Monday, February 28, 2011

Oscar Post-Mortem 2010

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After the first three awards were announced during last night's telecast, I knew my ballot was shot to hell. I ended up correctly guessing 15 out of the 24 categories overall. Not terrible, but not enough to win a dime. Still, the winners were not very surprising across the board. It seems that the Oscars picked a safe, mainstream picture for the major awards, which is fine. I haven't seen The King's Speech yet, but I'm sure there are worse movies that have won Best Picture. Slightly bummed that The Social Network didn't walk away with more trophies.

I'm not going to elaborate on the other winners since that's not really why I watch the show in the first place. I want to be entertained during Hollywood's biggest night and, for the most part, I was. I read some of the reviews this morning and most were really unnecessarily harsh. While I agree that James Franco was a bit out of place most of the night, I do think Anne Hathaway was radiant and charming. They were low key hosts who didn't try too hard to be funny. To me, that's better than watching comedians going for laughs and simply not getting them (Ahem, Letterman and Goldberg). Some of the presenters (like Robert Downey, Jr and Jude Law, for instance) tried to be funny and it just didn't work. I smiled whenever Hathaway had something to say, while I acknowledged that Franco was just.... there.

Other observations:

* Seeing Kirk Douglas on stage was a treat. He's a screen legend who was treated like royalty. It was heartfelt when he said that he would not forget that night and I think that's beautiful. A 94-year-old former movie star got to relive his time in the spotlight. It also didn't hurt that he was wickedly funny.

* Billy Crystal's short stint was a pleasure. He was the best host of the Oscars during my lifetime. He wasn't always funny, but he was consistently charming and graceful. Hathaway/Franco didn't come close to mirroring his class act.

* Most people say the show is boring and overlong (they say this every year, yet they always come back for more), but I never seem to think that. This is because I never watch the show live. I start about one hour after the show begins, which allows me to fast-forward through the relentless commercials and through the winners' slow-going walk up to the podium. I can knock out a 3-hour telecast in just under 2 hours. It's a breeze.

* Memorable speeches: Adapted Screenplay - Aaron Sorkin's humbling thought of receiving the same honor as Paddy Cheyevsky 30 years ago; Original Screenplay - David Seidler, an AARP member, said that his father told him he'd be a late bloomer; Song - Randy Newman - "I'm trying to be good television."

* Overall, I though the show was a class act. I missed watching the honorary Oscars -- I would have loved to have seen the Coppola and Wallach tributes -- but I understand why the show had to cut them. You can't please everyone. But I was happy to see tributes and reflections of winners past. Spielberg said it best during his Best Picture introduction. The losers are still winners -- look at all of the movies and performers that never won.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Quick Takes: Dinner for Schmucks, Get Low, Animal Kingdom, The Other Guys

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A mixed bag for this week's rentals.

Paul Rudd is an endearing actor with impeccable comic timing. He elevates Dinner for Schmucks (2010), an amusing though not quite a laugh-out-loud comedy about an ambitious executive who begrudgingly participates in a dinner event that involves making fun of losers. Steve Carrell is one of those losers who simply does not have a clue. With its by-the-numbers plotting and sluggish pacing, it is not among the best of comedies this year. 2.5/5

Get Low (2010), on the other hand, is a small masterpiece. Robert Duvall is simply perfect as Felix Bush, a self-exiled curmudgeon who harbors a 40-year-old secret that nearly does him in. He arranges a funeral for himself so that he can finally come clean and die in peace. It's corny, all right, but there is so much warmth and subtle humor here that makes the film a real pleasure to experience. Bill Murray is a revelation as the funeral director, egregiously robbed of an Oscar nomination this year. He is the heart and soul of the film. Lucas Black, Sissy Spacek, Bill Cobbs and Gerald McRaney contribute beautifully to this wonderful, good-hearted drama. An auspicious debut by Aaron Schneider. 4.5/5

David Michod, another director making his feature debut this year, was not nearly as successful. Though critically acclaimed, I never understood the popularity of Animal Kingdom (2010), an overwrought Australian drama about a crime family falling apart at its seams. James Frecheville (Josh) is awful. The kid doesn't react to anything -- he simply stares into space as the chaos around him unfolds. His breakdown scene completely took me out of the movie. There is considerable tension in the last act, but the performances are so overdone that it was impossible to feel any genuine suspense. Jacki Weaver, nominated for an Oscar for her role as the matriarch, had no real opportunity to shine here. Very disappointing. 2/5

For Pete's take of Animal Kingdom in a special column, click HERE.

The second silly comedy this week, The Other Guys (2010), is far funnier than Dinner with Schmucks. I'm not a Will Ferrell fan, but he was easily tolerable here as a pencil pusher who is paired with the live-wire Mark Wahlberg. Together, they attempt to take down a Ponzi scheme, led by the hilarious Steve Coogan. The plot is serviceable but the actors look like they are having a blast. Wahlberg, especially, is terrific in a comic leading role. Samuel L Jackson and Dwayne Johnson have some very funny bits in the first act. Though it has a tendency to be loud and crude, The Other Guys is at least consistently funny. 3.5/5

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Oscar Picks 2010

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This weekend, the 2010 awards season finally comes to a close with the 83rd Annual Academy Awards. Traditionally, I watch the show every year and I fail miserably at predicting the winners. I may have won an office pool here and there, but that's because I'm the only one in the office who has seen most of the nominations. I'm not normal like everyone else I know.

Now, I don't really watch the show to see who wins. It's just a trophy. In the grand scheme of things, it doesn't matter. The Oscars, for me, is a celebration of the great movies we've seen in the past year. That's really all there is to it. If someone I admire wins the trophy, great. If not, oh well. I have no stake in whoever wins. I just hope they put on an entertaining show. I'm intrigued by the pairing of Anne Hathaway and James Franco. They are likable performers and I credit the producers for trying to shake things up.

I usually don't like picking out winners in a ballot; it refutes the point of why I watch the show in the first place. But since it is part of a tradition among movie fans like myself, I do it anyway. So, without further ado, below is not what I think should win, but what I think will win this year's Oscars.

