast is there to destroy a valuable power supply created by the golden-skinned race known as the Sovereign.

The mission is an initial success, but after Rocket takes offense to the race’s haughty tone, he decides to pocket the golden batteries, which should fetch a fortune. This sets in motion a massive manhunt, with the Sovereign fleet overwhelming our heroes until a mysterious and powerful stranger saves the day. This stranger, known as Ego (Kurt Russell), claims to be Quill’s father. But, if that’s true, why did he abandon Quill to be raised by the uncouth bounty hunter Yondu (Michael Rooker)? And where has he been all these years? As Quill attempts to untangle his complex past, Gamora is dealing with family issues of her own. Her sister Nebula (Karen Gillan), still smarting from her defeat in the first film, is single-mindedly obsessed with destroying her sister and everyone she loves. Dysfunctional doesn’t even begin to describe it.

Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 is a hilarious and heartfelt follow-up to the smash-hit original.

If the plot sounds a little overstuffed, that’s because it is. The story is never confusing, but there are a lot of moving parts, and separating the team for a good chunk of the running time doesn’t help matters. The film lacks the laser-sharp focus of the original, and removing a few side characters (Sylvester Stallone’s appearance as a legendary outlaw seems almost entirely unnecessary) would have helped improve the pacing.

With many films, these inconsistencies would be a major issue. But, with a film as off-the-wall as Guardians, it really is a minor complaint. Everything else about the film is absolutely wonderful.

James Gunn proves once again why he’s one of the best writers in film. His dialogue is brilliant and beyond hilarious. I found myself laughing more than I did in the original, thanks to Rocket’s and Quill’s playfully antagonistic banter and a bevy of brilliantly conceived running gags (Taser Face stands as my personal favorite). The jokes are rapid-fire, and I couldn’t recall a one that felt flat. This is the kind of movie you’ll want to see again to catch all of the little lovingly crafted details and blink-or-you’ll-miss-it gags.

In addition to being the funniest Marvel film, Volume 2 stands with Doctor Strange as the most visually engaging. In an era where summer blockbusters feel the need to make everything drab, gray and “gritty,” there’s something so refreshing about a movie with color. From the shimmering skin of the Sovereign to Ego’s Edenic home planet, everything here feels lovingly crafted in a way that effects-heavy films rarely are. One action scene in particular, featuring Yondu’s legendary whistling red arrow, becomes a brutal light show that feels like a true work of art.

Volume 2’s humor makes it good, but what makes it great is the heart at the center of it. Like the original, the film contains characters you will care deeply about, from Star Lord to seemingly minor characters like Ego’s antennaed assistant Mantis (Pom Klementieff). And, as Quill’s relationship to his birth father begins to reveal its layers as he ponders his relationship with his adopted father, the movie imparts a valuable lesson about the importance of family, whatever that word means. Family is blood, certainly, but it’s also whoever has your back no matter what. It’s anyone who would lay down their life for you, who would stick by you until the bitter end.

I’m grateful for this unlikely family of lovable misfits, and I imagine many moviegoers are too.  As long as the Guardians films remain this thrilling, funny, heartfelt and lovingly crafted, I’m on board to witness their exploits for years to come.

The Circle review

“Knowing is good. Knowing everything is better.” So goes the mantra of Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks) one of the men in charge of technology giant The Circle. James Ponsoldt’s film, names after the company, imagines an organization not too far from reality, a powerful but potentially unholy blend of Google and Facebook, with maybe a bit of Disney thrown in.

Based upon Dave Egger’s prescient novel, the film, which Eggers helped adapt to screen, is a sometimes insightful but ultimately fairly mundane examination of the question, what would the world look like if we valued knowledge and access to information as a right above privacy?

Emma Watson stars as Mae Holland, a talented young woman wasting her youth (and her art history degree) working for the local utility company and living with her parents (Glenne Headly and Bill Paxton, in one of his final roles). But Mae’s life changes when her long-term friend Annie (Karen Gillan) snags her an interview with the most powerful and trendy tech company on the planet. It’s the kind of place that features weekly Ted-esque innovation talks, Friday night concerts from Beck and more clubs and activities than one could possibly do in a lifetime.

Mae succeeds in getting a job in Customer Experience, where many budding circlers start their meteoric careers. She is, at first, predictably overwhelmed. There’s her customer satisfaction score (1-100), as well as her social circle account (like Facebook, but with a specific popularity rank number tied to it). Then, there’s her weekend trips to her parent’s to help take care of her ailing MS-diagnosed father. Between all this, the poor girl barely has time to indulge in her favorite activity: kayaking.

