Off the Page – Gone With the Wind

There are few films that hold as lofty a position in the annals of movie history as Gone With the Wind (1939).  Considered the greatest movie in what many say is the greatest year ever in cinema, Gone With the Wind is every much the movie that defined Old Hollywood.  A grand sweeping epic with an all-star cast, Wind broke new ground in everything from it’s extensive use of technicolor to the introduction of a roadshow format in it’s presentation.  To this day, it is still the highest grossing movie ever adjusted for inflation, a title it has held for over 80 years.  And in many circles, it is still held up as the Gold Standard of epic film-making, with sweeping historical dramas all in one way or another taking cue from it.  But, in also being held up as the pinnacle of Old Hollywood, it also faces the scrutiny of contemporary interpretation as well.  It’s setting within the Antebellum South and it’s depiction of the Civil War and it’s aftermath continues to be a hotly debated aspect of the film, especially with regards to the criticisms it faces with the perceived glorification it gives to the South under slavery and it’s treatment of the black characters within the story.  One cannot say that the movie endorses the institution of slavery, but it also doesn’t deal with slavery as seriously as it should either.  It’s unfortunately a product of it’s time, when black performers were not as valued as their white co-stars, though remarkably Gone With the Wind managed to make some progress in that despite the conventions of the period.  The movie continues to spark strong feelings across the board for cinephiles of all kinds, and it’s place within the legacy of the industry as a whole is undeniable.  But it is also interesting looking at how it came to hold such a crucial place in the history of Hollywood, especially when you look at it’s literary origins.

The book on which the movie was based on had in fact only just hit the bookshelves a few years prior to the making of the movie.  In fact, producer David O. Selznick optioned the novel before it’s publication.  The book was written by Margaret Mitchell, a first time novelist who had been writing columns extensively for the Atlanta Journal for many years.  A pioneer journalist in her time, she refined her strong feminist voice in a time and place where her point of view still wasn’t accepted as the norm.  Being a strong woman in a man’s world would be a theme that would define much of her writing from that point on.  In 1926, she left her job at the Atlanta Journal and an ankle injury soon after left her home bound for an extensive period of time.  Her husband convinced her that she should be spending her downtime writing, and she would do just that, working on what would be her magnum opus over the next three years.  Drawing upon the stories that she was told by her elders who lived through the Civil War and from interviews that she had with still living veterans of the conflict, Mitchell constructed the narrative of Gone With the Wind, centered around a strong willed southern debutante by the name of Pansy O’Hara; her publisher of course would convince her to change the name to the more provocative Scarlett.  Once completed, Margaret Mitchell had amassed a biblical sized manuscript that topped over 1,000 pages.  But, even despite that enormous size, the publishers fell immediately for her epic romance and upon publication, readers did as well.  After it’s debut in 1936, Gone With the Wind would earn Mitchell both a Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.  And of course, Hollywood came a calling and would forever cement Mitchell’s novel into it’s iconic place in American culture.  And despite the immense length of the novel, it is frankly rather surprising how little changed on it’s way to the big screen.

“With enough courage, you can do without a reputation.”

David O. Selznick knew very well that when he optioned the rights to the novel even before it’s publication that he had in his hands something that was going to take the world by storm.  When the novel became a nationwide sensation, it became apparent that not only did Selznick need to make the movie a reality, he had to be especially faithful to the source material as well.  And given the enormous length of the novel, he was also going to have to put a lot of trust in his audience as well.  The movie clocks in at a staggering 235 minutes, just shy of 4 hours, making it the longest movie ever made in Hollywood at that time, and would continue to be for many years after.  To help theaters deal with such a long movie, Selznick Productions broke the film up into two separate acts with an intermission at the halfway point.  In addition to the epic length, Selznick also spared no expense on the movie’s lavish production and costume design, all of which sparkle in the technicolor photography, which itself was a novelty in the late 1930’s.  Through it all, Selznick was determined to make the grandest spectacle ever put on the silver screen, no matter the cost, and it’s a gamble that paid off.  The movie was a financial and critical success, becoming just as much of a blockbuster as Mitchell’s book.  It would end up winning a then record 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture.  It still remains a touchstone in the history of Hollywood, and is still widely seen as a classic.  And with it’s faithful adherence to the novel it’s based on, it also gives us a magnificent translation of Mitchell’s vision to the big screen.  But even so, there are some things that stand out when you compare the novel with the movie, and some of it shows an interesting disconnect that belies the divisions that still exist within America after the Civil War.

“Take a good look my dear.  It’s a historic moment you can tell your grandchildren about – how you watched the Old South fall one night.”

One big difference that you’ll notice between the novel and the movie is that the novel is much darker in it’s tone.  Margaret Mitchell was not one to shy away from the harsh realities of post-War America.  In the novel, she details the brutal atrocities that occurred during the conflict, in particular, the Sherman March that left a deep scar across the setting of Northern Georgia.  Mitchell points out hardships and acts of violence that the movies could only hint at under the Hays Code restrictions.  Margaret Mitchell’s writing also is far more a product of her point of view.  Though Mitchell was quite liberal in her politics, particularly when it came to her feminist points of view, she was also a Southerner, with a rose colored view of the South’s position before and after the war.  Though she doesn’t endorse the institution of slavery, her novel unfortunately portrays a far too idealized vision of Antebellum society in the days before the war, when slavery was an institution.  As described in the narration, as well as the movie’s introduction, the South portrayed in this story is a “dream remembered.  A Civilization gone with the wind.”  That may have been how white southerners may have looked at the South, but black southerners absolutely would feel different.  Though Mitchell is detailed in her depiction of historical events, her blind-spot with regards to race is an unfortunate mark on her writing that has not aged well over time.  The movie likewise carries some of that baggage too, though in changing some aspects of the story, it managed to escape some of the harsher criticisms as well.  The exclusion of Scarlett’s assault in a shanty town by a black man and her then husband’s rallying of fellow Ku Klux Klan members in retaliation spares the movie of having more controversial connotation within it’s narrative.  Had they stuck more closely to Mitchell’s novel in these instances, the movie would have slipped further into Birth of a Nation (1915) territory.

If there is one interesting aspect of the movie where it makes the most interesting deviations from the novel, it’s in the characterizations.  Gone With the Wind is defined first and foremost by it’s iconic characters.  So much so that when it came time to cast the movie, there was unprecedented hype surrounding who would end up getting the highly coveted roles.  The demand for Clark Gable to play the role of roguish Rhett Butler was almost unanimous, and it’s easy to see why; it’s almost as if Margaret Mitchell wrote the character with him in mind, and he does not disappoint.  The casting of Scarlett however became the most sought after part in Hollywood, and every leading lady seemed to be fighting for their chance at the role.  Bette Davis even made an entire similarly themed film named Jezebel (1938) as a possible demo reel for her chance at the part.  However, Selznick made the then controversial decision to give the part to a then unknown British actress by the name of Vivien Leigh.  Leigh may have been an odd choice at the time, but from the moment you see her on screen for the first time in all her Scarlett glory, it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role.  Her chemistry with Gable in particular is unmatched and is probably what won her the role.  And in many ways, Leigh’s performance is the thing that deviates in the best way from the novel.  Mitchell’s Scarlett is far more of an un-redeemable schemer, who while is admirable in her resilience in the face of hardship is also a cold manipulative individual who ends up pushing people away.  In the movie, Leigh manages to find a deep rooted sadness in the character that helps to flesh her out even more.  It’s also an interesting, subtle commentary that the writers of the movie make on the South; turning Scarlett into a metaphorical character who stubbornly resists change in a futile pursuit of an idealized, comforting past that she can never return to.

“Never, at any crisis in your life, have I known you to have a handkerchief.”

Hollywood, while having it’s own issues with race in it’s early history, nevertheless did not want to overlook it either.  Thus, we get into the touchy subject of how the movie deals with the realities of slavery.  The movie could only go so far under the Code rules of the day, and it unfortunately had to remain cautious when it came to adapting the novel, as to not antagonize it’s Southern fan-base.  Margaret Mitchell’s novel does feature well-rounded black characters within it’s narrative, but they are in the role of slaves, who despite being emancipated still remain in service of the O’Hara family long after the war is over.  It’s another aspect of Mitchell’s blind-spot on race in America, where she didn’t view characters such as Mammy, Pork or Prissy as problematic.  The movie likewise draws backlash for it’s inclusion of these characters, but by making them a part of this colossal cinematic benchmark, it at the same time inadvertently broke new ground for black actors in the business.  Many of the black actors involved in the movie were not pleased with the fact that they had no other choice than to play domestics in a big Hollywood film, but at the same time, they were not going to waste their opportunity to show their qualities either.  Chief among them was Hattie McDaniel who played the role of Mammy, Scarlett’s blunt and strong-willed house maid.  McDaniel is a force on screen and she elevates this stereotypical character and makes it her own, putting a spotlight on a black face in cinema unlike any ever before.  And in doing so, she broke down barriers, including winning the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, a first ever for an African American in Oscar history, which wouldn’t happen again for another 20 years when Sidney Poitier won his Best Actor award.  You could certainly consider McDaniel’s contribution groundbreaking, but at the same time it propagated the same stereotypes that would continue to keep black actors sidelined for many years after.  So, it makes you wonder if the movie did more damage than good in race relations in America, by romanticizing this era where the only place a black person could exist was in servitude.

It’s in sanitizing the story the movie for mass audience consumption that Hollywood almost robs the importance of it’s subject matter as a result.  The horrors of slavery are pretty much glossed over and the focus is more on the suffering of the white characters instead.  But, those faults are more or less the faults of the book as well.  Margaret Mitchell was first and foremost concerned with the theme of destruction and rebirth, and most importantly, survival.  Through Scarlett O’Hara she imagines what it means to be a survivor, and how that sense of character makes someone standout and at the same time feel isolated.  Through this, the movie does capture it’s poignancy, as Scarlett is admirable in her resiliency, but at the same time hated for her selfishness.  The movie manages to keep it’s focus by giving Scarlett it’s full attention.  It’s pretty incredible how nuanced Vivien Leigh’s performance is, given that Scarlett is on screen for almost the entire four hours of the movie.  Even still, the movie today feels a little too simplistic with regards to it’s portrayal of the historical events in it’s background, and even with some of the other darker elements found in Mitchell’s writing.  Some changes are for the better, like the condensing of Scarlett’s many children into a single daughter as well as a streamlining of events.  But others, like the exclusion of details of a horrible marital rape committed on Scarlett by Rhett Butler, creates an unfortunate minimizing of crucial character developments that would have changed many perspectives on the characters.  Even still, it’s surprising how much David O. Selznick stuck his neck out for to bring the novel fully to life, including paying the hefty fine for braking the Code rules by including the then scandalous word “damn” in the now iconic line completely in tact within the movie.

“As God as my witness, I shall never go hungry again!”

Any criticism of the movie on the basis of race is more than justified, as with the original novel too, but there is no mistaking that the movie still holds a hallowed place in the history of Hollywood.  Even among critics of different racial backgrounds it is still an admired piece of cinematic art.  Not only that, but it set the bar high for epic film-making, and we have it to thank for all the grand spectacles that have followed in it’s wake, such as Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Gandhi (1982), Out of Africa (1985) and Titanic (1997) just to name a few.  A novel with the complexities of Margaret Mitchell’s original text was certainly going to be a challenge for any cinematic interpretation, and David O. Selznick’s production is certainly about as good as anyone could have done.  In many ways, the movies improves on many of the characters, certainly in the ways that the actors interpreted them including Vivien Leigh’s forceful portrayal of Scarlett and Hattie McDaniel’s historic depiction of Mammy.  There’s also the absolutely genuine charm of Clark Cable’s Rhett Butler and the undaunted sweetness of Olivia DeHaviland’s Melanie Hamilton.  As far as adaptations from page to screen go, you can’t ask for a better example than Gone With the Wind.  I’m sure that most people today are more familiar with the movie than the book itself, as it has become an almost universally known part of the culture.  The book itself is an interesting read, albeit with some old-fashioned views on the South that have not aged well.  It still stands as a groundbreaking work from one of the most important women writers of the 20th century.  Margaret Mitchell would never write another novel, as she returned to journalism soon after during the Second World War and had her life tragically cut short in a vehicular accident in 1949.  The legacy of her work still lives on, both in the positives and negatives, and Gone With the Wind is still one of the most widely discussed works of fiction from it’s time.  The movie itself is stunning in it’s adherence to it’s source material, but also it what it added to the work itself.  It’s also just a movie that defines the art of film-making in a way that few others do.  With it’s grandiose scope, it’s iconic characters, and it’s unapologetic sense of operatic splendor, it very much is the quintessential Hollywood movie, and without a doubt one of the most important translations of book to film that has ever been attempted.

“Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.”

What’s the Rush? – Are Deadlines Creative Roadblocks to Movies and Is It Worth It to Delay?

Something peculiar and unprecedented happened in the film industry last year, and it came from the unlikeliest of places.  When Paramount Pictures delivered a first look trailer for their big screen adaptation of the video game Sonic the Hedgehog, it was received with a fair bit of outrage.  Long time fans of the character were quick to point out how terrible looking his new “enhanced” character model appeared, and they flooded social media with their complaints.  But what shocked many people afterwards was the fact that Paramount quickly pulled the movie off their schedule, stating that they were going to “fix” the animation and change the model of Sonic to better reflect the demands of the fans.  This is something that is pretty much unheard of in Hollywood, that a movie studio halts the release of a movie after the backlash it received from the trailer.  Originally slated for a holiday season release, the Sonic the Hedgehog movie is now being released in theaters with it’s new “refreshed” animation and, as of this writing, it is looking like it’s going to have a better than expected opening weekend.  Which raises the question; did delaying the movie actually improve it’s chances.  I haven’t seen it myself yet, but by judging the progression the movie went through from that original trailer to the final product, it looks like Paramount might have indeed salvaged what could have been an embarrassing train wreck.  I’ll definitely say that the new and improved model is a step up from the grotesque version we saw in the original trailer.  He at least looks like the character from the video game now.  But, what does this tell us about the film-making process in general.  Does it actually benefit a movie to have a delay in production in order to fix supposed problems?  Is meeting a deadline actually counterproductive to making a film better?  Is it right to take the response to a trailer as a motivation to re-work a movie?  In a blockbuster driven market like the one we are living through now in Hollywood, the questions raised by Sonic the Hedgehog’s troubled production provides some clues to problems that stem far and wide throughout the business as a whole.

So, what was the issue with Sonic the Hedgehog being delayed a few more months.  The answer is it’s something that just does not happen in Hollywood; at least not this late in the game.  One of the longest running mechanics of the studio system in Hollywood is a planting of a flag within a release schedule.  It’s a way of the studios telling the industry that they plan to have a movie ready for release  on a specific date many years in advance, even if they don’t quite know what that movie is yet.  It’s mainly done to assure business with the theater chains, who want to know what to expect over the next several years so they can make their long term plans.  Normally, these tent-pole dates occur during important periods of the year where both the studios and the theaters expect bigger than average audiences, like Memorial Day weekend or Thanksgiving or the Holiday Break.  And by planting their flag on these busy weekends, the studios can assure themselves that they have stood out among the other competition that weekend.  After that, then the pre-production planning begins, where studios figure out what they’ll actually fill those dates with.  Some studios know exactly what they’ll put there; Marvel for example has laid claim to the first weekend of the summer season every year for more than a decade.  But, other times the date exists there just for the studio to have a claim to a lucrative time frame, and then they sometimes fill it with a movie that they hope will benefit from that.  Regardless of what that movie is, the studios have that date set, and the focus from there out is making sure that a movie is ready on that date.  Once it’s determined what movie will fill the slot, then it up to the production team to make that goal.  And, as we’ve seen with Sonic, sometimes a movie just isn’t ready for prime time.

There are different classes out there with regards to how deadlines are viewed within the industry.  Some people, mainly writers, view deadlines as a positive, because it helps to sharpen their focus and allows them to get things done without too much second guessing.  On the other hand, there are other people in Hollywood, mainly on the production side, who view deadlines as cumbersome to the creative process.  Film directors in particular like to have as much time to work on a project as they possibly can, because it allows them to be experimental and shoot a scene from every possible vantage point.  Without the constraint of a time limit, they can also accommodate their production to deal with delays that occur, such as with the unpredictability of the weather.  The same goes in the editing process, where more time allows for a more thorough search for mistakes and oversights missed on the days of production.  But, a movie studio can’t allow for film crews to have all the free time in the world; because then you end up having runaway productions.  This is one of the things that ultimately ended the era of the New Hollywood in the 1970’s.  When Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) and Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980) both went over-budget and over-schedule, the studios intervened and put an end to these projects that seemingly were going to continue going on without end.  Ambitious visions are a valuable thing for a filmmaker, but at the same time, there has to be accountability with the budgets, as well as an end point in place, and thus, that’s why studios have become more reliant on those tent-pole dates to ensure things don’t spiral out of control.

But even when you have a well oiled machine that is able to fire on all cylinders towards meeting those deadlines, it can cause friction along the way.  Some filmmakers find that meeting those demands from the studio ends up diminishing the finished product.  In a tweet delivered shortly after he parted ways with Marvel Studios, Doctor Strange (2016) director  Scott Derickson described studio release dates as “the enemy of art.”  That led to what he and Marvel mutually described as creative differences that led to his being let go from the upcoming Doctor Strange sequel.   And it’s a trend that we are seeing happen more and more in Hollywood as blockbusters are becoming more like an assembly line product in service of ongoing franchises.  Some filmmakers are able to work under those conditions, while other feel stifled by it.  Marvel has benefited from a long line of stable productions throughout it’s run, but the same can’t be said about it’s sister company under the big Disney umbrella; Lucasfilm.  Multiple productions on that side have faced upheavals in recent years, with several filmmakers like Colin Treverrow, Benioff & Weiss and Lord & Miller all either being let go from a project or exiting out of their own choice.  Creative differences likely played a part in these shake-ups, but also the fact that many of them recognized that delivering under a tight schedule would’ve negatively affected their projects.  This seems especially to have manifested with Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019).  The movie was almost completely started from scratch once J.J. Abrams stepped in to take over from Treverrow’s previous direction, and yet it still needed to make that December 2019 deadline.  It became clear, with an unfocused narrative and far too many plotholes left open, that the movie needed a few more months to polish out it’s story problems.  But, parent company Disney was insistent that it be done that specific year, because the release was going to coincide with the opening of Galaxy’s Edge in the parks as well as the launch of the Disney+ series that tied into the universe.  And thus, we got an unfinished movie in theaters that not only was the least popular of the new batch of films, but in some ways also tarnished the brand.

And out of that, you see why Scott Derrickson views deadlines as the “enemy of art.”  But at the same time, a project run amok has it’s downside too.  What the Star Wars,  and for that matter Sonic the Hedgehog shows us is that there should be more assessment over how much time a movie actually needs to be ready.  This can usually be examined early on in a film’s development, and oftentimes you do see film studios halt production well beforehand in order to keep a movie from going off the rails.  There are often many movies that get announced, but are never made.  Some people wonder why these movies never get off the ground and it’s because the studios assess the risks involved if they continue to head down the same road, and sometimes those risks are not worth the investment.  There’s the example of Warner Brother’s Superman Lives, which was going to be Tim Burton’s own spin on the famed comic book character, after he had already famously brought Batman to the big screen.  The movie went through a fair amount of steps in pre-productions including casting (with Nicolas Cage playing the man from Krypton) and location scouting, before the studio ultimately pulled the plug.  And the result usually comes from either the executives balking at the budget or because of a lack of enthusiasm from the public in general.  There are probably more examples of movies that died in development than there are ones that made it into theaters, and that includes projects from some of our greatest filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick’s Napoleon, or Francis Ford Coppola’s Megaopolis, or Ridley Scott’s Tripoli.  But these projects never end up hurting reputations for their creators, because they stalled long before things got way out of hand.  Perhaps what makes a case like Sonic the Hedgehog so unique is the fact that it changed course so far into production.