Best Picture
"Black Swan"
"The Fighter"
"Inception"
"The Kids Are All Right"
"The King's Speech"
"127 Hours"
"The Social Network"
"Toy Story 3"
"True Grit"
"Winter's Bone"

Actor in a Leading Role
Javier Bardem in "Biutiful"
Jeff Bridges in "True Grit"
Jesse Eisenberg in "The Social Network"
Colin Firth in "The King's Speech"
James Franco in "127 Hours"

Actor in a Supporting Role
Christian Bale in "The Fighter"
John Hawkes in "Winter's Bone"
Jeremy Renner in "The Town"
Mark Ruffalo in "The Kids Are All Right"
Geoffrey Rush in "The King's Speech"

Actress in a Leading Role
Annette Bening in "The Kids Are All Right" *
Nicole Kidman in "Rabbit Hole"
Jennifer Lawrence in "Winter's Bone"
Natalie Portman in "Black Swan"
Michelle Williams in "Blue Valentine"

*General consensus is that Portman will win it, but I think Bening will pull an upset.

Actress in a Supporting Role
Amy Adams in "The Fighter"
Helena Bonham Carter in "The King's Speech"
Melissa Leo in "The Fighter"
Hailee Steinfeld in "True Grit"
Jacki Weaver in "Animal Kingdom"

Animated Feature Film
"How to Train Your Dragon" Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois
"The Illusionist" Sylvain Chomet
"Toy Story 3" Lee Unkrich

Art Direction
"Alice in Wonderland"
"Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1"
"Inception"
"The King's Speech"
"True Grit"

Cinematography
"Black Swan," Matthew Libatique
"Inception," Wally Pfister
"The King's Speech," Danny Cohen
"The Social Network," Jeff Cronenweth
"True Grit," Roger Deakins

Costume Design
"Alice in Wonderland," Colleen Atwood
"I Am Love," Antonella Cannarozzi
"The King's Speech," Jenny Beavan
"The Tempest," Sandy Powell
"True Grit" Mary Zophres

Directing
"Black Swan," Darren Aronofsky
"The Fighter," David O. Russell
"The King's Speech," Tom Hooper
"The Social Network," David Fincher
"True Grit," Joel Coen and Ethan Coen

Documentary (Feature)
"Exit through the Gift Shop," Banksy and Jaimie D'Cruz
"Gasland," Josh Fox and Trish Adlesic
"Inside Job," Charles Ferguson and Audrey Marrs
"Restrepo," Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger
"Waste Land," Lucy Walker and Angus Aynsley

Documentary (Short Subject)
"Killing in the Name"
"Poster Girl"
"Strangers No More"
"Sun Come Up"
"The Warriors of Qiugang"

Film Editing
"Black Swan"
"The Fighter"
"The King's Speech"
"127 Hours"
"The Social Network"

Foreign Language Film
"Biutiful," Mexico
"Dogtooth," Greece
"In a Better World," Denmark
"Incendies," Canada
"Outside the Law (Hors-la-loi)," Algeria

Makeup
"Barney's Version," Adrien Morot
"The Way Back," Edouard F. Henriques, Gregory Funk and Yolanda Toussieng
"The Wolfman," Rick Baker and Dave Elsey

Music (Original Score)
"How to Train Your Dragon," John Powell
"Inception," Hans Zimmer
"The King's Speech," Alexandre Desplat
"127 Hours," A.R. Rahman
"The Social Network," Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross

Music (Original Song)
"Coming Home" from "Country Strong," Music and Lyric by Tom Douglas, Troy Verges and Hillary Lindsey
"I See the Light" from "Tangled," Music by Alan Menken Lyric by Glenn Slater
"If I Rise" from "127 Hours," Music by A.R. Rahman Lyric by Dido and Rollo Armstrong
"We Belong Together" from "Toy Story 3," Music and Lyric by Randy Newman

Short Film (Animated)
"Day & Night," Teddy Newton
"The Gruffalo," Jakob Schuh and Max Lang
"Let's Pollute," Geefwee Boedoe
"The Lost Thing," Shaun Tan and Andrew Ruhemann
"Madagascar, carnet de voyage (Madagascar, a Journey Diary)" Bastien Dubois

Short Film (Live Action)
"The Confession," Tanel Toom
"The Crush," Michael Creagh
"God of Love," Luke Matheny
"Na Wewe," Ivan Goldschmidt
"Wish 143," Ian Barnes and Samantha Waite

Sound Editing
"Inception," Richard King
"Toy Story 3," Tom Myers and Michael Silvers
"Tron: Legacy," Gwendolyn Yates Whittle and Addison Teague
"True Grit," Skip Lievsay and Craig Berkey
"Unstoppable," Mark P. Stoeckinger

Sound Mixing
"Inception," Lora Hirschberg, Gary A. Rizzo and Ed Novick
"The King's Speech," Paul Hamblin, Martin Jensen and John Midgley
"Salt," Jeffrey J. Haboush, Greg P. Russell, Scott Millan and William Sarokin
"The Social Network," Ren Klyce, David Parker, Michael Semanick and Mark Weingarten
"True Grit," Skip Lievsay, Craig Berkey, Greg Orloff and Peter F. Kurland

Visual Effects
"Alice in Wonderland," Ken Ralston, David Schaub, Carey Villegas and Sean Phillips
"Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1," Tim Burke, John Richardson, Christian Manz and Nicolas Aithadi
"Hereafter," Michael Owens, Bryan Grill, Stephan Trojanski and Joe Farrell
"Inception," Paul Franklin, Chris Corbould, Andrew Lockley and Peter Bebb
"Iron Man 2," Janek Sirrs, Ben Snow, Ged Wright and Daniel Sudick

Writing (Adapted Screenplay)
"127 Hours," Screenplay by Danny Boyle & Simon Beaufoy
"The Social Network," Screenplay by Aaron Sorkin
"Toy Story 3," Screenplay by Michael Arndt; Story by John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton and Lee Unkrich
"True Grit," Written for the screen by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
"Winter's Bone," Adapted for the screen by Debra Granik & Anne Rosellini

Writing (Original Screenplay)
"Another Year," Written by Mike Leigh
"The Fighter," Screenplay by Scott Silver and Paul Tamasy & Eric Johnson; Story by Keith Dorrington & Paul Tamasy & Eric Johnson
"Inception," Written by Christopher Nolan
"The Kids Are All Right," Written by Lisa Cholodenko & Stuart Blumberg
"The King's Speech," Screenplay by David Seidler

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Year I Met the Movies

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As I was digging through my old catalogue of movie notes, I noticed something peculiar. The early 80s saw very little well-loved films. One or two titles per year, at most. Then when I saw the list of movies I cherished in 1984, the titles grew exponentially. It was like I went to the movies that year and never looked back.

