The Best Movies of 1998

1998 logo

Now it’s time to go to take a look back at the movies of 1998, the same year when California started the ban on smoking in bars and restaurants. What else happened that year? John Glenn became the oldest astronaut to go into space, and it gave us a reason to watch the space shuttle launch on television for the first time in years. The Denver Broncos became the first AFC team in 14 years to win the Super Bowl when they beat the Green Bay Packers (I’m so glad I didn’t bet on that game). The whole controversy of President Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky exploded, which the President’s enemies seized upon like teenagers going through their dads’ Playboy magazine issues while he is out of town. And, most ironically, a court in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan ruled Osama Bin Laden was “a man without a sin” in regard to the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. Well, we knew better.

As for myself, I was in my second year at UC Irvine and my fourth year in college. I still had a dorm room all to myself, and I was busy with school work and appearing in plays like “Enrico IV,” “The Scarlet Letter” and “Twelfth Night.” Of course, I tried to get out to the movies as much as humanly possible. Many of the movies on this list were ones I actually didn’t get around to seeing until years later, so it’s probably best I am giving you this list now.

10) There’s Something About Mary

Theres Something About Mary poster

Bobby and Peter Farrelly gave us one of the most gut bustlingly hilarious movies ever made with “There’s Something About Mary.” I was dying with laughter while watching this, and I wasn’t expecting to. In retrospect, I should have though since this came from the same directors who gave us “Dumb and Dumber” as well as “Kingpin.” On top of having so many funny moments, the movie also has a lot of heart in the way it portrays the two main characters played by Ben Stiller and Cameron Diaz. Those of you who think Diaz can’t act need to revisit this one because she is so good at playing a teenager who we later see as a well-meaning adult with a few too many stalkers.

9) American History X

American History X poster

So much has been said about the making of “American History X” and the bitter disagreements between director Danny Kaye and actor Edward Norton. Regardless of whoever deserves the majority of the credit, there is no denying this is a powerful and unforgettable motion picture. Norton gave one of his very best performances as white supremacist Derek Vineyard, and the look he gives the camera after killing two people is a very chilling moment which is not easily erased from the conscious mind. Norton also gets great support from Edward Furlong who plays Danny, Derek’s brother, who threatens to tread down the same hateful path Derek has. Kaye, even if he didn’t get final cut, gives the movie an amazing look in black and white which captures the escalating tension of Derek’s journey from a world of hate to a place of compassion.

8) Dark City

Dark City movie poster

Alex Proyas followed up his brilliant adaptation of “The Crow” with this visionary sci-fi epic about a man who wakes up not knowing who he is, and of those who seek to capture him for their own twisted experiments. Like many great sci-fi movies “Dark City” was a box office flop upon its release, but it has since found an audience to where there’s no denying it is a cult classic. You’re along for the ride with Rufus Sewell as he tries to understand his place in a world ruled over by the Strangers. This movie remains suspenseful to the very end, and the look of the movie feels like no other I have ever seen. Jennifer Connelly also stars in the film and looks beautiful as always, and it is interesting to watch Kiefer Sutherland play a complete wimp after watching him for so long on “24.”

7) Out Of Sight

Out of Sight movie poster

Here’s the film which brought Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney together, and it also serves as one of the very best adaptations of an Elmore Leonard novel. With “Out of Sight,” Clooney proved without a doubt there was going to be life for him after “ER” with his performance as Jack Foley, the most successful bank robber in America. When Jack escapes from jail, he ends up sharing some trunk space with Federal Marshall Karen Sisco (Jennifer Lopez). “Out of Sight” also marked the beginning of a career resurgence for Soderbergh, and he got to work from a truly great screenplay written by Scott Frank. Also starring is the fantastic Catherine Keener, Ving Rhames, Steve Zahn, Dennis Farina, Isaiah Washington, and the always reliable Don Cheadle. This movie was a lot of fun, and Clooney and Lopez had such great chemistry together.