But none of this is enough to stop Mae’s determination. Her work ethic soon gets the attention of Bailey and fellow company leader Tom (Patton Oswalt), along with the mysterious Ty (John Boyega), who warns her that abandoning privacy completely and “completing the circle” will have an irreversible cost.

Mae is skeptical. Look at what good The Circle is doing for humanity. We’re on our way to complete transparency, where tiny marble-sized cameras can be placed anywhere and camouflaged, unseen to the naked eye. With everyone afraid of getting caught, crime could be almost eliminated overnight. No more theft, no more shootings, no more dictators committing massive human rights violations. The Circle envisions a perfect utopia of accountability, where people behave within the confines of law and decency, because the only other choice is to be seen and known. There will be no shadows to hide in, and that is something Mae wants desperately to be a part of, no matter the cost. As Mae rises through the ranks of The Circle, she is forced to consider the moral imperative of the company’s efforts, along with its potential pitfalls.

Eggers’ and Ponsoldt’s script follows all of the main beats from the novel, and in a few cases adds some interesting twists to the equation. But the story still feels rushed; even with the elimination of some extraneous plot threads, there are so many interesting characters that don’t feel like full flesh-and-blood people. This somewhat deadens the emotional impact of some of the film’s more dramatic scenes.

The Circle raises some provocative questions in the information age, but doesn’t have enough gripping character moments to sustain interest.

This missed opportunity extends to the acting (and I’m not just talking about Watson’s dubious American accent). There is a very talented cast here, but many of the major players feel underutilized. Oswalt, Boyega and Hanks don’t get as much screen time as they deserve, and, when the film’s revelations are brought to light, we still don’t know much about their backgrounds or how they play into the proceedings.

The visuals are the film’s most interesting bullet point. The screen is often filled with pop up messages commenting on events in a variety of languages. This commentary is sometimes relevant but often delightfully random, and it contributes to the film’s growing sense of unease and dread over just how invasive technology can be. Without giving much away, this visual element is directly tied to a major story point, so it feels natural but never excessive or distracting.

One of the film’s major faults may lie with its marketing. The previews sold The Circle as a techno-thriller, with Mae discovering shady dealings inside the company and speaking out about them. That’s not what happens in the book, and I’m thankful that the film sticks closer to Mae’s inner moral conundrum regarding the necessary limitations of technology. But, this type of story is decidedly smaller and less high-stakes, and those looking for a grand conspiracy at the center of the story should check their expectations.

Egger’s script is also a bit softer and less acerbic than his novel, and that is most prevalent in the character of Mae. In the book, she turns from an idealistic young go-getter into a complete monster, alienating her family and friends for the “greater good” of the company, but the film makes her decidedly more sympathetic. I recall a great sense of tragedy reading about this slow moral degradation, but the film misses out on that character arc. Making Mae into a slightly more heroic figure probably makes the film more commercially palatable, but it also makes it less interesting. Her mixed motivations muddy the message a bit, particularly in the ending, which is still kind of cool but takes her ultimate decision in a different direction.

The Circle asks some extremely important questions, ones well worth mulling on. Are there some things we are not meant to know? What are the limits of science and technology in a connected world, if there are any? Is knowledge more important than privacy? Where is the line between privacy and secrecy? The film does an admirable job tackling these big questions, but it does so at the expense of truly interesting and memorable characters. It’s a fine film, but the center of this circle feels a bit hollow.

Beyond a Shadow of a Doubt: 12 Angry Men and the true nature of justice

The opening shot of 12 Angry Men shows us the towering pillars of an unnamed court building. At the top of this building, we see a quote from George Washington: “The true administration of justice is the firmest pillar of good government.”

When Sydney Lumet’s debut feature was released 60 years ago in 1957, it’s safe to say he and many Americans may have felt those words to be hollow. What was justice to the hundreds of black men being lynched across the nation? Although “separate but equal” facilities had been outlawed three years earlier, the justice system surely didn’t feel like a safe, reliable institution to many African-Americans and other minorities whose wounds were as fresh as their memories.

Today, we have the world at our fingertips. We were promised technology would erase these divisions, these wounds. That scientific progress would necessitate a moral shift. Anyone who spends time on the internet would quickly find such a promise to be unfulfilled.