My first vivid memory of a big-screen movie was Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. I was 7 and also hearing-impaired, so it's safe to say I didn't quite follow it. But that didn't stop me from loving it. I remember seeing it with Dad and being enamored with what unfolded on the screen. I don't remember what happened afterwards, but apparently, I was awestruck that year. Ghostbusters, The Karate Kid, The NeverEnding Story -- these movies entered my stratosphere and became a huge part of my childhood.

1985 was even bigger. Back to the Future, The Goonies, Remo Williams... I watched these over and over on VHS. I remember renting Back to the Future from the local Easy Video store and watching it back-to-back on a Saturday afternoon. I finished it, rewound it, and watched it all over again without batting an eye. I was hooked. You couldn't keep me away.

My love for movies grew year after year. More great and memorable titles show up as I look back at each passing year. It is with sweet nostalgia as I post some of these notes of the movies I've cherished in the late 80s and early 90s. It's like looking back at an era that is long gone.

Walt Disney once said, "It all started with a mouse." But for me, it was a whip and a fedora.

Best of the Year: 1984

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My Picks of the Year
(in alphabetical order)
Beverly Hills Cop
The heat is on during this rousing action comedy, featuring a star-making performance by Eddie Murphy and a memorably loopy supporting cast (Judge Reinhold, John Ashton, Ronny Cox). Beverly Hills Cop was a highly influential film when it was released. Never before has there been a successful motion picture as action-oriented as this one, loaded with great belly laughs.

Blood Simple
Talk about first impressions! Joel and Ethan Coen entered the limelight with this smart, beautifully filmed crime drama about two lovers, a jilted husband, and a sleazy private investigator. Frances McDormand, in her screen debut, is a sight to behold as an unhappy wife confused by her lover’s motives. She stuns, especially in the film’s awesome, shattering climax. M. Emmet Walsh has a great role here as the P.I., and the Coens give him the film’s best lines (his final words are a real humdinger). Blood Simple is a timeless movie, one of the best works by a group of maverick filmmakers.

Footloose
Lose your blues and kick off your Sunday shoes... Footloose is a terrific dance movie with a blazin' soundtrack and a sexy cast. Kevin Bacon struts his stuff to make way for stardom, and he does it with style. Chris Penn, Lori Singer, Dianne Wiest, and the inimitable John Lithgow turn in fine supporting performances.

Ghostbusters
A catchy, quotable 80's classic, Ghostbusters features incredibly cheesy effects and an awesome, immensely likeable cast. The great Sigourney Weaver and Bill Murray stand out, but everyone has room to shine with memorably funny moments. A stirring fantasy and feel-good comedy, this one's a crowd-pleaser. "This Mr. Stay Puft is ok! He's a sailor, he's in New York, we'll get this guy laid, we won't have have trouble!"

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
What do you get when you combine these elements: Short Round and his foot on the pedal; a shaky footbridge; "Fortune and glory, kid. Fortune and glory"; an antidote, a diamond and a bucket of ice; eyeball soup; sumptuous fruit; "He no nuts! He crazy!"; bugs, and lots of them; a roller coaster in the mines; black sleep; hungry crocs; and giant vampire bats? Answer: Steven Spielberg's rousing, heart-stopping, most exciting motion picture of his career, Harrison Ford's most delicious on-screen creation, and hands down, without a doubt, case closed, the best adventure film ever made.

An exciting family film about vengeance, humility, and getting the girl in the end. Ralph Macchio (bafflingly much older than he looked) plays the title role quite memorably, Elisabeth Shue is his tough cookie, and the grade-Z movie staple Pat Morita shines as his master. The little, intimate moments with Daniel and Mr. Miyagi are what made this one, yes, a winner.

The Last Starfighter
Brilliant! A young adult, living a low-key life in a trailer park, finally beats the video game he had been playing for years. Based on his great skill, young Alex is immediately recruited by an alien to join a team of starfighters to help save the galaxy from devastating ruin. Great effects, memorable supporting characters, and a winsome stand-up-and-cheer attitude make The Last Starfighter a sci-fi adventure that easily rivals Star Wars.

The NeverEnding Story
Who can forget the story of Bastian and his big book, one that is loaded with rich imagery and delicate fables? This film first taught me the true pleasure of books, how one can be deliriously lost in its words and how the imagination can so rapturously take over. Wolfgang Peterson co-wrote and directed this classic children's film, and like a great novel, its passages and images are forever etched in my mind.

Paris, Texas
A gorgeous thoughtful drama from Wim Wenders. It's the story of a man who, after wandering the desert, pieces together his past and begins the process of letting go. The camera loves Harry Dean Stanton's face; he delivers the performance of a lifetime using so little dialogue. Dean Stockwell is excellent as his brother who reaches out to him more than once. The last act is far more moving than I had ever anticipated.

Romancing the Stone
The opening of the film perfectly sets the tone of what we're about to see. A damsel is assaulted by a disgusting outlaw, and in defense as well as revenge, she kills him with a dagger to the heart. The woman runs out the door, only to be greeted by a tobacco-chewing hunkster...and they ride the sunset together. Robert Zemeckis fancied himself a trashy, female-minded Indiana Jones, and the result is nothing short of fantastic entertainment. Douglas and Turner are a classic comedy team, sorely missed this day and age.

The Terminator
The Terminator is a science-fiction thriller that was made well before its time. Amid all of the relentless action and compelling effects, the anchor of the film is its simple, thrilling storyline (an Austrian cyborg from the future is out to kill Sarah Conner and will stop at nothing to get her). The amazing, groundbreaking sequel takes it all even further.

Honorable Mention
Dreamscape; A Passage to India; Places in the Heart; Something About Amelia; Tightrope

Best of the Year: 1983

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My Picks of the Year
(in alphabetical order)
A Christmas Story
All Ralphie Parker wanted was a Red Ryder BB gun. A Christmas Story chronicles a memorable holiday season for Ralphie, who is convinced that the gun is a perfect gift. But it's not so easy. "You'll shoot your eye out!," cries his mother, his teacher, even Santa Claus. This is a holiday classic in every way, filled with terrific dialogue ("He looks like a deranged Easter bunny!") and unforgettable scenes (his brother can't put his arms down; his friend licking the flagpole; saying the F-word to his dad). Impossible not to love.