6) Rushmore

Rushmore movie poster

This was my introduction to the highly creative world of Wes Anderson. “Rushmore” is an instant comedy classic with more depth to it than many others of its genre at the time. Max Fischer is an original eccentric character; a young man involved in just about ever extra-curricular activity at school, all at the expense of his report card. Jason Schwartzman is great fun to watch as Max, and Bill Murray gives a performance which damn well should have earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. With Anderson, his comedy is fueled by the sadness and isolation of his characters, and of the things they desperately want in life. “Rushmore” is filled with as much meaning as it does laughter as both Schwartzman and Murray battle over the same woman played by Olivia Williams. It also owes a lot to the late Mike Nichols’ enduring classic “The Graduate.”

5) Happiness

Happiness movie poster

Todd Solondz’s follow up to “Welcome To The Dollhouse” may very well be the most ironically titled film in cinema history. Controversy followed “Happiness” all the way to its release, and the MPAA of course just had to give it an NC-17 (it ended up being released unrated). One of the blackest of black comedies ever, it follows the lives of three sisters and the various people who are a part of their fragile lives. The late Philip Seymour Hoffman gives a frighteningly memorable performance as an obscene phone caller, and it was one of the first real examples of the brilliant character actor we came to see him as. But the bravest performance comes from Dylan Baker who plays Bill Maplewood, a psychiatrist, husband and loving father who, unbeknownst to his family, is a pedophile. Baker ends up making you empathize, but not sympathize, with a man who we would instantly despise once we discovered his terrible secret. As unappealing as these characters may seem, Solondz makes us see ourselves in them and to where we cannot see we are not all that different.

4) The Big Lebowski

The Big Lebowski movie poster

I didn’t get to see this when it first came out in theaters, but my parents did eventually strap me down in a chair to watch it, and this should give you an idea of how much they love it. The Coen brothers follow up to “Fargo” did not get the same reception when originally released, but it has since built up an amazing cult following. Much of this is thanks to Jeff Bridges’ brilliant performance as Jeffrey Lebowski, aka “The Dude.” What could have been a performance built on stereotypes of the slackers we know in life turns out to be perhaps the most memorable character in Bridges’ long and underappreciated career. It’s an ingenious comedy with not so much a plot as a connected series of events which start with the theft of Lebowski’s carpet which he says “tied the whole room together.”

3) The Truman Show

The Truman Show movie poster

It still seems criminal how Peter Weir’s film was surprisingly, and infuriatingly, snubbed for a Best Picture nomination. Jim Carrey gives a truly astonishing and powerful performance as Truman Burbank, a man who slowly becomes aware he is the star of a reality show about his life. Yes, he should have been nominated for an Oscar alongside his co-star Ed Harris, but there will always be the unforgivable snubs. “The Truman Show” has become a prophetic movie of sorts as reality shows are the norm in today’s culture, and this obsession we have over them remains very strong to this day. Andrew Niccol’s screenplay was a brilliant examination of how we might view our own life if we found out it was based on a lie, and that everything we know is actually wrong. This stands as one of Weir’s best American movies in a long and justly acclaimed career.

2) Shakespeare In Love

Shakespeare in Love movie poster

While it may have gotten overwhelmed by Miramax’s Oscar campaign, there’s no denying “Shakespeare In Love” is a brilliant and highly entertaining romantic comedy. The film tells the story of how Shakespeare goes about writing “Romeo & Ethel The Pirate’s Daughter” which eventually evolves into “Romeo & Juliet.” Gwyneth Paltrow gives a most entrancing performance, and I loved watching her every second she appeared onscreen. Joseph Fiennes is perfectly cast as Shakespeare himself, a passionate writer who is hopelessly enamored with Paltrow’s Viola. I also got a huge kick out of Geoffrey Rush’s performance as theater manager Philip Henslowe, a brilliant comic creation who steals every scene he is in. “Shakespeare In Love” serves as not just a great story of how Shakespeare may have written one of the most immortal plays ever, but also as a great satire of the film industry and how it deviously profits from unsuspecting participants.