What’s so astonishing about this classic courtroom drama is that it speaks so clearly to the current state of public discourse and justice in the United States, just as it did 60 years ago.

The film’s set up is simple: a jury of 12 men is tasked with deciding whether to send a Puerto Rican teenager to the electric chair for murdering his father, or declare him not guilty of the crime. Eleven of the men are immediately prepared to declare him guilty, but one abstains. Juror number 8, played by Henry Fonda, offers up a simple request: “I just want to talk.” Number 8 reminds the other jurors that the point of justice is to prove culpability beyond a shadow of a doubt. We have no doubts, the other men say. And yet, over the next few hours, he slowly and methodically convinces every single one of them to admit that they don’t have all the answers, and in fact are relying more on their own prejudices and preconceptions than any objective view of the facts.

Of course, none of the other men are aware of this. In their mind, the evidence is clear. But the jury deliberation room is sweltering, and they all have lives to get back to, after all.

This past election cycle, I was reminded of how entrenched most Americans are. We have our own news channels, our own friend group and our own community gatherings. We have a hard time putting ourselves in others’ shoes because we don’t know what an “other” looks like, what he thinks and feels and believes. Our opinions validate us, and so we fear changing them, even when the facts would otherwise compel us to consider a different perspective.

According to the film, that’s a damn shame. Many of the other jurors are, perhaps understandably, upset at #8’s insistence on having a discussion. Doesn’t he see what’s staring him right in the face? His main opposition is juror #3 (Lee J. Cobb), an emotional man who nonetheless proclaims a firm commitment to the facts. What about the multiple eyewitnesses? The boy’s flimsy alibi? The physical evidence, such as the unique knife found at the scene? How can you go against such overwhelming evidence?

The answer, according to juror 8, is simply to ask questions. “We’re talking about someone’s life here,” he says. “We can’t just decide it in 5 minutes. Supposing we’re wrong.”

12 Angry Men reminds us that true justice is impeded as long as we refuse to question our assumptions or admit that we might be wrong.

In post-truth America, “wrong” might as well be a swear word. We’re taught that if we feel a certain way about something, than it must be true. But…what if.

“I don’t have personal feelings about this. I just wanna talk about the facts,” juror 3 says, as if doing so were even possible. Our emotions often make true impartiality impossible.

One of the things that makes 12 Angry Men so memorable is the fact that there are no villains. The men who most vehemently oppose juror 8 aren’t monsters, they’re simply doing what they feel is right. But right and wrong should never be determined by how we feel about something.

This is driven home in perhaps the film’s most powerful scene, when juror 10 (Ed Begley) loses himself in a racist rant about “those people” who live in the slums.

“Violence—that’s their nature,” he says. “Human life doesn’t mean as much to them as it does to us.”

Slowly, each man stands up and turns his back to juror 10, as he continues to fumble for words. Even in an environment where everyone has a voice, not all viewpoints deserve equal treatment. The look on juror 10’s face as he realizes how deeply entrenched his prejudice has become and how blind it has made him is a true acting feat, and it’s the moment that sways the stubborn man’s verdict. He knows now that the things he believes in the shadows, spoken out, are heinous and underserving of acknowledgement.

How do we treat the racists we encounter, the people who refer to African-Americans as “thugs” or even make causal jokes about Asian drivers? Thanks to the internet, the Alex Joneses and David Dukes of the world have a platform to speak their controversial opinions. But we often acknowledge these thoughts by trolling them on Twitter, by reacting against them in force. Like the jurors in the film, I wonder if protesting such hate speech would be more effective if we simply stayed silent, a universal sign that some opinions are not valid and will not be acknowledged as such.

“Wherever you run into it, prejudice always obscures the truth,” Juror 8 says towards the end of the film. And, in this room full of average, relatable, well-meaning men, we certainly see plenty of that adage in action. My initial reaction to that quote is to remind the juror that prejudice is everywhere, and that’s why the “true administration of justice” is so hard. We are not, by nature, factually driven, rational animals. We are not Spock.

But, I can hear the juror responding, we don’t have to be. True justice begins to peek between the curtains of blind hatred and prejudice when we take the simple step of acknowledging that we might be wrong. This isn’t a decision someone else can make for us. And, in an age of Twitter flame wars and internet trolls, it’s not an easy one to stand by. But to do otherwise is to risk our own humanity.

Sixty years later, I pray there is still time to take the lessons these 12 Angry Men have learned to heart.