Honorary Mention
The Big Chill; Blue Thunder; Christine; Never Cry WolfSilkwood; Sugar Cane Alley

Monday, February 21, 2011

Quick Takes: 9 Songs, Red, Waiting for Superman, Welcome to the Rileys

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Another week, another set of rentals.

Michael Winterbottom, a terrific director of acclaimed films such as Tristram Shandy, A Mighty Heart and Welcome to Sarajevo, pushed the creative envelope yet again with 9 Songs (2005). He tells the story of a couple's short-lived relationship through their bedroom antics and trips to concerts. None of your typical relationship scenes are featured here. The entire film consists of screwing and concert-going. It's a essentially a porn film, since the sex is hardcore and not simulated, but there's a certain depth and feeling here that you won't find in a XXX movie. It's an admirable attempt by Winterbottom to shake the conventions of a love story, but he ultimately fails because the leads are insufferably uninteresting. It's hard to like a movie when you simply don't care what happens to the people in it.  2/5

When you hear about a movie that features Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, Helen Mirren and John Malkovich playing retired CIA agents drawn back to the life of spies, you can't help but perk up a bit. Unfortunately, if that movie is Red (2010), then it's best that you lower your expectations. A lot. It's silly and loud, but dammit, it's just entertaining enough to pass the time. Subtlety is not what they are striving for here. 3/5

Davis Guggenheim, who helmed the terrific climate crisis doc, An Inconvenient Truth, is back this year with a damning look at our nation's crippling public education system. Waiting for Superman (2010) shows a group of politicians and teachers attempting to reform but failing miserably because the system is impossible to penetrate. There are ways to change the system so that no child really is left behind. It's heartbreaking to see the kids struggling but even more difficult to realize that they don't have to be. 4/5

Welcome to the Rileys (2010), a sensitive film by Jake Scott (son of Ridley), should have been much better. But what Scott has assembled here should not go unnoticed. James Gandolfini and Melissa Leo play a couple who lost their teenage daughter in a crash a few years back but have not been able to move past it. Kristen Stewart plays a stripper who manages to shake them out of the static life they've been living. It feels cliched and you can kind of guess where it's going, but the cast is remarkable to watch. Gandolfini and Leo are reliably excellent, but it's Stewart who continues to surprise and delight whenever she is on screen. Once again, she proves she's better than what the Twilight saga has to offer. 3.5/5

Best of the Year: 1982

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My Picks of the Year
(in alphabetical order)
Poltergeist
One of my favorite horror movies, Poltergeist tells the spine-tingling story of a family terrorized by spirits who are seeking to break out of their existing dimension and move onto a better one. Of course, they can't do this without the aid of young Carol Anne. Tobe Hooper directs, with major assistance from producer Steven Spielberg (busy directing E.T. at the time), and Craig T Nelson, JoBeth Williams and Zelda Rubenstein star. A classic. 

Tootsie
Dustin Hoffman does it again. We know he's a good actor, but the fact that he has impeccable comic timing makes him one of the very best. In Tootsie, he plays a man who disguises himself as a woman in order to land a role in a soap opera. Sydney Pollack directs a fantastic cast of actors, including Bill Murray, Teri Garr, Dabney Coleman, Geena Davis and Jessica Lange. A comic masterpiece.




Honorary Mention
Blade Runner; E.T.: The Extra-Terrestial; 48 Hours; An Officer and a Gentleman; The Secret of NIMH; The Verdict; The World According to Garp; The Year of Living Dangerously

Friday, February 18, 2011

Quick Takes: Dogtooth, Catfish, The Karate Kid, Paranormal Activity 2

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Another strong run in rentals this week.

First off is Dogtooth (2010), an extremely bizarre and fascinating Greek drama about a man who "protects" his children from the outside world by confining them to their property. Since birth, the three kids are raised to believe that there is nothing in the world beyond that fence in the yard. No television, no books, no phone -- everything is self-contained and masterfully orchestrated. Things begin to fall apart as the dad brings in an outsider to help fulfill the teenage son's sexual needs. It's a shocking film, but at the same time, it's quietly observant and heartbreaking. Not for the squeamish. 4/5

In what is possibly my favorite documentary of the year, Catfish (2010) follows a young man in New York City who enjoys a long-distance friendship/relationship with a family in Michigan. He is friendly with the young girl who paints beautiful pictures, is smitten with her older sister and is respectful of their mother, who balances a chaotic household every day. The funny thing is that he never actually met any of them. Over time, he begins to realize that some things don't quite make sense with this clan. What he discovers is surprising and heartfelt. Some debate the authenticity of the film. But the way I look at it, real or not, it's a fascinating portrait of our times. 4.5/5

The powers that be decided to remake an 80's classic, The Karate Kid (2010), which was met with skepticism by everyone I know, including myself. Here's the surprise: it's not all that bad! This remake is actually a respectful homage to the original, featuring many of the same key plot points. Despite the fact that there is no karate in the film at all, Dre Parker (Jaden Smith, clearly a star) goes through the same transformations, beat by beat, that Daniel Lorusso went through. Jackie Chan surprised me with an actual performance here; it's his best work that doesn't involve crazy stunts. Though overlong and completely unnecessary, this is a rare remake done well. 3/5.

Finally, the biggest surprise of the week. The sequel to last year's hit, Paranormal Activity, is actually really, really good. In fact, I may go so far to say that it even improves on the original. Paranormal Activity 2 (2010) takes the same basic structure -- a family is disturbed by the things that go bump in the night -- and adds several new dimensions. First, instead of focusing on a couple, we have a family that features an inquisitive teenager, a frightened toddler and a protective pooch. And second, the family is directly connected to the couple featured in the first film. How the two films tie together is ingenious. The perfect double bill on a dark and stormy night. 4.5/5

The Greats: Mission: Impossible (1996)

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I know what you're thinking. There are hundreds -- no, thousands -- of truly great movies out there. Do I really want to single out Mission: Impossible? My answer to that is a resounding yes. When a high-tech, expensive, flashy Hollywood blockbuster is working on all levels, the results can be pretty extraordinary. How often does that happen? If it provides a consistent adrenaline rush without insulting your intelligence, it can be just as rewarding as a prestige film that will go on to win multiple Oscars. When you first saw it, you probably weren't all that impressed. You were confused by it, the underwhelming sequels brought the whole franchise down, Tom Cruise is weird, etc etc. You may have your reasons. But if you actually sat down and watched this movie again, you'll realize this: when it comes to superior craftsmanship and sheer entertainment, Mission: Impossible delivers the goods.

