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2019 Q1 Movie Report

April 1, 2019

I was on paternity leave all of March, and the two months prior to that, I was spending a lot of time on planes. As a result, I had my best movie-watching quarter since senior year in college. Here’s the full list, with le creme on top and le poop on bottom.

The Top 10

Whiplash: This movie is phenomenal. A 2014 flick about a jazz drummer at the top music school in the country, it’s really about the desire to be something great. The acting is superb, particularly J.K. Simmons, who won the best supporting actor Oscar for his role as the hard-nosed teacher. The direction by Damien Chazelle (LA LA Land, First Man) is fantastic as well.  Most people might skip this because a movie about a jazz school doesn’t sound interesting, but this movie will appeal to people who have no interest in music too.

Apollo 11: In July of 1969, when NASA delivered on JFK’s 1963 challenge to land a person on the moon by the end of the decade, a documentary crew was there to capture the event for a planned theater-released film. The film never happened. But the footage—beautiful 72mm film of the technicians, the astronauts, the crowds and the atmosphere around the launch—was preserved, unreleased. Here it is cut together in a remarkable documentary. No narration. No cutaways to interviews or news footage. Reviews of this film are superlative and seem hyperbolic, but the movie totally pays it off. It’s stunning. I took my four-year-old and she loved it. I got chills at several parts. Definitely worth seeing on the big screen.

Free Solo: This was my favorite film from last year, and it was just as insane on second watching on the small screen. It’s a doc about Alex Honnald, a professional climber, attempting to free solo (climb without ropes) El Capitan, the famous 3,000-foot-tall granite face in Yosemite valley. It’s as much about the making of the film and the impact of the insane quest on his loved ones.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs: I’ve seen this two and a half times. A set of six short westerns from the Coen Brothers, this was one of my favorite films from last year. It took some criticism for its nihilistic outlook, but it’s vintage Coen. Even on multiple watchings, I was finding new things to love.

Sicario: One of the best action films in recent years. A multiple-time re-watch for me. The trifecta of Benicio del Toro, Josh Brolin and Emily Blunt balance this searing action film about the unseen war at the U.S.-Mexico border. Denis Villeneuve directs with cinematography by Roger Deakins = a film with the highest craft. I’m currently reading Taylor Sheridan’s original screenplay. Interesting to see the changes made as it went through production.

Lost in Translation: Bill Murray is funny, even when he’s playing it straight. This Sophia Coppola movie about a big-name American actor displaced in Tokyo is one of my all-time favorites. I’ve probably seen it 10 times and it never gets old.

Birdman: Won the Best Picture Oscar in 2015 (beating out Whiplash). Michael Keaton plays a movie star famous for his portrayal of an Iron Man/Batman-like superhero in a successful movie franchise, now trying to earn some artistic cred with an ambitious Broadway adaptation of a Raymond Carver story. The acting is fantastic across the board, and the story is a unique mix of dark comedy and magical realism.   

First Man: An excellent movie about the people behind the first moon landing. Ryan Gosling plays Neil Armstrong. Intense, emotional, exciting, human. Very well produced, all-around. Directed by Damien Chazelle (Whiplash). Pairs well with Apollo 11.

Leave No Trace: A really good under-the-radar movie from last year, based on the novel My Abandonment. It’s about a father and daughter who living off the grid. A quiet, thoughtful movie.

Green Book: The acting is great. It’s well-produced. It’s definitely worth a watch. Should it have won Best Picture? I haven’t seen all the others, so it’s hard to say. But this is a sanitized, pretty quaint take on race in America. The directing is sometimes heavy-handed, and the conversations remain pretty superficial. Still, worth watching for storytelling and characters.

Also Good

Wind River: A murder mystery on an Indian Reservation brings out the FBI (Elizabeth Olson) and a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Tracker (Jeremy Renner). The inhospitable landscape and tight community are the perfect setting for a tense mystery. Written by Taylor Sheridan (Sicario, Hell or High Water), the distribution of this film got caught up in the Weinstein scandal, but it’s well worth the watch.

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Enemy: I’m watching films of French-Canadian director, Denis Villeneuve (Sicario, Arrival). This is an adaptation of Portuguese writer José Saramago’s Kafka-esque novel The Double. Jake Gyllenhaal plays a college professor who discovers that he has a doppelganger. He meets his identical match, and (as the title implies) things don’t go that well.