Logan review

Without a doubt, Logan aka The Wolverine is one of the most iconic and celebrated characters in all of comic book history. And, since the original X-Men film released in 2000, he has also been an iconic screen presence. This is thanks mostly to Hugh Jackman, who has played the adamantium-clawed mutant in one form or another across nine films. Now, the actor is hanging up the muttonchops, closing the book on a character he has embodied for 17 years.

With Jackman’s final outing, Logan, he returns with The Wolverine director James Mangold for a much darker, more brutal take on Wolverine’s legacy, one that is filled with complex emotions, shocking violence, and more than its fair share of homages to classic cinema (particularly the western). Does the film live up to the character’s storied cinematic legacy? Absolutely. A few quibbles keep me from declaring Logan the best comic-based film since The Dark Knight. But, it’s pretty damn close.

The film jumps forward in time, bringing us to the year 2029, where Logan is working as a limousine driver near the Texas border. From the start, this is a different Logan that what we’re used to seeing; greying and weary, he would rather mind his own business than pick a fight. But, the film spares no time showing us what happens when the claws are forced to come out; within the first few minutes we see the bloody results when Wolverine’s famous rage is forced to come out and play.

At this point in the story, Logan has been alive for hundreds of years; thanks to his miraculous healing abilities, he ages much more slowly than the average human (or mutant). This is a future where mutant kind has been all but wiped out, and the X-Men we know and love are long gone. The man who once fought in the Civil War is tired, and beyond ready to die. In fact, he keeps an adamantium-laced bullet on hand to force his passing, if necessary. But Logan still has a mission—taking care of the ailing Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), who is being kept in a silo across the Mexican border. The most powerful mind in the world has been prone to seizures, of the earth-shattering, potential to destroy the world type. The silo keeps Xavier’s mind trapped, as does a series of medications administered by his caretaker, the mysterious albino Caliban (Stephen Merchant).

But, Logan and Xavier are soon forced to go on the run after a mysterious man named Pierce (Boyd Holbrook) comes asking about a little girl with strange powers. It’s obvious this man means the girl harm. As it turns out, a woman has been following Logan, asking if he can escort said girl, Laura (Dafne Keen) to a mutant safe-haven known as Eden, which may or may not actually exist. Logan is understandably reluctant—why chase after a fairy tale? And how can this girl be a mutant, when one hasn’t been born in decades?

As events draw them together, what follows is essentially a chase film mixed with a classic road trip, as Logan, Laura and Xavier make their way to North Dakota, all the way pursued by Pierce and his men, backed by the genetic research organization Transigen. What could they possibly want with this girl? And how powerful is she, exactly?

From the get go, the film exudes a quiet, soulful mood, so far removed from the flashiness of X-Men films past. The script heavily references the classic western Shane, and, in many ways, the film feels like a Western. The lonely wanderer, forced to defend someone from violent attackers who slowly comes to learn more about himself through the process is an ancient tale. But nothing like this has ever been attempted in a Marvel film before, and that helps to freshen the approach.

The tone and pacing of Logan are absolute home runs. Like Marvel’s recent Netflix shows such as Daredevil and Jessica Jones, the film feels as though it takes place in the real world, where people die and forgiveness is not easily earned. Take, for example, the moment where Logan spies one of Laura’s X-Men comics and proclaims that the vast majority of those stories are made up. Such a technique can easily come off as cheekily self-referential, but here it manages to ground the story in real space and time.

Logan is an emotional and grueling journey, but one well worth taking for fans of thought-provoking comic book fare.

The effect can be jarring, especially when the characters reference the events of previous films, so wildly different in tone and setting. But there’s still plenty of splashy action amidst the more contemplative mood. A sequence that takes place at a casino is one of the best in the X-Men franchise, and we get plenty of chances to see Wolverine go full-beast mode, particularly in a jaw-dropping battle set in a forest.

But, the emotional core of the story is the character relationships, and it is here that Logan transforms into something special. These are characters fans care deeply about, and seeing them fully wrestle with their lives and legacies is deeply moving. The emotion is driven in by the soulful performances. Take a look at Jackman and Stewart and tell me if they’ve ever been better. Keen is also a revelation. As Laura, she is asked to carry the weight of the film, acting as the catalyst for Logan’s journey. She is incredible both in her ferocity and her subtlety, and her relationship with Logan is beautifully rendered and achingly poignant.