The unfortunate result of doing that kind of course correction so late is that it put extra pressure on the people working on your film.  In Sonic’s case, the visual effects team pretty much had to throw out months worth of work and effectively star over again.  This is especially problematic because the visual effects industry is notorious for over-working their artists, as well as adding a substantial amount to the budgets of the movies.  When a film is reaching that crunch time before a release date, it’s the pot-production crews that feel that crunch the most.  And with the case of Sonic the Hedgehog, they were saddled with having to work overtime on a project that they thought was nearly in the can already.  Having them go back and re-doing their work meant that it was going to take extra time away from their families in order to make the new deadline, and over the holidays no less.  To add more salt in those wounds, the visual effects company responsible for the Sonic redesign, Motion Picture Company (MPC), closed it’s Vancouver location shortly after, where all the Sonic work was done.  So, not only did the effects artists have to work through the holidays, but they were left without a job right after.  This speaks more to the volatility of the visual effects industry which is a whole other story, but it’s indicative of the growing problem where movie productions fall victim to their own inability to plan things out effectively.  Usually, movie studios haven’t taken the responses to movie trailers as seriously before, but in this case, the response had become so severe that Paramount had to intervene.  But, was it worth putting artists through a tough time for.  Many people get into the business for the love of creating movie magic, but when it’s becomes an arduous task to reverse a problem that should’ve been caught long before hand, that allure of creativity doesn’t seem so bright anymore.

The question remains, should movies be so beholden to set timelines.  In many ways, cinema is the only art-form that has to conform to such a demanding schedule.  Literature, for example, sometimes takes years to make it to the bookshelves from when they are announced to their ultimate publication.  We’ve been waiting how long now for George R.R. Martin to finish his next book in the  “Song of Ice and Fire” series?  Music also premieres in a different way, with singles often pre-releasing before a complete album; usually as a way to drive up hype.  The video game industry, like film, also uses release dates to gain attention for their products, but as they often fall prey to delays almost across the board, the gaming consumer base has become more lenient when it comes to receiving a video game far longer than what was expected.  So, why is it that movies are held to such a constraining time limit.  No doubt the history of out-of-control productions may have influenced it, but does holding onto it actually diminish a final product that ultimately needs more time to prepare.  It’s something that should become apparent when a major disruption happens, like a complete overhaul of the script or the team in charge of the production.  Otherwise, you are left with a movie project that either becomes a problem far too late into production like Sonic the Hedgehog, or a movie that lacks an identity because it had no time to evolve into something different like Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.  The worst thing a movie can do is to waste it’s potential, and sometimes it needs just that little extra time to finally meet it.  Otherwise, you run into the embarrassment of having a movie that fails at what it was supposed to do, because there wasn’t enough time to fix it.

Ultimately, there are many films that are far beyond fixing.  I don’t think that a post-release clean-up of the movie Cats was ever going to save that film from embarrassment.  But, at the same time, we may have seen another film like Sonic the Hedgehog possibly turn around it’s fortunes.  Sure, it’s not going to become an all-time great, but it may have saved itself from the train-wreck that it looked like it was heading towards.  A last minute delay like it’s was still not without it’s costs though, as the poor digital effects artists will tell you.  But, a better box office performance for the film may teach Paramount and other studios in Hollywood that rushing towards a release date is not always a good thing.  Some movies need to incubate a little longer, and the studios need to recognize exactly when is the right moment to change course.  It certainly shouldn’t happen as late as post-production, where you have to completely redesign a character because of the immediate backlash you faced from the trailer.  At the same time, a deadline also keeps a project in check, so it shouldn’t so much be a removal of all boundaries as just a re-positioning of the goal post.  If Star Wars hadn’t been so strict with their unmanageable release schedule, they wouldn’t have been forced into a hiatus like they are now, with so much personnel being shifted around.  At some point, a movie will let you know how much more time it will need, or even if it’s going to ever happen at all.  Overall, I don’t think Scott Derrickson is right when he says that deadlines are the “enemy of art,” because I see a lot of people become more driven when they know they’ve got an end point they need to get to.  It’s probably just the writer part of me that thinks that, but having a deadline in front of me allows me to keep my mind focused on a goal and eliminates all distractions.  But, there should be precautions allowed for any case where a project gets de-railed by unforeseen forces.  I don’t blame movies like Spider-Man (2002) and Zoolander (2001) delaying their release so that they could make a last minute edit of their films to remove the World Trade Center immediately after the events of 9/11 for example.  Sometimes, deadlines are a necessary evil, but it’s one that should be flexible enough to allow movies to become the best that it ultimately can be.

The 2020 Oscars – Picks and Thoughts

Quite a departure from years past, this year’s race towards the Academy Awards has been greatly accelerated.  This has been due to a far more truncated season than normal.  Usually the Oscars are given a month long window to allow for plenty of campaigning and preparation, with the actual ceremony taking place on either the last week of February or the first week of March.  This itself was truncated even more than it had been before, as the Oscars would sometimes even take place almost as far into the year as Spring Break.  But, this year, the Oscars are reeling in the time frame even more by giving the Oscars it’s earliest ceremony date yet; coming in only a week after the super bowl.  From nominations to ceremony, the window for the studios to make their final push is at it’s most narrowest, and as a result, no real front runner has emerged; at least with the biggest award of the night.  The guild awards have given us some indication about how the rest of the night might go, but the biggest award is still anyone’s guess.  History has shown that the movie with the most nominations is the one that usually stands as the front runner, but that hasn’t been the case in recent years, and given that the most nominated movie this year (Joker) is also the most divisive one among critics and fans, probably tells us that the trend will not turn around any time soon.  But then again, this is the same Academy that awarded the heavily derided Green Book (2018) Best Picture last year, so I guess you really can’t put anything past them.  Like I have for the last several years, I will be sharing my picks for this year’s Academy Awards along with my thoughts on the top awards.  These will include my choices for who I want to see win and who I believe will win.  It’s an interesting year, and it will be interesting to see how it all plays out this Sunday.  So, without any more delay, let’s take a look at the nominees.

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

Nominees:  Sam Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns (1917); Rian Johnson (Knives Out); Noah Baumbach (Marriage Story); Quentin Tarantino (Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood); Bong Joon Ho and Jin Won Han (Parasite)

Out of all the nominated categories this year, this one is the most wildly diverse, as far as genre types go.  You’ve got a war movie, a whodunit, a divorce drama, a showbiz flick, and a class satire.  Interestingly enough, this category is entirely filled with screenplays written by the directors of each selective film.  Though Sam Mendes’ inclusion here is deserved, his work is far more likely to be spotlighted in the directorial category (which I will get to later).  Three of the other nominees are represented here for screenplays that clearly display their own unique style.  Though not recognized elsewhere, Rian Johnson’s Knives Out screenplay is a wonderful example of breathing new life into a long dormant genre, and his nomination is also a nice vindication after his tumultuous tenure in the Star Wars franchise.  Noah Baumbach’s portrayal of a family coming apart through divorce is one of the most impressive, stripped down examples of writing that I have seen in recent years, with his Marriage Story script managing to capture so much honesty in how real people manage to navigate through a break up.  And then you have Quentin Tarantino delivering a screenplay in the way that only he can.  It may be one of his most meandering plots, but it’s also what makes the movie so fun to watch, as it becomes a window into the past, in which Quentin is clearly wanting to have fun with.  Much the opposite is Bong Joon Ho’s scathing indictment of class divisions with his film Parasite, which surprises with it’s ever changing plot twists that make it impossible to know what’s going to happen next.  It’s hard to know what the Academy likes better here.  Tarantino’s nostalgic script is likely to please older Academy members who lived through his recreation of Old Hollywood, but since he’s a two time past winner, his chances are slimmer this time.  And though I absolutely got absorbed into Baumbach’s no frills style of writing, it might be a little too quiet a movie for the Academy to honor.  That’s why I think Bong Joon Ho gets the edge here, and his win would certainly be historic for as the first ever winner from South Korea; and a rare foreign language win in a screenplay category.

Who Will Win: Bong Joon Ho and Jin Won Han, Parasite

Who Should Win: Noah Baumbach, Marriage Story

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

Nominees: Taika Waititi (Jojo Rabbit); Todd Phillips and Scott Silver (Joker); Greta Gerwig (Little Women); Steve Zallian (The Irishman); Anthony McCarten (The Two Popes)

This should be one of the most interesting categories to watch on Oscar night.  For one thing, it could be an indicator for how the night might play out, if either Joker or The Irishman takes this award.  While both screenplays are outstanding adaptations of their source materials, I believe that the Academy might actually view them as a bit too conventional for this year.  Instead, the choice may actually go to something a bit more groundbreaking.  And in this case, the front runner that has emerged is one that couldn’t have delighted me more.  My favorite movie from 2019 was undeniably Jojo Rabbit, which masterfully took it’s source material, the far more seriously crafted novel Caging Skies, and turned it into this delightfully goofy and satirical comedy about love overcoming hate.  Taika Waititi’s script is a masterwork in balancing tone, managing to still convey the horrors of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, while at the same time managing to have silly sight gags and hilarious one-liners in the same vein as a Mel Brooks or Charlie Chaplain comedy.  From top to bottom, this is one of the most delightfully eccentric screenplays in a long time, and is deserving of being honored by the Academy.  the only other screenplay that could stand in it’s way is a win for Greta Gerwig’s adaptation for Little Women.  Indeed, the fact that she breathed new life into a book that has been re-adapted many times is quite impressive, and in any other year that didn’t include Jojo Rabbit, I’d say that Gerwig would be the undisputed front runner here.  She may indeed come away victorious, after her perceived snub in the Best Director category, with this award as a consolation.  But, I think with his recent victory at the WGA awards that Taika is well on his way to winning this award, and it will be one that will leave this critic very delighted indeed.

Who Will Win: Taika Waititi, Jojo Rabbit

Who Should Win: Taika Waititi, Jojo Rabbit

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Nominees: Florence Pugh (Little Women); Kathy Bates (Richard Jewell); Laura Dern (Marriage Story); Margot Robbie (Bombshell); Scarlett Johansson (Jojo Rabbit)

Out of all the acting categories, this one looks to be the most open.  With a SAG and a Golden Globe win already under her belt, Laura Dern has emerged as the front runner, with her celebrated turn as someone that I think members of the Academy are quite familiar with; a divorce lawyer.  Dern is Hollywood royalty, and she has been a celebrated actress for many years, so she has the weight of a distinquished career as a boost to her claim for the award.  Her performance in Marriage Story is a strong one, although I’d say of all the nominated performances in the movie, it’s the one that impressed me the least.  Though she is the front runner, I’d say that she hasn’t locked down the award like we’ve seen in the other categories, and this is the one that could be the surprise of the show depending on how the Academy votes.  So what challenge does she face.  Kathy Bates and Margot Robbie are not the strongest contenders here, so it comes down to Scarlett Johansson and Florence Pugh.  If Jojo Rabbit has a surprisingly good night, it might help boost Johansson (who’s a two time nominee at this year’s Oscars), and she would be deserving of the award.  Her character in Jojo is certainly a standout, and a wonderful showcase for Johansson’s talents in both comedy and drama.  But, if there was one that I think stood out even more, it would be Florence Pugh’s star making turn in Little Women.  In a movie full of heavy hitters (including Laura Dern), Pugh stands out, and does a remarkable job of giving a character not well liked within the original book a much more sympathetic and richer interpretation.  Also, given the year she had with leading performances in movies as diverse as Fighting With My Family and Midsommar, a win here would give Florence a solid vindication of her status as a top tier actress.  So, even though Laura Dern may be headed towards her long overdue Oscar, I wouldn’t count out a possible upset by Pugh either, which itself would be deserved.

Who Will Win: Laura Dern, Marriage Story

Who Should Win: Florence Pugh, Little Women

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

Nominees: Anthony Hopkins (The Two Popes); Tom Hanks (A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood); Al Pacino (The Irishman); Joe Pesci (The Irishman); Brad Pitt (Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood)

Talk about a stacked category.  Every nominee here is a legendary movie star, with an enviable body of work across the board.  Even still, one has emerged as a front runner in this race, and not surprisingly, it’s the one guy who has yet to win his own award.  Brad Pitt has been nominated several times throughout the years, but has never managed to get the golden boy thus far.  That looks to change, as Pitt has swept through all the other awards this season and collected quite a few honors.  Unlike the other supporting category, I think this one is pretty much a lock for Brad.  It helps that he also has been accepting the award at each show by cracking a few jokes, both at his own expense and at those of his peers; all good natured.  The Academy likes honoring someone who can delight audiences, and Brad has been playing that part well, which is very much in line with the tone of his character in Tarantino’s movie.  Even still, is he deserving of the Award?  Though I enjoy his performance very much in the movie, and would be delighted to see him win the Award, it wasn’t the performance that impressed me the most out of this category.  Honestly, I was more blown away by Tom Hanks transformation into Fred Rogers in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, which is an impressive feat for an actor not known for doing imitations in his performances.  And I also have to spotlight the duo from The Irishman.  Al Pacino and Joe Pesci deliver two of the best performances of their legendary careers in the Scorsese epic, which is really saying something.  Though Pacino is working comfortably in his wheelhouse as Jimmy Hoffa, it’s Pesci who becomes the movie’s true revelation, playing against type as a reserved, methodical mafia don.  If anything, I’d like to see the Academy honor Pesci just for coming out of a lengthy retirement and delivering a new performance that strong.  Though Pitt will likely win here, and be deserved, I would still like to see one last honor go to a legend of Joe Pesci’s caliber.

Who Will Win: Brad Pitt, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

Who Should Win: Joe Pesci, The Irishman

BEST ACTRESS

Nominees: Charlize Theron (Bombshell); Cynthia Erivo (Harriet); Renee Zellweger (Judy); Saoirse Ronan (Little Women); Scarlett Johansson (Marriage Story)

Out of all the categories, this is one of the most unexpected, with regards to who has emerged as the front runner.  After a long hiatus out of the spotlight, Renee Zellweger reemerged with a near unrecognizable transformation into legendary actress Judy Garland, with a performance that included the actress performing her own singing, which is no small feat given the kind of person she’s playing.  What’s surprising is not the fact that she has managed to be nominated for her performance, but the fact that she has dominated all the Awards so far.  The movie itself has not exactly been embraced by the critical community, who saw it as very unremarkable and conventional by biopic standards, although every has praised her performance.  Given that Zellweger has not headlined a new film in a while, it’s a shock that this kind of performance would bring her back so strongly, almost entirely unchallenged through awards season.  Is it an indication of a weak year for female performances.  I would say no, because her fellow nominees also delivered strong work.  Cynthia Erivo’s nomination marks the only representation of a person of color in the acting categories, and though like Zellweger’s Judy her film has been described as too conventional, she is still being praised for her own performance that elevates the rest of the movie.  Johansson’s performance in Marriage Story may very well be the best one, because of the emotional rawness of her acting.  While most of the nominees in this category come across as better than average for their conventional stories, Johansson delivers a performance that captures the most broad spectrum of emotions; delivering a character that feels so natural and relatable that you forget about the fact that it’s an actor reading from a script.  At the same time, Johansson’s performance may be too realistic for an Academy that values complete transformations like the one that Renee made into Judy.  It also helps that she’s playing a icon, which the Academy also seems to love honoring, as if vicariously honoring honoring that person as well.  So, even though I think that Scarlett delivered the most impressive performance out of this field, it is most likely that Renee Zellweger’s transformative turn will be the victorious one.

Who Will Win: Renee Zellweger, Judy

Who Should Win: Scarlett Johansson, Marriage Story

BEST ACTOR

Nominees: Adam Driver (Marriage Story); Antonio Banderas (Pain and Glory); Joaquin Phoenix (Joker); Jonathan Pryce (The Two Popes); Leonardo DiCaprio (Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood)

The story of this category is less about who is nominated than it is about who wasn’t nominated.  The biggest snubs of this Awards season came in this category, with big contenders like Robert DeNiro and Adam Sandler noticibly left out.  The exclusion of Sandler in my opinion was the most egregious of them all, and I feel that it’s going to be one of those exclusions that the Academy is going to be kicking themselves for in the years ahead as the movie Uncut Gems will likely only grow in esteem.  With those noticible exclusions, it has made the race a far more predictible one, as one performance in particular has stood out.  From the moment Joker hit theaters, all anyone could talk about was how bold and groundbreaking Joaquin Phoenix’s turn as the iconic comic book villain was.  Much in the same way Heath Ledger had done a decade prior, Phoenix transformed himself both in body and persona to become this dark and twisted embodiment of undistilled evil.  Though the movie Joker has many detractor, you’ll find fewer people finding faults with Phoenix’s performance, which has been praised across the board.  And out of all the categories at this year’s Oscars, it’s the one that I find the most consensus with.  Phoenix will likely walk away with his first Oscar for his performance here, and it will be absolutely deserved.  If Sandler had been nominated, I feel like the race could have been tighter, but since that performance was left out, it’s all Joaquin and no one else.  I’d say the only possible challenger here would be Adam Driver for his likewise outstanding performance in Marriage Story, but he is clearly a distant second when stacked up against Phoenix.  It’s interesting that out of all the comic book characters that have dominated the box office over the last decade, the only one that the Academy has seemed to respond to has been the Joker, with the late Heath Ledger and soon Joaquin Phoenix both being honored for playing the role in their own ways.

Who Will Win: Joaquin Phoenix, Joker

Who Should Win: Joaquin Phoenix, Joker

BEST DIRECTOR

Nominees: Bong Joon Ho (Parasite); Martin Scorsese (The Irishman); Quentin Tarantino (Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood); Sam Mendes (1917); Todd Phillips (Joker)

Again, it’s another category marked by a noticible exclusion; namely the absence of a female director.  Given the strong showing of women directors this past year, it is unfortunate than none were recognized in this category, with Greta Gerwig being the most notable snub.  At the same time, it’s hard to argue that the five men nominated this year should be left out either.  Phillips may be the odd man out here, give that his movie is more driven by the strength of Joaquin Phoenix’s performance and not by his style of direction, which some have argued as being too derivitive.  The inclusion of two of the most influential filmmakers of all time is hard to overlook, as Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese delivered two of their most celebrated films to date.  In my mind, Scorsese’s The Irishman was one of the year’s most spectacular triumphs, encapsulating all the things that have made his career so legendary into one spectacularly crafted epic. But, whether it’s the fact that he’s a past winner and that there is a lingering anti-Netflix bias within the Academy, The Irishman sadly has not gained a lot of traction beyond the nominations.  So, it comes down to Bong Joon Ho and Sam Mendes.  Bong certainly displays a unique style that spans across so many tonal shifts within his movie, which probably will delight many Academy members.  But, if you were to look at a movie from a purely film-making standpoint, it’s hard to bet against Sam Mendes for his work on 1917.  Not only is he recreating a time period and a war setting, but he’s also shooting the entire movie to look like it’s all one unbroken shot.  It may not have the unpredictable-ness of Parasite, but 1917 is still a tour de force of what can be done with effective staging and unparalleled cinematography (done by the likely Oscar winner Roger Deakins), and Sam Mendes vision is film-making at it’s most grandest.  Though I have a soft spot for Scorsese’s Irishman, I feel like Mendes is going to ride that Director’s Guild win all the way to another Oscar.

