My Top Films of 2022

Saying that 2022 was a transitional year for movies would be a massive understatement. This was a year of highs and lows, of all-time flops and soaring smash hits, with not much in between. Studio pictures and auteur cinema alike suffered, as movie fans faced multiple disappointments ranging from underwhelming to disastrous. Time and time again, it seems like many of the year’s most highly anticipated films struck out with both audiences and critics. Who would have predicted that directors with the pedigree of Alex Garland, Damien Chazelle, Andrew Dominik, Alejandro G Inarritu, Noah Baumbach, Olivia Wilde, Taika Waititi, George Miller, David O. Russell, Florian Zeller, and Sam Mendes would all turn in sub-par work?

Then, there was the box office. Although there were some healthy signs of life from the likes of Top Gun: Maverick, Avatar: The Way of Water, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and new Minions and Jurassic World flicks, traditional theatrical releases still struggled to lure audiences back to the cinema. Both adult-oriented original fare and family-friendly animation seemed to be dead on arrival, from She Said and The Fabelmans to the shockingly poor performances of Disney’s Lightyear and Strange World (not to mention the franchise-killer that was Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore). If the past year was any indication, theaters and major studios have an uphill battle as they try to increase their appeal in a crowded streaming marketplace. “I’ll catch it on demand in a month” seems to be the consensus around most releases these days.

Yes, there was a lot to be disappointed about in 2022, but those who sought out the good stuff were richly rewarded. My list of top films of the past year reflects the diversity, passion, and sheer chutzpah of both veteran filmmakers and rookies to take the ball and run with it, knowing their projects could stand out in a rather barren marketplace. And stand out they did! If these films are any indication, the movies still have a future worth getting excited about. Please enjoy my 20 favorite movies of 2022.

10. Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery

Released during the pre-pandemic cinematic utopia that was 2019, Rian Johnson’s phenomenal twist on the classic whodunit, Knives Out, barely missed my top 10 (it wound up at number 11). This time, I couldn’t resist including its follow-up in the upper tier; Glass Onion was the one of the most wildly entertaining movies of the year. I regret that I didn’t get a change to see it with an audience during its limited Thanksgiving theatrical run, because I imagine seeing it in a crowded theater would have been a hoot. On the other hand, my nonstop cackling might have disturbed the other guests, so catching this on Netflix for free wasn’t such a raw deal either.

Watching Daniel Craig’s southern-fried detective Benoit Blanc ham it up with a stacked cast is an immensely satisfying experience, and the mystery at the center is yet another sly commentary on the haves vs. the have-nots. Glass Onion is so brilliant that even though it essentially copies the structure of the first movie, and I didn’t care one bit. Johnson’s crackling dialogue shines through yet again, and his camerawork and editing techniques are more assured this time around. But what really places the film on this list is the acting. From Edward Norton’s smarmy Musk-like billionaire to Kathryn Han’s neurotic politician, every actor takes the opportunity to relish their dialogue and make the most of their roles. A special commendation goes to Janelle Monae, whose Andi Brand is the emotional core of the film. She absolutely knocks it out of the park; few actors could make the pathway of a drop of hot sauce feel so gripping.

9. Nope

From its very opening shot, horror lovers know they’re in for a treat with Jordan Peele’s third directorial effort. Yes, Gordy the Chimp is outstanding, but he’s far from the only star in this rodeo. As with Peele’s previous films Get Out and Us, Nope is a gripping thriller that doubles as a clever commentary. This time, the target of Peele’s pen is the Hollywood machine as well as the insatiable demands of art, particularly on black artists who dare to push the status quo. Thankfully, Peele is adept at keeping the emotional through-line clear and concise. At the film’s center is the relationship between siblings OJ and Emerald Haywood (played by Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer) as they struggle to keep their movie ranch open after the mysterious death of their father. The way they end up turning the spectacle of a UFO into a business opportunity is inspiring. There are a lot of fun character moments but make no mistake: this movie is still downright chilling. Several sequences are bound to sear themselves into your memory and haunt you while you sleep; however, I would hate to say much more for fear of spoiling the experience. With stellar acting, great effects, thought-provoking themes, and several incredibly designed movie monsters, Jordan Peele is 3 for 3 when it comes to crafting memorable thrillers that merit repeat viewings.

8. Belle

This tragically overlooked cyberpunk anime version of Beauty and the Beast is another winner from visionary director Mamoru Hosoda. This deeply moving, funny, and gorgeously animated story follows Suzu, a shy high school student who isolates herself from the world after the tragic death of her mother. But when Suzu enters “U,” a massive virtual world, she begins singing under the online persona of “Belle” and becomes a global sensation. When she crosses paths with an unbeatable cyber-criminal called “The Dragon,” an adventure begins that will force Suzu to confront the demons of her past and find her place in the real world.

The film deals with some surprisingly heavy themes, from grief and loss to domestic violence and abuse. But it’s all done with a soft and assured hand, making this PG-rated anime a great watch for families with older kids. It’s also a fun cautionary tale on the pitfalls of social media and online harassment/bullying, making it a valuable viewing experience for kids and adults alike. Most importantly, Belle is simply a beautiful and resonant masterwork, one that uses stunning visuals, unique  designs, and memorable characters to create a world truly worth getting lost in. You’ll want to see it again the second it’s over.

7. The Batman

I had high hopes for Matt Reeves’ reset of the Dark Knight but following up Christopher Nolan’s acclaimed trilogy is no easy task. Thankfully, the film exceeded even my highest expectations. Robert Pattinson makes a terrific Bruce Wayne, one who is several years into his crime-fighting career but not exactly a veteran yet.

Reeves wisely avoids the well-trod origin story and focuses on the rising tensions in Wayne’s life: His strained relationship with Alfred (Andy Serkis), his connection to a mysterious thief (Zoe Kravitz), and his own inner darkness as he confronts the serial killer known as The Riddler (Paul Dano). The film is brooding and violent, but it’s not content to copy what worked in Nolan’s films. This is a much pulpier detective story, with lots of poring over clues, exposing corrupt politicians, and interrogating baddies for evidence. That’s not to say the movie doesn’t have action—the fight sequences are brutal and balletic in a way that feels fresh and exciting. I think what really seals the deal for me, though, is Dano’s interpretation of the Riddler; he is deeply unsettling and will chill you to the bone at times.  The film’s reimagining of the character, as an underground keyboard warrior with an army of online diehards willing to follow him into battle, is a brilliant move. It lends the film a timely moral clarity as a commentary on the dangers of alt-right social media movements.

Even at nearly three hours, The Batman flies by, immersing the audience in a very cleverly designed Gotham City and using performance, sound design, music, and cinematography to create an all-time great superhero story.

6. The Banshees of Inisherin

Martin McDonaugh’s Irish oddity is either the most depressing or the funniest movie of the year. Maybe it’s both. Expertly toeing the line between dark comedy and Greek tragedy, McDonagh reunites with his In Bruges actors Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson for a riveting disintegration of a friendship. Farrell and Gleeson are at the top of their game as Padraic and Colm, one simple and kind, the other deep and ambitious. One day, Colm simply decides that he no longer wants to speak to Padraic. He does not give a reason, for there isn’t one. He simply wants to be left alone. For the sociable Padraic, whose daily visits to the local pub are his lifeline, such cryptic reasoning is unacceptable. And so, we are treated to a verbal (and, eventually, physical) battle of wits, a clash between the bonds of simple friendship and the desire to leave a mark on the world.

The film is gorgeous to look at, practically a travel advertisement for the Irish countryside. It’s filled with terrific supporting players including Kerry Condon and Barry Keoghan. And its script is among the sharpest and wittiest of the year (I would welcome an original screenplay Oscar win for McDonagh). But the film is most memorable because it is knotty and dense, refusing to peddle anything resembling easy answers and instead allowing its characters and audience to ask probing questions and sit in uncomfortable truths. It is here that the film emerges as both bleak and resonant, not unlike McDonagh’s previous film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. We root for both men, because both are right, and both hold to their beliefs so firmly and consistently. It’s an often quiet and subtle film, but one whose complex themes ring out long after the credits roll.

5. Tar

Tar is, put simply, a damn good movie. Todd Field waited 16 years to direct another film after Little Children, and the result was well worth the wait. The brilliance of the film comes from its ambiguity; Field is careful not to judge Lydia Tar, the world-class conductor and composer whose personal and professional life begins to unravel after a credible accusation of sexual harassment comes to light. His script simply presents Lydia’s actions, both positive and negative, and the resulting consequences. The effect creates one of the most intimate fictional characters ever put on screen. Cate Blanchett plays Lydia with such a focused ferocity that I had a hard time believing that she is not a real person. The inclusion of references to the COVID-19 pandemic and real-life figures such as Adam Gopnik heighten that reality.

Tar is a true armchair-gripper of a film, one that leaves you breathless as you go back and forth between loving and hating Lydia. The film expertly depicts both the triumphs and pitfalls of fame, as well as the malignant pull of narcissism and the way it symbiotically feeds off celebrity. Tar is not the most enjoyable film on a story level; it’s emotionally brutal in a way few films can manage. But the pleasures, from Blanchett’s astonishing performance to the stellar music and cinematography, are more than worth the price of admission to experience this devastating masterwork.

4. RRR

Leave it to India to come along and make American action movies look pathetic. Seriously, I don’t envy anyone making an action epic after S.S. Rajamouli’s RRR (which stands for Rise, Roar, Revolt). The Tollywood masterpiece is so breathtaking, so wild, so polished, and so entertaining that it almost defies categorization.

Creating a “what-if” scenario of the meeting and resulting friendship of real-life revolutionaries Rama Raju and Bheem, the film ups the scale of its battle sequences to a ridiculous degree. Want a man attacking a British colonial compound to rescue his kidnapped sister with a whole jungle’s worth of animals at his side? You got it. How about a man fighting off a literal sea of revolutionaries single-handedly using only his body and a baton? Sure. Ever seen a man grab a running motorcycle, throw off its rider and swing it around as a weapon? Me neither, until now.

Yes, RRR is spectacular eye candy, but it also features inspired dance numbers and songs (did I mention it’s a musical?) and the best cinematic bromance since Sam and Frodo. The film is filled with “how’d they do that?” jaw-dropping moments. I don’t know the answer, but I’m so very happy they did. There’s a reason everyone is talking about this movie. It really is that good.

