The 2022 Oscars – Picks and Thoughts

Oscar season is always a fun time for film lovers, because it’s a great spark for discussion about what our favorite movies of the last year have been, and who’s deserving of the end of the year accolades.  There’s rarely any 100% concensus on every category of film, but the talk and buzz is always something that becomes enjoyable for fans of cinema.  We all love drama, and the narratives that follow these awards are always something that creates interest.  This year, however, the Academy Awards has found itself in a pretty highly publicized drama of it’s own, and it’s not particularly good.  Coming off of the last year which saw a mild rebound of the theatrical market post-pandemic, the Academy was hoping to bring things back to normal, returning once again to their home turf of the Dolby Theater in Hollywood after a controversial side show at last year’s ceremony over at Los Angeles’ Union Station.  That show’s anti-climatic finale cemented an already shattered year for Hollywood and the hope was that this year would be a return to normal again.  They were even bringing back the tradition of hosts at the awards show.  But, then the Academy made the controversial announcement that they were going to split off several categories from the main show, and present them off camera before the main ceremony as a means of tightening the notoriously long running show to a more network friendly run time.  This especially upset many within the industry, and with good reason, because most of the cut categories are for technical achievements, which only further magnifies the image of Hollywood being an elitist place that favors the celebrities over the working man.  The Academy has made it known that this is largely due to a mandate brought on by the network airing the broadcast (ABC), and I don’t doubt that as the case, but it’s a mandate that they are following through with and it’s an unfortunate move that I believe further dismantles what has made the Oscars the beloved institution that it’s been for nearly a century.  A lot of other important figures in Hollywood, including prominent filmmakers and performers have also voiced their displeasure about this too.  The only question is, are the Academy members listening and are they willing to dismantle more of themselves in favor of maintaining their network profile.

Besides all that, I am writing my annual picks and thoughts about this year’s Oscars, focusing on the major categories of screenwriting, acting in both lead and supporting roles, direction, and of course Best Picture.  For each category, I will share who I would like to see win each award, as well as the person or persons who I think is mostly likely going to win; which don’t always match up with my personal choices.  I will also provide a quick rundown of my picks in all the remaining categories as well.  So, without further ado, let’s take a look at the 2022 Academy Awards, and see who should win and who will win.


Nominees:  Kenneth Branagh, Belfast; Adam McKay and David Sirota, Don’t Look Up; Zach Baylin, King Richard; Paul Thomas Anderson, Licorice Pizza; Eskil Vogt and Joachim Trier, The Worst Person in the World

It’s interesting that three of the nominees here are for movies that take heavy inspiration from real life.  The other two are generally groundbreaking in their own right.  Adam McKay once again takes his satirical eye to a controversial subject; this time being climate change denialism, with a star studded movie that has been for the most part divisive.  Still you’ve got to admire McKay for the hutzpah to take on such a controversial subject with humor as his weapon.  Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person in the World is interesting for it’s fresh spin on romantic comedy trope, and manages to make a statement in Hollywood even beyond the language barrier.  Still, I feel like the true life stories are favored in this category.  King Richard has it’s fans, but the screenplay is a mostly by the numbers biopic that doesn’t exactly scream out as the best original script of the year.  That’s why this category this year comes down to two beloved film director’s who made deeply personal films derived from their own life’s story.  Kenneth Branagh took his experience of growing up in Belfast, Northern Ireland during “The Troubles” and crafted this emotional story about the horrific events seen through the eyes of a child.  And while Paul Thomas Anderson did base the story of Licorice Pizza on the real life events of his friend, producer Gary Goetzman, he also put a lot of his own personal experience of growing up into his love letter to the San Fernando Valley.  Both films are enriched by that personal investement by their respective authors.  What I believe is going to happen is that the Oscars is going to reward Kenneth Branagh with the Oscar, which remarkably will be the veteran actor and director’s first, because his screenplay has something more profound to say.  Deserving, but, for me the more playful, daring, and creative work was Anderson’s Licorice Pizza, which to me is the very definition of an original screenplay.  I feel it’s going to be a tight race, but a Branagh win won’t be an insult.  I just favor the unconventional over the conventional when it comes to writing something original for the screen.

WHO WILL WIN: Kenneth Branagh, Belfast

WHO SHOULD WIN: Paul Thomas Anderson, Licorice Pizza


Nominees: Sian Heder, CODA; Ryusuke Hamaguchi and Takamasa Oe, Drive My Car; Jon Spaihts, Denis Villeneuve and Eric Roth, Dune; Maggie Gyllenhaal, The Lost Daughter; Jane Campion, The Power of the Dog

This is a category that I believe will be the biggest bellweather of the night for the Oscars.  CODA is the movie with the wind in it’s sails right now, having picked up big wins at the SAG and PGA awards, two indicators of Oscar season momentum.  Many believe that it could have a chance of upsetting the early favorite in the race, The Power of the Dog, which had a strong start at the Golden Globes but has since lost some of it’s momentum, but it’s not over until it’s over.  If CODA wins this award earlier in the night, it’s probably the best indicator yet that their underdog surge has come to fruition.  But, never underestimate Jane Campion.  She won her first Oscar back in 1993 for her Original Script for The Piano and she’s remained a critical darling ever since.  Seeing her win another in the Adapted field will be quite a full circle achievement for a veteran of her caliber.  Her screenplay is also my favorite here, as the movie itself was my actual favorite overall in 2021.  I certainly want to see The Power of the Dog win big at this year’s awards, though I do recognize that the likelihood is becoming less likely as the ceremony gets closer.  If Power of the Dog wins, it means it’s going to run the table, but if CODA wins, the upset is more likely.  However, I think there’s another scenario that could also happen that might take everyone by surprise.  There’s a good possibility that Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car could sneak in at the last minute.  A lot of people, particularly in writing circles, absolutely love this movie, and there is precedent for a foreign language movie winning the Oscar before (most recently Parasite).  Since the writing block of Academy voters is the one that determines this category, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if this movie beats the odd.  If there was any chance of a surprise win at this year’s Oscars, this is where I believe it may happen.

WHO WILL WIN: Ryusuke Hamaguchi and Takamasa Oe, Drive My Car

WHO SHOULD WIN: Jane Campion, The Power of the Dog


Nominees: Ariana DeBose, West Side Story; Aunjanue Ellis, King Richard; Jessie Buckley, The Lost Daughter; Judi Dench, Belfast; Kirsten Dunst, The Power of the Dog

This category is the one that pretty much is a foregone conclusion going into the Oscars final stretch.  It’s pretty much even odds that Ariana DeBose is going to collect her gold statuette for her star making performance as Anita in Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of West Side Story.  The story around this likely win itself is it’s own beautiful narrative.  DeBose went from a relatively minor performer from Broadway to landing this important role in a big Hollywood musical from one of the industry’s most revered directors, to possibly winning an Oscar for playing a character that also carried another actress to a win sixty years prior in the original, which was Rita Moreno, who also appears in the new film alongside DeBose.  That’s a true Hollywood story if I’ve ever heard one, and a win for DeBose is something I can’t argue against.  Out of this field, her performance is the most dynamic and attention grabbing.  She really is the highlight in an already stellar musical, and it’s even more impressive that she managed to shine so brightly even under the shadow of Rita Moreno’s legacy, without tarnishing the glow of what Moreno also brought to the role. It’s hard to see anyone else in this category even coming close to having a shot at the award.  I certainly feel the runner up is Kirsten Dunst for her performance in The Power of the Dog.  I’m biased of course, but Dunst delivered her best performance yet as the tortured wife and mother in Jane Campion’s Western.  Buckley also gives a brave performance in The Lost Daughter and Aunjanue Ellis is by far the best part of the fairly conventional King Richard.  And Judi Dench is of course Dame Judi, a legend as always.  But, there is always at least one category that features a clear favorite, and this year it’s DeBose, who quite rankly is deserving of that front-runner status.  If she doesn’t come away with this award, it’s the upset of the night.  Really interesting that this role in particular, Anita in West Side Story, has launched not one but two Oscar winning performances.  The extra special thing for Ms. DeBose is that she is going to have the legendary Mrs. Moreno there to bear witness to this great achievement as well, a real gift across the history of the Oscars.