Who Will Win: Sam Mendes, 1917

Who Should Win: Martin Scorsese, The Irishman

BEST PICTURE

Nominees: 1917; Ford v Ferrari; Jojo Rabbit; Joker; Little Women; Marriage Story; Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood; Parasite; The Irishman

And so we come to the big award of the year, and like many in recent years, it’s a hard one to predict.  The lack of a heavy front runner to steamroll through the competition in the vein of a Titanic (1997) or The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) makes this category a far harder one to handicap.  Given the complicated voting system that the Academy works with, and the larger number of nominees, there is a larger chance that really any of these nominees could emerge victorious.  Likely it will be down to a select few, especially the ones also nominated in the Directorial category.  The spreading around of Awards for the likes of Once Upon a Time… in HollywoodMarriage Story and Joker makes it less likely that those will win the top award, as their acting wins will be their high points.  Ford v Ferrari and Little Women most likely will pick up techincal awards and little else.  Sadly, The Irishman is the one that could sadly go home empty handed out of all these movies, which is a real shame given how good it is, but it’s also another indication of the Academy’s bias towards Netflix.  I for one, would love Jojo Rabbit to be the surprise sleeper and possibly spoil the race with an unexpected win, but it’s chances are slim.  In the end, it will come down to SAG winner Parasite and Golden Globe winner 1917.  A win for Parasite would certainly make history as the first foreign language winner for Best Picture, something which the Academy snubbed Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma (2018) of that honor at last year’s Oscar.  Unfortunately, it’s almost assured win in the International Film category might hurt it’s chances for Best Picture as it often has for other films.  In the end, I think 1917 is going to follow Sam Mendes almost certain Best Director win to a victory of it’s own, which would not be undeserved either.  Though my heart is with Jojo, I see this as a close race between Parasite and 1917, with 1917 having the slimmest of edges.  Thankfully, unlike last year’s Green Book debacle, all of this years nominees are actually deserving of recognition here, and it will be a satisfying win no matter who gets it.

Who Will Win: 1917

Who Should Win: Jojo Rabbit

As for all the remaining categories, here is my quick rundown of my picks for each one:

Cinematography: 1917; Film Editing: Ford v FerrariProduction Design: Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood; Costume Design: Jojo RabbitMake-up and Hairstyling: Joker; Original Music Score: 1917Original Music Song: “I’m Going to Love Me Again,” RocketmanSound Mixing: 1917Sound Editing: 1917Visual Effects: Avengers: Endgame; Documentary Feature: American FactoryDocumentaty Short: Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl); Animated Feature: Toy Story 4; Animated Short: Hair LoveLive Action Short: Nefta Football ClubInternational Feature: Parasite

So, there you have my picks for the 2020 Academy Awards. Though the Awards are still a big deal for the industry, it’s become less reliable as an indicator of a movie’s staying power. What we’ve often seen is a progression where a movie will hit at just the right moment to ride that Oscar buzz wave towards a victory and then by the time the next awards season rolls around, that past winner is most likely completely forgotten about. The only winners that endure are the ones that are so good they last far beyond the awards themselves, or are the ones that are notorious for being unpopular winners. The Awards are far more of a barometer for the state of the industry at this particular moment in time than it is about how well the movies will stay in the public consciousness afterwards. If a great movie doesn’t win the award, it’s not a death sentence. Awards are fleeting, but a great film will always find it’s audience no matter what and a little golden statue has no effect on that at all. Still, for history’s sake, I still hold a lot of interest in the award itself. Thankfully this year all of the Best Picture nominees are movies that I at the very least enjoyed. Sure, I have my favorites, but if any one of the nine ends up winning, I will be content with that choice. There will certainly be a contingent of people out there who will likely raise hell if their movie doesn’t win, but just like every year before, we air our grievances and just move on to thinking about the movies that will be up for the Award next year. In all, I hope it’s a satisfying ceremony this Sunday, and that whoever wins will hopefully receive a warm reception. It may be the same old process every year, but for those of us who love film and the historical legacy it leaves behind, this is still an event we wait all year for and hope that it works out the way we want it to. Movies don’t need these awards in the long run, but a little reward at the end of the year never hurts either.

 

Top Ten Movies of the 2010’s

Every time we hit a milestone, we like to look back at what the days, weeks, months, and years meant to us as we’ve reached this point in time.  The close of a decade and the beginning of a new one is such a time, and there is no more universal barometer for how we as a culture changed over the last ten years than by looking at the movies that populated it.  The 2010’s were a tumultuous time in our world, and the movies themselves were a profound reflection of that.  Not only were the stories being told groundbreaking, but also the state of cinema itself.  People were experiencing the movies in new ways this decade, with media becoming far more accessible than ever before thanks to streaming.  And this in turn was helping to bring movies to the forefront that might otherwise have been overlooked in days past.  As a result, there are fewer consensuses when it comes to the absolute best of the decade.  Everyone’s choices reflect their own tastes and with people being better able to find even the most obscure of titles, their choices are going to more likely represent a bit more of who they are rather than the popularity of the movie itself having an influence.  Some of us hate movies that everyone else loves, while there are movies that only we will go to bat for and no one else.  That in itself is what going to the movies is all about; finding that personal response that makes us really think about what we watch and leading us to discuss it further.  I, of course, have pondered over my own favorites for the decade and have carefully considered the ones below.  I know there are going to be choices you might not agree with, and omissions that you’ll find completely absurd.  But, these are my own personal picks which I believe really strongly defined the last ten years for me as a passionate fan of cinema.

I’ll tell you this, it was a hard list to par down to just 10.  In reality, it was a great decade for movies all around, and it pained me to leave off some of the runners-up.  In case you are wondering, my honorable mentions include the following; Drive (2011), Life of Pi (2012), Gravity (2013), The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), The Descendants (2011), Hugo (2011), The Martian (2015), 12 Years a Slave (2014), The Shape of Water (2017), Jojo Rabbit (2019), Sorry to Bother You (2018), and The Irishman (2019).  One thing you’ll notice is that my best movies of each year make up a significant portion of this list, and having re-watched them all recently, most of them help up, and a couple did not.  In the case of the 2019 movies, it’s still too early to know how they may hold up.  For me to single out the following on this list, they had to be movies that still wow me every-time I watch it, even after repeat viewings.  I have a high standard so, I strongly consider every pick I make.  Each movie’s affect on cinema and the culture do affect my choices as well, but for the most part, I base these choices on how much they left an affect on me; the thing that the best movies always should do.  So, to conclude this year long retrospective of the decade that was the 2010’s, here are my choices for the Best Movies of the decade.

10.

ZOOTOPIA (2016)

Directed by Byron Howard and Rich Moore

Animation saw many instant classics over the last ten years, from every front possible.  Dreamworks started off the decade strong with their greatest work, How to Train Your Dragon (2010).  Pixar continued to roll right along with beloved hits like Inside Out (2015) and Coco (2017).  Stop motion was even revolutionized by the work of Laika Studios with movies like ParaNorman (2012) and Kubo and the Two Strings (2016).  And a surprise hit with Sony Animation’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018) showed us what might be the future of animation with it’s hand-drawn, computer animation hybrid.  But, the longtime king of animation, Disney, would still lead all challengers as it enjoyed a steady stream of hits throughout the decade.  It would break records with Frozen (2013) and it’s sequel, as well as win accolades for films like Wreck-It Ralph (2012) and Moana (2016).  But, the animated film that stuck out the most amongst not just Disney canon, but with all animated films in general, was Zootopia (2016).  Zootopia, on the surface, seems like a run of the mill animated comedy, but that’s until you realize exactly what story you’re being told.  The 2010’s was a decade defined by political upheaval; most clearly found in the chaotic election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States, and the systemic rise of the extreme right that helped to put him there.  Surprisingly, the movie that reflected this time in our world the best throughout the decade was Zootopia.  It is scary to look back and see how prophetic this movie is in hindsight, where the cultural divide between races (or in the movie’s case, species) is inflamed to help a political opportunist gain power.  But the best thing about Zootopia is that you never feel like you’re being lectured this message.  It organically grows within the story, with the focus given to two of the decades best animated characters, Judy Hopps and Nick Wilde.  When you see a good person at heart driven to a terrible action out of unjustified fear, as Judy Hopps sadly finds out during the course of the movie, we learn how deep systemic prejudice has infected our culture.  And that makes Zootopia transcend beyond just average all ages entertainment; it becomes an important statement for our times.

9.

DUNKIRK (2017)

Directed by Christopher Nolan

You look at all the film directors that pushed the medium of film forward in the last decade, and Christopher Nolan is sure to come up.  Making his name nearly synonymous with epic film-making, Nolan is one of only a few movie directors today who can deliver completely original movies that can open to blockbuster success.  Though he’s not above working with commercial properties either, given his success with the Batman franchise in the Dark Knight trilogy, he still made it clear that he’s a director who will push the boundaries of cinema with every new movie he makes.  A stickler for traditional, film based production and presentation, he became one of the biggest champions for the in theater experience, utilizing large format cameras on every film he made this decade.  Though he often likes to work in genres that extend into the cerebral and fantastic, it’s interesting that one of his most celebrated films this decade was a down-to-earth war film.  Dunkirk may be a historical recreation, in this case one depicting the miraculous rescue mission during the early days of World War II, but Nolan still uses all of his cinematic tricks to make it an experience for his audience.  The movie is full of amazing period detail, with little in the way of CGI enhancement.  The way the IMAX camera lens captures the enormity of the event is truly breathtaking, especially out in those air battle scenes.  But, where Nolan truly shows his gifts as a filmmaker is in the unconventional way it tells it’s story; inter-cutting between three different story-lines taking place within completely different time frames.  He goes back and forth between them all, and never once breaks the rising tension throughout, even as days, hours and minutes pass by with a deliberate rhythm.  And it creates, without a doubt, one of the best war movies of all times, and certainly the best of the decade.  Whether it’s the masterful editing between the time-frames, or the remarkable cinematography (including those incredible shots from on board the sinking ships), Christopher Nolan uses every trick in his cinematic playbook to create one of the most immersive experiences we’ve ever experienced on the big screen before.

8.

BIRDMAN, OR (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE) (2014)

Directed by Alejandro G. Inarritu

This was a good decade to be a Mexican born director.  Alfonso Cuaron, Alejandro G. Inarritu and Guillermo Del Toro, commonly referred to as the “Three Amigos” in film-making circles, all enjoyed a prosperous decade which saw all three winning the Best Director award at the Academy Awards.  And for the most part, their movies almost always ended up at or near the top of my lists each year.  In 2014, I picked Inarritu’s Birdman as my favorite for the year, and it’s been a movie that has held up very well in the years since.  In a rare comedy for the usually drama based filmmaker, Inarritu captured a glimpse of the Broadway theater community with one of the trickiest cinematic tricks there is; the single shot take.  And to make the movie even more unique, he made the entire 2 hour film appear as if it was all just done in one long continuous shot.  It’s ambitious, but not out of character for the story that he is telling, given that theater actors must perform without edits each night on the stage.  It helps when a cinematographer as skilled as Emmanuel Lubezki (Chivo) makes every long shot glide, dart and even soar with such beauty.  And at the center of it all is Michael Keaton, giving what is undeniably the performance of his storied career.  Not only is it a perfect encapsulation of his own real life career trajectory, but it’s also a powerful showcase for Keaton’s often underappreciated range as an actor.  He breaths so much personality into the character of Riggan Thompson, a performer so desperate to show he is more than just that one superhero, and it’s both hilarious and heartbreaking to see all the ups and downs he takes this person through within his amazing performance.  Though the gimmick of the continuous shot is impressive to see used to full length (later influencing more films this decade like 1917), it’s Keaton’s self-reflexive and multi-faceted performance that helps to make this movie stand out among all the other movies of the decade, especially given how much of it was devoted to big name actors donning capes themselves, following in his footsteps.

7.

THE SOCIAL NETWORK (2010)

Directed by David Fincher

Another movie that was both greatly influenced by the decade it premiered in, as well as prophetic about what was inevitably going to follow.  David Fincher’s The Social Network told the story of the rise of Facebook and it’s enigmatic founder, Mark Zuckerberg, and how this revolutionary new social platform that was supposed to bring people together was built upon a foundation of fractured relationships.  In typical Fincher fashion, the movie is a moody, introspective narrative captured in dark rooms with emotionally restrained characters.  It’s everything you’d expect from the acclaimed director, but here he is working with material that really elevates his cinematic art.  No other director can make board room meetings as tension filled as he can.  And a large part of this is due to the rapid fire dialogue found in Aaron Sorkin’s award-winning script.  Most of the time, it’s hard to capture the rhythm of Sorkin’s writing, so it helps to have an actor as motor-mouth as Jesse Eisenberg to make it work, and indeed, Eisenberg delivers a knockout performance as Mr. Zuckerberg.  I don’t even think that the real life subject is as interesting as the one that Sorkin, Fincher and Eisenberg has created here.  Combine that with plenty of other standout performance from Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake, and Armie Hammer pulling double duty as the Winklevoss (or Winklevi) twins in a very convincing visual effect.  But, it is interesting that this movie exists so early in a story that seems to be continually writing itself even further.  Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg’s history with it have taken even more dramatic turns in the years since this film that it almost seems like a sequel is not only likely, but necessary (which Sorkin has hinted being in development).  There is so much within The Social Network that indicates all the bad things that were going to come with the company (like Zuckerberg’s arrogance and unwillingness to admit fault) and the movie has only grown as an important document of our times ever since it’s release.  As a character study and a cautionary tale, The Social Network is an unforgettable cinematic experience that is only getting more and more iconic every year.

6.

A MONSTER CALLS (2016)

Directed by J. A. Bayona

This is certainly going to be one of those “for myself” kind of picks.  I’m sure that few other people would have this movie anywhere near their best movies of the decade lists, but for me, this movie remarkably stuck out, and I think that it’s because it’s theme of using stories as a way of healing resonated so much with me.  The film is about a young English boy (played by newcomer Lewis MacDougall) having to face the reality that his mother (Felicity Jones) is dying, and he does so with the guidance of stories told to him by a Monster (voiced by Liam Neeson).  The movie stands tall alongside other Spielberg-ian coming of age stories, but it’s the deep rooted message within that I think makes this movie so important within our time.  The boy listens to the stories, hoping that it will guide him to an answer that will help his mother, but in the end he learns that it’s not his mother that needs saving; it’s him instead.  The Monster’s three stories challenge his pre-conceived notions about how the world works, with narratives that turn on surprising paradoxes,  and in the end the boy realizes that the world is more complicated than happy ever after.  In a time where we are too often deceived by false hopes and unrealistic results, the movie teaches us that the worst thing we can do is to run away from the truth.  That’s what makes the movie so important as a meditation on storytelling.  We as a culture need stories to make us see the world through different eyes, and recognize the complexity of the world that we may not see clearly through our own narrow view.  The same applies to how we watch the movies, as they become to many as a window onto the world itself.  In the end, it’s a movie about embracing new ideas, and recognizing the barriers that we create within ourselves.  A Monster Calls delivers this message in the best way possible, with a unique story of it’s own carried through with the unlikeliest bond of a boy and a story-telling monster.  Stories, whether on the screen or the page, have the power of broadening our perspectives, and showing us the world with all of it’s beautiful complexity.

5.

Tie; AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (2018) and AVENGERS: ENDGAME (2019)

Directed by Joe and Anthony Russo

Yeah, I know that I’m cheating a little bit here by putting two movies here instead of just one.  But, in very much the same way that I would have put the entirety of the Lord of the Rings trilogy together in the same spot on my Best Movies of the 2000’s list, I can’t spotlight one without the other.  And given how Marvel was such a dominant force this last decade within the movie industry, it seems only natural that their magnum opus (thus far) would find it’s way onto my best of the decade list.  The two part climax to the nearly 22 film long Infinity Saga from Marvel is really one of the most impressive cinematic achievements that we’ve likely seen in a long time.  Coming close to the cinematic highs of the Rings trilogy and Star Wars at it’s height, Infinity War and Endgame represents the very best that popcorn entertainment can offer.  It’s crowd-pleasing without ever feeling pandering; it’s ambitious without ever loosing it earthbound sensibilities; and it wasn’t afraid of taking risks that could have easily gone horribly wrong if not handled correctly.  But what they do the best is reward fans who have been in for the long haul, while at the same time remaining engaging for any newcomers.  It is amazing how well this nearly 5 1/2 hour finale plays out, ending it’s first film with one of the most shocking cliffhangers in cinematic history, and then subverts expectations within the first minutes of the second film, only to lead into what is essentially the greatest clip show ever made, and then finally end with an epic sized battle that would make the likes of David Lean or Cecil B. DeMille proud.  It’s a testament to just how confident Marvel has become in telling it’s stories on the big screen.  There are so many memorable moments to choose from (Thor arriving in Wakanda, The Snap, Captain and the Hammer, the Portals), all of which are going to be fan favorites for years to come.  The movie also expertly brought closure to long gestating story threads while hinting future ones to come; it gave gracious exits to Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man and Chris Evans’ Captain America; and it showcased one of cinema’s greatest villains with Josh Brolin’s Thanos.  Honestly, these two movies make my list because they were some of the best times I had watching movies with an audience ever, and that is something worth celebrating.

4.

DJANGO UNCHAINED (2012)

Directed by Quentin Tarantino

Quentin Tarantino has been a cinematic fixture for three decades now, but the 2010’s were especially good for him as a director.  Building upon the success at the close of the previous decade with Inglorious Basterds (2009), he would make three more films over the course of the decade, including two films within the Western genre.  Though there is plenty to like about his experimental The Hateful Eight (2015), especially if you are a fan of large format cinematography, I think that Tarantino’s best work over this last decade was with his first foray into the Western; Django Unchained.  Interesting enough, Django may be the most conventional movie that Tarantino has made over his entire career, as far as story-telling goes.  Departing from his usual non-linear style, Tarantino tells his story of Django in a traditional hero’s journey sort of way.  What he also does with the movie is not shy away from the harsh realities of slavery in the American South.  In a great bit of revisionism, he transforms the iconic Western bounty hunter (previously played by Italian actor Franco Nero, who cameos here) into a freed slave who finally gets to turn the tables on all the slave masters who’ve wronged him.  Jamie Foxx commands the screen in the role, giving incredible weight to the character, who almost becomes super hero like by the end.  And he is equally matched with an incredible supporting cast that includes Christoph Waltz, Kerry Washington, and Leonardo DiCaprio in an against type role as a depraved, villainous plantation baron named Calvin Candie.  But even though the movie takes the subject of slavery as serious as a heart attack, the movie still manages to work his playful style into the narrative, with plenty of over-the-top violence and hilarious asides that have become his trademark.  Like most of Tarantino’s other films, the movie is a love letter to the director’s own cinematic inspirations, and I think that it proudly stands among the works of the great Spaghetti Western directors like Sergio Leone.  For someone known for playing outside the rules of film-making, it’s great to see him work just as well making something as straightforward and rewarding as this one.

3.

SICARIO (2015)

Directed by Denis Villeneuve

Far and away one of the most unexpected treasures of the last decade.  Sicario deceptively lures you in thinking that your just going to watch your average routine combat thriller, but as it unfolds, you find that it’s a whole lot more.  Telling the story of a group of border agents combating the ruthless drug cartels across the international line, the movie puts the viewer right in the thick of the action with some of the most tension filled scenes that I can recall from the last decade.  At it’s center, the movie has one of my favorite cinematic characters in recent years with Benicio Del Toro’s Alejandro Gillick.  Del Toro delivers a knockout performance here, peeling back so many layers to this intriguing character over the course of the film’s run time.  He can be refreshingly hospitable in one scene where he’s politely interrogating a group of immigrants at a detention center, and then several scenes later we see him become a cold blooded killer of a drug kingpin and his entire family.  This characterization is balanced out well with Emily Blunt’s neophyte agent, who gets caught up in this crazy situation that she can’t ever get a grip on, nor ever wants to.  The movie benefits from assured, methodical direction from Denis Villeneuve and a no-nonsense script from Taylor Sheridan.  Combine that with a chilling score from the late Johann Johannsson and superb cinematography from the master himself, Roger Deakins, and you’ve got one of the most sublimely cinematic experiences of the year.  There are so many areas in this film that go above and beyond what you would expect from movies of this type, like the now iconic border crossing bridge shootout or the night-vision filmed raid of a border tunnel.  I never expected that a movie like this would leave such an impression on me, and I’m very glad that I was able to discover it these last few years.  I have a feeling that this is going to be one of those movies that’s going to grow is esteem over the years as more and more people discover it.  I’m not too far ahead of the curve, as the movie has a very supportive fanbase (enough to have inspired a better than expected sequel even), but at the same time, it’s a movie that I think is deserving of even more acclaim than it already has, and it’s string enough to stand out as one of the decade’s best.

2.