3. Marcel the Shell with Shoes On

Yeah, I’m just as surprised as you are. To be honest, I was not particularly thrilled to see this movie. I thought it looked cute and funny, but also rather forgettable. My goodness, I was so wrong. Marcel is simply one of the greatest characters to ever grace a movie screen. His kindness, relentless optimism, and dogged determination will win over the hearts of even the most jaded cynic. I’m sad that no one went to see this movie, because it’s the rare film that feels truly, genuinely healing.

Marcel is brilliantly shot like a documentary, with director Dean Fleischer Camp playing himself as he captures the life of this unflappable mollusk and uploads the shorts to YouTube. Marcel lives a simple life with his Nana Connie, but after Dean’s internet videos take off, Marcel is rocketed to stardom. He decides to use his newfound fame to search for his missing family, who he and Nana Connie were separated from when he was younger.

The friendship that forms between Marcel and Dean is incredibly sweet, but Marcel is a fully formed character, not just a series of cute sayings or quirks. He gets angry and frustrated, his strong moral center clashing against the shallow celebrity culture he now finds himself swimming in. And yet, his optimism remains unshakable, and his journey to find his family will leave not a dry eye in the house. I looked around my theater when I saw the film, and every person I could see was absolutely bawling by the end of it. It’s that rare film that tugs all the heartstrings in just the right way, and it’s impossible not to be won over by Marcel and his awe and wonder at the world. I should also mention that Marcel and other found-object characters are animated in gorgeous stop motion, and the combination of animation and live action is truly one-of-a-kind. I’m so thankful that Marcel the Shell With Shoes On exists, and that’s the highest praise I can think to give a movie.

2. The Fabelmans

What a lovely film this is. Director Steven Spielberg uses his own family story as a jumping-off point for a love letter to cinema and all the varied influences that caused an anxious Jewish boy to pick up a camera and tell stories. As far as I am aware, most of the major beats of the narrative mirror Spielberg’s life directly, making for a deeply personal and emotional film.

Spielberg’s stand-in is Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle), a young man growing up in 1950’s Phoenix, Arizona. His family faces the trials of multiple moves, his father Burt’s (Paul Dano) practicality clashing with his mother Mitzi’s (a rapturous Michelle Williams) free-spirited artistry. After seeing The Greatest Show on Earth as a kid, Sammy gained a soon-to-be-lifelong passion for cinema. But the truth the camera reveals is not always one we wish to confront.

The camera is, in fact, a character in the film, as Sammy uses its lens to gain insight into himself and the people around him. The best scenes revolve around this dynamic: Sammy filming his mother’s impromptu dance on a camping trip or capturing footage that exposes the souls of his peers on a class beach trip. In a truly standout sequence, the camera swooshes around Sammy as he edits the camping trip footage, revealing a devastating family secret.

What elevates the film from “great” to “instant classic” is, for me, the relationship dynamics between the family members. Are they dysfunctional? Absolutely. But there is a quiet ease and grace they give to each other, even when they are angry or resentful. Sammy’s relationship with his mother is especially tender and heartbreaking, but it’s also a treat to see his father’s hard outer shell soften as the years go by. These dynamics are heightened thanks to wonderful performances all around. Even funnyman Seth Rogen has a great supporting part that will hit you right in the feels.

The Fabelmans is a tumultuous ride, but it never loses that trademark Spielberg warmth even in its most somber moments. Spielberg also uses his cadre of collaborators such as John Williams and Janusz Kaminski to help craft a masterful film that works on every conceivable level. Leave it to Spielberg to pay tribute to his love of cinema with one of his best movies.

1. Everything, Everywhere, All at Once

Yeah, my number one film of 2022 is likely no big surprise. It seems like everyone is lavishing this film with the highest of praise, and far be it from me to refrain from joining in the chorus. EEAAO is simply an astounding masterwork, the kind of movie that excites you about the potential of cinema to do something truly original and memorable.  

The film’s emotional anchor is Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh), a working-class Chinese immigrant who elopes to the United States with her husband Raymond (Ke Huy Quan). They open a laundromat and have a daughter named Joy, but it’s hard for Evelyn to shake the feeling that she is not living her best life. While attending a contentious IRS meeting run by the impatient inspector Deirdre (a very entertaining Jamie Lee Curtis), she is recruited by an alternate-universe Raymond to “verse-jump” into other versions of herself. Here, she uses their skills and experiences to combat the threat of Jobu Tupaki, an entity that can access all realities at once and threatens the stability of the multiverse.

That is a very brief summary of this bizarre and altogether wonderful trip. Directed by the duo known as The Daniels (whose previous film Swiss Army Man was an underrated gem), the movie expertly oscillates between high drama and their signature lowbrow humor. Expect hand-to-hand combat using dildos and people with hot dogs for fingers.

What makes the film perhaps one of the best ever made is the way it uses its chaotic multiverse traversal as a jumping-off point for a very intimate story about the fractured relationship between a mother and daughter and an exploration about what’s truly important in life. Each of the many universes Evelyn taps into are fully realized and even heartfelt (yes, even the hotdog finger universe is an emotional gut punch), and it’s this simultaneous mix of silly and sweet that gives the film its power. Through its boundlessly strange creativity, it has something to say about our place in the universe and our responsibilities therein. The concept of timeline branches is one that naturally invites introspection, as Evelyn wonders how her very average life may have turned out differently had she made alternate choices. The film takes that concept and runs with it; in fact, this version of Evelyn is so unremarkable, that she is the only one that can save the multiverse.

That’s a very prickly but ultimately life-affirming message: that a quiet, ordinary life well-lived can actually be a benefit rather than a liability. And I think Evelyn, as she comes to appreciate her husband and her daughter in ways she never had before, shows us how much extraordinary can come out of the ordinary. Not to mention, the movie has kick-ass action sequences and a consistently unpredictable and satisfying story that throws a lot at you but never feels exhausting. It’s a true landmark of a film, and one that people will be talking about for years to come. For all these reasons and more, it earns the title of my favorite film of 2022.

My 11-20 picks are:

11. The Northman

12. Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America/Descendant

13. Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinocchio

14. Decision to Leave

15. Top Gun: Maverick

16. The Woman King

17. Fire of Love

18. The Tragedy of Macbeth

19. Puss in Boots: The Last Wish

20. All Quiet on the Western Front 

Major blind spots (as of this writing): Aftersun, Mr. Bachmann and His Class, Hit the Road, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, All that Breathes, Bad Axe, Moonage Daydream, Benediction, Women Talking, Kimi, Till, After Yang, EO, Crimes of the Future, No Bears, Happening, Triangle of Sadness, She Said, Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris, White Noise, Thirteen Lives, and The Good Doctor.

My Top 10 Films of 2019

From one perspective, the year in cinema that was 2019 was a letdown. Massive flops, both critical and commercial, littered the Hollywood landscape. Even Disney, which had its most financially successful year on record, could be accused of running into a creative slump, with remakes and sequels winning out over more thoughtful original content.

And yet, for folks who see a lot of movies (like me), 2019 was easily the best year for film in recent memory. I would go so far as to say that it was my favorite year for film overall since I began this blog in 2012. Some of the industry’s most celebrate auteurs dropped new defining works (hello Tarantino, Malick, Scorsese and Baumbach), and I was consistently impressed with how many movies moved me or stunned me with their technical prowess (The Lighthouse and 1917 are two standouts on that front).

Sure, there were some disappointing films that didn’t live up to their potential, but I found a lot to like even in movies that weren’t technically great (It: Chapter Two and Godzilla: King of the Monsters are two of my greatest guilty pleasures of 2019). Overall, I’ve found so many movies this year that stretched the boundaries of what it means to make good art, and I was saddened putting together this year’s list to discover that so many wonderful movies did not have room in my top 10 or even my top 20.

2019 was truly a landmark year for cinema, and you will find not only my favorites of the year below, but also some of my favorites of the decade and perhaps even of all-time. Without further ado, here is my personal list of the top 10 films of 2019.

10. John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum

The latest and most vibrant evidence of the action movie as a true art form, this third film in Keanu Reeves’ increasingly popular action franchise is the best one yet. It’s a true stunner, with beautifully (and brutally) designed action sequences (hello horses!) along with a gripping story that continues to expand the intriguing mythos of this world of gentlemen assassins. I loved seeing more of Laurence Fishburne’s Bowery King, continuing the Matrix reunion we didn’t know we needed, and Asia Kate Dillon’s Adjudicator makes for an intimidating antagonist. Director Chad Stahelski is set to helm chapter 4 in 2021, and action afficionados like me are already counting down the days.

9. Us

Jordan Peele’s stunning follow-up to his electric Get Out is a much more epic affair, using the horror genre as a backdrop for a larger examination of racial identity in America and the ways in which systems marginalize the already vulnerable. The fact that Us is so immensely satisfying as a pure genre exercise is icing on an already delicious cake. Anchored by Lupita Nyong’o’s stunning dual performance as both captive (Adelaide) and tormentor (Red), the film is a downright disturbing descent into madness. The theme of duality and doppelgangers is hammered home in a terrific twist that, while not making tremendous logical sense, serves to deepen the thoughtful themes and provocative questions. Peele has got a lot on his mind, and I am along for every disturbing and twisted minute.

8. Little Women

Greta Gerwig’s incessantly charming adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s often-filmed novel is a work of tremendous beauty, kindness and grace. Suffice it to say, these are traits we could use a lot more of. As a terrific actor herself, Gerwig pulls pretty incredible performances from her cast (including a never-better Saoirse Ronan, Laura Dern, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen and Timotee Chalamet), and her script is anchored by a deep reverence for the source material along with a modern feminist streak that infuses the story with an energetic sense of defiance over a woman’s perceived inability to choose what will become of her life.

This film left a huge smile on my face, and it will likely be the gold standard for a whole new generation of fans. I hope they treasure it as much as I do.

7. Apollo 11

Seeing Todd Douglas Miller’s arresting documentary in IMAX was a truly transformative experience. I’ve always loved space stories and the wonder they inspire and seeing never-before-released footage of Neil Armstrong and company’s legendary expedition to the moon was mind-blowing. It’s hard to imagine how some of this footage was even captured, but Miller does a great job of letting the images speak for themselves. There are no talking heads, no narration—just the infectious energy of a moment in history that changed how we see ourselves and our place in the universe. Apollo 11 is a living testament to the endless ingenuity and indefatigable hope of humanity and seeing actual color video footage of that first step onto the moon ranks among my favorite cinematic moments of the year.

6. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

I will readily admit that I am a Tarantino fanatic—I love the energy he brings to his projects, his passion for cinema that radiates out of every frame. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood contains many of the director’s hat tricks—historical revisionism, a vintage soundtrack, witty and profane dialogue, sudden bursts of graphic violence—but it is also tinged with a sense of tragedy and loss of innocence that bear the mark of a more mature filmmaker. The brilliance of the film is in the way those two sides of Tarantino are balanced—the hubris and the humanism, the provocateur and the ponderer.