WHO WILL WIN: Ariana DeBose, West Side Story

WHO SHOULD WIN: Ariana DeBose, West Side Story


Nominees:  Cirian Hinds, Belfast; J.K. Simmons, Being the Richardos; Jesse Plemons, The Power of the Dog; Kodi Smit-McPhee, The Power of the Dog; Troy Kotsur, CODA

Now we go to a category that’s a bit more competitive, though in recent days it seems to be less likely so.  When the race started many believed that this was going to be a race between veteran character actor Cirian Hinds for his touching portrayal of the grandfather in Belfast and Kodi Smit-McPhee for his multi-layered performance as a masculinity challenging youth in The Power of the Dog.  Smit-McPhee’s Golden Globe win, along with numerous critical honors, seemed to be running away with the race, until the sudden emergence of CODA’s late in the race surge.  Leading that momentum is deaf actor Troy Kotsur’s performance as the patriarch of a hearing challenged family, trying hard to connect with his daughter (the only one who can hear among them) as she is trying to live out her dreams on her own.  Kotsur has been a darling of the awards season since it started, managing to be affable while signing his acceptance speeches through his interpreters.  And he’s managed to collect quite a few awards thus far, including the all important SAG award, a very strong bellweather.  This late season momentum is enough I think to place Troy in the status of favorite in this race.  Of all of CODA’s potential wins, this one seems the most likely to happen, and it’s not an undeserving award either.  His performance is certainly the film’s highlight, and a win for him would certainly be historic as well; being the first deaf actor to win and the second performer overall (the first being his CODA co-star Marlee Matlin for Children of a Lesser God in 1986).  However, if it were my choice, I would still favor Kodi Smit-McPhee for his much more nuanced performance.  There’s so much weight in The Power of the Dog’s story that hinges on his role, and he’s a large reason why that movie resonates as well as it does, especially with the revelations towards the end.  So, Kotsur seems to have managed to pull ahead late in this race, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Smit-McPhee manages to close the gap as well and wins in a photo finish.

WHO WILL WIN:   Troy Kotsur, CODA

WHO SHOULD WIN:  Kodi Smit-McPhee, The Power of the Dog


Nominees: Jessica Chastain, The Eyes of Tammy Faye; Kristen Stewart, Spencer; Nicole Kidman, Being the Ricardos; Olivia Colman, The Lost Daughter; Penelope Cruz, Parallel Mothers

This could definitely be the category where me and the Academy part ways the most on.  Ever since I first saw the movie in theaters, I have been unequivocally Team Stewart for her incredible work as Princess Diana in the movie Spencer.  It’s my favorite performance of the year, across all categories.  I was just so thoroughly impressed with how she managed to take this iconic figure in world history and remove all the tabloid driven speculation about the person we all thought she was, and allowed us to see Diana as just a human being, with character traits and humanity that most of us had never even considered before about her.  Not only that, but she also perfectly captured Diana’s manuerisms and accent, to the point where she’s s comfortable in the character that you forget you’re watching a performance and are just observing a life.  Unfortunately, the awards season hasn’t been kind to Kristen Stewart.  She had been all but shut out previously in other awards shows, until she managed to land a surprise nomination here.  Given that she did manage an invitation to the big dance, it gives me hope that her presence here changes the whole dynamic of the race, including possibly taking the award home completely.  Sadly, her long absence in the other races may have boosted the chances of her competitors, though it’s a race that still remains pretty wide open.  Both Olivia Colman and Penelope Cruz have good chances with their critically acclaimed roles.  However, I feel like the Academy more likely will fall back on their tendency to honor performances where the actress transforms themselves into someone completely different.  You’d think that favors Stewart, but her transformation was much more subtle.  The favorites here are likely Jessica Chastain for her transformation into televangelist Tammy Faye and Nicole Kidman for her transformation into Lucille Ball.  I like both actresses, but these are not subtle performances from either, and are sadly overshadowed with some rather distracting make-up work.  Overall, I think Chastain has the slight edge because she has yet to win the award yet, but my hope is that Stewart has was it takes to pull off the upset, so that the true best performance wins.

WHO WILL WIN:  Jessica Chastain, The Eyes of Tammy Faye

WHO SHOULD WIN:  Kristen Stewart, Spencer


Nominees:  Andrew Garfield, Tick, Tick..Boom!; Benedict Cumberbatch, The Power of the Dog; Denzel Washington, The Tragedy of Macbeth; Javier Bardem, Being the Ricardos; Will Smith, King Richard

Here is another category that up to now is still pretty wide open.  One has to think that Will Smith is emerging as the front runner thanks to his wins at the SAG awards and the BAFTAs.  But, it might be less to do with his performance and more to do with him personally.  Will Smith is well regarded within the industry and of course is a A-list movie star in the eyes of fans across the world.  A lot of the momentum behind him seems to be derived from the belief that this is a career honor for him, and not so much a reflection of the quality of his performance.  Because, when you look at his work in King Richard, it really isn’t anything special.  It’s not a cringe, un-worthy performance by any means, but it’s also just a standard biopic style performance as well where Smith just puts upon a different voice and mannerisms, but never quite disappears into the character.   If you want to honor a big star like Will Smith, it should be for a role that better shows his range as an actor, like the Academy should have done with his work in Ali (2001).  By strange coincidence, Smith is also going up against the man he lost to the first time around, Denzel Washington, who this year took on the challenge of Shakespeare and to no one’s surprise absolutely conquered it in a great example of a major star expanding into a challenging role.  However, as much as I love both of those actors, my love for The Power of the Dog still breaks through.  I honestly feel that Benedict Cumberbatch gave the best performance by an actor this year.  His deeply complex character of Phil Burbank is one of those movie characters that I feel people are going to be discussing for years to come, like Daniel Day-Lewis’ Daniel Plainview from The Will Be Blood (2007).  And it’s a character that’s all about hiding behind a performance, which adds extra complexity onto Cumberbatch’s work, as he had to find this tragic element underneath this loathsome character that ultimately makes understand the  deep scars that inspire his cruel actions.  Cumberbatch, unfortunately has been largely shut out by the awards, despite being consistently nominated, as the momentum has been more consistent for the movie itself.  That’s why I feel like the Academy is more inclined this year to honor one of it’s shining stars in a win that is more reflective of a career rather than an individual piece of work.  And don’t get me wrong, I’ll be fine with the idea of Oscar winner Will Smith, but I feel like the performance that is going to withstand the test of time is the one that doesn’t win this year.

WHO WILL WIN:  Will Smith, King Richard

WHO SHOULD WIN:  Benedict Cumberbatch, The Power of the Dog


Nominees:  Jane Campion, The Power of the Dog; Kenneth Branagh, Belfast; Paul Thomas Anderson, Licorice Pizza; Ryusuke Hamaguchi, Drive My Car; Steven Spielberg, West Side Story

Here’s a category where I and the Academy are likely to be perfectly in sync on.  There is little doubt that Jane Campion is the heavy favorite here.  She has won all the bellwether awards leading up to the Oscars, and it will be a shock if she doesn’t come away a winner here.  It helps that the competitor who might have put up the biggest challenge to her, at least on a sense of cinematic scale point, isn’t even nominated; Denis Villeneuve for Dune.  If there was anyone who might challenge her for the award out of the nominees, it would be Steven Spielberg for West Side Story.  Spielberg certainly delivered a remarkably well crafted musical, something that indeed was a departure for him, and his nomination here makes for an incredible benchmark as he has now been nominated for the award in 6 different decades.  Interesting to note, Steven Spielberg’s first Oscar win for Schindler’s List (1993) had him in competition with Jane Campion, who was nominated for The Piano (1993).  Now, nearly 30 years later, these two veterans are competing again, but this year it’s Ms. Campion with the edge.  And it’s wholly deserving too.  She came back from a long absence to craft this remarkably nuanced and visually striking revisionist Western.  I’m still amazed how well she used her native New Zealand to create a sense of rural Montana, and make her movie feel expansive while at the same time intimate.  She also boldly manages tone in her movie, and delivers what I think is one of the greatest twist endings in recent memory.  Her win this year would also be a groundbreaking moment, as it will be the first time the Oscars has honored two women directors in consecutive years; last year’s award of course going to Chloe Zhao for Nomadland (2020).  There’s still a long way to go before there’s parody in the ratio of women directors that have won against the men, but, it will be great to see one of the pioneer women filmmakers finally get her due recognition.

WHO WILL WIN: Jane Campion, The Power of the Dog

WHO SHOULD WIN: Jane Campion, The Power of the Dog


Nominees:  Belfast; CODA; Don’t Look Up; Drive My Car; Dune; King Richard; Licorice Pizza; Nightmare Alley; The Power of the Dog; West Side Story

The Academy is back to nominating 10 films again, which is welcome after a number of years where the number has fluctuated and has led to some noteworthy exclusions that have angered many movie fans.  There’s some interesting stories at play in this awards season.  One is West Side Story emerging as another awards season favorite almost exactly 60 years to the day after the original film swept the awards in 1962.  However, I don’t see it repeating that same feat, except in the Supporting Actress category.  I also expect that Dune is likely going to come out of this year’s Oscars with the most overall awards, without winning Best Picture, thanks to it’s strong presence in the technical awards, which I’m sure it will win a majority of.  Some unlikely entries here like Nightmare Alley and Drive My Car are also pleasing to see, because it shows the Academy being more generous to films outside the typical Oscar bait types, such as genre flicks like Alley and the growing international market represented by Drive My Car.  However, the story going into the final stretch of Oscar season is the surprisingly competitive race between CODA and Power of the Dog.  No one could have foreseen the late surge of CODA in this race, given it’s recent pickups in the Guild awards.  One thing that might explain it is that it’s a feel good movie and that’s something that Hollywood is really cherishing right now after a rough couple of years.  However, the thing that works against it is that it doesn’t have many opportunities to rack up many awards throughout the ceremony.  It’s got good chances at Screenplay and Supporting Actor, but the lack of a nomination in most other categories keeps it from being a powerhouse, especially without a Directing nomination.  That’s where I see The Power of the Dog having the advantage, and I think that Jane Campion’s almost certain win will give the movie what it needs to cross that finish line.  I always get nervous when my favorite movie of the year ever has a shot at winning Best Picture, because it almost always leads me to disappointment.  Since the year 2000, my favorite movie of the year and Best Picture have only lined up 3 times (2003 – The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, 2006 – The Departed, and 2014 – Birdman).  Sometimes it even leads me to an especially frustrated year, when the masterpiece Roma lost out to the very overrated Green Book in 2018.  CODA is not a bad movie like Green Book, but I feel that it’s not in the same caliber of filmmaking as the more daring The Power of the Dog.  My hope is that the Academy will award the film that is more groundbreaking rather than the movie that made them feel better.