I credit five people to the success of this film. First, the three writers -- David Koepp, Robert Towne and Steven Zaillian. These guys are pros. Look up their credits, they are heavyweights in this business. What they did here works on so many levels. They took the concept that worked successfully in television for many years and essentially glorified an episode of the series into a movie. It's got all of the same elements of the TV show. Then they made a bold move: they turned a beloved character from the series and turned him into the villain. I think this was a crucial move to spin the entire franchise into a new direction. It also provided a great, unexpected twist for first-time viewers and long-time fans.

Another smart move the writers made: they killed off the IMF team within the first 15 minutes. You don't really expect well-known actors like Emilio Estevez and Kristin Scott Thomas to die in the first act. The movie hit the ground running with these pulled-the-rug-out-from-under-you twists that are normally reserved for the final act.

Mission: Impossible is also a very dense thriller and first-time viewers may be exhausted trying to keep up with the pace of the script. It holds up very well in repeated viewings and this makes it stand out among the effects-heavy, action blockbusters we see in the multiplex every summer. Most of these kinds of movies are set pieces strung together by filler scenes where nothing essential happens. The writers made sure to include pivotal information and clues when the action is not moving. In other words: every scene counts.

The fourth key person I give credit to the film's success is the director, Brian DePalma. In fact, without him, the film probably wouldn't be as fun to look at. I love how he handles the camera. Look at the scene at the aquarium restaurant, for example. Hunt and Kittredge are sitting at a table in a room surrounded by fish tanks. DePalma uses his trademark tight close-ups and low-angle tilts. These shots set up the action that will occur a few minutes later and simultaneously ramps up the suspense. Is Kittredge to be trusted? Is there way out of here? When Hunt delivers his awesome line that I love repeating any chance I can get -- "Kittredge, you've never seen me very upset" -- the camera goes wide as the gum explosive sticks to the glass and Hunt makes his escape. It's one of the film's many masterfully staged sequences.

DePalma is also a fan of high-angle tracking shots, which is prevelant in a few key scenes in the movie. Most dramatically, he uses this technique during the famous vault break-in sequence. It's ridiculous in theory -- Hunt and his team breaking into a high-security vault at Langely -- but theory doesn't matter as long as the scene is executed well. And this scene is among the best in cinematic history.

Then there's the fantastic train sequence, which serves as the climax of the film. Surprisingly enough, most of the film is light on action and heavy on momentum and building suspense. So this ending actually releases some of that built-up tension as we watch the TGV hurdle across the countryside at lightning speed. I didn't detect any trademark DePalma stylings here, but his expertise on how to handle an action sequence is on full display. No quick cuts or jittery camera work -- you know exactly where everyone is and what is unfolding in front of you. Of course, we know it's impossible for a chopper to fly into a tunnel unscathed while tethered to a high speed train, but DePalma and effects house ILM made it look entirely convincing. It doesn't just end there -- you've got Hunt and Phelps jumping from the train to the chopper like 2 kids on a playground. It's enthralling to watch. It's the film's only effects-heavy action sequence and it works like gangbusters.

All of that said, none of this would have worked without the fifth and final key element to the film's success: the music. Danny Elfman composes a score so addictive and pulsating, the movie would be lifeless without it. First, he takes the famous theme song and ramps it up about 10 notches. Seriously, if you don't have goosebumps during the film's cold open scene which leads to the brief title sequence, you have no pulse. Throughout the film, you hear his terrific, edgy, ticking percussion and it winds you up like a clock. It completely drives the film.

Tom Cruise, an actor I greatly admire, makes a terrific action hero, but I think he's better when he stretches (i.e. Eyes Wide Shut, Magnolia). He doesn't make or break this film, but he more than holds his own. The rest of the cast is strong and reliable -- Jon Voight, Ving Rhames, Jean Reno, the great Henry Czerny (so wily as Kittredge). Vanessa Redgrave has some nice scenes as the enigmatic Max. The double crosses are fun, but if you think about it, they are mostly superficial. Mission: Impossible doesn't survive on the basis of these twists and that's what makes the film hold up on repeated viewings. The entire film does not hinge on the big reveal.

So, without these writers, DePalma's direction and Elfman's score, we would have a standard, by-the-book, action-heavy update on a popular TV series. We've seen this numerous times over the years. Most of them are forgettable. Mission: Impossible is the rare summer blockbuster that lives and breathes. It gets better with every viewing, tightens its grip on you and never lets you go.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Quick Takes: Machete, Easy A, Let Me In

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Catching up on recent rentals...

Robert Rodriguez's revenge dish, Machete (2010), is a tasty morsel of fun. It's way over-the-top, usually to hilarious effect. After a while, though, it grew tiresome (this appears to be a flaw with most Rodriguez films). The films suffers from villainy overkill. Everyone's a bad guy. I know, we get it. Still, for most of its running time, it's entertaining. 3/5

Emma Stone is winsome and fetching in Easy A (2010), and she anchors the film very well. She gets terrific help from Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson (how awesome are they? They are the coolest parents in the history of movies!). Lisa Kudrow and Thomas Haden Church have good moments as well, but it's the plucky script and Stone's charm that makes this one a breeze to watch. 3.5/5

I enjoyed the Swedish film Let the Right One In when it came out a few years back. The Hollywood remake, Let Me In (2010), is an honorable rehash of the same story. They are both slow-moving films about a lonely boy who befriends a young girl in his building complex. It just so happens that she's a blood-thirsty vampire. Oh, minor flaw, really. Their friendship is the heart of this story and is what makes the films so fascinating to watch. Really, both films are more or less exactly the same. But they are both done quite well. 3.5/5


Thursday, February 10, 2011

Quick Take: In Treatment: Season 1

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It only took me a month and a half, but I finally finished season 1 of In Treatment, the HBO series about Paul Weston (Gabriel Byrne, easily his best work), a Washington-area shrink who struggles to analyze his patients while dealing his own familial strife. There are 45 thirty-minute episodes in this season, which is a lot of hours for a single season. It was a huge risk for HBO to ask a viewer to commit to that many hours in a single run, but that's what HBO does best. It takes risks.