It certainly helps that Tarantino has eked out some career-best performances from the likes of Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio and Margot Robbie, performances that help this charming and affable tale of the end of Hollywood’s golden era come magically to life. To me, it’s ultimately the small moments that make this movie so special, from the plethora of hilarious cameos to the conversations that unfold between friends over a couple of drinks.

And one more thing: some critics were not fans of the movie’s final act, which re-frames the Manson murders as a night of cathartic violence, rather than unbearable heartbreak. I found it to be shocking, funny, and, ultimately, moving, my favorite ending to any movie released this year. I never saw where Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was going next, and I imagine I will enjoy plumbing its depths for years to come.

5. The Irishman

Martin Scorsese is nothing short of a cinematic legend. Over his long career, he has crafted some of the most technically daring, profoundly moving and downright entertaining films of his generation. I am happy to consider one of his breakout films, Taxi Driver, as my all-time favorite film. All this to say, when I heard of the director making another gangster epic in the vein of Casino or Goodfellas, I assumed I knew what I was getting. But, as he ages, Scorsese finds new ways to keep surprising us, and The Irishman has as much in common with the director’s more spiritual works (Kundun, The Last Temptation of Christ, Silence) as it does his gangster flicks.

Make no mistake, this is still a top-tier mob movie. Steve Zaillian’s meaty script is rife with rich time-hopping moments charting the rise of union boss Jimmy Hoffa (a brilliant Al Pacino) and his eventual mysterious disappearance. The film is not a biopic, but instead uses the historical relationship between Hoffa and hitman Frank Sheeran (Robert DeNiro) as a jumping-off point for a rumination on the personal cost of a life of crime. Much like Clint Eastwood re-contextualized the westerns that made his career in Unforgiven, Scorsese seems to be reflecting on the legacy of a life lived for the purpose of taking life from others. At the end of the road is isolation and regret, as we see in a haunting final image that is seared into my memory. Yes, The Irishman may be long, but it is an uncommonly rich and rewarding tale, even in a career filled with them.

4. Avengers: Endgame

One of the biggest pop-culture moments of 2019 also produced one of its most emotional and satisfying movies.  What Marvel has done with its cinematic universe is nothing short of legendary, and part of that success is owed to the film that caps it off. Endgame is a true stunner, an epic payoff that wraps up the main story thread of Marvel’s 20(+) film universe while also standing on its own as a great example of the way artistry can still be infused into big-budget blockbuster entertainment.

From its quiet and somber opening sequence, it’s clear that this is a different caliber of comic book superhero film. While the lengthy film (3 hours!) is full of generous humor and memorable character moments, the weight of what faces our heroes is conveyed with appropriate gravitas and even despair. But Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely’s script also satisfies on a pure story level, guiding us through delightful time-hopping adventures that leave plenty of space for most major characters to have their moment in the spotlight. And, in a year where “fan service” could be identified with laziness (I see you, Star Wars), here is a film that fleshed out that term to the best possible degree. It’s hard to imagine any fan of these characters or this decade-spanning series of movies being anything other than enthralled and moved by this power punch of a finale. Endgame stands out not only for what has come before it, but for being one of the best comic-based films of all time on its own merits.

3. A Hidden Life

I saw this film just a few days ago and was almost ready to write my list without it. As a gigantic fan of the films of Terrence Malick, I’m so glad I waited. No other film this year so stirred my emotions and my yearning to live a life of true calling and conviction. Easily Malick’s best film since his masterpiece The Tree of Life, the film is a somber meditation on the cost (and reward) of faithful Christian discipleship in a world consumed with turning a blind eye to evil. As Malick chronicles the true story of Austrian Franz (the underrated August Diehl) and his refusal to swear an oath of loyalty to Adolf Hitler during WWII, we see a deeply personal and moving example of how people of faith can engage in quiet, non-violent acts of disobedience in their struggle to render unto Caesar while still standing apart for the cause of Christ.

As a Christian, I’ve long championed the work of Terrence Malick as a prime example of how to integrate faith and art into modern cinema. The travesty of many “Christian” films is their desire to preach a message rather than use art to tell a story. The result is often artless and a poor imitation of the might and majesty the true love of Christ can engender in a human being. Malick doesn’t preach a message so much as bare his soul. His films are best experienced by letting them wash over you: everything from James Newton Howard’s gorgeous score to Jorg Widmer’s stunning cinematography is meant to be a sensory experience that lingers in the mind.

I’m willing to admit that this lengthy rumination on faith and courage could have been cut down a bit, but the film has a quiet momentum that builds to a powerful climax that had me weeping openly. It stands along the likes of Silence, Calvary, and First Reformed as a prime example that religious filmmaking can still look more like the Sistine Chapel than God’s Not Dead. And I say “Amen” to that.

2. Marriage Story

Writer/Director Noah Baumbach has always been a thoughtful examiner of the human condition, but I’ve felt his work to be more clinical than emotional. I’d say his films are often more interested in what makes people tick than in what brings passion to their lives. Throw all of those criticisms out the window with Marriage Story, because it is a warm, humanist miracle of a movie.

Baumbach’s chronicling of the disintegration of a marriage is devastating but also funny, trading in the idiosyncrasies of a shared life falling apart at the seams. We see moments of savagery and moments of great love. We see the ugliness of humanity alongside its indescribable beauty. We see the paradox that forgiving someone doesn’t mean you have to forget how they have hurt you.

Baumbach’s compassionate perspective is enhanced by truly mesmerizing lead performances from Adam Driver and Scarlett Johannsson as the couple in question, a struggling playwright and a breakout actress both suffering their own share of insecurities and egos. The truly stellar supporting cast includes Wallace Shawn, Laura Dern and Alan Alda in roles that will have you alternately wanting to pull your hair out and breathe a sigh of relief. Randy Newman’s sensitive score also heightens the emotions of the film considerably.

This is the kind of film that sinks its teeth in you from first frame to last. It’s not exactly a “fun” movie, but it has more moments of joy than the subject matter may suggest. Mostly, I am in awe of how Baumbach can treat each of his characters with such grace, patience and kindness. There is nary a false note or wasted moment in this truly great film.

1. Parasite

Korean director Bong Joon Ho’s savage tale of the haves and the have-nots has been the obsession of cinephiles ever since it won the prestigious Palme D’or at the Cannes Film Festival. Allow me to join in the praises. “Instant classic” is not a phrase that should be thrown around lightly, but it’s the first that comes to mind when I think about this completely unpredictable, endlessly imaginative and technically brilliant satire.

One of the things that has drawn me to Joon Ho’s work is his passion for social justice and caring for the environment (see Snowpiercer, Okja, The Host). Here, he takes those themes to new levels of profundity and absurdity, as he mixes dark comedy and truly powerful ruminations on the relationship between poverty and opportunity. The Kim family represents the working class, with side hustles and get-rich-quick schemes abounding. The Park family represents the upper class of society—oblivious to the world around them and clueless (perhaps even hostile) to the suffering of those around them.

We would be remiss to call any of these people role models, filled as their story is with deception and struggles for power, but they are immensely sympathetic. This is apparent not only in how they are written, but in the performances. Terrific Korean actors such as Kang-ho Song, Sun-Kyun Lee and Yeo-jeong Jo help us to understand the plight of their characters through both their subtleties and their extremes.

Rarely has a film been so thoroughly unpredictable as this one. For a film to truly surprise you moment-by-moment—with its heart, its humor, its twists and its technical brilliance—is a rare thing indeed. Bong Joon Ho has used all the pleasures that cinema has to offer—haunting music, unforgettable imagery, astounding performances and brilliant plotting—to craft a picture that fires on every possible cylinder. Don’t let the subtitles scare you. As Joon Ho himself said when he accepted the Golden Globe for best Foreign Language Film, “Once you overcome the 1-inch-tall barrier of subtitlesyou will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” Indeed, no English-language film (or film in any language) released this year was more amazing than this one.

Since I had such a hard time narrowing my list down to 10, here are my picks for the best films 11—20 I saw in 2019. Knives Out

11. Knives Out

12. The Farewell

13. 1917

14. Ad Astra

15. Just Mercy

16. Toy Story 4

17. The Lighthouse

18. The Peanut Butter Falcon

19. American Factory

20. The Art of Self-Defense

I saw a lot of movies this year, but there were still some blind spots. Here are the major ones:

For Sama, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Pain and Glory, The Wild Pear Tree, Honeyland, Ash is Purest White, Birds of Passage, Atlantics, Booksmart, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, Western Stars, Funan, Gloria Bell, Waves, High Life, The Nightingale, Brittany Runs a Marathon, Late Night, Honey Boy, Peterloo, Judy, Bombshell, Richard Jewell.

My Top 10 Films of 2018

Despite my writing absence from this site, I was able to see a ton of movies this year. And man, was it a good one. This is easily the best year for film as a whole since I started this blog (so six years now, I believe). I began losing track of four-star great movies I saw this year, which naturally made making a top 10 list particularly challenging for 2018. Nevertheless, I persisted, although you will notice that I have a significant number of “ties;” some might say this is breaking the rules, but this is my list and I can do what I want.

This year, I was most appreciative of films that reflected the goodness of humanity. Every time we turn on the news, it seems there is so much wrong with the world and the people in it. I love a good dark drama, but I think we were all looking for something to lift our spirits up and give us some hope. Not all of this year’s films did that, but most of them did. These were the films I found most beautiful, thought-provoking, emotional or enjoyable in 2018. Cheers to another great year of movies!


I feel like this brilliant comedy was overlooked by some critics because, well, it’s a comedy. But man, what a ride! This brilliantly crafted knee-slapper stars Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams as a game board-loving couple who are forced into a game more dangerous than they imagined when Bateman’s trouble-making brother (a hilarious Kyle Chandler) comes to town. There are enough twists and turns in this labyrinthine plot to make your head spin, but there’s also great running gags, top-notch visual humor and incredible acting all-around. Also, the one-shot Fabergé egg heist is one of the best action sequences of the year, right up there with the casino fight in Black Panther. Rarely are mainstream comedies this exquisitely constructed.