Perhaps one of the film’s great strengths, and also its greatest weakness, is its air of mystery. We’re asked to piece together what exactly happened to the rest of the mutants in the missing years, as well as how Logan and Xavier ended up where they did. Sometimes, a clue can be a single line of dialogue. This works well for some revelations, but others fall flat. Caliban, for example, is an intriguing character that we don’t really get to know. Most of his purpose was served in the past, but, since he was first introduced in this film, we’re not able to form the same kind of connection with him as we can with the other characters. I suppose you could say that the villains are fairly weak, but, since this the film is much more about Logan’s inner journey, this is much less of a complaint as it can be in other Marvel fare. There are also a few plot points that could have been fleshed out more—explanations and motivations are sometimes interrupted by shocking violence, never to be picked up again.

Speaking of violence, Logan is a ridiculously bloody movie. Those who have read the Old Man Logan source material should not be shocked by this. While people have been clamoring for an R-rated Wolverine flick for some time, there is something to say about a tad bit of restraint, and, when it comes to violence, the film has none. The deft, subtle hand shown in so much of the rest of the film is absent from the action and violence, which is relentless and graphic. Expect tons of sliced torsos, decapitated heads and gushing limb removal.

Whether you like Logan or not may ultimately depend on what you think the comic-based superhero film is supposed to be. Logan is thought-provoking, emotional and painfully intimate. It is not, however, a very “enjoyable” flick, and not one I recommend munching popcorn while watching. I see room for this kind of film alongside stuff like Guardians of the Galaxy. They may not have the same audience, and that’s okay. For those looking to be “entertained” by a Wolverine movie rather than challenged, I recommend one of the character’s previous outings.

When thinking of Logan, I pause less on the brutal violence than the brutal emotions, the painful intimacy and raw emotion of the whole affair. This is a gorgeous, moody, wonderful film for those ready to submit themselves to the experience. It asks us to ponder what it means to have a legacy, what it means to have a family and how one can wrestle successfully with the sins of the past. Best of all, it takes risks. They may not all completely pay off, but when was the last time you associated “risk” with a Marvel movie?

My top 10 Best Picture Oscar winners

With the 89th Academy Awards ceremony right around the corner, it’s a great time to reflect upon the storied history of this prestigious ceremony. Thankfully, I’m in a great position to do that, having recently finished watching every winner of the Academy’s top prize, the coveted Best Picture.

The history behind this award alone is enough to fill volumes, and it certainly doesn’t come without controversy. For every Godfather, there’s a baffling winner like Tom Jones or The Broadway Melody, films that may have had something to say in their time, but by today’s standards seem woefully inadequate. Then there’s the good films that nonetheless remain divisive choices. How Green Was My Valley over Citizen Kane? Forrest Gump over Pulp Fiction? Dances with Wolves over Goodfellas? The King’s Speech over The Social Network?

Despite some headscratchers, it should come as no surprise that the Best Picture statue counts among its members some of the finest films ever made. I’m here to share what I think are the very best of the best. These are not necessarily the most iconic winners, or the “best” by snooty critic standards (although I think most of them are). They’re simply my favorite. So please, enjoy and for heaven’s sake, disagree. Otherwise, this wouldn’t be any fun.

10. On the Waterfront (1954)

There are few performances more iconic that Marlon Brando’s blistering portrayal of Terry Malloy, a down-on-his luck former boxer turned longshoreman who risks his job and safety to protest his corrupt union bosses. Even the casual moviegoer can probably recite the famous “I coulda been a contender” speech, whether they’ve seen the film or not. Thankfully, the film surrounding Brando is equally top notch, filled with typically sensational direction from Elia Kazan and a potent and powerful message of perseverance in the face of persecution.  The film has certainly stood the test of time, and it doesn’t seem set to go out of style anytime soon. It is currently ranked 19th on the American Film Institute’s Top 100 films of all time.

 

9. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)

The conclusion to Peter Jackson’s fantasy epic broke the mold in more ways than one. It was the first fantasy film to take home the top prize. And, like Lawrence of Arabia before it, it redefined the default when people think of the quintessential Hollywood epic. Some would say that the Academy’s overwhelmingly lavish praise of the film (it took home a whopping 11 statues) was a way to honor the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, and, if that’s the case, at least they saved the accolades for one of the finest franchises ever put to screen. What’s not to love about Tolkien’s timeless tale? Jackson, along with Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, crafted a near-perfect adaptation, with pitch-perfect casting choices and some of the finest battles sequences ever put to film. Even better, ROTK never lost the emotional core of the story, the friendship between hobbits Sam and Frodo. Both tragic and stirring, heartbreaking yet hopeful, gigantic and yet, at times, painfully intimate, this was truly an epic for the ages.