ROMA (2018)

Directed by Alfonso Cuaron

One of the things that really defined the 2010’s in cinematic terms was the rise of streaming as a platform for cinema.  Netflix certainly led the way for most of the decade, as they poured billions of dollars into creating original films and shows to play exclusively on their platform.  Given all those resources they poured into original content, you would hope that at least one of the movies would stand out as a real cinematic triumph.  Thankfully one did, and it’s one of the unlikeliest too.  Alfonso Cuaron wowed us earlier this year with the incredible cinematic experiment that was Gravity.  But, after making something that ambitious and technically daring, it’s surprising that he would follow it up with a stripped down, semi-autobiographical story about life in his native Mexico, centered around a maid and the family she takes care of.  Even more surprising is the fact that it ended up being even more of a film-making triumph than Gravity was.  With Roma, Cuaron transports you to this specific time and place and absorbs you into it’s story.  Even though on the surface the movie looks like a simple domestic soap opera, it reveals to be much more than that with some incredibly complex staging that takes this intimate story into some very epic heights.  There are some shots in this movie, with Cuaron himself working behind the camera, that are just mind-blowingly surreal, like the riot scene framed from inside the window of a department store or the single take shot across a beach and out into the water.  Did I also mention he does this in black and white.  Roma is from beginning to end cinematic poetry, and carries special significance because of it’s personal connection to the director.  Cuaron dedicated the movie to the maid who cared for him and his family while he grew up in Mexico City, and when personalized through the character of Cleo (played remarkably by first time actress Yalitza Aparicio) he gives a loving and honorable tribute to someone that likely would have gone unnoticed in the world.  A true piece of cinematic beauty and the strongest case yet for Netflix’s credibility as a film studio, given that they are the only one’s making movies like this.

And the Best Movie of the 2010’s is….

1.

INCEPTION (2010)

Directed by Christopher Nolan

That’s when you know that Christopher Nolan was the decade’s most defining filmmaker; when he’s responsible for not one but two of the decade’s best movies, let alone having one of them be at the very top.  But that’s how good he was these last ten years.  Dunkirk showed his prowess with recreating a historically significant event, and Interstellar (2014) showed how well he could display the over-whelming vastness of deep space travel. But, he started off the decade setting the bar high, and he never once relinquished it, even among his own work.  Inception is more than just the best film of the 2010’s; it’s one of the best movies ever made period.  Here Christopher Nolan does what every filmmaker should strive to do, which is to create a experience that only the medium of film can capture.  The movie is, in essence, an elaborate heist film, but where the heist takes place is where Nolan clearly shows off his skills as a filmmaker.  The movie takes the audience on a mind-bending journey into the depths of the human mind, with the characters reaching into deeper and deeper layers with the worlds we create in our dreams.  The movie plays out like a trip into Dante’s Inferno, with each layer becoming more surreal than the next.  And in each one, Nolan gets to show us imagery that defies the laws of physics, like a city-scape folding in on itself, or a hallway spinning like a wheel while characters are fighting inside it.  At it’s center, he fills his story with a colorful cast of characters, with the decade’s most prolific leading man, Leonardo DiCaprio, taking full charge.  We also get breathtaking cinematography from Wally Pfister and a now iconic musical score from Hans Zimmer, which itself carries a special significance within the story.  Nolan takes inspiration from filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick and Alfred Hitchcock, and Inception gives a near perfect blending of the two.  We get Hitchcockian sized action, but with the challenging surrealism of a Kubrick film.  And like all the best movies, it leaves us wanting more, especially with that ambiguous final shot with the top.  It is without a doubt Nolan’s most masterful film to date, and it will be interesting to see if he ever makes anything that rises up to that same level again.  He certainly hasn’t let us down yet, and hopefully Tenet keeps him going strong into the next decade.  As far as the 2010’s are concerned, it gave us an unbeatable achievement in Inception that went unchallenged all the way to the end of the decade.

One thing you’ll notice about my list above is that out of the ten (or rather 11) picks I made, only one of them won the Oscar for Best Picture (Birdman) and that landed at #8.  I don’t know if that says more about me, or about the Academy Awards itself.  Regardless, I know that my picks come down to personal taste, and that mine will likely differ greatly from others.  I chose the these films as the best of the decade because for me they were the ones that resonated the most for me personally.  Every year, I try to find the movie that checks all the right boxes and oftentimes it comes down to some unlikely candidates.  I applied the same principle to my end of the decade list, and also saw some surprising results.  I for one didn’t think a small little film like A Monster Calls would hold up so well and still make my list, or that something like Sicario would end up so high, especially over films made by masters like Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese.  I did know that it was going to take a lot to topple Inception from it’s lofty perch, and even the best from each year could not undo this ten year long champion.  Even if my list differs from yours, it is still shows that this decade was full of great movies that we’ll likely still be passionately singing the praises of for years to come.  I am very grateful to have started this blog within the last decade so that I can have a place to share all these movies with you my readers and actually have a written out record for the first time of my favorites from a given decade.  Thank you for reading along with my lists over the last year spotlighting the best of the 2010’s, whether it was the music here, the characters here, or the villains here.  It was a monumental ten years for cinema in general, and let’s hope the next ten gives us even more to celebrate.

Tarnished Gold – Are the Oscars Losing their Importance in Hollywood?

Hollywood is a city built on glamour and prestige.  Though movies are made for the masses, the heart of the community itself is in presenting this golden gleam of high class and glamour.  It’s the place where you either have to be somebody important or at least can pretend to be somebody important.  Much of it is a facade, but there’s no doubt that when you do visit Hollywood, there is an air of luxury and decadence all around you.  It’s the kind of Hollywood that you see outside of the tourist haven of Hollywood Boulevard; the one that exists where the stars and power players live and play.  The real Hollywood actually exists across the hills behind the famous sign in the less glamorous San Fernando Valley (where I actually live), because that’s the home of the biggest studios.  But the Hollywood that we seem to picture in our minds is the one found in places like Beverly Hills and Malibu.  There is a stark class difference in these kinds of places, because of the way the communities cater to their famous residents, and it’s the kind of luxury way of life that definitely gives this aura of desirability to the lifestyle of the movie star.  But, there is a downside to this kind of high quality way of life, in that it also causes the people living in these communities to live in a bubble; one that unfortunately may cloud their perception over what is really valued within their industry.  One of the biggest complaints leveled at Hollywood over the last few years is that it’s becoming more and more out of touch with the audiences of film goers and show watchers that they are reliant on for keeping them in the business.  This can be seen in the way that some within the industry are resistant to changes in the market (like the expanding influence of streaming platforms), and also sometimes alienating themselves from a fan-base by demanding too much from their loyalty.  But if there was ever a place where the disconnect between people in the industry and the audiences across the country appears most prominently, it’s with what should be the biggest night in entertainment every year; The Academy Awards.

The Oscars, as they are more commonly known by, has for nearly a century been the pinnacle of achievement within the movie industry.  Not only that, it’s a driving force as well.  Countless movies have been made with one purpose in mind, and that’s to secure that golden statue at the end of the year.  We may not have seen some of the most memorable films and performances on the big screen had it not been for the allure of the Oscar.  But, when something is that highly valued, you can almost always count on dishonest ways of securing it to always occur behind the scenes.  The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences have changed their rules countless times in order to make sure that their system remains pure and without corrupt influence.  Even still, it’s a highly competitive race, and much like in the world of politics, it gets uglier every year.  Now when a movie gets nominated, you’ll almost always read opinion papers and news reports about how problematic it’s content is and how this star’s off the set behavior is reflecting badly on the movie itself, and why voting for this film or performance would be morally wrong.  It’s all studio driven smear campaigns meant to influence the very easily persuadable voting block that is the Academy, and these campaigns in themselves can cost millions of dollars on their own.  And why all this effort?  Because, in years past, an Oscar win meant a boost in box office ticket sales for any given movie.  For the movie studios, Oscar campaigns are worth the cost in the end, because the box office would justify it in the end.  But, with streaming taking out the factor of box office grosses, this is changing the game a little bit more, and now the studios are starting to find that the influence of Oscar gold is not as important as it used to be.

The rise of streamers like Netflix and Amazon has put the Academy in an awkward position, because now the effect it has now on box office is somewhat lessened.  Before, it became a big deal to have a movie proclaim itself as Best Picture of the year.  These days, a Best Picture win is almost forgotten about and barely even mentioned a year after the fact.  Can anyone, other than serious Oscar history buffs (like myself) name the Best Picture winners of the last five years.  I’d be surprised if anyone can remember who one it last year; Green Book for those interested (and good for you for already forgetting it existed).  The Oscars have always struggled to keep up with the changing times, but it’s status as an institution in our culture had never been challenged until recently.  Now, the Oscars are starting to hit a crucial point where they are teetering on the brink of irrelevance, and there doesn’t seem to be an easy way for them to get back to the top.  The awards have been in a gradual decline ever since it’s peak in the late 90’s, when the movie Titanic (1997) swept through with record breaking viewership of the broadcast, but the fall has been precipitous in the last couple years.  Despite the expansion that the Oscars has made to the Best Picture category since 2010 (up to 10 nominees each year), it seems like the winners increasingly end up pleasing nobody in the end.  And with so much doubt cast over what should be the biggest award of the night, along with less influence it has on the box office itself, the Oscars are in desperate need of a reinvention.  But how do they do that, when tradition is so ingrained in it’s DNA, and the Academy itself is so resistant to changing it’s ways.

For one thing, there has to be a fundamentally different way it needs to present itself to the public itself.  The Oscars have always been a stuffy, affluent affair, and in many ways that’s been a part of it’s appeal.  But, in the last few years, the Oscars broadcast has tried way too hard to appeal to all audiences, and in doing so has lost their identity.  Gone are the musical numbers and the montages, and instead we are treated to just an endless roll out of the awards with little pomp and circumstance to surround it.  The show has even dispensed with the host of the ceremonies, who usually would end up being the only one to give the show some much needed levity.  This has been an unfortunate result of the Academy trying way to hard to comply with the demands of the medium on which they are presented.  The Academy Awards have been broadcast on television since 1953, and has been a fixture ever since.  But, as stricter FCC rules have come down hard on live shows like the Academy Awards, the opportunities for spontaneity to occur has also dwindled.  The Oscars producers have tried more and more to stamp down any moment that might get them in trouble at these shows, like a political rant or a publicity stunt gone awry.  But unfortunately for them, these are the moments that have made the Oscars the fascinating institution that they are, and trying to suppress these moments only makes the show feel more boring and unremarkable.  Not only that, the show has to limit itself in order to hit those necessary commercial breaks that the network demands.  That’s why the orchestra always plays music in the middle of a winner’s speech, because it’s the show producer’s way to tell the person to wrap it up.  Even with that, the Oscars always receive the complaint that they are too long.  And in response to the network’s complaints about the shows’ lengths, the Academy made the fundamentally ill-planned decision to pull some of the categories out of the broadcast all together; a decision that was thankfully reversed after the backlash it received from rightfully indignant members of the industry.

Though it may be a controversial proposition, I would suggest that maybe broadcast television may not be the best place for the Oscars to be at this point anymore.  Much like how the industry is already moving in this direction already, perhaps the Academy should embrace streaming as an alternative form of presentation.  This way, they can avoid the pitfalls of having to comply with broadcast standards and commercial breaks, and instead present the ceremony in all it’s glitz and glamour like it used to.  There is the issue of how they deal with the cost of the ceremony, which the commercial breaks from the live broadcast would have taken care of, but there could be an alternative to this as well.  The studios could use the ceremony itself to premiere exclusive first looks at their upcoming movies, paying the Academy itself for the privilege.  Yes, it makes the show more commercial in itself, but honestly, isn’t it that way already.  The Oscars can’t pretend that their ceremony isn’t all about building hype and earning money for the movies winning the awards.  There is the argument that it’s about honoring the art, which is valid, but Hollywood is still a business, and I would rather see the Academy take the ceremony back into their own hands than to have them comply to the standards of another branch of the entertainment business.  Other awards shows are already starting to embrace the streaming model, like the Game Awards, so this might be a possible avenue in the Academy’s future.  If anything, it will free them up to be the kind of show that it honestly should be, which is un-apologetically showbiz at it’s most spectacular.  Hosts should be free of constraints, winners should be able to say whatever they want after they win, musical numbers should dazzle and amaze.  Yes it could all be messy, but it will still make it memorable.

There is also the issue with how the Academy votes for their winners.  The downside of the industry living within a bubble can be especially felt here.  More and more we are seeing a disconnect between what the audiences value and what the Academy values.  At a time when audiences, critics, and industry elites can’t agree on what deserves the year end accolades, it becomes increasingly unclear whether the Academy is still the supreme authority over this in the end.  This is especially clear when it comes to movies that are deemed “popular.”  A couple years ago, the Academy got into hot water again when it was putting forward the idea of making a Popular Film category for the Oscars.  This caused a huge backlash, and was again quickly reversed, but it was also telling of just how insulated the Academy voters are as an audience themselves.  To them, they thought that throwing a bone like that to blockbuster favorites was a positive step forward, but what it actually did was expose the elitism that the Academy seems to be unaware they have.  When a big budget blockbuster crosses over into becoming highly influential for the culture at large, like the movie Black Panther (2018) did in breaking down so many barriers for African-American filmmakers, it stands that a movie like it should get the due recognition from the Academy.   But to ghettoize it by pushing it into the “Popular Film” category just undermines it’s impact, and is kind of an insult to the people who made it and the fandom that embraced it.  This has increasingly become an issue with the Academy, who seem to be making more and more “safe” choices at the ceremony, like what happened with the Green Book debacle last year.  In one of the Academy’s least popular choices for Best Picture in many years, the Oscars looked like it was beginning to lose touch with the audience, because it was ever so clear this time that the Academy just went for the least offensive pick in a field of otherwise challenging films.

There’s also the unfortunate factor of what appears to be a far less engaged pool of voters within the Academy.  The demographics of the Academy that we’ve come to find out has shown that they are disproportionately white, male, and above the age of 50.  There has been more efforts to boost the diversity of the Academy voting block, especially in the last decade, but even still, the movies that end up winning Best Picture seem to be the ones that appeal only to that narrow demographic that I stated above.  Not only that, they are a demographic that has their own biases when it comes to what qualifies as a movie deserving of the award.  As we’ve learned over the years, many Academy voters tend to not watch movies in a theater, instead choosing to base their votes on the screeners that they can watch from the comforts of their own home.  And those that do watch in the theaters are passionate about that standard of presentation, and are skeptical of new models like streaming.  There are even those who don’t watch the movies at all and just vote based on their gut feeling.  This apathy shown to the experience of watching the movies themselves really raises the question if the votes the Academy makes are valid at all.  Sure, no one should pressure the Academy to vote one way or another, but at the same time, you really wish they would go in informed before they cast their votes.  My feeling is that a vote should be cast only after the voter has viewed all the nominees eligible for the award.  Preferably they should see it in a theater, as many movies are best viewed that way, but I do know that it’s not possible for some of the oldest voters in the Academy.  They just need to show those of us outside of their closed, elite organization that they are ensuring that every movie is given it’s fair exposure to the voting block as a whole, and that those ingrained biases that the voters might hold will not go unchallenged.  Like any important institution, there needs to be a trust between the industry and the consumer; otherwise, it’ll appear that the Academy is purely just catering to a select group of elites and nobody else.

Are the Academy Awards destined to become an irrelevant relic of the past.  Hardly.  It still holds an importance every year in Hollywood that will likely never go away.  At the same time, with shifting demographics, newer platforms for presentation, and changing attitudes both within the industry and in the public at large, the Academy really needs to wake up and try experimenting a little in order to not look like it’s stuck in the past.  For one thing, it should embrace it’s glory days of the past, and not be so eager to conform to a strict standard that robs it of any spontaneity.  It should also reconsider what it considers worthy of Oscar gold, because as we’ve seen in recent years, some of the best films are the ones that don’t even get a passing glance from the Academy, because they are too unconventional.  The Academy is not compromising it’s integrity if it suddenly embraces a movie that’s deemed “popular.”  Popular movies can be works of art too.  Also, there should be more effort to broaden the spectrum of voices within the Academy itself.  Part of why the demographics of the Academy have shifted so far one way is because that’s what the industry valued many decades prior, but now the industry has taken on a much more diverse character and the Academy itself should reflect that more closely.  Otherwise, that divide between what the Academy values and what the movie-going public values is only going to widen further, leading to even further irrelevance in the future.  It would also stand for the Oscars to maybe embrace new forms of presentation to allow greater access for viewers to see the ceremony in the same way that the attendees do.  Instead of the broadcast model, allow for an uncut live feed to be available online; that way you don’t have to cut out categories and allow the ceremony to move along at it’s own pace.  At the same time, I understand that I’m making these suggestions as an outsider who will probably never move the Academy to change it’s ways.  But, I do speak as someone who has been a fan of the Academy Awards and what it represents.  I want to see the Oscars gain back some of it’s glory, and that requires a bit of change to make it happen.  Hopefully, the Academy learns to embrace some of the changes made to their organization over the years and hopefully welcomes in a wider swath of deserving movies into it’s pantheon of winners.  We want the Oscars to mean something, and that requires them to make the most informed choices in who they honor.  Like the statues they give out, all they need is a little polish in order to make it shine once again.

Evolution of Character – Peter Pan

There are just some characters that were meant to soar across the silver screen.  Naturally, one of them is well known for his power of flight.  Since his debut on the London stage in 1904, Peter Pan has captured the imagination of audiences around the world.  The boy who never grows up and whisks the Darling children off to an adventure in the magical realm of Neverland has remained almost perennially popular for over a century.  Indeed, Peter Pan is timeless, and he continues to remain popular to this day.  Created by author and playwright J.M. Barrie, Pan takes his inspiration from the ancient greek god of nature, and has become a symbol of youthful exuberance.  He’s both an aspirational hero for young children and also a negative reference point for describing an immature adult.  And for his entire existence, he has always belonged to the visual medium.  Before the movies existed, the stage was the greatest venue for entertaining the masses, and Barrie’s masterwork was what in those days would have been considered a blockbuster.  There was probably nothing more breathtaking at that time than seeing the performer playing Peter Pan (most likely a girl, especially in the early days) flying across the stage, supported by unseen wires.  That act of onstage magic would continue to inspire audiences for many years, and carry over into the medium film.  And as advances in cinematic techniques improve over time, the magic behind Peter Pan and the wonders of Neverland looks and feels more spectacular.  It didn’t take long for Pan to work his way onto the silver screen, and his journey through cinema has remained a consistent one.  You rarely see any of his cinematic adventures stray very far from Barrie’s original text.  In many ways, the differences come less from the story, and more from what each performer brings to it.  So, let’s take a look at some of the more notable cinematic interpretations of the boy who could fly, Peter Pan.

BETTY BRONSON from PETER PAN (1924)

There were several silent productions made with Peter Pan in the earliest days of cinema, but this Paramount Pictures production is the most noteworthy.  The movie is pretty much a direct adaptation of Barrie’s play, carrying over many of the conventions from the stage.  The lead role is played by a woman, in this case actress Betty Bronson.  The actor in the role of the villainous Captain Hook does double duty, playing the role of Mr. Darling as well like in the play.  There is even an actor still dressed in a dog suit playing the role of Nana, the Darling children’s pet canine.  But, what separates this from the stage version is more substantial production values.  The flying sequences have more weight to them, because for one thing the actors can fly higher and further on a sound stage than on theatrical one.  Early processing effects also presented things that you could never do on the stage; like showing Tinker Bell for instance, who only appeared as a flashing light on stage before.  Other than that, the movie still feels very close to it’s stage origins, which is particularly true about the titular character himself.  Betty Bronson fits into the green tunic-ed hero perfectly, capturing the spunkiness of the character, as well as his strong willed determination.  Anyone who had been familiar with the play in it’s early days would have been satisfied with her performance here.  Though limited by the lack of sound from this period, Bronson still manages to convey the personality with a plenty of lively pantomime.  She also works comfortably with all the visual effects that are on display, never once looking like she’s out of place.  The movie represented the right kind of way to bring Peter Pan successfully to the silver screen, and it would remain influential for years to come.