Imagine the most badass 2 ½ hour roller coaster, and you have a faint idea of what you’re in for with the sixth installment of the Mission: Impossible franchise, and the best one yet. This impeccably crafted thrill ride is one of the best action movies this decade. Tom Cruise reprises his role as Ethan Hunt, and there are enough synthetic masks and double crosses to fill three movies. Yeah, the plot is a bit ridiculous and complicated, but dear lord, the action in this movie is some of the best ever put to screen. This is mostly due to Cruise, who has always insisted on doing his own stunts and pumps the daredevil antics up to a level never seen before. From skydiving to helicopter flying, motorcycle chases and leaping across rooftops, Cruise and director Christopher McQuarrie consistently keep a lump in our throats and our nails clawing out our chairs. What makes this one such a blast is that it just nails that M:I tone of being dramatic without taking itself too seriously. When people are constantly pulling off masks and revealing themselves to be in disguise, it’s hard to get too serious. The terrific supporting cast and lightning-quick dialogue help to keep the pace frenetic, and the whole thing feels like an intense labor of love that, miraculously, everyone survived. Well, almost anyways. I saw this bad boy in IMAX and barely made it out unscathed. Action films this heart-pounding and polished are a rare and beautiful thing.


Critics can not stop raving about Alfonso Cuaron’s latest masterpiece, and it’s easy to see why. The veteran director’s intimate, autobiographical look at a nanny and the family she serves amidst the civil unrest of 1970s Mexico City is a jaw-dropper. Filmed in stunning black-and-white, Cuaron captures the look and feel of the era with painfully accurate detail, and invites us in for the journey. Thanks to Cuaron’s own eye-popping cinematography, extraordinary sound design and a wonderful performance from Yalitza Aparicio, this is an undeniably emotional experience. It’s also, I must say, a bit slow, and I can’t say it had quite the impact on me that it is having on a lot of other folks. It’s one I need to see again, on a bigger screen and a better sound system when I’m less tired. I know this is the kind of quality film that deserves my utmost attention, but for now Roma is comfortably one of the best films I saw in 2018, rather than the far-and-away best. Yet, there are several scenes that will stick with me for a long time.


I found Chloe Zhao’s stunning portrait of a professional horse rider dealing with the fallout of a traumatic brain injury to be one of the more gripping films I’ve seen in some time. The Rider is the kind of film that sneaks up on you as it paints an exquisite portrait of life lived on the margins. The film seems to be “about” rodeo riders, but it’s more deeply about how to live life when our dreams don’t go how we expect them to. I definitely cried watching this one. Brady Jandreau plays a fictionalized version of himself, and his performance feels all the more authentic given that he’s lived out his character in real life. The film’s use of naturalistic actors could have been a big miss (see Clint Eastwood’s 15:17 to Paris), but in Zhao’s capable hands they help convey something natural and beautiful. For those at a crossroads in life or feeling like they might have to give up on a long-held dream or passion, The Rider is a box-of-hankies salve for bitter souls.


This terrific quartet all made an impact this year due to their diverse and wild perspectives on the black experience in America. I loved them all so much I decided they should share a spot.

Black Panther is the rare film that enthralled both critics and audiences alike, an even rarer feat in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The film definitely works as a superhero origin story and as a vehicle for spectacular action set pieces (see the aforementioned casino fight or the subsequent car chase), but it digs deeper by examining the roots behind racial tensions in America and giving us the best Marvel villain yet: Erik Kilmonger, played by a brilliant Michael B. Jordan. Through Kilmonger, Jordan forces us to confront our own biases and the way we’ve stood by as black people suffered in the name of peace. He’s the rare villain that actually ends up changing the hero’s mind, although the way he goes about his mission is nothing to be praised. Thankfully, the hero is pretty great too, giving another avenue for Chadwick Boseman to show off his considerable talents. But it’s the ladies who really steal the show here, with terrific actors like Letitia Wright, Danai Gurira and Lupita Nyong’o getting to show off their badassery and prove that the ladies can throw down as much as the men can any day. Wakanda Forever!

Far less subtle in its racial overtones is Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, a based-on-a-true-story tale as in-your-face and controversial as anything the veteran director has done. This is not a sensitive racial drama, but it is a powerful one, if you prefer a bludgeon to a scalpel. The chaotic “friendship” between a Colorado Springs undercover police officer (John David Washington) and KKK leader David Duke (a never-better Topher Grace) is frequently hilarious and disturbing, sometimes in the same scene. Lee does a great job of pulling our strings until we’re not sure whether we should be cackling or muttering uncomfortably under our breath. It’s a terrific high-wire act that could have easily felt overstuffed or manipulative in less capable hands. But, from Lee’s impeccable direction to an amazing soundtrack and committed performances (Adam Driver is especially good), the whole thing works. Oh, and watch out for that ending—it will sneak up on you.

Sorry to Bother You is an even darker racial comedy that marks the directorial debut of Boots Riley, who proves he has something to say. The always great Lakeith Stanfield leads us down a wild and disturbing path, as his Cassius Green makes his way up the corporate ladder by using his “white voice” to manipulate telemarketing customers to buy from him. His increasingly cushy job is soon at odds with his social activist friends (Tessa Thompson and Steven Yuen), who believe the corporation he works for is up to some shady business. To say that this movie is insane would be an understatement, but Riley has some profound things to say about the relationship between African Americans and capitalism, and how the corporate machine both objectifies and abuses black bodies. The film’s slow descent into sci-fi insanity feels earned because Cassius is such an every-man—he is both ambitious and a bit naive, manipulated by people who pretend to have his best interests at heart. Sorry to Bother You is definitely an acquired taste, but it’s unlike anything else out there, and, much like Get Out, shows that there is no shortage of up-and-coming (and sorely needed) black voices in contemporary cinema.

Green Book is the most stuffy and traditional film of the group, but it’s so damn charming it eventually wins you over with its goofy heart. The friendship between Mahershala Ali’s sensitive Dr. Shirley and Viggo Mortensen’s braggadocious Tony is undeniably affecting, especially when we’re in the hands of such terrific actors. Despite its Oscar-bait trappings, the film is far from predictable, and it’s a surprisingly funny and enjoyable ride. Perhaps that’s partially due to director Peter Farrelly (of Farrely brothers fame), who has seemingly left his Dumb & Dumber days behind, and shows he is an accomplished and visionary filmmaker in his own right. This is a film that might have you rolling your eyes in the beginning, but by the end you’re wiping away tears. When examining America’s racial past, we could use more light and gentle touches like the ones found here. Green Book is a powerful testament to putting yourself in someone’s shoes in order to enact a change of heart.


This was a particularly great year for animated movies, and these three are sterling examples of why it was so good. I loved them all so much, I couldn’t pick a winner.

The Incredibles 2 is a pitch-perfect sequel to the beloved original. It took 14 years, but the wait was worth it. Brad Bird’s whip-smart and eye-popping sequel is another powerful testament to the power of family. Bird is one of the best dialogue writers in the business, and much of this film’s joy comes simply from hearing his words come out of these colorful characters’ mouths. The film also deals more with family dynamics than the original, tackling topics such as mid-life crisis and the feeling of abandonment. Thankfully, we also get a slew of new superheroes (and more Frozone!) to liven up the action, although the villain can’t hold a candle to Syndrome. This is another Pixar delight, great for kids but perhaps even more fun and profound for adults.

Speaking of films kids and adults alike can enjoy, Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse is an endlessly clever and original take on the famous character. I didn’t think I wanted to see another Spider-Man movie, but Sony animation has thankfully proved me very wrong. In fact, this is the best Spidey flick to date, with memorable characters, an engaging story and some of the best animation ever put to screen. No film has even looked more like a moving comic book than this one, and it’s honestly pretty jaw-dropping to witness. This is definitely the most fun I had at the movies this year, and I can’t wait to see what the Spiderverse kicks up next.

If you prefer your stunning animation of the more hand-crafted variety, look no further than Wes Anderson’s delightful Isle of Dogs. There’s a particular pleasure to watching the painstaking craftsmanship of stop-motion animation, and this film is clearly a labor of love. Everything is hand-made, from the painted neo-Tokyo backdrops to the smoke made from cotton and hypnotizing fur on the canine cast. Beyond the visuals, it’s just a sweet and engaging story, with a great cast of veteran voice actors to round out the package. Isle of Dogs may seem like a typical boy-and-his-dog story, but in the hands of a visionary like Anderson it is a work of true genius.


Leave No Trace, like many of this year’s best films, is about the inner lives of its characters more than it is their outer struggle. When that outer struggle is homelessness, such profound introspection is quite a feat.

The always terrific Ben Foster plays Will, a war veteran suffering from PTSD and a variety of other…issues. One of those issues is not his relationship with his daughter Tom (a breakout Thomasin McKenzie), which is palpable and profound. But, Will can’t exactly live in a traditional suburb with four walls. In fact, he’s convinced the best life he can provide for his daughter is out in the open wilderness. But there are other forces, both outer and inner, determined to prevent that from happening.

This gorgeous film is Debra Granik’s first since 2010’s Winter’s Bone, but the wait was well worth it. Granik takes her naturalistic style from a backwoods thriller to a subtle tale of love, friendship and the power of community. There’s so much in this film to appreciate: Michael McDonough’s arresting cinematography, the natural performances and the powerful themes. But what really reaches the gut is the relationship at the center—one that helps us all to think about someone we might have to love enough to let go. It’s a story that absolutely celebrates the goodness of humanity, even as it recognizes that there is brokenness amidst the beauty. This is a bittersweet movie that nonetheless ends up feeling like a big, warm hug. It might just restore your faith in humanity.


Paul Schrader wrote Taxi Driver, which is my all-time favorite film. Schrader’s own directing career has been full of ups and downs (especially in recent years), but few would argue that First Reformed doesn’t represent one of his most profound and stirring works, anchored by the best performance of Ethan Hawke’s formidable career.

The film, in many ways, feels like a modern-day remake of Taxi Driver, with much more overt religious parallels. Schrader’s “God’s lonely man” is the Revered Toller this time (Hawke), a dedicated priest in charge of a dwindling Episcopal congregation. Most of his duties these days consist of giving tours of the historic church to visitors rather than doing anything that might be truly called the Lord’s work.

Like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, Toller is well-intentioned but a bit aimless, feeling like his life lacks purpose despite his deep-seated faith that God has called him to this work. He turns to drinking. He turns away those who reach out to help. One day, he finds purpose and meaning, however, when he encounters parishioner Mary (Amanda Seyfried), who is concerned about her husband Michael and his increasingly nihilistic views on raising a child in a world ravaged by climate change. Though initially repulsed by the man, Toller soon begins to see him as a sort of kindred spirit, and like Bickle turns to an act of violence to save those he loves and pay penance for his sins.