WHO WILL WIN:  The Power of the Dog

WHO SHOULD WIN:  The Power of the Dog

And now, let’s take a look at all of the remaining categories.  And yes, I believe that all of these should be present on television for everyone to see.

Best Cinematography: The Power of the DogBest Film Editing: Dune; Best Production Design: DuneBest Costume Design: CruellaBest Sound: DuneBest Make-up and Hairstyling: The Eyes of Tammy FayeBest Original Score: The Power of the DogBest Original Song: “Dos Oruguitas”, Encanto;  Best Visual Effects: DuneBest Documentary Feature: Summer of SoulBest Documentary Short:  Three Songs for BenazirBest Animated Feature: EncantoBest Animated Short: Robin RobinBest Live Action Short: Ala Kachuu – Take and RunBest International Feature: Drive My Car

So there you have my picks for the 2022 Academy Awards.  Keep in mind, I’m almost never perfect when it comes to picking the winners in all the races, because often personal bias gets in the way.  I have my favorites to be sure, but there are some years when the winners are so clearly set, and yet still not my favorites.  Even still, there are almost certainly going to be surprises throughout the night.  One thing that we learned from last year is that no one other than the accountants at Price Waterhouse knows what’s in those envelopes; not even the producers of the show.  We learned that the hard way as the Oscars producers from last year mistakenly moved the Best Actor category to the end of the show, believing that the night would end on the almost certain posthumous honor for Chadwick Boseman in what would’ve been a very emotional moment.  Instead, the name of Anthony Hopkins was announced instead, and he was a no show, with presenter Joaquin Phoenix put in the awkward position of closing the night out with accepting the award in his honor and then leaving the stage on that anti-climatic note.  Hopefully, the Academy learned their lesson from that, but at the same time, they are also making other mistakes to fix problems that don’t exist.  The exclusion of the technical categories is not the problem that audiences have with the Academy Awards; it’s that the Academy has become increasingly insular and has ignored many of the films that audiences more often favor.  Too often the Academy picks out films that fit within a certain type (the Oscar Bait movies if you will) and they exclude the films that actually have a lasting impact long after the awards are over, such as genre flicks.  There have thankfully been some films in recent years that have broken down that wall; 2019’s Parasite being a perfect example.  But I’m increasingly concerned that the Academy is more concerned with their ratings than they are with actually having the Awards mean something.  Cutting out the technical awards is an especially insulting move, because those awards are the ones won by the people who represent the average Hollywood crew member; the person that can inspire those watching the ceremony to believe that they too can rise through the ranks of the industry and collect their Oscar someday.  To take that out in favor of granting more screen time to the celebrity elite is a terrible message to send.  The Academy really needs to reconsider it’s priorities and maybe examine if network broadcast is not the best place for them to be.  Simulcasting would be a better option, so that those of us who want to see all the categories can do so online live before the primary broadcast begins, thereby still allowing the behind the scenes people to still get their time in the spotlight.  In any case, I hope that the Oscars are given out to those most deserving of the honor and that overall this represents a very happy return to the Oscars we all know and love, right there in the Heart of Hollywood.  And with that, let’s have a good Academy Awards and an exciting race towards the ceremony next year.

Tinseltown Throwdown – West Side Story 1961 vs. West Side Story 2021

There are few movie musicals that have managed to cross over from the stage to the screen without losing any of it’s artistry.  The two mediums couldn’t be more different.  For a stage musical, everything is laid out in front of you at once, and your eye is allowed to wander and catch all the details of character and staging put there under the curtain.  For a movie, your eye is always directed to what the film wants you to see.  On stage, everything is artificial and the art directors and actors work with the power of suggestion to create a sense of a greater world than what our eyes see before us.  In a movie, the world is real and tactile.  The musical genre can and has thrived in both mediums of entertainment, but rarely do you see a crossover hit.  Some stage musicals have been turned into terrible movies, and some movie musicals have turned into terrible stage productions.  There are however a few musicals that have managed to crossover and in some cases, be considered among the greatest musicals of all time, both on stage and screen.  One such musical that definitely fits this bill is the classic West Side Story.  First staged on Broadway in 1957, the musical West Side Story took the age old story of Romeo and Juliet and re-contextualized it into a gang war on the streets of contemporary New York City’s West Side.  The book was written by playwright Arthur Laurents and the music was written by concert virtuoso Leonard Bernstein, with lyrics to the songs written by a very young Stephen Sondheim (making his Broadway debut).  Though that line-up of talent was impressive enough, the chief creative force behind the stage musical was director and choreographer Jerome Robbins, whose unique style of dance became the defining element of the musical.  West Side Story’s Broadway debut was a watershed moment for the theatrical industry and it instantly became a highly influential show in the years that followed.  And naturally such a huge success on the Broadway stage is bound to get the attention of Hollywood.

A mere couple of years after it’s stage debut, West Side Story was picked up by United Artists for a screen adaptation.  As part of the deal to make the picture, Jerome Robbins was tasked with continuing on as Director, just so they could maintain the same artistic quality that was his distinctive style.  However, Robbins was inexperienced in the field of film direction, so United Artists decided to add a co-director to the film to take charge of the cinematic side of the production.  That man was Robert Wise, who only a couple years later would go on to solo direct another beloved musical for the silver screen; 1965’s The Sound of Music.  With Wise keeping everything looking good on camera and Robbins working tirelessly with the performers to master their complex dance moves, the production of West Side Story went well on it’s way.  The cast was made up of a lot of talent straight from the Broadway stage, but there were also some well known faces from Hollywood in there as well; for better and worse.  Rising star Richard Beymer was given the key role of Tony (the musical’s Romeo stand-in) and Russ Tamblyn, who had previously shown off his dancing skills in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) was cast as Riff, leader of the Jets gang.  Rita Moreno had been playing bit parts in Hollywood for the better part of a decade (often in demeaning ethnic roles) but now was being given a chance to play an authentic Puerto Rican role for the first time as Anita.  And then there was the choice of Natalie Wood in the Role of Maria (the Juliet of this story); a pick that was even controversial in it’s own time.  Despite that, West Side Story became a smash hit at the box office and went on to win a staggering 10 Academy Awards, second at the time only to Ben-Hur (1959) which had 11.  Over time, the musical has been a high water mark for movie musicals and was often seen as untouchable for several decades afterwards.  Who would even dare to attempt to make another version of West Side Story for the big screen?

“When you’re a Jet, you’re a Jet all the way.  From your first cigarette to your last dyin’ day.”

Steven Spielberg, that’s who.  Spielberg of course is a film director in a class all his own.  With a career now in it’s seventh decade, Spielberg had seemed to be a filmmaker with no more mountains left to climb.  But, in all that time, he had never once directed a musical.  There were musical moments in a number of his movies (the opening of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom comes to mind), but a full blown musical film was something that had always eluded him for years.  I’m sure for Spielberg, the choice for his first musical had to be a special one; one where his unique cinematic tastes would feel right at home.  So, it’s a little surprising that even though there have been plenty of un-adapted stage productions that he could have chosen from, as well as ideas for original movie musicals, he instead chose to take on a musical which had already conquered the screen before.  Not only that, but West Side Story is still to this day held up as one of not just the greatest musical movies of all time, but one of the greatest films period.  A few believed that even someone like Spielberg couldn’t make it happen; myself included (I mistakenly put it on my Movies to Skip list last year).  But, credit the master for finding a way to not only rise up to the challenge, but in some ways even surpassing the original.  Spielberg’s adaptation of West Side Story is a remarkably self assured movie musical for someone who has never worked in the genre before, and it makes you wonder why it took Stephen this long to actually getting around to it.  Despite being hampered by lower pandemic era box office (including a year long delay from it’s original premiere) 2021’s West Side Story has been a hit in the critical community, and like it’s predecessor, it has been an awards season favorite.  It may not match the original’s Best Picture win, but it’s still likely to come away with some gold.  What is interesting to note is that despite being from the same source material, the new West Side Story doesn’t feel at all like a remake, but rather like a revival; a new spin on a familiar story better contextualized for our modern day.  Comparing the two versions, it’s interesting to see how the same elements have been used differently to help make each film it’s own unique thing.