8. The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

One of the finest war films ever made doesn’t contain a single battle sequence.  William Wyler’s timely drama deals instead with the aftermath of soldiers returning home from war. The film follows three soldiers as they return from the war and attempt to re-adjust to civilian life. But each faces their own particular struggles, from Homer’s (Harold Russel, in an Oscar-winning role) insecurity over his battlefield deformity to Fred’s (Dana Andrews) difficulty in holding down a job. This is an intimate, often painful yet ultimately hopeful tale. Bring the tissues, because it’s a weepie in the best sense of the word. Even in its more melodramatic moments, it earns every emotion. The Best Years of our Lives is pretty much perfect, and a fine example of Hollywood message making done right.

7. Unforgiven (1992)

Who would have thought that Clint Eastwood’s deconstruction of the western genre that made him famous would end up being his finest? Unforgiven earns major accolades as we see in retired gunslinger Bill Munny (played by Eastwood) what kind of man the actor’s earlier roles may have turned out to be. Rarely has the audience felt more guilty watching a western—the violence is brutal, the emotions pained, and the ramifications of revenge given their full weight. Not since The Searchers has a western so painfully pulled the audience into its world of greed, corruption and men who think they’re above the law. Throw in a fantastic villain (played by Gene Hackman) and a sensitive companion (Morgan Freeman’s Ned Logan) and you have a classic that manages to be a gripping genre piece while throwing away so much of what made the classical western what it was. It’s truly unforgettable.

6. Schindler’s List (1993)

No top Best Picture list would be complete without Steven Spielberg’s tour-de-force, an iconic film about one of the worst things to ever happen in the history of humanity. Making a holocaust film is no easy task, and the normally fanciful Spielberg faced much skepticism as to whether he could pull off a story with so much weight. But pull it off he did, to uniformly spectacular results. The black-and-white cinematography is striking, as is the haunting and brutal imagery. This is a tough film to watch, but one that dares you to look away. It’s also one of the most “important” films to ever win Best Picture, but don’t let that turn you off from just how good it is. At the center is Oskar Schindler, and Liam Neeson plays him with an enviable amount of heart and depth. Schindler’s transformation from willing Nazi accomplice to active resistor and eventual saver of thousands of Jews is the emotional crux of the film, and Neeson doesn’t miss a beat. Schindler’s List is a great tragedy about a great tragedy, but it restores hope in the resiliency of the human spirit and the capacity for goodness in the midst of history’s great evil. An absolutely essential film.

5. The Deer Hunter (1978)

For a time, I considered Michael Cimino’s brilliant examination of soldiers coming home from Vietnam to be my favorite war film. It’s still up there. In terms of films that deal directly with the Vietnam conflict, The Deer Hunter was the first and, in my mind, the best (with all respect to Apocalypse Now, which somehow lost the top prize to Kramer vs. Kramer one year later).  Like The Best Years of Our Lives before it, the film deals painfully and intimately with the ramifications of the war on those returning home, as well as the loved ones waiting for them. This is a much darker film, dealing explicitly with the terrifying depths man can sink to when he no longer knows anything but violence. Christopher Walken represents this theme in one of the great tragic roles, but the film is filled with a who’s-who of acting greats in their early days, including Robert DeNiro, Meryl Streep and John Cazale. The film is probably best known for it’s “Russian roulette” sequence, but even in its quieter moments, it remains gripping and essential.

4. Gone with the Wind (1939)

One of the most lavish and iconic films in Hollywood history, Gone with the Wind took home the top prize in what is often considered Hollywood’s greatest year. It beat out legendary films like The Wizard of Oz, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Ninotchka, Stagecoach and Wuthering Heights. Watching the film today, it doesn’t take too long to realize why it rose above such advanced pedigree. It’s the absolute crowning jewel of the Hollywood studio system, one that pushed the boundaries of what we though was possible in film, from its gorgeous color cinematography to its epic Civil War setting and four-hour run time, not to mention its (for the time) gasp-worthy swear.