When it comes to modern films about religious faith, First Reformed ranks with Calvary and Silence as one of the finest. It’s a deeply personal work by one of our most spiritual filmmakers at the top of his game. Its dark themes and refusal to provide easy answers means it’s not for anyone looking for easy believism. But, for people of faith or of none in particular looking for a gripping moral drama, few films so potently echo the Prophet Jeremiah’s words: “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?”


Writer-director Bo Burnham’s directorial debut is nothing short of a revelation. Few modern films have so perfectly captured the confounding mixture of joy, fear, anxiety, isolation and hormones of modern adolescents. This is the kind of film that’s instantly relatable: anyone can remember a time when they were like Kayla (an arresting Elsie Fisher); ambitious and kind but eager to please and prone to peer pressure. Kayla’s internal life is fascinating as she struggles with body shaming, cliques, awkward pool parties and school dances and her lifestyle blog, which feels more like an obligation than a passion.

Kayla, like nearly all modern youth, also struggles with technology and the way social media and phone addiction feeds into the lies young people are told about themselves. You have to be pretty, you have to be popular, you have to have sex and go to wild parties and be a rebel. Kayla is both resistant to and drawn towards this kind of exhausting lifestyle, and she must choose which things she will believe about herself and what she will filter out.

This is an uncomfortable and awkward film, for sure, but it’s also sweet, hilarious and completely relatable (the scene with Kayla and the high school boy in the car is the most intense scene in any film released this year). It also has so much wisdom to speak to young girls especially about where worth and identity really come from. This is all conveyed with brilliant cinematography that makes us feel like a part of Kayla’s life, along with sensitive and soulful performances all around (Josh Hamilton as Kayla’s father is particularly great).

Eighth Grade feels like a miracle, a debut so self-assured and confident it deserves mention alongside the great coming-of-age classics. What a wonderful work of art this is.


No film this year moved me more, and none had more value. Morgan Neville’s intimate and unbearably emotional examination of the life of Fred Rogers and the impact of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood is one of the finest documentaries ever put to screen.

There is so much in this film that is necessary. To see an exemplar of a truly kind and giving soul in our modern age of darkness is something that should give us all a measure of hope. To see that a true man doesn’t have to fit traditional ideas about what a “man” should be, especially in an era of heightened sensitivity to toxic masculinity, is something that speaks deeply to my soul. Rogers is a reminder that kindness is, indeed, a revolution, as he demonstrated when he came back on the air after retirement to comfort a grieving nation reeling from the 9/11 terrorist attacks. No average man is asked to tackle such a herculean task, but like everything Fred did, he accomplished it with grace, sensitivity and a seemingly inhuman amount of humility.

The film is also just an exquisitely crafted work of art, once again proving why Neville is one of the finest documentary filmmakers working today. His deft handling of the material is something to behold; refraining from hagiography and ensuring many different perspectives and personalities are represented. It’s no hyperbole to say that there really wasn’t anyone who had anything bad to say about Fred. He was just that special of a person, and this is that special of a documentary. It made me cry and laugh in equal measure, and has left me reeling ever since. Any film that encourages us to be better humans, and to do so without manipulation, is one for the history books.

The rest: As I said before, 2018 was a truly extraordinary year for film. There are so many movies that I regret I couldn’t include on this list. Some of my favorites, in no particular order, are: A Quiet Place, Paddington 2, Lean on Pete, Avengers: Infinity War, The Favourite, A Star is Born, Ralph Breaks the Internet, First Man, Annihilation, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Tully, Crazy Rich Asians and Ready Player One, to name a few.

Blind spots: Shoplilfters, Minding the Gap, They Shall Not Grow Old, Burning, The Tale, Cold War, The Death of Stalin, Sweet Country, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Hereditary, If Beale Street Could Talk, You Were Never Really Here, Widows, Free Solo, The Hate U Give, Mandy, Three Identical Stranger, Revenge, The Old Man and the Gun, The Sisters Brothers, At Eternity’s Gate, The Other Side of the Wind, The Wife, A Private War, Blaze, Thoroughbreds, Journey’s End, Searching and Boy Erased, among others.

Steve Jobs review

The life of Apple visionary Steve Jobs appears to be a source of endless fascination for Hollywood. There was an unsuccessful drama starring Aston Kutcher, and this year’s documentary from Alex Gibney. Now, legendary screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and director Danny Boyle have taken a unique stab at the man who changed the history of how we communicate. Sorkin, who wrote the brilliant, acerbic The Social Network about the rise of Facebook, is no stranger to the lives of tech giants. While Steve Jobs is not as successful as that masterwork, it’s still an arresting and original portrait.

The film is driven from a sensational performance by Michael Fassbender, who can seem to do no wrong. He nails the sometimes toxic combination of madness and genius that drove Jobs, the kind that is well-suited to running a company but also leaves his personal life in shambles. Fassbender can express more with his eyes that most actors can with their entire bodies. It’s a difficult performance to pull off well, but he never misses a beat.

Sorkin’s talky screenplay forgoes the typical biopic treatment to focus on three major points in Jobs’ tech career: the 1984 unveiling of the original Macintosh, the 1988 reveal of the Next computer and the 1998 release of the iMac. Each event takes up about a third of the runtime, and updates us on Jobs’ relationship with the key players in his professional and personal life. There’s his “work wife” assistant, Joanna Hoffman (an always-stellar Kate Winslet), his boss, John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), his co-founding partners in crime, Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen) and Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg) and his estranged lover and daughter, Chrisann and Lisa Brennan.

The film takes place almost entirely in doors, with tons of backroom meetings, last minute changes and personal revelations. Because each sequence takes place during the minutes leading up to a tech unveiling, everyone is always flustered, snappy and on-edge. Sorkin wisely realizes that it is in these moments where honesty emerges, and people show their true selves. When we’re first introduced to Jobs in 1984, he’s pretty much an unlikable cad who refuses to support his lover with more than the very basic of child support and stringently denies a paternity test that claims Lisa to be his daughter. There’s also his strained relationship with Wozniak, who insists that Jobs acknowledge the original Apple II team during the tech unveiling. With CEO Sculley, his attitude ranges from mildly antagonistic to outwardly hostile. He accosts his co-workers with unreasonable demands, like getting the Macintosh to say “hello” onstage despite everyone saying it’s impossible.


Steve Jobs is an arresting and creative portrait of the legendary tech genius.

Sorkin’s script is certainly a warts-and-all portrait, but it never makes Jobs out as a true villain. What makes the story so brilliant is the way it peels back layers with each sequence, revealing new depth to the man than what was previously shown. When we learn, for example, how hard it was on him never knowing his birth parents, or how deep and complicated his relationship with his daughter really is, we begin to understand the true nature of the man. It’s interesting to note that Sorkin focused on two product launches that were seen as failures before giving us a successful one at the end. Here is a man whose genius was birthed in the fires of failure. It also helps that Sorkin is a master at dialogue as well; the film is wryly observant and funny; it trades cheap jokes for sophisticated pop culture references that really anchor us in the time and place of each sequence.

I was impressed with the visual variety and complexity on display here. It’s tough to make a film that takes place mostly behind stages (we don’t ever see Jobs give a full speech to a crowd) look as good as it does here. Thanks to Boyle’s assured direction, Alwin H. Kuchler’s dizzying camerawork and Guy Hendrix Dyas’ sumptuous production design, the film still manages to put on quite a show. The film experiments with pop-up graphics and text that give us something new to look at without taking us out of the story.

But Steve Jobs is the kind of film where expectations should be managed. Because it is not a full biopic but rather a portrait, we don’t get as comprehensive a view of Jobs’ life as some might like. The film dives deep into the thoughts and moments that defined these three points in his life but, other than a few brief flashbacks, we don’t get much of the scrappy wherewithal of Apple’s early days, or anything related to Jobs’ later-day successes or illness and eventual death. As such, we view his personal life solely through the lens of his career, which gives the film an odd feeling of being both deep and shallow at the same time. I’d love to see the approach given here adapted to some sort of miniseries; there’s a lot more story to tell (you may want to check out Gibney’s Steve Jobs: Man in the Machine to help fill in some of the gaps, or read Walter Isaacson’s excellent biography).

In the end, this desire to learn more about the man behind Apple doesn’t dilute the film too much. Steve Jobs is an absolute must-see, a stirring portrait of a man who had everything and nothing at the same time. It’s one of the most well-made films of the year, and the stellar acting on display from all involved is worth the price of admission alone.

“Hard for a good soul to survive:” The legacy of Gorillaz’ Demon Days

The world would be forgiven for not knowing quite what to make of Gorillaz when they were first introduced to the music world in 2001. The collaboration between Blur front man Damon Albarn and Tank Girl artist Jamie Hewlett was an immensely weird and entirely new creation, one where visuals and music melded together in kaleidoscopic brilliance. Hewlett’s iconic music videos featured the exploits of the fictional band at the group’s center: 2D, the band’s zombie-like singer; Murdoc Niccals, the group’s moody bass player; Russell Hobbs, playing drums and frequently carrying around a dead pig; and Noodle (guitar, keyboard, background vocals), an unpredictable young Asian girl.

Gorillaz self-titled debut was a hit, introducing catchy tunes like “Clint Eastwood” and “5/4” to the world. That album featured what would become group staples: repetitive, trance-like beats, nonsensical lyrics, an emphasis on guest artist collaborations and a surprising variety of sounds and styles. And yet, the album feels ultimately inessential, a decided product of its time.

The same can’t be said for Gorillaz highly-anticipated follow-up, 2005’s Demon Days. Ten years later, it’s hard not to look upon this dark, moody masterpiece as anything other than a modern classic. When I first heard Demon Days (specifically, the popular track “Feel Good Inc.,” I instantly fell in love with the band, and the album remains one of my all-time favorites. Delve into the album with me to find out why.

Referencing the Beatles is a bold move for any music artist. Thankfully, the greatness of Demon Days justifies such a decision.

Referencing the Beatles is a bold move for any music artist. Thankfully, the greatness of Demon Days justifies such a decision.

The intro to the album sets the tone; it’s filled with low, subtle bass sounds. The sonic blend casts a hypnotic spell, and then fades away with the epic refrain: “You are now entering the harmonic realm.” The opening beats of “Last Living Souls” take over, as Albarn’s hypnotic voice asks: “Are we the last living souls?” The question sets up the theme of isolation on the album. It’s hard to know if the speaker’s isolation is self-imposed or a result of cultural influences. There’s also the possibility of a post-apocalyptic interpretation (literally, everyone else could be dead). The album seems to tease this possibility throughout, but Albarn respects his audience enough to avoid spoon-feeding us any one interpretation of his cryptic lyrics. Whatever the interpretation, the song establishes Albarn’s panache for taking a grab-bag of instruments and styles and allowing them to gel beautifully. This track alone features keyboard, piano, acoustic guitar and violin accompaniment.