Prisoners: A super-intense kidnapping thriller by Denis Villeneuve, starring Hugh Jackman, as the father of one of two missing children, and Jake Gyllenhaal, as the detective on the case. Reminiscent of Seven and Zodiac. Only a couple heavy-handed missteps scuff what is overall a great thriller.

Blakkklansman: Spike Lee hits about one in three for me. His more understated films—Inside Man, 25th Hour and Summer of Sam—are great. A lot of his other films try too hard. This one teeters right on the edge. Really well done, but walks a tightrope with the over-the-top performance of John David Washington, who plays a real-life African-American cop who infiltrated the KKK.

Bridge of Spies: This 2015 Steven Spielberg spy movie was really interesting to watch. Set during the Cold War, Tom Hanks plays a lawyer who is hired to represent a captured Soviet spy, but he is eventually pulled into the role of negotiator for two American captives as well—a pilot captured by the U.S.S.R. and a student detained in East Germany. Well-produced, well-written, well-acted, with just one forgivable misstep (a completely absurd and unnecessary action scene). This is based on a true story.

Beirut: Jon Hamm is a negotiator pulled back into Beirut after a tragic exit years ago. A terrorist group has taken a hostage and requested him as their intermediary. A suspenseful espionage movie if one is willing to suspend disbelief a couple times.

Dunkirk: Christopher Nolan’s WWII flick about the evacuation of Allied troops from Dunkirk. A pretty remarkable story and great production value, but WWII films are a crowded field, and it’s hard to top Band of Brothers.

Captain Fantastic: This movie is strikingly similar to Leave No Trace—a father (Viggo Mortenson) lives with his family off the grid in the Pacific Northwest. A little more heavy-handed than Leave No Trace, but thought-provoking and entertaining nonetheless.

The Drop: Based on a short Dennis Lehane novel, this tight film stars Tom Hardy and James Gandolfini (Gandolfini’s last film). Both actors bring plenty of gravitas, and the whole film oozes menace and bad intentions. Fans of The Wire will like this suspenseful crime novel-turned-film.

Incendies: Another intense film from director Denis Villeneuve. At the request of their deceased mother, a brother and sister conduct a search for their estranged father and brother in a war-torn Middle Eastern country. Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nominee, 2011. In French with subtitles.

Source Code: A mind-bender from director Duncan Jones (his Moon is excellent). Jake Gyllenhaal plays a U.S. Army captain injured in Afghanistan, now inserted into an experimental machine that allows him to experience the last 8 minutes of someone else’s life. In an action version of Groundhog Day, he must repeatedly relive the same sequence of a terrorist attack until he can figure it out.

The Meyerowitz Stories: Noah Bombach (The Squid and the Whale) delivers another of what he does best: neurotic New Yorkers who feel like they’ve dropped out of a Salinger novel. Here, Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller play the sons of Dustin Hoffman, an aging, jaded sculptor. Ridiculous people who provide some good laughs.

The Lobster: A bizarre movie about a hotel where people to go to find a mate. If they fail to hook up in a designated period of time, they are turned into the animal of their choice. A commentary on our strange dating rituals.

Southpaw: Jake Gyllenhaal plays a boxer on the skids. The boxing isn’t totally convincing, but better than most boxing films. Acting is solid, and overall entertaining. Unfortunately, the only real surprise happens in the first act—after that the film is pretty predictable.

Watchmen: Zac Snyder’s ultra-slick take on the ultra-dark superhero comic. I prefer this kind of movie—that turns the superhero genre on its head—to the more predictable fare of most superhero flicks. The director’s cut, at over three hours, luxuriates in the moodiness.

Molly’s Game: Based on the true story of Molly Bloom, who ran an illegal high-stakes poker game for big names in Hollywood, business, music and crime. Aaron Sorkin wrote and directed, and Jessica Chastain plays a convincing genius. Solid.

Hostiles: Christian Bale plays a veteran of the American-Indian Wars who is ordered to escort an aging Cheyenne war chief from New Mexico to Montana. A riveting Western with a dark heart.

A Couple Classics

Bladerunner: Ridley Scott’s 1982 sci-fi classic was ahead of its time. Set in a grim, futuristic 2019, this story of artificial intelligence gone wrong holds up in every regard. I’d somehow never seen it. A slow, brooding pace, worth the watch.