Equally iconic are the performances, from Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh’s portrayal as on-again off-again lovers to Hattie McDaniel’s portrayal as Mammy the house servant. McDaniel won an Oscar for the role, being the first black woman to win best supporting actress and showing an early sign of the Academy’s occasional clear-headedness in pushing the boundaries of diversity in film. Gone with the Wind set the standard for the grand Hollywood epic, and, almost 70 years later, it still hasn’t been beaten.

3. The Godfather (1972)/The Godfather Part II (1974)

Normally, it would be easy to pick The Godfather for this list, but, surprisingly, its sequel also took home the top prize two years later. Because this is my list and I can do what I want, they’re both getting the mention here. Not since Gone with the Wind had a film so enraptured audiences and critics, and, since its release, The Godfather has arguably surpassed even that legendary film (it ranks 2nd on AFI’s top 100, just behind Citizen Kane; Part II ranks 32nd). It’s so easy to see why Francis Ford Coppola’s sweeping crime epic pulled a two-fer—both films share the same panache for grand scope, perfect structure, iconic moments and some of the finest performances ever put to film. From Marlon Brando’s legendary role as Don Corleone to Al Pacino, James Caan and Robert Duvall (not to mention Robert DeNiro in part II), every performances is flawless.

There’s not much to say about these films that hasn’t already been said. They’re perfect, and no film has quite matched their pure craftsmanship since. Every mob film since lives in their long shadows.

2. Casablanca (1942)

The greatest romance ever put to screen, Casablanca has arguably the most memorable dialogue in movie history (even if people still misquote the “Play it Again, Sam” line). The Morocco-circa-WWII-set classic is also a profoundly successful genre mashup, mixing classic Hollywood romance with war and mystery/thriller trappings. Certainly, the stark black-and-white cinematography and unforgettable performances from Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Berman help to solidify this as an undisputed classic. But what truly cements it for me is the screenplay, perhaps the finest ever written (with the possible exception of my number one choice). Despite the fame of its many classic lines, the dialogue never exactly calls attention to itself. It’s memorable simply by being really damn good. This is essential viewing for anyone with a pulse.

1. Amadeus (1984)

Anyone who knows me well would expect this film to occupy my top slot. Not only my favorite Best Picture, it is perhaps my favorite film of all time (certainly a solid top 5). Peter Shaffer’s adaptation of his stage play about the artistic rivalry between Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Tom Hulce) and Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) has been the envy of screenwriters everywhere for more than 30 years. How can one script pack in so much depth, so much emotion, so many thought-provoking themes about the nature of artistic expression? It’s beyond comprehension, and to watch the film is to be in pure awe of its sheer brilliance.

Sure, Amadeus plays fast and loose with the facts of history, but it was never meant to be a historical biopic. Instead, Shaffer and director Milos Forman use historical figures as a jumping-off point for a far more fascinating exploration of the nature of the relationship between God and man. Salieri is the traditional good boy, one who prays with devotion and follows all of the rules in hopes that God may touch him with artistic genius. He’s the classic legalist, expecting and (eventually) demanding that God reward his good behavior with earthly success.

As Salieri’s foil, Mozart is the man gifted, seemingly from birth, with brilliance, touched by the hand of God. Mozart’s genius is surely unmerited—he’s a hedonistic blaggard, a foul-mouthed, immature and petulant child, which of course enrages Salieri all the more. Why would God grant such a gift to one so undeserving? These questions and themes are given more thoughtful consideration here than in any other film I’ve seen, and the result is breathtaking.

The script’s brilliance is bolstered by the potent performances, including Abraham’s Oscar-winning turn as Salieri. It’s a savage and tragic character study, as a devout man slowly but quite deliberately turns into a vengeful monster. And Hulce’s work as Mozart is much more nuanced than it initially appears. Perhaps, for a good chunk of the film, the audience actually sides with Salieri. But, as Mozart begins to reveal shades to his character, we actually see that he perhaps doesn’t quite deserve Salieri’s vengeful wrath.

Naturally, the music only elevates the film even further. It’s some of the best ever written, and seeing it performed on screen is nothing short of a revelation. Amadeus is a gift to the world of cinema, and one I will never tire of watching. It is, in my opinion, the best Best Picture.

Runners-up: It was a tough job narrowing my list down to 10. These are the next 10, in no particular order, which would get my vote:

The Sound of Music

My Fair Lady

West Side Story

Lawrence of Arabia

All About Eve

12 Years a Slave

It Happened One Night

Ben Hur

In the Heat of the Night

Gentleman’s Agreement