“Tonight, tonight, It all began tonight, I saw you and the world went away.”

One of the most striking differences between the movies is the use of it’s setting.  For the original, the 1961 version opened with a striking flyover of the island of Manhattan, and it’s concrete jungle of streets and skyscrapers.  It then brings us down to street level, where we see the rival gangs of the White Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks, introduced with rhythmic finger snapping to Bernstein’s score.  The incredible element of this opening is that it’s all on location in the real New York.  There’s nothing that feels more cinematic than watching dancers perform ballet like moves on the same streets and sidewalks that are no doubt littered with traffic on an average day.  However, after that opening scene, the rest of the movie goes indoors, with the remaining scenes shot on soundstages; feeling very akin to the artificial look of how it would appear on stage. Though the movie does lose that authenticity of the real world, it still does capture a sense of place through the rest of the film that gives the movie character.  The jungle like rows of clotheslines and fire escapes for instance take on this iconic look for the film.  Spielberg’s film on the other hand spends a bit more time outdoors, though not in any real place.  Spielberg’s West Side Story is a period piece, set in the same time as the original, but with a landscape of a New York City that no longer exists.  What is an especially welcome addition to this story is the backdrop of a real life transformation that occurred in the real West Side.  During the 1950’s and 60’s, the old West Side was being demolished building by building to make way for new luxury high rises and ironically, the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.  Both Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner added this element to the story to give a tragic context to underline an extra dilemma in the lives of these characters, as they are watching their neighborhood literally disappear.  Spielberg’s production team did a phenomenal job recreating this moment in history, with the West Side appearing like a bombed out city in a surreal and sad way.  Both films accomplish the best that they can in visualizing the musical for the screen, and in many ways are pretty equal in terms of visual splendor.

What’s also interesting in the production of both musicals is the way that they use the well known songs in different ways.  All the songs from the stage musical are in both films, but their placements are a bit different, and they offer different contexts to what’s being sung in those moments.  What I find interesting is the choice of song used after the pivotal Rumble scene.  The rumble, of course is the crucial moment where Riff is killed by the Sharks’ leader Bernardo (George Chakiris in 1961, David Alverez in 2021), the brother of Maria.  Bernardo is then killed by Tony in revenge, leaving two main characters tragically killed in that moment.  In the 1961 version, the song “Cool” is used to follow that scene, with the Jets trying to find a way to cope with the tragedy they just witnessed.  This song especially features some of the most distinctly Robbins-esque choreography of the whole movie and is a tour de force of staging for the screen.  In Spielberg’s version, the song “Cool” is performed before the Rumble by Tony (Ansel Elgort) as a warning to Riff (Michael Faist).  The song is much less powerful in that context, as it just serves to give Tony one more song in Spielberg’s version, and the dancing is not as impressive.  But, Spielberg makes a very interesting choice in moving Maria’s song “I Fell Pretty” into a post Rumble placement.  It adds a new tragic connotation to that song that isn’t in the 1961 version.  In that trade off, Spielberg actually improves on the number, by giving it more weight than it had before.  There is one musical number that thankfully shines in both versions; that being the iconic show-stopping number “America.”  But even there, both movies have their own unique spins on the song that make it work for their own movies.  In the original, Anita, Bernardo, and the remaining Jets all perform the song on a rooftop under a starry night sky.  In Spielberg’s version, it’s performed on the streets in bright, sunny daylight.  The original also hold the camera still for long takes that lets the viewer take in Jerome Robbins’ incredible choreography, while the newer one almost lets the camera dance along with the characters with some incredible flowing cinematography from DP Janusz Kaminski.  These are some interesting creative choices that both work in each movie’s favor, though some in more interesting ways than others.

“See the pretty girl in that mirror there?  Who can that attractive girl be?  Such a pretty face, such a pretty dress, such a pretty smile.  Such a pretty me!”

There is no doubt that the most crucial difference between the movies, and the one that definitely works in Spielberg’s favor is the casting.  West Side Story is a story about a clash of cultures, but up until now, we haven’t seen that idea actually depicted correctly on screen.  A sad commentary on the time it was made, but most of the Puerto Rican characters in the original West Side Story were played by White actors in brown face.  Even Rita Moreno, the only authentic Puerto Rican actor in the cast, was made to darken her fair skin for the role.  This has been a contentious point in retrospect for the film, and it sadly makes this well-meaning production about racial tolerance feel hypocritical by today’s eyes.  Despite this, the performances in the original are still strong.  Both Moreno and Greek-American George Chakiris won Oscars for their roles as Anita and Bernardo.  And despite being entirely wrong for the role to begin with, Natalie Wood still tries her best as Maria.  Thankfully when it came to casting the new version, Spielberg went out of his way to make sure that the Latino representation was accurate for his cast.  The biggest improvement of course was in finding a true Latina actress to play Maria, which they did with Columbian-American Rachel Zegler.  She has that same wide-eyed innocence found in Wood’s version, but without the cringe brown face make-up, and she is not dubbed this time like Natalie Wood was.  The rest of the cast also is made up of Broadway regulars, and the incredible Rita Moreno returns to play a different role at the age of 90; an incredible 60 years after her first run with the musical.  The new version does have a weak spot, however, and it’s sadly Ansel Elgort as Tony.  Off screen scandals aside, he’s not exactly giving a terrible performance in this movie.  It just becomes clear as you watch the film that he’s a movie actor in a cast full of Broadway stars.  he doesn’t ruin the movie as a whole, but you can also feel him dragging the film away from all-time status.  Still, the fact that Spielberg went out of his way to right a few cinematic wrongs when it came to representation in his movie, as well as doing some consulting with key members of the Puerto Rican and general Latino communities, is a commendable act, and something that this musical really need for the big screen.

If I were to say that there’s is something that the original still has over the newer version, it’s the level of choreography presented.  The dancing in Spielberg’s West Side Story is not bad by any means, and they are especially highlighted with Spielberg’s legendary oners that he always works into his movies.  But, they also feel like the standard balletic moves that you see performed in any standard stage musical.  The original West Side Story first and foremost reminds you that it’s a Jerome Robbins’ musical.  His style of choreography has it’s own unique character, and it’s on full display in the original.  Sure, he put his dancers through hell during the making of this movie, with some of them dancing until their heels were bleeding through their shoes.  But, all of that hard work is presented there on screen, and the dance numbers in the original are still unmatched all these years later.  I think that’s what helps to keep the movie with the lofty reputation that it still enjoys today.  It’s a musical with character that could only be achieved through the vision of it’s original creator.  Robbins brought this musical to life on the stage, so it’s only fitting that he managed to faithfully carry it over onto the silver screen.  With Robert Wise helping to give it that cinematic grandeur, allowing not an inch of that incredible 70mm frame to go to waste, 1961’s West Side Story is a musical all unto it’s own.  Just the way that the dancers contort their bodies in that stylized way is something that only Jerome Robbins could’ve imagined.  I credit Spielberg for not trying to even attempt to match that level of choreography, instead focusing on the interesting ways to shoot his dance scene; very much acting in a more Robert Wise sense.  Both versions are certainly stellar representation of staging incredible dance scenes for a musical; only one is clearly more standard while the other is a bit more Avant Garde.

“There’s a place for us, a time a place for us.  Hold my hand and we’re halfway there.  Hold my hand and I’ll take you there, somehow, some day, somewhere!”

You’ve definitely got to hand it to Spielberg.  He did the nearly unthinkable by trying to follow in the footsteps of a masterpiece and in turn created one of his own.  I especially respect how Spielberg managed to find his own voice in this iconic musical, and not try in any way to upstage the original.  It’s an adaptation that’s respectful of the original, but at the same time, asserts it’s own own perspective.  It’s especially superior in getting across the original message of the story, as Spielberg managed to have an actual culturally diverse cast on board.  The original still, however, I think stands just a little higher.  It might be just because it’s so familiar to us, being an iconic and influential film for so many years.  It’s also because there’s just so much character found in that original.  The Jerome Robbins’ choreography is often imitated, but never matched and West Side Story is no doubt his masterwork.  But, I would definitely say that from a cinematography standpoint, Spielberg’s film is far more dynamic an experience.  The way he soars a camera around a scene, like the incredible Dance in the Gymnasium, is just breathtaking.  Once again, it’s unbelievable that this is Spielberg’s first foray into movie musicals.  It’s like he’s been preparing for this opportunity his whole life.  He never once tries to copy a shot from the original, creating a version of West Side Story that’s all in his own voice, and that helps to make it escape the definition of a remake.  It’s Spielberg’s West Side Story while the original is Jerome Robbins’ West Side Story; two great artists giving us two unique perspectives on the same story.  It will be interesting to see how well Spielberg’s version holds up over the years.  Will it have the same kind of legacy as the original.  Too early to know, but one thing is for sure, and that’s the fact that Spielberg proved himself as a musical director.  Regardless of which version you chose, you will be treated to a musical for the ages.  And it’s remarkable that this one musical has managed to make it’s mark with not one, but two distinctive classics in it’s honored history.