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Stripes: Still holds up. The first half of the movie is one of the best comedies ever. Second half loses some steam, but the Murray-Ramis combo is comedic gold, with some John Candy thrown in for good measure.

 

Some Heisters

Logan Lucky: A funny, well-produced heist movie. A gang of goobers plot a robbery of a NASCAR track. Lovable cast, well-played comedy, in the capable hands of director Steven Soderbergh.

The Crew (Braqueurs): An intense French heist film. After pulling off an armored car robbery to perfection, a crew of thieves draws unwanted admiration from a crime boss who wants them to do a job for him. Solid action, solid characters, an impressively tight run-time of only 81 min. In French with subtitles.

Den of Thieves: An intense, well-produced heist movie. Not shy about leaning into all the conventions of the genre. If you like Heat, worth checking out.

The Place Beyond the Pines: A three-part cops and robbers flick that nearly buckles under its own ambition. It’s held up by strong performances by Ryan Gosling (a motorcycle stunt man turned bank robber) and Bradley Cooper (the cop). This was my second viewing, and I appreciated the big swing more this time.

Family Movie Nights

Every Friday night, someone picks a movie for us to all watch together. Picks rotate week to week.

Despicable Me 3: My favorite part of this fourth Minions movie is the throw-back soundtrack. Generally goofy and entertaining.

Monsters, Inc.: A classic. Playful idea, so well executed. One of Pixar’s best.

Frozen: 95th viewing. Doesn’t get better each time. Seriously, I don’t get the appeal of this one. The plot is odd with no flow. The weird little snowman is the best part, with the music a distant second.

Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs: In the final sequence, a monkey with a thought-speaking device is on the wing of a plane fighting off a gang of deranged gummy bears. This kind of consistent weirdness, paired with the good message of the movie, got this movie thumbs ups from the whole family.

Ferdinand: The girls loved this one. Didn’t operate on two levels (some adult jokes thrown in) like the best Pixar movies, but has some fun action sequences.

Probably Skip These

The Sisters Brothers: This is a bummer to say, because I loved the book. The movie has great acting and production value, but the slow, meandering story is perhaps better suited to a novel. Tonally, it also felt unsure. Maybe just a book that doesn’t translate well into a movie.

The Dirt: This is a biopic of Mötley Crüe, based on the legendary book by Neil Strauss (legendary if you care about 80s hair metal bands). It’s a borderline b-movie, but entertaining if you care about the Crüe.

Connor McGregor: Notorious: Not a huge fan of his. Enjoyed the training sequences and behind-the-scenes footage, but completely uneven. As it builds to the most interesting parts of the story—the fights with Nate Diaz and Floyd Mayweather, it devolves into a series of highlight clips.

Triple Frontier: Netflix, experimenting with the formula, released this in theaters almost simultaneously with their on-platform release. Which is all fine, but it didn’t make for a better product. Ben Affleck, Oscar Isaacson and Charlie Hunnam (Sons of Anarchy) play Special Ops vets who come back together to pull off a heist of a drug lord in the jungle of South America. As you can imagine, things don’t go as planned. Unfortunately, too much time is spent on the first act—Isaacson’s character rounding up his crew—and not enough on the third act, post-heist. Not terrible, but fairly predictable—even the “big twist.”

Avengers: I’ve heard Infinity War is good, so I wanted to watch the first couple Avengers movies first. Mildly entertaining, but I literally scrubbed through 20 minutes of the 40-minute final battle. I can only take so much flying around and energy fields and big explosions. Made me miss some of the super hero movies that wrap up with a simple one-on-one fight scene.

The Boondock Saints: A pointless, violence-drenched vigilante movie with nothing beyond style (and the style isn’t great). Possibly forgivable if it had been made 10 years earlier than it was, before Tarantino and Guy Ritchie came along. But it was made in 1999, which makes it just another derivative Tarantino wannabe. I don’t remember who recommended this to me.

Miami Vice: This is the only partial watch on the list. I like Michael Mann (director), so I’m a bit mystified with what happened to this gritty take on the 80’s TV show. The script is bland, the actors bring no appeal (please stop casting Colin Farrell as a lead), and the story is rushed. I watched half, then stopped for the night. The next day, I realized I had zero interest in finishing it.

 

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