The album slides further into chaos with “Kids With Guns,” which bemoans our culture’s blasé attitude towards violence. But the lyrics take things a step further by analyzing the motivations behind the kids with guns who are “taking over.” “And they’re turning us into monsters/Turning us into fire/Turning us into monsters/It’s all desire, it’s all desire, it’s all desire.” In an anything goes, do-what-you-want culture, one that idolizes the individual and seems to make promises it can never keep, we end up with a generation of “mesmerized skeletons,” walking corpses, if you will. “It won’t be long” before they explode. Such a message is even more relevant today than it was when the album released.

“O Green World” bemoans a different kind of violence, that which humanity is doing to the environment. The haunting background chants express a longing for a world that no longer exists. When I hear this song, I picture some kind of post-apocalyptic wasteland. Albarn expresses a desire to return to living a life of oneness with nature. “Oh green world/Don’t desert me now/Made of you and you of me/But, where are we?” It’s one of the album’s most creative and relevant tracks, as Albarn’s initially subdued vocals rise to a cacophonous cry along with the music, which starts and ends the song with utter sonic chaos.

“Dirty Harry” is probably the album’s coolest song, and one of my personal favorites. Continuing hints at a post-apocalyptic wasteland, the lyrics continue the album’s focus on cycles of violence. “I need a gun to keep myself from harm/The poor people are burning in the sun.” Gorillaz’ penchant for collaboration is featured here, with the San Fernando Valley Youth Chorus providing excellent background vocals and Bootie Brown busting out a wicked rap interlude.

There may not be much to say about “Feel Good Inc.” Everyone has heard it; it was the song that sparked my initial interest in the group. I can say that the music video is awesome, and the lyrics make no sense. My guess would be that the flying windmill featured in the video and referenced on the track is the band’s attempt to flee the chaotic violence of the world below, a sort of Noah’s Ark, perhaps. This is all wild interpretation, because the song gives few clues. “Windmill, windmill for the land/Is everybody in?” suggests a desire to fly away and leave everything behind. The creative, iconic rap by De La Soul helps the track maintain its more upbeat vibe. Oh, and did I mention that Jamie Hewlitt is an amazing artist? Seriously, check the video out. It’s good stuff.

The melancholy quickly returns with “El Mañana,” a haunting track that sees the destruction of the windmill of hope from the previous song. Safe to say, the song is a bit of a bummer, but it once again highlights the album’s staggering variety from song to song. I particularly appreciate the gorgeous string accompaniment here.

“Every Planet We Reach is Dead” delves into some much-needed funk, but the lyrics continue their strain of longing. “But God only knows it’s getting hard/To see the sun coming through/I love you…but what are we going to do?” The song is something of a masterwork, with a creative use of guitar, excellent strings and Ike Turner’s kick-ass, bluesy piano solo. It’s certainly an album highlight.

“November Has Come” is a more restrained but equally fun track. It opens with my favorite rap on the album, a subdued, sublimely rhymed poem from MF Doom. But Albarn still makes room for his melancholic questions. “Something has started today/Where did it go? Why you wanted it to be?/ Well, you know November has come when it’s gone away.”

The album’s sense of isolation reaches its apex with the aptly titled “All Alone.” The heavily electronic track is highlighted by a gorgeous, fanciful refrain from guest artist Martina Topley-Bird. “’Cause I don’t believe, when the morning comes/It doesn’t seem to say an awful lot to me.” I love the use of multiple voices to echo the repeated lyric “All Alone!” The staggered vocal effect seems to suggest the sense of isolation that can exist even in a crowd.

That aching feeling attempts to be filled with alcohol in “White Light,” which only contains the lyrics “white light” and “alcohol.” The chaotic, grungy guitar work suggests a descent into inebriated senses to help dull the pain. And, for this track at least, it seems to work; the track is frenetic but I believe purposefully lazy in its attempt to replicate the temporary, fizzy high of inebriation. It’s all style and absolutely no substance, but that seems more like a deliberate thematic choice than a simple case of poor songwriting.

DARE is a straight dance track, and almost prohibitively catchy. It’s tons of fun, with an entertaining vocal from Shaun Ryder. There’s not really much to analyze here, though I do feel like a broken record for reiterating that the music video is beyond amazing and, of course, delightfully weird.

I’ll admit I wasn’t initially much into “Fire Coming out of the Monkey’s Head,” Dennis Hopper’s spoken word feature. But now, it’s probably my favorite track on the album. Hopper tells a complete story, one that highlights the dangers of greed and hubris. It essentially distills all of the album’s major themes into one track: our culture’s obsession with violence (and war in particular), our destruction of the environment and our celebration of the self over all else. Greed is particularly dangerous here, as it results in the destruction of the town where the “Happyfolk” lived. It’s a brilliant and haunting cautionary tale, especially when Albarn’s brief refrain chimes in. “Falling out of aeroplanes and hiding out in holes/Waiting for the sunset to come, people going home/Jump out from behind them and shoot them in the head/Now everybody dancing the dance of the dead.”

In my opinion, Demon Day’s final two tracks catapult the record from simple greatness into masterpiece status. The gospel-infused “Don’t Get Lost in Heaven” seems determined to try and find some peace or at least understanding amidst all the chaos the rest of the album dishes out. The London Community Gospel Choir does an incredible job here, as this brief interlude surveys the destruction the rest of the album has wrought. The cautionary lyrics that echo the song’s title are certainly open to interpretation, but seem to suggest a hope that the listener will not stay lost in high-minded thinking while ignoring the very real suffering in the world. That suffering is referred to as the “Demon Days” on the album’s closing track. “In these demon days it’s so cold inside/So hard for a good soul to survive/You can’t even trust the air you breathe/Because mother earth wants us all to leave/When lies become reality, you numb yourself with drugs and T.V.” But thankfully, the inspirational chorus is not content to leave us in the despair. “Pick yourself up it’s a brand new day!/So turn yourself around/Don’t burn yourself, turn yourself/Turn yourself around/To the sun.”

This hopeful ending refrain is incredibly powerful, especially because I’ve read the lyrics spelled as “sun” and “son.” Given the track’s gospel sound, it wouldn’t necessarily surprise me that the “son” referred to is Christ himself. Such an interpretation would echo a sinner’s redemption as he turns himself around to God and denies his old ways. I think “sun” is the more likely spelling, but perhaps Albarn left us to figure this out for ourselves, like he did on much of the rest of the album.

This is one of the many things that make Demon Days one of my all-time favorite albums. Albarn and his incredible team of collaborators are willing to have a ton of silly fun, but the album is at its best when it sometimes abruptly drops deep, meaningful truths. Many of these are open to interpretation, and that’s the way it should be. The group respects its listeners enough to come up with their own interpretations. Some may be more correct than others, but we may never really know. In the meantime, we’ll have to settle for one of the most sonically diverse, thematically daring, original and downright inspired albums to ever grace the ear. That seems like a pretty good deal to me.

Holiday Movie Review Roundup

This Christmas season, Hollywood seems especially concerned with one primary aspect of the holiday: consumerism. Several recently released films are about money; how much American society needs it as well as how much that same consumer society destroys and corrupts good and bad alike. During a time of year obsessed with consumerism, it’s an important theme. They’re also about dreams, both those that are broken and those that are occasionally fulfilled. I checked out a few new movies receiving major critical and awards attention.

The Wolf of Wall Street

Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street is a three-hour effigy to excess. Scorsese teams up once again with Leonardo DiCaprio, who gives a fireball of a performance as Jordan Belfort, the real-life sleaze ball broker who made millions by scamming people out of money by selling them phony stocks. Along the way, he enlists the help of Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) and a few select others in their attempt to grow their phony company, Stratton Oakmont, into a legitimate operation.

The film’s early scenes are fascinating, as a bright-eyed Belfort with ambition and ideals is enthralled by a Wall Street veteran (a brief but brilliant Matthew McConaughey) and begins to build his phony firm from the ground up. The process behind the operation is the most interesting part of the movie.

Belfort and company’s rise to the top (and descent to the depths of debauchery) is chronicled in increasingly graphic displays of rampant sex and drug use. It’s fun for a while, and some over-the-top scenes rank among the funniest in Scorsese history (one particularly brilliant, almost vaudevillian sequence involves Belfort’s overdose on Quaalude, his drug of choice). But the movie wears out its welcome by the end. So much screen time is devoted to the film’s ribald sexual content that most attempts at lasting character development fall flat. By the time the narrative switches gears by throwing in an FBI agent (an underused Kyle Chandler) hot on the scent to bust Stratton, it’s much too late to rein in the film’s overstuffed ambition.

Then there’s Belfort, a completely horrible person from beginning to end. Are we actually supposed to be rooting for this guy? Scorsese has made a career out of depicting despicable yet fascinating characters, but Belfort takes things a bit too far. DiCaprio plays him much too charming to actively root against, either. Azoff and the supporting characters don’t fare any better; everyone is thoroughly unredeemable. Much talk has been made over whether the film is misogynistic, and I think the criticisms are justified. There are lots of naked women in this movie, and, while Belfort’s model wife, Naomi (Margot Robbie) gets ample screen time, she’s mostly just there as a sex object, too. It’s a shocking misstep from a director who has a history of very strong female characters.

Of course, some may argue that these things make sense when viewed through Belfort’s eyes, an unreliable narrator who often breaks the fourth wall to talk directly (and down) to the audience. But just because the film hews to Belfort’s real-life story doesn’t imbue it with meaning. The film’s ultimate letdown is that it doesn’t bother to make us care for these sick characters or say anything new. It’s certainly outrageous that one of the foundations of our economy could be manipulated like this, but “money corrupts people” isn’t exactly a novel concept.

Wolf is an occasionally brilliant movie, but I can’t help but think that this is Scorsese’s version of a frat boy comedy. DiCaprio is certainly deserving of high praise; he seems to be completely enraptured in his insane performance; if the man doesn’t get an Oscar for this one, I’m not sure he ever will. The movie itself is an enthralling, often hilarious portrait of a director at his most gloriously unhinged, but those looking for a bit more depth beneath the madness will very likely feel bludgeoned and numbed by Scorsese’s raucous, slick con job.