“I like the island Manhattan.  Smoke on your pipe and put that in!”

Top Ten Moments from Pixar Animation… So Far

Nearly 40 years ago, a small little software start-up in Silicon Valley named Pixar began experimenting with graphic design using computers to create three dimensional imagery.  While they were not the first to use computers to create graphics, they were however the first to apply the technology to the art of animation.  Moving beyond just simple shapes and patterns, Pixar began to design images that could move and even have personality.  This was proven especially well in the 1986 short Luxo Jr., where they took a computer modeled digital puppet of a desk lamp (an ordinarily inanimate object) and made it not only come to life, but with personality as well.  Luxo Jr., that simple test run of Pixar’s animation capabilities has gone on to become the mascot of one of the most revered and groundbreaking studios in animation ever since.  With their award winning and acclaimed shorts gaining increasing attention in the field of animation, Pixar took on some high profile investors to help boost them even further, including big names like George Lucas and Steve Jobs.  Eventually, their ambitions rose leading them to take on the biggest challenge yet; to create a feature length computer animated film.  It’s not at all surprising that the ones who helped Pixar achieve that dream was Disney Animation.  Disney themselves had undertaken the same risks that Pixar did in it’s early days, and given that Disney has long been a forward thinking studio when it comes to emerging technology, it was particularly wise of them to bring Pixar into the fold before they would grow into a competitor.  While Disney has still maintained their own in house animation studio, they have still managed to let Pixar grow alongside it, seeing it become one of the most beloved brands in all of animation history.  In 1995, the two studios launched the groundbreaking film Toy Story, changing the face of animation forever, and today, Pixar reaches a major milestone with their 25th feature film.

Turning Red makes it’s debut this week on Disney+, an unfortunately limited release affected by Disney’s post pandemic strategy of releases.  It’s too bad that the occasion of Pixar’s 25th film is being platformed in a way that is not ideal for the best possible experience.  This is also the third film in a row from Pixar to be debuting on streaming instead of in theaters, after Soul (2020) and Luca (2021), which leads many to wonder if Disney is intentionally mistreating their Pixar brand in favor of their own, as both Raya and the Last Dragon (2021) and Encanto (2021) did get theatrical releases.  Some would argue that a streaming release is more beneficial in this day and age, but there’s still debate over that.  Unfortunately, for many who prefer the theatrical experience, they are being robbed of a choice and it seems like Pixar is being singled out as the fall guy here for Disney’s internal corporate shuffling.  But, enough of my soap box ranting.  It is indeed a huge milestone to make for Pixar animation, and it’s worth looking back on all the things that has made Pixar the beloved studio that it is today.  What really has defined Pixar the most over the years is their incredible mastery over story.  Each Pixar to be sure is visually daring and groundbreaking, but it’s the emotional connection that they make with audiences that has endeared them to multiple generations.  They have managed to make us laugh out load one minute and then be brought to tears in the next.  It’s not surprising that so much effort is put into the story development first before each of their movies goes into animation, because they know that story is the heartbeat of their brand.  And what they really excel at are creating what we know as a Pixar moment; one that tears at our hearts or warms it pure joy and sometimes awe.  Below, I have selected what I think are the most iconic and memorable moments from the first 25 films in the Pixar canon.  Only the main lineup of full length movies here, so no shorts or spin-offs.  And these aren’t particularly all the saddest moments or the funniest, but moments that I think helped to define Pixar as the kings and queens of animation that they are today.  So, without further ado, let’s look at the best moments from Pixar Animation…so far.



By the time that Monsters Inc. came around, Pixar had already established itself as a studio that excelled at world building.  They showed us the lives of toys that come to life when the humans are not watching in Toy Story (1995) and Toy Story 2 (1999), and they also showed us the world from the perspective of the insect world with A Bug’s Life (1998).  With Monsters Inc., they showed us an alternate world where monsters lived the same kind of lives as ordinary humans.  Up until then, this kind of world building was really unique in animation, utilizing an almost unprecedented amount of detail in the backgrounds to subtly suggest how the world of the monsters is both familiar and alien at the same time.  But, Pixar was not just satisfied in making their world of the monsters feel plausible and lived in.  They wanted to really show what they were capable of with the advances they had made in their medium.  One of the most interesting concepts they created in the film was the idea of trans-dimensional doors that allow the monsters to enter the world of humans.  These doors simply are modular door frames that can be carried of once it’s usefulness is complete, which then raised the question for the filmmakers; where do those doors go.  The answer was a cavernous vault with crisscrossing rails to transport the doors on an assembly line.  It’s here that the filmmakers also wisely chose to set the climax of their story, giving the movie an extra bit of epic grandeur.  As we see Mike and Sulley and lil’ Boo fly across this massive repository, it showed just how far Pixar had some in such a short time.  Here they were able to blow us a way with creating an environment on a scale unseen before with literally thousands of moving parts all being showed at once.  In addition, it also gives the climax of the movie a roller coaster style adrenaline rush as the characters fly from door to door, and even through the dimensions between.  It’s a finale that set the bar high and really took Pixar to a whole different level.



We go from one of Pixar’s grandest moments to one of it’s sillier, but no less memorable, moments.  Finding Nemo is a film built around a whirlwind of emotions, ranging from the tragic opening scene, to the harrowing escape from a swarm of jellyfish, to the hilarious attempts at escaping from a fish tank.  But, where most of the love for this film comes from is the brilliant comedic chemistry of it’s two leads; the neurotic clownfish father Marlin (voiced by Albert Brooks) and the absent-minded but good natured Dory (voiced by Ellen Degeneres).  Most of the film’s adventures are built around the situations that this unlikely pair finds themselves in, and the comedy is derived from their Abbott and Costello like banter.  While there are many hilarious moments to speak of, the movie hits a high point with the hilarious moment that Dory tries to demonstrate her ability to speak whale, which she may or may not really have.  While Ellen Degeneres’ vocal performance here is without a doubt hilarious, fearlessly diving into what whale speak might sound like with low pitch droning, it’s the fact that the movie gives the time to let this bit play out that makes it all the funnier.  Most animated movies would hesitate devoting such a lengthy amount of their runtime to something like the vaudeville routine here between Dory and Marlin, but the film’s director, Andrew Stanton, wisely lets his two veteran comics deliver in that moment and plays the hilarity out to the fullest, allowing it to get funnier the longer it goes on.  It also still fits as part of the progression of the story, because the scene also builds tension as a whale slowly approaches them from behind and ends up catching them in it’s expansive mouth; which we soon learn was to help them safely to their destination.  It’s a scene that really demonstrates Pixar’s confidence in storytelling, and knowing exactly to let a good funny scene breath to full life.



Now we go from one of Pixar’s funniest moments to one of it’s most heartbreaking.  Seems fitting that a movie where the main characters are the embodiments of our inner emotions would also be an emotional roller coaster itself.  Taking place mostly in the mind of a twelve year old girl named Riley, we follow her emotions as they take a journey through all of it’s inner workings in order to return to the central headquarters and set things back in motion after it’s all gone haywire.  The emotions taking that journey in particular are Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler) and Sadness (Phyllis Smith); polar opposites to be sure.  On their road, they run into Riley’s semi-forgotten imaginary friend named Bing Bong (voiced by Pixar regular and favorite Richard Kind).  Now Bing Bong is certainly a character meant to give the movie another comical foil to bring laughter to the audience.  What the movie manages to remarkably do is garner an emotional attachment to the character as well.  This becomes especially clear at a point in the story where both he and Joy fall into a part of the Riley’s mind where memories go to be forgotten forever, with no chance of escape.  Not only are they stuck there, but Bing Bong finds that he is slowly starting to fade being in that dark abyss as well.  The duo do manage to find an escape aboard a rocket powered red wagon, but they can’t both make it out together.  Seeing the stakes at play, Bing Bing bails out, allowing Joy to escape.  Because of this, Bing Bong is doomed to be forgotten and he fades from existence before our eyes, but not before advising Joy to take Riley “to the moon” for him.  In that moment right there, Pixar managed to do something that you’d never think possible; to shed a tear for a character named Bing Bong, an elephant trunked creature made of cotton candy that cries candy.  But that just shows how good Pixar is at making us care about the stories they tell and the characters they bring to life, no matter how silly they are.