BOBBY DRISCOLL in WALT DISNEY’S PETER PAN (1953)

When we think of Peter Pan as a character, this is likely the first image that’ll pop into mind.  Like many characters from classic literature, it’s the Disney version that ends up becoming the definitive take on the character, and rightly so in this case.  Through animation, we are able to see the character leap fully out of his stagebound origins and take actual flight; no wires required.  Peter Pan was pretty much destined to be an animated character, and thankfully Walt Disney did him justice.  Disney himself believed very much in the character, recalling his early childhood days when he performed as Peter in a school play, with his brother Roy pulling the ropes backstage to help him fly.  When Walt had his production slate firing up after the success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937), Peter Pan was a logical choice for development.  The war years would delay it’s premiere by a decade, but once Disney returned to it, the movie solidly fell into place.  Peter was animated by one of Walt’s trusted Nine Old Men, Milt Kahl, who brilliantly imagined the way Peter Pan takes flight; not so much soaring as floating in midair, something which only animation can convey.  Also, in breaking from the stage tradition, Disney cast a boy in the role as opposed to the youthful actresses used in the stage productions.  Bobby Driscoll, who had been a favorite child actor at the studio for films like Song of the South (1946) and So Dear to My Heart (1948), was just reaching that point where his voice was beginning to break, and it’s a perfect match for the youthful yet authoritative Peter.  He’s a child, but one with responsibilities, which Driscoll captures perfectly in his spirited performance.  The whole movie is probably the main reason why Peter Pan remains a popular character to this day, as it still holds up several generations later.  Peter is still a fixture in the Disney canon, but even at the same time, it does so while still honoring the character J.M. Barrie created long before.

MARY MARTIN from PRODUCER’S SHOWCASE: PETER PAN (1955)

For the same generation that grew up with the Disney production, this was the other Peter Pan that defined the character.  Famed Broadway director Jerome Robbins took the original Barrie play and added songs to it from famed lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green (of Singin’ in the Rain fame) and crafted this new musical adaptation.  The musical became an instant Broadway hit, and catapulted it’s star, Mary Martin, into a household name.  Because the Disney version was still fresh in people’s minds, it prevented a full movie version from getting the greenlight, but that helped to open the door for television as a result.  The live broadcast series Producer’s Showcase, which helped to bring little seen stage productions to a mass audience, decided to bring Peter Pan onto their show in it’s entirety, complete with all the original cast members from the shows, including Martin who was still in the middle of her legendary stage run.  The broadcast was also historic in that it was one of the first ever live broadcasts shot in color, despite color television not being available yet to the public.  This would become useful in later re-broadcasts years later, but it represents an exceptional forward thinking idea on the producers part.  The production values are pretty limited compared to other Pan adaptations, as unlike most others, this one is clearly stagebound, but it makes up for it with Mary Martin’s magnetic presence as Peter Pan.  Her depiction of the character is rightly seen as one of the greatest ever.  Just the way she spreads her arms and legs out as she flys around the stage just shows how much she is trying to convey a sense of weightlessness.  Her role would remain a high-water mark for generations.  Even the recent live tv version starring Allison Williams as Peter and Christopher Walken as Hook can’t quite capture the same exuberance that Martin brought to the role.  It shows just how much a gifted performer can bring to a role.

ROBIN WILLIAMS in HOOK (1991)

The premise to this Spielberg directed fantasy is a fascinating one.  What if Peter Pan did leave Neverland and grow up?  What kind of person would he be?  And the movie presents us with an interesting answer; he becomes an asshole lawyer who’s emotionally distant to his wife and kids.  The first act of Hook is actually quite brilliant as it builds up this interesting story of a man having to confront the childhood he left behind, and find his way again, with Robin Williams delivering a strong performance as the grown up Peter Banning.  And then, the movie beings to loose it’s way.  I know many people love this movie, but for me, it falls apart after that strong opening.  It’s happens when Peter makes it back to Neverland, and it’s this drab, ugly place.  And from that point, all the promising magic drains out of the movie.  Even when Robin Williams finally emerges in all his Peter Pan glory, it’s kind of a let down, because his buffoonish Pan is not as interesting as the character he had already been establishing himself as.  I honestly get more out of the scenes with Hook and Smee, played brilliantly by Dustin Hoffman and a perfectly cast Bob Hoskins.  Mostly, my disappointment with this movie says more about me with my transition into adulthood.  I find that I like this movie less as I get older, because I see more of the flaws.  The ugly production design probably is where the movie looses me the most, because I have this colorful view of Neverland in my mind, that no doubt was influenced by the Disney version.  But also, I feel like having the normally rambunctious Robin Williams in the role of Peter Pan should have been a slam dunk, and yet he’s so much better when he’s not in his green tights.  It’s not a good sign when Robin Williams gets upstaged by Rufio (played by Dante Basco), who yes is a standout, if somewhat cliched character.  I hold it against no one if you like this movie, but to me, it’s a lesser depiction of Peter Pan and his story; even made more disappointing by what it could have been based on how it starts out.

RICK SPARKS in NEVERLAND (2003)

Although Hook may have missed the mark in it’s story, there is another version that completely departs from Barrie’s tale entirely.  Here we have a modern retelling of the story, stripping away the childhood wonderment of the the original story, and giving it a seedier, adult oriented makeover.  This micro-budget, avante garde depiction from Queer Cinema auteur Damion Dietz reimagines the fantasy world of Neverland as a run down amusement park that attracts outsiders and social outcasts, like prostitutes, drug addicts, hustlers, and con artists.  There’s a satirical point made in this somewhere, but it gets drowned out by the filmmakers grungy style.  It’s no more apparent that the director cares little about the essence of Barrie’s original story than with his choices with regards to the character himself. Peter is very much a character of this world, in that he’s an immature man child, indulging in the dark depths of this Neverland. Actor Rick Sparks is fine in the role, but his character is far from likable. It’s definitely not a version of this story that is appropriate for all ages and should only be seen by the morbidly curious. But it does illustrate how the story can be adapted to a different place and time, and still remain familiar. But unless you want to see a coke snorting Tinker Bell and a BDSM obsessed Captain Hook, I’d say look elsewhere for a better version of this story.

JEREMY SUMPTER in PETER PAN (2003)

Though Peter Pan has had a long history on the silver screen up to this point, it’s surprising that it took this long to actually get the character portrayed in live action as he’s written on the page. In this P. J. Hogan directed feature, we get a Peter who’s actually played by a young male actor, and not just in voice. A then pre-teen Jeremy Sumpter does look the part, though seeing an actor this young in a costume this skimpy is unsettling at times; evoking the idea of the wrong kind of Neverland. Sadly, he’s not given as much development as past versions of Peter, because despite what the title says, this isn’t his story. This movie actually focuses more on the character of Wendy Darling. It’s her journey into blossoming womanhood that fills out most of the movie’s runtime. Peter is more reduced to an ideal love interest for her, which I guess might explain the outfit. Sumpter is also overshadowed by an over-the-top performance from Jason Isaacs as Captain Hook. But given how little impact he has, Sumpter still gives Peter a presence. We see more of Peter’s cunning instincts in this version here; the kind of strong awareness that has allowed him to remain alive in a world where he’s constantly hunted by pirates. His playful side is there too, but the movie does a capable job of showing why he is so revered by both the Wendy and the Lost Boys. Though the movie itself is unfocused and scattershot, it does a fine job in portraying its central hero, and especially gives much more importance to the bond between him and Wendy.

LEVI MILLER in PAN (2015)

Now this is a strange one to be sure. At a time when classic family stories are constantly being rebooted, I’m surprised Disney was beaten to the finish line with this one. Although, it didn’t quite benefit studio Warner Brothers either. Pan was a costly flop for the studio, earning back only 20% of its original cost. Not only that, it put off a lot of audiences who were expecting a faithful adaptation of the story. Instead, it offers up an origin story as it were, with young Peter being kidnapped by pirates from a London orphanage and taken to a post-apocalyptic Neverland where he and his other “lost boys” are expected to work as slaves in a vast mine controlled by the power-hungry Captain Blackbeard (a very campy Hugh Jackman). Oh, and the slaves pass their time by singing Nirvana’s “Smells Like Team Spirit.” I am not kidding. There are many baffling cinematic choices like that one in the movie, and it’s surprising that a quality director like Joe Wright (Atonement) was behind this mess. For me, the movie is to the point where it’s so weird that it becomes fascinating to watch, like a guilty pleasure. But oddly enough, the one thing that is not interesting in it’s weirdness is Peter himself. Levi Miller unfortunately is a little boring in the role, somewhat lost in all the movie’s insanity. He’s age appropriate enough, but the movie seems less interested in his character than it is about his world, and it becomes clear that he’s just there to fill out a role rather than be the character. There is little else to indicate that this young kid is going to become the character we all know. It pretty much just sets up the origin story tropes, while at the same time forgetting to make it’s hero all that interesting.

So, it’s been an up and down journey for Peter Pan as a character on the silver screen. In many ways, the character has kind of been lost in more recent years, as many filmmakers have needlessly tried to adapt the story to more modern sensibilities. And it really is unnecessary because the character is at his very core timeless. The Disney classic proves this, as it still remains a popular film almost 7 decades later, and as a stage production, the story has changed very little from J.M. Barrie’s original text. There really is no need to do a deconstruction of the whole narrative. As a character, Peter Pan remains very relevant. He still inspires the adventurous side in most younger audiences, while also making older viewers reflective of their own childhood ideals, and how they’ve changed as they’ve gotten older. It’s something that at one point the movie Hook was building an intriguing narrative towards, until it gets undone by the films spectacle and unfocused execution. Still, Peter remains popular and its because he’s a character that remains constant through all generations. Though we may grow old, he remains the same youthful spirit that stays as a part of lives, no matter who fills out the role. I myself still consider him one of my favorite characters, and may or may not have dressed up for Halloween as the character when I was still a kid (green tights and all). Think happy thoughts, and let’s all continue to fly to Neverland with Peter Pan.

Where to Now? – How Cinema Transitions from One Era to Another

When we enter into a new decade, the first thought that we often ponder over is what the last 10 years were all about.  This can cover a variety of things; politics, music, culture, and really just the lives we had during that time.  Essentially, we like to mark this transition in years as an era of time, as if these 10 calendar years themselves had their own defining characteristics.  The truth is that eras are not so easily defined, as a time period we know as the 70’s in fact probably didn’t define itself until probably the latter half of the decade, and spilled a little bit over into the early 80’s.  But, we still seem to define these decades as such because of all those above factors: the culture, the politics, the music, and of course, the movies.  If anything, it’s really the movies that have come to define the transitioning of our culture from decade to decade, as you can definitely see a progression that not only was shaped by the culture that made them, but also would go on to influence the culture itself.  We all like to determine what was the defining 80’s movie, or the defining 70’s movie, and so on, and there are always some worthwhile candidates throughout.  But, as indicated earlier, the movies that come to define an era don’t always come right at the turn of a new decade.  Despite some rare examples, few movies actually make that transition hit right at the turn of the decade, and are often found somewhere in the middle, or even at the very end.  But, even still, it is interesting to see how much eras of cinema coincide with the character of the decades that they exist within.  And as we go into a new one this year, it makes us wonder where the next ten years are going to take us next, and if those markers even matter anymore, given how much change cinema seems to be going through even year to year now.

In many ways, we really didn’t take into account how much a decade left it’s mark on the movies until really after the culture itself shifted.  Once the counterculture movement started to move into full swing in the late 1960’s, it was about then that film criticism and analysis started to look back on the years prior as a way of defining the past from the culturally shifting present.  That’s when people started to look at the eras that were apparent, much less defined by the decades they existed in, and more defined by the advancements they made within the art-form.  Specifically, early films were defined as the Silent Era, which encompassed decades worth of movies extending from the first Edison Vitaphone shorts at the turn of the 20th Century to the grand expressionist masterpieces of the German masters to the very beginnings of Hollywood itself.  This celebrated era finds it’s end with the release of Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer (1927), the first “talkie” which would revolutionize the industry overnight and bring synchronized sound to the art-form.  But even after The Jazz Singer, silent films didn’t just end; Chaplain for instance would continue making silent movies for several more years.  But it would mark the end of their dominance in the medium, as sound film would quickly take over as the norm.  This as a result becomes the narrative of the history of cinema; with one fell swoop, one era of movies comes to an end and then another begins, ignoring the more opaque line that really exists between each.  Even still, cinema aficionados really want to classify a time period within these parameters and pinpoint exactly where the era ends and begins.  This is why the Silent Era feels so fittingly concluded by The Jazz Singer, because it’s works like a cinematic exclamation.  Also, it marked a point where new advancements in technology would play the defining role in presenting a transition for cinema in general.

As such, the years that followed would see new eras defined by the various new advancements in the medium.  The introduction of technicolor, the invention of anamorphic widescreen, even 3D and Smell-o-vision would characterize the changing times of cinema in the years ahead.  Real world issues would also play a factor too.  The 1940’s would absolutely be characterized as one thing in particular within cinema, because it was the thing that was on everyone else’s mind at the time; the War Years.  With World War II raging throughout the globe from 1939 to 1945, it’s easy to see how such a worldwide event would dominate every aspect of the culture, including the movies.  Indeed, every movie made in those years was in one way or another affected by the War, with some more overtly addressing it than others.  Even if you watch a sweet little romantic movie from that era, you’ll notice in the movie’s credits that there’s a reminder to buy war bonds in the lobby, which shows that even escapist entertainment needed to do it’s part for the war effort.  But, even despite the war hanging over the culture and the industry like it did, it doesn’t mean that there was a disruption in the advancement of film-making during that time either.  Some of the greatest movies ever made directly deal with the War head on and still hold up even long after the conflict is over; Casablanca (1943) being one of the shiniest examples.  But the War years as they are known in cinema also extended beyond just the War itself, as the aftermath also left it’s mark in the years after.  Soldiers coming home from the war became not just a different audience for the movies, but also an interesting subject as well.  The Oscar-winning drama The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) tackled the lingering trauma of the post war experience head-on, including having a real life wounded vet, Harold Russell, playing a key role.  There was also a movie like It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) that while not about the War itself still was thematically linked to it; especially considering that both director Frank Capra and star Jimmy Stewart were returning vets themselves.  Culture and technological advancements alike would both shape the different perceived eras of cinema, and though brief in comparison, the War Years themselves would leave the most profound of change on the industry.

But, once the counterculture began to really push society in a different direction, the importance of cinema leaving a statement became more relevant to how it would define an era.  For the most part, the years immediately following the War probably defined cinema the most, as it has been affectionately been dubbed the Golden Years.  During this time, to give rapidly growing families from the “Baby Boom” the kind of escapist entertainment that they desired, Hollywood began investing in bigger, more lavish productions.  This was the era of the Roadshow picture, with massive scope and production values meant to envelope the audience in an experience that they could only find on the big screen.  This was also spurned on by the beginning of television as a direct competitor.  Movies became grandiose spectacle, and with it, so came the inevitable downfall.  These movies often became financially unsound, with budgets ballooning to unfathomable heights.  20th Century Fox’s Cleopatra (1963) nearly bankrupted the studio, and they weren’t the only ones feeling the crunch.  At the same time, people were growing frustrated with the Hollywood machine, and were more attracted to the international output of bold new artists coming out of the French New Wave or the Italian Neo-realist Movement.  Thus, we began to see push-back from the Counter-culture, who saw big “Hollywood” as a relic of the past, and who wanted to carve out a “New Hollywood” in it’s place.  And in this period of time, you will find the most definitive year of stark transition ever in Hollywood.  Though the psychedelic 60’s had a major influence throughout the decade in cinema, Old Hollywood was still a lingering presence.  And then came 1969, where you see the real schism finally split the two apart.  It was the year that produced both Hello, Dolly (1969), an old-fashioned, and expensive, throwback musical and Easy Rider (1969), a micro-budget celebration of hippie culture in America.  Dolly crashed and burned at the box office, while Easy Rider became a smash hit, and the writing was finally on the wall.  1969 was the year that New Hollywood had finally come into it’s own.  This was even more apparent come Oscar time, when Best Picture was given to the first X-Rated winner, Midnight Cowboy; on the same night that Old Hollywood legend John Wayne won his Oscar for True Grit no less.  You won’t find a year that stated so much about the change in cinema than that one right there.

From that point on, it became less about the advancements in the medium that defined, but more about the culture itself that defined the movies.  And as such, the decades themselves became the benchmarks for the movies that premiered within them.  The 1970’s, in retrospect, took the counter-culture ideal more seriously, and as a result we saw a significant reduction in Studios being the driving force behind the movies and more the directors being the one’s pushing cinema to the next level.  It was the era of the director, a time period defined as some would call the “easy riders and the raging bulls,” as the 2003 documentary of the same name details.  Coincidentally enough, those were exactly the same movies that would bookmark the era, as the creative freedom given after Easy Rider would dissipate soon after Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980).  Much like the studios before them, the ambitions of the maverick directors of the era would soon become unmanageable, and their projects would in turn go over-budget and under-seen as well.  Great promising careers from amazing directors like William Friedkin, Michael Cimino, and even Francis Ford Coppola were cut short because they lost the trust of the studios financing them, and were left to work under tighter constraints for the rest of their careers.  Only Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese would manage to continue working on consistently high levels in the years ahead, which would be easily defined as the era of the blockbuster.  The 1980’s evolved in the wake of the downfall of the director era, and became more about escapist entertainment.  Every studio thereafter wanted their own Star Wars (1977) or Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), and it became a fruitful time for fantasy, sci-fi, and adventure.  Though we see this as a defining aspect of the 1980’s, it would also extend far into the 1990’s, as digital technology began to redefine special effects.  And in this time period, box office became a race like never before.  Back in the early days of cinema, there would always be untouchable kings, like Gone With the Wind (1939), but starting in the 90’s, records would fall with regular consistency, and it was not always an indication of the quality of the film, but more about how well a movie can do on it’s opening weekend.  Thus we got into a time when intellectual properties became the most prized commodity in Hollywood; not the stars, nor the directors, but the brand, and that in a way has led to an era that more or less hasn’t changed in the last 20 years.

Right now, if you were to define the 2000’s and the 2010’s in cinema, I’d say that you’d have a much harder time than previous eras before.  That’s because the traditional markers that we’ve used before in defining the different eras of cinema have kind of lost their value over time.  What I think is the most defining change over the last 20 years of film is the advancement of digital cinema.  Since the year 2000, digital film-making has gone from a novelty to a norm in a very short amount of time.  And in that same period, movie theaters have also quickly converted to digital presentations as well.  This has reduced the necessity of physical media in making and presenting media, which movie studios and theaters see as more cost effective and efficient.  But it also leads to something that I don’t think many people have realized.  The reason why so many movies from different eras have a different look and texture to them is because film stock itself changed so much over the years.  There are very big differences between how a movie looks in 70mm, 35mm, and 16mm, and even the brand differences between suppliers like Kodak and Fujifilm, and processors like Technicolor and Deluxe, would make a big difference in how a finished movie would appear.  But now, with many movies today not even using film, it leads to a result of all movies looking more or less the same, at least in terms of texture.  Everything now has that digital sheen to it, all the way down to the way they are presented.  Even television shows are beginning to look more like movies today, and that’s because they are using pretty much the same types of cameras.  There are holdovers that still shoot and even present on film, but for the most part, movies have been going in this decidedly digital direction, and that has defined most of what we’ve seen in the last several year.  Combine this with an even more homogenized studio system that favors brands over original ideas, and you’ve got an era of Hollywood that seems to be more driven by repetition and standardization than ever before.