 American Hustle

David O Russell channels his own inner Scorsese in American Hustle, a brilliant caper film that begs comparison to Goodfellas, among others. It’s the kind of film Scorsese used to make, a smoldering mix of memorable characters, a twisty plot and the distinct voice of a true American original.

Loosely based on the FBI ABSCAM operation of the late ‘70s (the opening states that “some of this stuff actually happened,”) the film follows the exploits of Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale, with what is described as an “elaborate” comb over), a professional New Jersey con man who, along with his girlfriend, Sydney (a sweltering Amy Adams) is pulled into an FBI sting operation led by Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). The goal is to implicate multiple Jersey politicians in taking bribe money under the banner of restoring the once-glorious Atlantic City.

Things are complicated both by Irving’s vindictive wife Rosalyn (a manic-depressive Jennifer Lawrence) and his friendship with naive politician Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), who DiMaso asks Irving to implicate in the sting.

Hustle pulses with the urgency surrounding a high-stakes plot that could unravel at any moment. And, between con over con and Irving’s complex love triangle, the film threatens to unravel, too. But it doesn’t. Director O’Russell is such an exhilarating director, swooping the camera in every imaginable and lending the movie a vibrant, breakneck pace. O Russell proves himself once again as a brilliant writer, too. Despite the machinations of the plot, the film is ultimately a deep character study, a look at survival and the role the characters’ duplicitous natures contributes to their working-class ennui. In particular, the relationship between Irving, Sydney and Rosalyn is handled with aplomb, and grows even more engaging as the film continues.

The acting is off-the-charts great, with Bale, Adams, Lawrence and Cooper all pulling in AAA performances. Brilliant supporting work from Louis C.K. as a bumbling FBI agent and Robert DeNiro as a mobster (what else) rounds out the powerhouse package. O Russell’s attention to period detail (particularly the costumes and that glorious hair) lend the film an authentic vibe where it could have easily felt fabricated. His use of popular period music is equally exciting (and again, quite Scorsese-an).

Hustle has its flaws, but it’s so hard not to fall in love with, because it’s a movie in the purest sense of the word. A sheer joy for the art and craft of filmmaking permeates its pores. If he wasn’t already, David O Russell is now one of the most consistently surprising and accomplished directors in the business.

 Saving Mr. Banks

Saving Mr. Banks couldn’t be any more different. British author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) seems entirely uninterested in money. She calls it a “dirty word,” but profits from her successful Mary Poppins books have dwindled, and she decides to humor Walt Disney (Tom Hanks), who invites her to come to California in an attempt to convince her to sign over the rights to her story to make into the now-classic film.

Mr. Banks is the kind of film I instinctively enjoy, a movie about the movies that takes no small amount of joy in the artistic process. The ideological warfare between the stuffy and picky Travers (who insists she be called Mrs. Travers) and the wide-eyed, uncouth Disney (who insists he be called “Walt”) is engaging, but the real draw comes from the fact that these two impossible dreamers seem almost wholly unconcerned with money, but rather with seeing their dreams come to life. Of course, Walt Disney was a money machine, but its corrupting influence is, refreshingly, wholly absent here.

The movie tells Travers’ story by flashing back and forth from her traumatic childhood experience with her alcoholic father to her battles with Walt and company. The chronologically disjointed formula occasionally feels a bit manipulative, and many of the historical connections feel more concerned with cinematic indulgence than historical accuracy. But this is a movie of grand emotions, and it wears its heart very much on its sleeve.

Director John Lee Hancock gets great performances out of side characters such as the Poppins songwriting Sherman brothers (Jason Schwartzman and BJ Novak) and Travers’ chauffer (a typically pitch-perfect Paul Giamatti). Thompson is brilliant as Travers, giving just the right amount of sugar to a rather bitter role. She’s never so nasty that she becomes unbelievable. While Hanks doesn’t exactly look the part, he brings a warmth and sincerity to Walt Disney that is just too infectious to ignore.

The film is a big dollop of Disney sugar, but Travers’ backstory and her stubbornness offers just the right amount of dramatic heft to balance things out. It’s a completely engaging, refreshingly cynicism-free look at dreamers who may, for once, actually be able to make their dreams reality.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire review: The odds are in this movie’s favor

The original Hunger Games film revealed both the triumphs and pitfalls of adapting a wildly popular book. While it was ultimately considered a success, its rushed pace, uneven acting and shaky cinematography left many cold. Catching Fire, the hotly anticipated sequel, feels like the movie the original film should have been. Thanks to a new, dedicated director in Francis Lawrence along with better source material, the film is a triumph both as an adaptation and a mass-produced entertainment that should thrill diehard fans and series newbies alike.

The story picks up with Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) preparing for their victory after “winning” the 74th Hunger Games, a brutal blood sport started by the Capitol of Panem to keep the twelve districts from instigating a revolution against the oppressive regime. The Capitol is thrilled by Katniss’ and Peeta’s victory, as well as their seemingly budding romance, but all is not well. President Snow (Donald Sutherland) sees their dual victory as an act of defiance, and so did many of the districts, who begin staging a series of small uprisings. Snow makes it his mission to stamp out Katniss, the symbol of the revolution, for good by forcing previous victors back into the arena for another round of the Hunger Games.

One of the great pleasures of this film is seeing returning actors embody these characters. While Lawrence’s Katniss came off as somewhat robotic before, here we get to experience her full range of emotions as well as the toll the games have taken on her psyche and relationships. Fresh off her Oscar win for Silver Linings Playbook, Lawrence has grown leaps and bounds as an actress, and it shows. Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth as Katniss’ competing love interest, Gale, are also given much more to work with here. Elizabeth Banks’ garish, Lady Gaga-esque Effie is a scene-stealer once again.

There are tons of new faces as well. Phillip Seymour Hoffman as the new head game maker Plutarch Heavensbee is a particularly inspired choice of casting, and may well be some fans’ favorite character come series’ end. Sam Claflin is brilliant as previous victor Finnick, and Jenna Malone steals scenes as the vicious Johanna Mason.

Director Lawrence (I am Legend) is a great replacement for Gary Ross, whose first film was a bit sporadic in its execution. The camera stays still and wide much more often here, allowing us to thankfully see the beautiful vistas and intense action much more clearly. Veteran writers Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire) and Michael Arndt (Toy Story 3) shove a lot of characters and events into 2 ½ hours, but the film never feels bloated. Scenes are allowed to breathe, and they thankfully avoid the rushed ending of the first film. That Catching Fire ends on a cliffhanger is a natural consequence of the movie being a middle chapter, but at least it’s a good one (brilliantly shot and exactly the same as the book, refreshingly). The fact that so much material fit into one movie without any major omissions is somewhat of a marvel.

Catching Fire is not a perfect movie. There are small plot holes here and there, and, in a film with so many characters, some are bound to be underdeveloped. But, in every important way, it’s the perfect sequel. It amplifies the things that worked in the first film while all but eliminating the many things that didn’t. Lawrence has breathed new life into a franchise that was already in danger of becoming stagnant, crafting an utterly satisfying, visually stunning and insanely thrilling ride from start to finish. It even achieved the rare feat of getting me genuinely excited for the next one. Your move, Hobbit. 

Miyazaki May: “Howl’s Moving Castle”


I don’t envy Hayao Miyazaki for having to follow up a film like “Spirited Away.” For inspiration, the Japanese animator turned to Diane Wynne Jones’ book “Howl’s Moving Castle” and adapted it into an animated adventure. By many accounts Howl is a great film, but as a Miyazaki film it settles for being merely good.

Sophie is a lonely girl who works in a hat shop when she comes across the mysterious and majestic wizard Howl. When Sophie is transformed into an old woman by the jealous Witch of the Waste, she tracks down Howl and his magnificent magic walking castle in the hopes of getting the spell reversed. Meanwhile, the kingdom is at war and the king is recruiting witches and wizards to fight.

Several things stand out in this movie. Howl’s castle is a wondrous character unto itself, filled with portals to distant lands and the heart of the castle, the belligerent fire demon Calcifer. The castle is spectacularly animated, fitting right in with other Miyazaki locations like Yubaba’s bathhouse and Laputa, the floating city from “Castle in the Sky.”

The characters are some of Miyazaki’s strongest. Howl is just a fantastic protagonist, particularly because he’s so flawed. Despite his immense power, Howl is afraid of everything, and he’s also a bit of a brat, which is a refreshing change for Miyazaki male leads. This makes for an immensely likable and relatable hero. The same can be said for Sophie. It is her immense courage and good humor that encourage Howl to face his fears and his demons.

Several things, however, conspire to make this a lesser effort from the famed animator. The first is simply that it is an adaptation. Miyazaki’s original stories are so exhilarating because they are his; the source material here is fine, but it does leave the director tied to a story he must try to be reverent to. Don’t get me wrong, the film is still incredibly inventive, particularly in its visuals, but it doesn’t quite exude the same level of uninhibited creativity as some of his previous efforts.

Then there’s the plot and the message, both of which are overly complicated and muddled. The first half of the film, with its focus on its characters and humor (finally, another truly funny Miyazaki film), is excellent, but as the plot thickens, the air begins to deflate. There’s some kind of war going on that isn’t explained very well, and the bland villain Madame Suliman, who has her own rather confounding reasons for recruiting witches and wizards for war. Also, a fantastic and mysterious character like Howl deserves a good back story, but when it comes its underwhelming and downright confusing. In terms of a message, Miyazaki seems to be making some kind of statement on pacifism, but it’s hard to get a message through when we don’t really know what everyone’s fighting about in the first place. Miyazaki films are known for their narrative simplicity and simple, clear yet powerful messages. “Howl’s Moving Castle” breaks rank in these regards.

I like “Howl’s Moving Castle.” The visuals and music are typically top-notch, and the characters are absolutely wonderful. But the story surrounding it all is a disappointment. Even a lesser Miyazaki film is better than 90 percent of anything else out there, but, by the standards of what has come before it, it is just an okay film from the master animator. It’s worth seeing, but don’t expect another “Spirited Away.”

Well, that wraps up Miyazaki May! I hope you’ve enjoyed and that I’ve encouraged you to check out some more films from my favorite of all filmmakers. It’s been a blast!

*Note: I stuck to films that Hayao Miyazaki directed, and avoided the studio Ghibli films he wrote or produced but did not direct. With that in mind, these are the films I did not get to this time around:

 “Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro,” “Kiki’s Delivery Service,” “Ponyo,” “Porco Rosso”


Miyazaki May: “Spirited Away”

It’s May, and I’ve realized how long it has been since I’ve watched the films of master Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki. I remember loving them when I was younger (I wrote a research paper on the life of Miyazaki in 7th grade), but I’ve been curious to see how they hold up to these more trained eyes. Or, maybe I just love alliteration. Either way, Miyazaki May is on! 