Wall-E may very well be the most ambitious movie in the Pixar canon, at least conceptually.  Taking place in the far future where humanity has left the Earth behind as an unlivable trash heap, we are introduced to a lone trash collecting robot that has lived alone for centuries on the planet and over time has developed a personality of his own.  Once he meets a probe robot named Eve who has ventured to Earth in search of sustainable plant life (a sign that Earth’s toxicity is waning and capable of supporting human activity again) Wall-E begins an adventure that leads him out into the cosmos.  Along the way, he also develops a kinship with Eve, which blossoms into deep affection between the two.  This highly unusual but nevertheless endearing love story hits a high point after Wall-E finds himself floating in space, propelled by a fire extinguisher.  Eve, who is self-propelled, playfully follows beside him, and their gliding through space turns into an elegant dance around the massive spaceship.  Made even more romantic by the Thomas Newman score, this is one of the most elegantly beautiful sequences ever put in any animated film, let alone Pixar.  And it’s all the more remarkable because these are characters that are limited in expression and voice, and yet full of personality.  There’s an especially hilarious and heartwarming moment when Eve and Wall-E touch each other’s heads and a little spark slashes; the robot equivalent of a kiss.  Wall-E’s lucid reaction afterwards is especially endearing.  Who knew that simple robots could create one of the most romantic couples in animation history?  Couple this with outer worldly animation and you’ve got the makings of one of Pixar’s most elegantly sublime moments.



When Pixar brought in legendary animation director Brad Bird into their stable, they knew he would bring something bold and cutting edge to their next project.  The Iron Giant auteur took his long in development idea of a family of super heroes and crafted Pixar’s most groundbreaking film yet.  You can tell that Pixar took a great leap forward in terms of staging with The Incredibles; with the scale of action going much further than we’ve seen before in animation.  Bird stages his scenes like an action movie in the vein of a Mission: Impossible film (something that would also be in Brad Bird’s future), but with the boundless potential that computer animation can allow him.  This is especially shown off to it’s extreme in the sequence involving the super speedster Dash and his harrowing escape from the villain’s henchmen.  Dash, the 10 year old middle child of the super powered Parr family, has spent much of the film being held back by his concerned mother, who has kept him from running at his fullest speed in order to help conceal their identity.  But, as the family attempts to infiltrate the villain’s lair in order to save the father, Mr. Incredible, the limits are gone, and we finally see just how fast Dash can run.  The scene is an absolute tour de force of animation, with the medium reaching an epic scale unlike anything seen before.  And what is especially great is how Brad Bird builds the momentum of the action in the scene, really amping up the excitement for the viewer.  There’s also some great subtle character moments in there as well, like the look of joy on Dash’s face when he realizes he can run on water for the first time.  This is an especially good scene to show off as a tech demo for computer animation, because of all the moving parts involved.  And what is especially special about this scene was that it showed that computer animation could indeed be as dynamic as anything live action could make, and even more so.  For a movie that already had plenty of great action set pieces, this is one that really raised the bar high for what animation could do, and it still is a thrilling ride all these years later.



What other studio out there would dare to have the climax of their movie hinge on the preparation and eating of a meal in a fancy restaurant.  Once again from the mind of Brad Bird, the story of a rat named Remy (voiced by Patton Oswalt) who wants to become a gourmet chef in Paris naturally would end on an unconventional note.  But it’s a moment that so perfectly encapsulates the story that they want to tell.  Ratatouille is a story about artistic pursuit, and not letting one’s background be an obstacle towards creating authentic moments of genius.  For much of the movie, there has been this looming threat of a food critic named Anton Ego (voiced marvelously by the legendary Peter O’Toole), whose become this ruthless gatekeeper over the standard of quality dining in the city of Paris.  Impressing him seems like an almost insurmountable challenge, and it’s made even more harrowing when the cook in question is a rat.  But in a moment that is just pure brilliance, Remy the rat cooks up the titular dish, which his fellow cooks are uncertain about because Ratatouille is considered a peasant dish in French circles.  But, with a confidence in his abilities, he send the dish to Ego’s table.  Ego takes one bite and the movie suddenly flashes us back to Ego’s childhood, where we see his mother cheer him up by cooking the same meal.  It then brings us right back to present day with Ego looking gobsmacked.  It’s hilarious, but it also perfectly brings the movie full circle.  The dour critic has his guard taken down because he finally found a meal that reminds him of why he loves food in the first place.  It’s the way that Brad Bird reveals all this information in just a few quick seconds that makes this moment so resonant.  We’ve all had that moment that touched our souls and made us fall in love with something, and it’s hilarious to see it so sharply realized in a quick cut-away gag.  Only Pixar would end their movie on that kind of note, and it’s a testament to their capabilities as storytellers.



One of the other great talents of the story teams at Pixar is their ability to tell so much story within a brief amount of time, even in the span of one musical number.  This was especially well demonstrated in their third film; the sequel to their first feature Toy Story.  In Toy Story 2, the pull-sting cowboy doll Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks) meets for the first time other toys that were part of the same line of merchandise that he came from.  One of them is a perky, yodeling cowgirl named Jessie (voiced with great zeal by Joan Cusack).  While Jessie is full of life and spunk, we do see a lot of pain in her character as well, which we soon learn more about when she finally reveals to Woody where she came from.  The movie shifts to a backstory told entirely through song (written by Randy Newman, and performed by Sarah McLaughlin) where we see the events of Jessie’s life played out in montage.  We see her living a happy life as she’s played with by her owner; a little girl named Emily.  Eventually Emily grows up, and forgets about Jessie, who spends years alone under the bed, un-played with.  Then, when Emily is in adulthood she finds Jessie, and the little doll briefly finds happiness again, thinking that she’s been reunited with her beloved companion.  But, to her great disappointment, she soon learns that she’s being dropped off to a second hand donation box, abandoned by the one she thought would love her forever.  In one somber song sequence, Toy Story 2 gives us a harrowing tragic story that could’ve stood on it’s own.  It works brilliantly as a moment in this film because it echoes the anxieties that Woody himself was having in that moment, worried that his owner Andy would soon leave him behind too.  This moment is definitely a significant one in Pixar history because it’s arguably their first tear-jerking moment; something that they would go on to create many more of.  Of course, Pixar wouldn’t have had the confidence to continue making these emotional, heart-string tugging moments in their films had this one not landed so well in the first place.  Pixar certainly knows how to deliver a good cry in their movies, and it’s with Jessie’s emotional journey that we saw them earn that moment for the first time.


REMEMBER ME from COCO (2017)

Another moment that gave audiences a good cry in the theater, Pixar’s Coco hits it’s most emotional note at the climax of it’s story.  For most of it’s run time, Coco had been an imaginative romp through a world reflective of the traditions of the holiday Dia de Los Muertos, celebrated throughout the nation of Mexico and many other Latin American countries.  Through the brilliant imaginations of the artists at Pixar, we see the Land of the Dead as this vibrant society, where ancestral souls live on, embodied as colorful skeletal versions of their past selves.  We follow along with a young boy named Miguel (voiced by newcomer Anthony Gonzalez), who must find his way back to the living after having a curse placed on him.  Along the way, he meets a vagabond soul named Hector (voiced by Gael Garcia Bernal), and learns that if Hector doesn’t find a way to get his long lost daughter to remember him, he will fade from the land of the dead into oblivion, in what is called the Final Death.  Through a variety of circumstances, Miguel soon learns that Hector’s daughter is actually his great grandma Coco, who’s in the final stages of dementia.  Miguel, knowing full well how much it matters to make Coco remember, returns home with a renewed sense of setting things right in his family.  Up until this point, Miguel was acting in his own self interest in pursuing his dream to become a famous musician.  But in the film’s climax, he sings not for himself but for his Mama Coco, to bring her back from the abyss and in turn help keep his ancestor Hector from fading away completely.  It’s an emotional gut punch, especially for those with loved ones who have been lost to Alzheimer’s and dementia.  Seeing the life come back into Coco’s eyes when Miguel sings to her is such a powerful moment, with a song that is perfectly titled “Remember Me.”  Who knew a song sung between an old lady and a young boy would hit such an emotional wallop, but that’s what makes this one in Coco such great scene and one of the absolute high points of Pixar’s film legacy.



It wouldn’t be right to make a list of the greatest Pixar moments and not mention the movie that started it all.  When Toy Story first came out in theaters, there was little certainty that it could actually work.  At that time, hand drawn animation from the likes of Disney was dominating the marketplace, especially after the success of The Lion King (1994) just the year before.  Computer animation was still a novelty, and also pretty primitive.  Sure, Jurassic Park (1993) proved that you could make computer animation appear life-like, but an entirely animated world was something altogether unproven.  But like Walt Disney had done with Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937) all those years ago, the artists at Pixar set out to prove the naysayers wrong and to do so, they put all their focus on getting the story right first and foremost.  When you look back on Toy Story today, there are certainly things about it that really don’t date well, like the environmental textures and primitive human models that look very Barbie doll-like compared to what we have now.  But, what does still work very well is the amount of personality that was put into the animation of the main toy characters.  Woody and Buzz Lightyear still feel like fully fleshed out characters even by today’s standards, and while later Toy Story movies have refined the character models with better detail over the years, they still reflect the rock solid blueprint set by the original film.  If there really was anything that made Pixar the powerhouse that they are today, it’s that first glorious moment when we see the toys come to life for the first time.  It’s in that moment that Pixar announced itself to the world and showed that they could indeed make the impossible possible at their studio.  That’s something that has carried them along with each subsequent film thereafter; the belief that they can breath life into these pixels on a computer screen and make us care for them.  Like Disney before them, Pixar showed that their medium was just as cinematically relevant as any other, and it all it started with is making us believe that toys can come to life and that their stories could make us laugh and cry too.