The only really disruptive thing that we’ve recently seen in the last 20 years has been the way we watch movies now.  If there was ever something that defined the 2010’s in cinema, it would be the rise of Netflix and streaming cinema; as well as super hero movies.  Netflix didn’t start in the last decade (it’s actually a surprisingly 20+ year old company), but it certainly came into it’s own in the last 10 years, and that is mainly due to their decision to invest in their own content.  Probably seeing the writing on the wall early on, knowing that eventually the other studios would want to take their model and use it for their own distribution, Netflix spent billions on exclusive movies and shows that could only be viewed on their platform, and as result became a studio on their own with a reach in viewership rivaling that of the big six.  Even with Disney, Fox, Warner Brothers, and Universal all jumping into streaming now, Netflix still has themselves positioned well, because of the quality of content they’ve acquired, including movies now from giants like Martin Scorsese and the Coen Brothers.  More than anything, what Netflix has disrupted the most is the viewing habits of the movie going public.  Their streaming model has offered the most direct competition to the theatrical experience since the advent of television, and that in itself is defining the last decade of cinema more than any movie has.   Movie theaters are desperately trying to hold onto their patronage that has benefited them for several decades before, and because of Netflix and the like, we’re going to see a new era for the presentation side of cinema the likes of which we haven’t seen in many decades.  So, if it’s not the movies that are defining the eras of cinema at this point, it’s the way we are watching them that is.  For the last ten years, it was Netflix that reigned unchallenged; perhaps the next ten will be defined by how all the new platforms will challenge each other in this new competitive market.

There are many different ways to look at cinema as blocks of easily defined eras, but the truth is far more complex than that. The truth is that cinema has been fluidly flowing from one decade into another, and only in retrospect do we take a look back and try to form a pattern in it all. The movies that we say defined the decade may have, in fact, not been recognized as such in their day, and were instead more likely just seen as the great movies that they were. Defining an era more comes out of how we want to look back at the years that have passed us by, and see a way that we can explain why attitudes and personal tastes change over time. At the same time, our perceptions of cultural touchstones, like the movies, can also be influenced by the era they come from, and helps to shape their reception for newer audiences. Terms like the Silent Era, the Golden Era, and the Psychedelic Era are easily marketable and can help to draw attention to older movies based on what someone is looking for. In many ways, Hollywood enjoys define their different eras, even if they don’t exactly know how to shape them to begin with. In the end, it is determined by the things that we find the most fascinating about the movies in each era that determine how they will shape their place in time. Whether it’s through the technology that pushes the medium forward, the stars that capture our imagination, the artists that drive the art-form, or as we are seeing right now, the way we watch the movies, cinema will more or less tell it’s own story, which it does so through it’s own evolution. An era in cinema is an easy to grasp definition, one that doesn’t tie down to a set number of years. So, as we look back at the last ten years, and forwards to the next ten, it helps to understand that a new era of cinema is just another chapter in an ongoing story that flows in it’s own way. Great movies can come at any time from anywhere, and the great part of history is that it is constantly being written. For now, feel happy that you are experiencing a time in cinema that itself will be seen under different eyes in the years ahead, and that hopefully you’ll have been part of something exciting historical and important to the culture at large.

 

Top Ten Movies of 2019

The year of 2020 is upon us, and a new decade begins.  Usually the end of the decade calls for a retrospective on the previous decade that was, and I will be getting to that too in the weeks ahead.  But for this first week of the year, I’m going to focus on the year we just went through, 2019, and share my thoughts on what went on with the movies over that time.  2019 was a pretty significant year when it came to the distribution of films.  Netflix’s influence on the business was palpable, as both Disney and Apple made their debuts in the streaming market as a direct challenge to the supremacy that Netflix had enjoyed in the field.  Movie theaters had not been completely affected too much yet, as box office sales were still high, though not record numbers.  One studio however, Disney, did have a record setting year, as they delivered just an onslaught of blockbuster movies during this last calendar year.  Riding the wave of huge finales for their Marvel and Star Wars properties, as well as remakes of their beloved animated classics and new animated sequels, Disney took a whopping 40% of the box office share this year, with Warner Brothers being the only credible challenger thanks to the success of Joker (2019).  The Fox merger also boosted Disney’s box office stake, and suddenly Hollywood began to a look a lot different in such a short amount of time.  But as far as the quality of movies goes, this was actually a strong year overall for the industry.  So much so that it was actually quite hard to create a top ten list this year.  There were so many good films made this year that I had to make some hard choices about what to leave out, as I try to limit myself to just the standard 10.  Even the runners up are worthy of anyone’s top tens for the year, as I’m sure many of them likely will be.  But, I made my choices below and I’m sticking by them.

Before I begin, here are 10 in no particular order that nearly made my list: 1917, Little Women, Joker, Dolemite is My Name, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, They Shall Not Grow Old, Parasite, The Farewell, Knives Out,  and Under the Silver Lake.  And now, let’s get to my Top 10 Movies of 2019.

10.

TOY STORY 4

Directed by Josh Cooley

It seemed pretty impossible.  Toy Story 3 (2010) was the perfect ending for a trilogy that has come to define excellence in animation.  It wrapped up the story-line spread across three movies, released over a fifteen year span, on such a perfect note with Andy saying goodbye to all of his beloved toys in a heartfelt, emotionally impactful scene.  There was no way that Pixar could ever pick up the story again after that in any satisfying way.  But, somehow miraculously, they managed to do it.  Toy Story 4 is that fourth chapter of a story that you never asked for, and yet it is exactly what you needed.  Thanks to a deftly written script by Pixar veteran Andrew Stanton and newcomer Stephany Folsom, we learn that saying goodbye to Andy was just the end of a chapter, and not for the whole book.  There was one more adventure to go, at least for Woody.  Here, we are given the definitive conclusion to this on-going series, and it still delivers.  All the characters that we’ve grown to love are all back, and the movie even manages to fit in a few more new favorites.  I particularly loved the daredevil action figure named Duke Caboom (voiced hilariously by a game Keanu Reeves).  The movie also marks a triumphant return for Bo Peep (voiced again by Annie Potts) who really comes into her own in this film.  I never thought Pixar could thread the needle again with their flagship franchise, given how high the bar had been set by it’s predecessors, but they managed to do it, showing just how good they are with their artform.  In particular, it does the characters the most justice, giving them a sendoff worthy of what has been built before.  The final scene with Woody and Buzz Lightyear is especially emotional.  If you loved everything else from this series, this will also be another one you’ll cherish; to infinity and beyond.

9.

THE LIGHTHOUSE

Directed by Robert Eggers

Put this down as 2019’s most unusual film; and that’s saying a lot.  In a year defined by unique horror movies like Ari Aster’s Midsommar and Gasper Noe’s Climax, Robert Eggers The Lighthouse stood out even more.  This black and white, narrowly framed avant garde nightmare of a film is really unlike anything else you’ll likely experience at the movies.  And that’s what made it so memorable, and in many ways, delightfully subversive.  In equal measures a character study, a surrealist mind trip, a screwball comedy, and a horrific descent into madness, this is movie that uniquely carves out it’s own path and you can’t take your eyes off of it.  Containing a cast of only two for the entirety of it’s run-time (minus the quick glimpse of a mermaid), this movie is carried by it’s stars, Willem Dafoe and a revelatory Robert Pattinson, who seem hell bent on trying to out crazy the other.  There is plenty of excellent back and forth between the two, leading to some of the most demented monologues that you’ll ever an actor speak without catching their breath.  And the cinematography is stunning in this movie as well, capturing the absolute isolation and ravaging that the elements wreck on the tiny little island that house the titular lighthouse.  For the most part, you’ll probably be left wondering if any of the bizarre stuff seen in this movie is real or not, and the movie does an excellent job of keeping it’s audience in the dark, even up to the very end.  It’s definitely not for everyone, but it pleased the cinephile in me, as it hearkens back to very early cinema; like a silent expressionist film, but with sound also playing a key factor.  No doubt Eggers was influenced by these movies too, and it gave him the inspiration for a movie that is likely going to be remembered as a bold cinematic experiment.

8.

THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON

Directed by Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz

This was something of a comeback year for Shia LaBeouf.  After a few years of getting in trouble with the law and making less than ideal life choices, which took a toll on his struggling film career, Shia began to take some control over his life and that included making bolder choices with his films.  He got to write an autobiographical script while doing a stint in rehab, which turned into the film Honey Boy, which deals with the turbulent relationship he had with his father, whom he plays himself in the movie.  It’s an excellent display of catharsis on his part, showing that he is making an effort to heal the trauma of his past that had put him on the wrong path.  More importantly, Shia is trying a lot harder as an actor, and the movie that really showed off how much he has grown this past year was the charming little indie The Peanut Butter Falcon.  Here he plays a wayward troublemaker trying to make an escape who by chance runs into a young runaway with special needs, played by a scene-stealing Zack Gottsagen.  The movie then turns into a beautiful, Mark Twain-esque journey, exploring the often unseen world of the Mississippi Delta region.  The relationship between the two characters is a charming delight to watch, equal parts uplifting and side-splitting hilarious.  Shia especially makes his rough edges work well for the character here, and he is perfectly matched with his co-star Gottsagen, who makes a breakthrough here for special needs actors.  The locals are gorgeously captured and the story is simple but emotionally resonate, much in the same vein as many of the great Twain stories of old.  If this and Honey Boy are any indication, Shia’s career is finally looking like it’s turning a corner in a positive way.  And it helps when you make a movie like this that is just plain delightful to it’s core.

7.

ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD

Directed by Quentin Tarantino

You got to hand it to Mr. Tarantino.  He’s not shy about sharing his obsession with film in all the movies that he makes.  Most of the time, he limits it to clever in jokes or overt references.  But with Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, he gets to finally deliver a love letter to all things cinema in his own way.  The movie takes place in a particular time in Hollywood that Tarantino was interested in; centered around the notorious Manson Family Murders in 1969.  But this movie is about the Manson Murders as much as Reservoir Dogs (1991) was about a bank robbery or Pulp Fiction (1994) was about a briefcase.  He even plays the events of those murders out in a revisionist history style like what he implemented with WWII in Inglorious Basterds (2009) with the tables turned.  This upset historical purists, but at the same time, Tarantino spells out exactly what he’s doing from the beginning.  This movie is first and foremost a fairy tale; it’s called Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood after all.  And like most fairy tales, his Hollywood is full of it’s valiant knights, it’s roguish warriors, it’s fair princesses, it’s warrior queens, and it’s evil warlocks; namely the actors, the crewmen, the starlets, the dedicated performers, and the con artists.  All these incredible characters populate this wonderful cornucopia of Tinseltown that Tarantino has crafted.  At it’s center is this wonderful bromance between his two leads played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, as a temperamental fading star and his devoted stunt man.  Margot Robbie also delivers a beautiful turn as the legendary Sharon Tate, whose real life inspiration was the tragic light of an older, innocent Hollywood that got snuffed out by the Manson family.  The recreation of this bygone era on the real Hollywood Boulevard is done with remarkable attention to detail, and shows just how much Tarantino wanted to bring his ideal version of Hollywood back to glorious life.  It’s a love letter of the best kind, and a treat for all fans of cinema.

6.

APOLLO 11

Directed by Todd Douglas Miller

It’s amazing to think that the best documentary of the year features not one interview and is comprised entirely of footage shot 50 years ago.  And yet, Director Todd Douglas Miller managed to craft a remarkable, you are there experience chronicling the monumental first moon landing on it’s fiftieth anniversary.  All of the footage used in the film is real footage shot during the mission from a variety of different vantage points.  This includes a lot of footage that has never been made public before, including some truly incredible footage.  Included in the movie are remarkable 70mm footage of the rocket launch from ground level, the complete uncut orbital descent to the surface of the moon taken from Buzz Aldrin’s own camera, and an alternate, color film angle of Neil Armstrong’s first step.  And it’s all edited together in sequence, giving you a moment by moment experience unlike any other depiction of the moon landing we’ve seen.  It’s mind boggling how much footage there exists of this mission (and yes conspiracy theorists out there, this footage is 100% authentic, so consider yourself debunked).  The movie also brilliantly ties everything together with the real comm-link communication between the astronauts and the Houston Mission Command Center.  The only fabrication this documentary adds are sound effects, helping to give the experience more of a cinematic feel.  No matter what, this will likely be the definitive cinematic presentation of this monumental human achievement.  Not even First Man (2018) managed to hit with this kind of emotional impact.  This is as epic as documentary film-making can get, and it’s amazing to think that it took 50 full years for this footage to even be seen as it was intended.  Thankfully this movie is the best possible presentation to show it all and it demands to be seen on the biggest possible screen that you can find.

5.

AVENGERS: ENDGAME

Directed by Joe and Anthony Russo

By all accounts this movie should never have worked.  Not only did it need to satisfyingly wrap up the story first set up in Avengers: Infinity War the year prior, but it also had to conclude 10 years and 22 films’ worth of on-going narratives that have all linked together in one way or another.  It also had to follow one of the most notorious and shocking cliffhangers in cinema history, as well as deliver a plot that could subvert all our fan theories and still satisfy.  Oh, and it also ended up clocking in at three hours, the longest super hero movie ever by a wide margin.  Needless to say, a lot was riding on this movie, and somehow, Marvel miraculously did what it set out to do.  Sticking the landing would be an understatement.  This movie is both exactly what we wanted and also not what we were expecting at all.  We knew that all those heroes dusted away at the end of Infinity War were coming back, but we didn’t know exactly how, and what is brilliant about the movie is that it undercuts the hopeful resolution almost immediately, leaving the audience with a decidedly off-guard sense throughout the rest of the film.  I love the fact that nothing is an easy fix for the Avengers in the movie, and that they actually had to live with some of the trauma of the losing their friends and loved ones for a long time.  It’s something you don’t see play out that often in movies like this.  But at the same time, it does deliver on all the expected highs as well.  The final act of this movie is a prime example of how to do fan service right.  It’s just one brilliant payoff after another.  This was probably my favorite in theater experience watching a movie this year.  Hearing an audience of 400 people all cheer out at once over the  lifting of a hammer by a certain character is something that you’ll never forget.  In addition, it provides a beautifully told swan song to the original Avengers team formed in the 2012 film, as some of the characters’ story arcs come to a fitting end in this film.  Marvel says they had an “endgame” plan all along from the moment they launched this Cinematic Universe, and Avengers: Endgame is a plan perfectly executed, with even more hope given to the future ahead.  I loved it 3000.

4.

MARRIAGE STORY

Directed by Noah Baumbach

Taking a break from talking about the big and epic from last year, here we have a movie that is small and intimate in all the best ways.  With Marriage Story, director Noah Baumbach tells the story of a family breaking apart with the most minute of character details revealed through the whole experience.  It’s a movie that doesn’t take sides, but instead shows the painful process that divorce can be and how it brings out the worst in even good people.  It’s certainly not the first movie to tackle such an issue, but it’s one that absolutely feels like one of the most authentic portrayals of the process of divorce we’ve ever seen on screen.  The actors utterly disappear into their roles, and it’s almost like we’re ease-dropping in on a real couple breaking apart before our eyes.  It’s heartbreaking, truthful, as well as uplifting and at times very funny.  Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson deliver two of the year’s best performances as the couple in question, growing more resentful of each other while still trying to cling to that hopeful kinship that brought them together in the first place.  There is a rawness to their arguments in the movie that creates some of the most tension filled scenes of the year; all the more remarkable considering that none of it deviated from Baumbach’s script.  One particular fight masterfully progresses from cordial, to sarcastic, to furiously enraged, to finally tearful and it is all feels authentic.  Even the moments on their own, the actors shine.  Johanssen has a single take monologue that is astonishingly presented, and Driver even gets to literally sing his feelings away.  It’s a movie that reminds me of the laid back dramas of the late 70’s like Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) in all the best ways.  Sometimes the best dramas are the ones found in just an ordinary family.

3.

UNCUT GEMS

Directed by Benny and Josh Safdie

Never thought I’d see an Adam Sandler movie this high on my best of the year list.  Sandler is no stranger to dramatic roles, famously venturing out of his comfort zone for Paul Thomas Anderson’s romantic comedy Punch Drunk Love (2002) in a brilliant, underrated performance.  Since then, he retreated back to his patented screwball comedy style, which sadly led to diminishing returns over the years.  But this year, Sandler made a triumphant return to drama in a knockout role in this new film from the Safdie brothers.  And boy, this movie will blindside you and knock you down completely in a way that you not believe.  This movie can be described as an anxiety attack in film form, with every twist and turn just driving the tension up further to near unbearable points.  And the fact that Sandler is the one at the center of all this madness and delivering a performance so perfectly tuned to the story it’s telling is something quite miraculous.  It would be an absolute shame if he isn’t nominated for an Oscar for what is likely going to be the greatest performance he’ll ever give, though I feel that might likely happen.  Even still, the depths he goes with this character are amazing.  You just see him take more and more unnecessary risks all in the pursuit of fulfilling that glorious huge payday, and the bad choices just keep on building.  As a shady jewel peddler, he runs afoul of gangsters, creditors, spiteful exes, and even NBA legend Kevin Garnett.  The Safdie brothers aggressively vibrant visual style also drives up the uneasiness of the situations and it makes the entire experience of watching this character self-destruct all the more memorable.  And while Sandler’s character is the definition of a scumbag, you still end up rooting for him by the film’s end, which is a testament to his performance.  Again, pretty miraculous that Adam Sandler ended up giving one of the year’s best performances in one year’s best films.  The talent was always there; it’s just that someone needed to recognize it in him and wrestle it out.

2.

THE IRISHMAN

Directed by Martin Scorsese

With films like Fernando Meirelles’ The Two Popes, David Michod’s The King, and the previously mentioned Marriage Story from Noah Baumbach, 2019 was going to be Netflix’s big push for Oscar Gold after loosing out the year prior when their film Roma (2018) lost out to Green Book (2018).  And while all these movies are strong contenders, there was never any doubt that Netflix’s top dog this year was going to be Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman.  And despite what happens at the Oscars in the weeks ahead, there is no doubt that Netflix and Scorsese delivered the goods.  The movie is pretty much everything that has made Scorsese’s career legendary wrapped up in a single, 3 1/2 hour film.  It’s almost feels like a finale in a way too, like this will be the last opportunity for him to make a movie like this ever, so he put everything he has into it.  That seems especially true with the cast he assembled.  Working once again with his longtime friend and collaborator Robert DeNiro after a long hiatus, the two are perfectly in tune once again.  Scorsese even talked Joe Pesci out of retirement to be in this one last movie, and it’s a beautiful, different paced return to form for the legendary actor.  We also finally get to see Al Pacino work with Scorsese for the first time, and he’s just as great as you’d expect.  The movie almost feels like the third and concluding chapter of a trilogy, combined with Goodfellas (1990) and Casino (1995) even though their only linked by genre.  Think of this as Scorsese’s Return of the King.  It’s exquisitely crafted, brilliantly acted, often hilarious, occasionally shocking; it’s everything you want a Scorsese film to be.  No matter what the purpose of making it was for, I applaud Netflix for making a movie like this happen.  If anything, it’s the kind of movie that can elevate a studio to the next level, and given how much Netflix has already changed, that’s saying quite a bit.

And my pick for the best movie of 2019 is…

1.

JOJO RABBIT

Directed by Taika Waititi

Crafting a satire around Nazi Germany is no easy task, as it opens you up to a lot of mine fields if you don’t hit the right tone.  Even more so if you also include the horrors of the Holocaust in the mix.  But, somehow New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi managed to find that balance, and deliver not just one of the year’s funniest comedies, but also one of the most uplifting stories about love and friendship triumphing over hate that I’ve ever seen.  And he does it even while appearing in the movie as a comical version of Heir Hitler himself.  One of the reasons why the movie works so well is because the characters within the movie are so wonderfully written and performed.  Young newcomer Roman Griffin Davis gives a commanding performance as the idealistic yet naive Jojo, giving him equal weight whenever the movie gets silly or heavily dramatic.  The same goes for the entire cast as well, including Scarlett Johanssson, Sam Rockwell, and Thomasin McKenzie.  Even secondary performers like Rebel Wilson and Stephen Merchant shine.  But what is especially remarkable about the movie is that it doesn’t shy away from the truly evil acts committed by the Nazi regime, and the film manages to balance the heavy stuff with the comical stuff without giving the audience tonal whiplash.  It feels very much in the same vein as a Charlie Chaplin comedy like The Great Dictator, with maybe a little Mel Brooks and Monty Python thrown in.  Taika really demonstrates how good of a filmmaker he is with this movie, especially when it comes to tackling such a sensitive subject.  Not many people can balance savage, cartoonish satire with tearful human drama effectively, but he managed to pull it off.  It’s the kind of comedy that we need right now; unafraid to label hatred for what it is and a passionate showcase for the healing power of love.  I loved every minute of it.