To make one undisputed masterpiece in a filmmaking career is remarkable. To make two is almost unheard of. To make two in a row, well…that’s just what Hayao Miyazaki did with his simply magnificent follow-up to “Princess Mononoke,” “Spirited Away.”

Many people can point to a movie that made them fall in love with movies, or perhaps rekindled that love. For me, that movie was “Spirited Away.” I saw it when I was about to graduate elementary school and my family was facing a move. Its themes of courage in the face of change and embracing our fears rather than running from them really spoke to me and allowed me to weather a stormy season of my life. There are several reasons I fell in love with movies (both Miyazaki and otherwise) shortly after that point, but the major one was “Spirited Away.”

The film follows a young girl named Chihiro, who is, like I was, scared to move with her family to a new house, a new school and a new life. On the way to their new house, they get lost along a country road and come across an abandoned amusement park. When day turns into night, the park becomes a bathhouse for various spirits to rest, and Chihiro’s parents, seen as intruders, are turned into pigs, while she finds herself trapped in the spirit world as she falls deeper and deeper down the figurative rabbit hole. With the help of a mysterious spirit named Haku and a bathhouse spirit named Lin, Chihiro must convince Yubaba, the old witch who runs the bathhouse, to turn her parents back and grant them passage safe back from the spirit world.

Along the way, Chihiro comes across the best and most eccentric cast of supporting characters in any Miyazaki film, including a spider-like boiler man named Kamaji and a misunderstood dark spirit named No-face, not to mention and anthropomorphic frog and a giant talking baby. This is certainly Miyazaki’s strangest and most overtly Japanese film, and that is meant in the best way possible. The film is filled with surreal images; the spirit bathhouse is a marvelous creation, populated with the oddest creatures ever put to animation. It’s Miyazaki at his most creatively uninhibited; you get the sense the Ghibli animators were willing to try anything because, in the spirit world, anything goes. It’s such a thrill to watch this movie time and again, just to see all that the animators have put into the background of almost every scene.

This is also the first of Miyazaki’s films to use digital technology to aid in coloring and effects, and it shows; the visuals here are in a different league from what came before. The colors and creatures pop off the screen (and yes, one or two of them are computer generated). And yet, the purity of the 2D animation shines through. I’ve identified one of the biggest differences between hand drawn and computer generated animation: it’s all in the eyes. I haven’t seen computer generated films quite get eyes yet; there’s something to hand-drawn eyes, particularly in the Japanese anime tradition, that has not been replicated with better technology. They’re just so big, colorful and lovingly crafted, and they’re something I’ll miss as we continue to gravitate toward CG animation.

I appreciate Miyazaki’s focus here on traditional Japanese cultural rituals, myths and spirituality. This is the kind of world where the smallest action can have tremendous consequences, requiring a blessing or a curse to alleviate the situation. There is so much rich cultural practice and heritage here, it’s not enough for one viewing. I urge you to take the time to appreciate the cultural nuances that differentiate this from an American animated film.

At the heart of this film is the greatest of all Miyazaki protagonists, Chihiro. Unlike many Miyazaki heroes, Chihiro is not a noble figure from the beginning. She is a whiny brat, afraid of the unknown and unwilling to face what she doesn’t understand. But, when her name is taken from her by the witch Yubaba, she faces an identity crisis and realizes that her old self just won’t do. As she learns to face her fears in the spirit world, she begins to see that her old problems just aren’t as scary anymore. She is the most sympathetic of Miyazaki protagonists, because her fears are relatable, as are her triumphs. We often wonder how we can find courage in our own lives, and the answer here is that we will always fear what we don’t understand. If we seek to understand our situation and the people involved in it, we may not always overcome our fear, but we can obtain the courage to act.

The primary theme of the film is Chihiro’s identity. When her name is taken away from her, she must try to hold onto herself before she allows herself to be controlled by Yubaba. We find out that is what has happened to Haku; Yubaba has taken away his real name, and he has become her servant, forgetting in the process who he once was. Even with her name taken away, Chihiro is constantly learning and growing, discovering herself anew even with her old self taken away. I may not forget my name, but I can relate to a feeling of alienation in my own skin, like I don’t recognize myself. The key is to hold onto the essence of what we are.

Let’s talk about the music for a second. Oh man, it’s good stuff. Joe Hisaishi has scored Miyazaki films since time immemorial, but I think this is his best. It’s a master-class through and through; somber yet hopeful, melancholy as filtered through the eyes of a dream. Good film composition not only heightens but also adds to every emotion the film conveys, and Hisaishi does this expertly every step of the way. I don’t know where Miyazaki films would be without Hisaishi, but it’s safe to say they wouldn’t be as good. Think of a Steven Spielberg movie without John Williams and you’ll have an idea how essential Hisaishi’s scores really are.

There is nothing in “Spirited Away” not to recommend. It’s one of the scariest, most consistently surprising and emotionally soaring movies you will ever see. It’s the movie that solidified Miyazaki’s popularity in the U.S. (it won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature in 2002), and there’s good reason for that. It was also a movie that personally changed my life. I may not be writing on this site today if it wasn’t for this film. I was worried I’d look back on it today and see it diminished without the lens of childhood. I’m so glad I was wrong. If you could catch wonder in a bottle, it might look something like “Spirited Away.” I’ve watched it dozens of times and plan to watch it dozens more, particularly during one of life’s many scary transitions. I encourage you to do the same.

Here’s Hisaishi playing the opening theme to the film live. Enjoy.

Miyazaki May: “Princess Mononoke”

 It’s May, and I’ve realized how long it has been since I’ve watched the films of master Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki. I remember loving them when I was younger (I wrote a research paper on the life of Miyazaki in 7th grade), but I’ve been curious to see how they hold up to these more trained eyes. Or, maybe I just love alliteration. Either way, Miyazaki May is on! 


And here we reach the granddaddy of Miyazaki movies. I’ve never been able to adequately describe to anyone the experience of watching perfection. The best explanation I have is that you know it when you see it, because it will be extremely rare. It doesn’t help that perfection is objective, particularly in the realm of artistic expression. With those caveats in place, “Princess Mononoke” is indeed a perfect movie, or at least the apex of director Hayao Miyazaki’s creative talents, taking his most potent animation skills and themes and weaving them into a truly epic tale that stands along in the pantheon of all-time great movies, animated or otherwise.

The story is more of an epic adventure fable than anything else the director has done, taking place in a fantasy world of gods, demons and men. Ashitaka is a warrior in a small, isolated village who is given a fatal curse by a demon he kills while protecting his village. When he finds out the demon was a god infected by a ball of manmade iron, he sets out to find the city of iron where the ball was made as well as a way to lift his curse. Along the way he comes across San, a girl raised by wolf gods and a protector of the forest, as well as the people of Iron Town, led by the ambitious Lady Eboshi.

The people are intent on expanding the kingdom of man by cutting down the forest and killing the fabled forest god, while the gods of the forest want to protect their domain by killing the humans and driving them out. At the same time, the people of Iron Town are in battle with invading samurai armies. As Ashitaka realizes he holds a special bond with nature, it is his fate to instigate peace with the warring clans and re-forge the bond between man and nature that existed long ago.

When I describe the film as “epic,” I don’t mean it simply throws a bunch of cool, grand things on the screen (although it does do that). When I think of “epic,” I think of the quiet moments as much as the moment of grandeur. There are so many scenes here of quiet despair, such as when Ashitaka leaves his clan and realizes he can never come back, or a quiet reflection overlooking a forest landscape. These help to break up the grander action scenes.

The film has more action that other Miyazaki films, which is much more violent than anything the animator has done. The movie is bloody but not distractingly so; the characters and setting are aimed squarely at adults anyway. From an artistic perspective, this is Miyazaki’s most visually impressive work; the wooded landscapes and verdant green hills pop, as do the many explosions and battle effects. Most overwhelming are the creatures that inhabit the forest, from giant wolves and boars to tiny forest sprites. This is the best creature design of any Miyazaki film, and that’s really saying something.

The film is also Miyazaki’s most powerful antiwar and pro-environment statement. The boar god at the beginning of the movie is turned evil by a ball of iron, an invasion of the world of man into the world of nature. There was a time when man and gods got along (it’s telling that the gods are all animals inhabiting the natural world), but when a mighty emperor heard a rumor that the head of the forest god would grant eternal life, the kingdoms of men began fighting for the opportunity to hold such power. The film reflects poignantly on the power of hate and how it can destroy all that is good and natural about our existence.

Humanity’s lost connection to nature and peace is held together by the dual protagonists of Ashitaka and San (aka Princess Mononoke). Ashitaka is a largely archetypal hero in both word and deed, but his desire to avoid violence (and his revulsion when he must resort to it) is powerful for this type of film. San is much more aggressive and violent, but is determined to fight to sustain her way of life; her back-story, which I won’t spoil, is also pretty awesome. They remind me very much of an earlier Miyazaki hero, Nausicaa.

Miyazaki’s heroes refreshingly play against the cinematic type of the “hero” who does what he has to do to reach his goal, even if it means compromising his ideals or getting his hands dirty. Miyazaki’s heroes always stay true to who they are, even at the risk of failure. They are very flawed, but are aware of their shortcomings and work hard to redeem themselves. To anyone raised on American action movies, it’s difficult to describe how incredibly refreshing and vital this type of hero is. If most heroes (or antiheroes) reflect how we often are, Miyazaki’s heroes reveal what we have always wished (and know) we could be.

If the film has a human villain, it’s Lady Eboshi, the leader of Iron Town. She is not so much evil as misguided, believing that mankind can rule over the forces of nature. She also seeks peace, but, unlike Ashitaka, she does not believe she will find it. She feels she resorts to violence out of necessity, rather than choice. By the end of the film, she has realized that we always have a choice, and so have we.

What else to say? “Princess Mononoke” easily earns a coveted spot at the top of the heap of animated classics, alongside the likes of “Grave of the Fireflies,” “Spirited Away,” “Wall-E,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “Akira.” It coalesces everything great about Miyazaki into one movie: noble protagonists, unparalleled animation, spectacular music (Joe Hisaishi again) and powerful indictments against war and the destruction of the environment, not to mention flat-out epic, unforgettable storytelling. Best of all, it reveals a storyteller at the peak of his creative talents, pouring out every ounce of his passion, skill and dedication into his craft. Would he be able to sustain this level out output in the future? Join me tomorrow to find out.