MARRIED LIFE from UP (2009)

While Toy Story broke new ground and movies like Coco, Inside Out, and Toy Story 2 could bring us to tears, the most perfect display of everything that Pixar excels at encapsulated in one sequence is found in the movie Up; a simple story about an old man and his journey aboard a balloon suspended house.  The story of Carl Fredrickson (voiced by the late great Ed Asner) is an imaginative romp taking us to the skies and into the otherworldly wilds of the South American tepui mountaintops.  But, what most people remember the most about Up is not the adventure itself, but the story that leads up to the main events.  In the movie’s prologue, we see young Carl meet a spunky little girl named Ellie.  The two make a quick bond, and then the movie cuts ahead to their wedding day.  From there, Carl and Ellie’s adult lives are played out in a montage, set to the incredible Oscar-winning score of Michael Giacchino.  We are shown the married life of these two soulmates in a scant six minutes, and yet their story is in itself a full three act narrative with the same highs and lows of a full length feature.  We see the joy of starting a life together, the lows of learning of their infertility, the dreams of their hope to one day going on an adventure of a lifetime as well as the many speedbumps that prolong that dream.  It’s all perfectly displayed with not a single spoken word.  Director Pete Doctor includes some brilliant touches to help show the passage of time, like the many different times that Ellie adjusts Carl’s tie, that helps to make the montage flow gracefully along.  And then of course comes the gut punch when time catches up to the couple and Ellie’s life passes at the close of the montage.  In a brilliantly staged sequence like this, we see everything Pixar has perfected as cinematic storytellers, and remarkably this is how they chose to start the movie.  Thankfully the rest of the film doesn’t waste let down the high bar set by this emotional opening.  When you can tell a whole life’s story in a short little montage, and have the audience still feel invested and emotionally wrecked by the end, you know you’ve hit a very high standard as storytellers.  This scene alone is already studied in film schools as a demonstration of perfect brevity in storytelling and montage filmmaking.  And from the moment it first premiered, this became the high water mark that every emotionally resonant moment to come from Pixar has been judged against; some meet the challenge (Coco) others fall way short (Brave).  There’s no doubt that when Pixar can break your heart with a short story about a happy marriage from beginning to end in a montage shorter than the end credits, it’s a sign of them coming to the full peak of their cinematic possibilities.

So, there you have my choices for the greatest moments in Pixar’s first 25 feature films.  You’ll notice that the pattern of the list highlights Pixar’s uncanny ability to bring their audience to tears.  I don’t think that their plan is to upset their audiences.  The fact that most of us end up crying at their movies is because they are just so good at making us care about their characters and their stories; and some of the best stories out there often involve a little bit of heartbreak.  That’s definitely true of the moments from Up, Inside Out, Toy Story 2 and a few more that I didn’t include on this list.  But there’s also the triumphant moments that hit us very hard as well.  Ratatouille’s triumphant breaking down of Ego’s cynical shell for example, or Woody and Buzz falling from the sky with “style,” in Toy Story, or even just a sweet little button to end the movie on like Sully reuniting with Boo at the end of Monsters Inc.  What I especially like about Pixar is that they don’t pander to their audience; and when they do, it’s often from their worst films (the Cars franchise).  I like how their stories are always challenging their audience to think, and they often leave us guessing how things will turn up in the end.  That’s why so few of their films are binary, good vs. evil narratives.  Somethings the obstacle that stands in the characters way are their own flaws, which they overcome through their journey.  Marlin learns to not be so over-protective in Finding Nemo; Lightning McQueen learns that you can be the better man by not winning the race in Cars (2006); Joy learns that sometimes you need a good cry in order to feel happy again in Inside Out.  Pixar has mastered the ability to tell complex stories in a way that doesn’t talk down to it’s audience, no matter what age they are.  That’s why they have become the vanguard of animation over the last four decades, and will likely continue to be in the years ahead.  My hope is that their parent company Disney learns that these movies should be shared on the big screen alongside their presence on streaming.  These are films that become even more magical when experienced with a whole audience of people.  As shown here, they are some of the greatest storytellers in cinema today, and here’s hoping the next 25 movies stand just as strong as the first.

The Batman – Review

Of all the super heroes that have graced the silver screen, I don’t think one has ever been portrayed in as many multiple ways as Batman.  Revived, reimagined and remade as often as Hamlet or Robin Hood on the big screen, it seems like every generation will likely see a brand new Caped Crusader pop up.  And surprisingly, we as a culture have warmed up to seeing multiple versions of this same character over time.  Batman to this day remains a potent draw at the box office, and has so since his big screen debut in Tim Burton’s gothic Batman (1989).  Even before that, the character had always been in the public eye as one of the most prolific comic book characters.  Created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger, Batman was an instant hit with comic book readers all throughout the Golden Age.  In later years, he also went through many changes that help to shape him into the brooding hero that we know today.  One such revival written by Frank Miller helped to set a darker tone for the character, which then heavily influenced the movies that have followed.  The Miller aesthetic (dark tones and themes) have been the defining characteristic of most Batman movies; much more so than any other superhero.  The two Burton films can definitely be defined as fitting that definition, albeit with Burton’s trademark carnival-esque style.  The Bruckheimer films that followed added a fair amount of camp on top of what Burton has built.  And then came the Christopher Nolan Dark Knight trilogy, which not only brought the dark tone back to Batman, but they also grounded the story in a realistic world.  Then we got the appearances from Batman in the Zack Snyder-verse DCEU movies, which were probably dark and brooding to a fault.  Now, yet again we are seeing another version of Batman brought to the big screen; one that rings with a familiar tone that we associate with the character.

Bringing in Matt Reeves (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) to direct this new version, the Batman franchise seems to be adopting the grounded world-building of the Nolan trilogy, but with more of the Miller aesthetic applied.  And following in the long line of actors who have donned the cape and cowl, Robert Pattinson has taken up the mantle, playing a decidedly younger version of Batman than we’ve seen before.  As stated by Reeves in interviews, this Batman and Bruce Wayne is inspired by the grunge persona of Kurt Cobain; whose music also features in the soundtrack of the movie.  This movie specifically is taking it’s inspiration from the Batman graphic novel called Batman: Year One (1988), which was also written by Frank Miller.  That run of comic stories details the beginnings of Batman as a super hero, showing Bruce Wayne building the persona that he would take on, as well as taking on his first cases.  In a way, this is something new for the character on the silver screen, as we’ve never seen the early years of Batman portrayed before; at least the parts when he’s still a little green on the job.  The Nolan film Batman Begins (2005) did show back story for Batman, but it was really about Batman’s very start, and not the full year into the job that he had experienced on a day by day level.  That seems to be the aim of Reeves’ new Batman; showing the Batman at work and what that would be like without the larger world implications.  In addition, this is being seen as a brand new re-launch for the character after the setback of loosing the previous actor (Ben Affleck) in the role, after he stated heavy dissatisfaction following the making of the Justice League (2017).  Unfortunately, the production of this movie couldn’t have been going on at a worse time, with the Covid pandemic forcing it to shut down for months; including another set back when Pattinson himself has to quarantine after catching Covid himself.  But, nearly a year after it was supposed to hit theaters originally, The Batman (2022) is finally here.  The only remaining riddle is, can the movie stand on it’s own given the legacy behind it.

The Batman takes place in a crime ridden Gotham City that is on the eve of a hotly contested mayoral election.  The city’s present mayor is found dead in his mansion, and the Gotham Police are immediately called to investigate.  Detective Jim Gordon (Jeffrey Wright) is brought onto the scene and with him, a masked vigilante that calls himself Vengeance, though everyone else dubs him the Batman (Robert Pattinson).  While investigating the crime scene, they uncover a message left behind by the suspect; a card addressed to Batman with a riddle written inside of it.  Batman returns to his hidden Batcave underneath Wayne Manor where he works with his close associate and butler Alfred Pennyworth (Andy Serkis) to decipher the ominous message.  Alfred also warns Bruce Wayne (aka Batman) that he is drifting further away from a normal, happy life by becoming withdrawn from the public; all of whom are wondering what has happened to him since his parents tragic murder.  Some of the clues lead Batman and Jim Gordon to revelations about the mayor, including a mystery girl who works at a night club called the Iceberg Lounge.  There, Batman approaches the proprietor of the Iceberg Lounge, a well-known gangster named Os, aka the Penguin (Colin Farrell) and tries to get more information from him.  However, he finds another lead with another girl at the night club who might know who the girl is.  He soon learns that this new girl is Selina Kyle (Zoe Kravitz), a skilled cat burglar looking to shake down the Penguin’s outfit for herself.  Through information he receives from Selina, he learns of an even more secretive club where the Gotham elite are spending their nights indulging their more salacious tastes.  And as Batman soon learns, this group of elites are ending up on a hit list of the same murder suspect that he is tracking down; the Riddler (Paul Dano).  Soon The Riddler begins to stage even more dramatic acts of terror on the city’s elites which is gripping all of Gotham in a state of fear.  And all the while, Batman digs deeper into the mystery which he soon finds may involve secret revelations about his own past that challenges everything he though he knew.