So there you have my picks for the best movies of 2019, but like all my lists from year’s past, I also have my picks for the year’s worst.  Sadly, this one was pretty easy to choose from, as 2019 had it’s fair share of bad movies as well.  What follows are my bottom 5 movies of 2019.

5. CATS – So mind-boggling misguided in it’s execution that it almost redeems itself as a piece of camp entertainment.  But this adaptation of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical never actually finds it’s footing, because you are constantly disturbed by the appearances of the actors in CGI fur making them look like felines despite their human physiques being retained.  Despite some strong performances, this movie is as appealing as a hairball.  For musical fans or the morbidly curious only.  Don’t say that I didn’t warn you.

4.  THE KITCHEN – The year’s most poorly executed drama, and one that sadly had some potential behind it.  Centered around three mob wives played by Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish, and Elizabeth Moss who take over operation of their husbands businesses while they are jail, the movie could have been an interesting new take on this genre of film.  Instead, it’s a sloppily edited piece that tries to cram in too much story and suffocates anything that could have given this movie any real bite.  The three leads are so poorly defined as characters that you don’t care at all about their stories, and it’s a waste of the talents of these actresses; some of whom are really trying to grasp onto something here.  This Goodfellas wannabe probably illustrated the most wasted potential of any movie this year.

3. MEN IN BLACK: INTERNATIONAL – There were quite a few attempts to relaunch long dormant franchises, most of which failed like Terminator: Dark Fate and Rambo: Last Blood.  This one, however, was by far the laziest.  The hope was that the strong chemistry between actors Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson would help lift this franchise back to it’s former glory, and move beyond the duo of Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones.  But no, their onscreen chemistry couldn’t salvage this tired franchise, which just again resorts to the same tired tricks that ran stale years ago.  If you want to see Hemsworth and Thompson at their best, just re-watch Thor: Ragnarok (2017) again.  Otherwise, avoid Men in Black: International.  Even a good match of actors can’t overcome a premise that has long lost it’s luster.

2. DARK PHOENIX – Fool us once, shame on you.  Fool us twice, well shame on us.  It was foolish to think that Fox would get the Dark Phoenix saga right the second time around in their X-Men franchise, especially after bungling it so badly with X-Men: The Last Stand (2016).  But, somehow they not only failed us again, but they even managed to make it worse.  This was far and away the worst film in Fox’s long running X-Men series, and sadly it is also the final note that it’s going to go out on.  I’ve also never seen such a great cast in a movie feel so awkwardly directed either.  The performances in this movie are just cringe-inducing bad, and these actors have shown to be much better in other things, so I don’t know what happened to make them so amateurish here.  With Marvel now in charge of the characters again, we are going to see a full reboot that will make all of this non-canonical in the end.  It’s a sad ending to a franchise that had some great moments with a solid cast.  It’s too bad Dark Phoenix is as poor of a final note as it ended up being.

And the worst movie of 2019 is…

1. THE LION KING (2019) – It pains me to say that Disney managed to take one of their most beloved, flawless classics and turn it into the worst movie of the year.  To be honest, Dark Phoenix is the worst made movie of the year, but The Lion King is the one that I hated the most because of what it represents.  This is just copy and paste film-making at it’s very worst.  I love what director Jon Favreau has done with most of his career, but this movie is a waste of his talent, and it tells me that he was just given a mandate by the studio to deliver the same exact film without any creative freedom.  We are just given the same movie over again, only in “live action,” and devoid of any of the emotion that made the original animated film so memorable.  The biggest problem is that all the characters are animated to look and move like real animals, and real animals don’t emote the same way that they can in cartoonish animation.  So that’s why you have these awkwardly blank faces on these characters going through a variety of emotions, and it robs any personality out of the film.  Couple this with the fact that it’s just the same exact script and you’ll only be constantly reminded how much better the original animated classic was.  This is the worst example of the creatively bankrupt trend that Disney has been on with their movie remakes, and I worry that it’s going to lead them down the road of further lackluster film-making for an easy buck.  They should be using their resources to take bigger chances, and broaden their body of work; not just regurgitate past successes towards diminishing returns.

So, there you have my look at the movie of 2019, including it’s best and worst.  It was quite a year for movies, and it completed the decade on a fairly strong note.  In the weeks ahead, I will be giving my overview of the best movies of the last ten years, but before I wrap up this year’s list, I do want to look ahead at what we’ll be seeing in the following year.  With huge finales from the Marvel and Star Wars universes having played out in 2019, 2020 is going to be a bit quieter for the most part, though that’s not to say there won’t be some big films coming out this year.  Marvel kicks off their Phase 4 with the long awaited Black Widow movie this summer, and then delivers us a whole new team of heroes with The Eternals this fall.  Also this summer, DC will bring their biggest champion yet, Wonder Woman, back to the big screen with the highly anticipated sequel Wonder Woman 84.  We also get Christopher Nolan’s new epic thriller Tenet this summer, which I’m sure will be a must see IMAX experience like all his other movies.  We’re also going to see long in the making follow-ups to some classic franchises like Ghostbusters: Afterlife and Top Gun: Maverick.  There will also be some fresh new animated films from Pixar (Onward and Soul) and Disney (Raya and the Last Dragon).  And probably the most intriguing project of the year could be the new big screen adaptation of Dune from director Denis Villeneuve, featuring a huge all star cast.  It’s a year that really seems to be defined by new beginnings just as much as 2019 was defined by epic finales.  Here’s hoping that 2020 sets off the next decade right as far as cinema is concerned.  It’s been fun sharing all these best and worst of the year picks with all of you, and I hope many of my picks were interesting ones.  Here’s to the year ahead and continue having a fun time at the movies.

The Movies of Early 2020

This is a week of remembrance for everyone.  The decade is about to come to a close, and we are about to enter the uncertainty of the new era that faces us ahead; the 2020’s.  We already know a bit about what lies on the horizon cinematically, but much of the talk today is about what movies defined the last ten that we have lived through.  Looking back on just this year alone, we saw a record smashing year at the box office; mostly on the Disney side.  At the same time, more of a shake-up was happening on the distribution front, as both Apple and Disney launched their streaming services just in time for the holidays.  All the while, Netflix was upping their game by putting out an ambitious front of their own, releasing sure to be Awards season favorites with The Irishman, Marriage Story, and The Two Popes.  All in all, 2019 was a relatively strong year for film, which is going to make my year end list all the harder to compile next week, given that I’ll have to leave a lot of good stuff out.  I don’t know exactly where to rank the last year in relation to the decade itself either, but it was certainly up there.  For one thing, no matter what format you see it in (either streaming or on a big screen), it’s great to see a huge outpouring of new films coming from all corners of the industry.  Some are even taking bolder chances on themes and content, although there are some negative aspects to what the studios are putting out as well, particularly when it comes to molding these films for the international market, including censorship in some places.  There will be plenty of time to debate these things later, but for now I’m looking ahead at the immediate future, and seeing what awaits us in the months ahead.

Like all my past previews, I will be looking at a certain selection of films from the upcoming Winter and Spring months, and tell you which ones are the must sees, the ones that have me worried, and the ones to skip.  Each of these choices are based on my own level of anticipation for these movies, based on my responses to the effectiveness of their marketing, and just the general buzz that they carry with them.  Keep in mind, my predictions are informed, but not always accurate, as there are plenty of movies that can either take me by surprise or completely disappoint.  I also have included movie trailer embeds for context, so that you can see for yourself what movies I’m talking about, and perhaps help you form an impression of your own about the movie.  So, without any further ado, let’s take a look at the movies of the first season of the new decade in 2020.

MUST SEES:

NO TIME TO DIE (APRIL 10)

Good old double-O.  For a while this series was in limbo with regards to where it’s future might lie.  It seemed like the series couldn’t quite live up to the series high-point of Skyfall (2012), as the follow-up Spectre (2015) didn’t perform quite as well.  At the same time, this generation’s James Bond (an absolutely amazing Daniel Craig) was expressing doubts about returning for another feature, raising speculation about who might step into the role next.  Add to this a loss of a director (Danny Boyle) halfway through pre-procuction, and we have a lengthy five year gap between bond movies.  But, somehow things came together, and EON Productions managed to talk Craig into returning for one more film (his fifth overall as 007).  Now we finally have a new Bond movie to get excited for, and in a rare Spring release.  Craig, despite having now played the character over a 14 year period (the longest of any actor in the role, including Moore and Connery), still looks to be in top form here, picking up right where he left off, and though this will likely be his swan song as the character, he certainly doesn’t look like he’s taking it any easier.  It’s also going to be an interesting experience as this will be the first Bond film with an American in the directors chair; Cary Joji Fukunaga of True Detective fame.  In addition, the returning cast also brings a wonderful sense of continuity and teamwork to the series, and the addition of another double-O agent played by Lashana Lynch might offer some hints about where the future of the series might lie.  As long as the action is up to the already high standards that the series has set, with it’s special blend of nail-biting tension and sly humor, we should all expect this welcome return of Mr. Bond to be one hell of a fun ride, hopefully leaving us shaken, not stirred.

ONWARD (MARCH 6)

You can always rely on Pixar to deliver something entertaining.  Though the gimmick that the movie revolves around isn’t all that breakthrough (re-imagining modern society through an alternate reality; this time with fantasy creatures), the story it’s trying to tell still looks like it’s right up their alley, and likely to be as heartwarming as most of their other films.  This movie is likely going to hinge on the chemistry between the two leads, two elf brothers voiced by Tom Holland and Chris Pratt.  Certainly that’s the thing that the trailers have been pushing forward the most, which is refreshing in comparison to other like-minded animated films.  Most other animation studios want to sell you on the gimmick, while Pixar knows that they need to sell us on the story first.  There will certainly be plenty of jokes to be had with all the sight gags in this look at a modern suburban twist of classic fantasy tropes, but unless the story at it’s center doesn’t hook us in, the rest will feel hollow.  I do like how much of the focal point is on how the brothers deal with their father only appearing to them as a pair of legs, leading to a strange Weekend at Bernie’s (1989) vibe to much of the trailer.  Not quite the thing you’d expect from a Pixar film, but they are a studio constantly known for subverting expectations and finding that special element that tugs at our heartstrings by the end.  This is also a rare Spring release for the studio, so it will be interesting to see how well they perform outside of their normal mid-summer window.  No doubt with an intriguing premise like this one, an impressive voice cast by Pixar standards, and plenty of visual splendor typical of the studio’s lofty standards, this will almost certainly be another movie from the animation giant that will work it’s magic on all of us.

BIRDS OF PREY: AND THE FANTABULOUS EMANCIPATION OF ONE HARLEY QUINN (FEBRUARY 7)

When Suicide Squad released in the summer of 2016, it received a decidedly mixed response.  While the movie had it’s fans, many more criticized it for it’s uneven execution and clearly compromised vision, which was only compounded by the already reviled response to Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) earlier that same year; putting DC in a precarious place.  But, if there was anything to take away as a positive from Suicide Squad, it was Margot Robbie’s performance as Harley Quinn, which received almost universal praise.  Given that DC’s film slate has been on better footing recently, now is a good time to spotlight Robbie’s Harley Quinn even more, this time as the center of movie itself.  Birds of Prey gives us Harley Quinn separated from her relationship with the Joker (no longer played by Jared Leto) and setting out on her own, and becoming more of an anti-hero on her own (sometimes demented) terms.  Robbie is also more invested personally in this project, acting as the films producer as well, so this movie is going to grant her the creative freedom to tell Harley’s story the way she wants to, which should be exciting to see.  The titular team behind her is also great to see, as many of them are iconic DC heroes in their own right like Black Canary and Huntress, making their big screen debuts here.  It will also be interesting to see Ewan McGregor taking on the role of famed Batman villain Black Mask here.  DC’s been on a role recently, and though this is a follow-up to one of their more flawed outings, it is thankfully bringing that movie’s best element to the forefront and taking her to new, and better heights.  Let’s just hope that Harley has what it takes to keep DC’s momentum going.

ANTEBELLUM (APRIL 24)

Here’s an intriguing idea for a movie that I still don’t think I’ve completely comprehended fully yet.  I love that even though this movie trailer has provocative imagery within it, no doubt touching upon the horrors of slavery in the American South, we still don’t know what it all means.  Is there a time travel element to this story? Multiple Dimensions?  Is it all inside the protagonist’s head?  Everything is left thankfully vague, but it still is there to be provocative, which could make for a gratefully unique horror thriller.  We’ve already seen Jordan Peele successfully work themes of race and class divisions into his films, so it will be interesting to see it done here in a perhaps more somber and shocking way.  Peele’s films always have a running current of humor underneath all the horror elements, so it will be interesting to see if a more earnest and deadly serious take on the subject might work too.  Even without the sci-fi elements that will almost undoubtedly be explored in more detail within the film, there is a lot of horror to draw from in the real history of slavery in this country, and it could provide some really gut-wrenching moments in this movie.  I usually don’t find much to like in the genre of horror, since so much of it is recycled and not all that scary.  This movie at the very least has an interesting premise and potential based on it’s themes that could transcend the tropes of the genre, and provide a thriller that truly does crawl under your skin and takes you to some really dark places.  After all, there was no bigger hell on earth to millions of enslaved Americans than the Antebellum South.

DOLITTLE (JANUARY 17)

Hollywood has had a rocky relationship with the character of Doctor Dolittle.  The classic literary character first made his big screen debut in the 1967 movie musical, which nearly bankrupted 20th Century Fox with it’s poor box office.  Many years later, Eddie Murphy would step into the role as the physician with a talent for talking to animals, but it would be in an adaptation that strayed as far away from the original source material as possible; carrying over only the name and the concept.  Now, we are getting perhaps the closest to a faithful adaptation of the original books as we’ve seen yet.  For one, it takes the character back to his Victorian roots, and it also delves far more into the globe-trotting exploits of Doctor Dolittle that were a major part of the books.  I for one am interested in this new adaptation for a variety of reasons.  One, this marks Robert Downey Jr.’s first big screen project after his epic departure from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and it will be interesting to see him tackle a very different kind of character after leaving such a mark as Iron Man.  Two, from the trailers, I get this earnest, non-cynical vibe coming from this film, which reminds me a lot of the excellent Paddington movies, which are some of the best examples of family entertainment we’ve seen from the last decade.  And third, the movie includes a remarkable supporting cast playing all the animals.  If the movie can balance all these elements together, we might finally have a Dolittle movie that actually does justice to the character as he was originally conceived.  Earnest and inspiring films that appeal to all ages are hard to come by these days, so my hope is that this movie helps to fill that void perfectly.

MOVIES THAT HAVE ME WORRIED:

MULAN (MARCH 27)

Let’s face it; Disney’s recent trend of remaking their beloved animated classics hasn’t been their most shining jewel in their cinematic crown.  Yes, movies like Beauty and the Beast (2017) and The Lion King (2019) are box office hits, but they have been heavily panned by critics (like myself) for being just tired retreads of vastly superior films and are creatively bankrupt as a whole.  The one positive that I can say about the upcoming remake of Mulan is that it has some potential.  For one thing, I do like the fact that it’s taking itself much more seriously than most of the other Disney remakes.  It’s doing away with the musical score and more comedic elements in favor of a more down to earth retelling of the Chinese legend.  I know that some die hard fans are bemoaning the absence of wise-cracking Mushu in this film, but I think that the Eddie Murphy-voiced dragon of the original would feel very much out of place in live action.  Director Niki Caro (Whale Rider) seems to very much want to make this a epic adventure in the same vein as epic movies from Chinese auteurs like Zhang Yimou and John Woo, but with a bit of that Disney flair that helps to link it back to the Disney original.  And that’s what a Disney remake should be; something that compliments the original rather than try to copy it.  These movies should be their own thing, and Mulan seems to be on the right track.  But at the same time, I worry that Disney will try to force feed too many references to the original film that could squander this movie’s chance of standing on it’s own.  Also, the movie’s star Yifei Liu has received backlash (not unwarranted) for her pro-Beijing stance on the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, which could hurt Mulan’s chances for success.  Let’s hope that this is a movie with honor, and not with disappointment.

THE CALL OF THE WILD (FEBRUARY 21)

Now there is nothing wrong with wanting to make an ambitious retelling of Jack London’s classic adventure novel for the big screen.  And having Harrison Ford on board doesn’t help either, especially when he’s playing a grizzled frontiersman in the far north.  But where this movie starts to lose me is when it presents it’s featured canine.  For some odd reason, the filmmakers decided to forego casting a real dog in the role, and instead use a fully CGI hound instead.  This unfortunately becomes very distracting in the trailer, as the dog behaves in a way that a cartoon dog would, with facial expressions and exaggerated physicality.  That’s all fine if you’re making an animated movie, but this is a live action film with real actors and sets, and the mixture just doesn’t feel right.  I guess it’s no surprise that the movie is the live action directorial debut for Chris Sanders, who has worked up to now in animation (Lilo & Stitch over at Disney, and How to Train Your Dragon over at Dreamworks), so this  was probably his call because it’s a process of characterization that he’s more comfortable with.  It probably could be worse, like the uncanny valley animals in Disney’s Lion King remake.  I just believe that we’re going to have a hard time connecting with the story in this film, because that animated dog is going to pull us right out of the movie.  Maybe this is the filmmakers way of avoiding the controversy that may arise with regards to animal treatment, much like what happened with the movie A Dog’s Journey (2019) and it’s alleged mistreatment of it’s canine actors.  Even still, authentic animals in movies do make a difference, and there are ways to make movies work without endangering them.  The Call of the Wild could have found that balance too, but it seems to have gone to the other extreme, which itself is very distracting.

THE NEW MUTANTS (APRIL 3)

Here’s a movie that may be the most uncertain of the year.  The fact is, it’s very possible that this movie may not even get released at all.  This was perhaps the most affected film in the merger of Disney and Fox, as the movie was a product of the now defunct X-Men franchise that had run through the Fox Studio since the year 2000.  With Disney owned Marvel now back in charge of the X-Men characters, there was no place anymore for this horror themed take on the characters, and the movie was left in limbo with regards to it’s future.  Just to show you how long this movie has been stuck in cinematic limbo, the above trailer is from two years ago.  And in that time, the movie has been set for release multiple times and then pulled from the schedule at the last minute with no explanation.  Basically Disney owns a finished movie that’s not theirs and they have no idea what to do with it.  It can’t be a part of Marvel’s Phase Four plans, because that’s going to involve an entire reboot of the X-men characters, and this one is still tied with the old franchise.  So, despite it looking like the movie might finally see the light of day this April, it may come with zero buzz and quickly disappear from the multiplex, with Disney hoping that we’ll quickly forget about it and move on, with at least some modest box office.  That, or Disney might just dump it onto Hulu.  It’s too bad, because there is potential there, and the film has a fine cast of young actors like Split’s Anya Taylor-Joy, Game of Thrones’ Maise Williams, and Stranger Things’ Charlie Heaton.  Sadly, mega-mergers carry it’s own set of casualties during their process, and New Mutants is one of the more noteworthy ones we’ve seen out of the big Disney/Fox deal.