The format is unlike any other show on TV. Five episodes run each week (or per disc, in my case), for 9 weeks. It unfolds in real time (or close to it), with each episode focusing on a single session. The first four sessions: Laura (Melissa George), a 30-something year-old nurse who has serious commitment issues; Alex (Blair Underwood), a cocksure Navy pilot who struggles with the repercussions of a recent mission; Sophie (a great Mia Wasikowska), a teenage gymnast with suicidal tendencies; and Jake and Amy (Josh Charles and Embeth Davitz) as a couple whose marriage is crumbling. The fifth session is reserved for Paul and his own shrink, played by the inimitable Dianne Wiest. Their sessions, especially, are crackling with tension.

The show is not for impatient viewers. It's leisurely paced and we rarely leave Paul's cozy office. As the viewer, you're simply eavesdropping on Paul and his patients as they talk endlessly about feelings, emotions, relationships. I thought it would take me a while to adapt to the show's talky style, but thanks to this remarkable cast and the show's sharp, subtle teleplays, it didn't take me long to get hooked. Everyone here had a chance to shine, but I felt the portrayal of Sophie, the young gymnast, was the most emotional. Paul had to peel a lot of layers off Sophie and the payoff was impressive. Her final episode (featuring a nice appearance by Peter Horton) was surprising and heartfelt.

The rest of the cast was perfectly fine. Even if you didn't like a particular character or session, it wasn't long before the show moved on to the next episode. Michelle Forbes had some really strong scenes as Paul's wife as did the wonderful Mae Whitman as his daughter, Rosie. Like I said, everyone on the show had a chance to make an emotional impact. There is no weak link here.

The best element of the show, without a doubt, is Byrne. The camera loves him. He anchors the show with his intelligent shrink-speak and thoughtful gazes.  He's in control during the sessions with his patients, and it's thrilling to see him firing on all cylinders. As the season progresses, he begins to lose that control while his personal life eats away at him. Byrne delivers a subtle, layered performance, worthy of many accolades.

I look forward to seeing Paul with his new patients (John Mahoney! Hope Davis!) in season 2.

Best of the Year: 1981

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My Picks of the Year
(in alphabetical order)
Blow Out
Brian DePalma directs the hell out of this stylish, inventive thriller about a sound man who finds himself knee deep in a conspiracy involving the suspicious death of a presidential hopeful. John Travolta is great here; he had previously given movie-star performances in Grease and Saturday Night Fever, but in Blow Out, he became an actor. DePalma regulars Dennis Franz and John Lithgow are memorable as a sleazy photographer and a hell-bent killer, respectively. A terrific piece of entertainment.

Das Boot (The Boat)
An early masterpiece from acclaimed German director, Wolfgang Petersen, Das Boot takes place almost entirely inside of a U-Boat submarine during WWII. This harrowing tale depicts the claustrophobic lifestyle of weary, though dedicated, soldiers. The 3-hour+ running time may test your patience, but under the direction of Petersen, the tension is unending.

Gallipoli
An early gem from the great Peter Weir, Gallipoli is the story of two young soldiers who leave their idealistic world to go off and fight in a senseless war. It's more of a character piece than a war film, but make no mistake -- it's a grand epic motion picture which deserves to be listed side-by-side with Full Metal Jacket and Saving Private Ryan. Gallipoli also features a memorable performance by a young Mel Gibson.

Raiders of the Lost Ark
Steven Spielberg and George Lucas join forces to create one of the most indelible characters in movie history: Indiana Jones. Lucas plucks his Han Solo (after Tom Selleck couldn't do it), and Harrison Ford cements his place in Hollywood as one of our great movie stars. This movie is just about perfect. Lawrence Kasdan's script moves along effortlessly as Jones trots the globe in one breathtaking set piece after another. The sequels may have more action and humor, but this is the granddaddy of them all. This is where it all started.

Reds
This is Warren Beatty's pet project. He did Heaven Can Wait in order to fund this behemoth of an epic. It's quite a masterwork, a moving thoughtful drama set during the Russian Revolution. At its heart is a love story that spans decades between an American journalist John Reed (Beatty) and feminist writer Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton). It's long, but it engages you, provokes thought and emotions and is gorgeous to watch on a big screen. Reds is a classic example of how a grand epic should be made.

Honorary Mention
Absence of Malice; The Evil Dead; On Golden Pond; Pixote; Time Bandits

Best of the Year: 1980

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My Picks of the Year
(in alphabetical order)
Airplane!
One of the first, and best, of the laugh-a-minute comedies from the Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker team, Airplane! can be seen over and over again and still get dozens of big laughs out of you. A spoof of the popular 70’s disaster movies, Airplane! features a great cast of dramatic actors, including Leslie Nielsen, Peter Graves, Robert Stack and Lloyd Bridges, who deliver their one-liners with perfect comedic timing. One of the funniest films of all time and, surely, I’ve never been more serious.

The Empire Strikes Back
Here it is, the heart of the Star Wars legacy. By far and large, the best of the series. There is so much to savor here. Luke in training with Yoda at Dagobah. Han Solo frozen in carbonite. Darth's revelation that he is Luke's father. It's emotional, it's soaring, it's a beautifully rendered soap opera in space. George Lucas handed the directorial reins to Irvin Kershner -- was he the key to the film's overwhelming success? Who knows? What we do know is that The Empire Strikes Back is nothing short of visionary.

The Gods Must Be Crazy
This international smash hit comedy starring a Bushman named N!Xau and a famously discarded coke bottle touched audiences worldwide with its elegant universal comic appeal, sweet love story and all around hilarious camaraderie. The coke bottle in question confounds everyone at the Bushman’s tribe; they have no idea what it is and yet have managed find many day-to-day uses for it. After some time, the tribe members start to fight one another for it, and the Bushman finally realizes that the bottle must be returned to the Gods that left it for them. There is so much more to it, and The Gods Must Be Crazy is quite a dazzling discovery.