It’s definitely safe to say that this is one of the most ambitious Batman movies that we’ve seen to date; which is saying a lot.  Running at a staggering 2 hours and 55 minutes, it’s by far the longest Batman movie to date and only a hair shy of the longest Comic Book movie ever (Avengers: Endgame at 3 hours and 1 minute).  And it’s surprising that Matt Reeves doesn’t waste any time either.  After very brief opening title cards, the movie starts right into the thick of the story.  One of the most pleasing aspects of the movie is that it spares us from having to re-watch Batman’s tragic origins again; Thomas and Martha Wayne’s tragic murder is thankfully just mentioned here and never shown.  We are instead placed in a story-line that feels pulled right out of the comics; with Batman already being a fixture in Gotham City, but not one that has been fully realized to his full potential yet.  There is a pleasing sense of Reeves treating his Batman as a real world figure, and finding a way to make it believable that the people of the city could put their trust in this masked vigilante.  There is a lot to like with this movie; it’s sense of purpose, the grounded but bold aesthetic, spirited performances, and some amazingly well staged action scenes.  So, why did I walk away from this movie slightly underwhelmed.  To be clear, I still liked the movie quite a bit, but I feel like it just lacked something to make it an all-time great.  For one thing, it doesn’t come close to matching the clockwork brilliance of Christopher Nolan’s trilogy, and I would also say the operatic nature of Burton’s 1989 original also trumps it a bit.  So, why did I end up feeling just a bit empty by the film.  I think my nit pick is that the movie is brilliant in individual scenes, but those scenes don’t completely come together to make a brilliant whole.  Matt Reeves certainly makes nearly three hours breeze by with excellent pacing, but I feel like some scenes just come off as passable in between the ones that really soar to greatness.  And that’s where I found myself in that feeling of this movie meeting it’s mark, but not much else.

One thing that does help the experience is if you’re familiar with the films of David Fincher (especially his earlier work).  The movie is especially evocative of the film Se7en (1995), and to a lesser extant Zodiac (2007).  The Batman definitely taps into the grimy aesthetic of Fincher’s criminal underworld from those movies.  Reeves’ Gotham City is certainly one where danger is lurking around every corner, and where it seems like the sun never shines.  In that regard, it probably is the closest we’ve seen yet to a movie that captures the kind of world that Frank Miller imagined for his Batman.  It’s also in line with most of the Batman comics that have been printed over the last couple of decades.  But what is pleasing about this movie in general is the way that it demystifies the Batman as an icon.  Here for the first time, we are seeing Batman as what he was from his very beginning; a detective.  This working man aspect of the character is the thing that feels the most refreshingly new about this film, and it’s honestly surprising that it took this long to actually bring that aspect of the character to the silver screen.  Here is where we see the Fincher influence really shine, as the movie definitely has many echoes of Se7en, with the Riddler coming across as a mix of John Doe and the Zodiac Killer from Zodiac.  The detective solving the case moments are definitely where the movie hits it’s high notes, along with some stand out action set pieces.  But, when the movie hits the more melodrama moments, it starts to hit a speed-bump.  There is a subplot involving Selina Kyle that didn’t quite lift up the movie like the rest did, and it’s where I feel like the movie could’ve used some trimming, or at least a bit more agency on the part of her character and how she relates to Batman’s dilemma.  You also have to deal with long patches of time when your villain (or villains if you count Penguin) don’t appear on screen.  Nothing really feels like it drags, nor undercuts the story itself.  It’s just that when put altogether like it is, the movie lacks cohesion.

But, when it hits a high note, it really lands and then some.  I can definitely say that even though the movie left me wanting in many areas, there were moments in there that had me grinning ear to ear like the Joker.  One such moment is definitely one that involves this iteration’s version of the Batmobile.  Now, the Batmobile in this film is not as flashy as ones previously found in other Batman movies; it’s basically a muscle car with a jet propulsion attached to the trunk.  But the way it’s used in the movie is absolutely breathtaking.  What I especially appreciated about that scene in the movie is that it relied primarily on real practical stunt work; much like what you would see in a John Wick movie.  That reliance on real stunts and effects helps to make the action scenes feel more dynamic and tangible.  It’s also enhanced by an incredible sound mix as well.  When the Batmobile’s engine roars in the movie, the woofer bass shook the entire theater that I was in and probably rattled a few rib cages of the audience members too.  And that help to make the scene which is your average car chase feel all the more grander.  I also want to point out the musical score by Michael Giacchino.  Here he’s following in the mighty footsteps of giants like Danny Elfman and Hans Zimmer, and having to find that new sound for a Batman theme that we haven’t heard before.  Not only did he rise to the challenge, but he may have come up with a score that’s equally as iconic as the ones from his predecessors.  This musical score, especially the main theme itself, takes the film to sometimes operatic heights, and really helps to underline the grandness of this film.  I also have to note the excellent visual style of the movie.  Matt Reeves brings this gritty texture to his movie, but unlike his predecessor Zack Snyder, he breaks out some bold color choices every now and then to break the grim, dark tone of the movie.  This includes some scenes set against golden sunsets, or cast in the neon glow of a trendy nightclub.  There are many visually daring choices in the movie, but Reeves thankfully keeps it all in balance and in service of the story he’s telling.

What also helps is that the cast of characters also feel authentically a part of this world as well.  This is a very lived in world, full of beaten down characters with stories of their own that could fill a whole movie.  The performances are all pretty much universally strong, though I think the movie sometimes falls short of allowing each of them to reach their full potential.  Robert Pattinson for instance is doing some interesting stuff here as Batman; creating what may be the most insular and guarded version of Batman we’ve seen to date.  It’s interesting watching a movie and see a version of Bruce Wayne that is still insecure and unsure of himself sometimes.  However, for most of the movie, the film makes Batman so reserved within a scene that he at times feels kind of stiff.  I’d say that 20% of Pattinson’s performance is just him glaring at something with a stern look on his face.  Still, while he’s in the batsuit he does look the part, and manages to hold his own compared to other Batmen.  The performance from Paul Dano as The Riddler may be a mixed bag for other people.  Some may find it brilliant while others may think it’s too over the top.  I thought it was fine and worked for the character as is.  It’s definitely a departure from previous versions of the character, and works pretty well in this kind of movie.  But, if you’re expecting something on the level of say Heath Ledger’s Joker, you might be a bit disappointed.  Zoe Kravitz brings an interesting vulnerable side to the character of Selina Kyle (aka Catwoman), making her more than just the femme fatale character we’ve seen before.  Jeffrey Wright also brings his usual strong presence into the role of Jim Gordon.  But, if I were to point out my favorite performance, it would be Colin Farrell’s Penguin.  Farrell completely disappears into this character and steals pretty much every moment he’s in, managing to be both genuinely menacing and laughably goofy at the same time.  Given that these are all characters we’ve seen before on film, it’s definitely a challenge to make them feel genuinely fresh again as characters, and The Batman manages to renew these age old characters in interesting ways.

So, even though I have my reservations about aspects of the movie, it’s still one that I recommend seeing in a theater.  It’s a big screen spectacle that should definitely not be passed up, and even with the near three hour run time, it won’t feel like a chore to get through.  i did like the movie, but the bar for me is very high with regards to Batman movies, and I feel that this one comes up just short of the best we’ve seen.  There is without a doubt a lot to admire about the movie; the fact that it finally shows us Batman doing detective work, the A-grade action sequences that certainly rank among the best that we’ve seen with the character, as well as interesting new interpretations of these iconic characters.  Robert Pattinson in particular makes a perfectly serviceable new Dark Knight, and I imagine that DC and Warner Brothers have many future franchise plans based around his version of the character.  One of my hopes is that this film leads to better things in the sequels, and it’s definitely still a strong launch pad for a franchise to be built off of.  We of course know what and who may be coming up in the series going forward, but hopefully Matt Reeves and company continue to take their opportunities to subvert expectations and do new interesting things with these familiar stories and characters.  For right now, I’d say check it out for those few scenes that must be experienced in a theater with an audience, like the aforementioned Batmobile scene.  But, also keep in mind that it may not be the kind of Batman movie you were expecting and that this could leave you feeling disappointed.  I’m honestly interested to see what the long term reception for this film will end up being like, because it definitely feels like one of those movies that may end dividing audiences; hopefully not in a way that turns toxic like other franchises have experienced.  I generally view it positively, but I can understand criticism for this movie as well as it is not perfect.  Still, it’s nice to see some interesting risks being taken with a character with this long of a legacy, and my hope is that it helps to continue the massive winning record of Batman at the box office.  Batman is back, and thankfully still stands tall in the pantheon of the greatest comic book heroes of all time.

Rating: 7.5/10