BAD BOYS FOR LIFE (JANUARY 17)

I don’t think it was ever possible, but I feel like this movie needs more Michael Bay in it.  After taking an extra long break in the series, Will Smith and Martin Lawrence return to the Bad Boy franchise, and is anybody really excited for this?  Sure, both Smith and Lawrence are in their element as these characters, and they do still have great chemistry on screen together that they haven’t been able to replicate elsewhere.  But, what also made the movies work before was the over-the-top flourishes that Michael Bay added to the series.  The original 1994 Bad Boys was Bay’s first theatrical film, and showcased many of his best elements as a visual story-teller, which he would subsequently lose and over-indulge in with future films.  The overblown sequel, Bad Boys II (2003) is almost so ludicrously over-the-top, that it somehow works in spite of itself.  Unfortunately, while this new movie does have fun banter between the two leads, it also lacks the Bay flourishes, instead coming across like a Bad Boys wannabe.  It’s hard to say what effect this may have as a whole on the experience, but sadly, the visual element coming from this trailer feels a bit flat by comparison.  Love him or hate him, Michael Bay has a visual style, and Bad Boys was one of the better uses of it.  Let’s just hope that Smith and Lawrence can pull things together and carry the series one more time.  They clearly look like they enjoy working together, so hopefully that translates into a fun time as opposed to another rehashed franchise that should have been left alone.

MOVIES TO SKIP:

SONIC THE HEDGEHOG (FEBRUARY 14)

After nearly making my Movies to Skip page from last fall, Sonic the Hedgehog was pushed back several months after what can be called the most disastrous trailer launch in recent memory.  Paramount faced immediate backlash after they premiered the original theatrical trailer last summer, which featured a horribly off model CGI version of Sonic.  This prompted the studio to do a complete, eleventh hour redesign of the character, which no doubt led to plenty of computer animators working long overtime hours in order to fix the clueless filmmakers’ initial mistake.  I do feel for those animators, because they didn’t need to do all this extra work in the first place since the director and the studio clearly don’t know what they are doing with this movie.  It’s another cliche-ridden cash grab on the nostalgia market, much in the same vein as Alvin and the Chipmunks and The Smurfs have been; ignoring all the past character lore and development in favor of a G-Rated romp that’s cheap and dumbed down to appeal to mass audiences.  The new redesign of Sonic is a vast improvement, a tribute to the overworked CGI artists who deserve better recognition, but it still can’t save this project from it’s innate blandness.  Even Jim Carrey’s casting as Doctor Robotnik feels off, as it’s just another zany character that feels like he’s tired of playing.  And given the horrible track record movies based on video games already have, I don’t think there will be much this movie can do to out run it’s inevitable failure.

TROLLS WORLD TOUR (APRIL 17)

It’s been a sad, slow decline for Dreamworks Animation.  The house that Shrek built was once the second most powerful Animation studio in the industry, dominating much of the 2000’s and putting both Disney and Pixar on notice.  But the 2010’s were far rockier for the studio, as they struggled to maintain an identity.  They started off strong with movies like How to Train Your Dragon (2010) and Megamind (2010), but numerous under-performers like Rise of the Guardians (2012), Home (2015), and The Boss Baby (2017) have tarnished the studio’s once glorious sheen.  Now, after seeing their founder Jeffrey Katzenberg leaving to start his own streaming platform called Quibi, Dreamworks almost appears to be throwing in the towel and just using their talents to hit a specific target audience; little children.  Trolls (2016) was the biggest clue to this new direction, a candy-coated musical aimed at children that not surprisingly was their only box office hit of the decade.  With Trolls World Tour, they appear to be further heading down that road, with another uninspired, mass-appeal product solely created to sell toys.  It wouldn’t be as egregious if Dreamworks was occasionally taking more risks like they used to.  In the same amount of time, both Disney and Pixar have upped their game, delivering provocative and engaging movies like Zootopia (2016) and Coco (2017), which while still appealing to children, were also able to deliver profound messages at the same time.  Trolls World Tour is just another diversion that kids may enjoy in the moment, but will eventually grow out of over time, and that’s a sad direction for Dreamworks Animation to take.

UNDERWATER (JANUARY 10)

It doesn’t take much to imagine what the pitch meeting was like for this one; it’s going to be Alien (1979), but at the bottom of the ocean.  I guess it’s not surprising that 20th Century Fox, the studio behind the Alien franchise took the bait and green-lit this film.  The movie looks to be following the Alien formula to the letter, and that’s what makes this trailer so frustrating.  You know exactly where it’s going.  I almost feel that the movie might have been better served if it strayed away from the sci-fi elements, and just became a survival film instead.  It may not be all that breakthrough, but a movie focused on survivors in a crippled deep sea research station could have provided some interesting moments.  But, no, we get monsters instead.  I find the cast here an odd mix too.  Never thought I’d see a movie with actors as diverse as Kristen Stewart and T.J. Miller sharing the screen.  In Stewart’s case, this movie almost feels like a step backwards in her career, as she’s been choosing more challenging roles lately.  For Miller, this is definitely par for the course.  And given that this movie comes out on January 10, it marks the first ever wide release of the new decade, which I hope is not a bad omen of how the next ten years will play out.  I imagine this will be a quickly forgotten film that hopefully has no lasting impact on the 2020’s.  Most movies dumped off in January usually are, and this one is just another in that chain of shame.

So, that’s how the start of 2020 will play out in the months ahead.  In comparison to years past, it’s a relatively light slate.  No Marvel, no projects from prestige filmmakers.  Given how ambitious 2019 was, this is understandable.  2020 is saving it’s heavy hitters for later in the year.  For now, I am looking forward to the return of James Bond to the big screen, with Daniel Craig putting in one final turn in the role, which he put a firm stamp on.  Likewise another Pixar film is always welcome to see.  There are also plenty of movies that could end up surprising out there.  The early Winter and Spring months have become more fertile ground in recent years to find surprises that might have otherwise been lost in the Summer and Awards season shuffles.  And speaking of Awards season, most of those last minute entries are going to expand nationwide in the following month, so there will still be plenty of quality entertainment to be had for the early part of the year.  Now that I have laid out what to look forward to in the first part of the next year, I’ll be spending much of January looking back at both the previous year, as well as the entire past decade.  You’ll see my two top ten lists in the upcoming weeks, with the 2019 Top Ten coming up shortly.  With all that said, I hope my preview has been a helpful one.  There’s a lot to look forward to, as well as a few disasters you might want to avoid.  And as always, have a happy new year and enjoy your time at the movies.

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker – Review

We come to the end of the road now.  Back in 1977, when George Lucas was completing his big gamble on a throwback to the old sci-fi serials of his youth, I’m sure that he never thought for once that his film would spark an ongoing story that has lasted over 40 years now.  He just wanted to make the kind of movie that he wanted to see on the big screen, and boy did it succeed.  I’m sure he had visions of a grander narrative, which he would later draw upon in future films, but if it was his one and only shot, he certainly made the most of it.  By the time his original trilogy capper, Return of the Jedi (1983), released into theaters, Lucas had already changed cinema forever.  Star Wars was such a monumental thing for the culture that it almost became more than a movie franchise; it became something of a religion.  Taking fandom to newer heights than ever before, Star Wars has been almost inescapable in our culture for the last 42 years.  And with that high level of fandom, you also have high standards that come with it.  George Lucas learned that the hard way when he returned to the franchise with a prequel trilogy at the turn of the century.  While the movies do have their defenders, the response to his new trilogy was decidedly negative, and that’s probably because the bar had been set too high by the original trilogy.  Though Lucas was still telling the story that he had imagined, audiences were expecting something very different; something more adventurous and less introspective.  Despite the mixed results, Lucas was content where he left the story.  Cut to 2012 and the shocking news broke that Lucas had sold off the rights to his empire to the Walt Disney Company for a whopping $4 billion.  And the even more amazing news came soon after that Disney hadn’t just bought Lucasfilm in order to play stewards to the already existing films.  They were going t carry the story even further than Lucas had gone before with a whole new trilogy, plus many more spinoffs.

Thus, we got a new trilogy that extends the story past the original six episodes made by George Lucas.  The entire enterprise launched with Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens in 2015.  Under the direction of J.J. Abrams, Awakens hit exactly the right notes for audiences; appealing to that sweet nostalgia spot in every fans heart while at the same time hinting at even bigger things to come.  It rode that goodwill to record breaking box office, with a domestic haul that still is unbeaten today; even bigger than worldwide champ Avengers: Endgame (2019).  That impressive debut even extended into the following year, carrying the spinoff film Rogue One (2016) to an impressive box office tally.  But things went differently with the film that came next.  The second film in the trilogy, Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi (2017) would turn out to be the most divisive movie in the series since the prequels.  Director and Writer Rian Johnson created a Star Wars movie that challenged many tropes and undercut all the expected plot threads that had been set up in the more nostalgia heavy Force Awakens.  To some fans, this was a welcome change, because it showed that Disney and Lucasfilm were willing to shake things up in order take Star Wars in a variety of different directions.  But, for a lot of fans, they viewed this as a betrayal, and were extremely vocal about their displeasure.  The Last Jedi unfortunately exposed a toxic element that existed within the Star Wars fandom, with some people going as far as to harass members of the cast and crew of the film, which caused some of them to leave social media all together.  As it stands, Star Wars fandom is at it’s most fracutured point, with people either loving or hating the direction that the series has gone in; with little room in between.  That is the environment that Star Wars now finds itself in as it concludes this new, sequel trilogy with what is supposed to be the final chapter in the “Skywalker Saga.”  Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker has a lot of weight on it’s shoulders, having to wrap up this long running series while at the same time dealing with a fan base that is in a broken state.  Is it the new hope that can bring balance to the force, or will it only divide the worlds even further apart?

The Rise of Skywalker jumps ahead from the events of The Last Jedi.  The rebel alliance is on it’s last legs after their last stand against the First Order.  But into the fray comes an even more sinister force.  A mysterious message is sent out into the galaxy by the long thought dead Emporer Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid).  First Order Supreme Leader Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) who sees Palpatine as a threat to his control of power, hunts down the Emporer’s location.  It soon brings him to a hidden home planet of the Sith order named Exogol, where he learns that Palpatine has been quietly building up his forces over the last several decades; creating a Star Destroyer fleet with the same power of a thousand Death Stars.  Palpatine extends his assistance to the Ren and the First Order under the single condition, that they bring the girl Rey (Daisy Ridley) to him.  Meanwhile, on a new Rebel base, Rey continues her Jedi training under the guidance of General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher).  Despite her best efforts, Rey still struggles to overcome her doubts, and the link between her and Kylo Ren still remains, with him still appealing for her to join the dark side.  At the same time, the rebel forces have received information from a spy within the First Order of the deal that has been struck with Palpatine, delivered to them by Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and Finn (John Boyega).  With Rey’s help, informed by her readings from the Jedi texts, they learn of a possible way to reach the hidden world of Exogol, using what is called a Sith Wayfinder.  Joined by C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), Rey, Poe and Finn take the Millennium Falcon to a variety of new worlds in search of the Wayfinder.  Along the way they receive help from new allies, including an old flame of Poe’s, Zorii Bliss (Keri Russell), and the always resourceful Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams).  All the while, Ren continues to challenge Rey, pushing her to confront elements of her past that she wishes to forget, especially the ones that make her doubt who she really is.  The only question remains, can Rey find the power within herself to comabt Ren’s temptations and face Palpatine head on in order to save the Rebels and the galaxy as a whole?

In many ways, I have to respect the filmmakers and cast for undertaking the enormous burden that this movie must have been.  Facing more scrutiny than any other Star Wars production before, this movie not only had to smooth over the rift that was created by The Last Jedi, but it also has to function as both an ending for not just this new trilogy, but the entire nine movie arc that has been dubbed the Skywalker Saga; which by the way extends back 42 years now.  That is a lot of pressure no matter who you are.  The duties of this undertaking were originally going to go to director Colin Treverrow, who successfully relaunched the Jurassic Park franchise with Jurassic World (2015).  However, creative differences led to his removal from the project, which led to J. J. Abrams returning to the directors chair.  And it’s that shake-up behind the scenes that more than likely affected the outcome of this film.  The Rise of Skywalker could not have been produced at a worse time for Lucasfilm.  With The Last Jedi dividing audiences as much as it did, and the spinoff film Solo (2018) underperforming at the box office under that same cloud, it suddenly led to a lot of second guessing at Lucasfilm and parent company Disney.  Projects in the pipeline were put on hold, creative teams like Lord & Miller and Benioff & Weiss were let go, and a complete shift in priorities began to take place.  And all of that chaos is apparent in the final result of The Rise of Skywalker.  It is by far the messiest and least focused film in the new trilogy, which sadly makes it the least effective film as well.  I should note though, it’s not a terrible movie; just a disappointing one.  For a movie like this to cross into the bad movie territory, it has to completely underwhelm and feel like an insult to the audience’s sensibilities.  That’s why I have far more disdain for a movie like the recent Lion King remake, because that movie was purely just a copy and paste effort.  With Rise of Skywalker, even though there are a lot of problems with it and plenty of questionable choices, I still see the effort that was put into it by the cast and crew, which at least makes it occasionally work in spite of itself.

So, what exactly is the problem with the movie.  Well, it’s clear from the get go that the shuffling around of creative forces behind the scenes led to a story that doesn’t make much sense.  With a screenplay by Abrams and Oscar winner Chris Terrio (Argo), the movie almost feels like a course correction after The Last Jedi.  And sadly, that heel turn makes the entire trilogy look like it was made without a clear vision.  It’s a trilogy at odds with itself, and it unfortunately undermines the narrative arcs that the different characters have been going through.  Not only that, but The Rise of Skywalker leaves absolutely no time to settle itself into a cohesive whole.  It moves at a break neck speed, fitting in a trilogy’s worth of story into a short 2 1/2 hour runtime.  This is unfortunate for a trilogy that up to now was very well paced and character driven.  This is one of the rare cases where a longer, three hour run time might have given the movie a better chance.  Instead, we get force fed (no pun intended) this story, which feels very un-Star Wars.  The most glaring example of this is the way that it introduces Emporer Palpatine into the narrative.  There is no mystery shrouding his existence; no explanation given as to how he managed to survive his fate at the end of Return of the Jedi.  He’s just there now, and we have to swallow that information immediately.  It not only robs any amount of impact his character might have had on the story, but it also undermines the threat that has been built up in the previous two films with Kylo Ren and the First Order.  I am also disappointed that the movie almost seems like a dismissal of the story ideas brought forth by The Last Jedi, almost like it’s a concession to all those toxic fans that threw a tantrum because of that last movie.  I for one loved the chances that The Last Jedi took, and the fact that Rise of Skywalker just retcons it all, especially with character development, just feels insulting to all of us who passionately defended those changes.  There’s no hard lessons learned, no surprising paths take; this movie is just the parent giving the child a toy in order to make them stop crying, no matter how undeserved it is.

Now, despite my issues that I’ve stated above, I didn’t hate Rise of Skywalker; nor did I really dislike it.  I would gladly take this film over the prequel trilogy any day, with maybe the exception of the last half of Revenge of the Sith (2005).  One thing this movie definitely has over the prequels is that the performances are still top notch.  Daisy Ridley in particular owns this movie, giving Rey the right amount of complexity to see her arc through to the end.  Though there are some questionable choices made about the direction of her character throughout the movie, Ridley never lets us down in her performance and she greatly helps to carry the movie on her shoulders.  I love the fact that she has become a role model to many young fans of Star Wars, and thankfully nothing in this movie will change people’s view of her character.  She remains a badass right to the end.  The same complexity also is thankfully maintained with Kylo Ren.  Adam Driver’s performance may even be the best throughout the entire trilogy, and he thankfully also remains consistent here.  Even as his character arc takes some turns, it still is believably reached and that is all thanks to the actor.  I selected both Rey and Kylo Ren as two of the best Heroes and Villains in my decade top ten lists here and here,  and nothing in this movie diminishes that.  Unfortunately, the rest of the cast gets sidelined for most of the movie, including Poe and Finn, who are reduced to tag alongs for Rey.  One thing I do give the movie praise for is how well they dealt with closure for Leia.  With Carrie Fisher’s all too sudden passing in 2016, the movie was left without a key player in it’s final chapter, as The Last Jedi surprisingly left her alive in the end.  Utilizing unused footage of Fisher from The Force Awakens, J.J. Abrams remarkably fits Leia into this story in a way that feels organic and respectful, giving this very important character a graceful sendoff that she absolutely deserves.  And even though he is awkwardly shoehorned into this trilogy, Ian McDiarmid does still own every scene he’s in, adequately chewing the scenary as he’s done many times before in this series, going all the way back to Jedi.  So, even with the story’s shortcomings, the cast in this film is by no means slouching it in their final go around in this series.

The movie, while not as eye-catching as the beautifully shot  The Last Jedi, still has moments of visual splendor.  There are plenty of breath-taking shots that still give the movie that epic grandeur that the series is known for.  Even something that feels very out of place, like the Sith Temple on Exogol, which has this H. R. Geiger influnence to it, still manages to stick distinctly in your mind.  I appreciate the fact that Disney’s Star Wars movies don’t just try to reuse the same planets over and over again, which the prequels did a lot.  They really want to show the expanse of the galaxy, and give us new worlds with every film.  There are some annoying echoes of the past (seriously, another desert planet), but the movie does go out of it’s way to show you things that you’ve never seen before in a Star Wars movie.  Even returning to a familiar location like the Death Star keeps to this philosophy, because here we see the once mighty war machine in complete ruin, decaying against the mighty ocean waves like an astonomically enormous ship wreck.  The movie is visually on par with it’s predecessors, but it again is undermined by the lack of focus in the story.  Not enough time is ever devoted to fully exploring these places.  I should also point out the very important factor of John Williams, who is scoring a Star Wars film for what is likely the very last time.  It’s an impressive achievement that the legendary composer was able to score 9 different films over 42 years, helping to maintain a continuity throughout.  Though his work here may not be the most memorable of the series, it still feels great to hear new soundscapes still come from the man who gave Star Wars it’s original epic grandiosity.  He’s really the main reason why we call Star Wars a space opera, because of the operatic quality of his music.  It’s also why even when elements of this movie disappoint on a story level, it makes it hard to say you hate the movie, because there is still a lot to love on a technical standpoint.

This year in particular was going to be a standout one for Star Wars, which is really saying something.  Not only did we get the conclusion to this trilogy, but Disney launched it’s largest theme park expansion ever with a new Star Wars based land called Galaxy’s Edge, which despite some naysayers on the internet, has been glowingly received by visitors from across the world.  In addtion, Disney lanched their much anticipated streaming platform Disney+, with the Star Wars branded series The Mandalorian as a day one launch title, which has gone on to become an instant hit with fans across the Star Wars spectrum.  So, it’s just so disappointing that Rise of Skywalker ends up being so divisive at a time when it looked like the fandom was finally starting to heal and come back together.  The Rise of Skywalker is not the worst Star Wars movie ever made, but it certainly is the most problematic.  It just seems like the movie was rushed through, without much thought into how it should tie up all the loose ends of the series we’ve been following along with for so long.  At the point where Disney and Lucasfilm saw issues beginning to form during the making of this movie, and with their long term plans as a whole, they should have stepped things back and perhaps delay The Rise of Skywalker for maybe a year in order to smooth things out.  But, sadly, it was full steam ahead and nothing was going to deter them from that deadline, and it unfortunately made the movie suffer as a result.  Though far from the worst Star Wars movie, it is by far the least successful finale to any of the trilogies.  Revenge of the Sith fixed many of the problems of it’s predecessors, and though Return of the Jedi was a disappointment in comparsion to A New Hope (1977) and The Empire Strikes Back (1980), it still managed to maintain that high quality level of storytelling; especially in those moments with Luke, Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine. For The Rise of Skywalker, everything is just a mixed bag. Initially when I left the theater, I came away with some positive feeling. There are certainly moments in the movie that made me genuinely happy. But the further away from it I get, the more the flaws become more apparent. So, my feelings on the movie are not anger or disgust. The movie is not a disaster; just a disappointment. There could have been so much more to this ending than what we got, especially given the enormous legacy behind it. Instead, we get something of a compromise, and that in of itself is a disappointment. Even still, I’m thankful for the journey it took us on, and my hope is that Star Wars leaves this saga behind and truly expands out into the far reaches of the galaxy; perhaps fulfilling its real potential. Sad to see the Skywalker saga end in the way it did, but it was a fun ride nonetheless. May the Force be with it.

Rating: 7/10

This is….