The Shining
Stanley Kubrick polarized fans of Stephen King’s classic novel with this slow-moving, claustrophobic, character-building thriller about a writer who terrorizes his family after being holed up in a mansion for months on end. Jack Nicholson owns this movie; his layered, detailed performance as a writer who becomes unhinged is both hilarious and horrifying to watch. Kubrick establishes the mood of the film so effectively that the suspense eventually becomes unbearable. The Shining is a classic of its genre.

Honorary Mention
Dressed to Kill; Superman II; Used Cars

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Best of the Year: The 1970s

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My Picks of the 1970s
(in alphabetical order)
Alien (1979)
Each Alien movie has its own mood, tone, and style, all of which I admired in varying degrees. The second was the most thrilling; the third was the moodiest; the fourth was the funniest (however unintentional); and this Alien is easily the scariest. Ridley Scott brilliantly restrains from showing much and just lets the setting, the dialogue and the accomplished actors tell us a little monster story. 

All the President's Men (1976)
Blistering, edge-of-your-seat political thriller with Redford and Hoffman as journalists Woodward and Bernstein, two men responsible for uncovering the Watergate scandal. You can’t go wrong here. You’ve got ace director Alan Pakula at the helm, William Goldman penning a biting script, Jason Robards deservedly picking up an Oscar for playing editor Ben Bradlee, and Jack Warden, Jane Alexander, Ned Beatty, Martin Balsam, Hal Holbrook (need I go on?) filling out the rest of this amazingly prolific cast.

Being There (1979)
Ah, how I wish I were there when Peter Sellers was enjoying his amazingly prolific career span throughout the sixties and seventies. From what I gather, this was the most significant role of his lifetime (or was it Dr. Strangelove?). Either way, I can see the reason for his accolades. This is such a wonderful film, so eerily like a 70's companion of “Forrest Gump.” Injected with political witticisms, magical whimsy and the game of chance, Being There is a smile-inducing satire about a simple gardener who is mistaken for a genius. Make no mistake here -- this one is a true 70's classic.

Carnal Knowledge (1971)
Jack Nicholson and Art Garfunkel lead a wonderful ensemble, which also includes Ann-Margret and Candice Bergen, in Mike Nichols' insightful dramedy about the friendship between two men in their college years and then later in middle-age. Nichols and his screenwriter frankly focus on sex and tumultuous relationships, and the men's vastly different takes on the opposite sex. What's so fascinating about this refreshingly adult and finely detailed study is the gradual change in perspective these men go through as they get older. This is crisp, intelligent filmmaking with entertaining dialogue and memorable performances all around.

Chinatown (1974)
"Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown." The always prolific Nicholson headlines Roman Polanski's stark, thrilling detective drama in which he plays, infamously, Jake Gittes, a nose-bandaged P.I. investigating a seedy case involving adultery, murder and….water. Faye Dunaway is brilliantly seductive as the woman who hires him, whose character has many tricks up her sleeve, and John Huston is the creepy subject in which Jake is hired to investigate. Chinatown is a skilled, unpredictable noir thriller and it's very easy to see why this is hailed as a masterpiece of any year, any genre.

The China Syndrome (1979)
A great powerful cast elevates this intense drama from being the obligatory ripped-from-the-headlines TV movie of the week (though ironically -- and eerily -- it was the event that followed the movie). I still cannot shake off the riveting finale in which the plant melts down and Jack Lemmon, helplessly trying to stop it, gets shot down. I remember a bearded, young Michael Douglas pounding on the glass during the spectacle. Several alarms are sounding and it serves as a powerful score. It's a brilliant climax in this fine drama featuring a timely, intelligent subject matter.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
In Steven Spielberg's first genuinely great film, Richard Dreyfuss plays a family man who has a "close encounter" with a UFO and is eventually drawn into an elaborate secret plan hatched by the government to communicate with the extra-terrestrials. This is a terrific family picture, filmed with a wide-eyed, childlike wonder by Spielberg and is thoroughly engrossing and even frightening (by PG standards). The unforgettable climax, with the abduction of Dreyfuss' kid and the landing of the spaceship, is awe-inspiring and emotionally soaring.

Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
I wrote a paper on this film in college and the assignment was pure pleasure. Dog Day Afternoon is a wonderful character study underneath the guise of a taut hostage-thriller scenario. Al Pacino, in one of his very best performances, plays Sonny, a married family man who makes a compulsive decision to rob a bank to get money for his gay lover's sex change operation. He's got a buddy, Sal, along the ride with him, who knows nothing about Sonny's secret relationship. After the robbery goes wrong, the media and cops are surrounding the place and his entire private life is out in the open for the public to see. At turns, this film is hilarious and intense, as we joyously watch Sonny go through what is easily the worst day of his life.

Escape from Alcatraz (1979)
There’s something to be said about my affection for prison films and I haven’t quite pinpointed the reasoning behind it yet. Escape from Alcatraz is yet another classic in the incarceration genre, this time featuring Clint Eastwood, in his prime, as a rebellious convict (is there any other kind in Hollywood?) who is determined to break out of Alcatraz. Don Siegel directs this heavily cinematic film, filled with scenes of sheer tension without a word ever being uttered.

Halloween (1978)
John Carpenter created the best of the original slasher films with Halloween, a dark, quiet thriller about a psychopath in a hockey mask who terrorizes Jamie Lee Curtis. Carpenter has three things going for him with this film: 1) It's scary, not gross. By keeping the violence and bloodshed to a minimum (compared to Freddy and Jason), the film doesn't make you queasy. He smartly relies on tone. 2) His brilliantly simplistic score sets up that tone wonderfully and it captures the true sound of fear and paranoia. And 3) the introduction of the lovely miss Curtis, who went on to become an underrated (and sadly under-utilized) actress. H2O is the best of all of its sequels, but make no mistake -- this one is the real thing.

Heaven Can Wait (1978)
Warren Beatty made this studio film so that he can get financing for Reds, and for a throw-away audience pleaser, Heaven Can Wait is a delightful charmer. Charles Grodin and Dyan Cannon get big, big laughs here as scheming lovers, while Jack Warden, James Mason and Julie Christie round out a terrific ensemble as Beatty’s close friend, guardian angel and paramour, respectively. The ending feels a bit like a cheat, but Beatty turns on the charm all the way and makes the film very easy to swallow.

Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
The most well-acted, emotionally wrenching film of the 70's. I've always admired the way director Robert Benton handled his characters in such notable films as Places in the Heart and Nobody's Fool, and here, there's no exception. Divorce was only growing during the time of its release, but even today, the film is not in the least bit dated. I've never seen Dustin Hoffman better than I've seen him here and Justin Henry played his son without being too cutesy like you see in Chris Columbus's movies. The five major Oscars the film won were most deserving.

Lenny (1974)
Is there really a better actor than Dustin Hoffman? Again, he impresses the hell out of me with a searing performance as Lenny Bruce, an edgy, trailblazing comic who used his comedy routine to air his blistering social commentary and political beliefs. Bob Fosse, a musical auteur and stage genius, is an unlikely choice here as director and some of his artful techniques didn't always work for me (the lingering camerawork in the opening act, for one, was too pretentious). What did work was his decision to film in crisp black-and-white and guiding Hoffman and Valerie Perrine in delivering some of the finest work of their careers. It's an absorbing, mesmerizing piece of work.

Little Big Man (1970)
The great Dustin Hoffman is a revelation in this hilariously entertaining dramedy about a young man taken in by Native Americans. He's captured and raised by the Indians and eventually grows up to become one. It's not necessarily a comedy, but it's filled with funny, human moments with very different characters trying to relate to one another. It could also be characterized as a coming-of-age drama, or even a war film, as Custer and his bloody massacres make a crucial appearance in the film. Some may say it's historically inaccurate, but under the helm of Arthur Penn, it's undeniably great filmmaking.

Night Moves (1975)
This is another Arthur Penn classic in which he re-teams with his Bonnie & Clyde actor Gene Hackman. It's a slow burn thriller about a private detective (Hackman) who takes on a standard kidnapping case that turns strange and baffling as he digs himself deeper. The enigmatic ending, widely debated and discussed upon its release, is a stroke of genius. It makes you second-guess the entire film long after it ends. It's one of Hackman's best roles and features great early performances by Melanie Griffith and James Woods. Definitely worth multiple viewings.

Norma Rae (1979)
Sally Field won a very well-deserved Oscar as Norma Rae, a spunky, single mother who takes on the task of unionizing her town's textile factory. You've seen similar-themed films -- lone woman tackles blue-collar top brass -- with Silkwood and North Country, but this one started them all. The men are well-cast; Beau Bridges as her boyfriend and Ron Liebman as the labor organizer she falls for. It's a moving, uplifting film.

North Dallas Forty (1979)
What Any Given Sunday tried to be and failed. This one is a bold, uncompromising, daring pro-football dramedy about the players (and owners) succumbing to the dangers of success (or achieving thereof), dealing with such issues as retirement, drugs, illegal gambling, and sex. Nick Nolte, like he did so well in Affliction, commands your attention by merely breathing. One of the very best of sports dramas.

Paper Moon (1973)
What a charming little road movie! Peter Bogdanovich elegantly directed this spry and funny comedy about a con man who accidentally meets up with a little girl (who may or may not be his daughter) and takes her along with him on the road to thievery. Real-life father-daughter team Ryan and Tatum O’Neal are a perfectly matched on-screen duo. Their chemistry was revelatory; I still remember vividly their conversations, their bickering and their little con games. Paper Moon is good, clean, honest fun, a terrific piece of family entertainment.

Star Wars (1977)
It ain’t no Empire Strikes Back, that’s for sure. But believe me, it'll do. First, the 20th Century Fox theme hums along and the Lucasfilm banner glistens on the screen. Then John Williams' memorable theme blasts through the speakers and the famous scroll begins the story of Chapter 4, A New Hope. It’s all orgasmic and wonderful. The newer Star Wars films do not have nearly same impact as this one and the last two chapters; chalk it up to nostalgia reasons and the freshness and inventiveness of the older material. And of course, Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Alec Guinness and James Earl Jones - they have a lot to do with it, too. A classic in every sense of the word.

The Sting (1973)
And there they are again, Redford and Newman, post-Butch and Sundance, two of the most charismatic and entertaining movie stars of their time. They reunited with Butch director George Roy Hill in this fabulously constructed con artist comedy that piles one smart con after another. The two leads are having a ball and the supporting cast – Robert Shaw, Eileen Brennan, Charles Durning, Ray Walston – is top notch. What makes this one even more remarkable is that once it’s over, you want to watch it all over again.

Superman (1978)
Richard Donner directed this classic superhero drama that proudly builds depth and character in the first hour and subsequently takes off from there. Christopher Reeve is remarkably believable and engaging as both Clark Kent and his emotionally conflicted alter-ego. Gene Hackman has a ball as Lex Luthor, who is better explored in the more action-oriented Superman II. This outing, though, features one of the most memorable endings in a superhero movie -- Superman circling the globe, literally, to turn back time. Cool stuff!

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)
Old-fashioned, though edgy, police drama features Walter Matthau as a gruff lieutenant who sets out to stop a group of hijackers, led by Robert Shaw, aboard a New York subway car. It’s clearly low-budget, which you can tell by the lack of explosions and high speed chases. However, the film manages to move at an incredible clip and is vastly entertaining. Pelham is also as New York as you can get, featuring gritty city locations, accents across the five boroughs, and Matthau in a very funny New York cop performance that is far from typical.

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)
If I were to give out an award for the most gleefully twisted, insanely playful, most adorably sweet performance in the history of movies, it would belong to the beloved Gene Wilder. His Willy Wonka character is one of the most memorable in film history (and I don’t care if your name is Johnny Depp). The songs are tuneful, the set pieces magnificently colorful and the kids lovably annoying brats. The plot may not be much, but the film’s visual and aural styles are unforgettable. Even if you tune into this wonderful fantasy for less than two seconds, you are instantly seduced by its otherworldly charms.

Honorable Mention
Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974); Badlands (1973); The Conversation (1974); The Deer Hunter (1978); Deliverance (1972); Five Easy Pieces (1970); Jaws (1975); The Last Detail (1973); One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975); Papillon (1973); Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975); Play Misty for Me (1971); Rocky (1976); Slap Shot (1977); Young Frankenstein (1974)

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