And now, drum roll please…

1) Saving Private Ryan

Saving Private Ryan movie poster

It would be so easy to put this as my top choice thanks to some of the greatest and most vividly realistic depictions of war ever put on film. Steven Spielberg’s depiction of the landing on D-Day is nothing short of amazing, and it was one of the reasons why I saw this film five times before it came out on DVD. But moreover, it is a deeply respectful salute to those war veterans who served in the armed forces during World War II. “Saving Private Ryan” is filled with great performances from a great cast of actors including Edward Burns, Jeremy Davies, Giovanni Ribisi, Tom Sizemore, Adam Goldberg, Vin Diesel, Matt Damon, and Barry Pepper among others. But it also has one of Tom Hanks’ best performances ever as Captain John Miller, a military man who leads his men to find Private Ryan and bring him back home to his grieving mother. Just when you thought Spielberg had peaked with “Schindler’s List,” he gives us yet another astonishing piece of filmmaking which shows him at the height of his powers.

Honorable Mentions:

Primary Colors – Great Mike Nichols movie based on the book by Joe Klein. It features great performances from John Travolta, Emma Thompson, Kathy Bates as well as an extraordinary cameo from Mykelti Williamson.

Bullworth – Warren Beatty’s scathing political satire may be a bit too broad, but it is a very effective indictment of how the Democratic Party let the American people down.

Elizabeth – Definitely worth mentioning for the brilliant breakthrough performance of Cate Blanchett as Queen Elizabeth.

Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas – Terry Gilliam’s adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s crazy novel is a true acid trip nightmare with Johnny Depp channeling the reporter all the way to what he was famous for wearing and smoking.

God Said, Ha! – Wonderful concert film of Julia Sweeney’s one-woman show which deals with the time her brother got cancer, and of how she later got cancer herself.

Hurlyburly – Film adaptation of David Rabe’s play dealing with Hollywood players and their dysfunctional relationships with one another. Features a great cast which includes Sean Penn, Chazz Palminteri and Anna Paquin among others.

Affliction – Another emotionally bruising movie from Paul Schrader which is based on the novel by Russell Banks. Features career high performances from Nick Nolte and the late James Coburn who deservedly won an Oscar for his work.

Next Stop Wonderland – An eccentrically unusual kind of romantic comedy which helped introduce actress Hope Davis to a wider audience.

Ronin – One of the last films from the late John Frankenheimer which stars Robert De Niro, Jean Reno, and Jonathan Pryce among others. It also features some of the very best car chases of the 1990’s.

Run Lola Run – Kinetic German thriller with Franka Potente that views her attempts to save her boyfriend’s life in three different ways. This was a great teaser for what would come in 1999, when movies of different kinds proceeded to change the rules of where a story could go.

The Thin Red Line – Terrence Malick’s first movie in over 20 years threatened to be more meandering than anything else, but it is filled with such powerful imagery and to where many considered it more anti-war than “Saving Private Ryan” was.

John Carpenter’s Vampires – It was advertised as a horror movie, but it is really a more of a western and the closest John Carpenter has ever come to making one. James Woods’ performance alone is worth the price of admission as he plays the most badass of vampire hunters, Jack Crow.

Star Trek: Insurrection – Much better than its reputation may suggest, being an odd numbered Star Trek movie and all.

 

 

‘Doubt’ Examines The Crippling Power of Uncertainty

Doubt movie poster

Doubt” follows the goings on at the St. Nicholas Catholic school in the Bronx of New York back in 1964. Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep) becomes concerned Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) may have developed an unhealthy relationship with the school’s sole black student, Donald Muller (Joseph Foster). This is brought to her attention when Sister James (Amy Adams) notices Donald acting strangely after he has been in the private company of Father Flynn, and Sister James also mentions she smelled alcohol on Donald’s breath. Sister Aloysius becomes convinced of Father Flynn’s guilt even though she has no real proof, but he denies any wrongdoing on his part. From there, it becomes a battle between Aloysius and Flynn which involves not just the accusations, but the state of the school and its students as well.

The fascinating thing about “Doubt” is how its story is simple in its construction, but the characters and the situations they get caught up in prove to be very complex. As the fight goes on between Aloysius and Flynn, you begin to wonder if the conflict doesn’t involve any specific student as it does the direction things are going as the threat of change often frightens people into defending what they believe to be their domain. Sister Aloysius represents the old guard and of the way things have always been. Father Flynn, on the other hand, represents the change many are quick to resist. When he suggests to Aloysius that they need to be nicer to the students, she takes it as an insult.

To watch Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman face off with each other is to watch a master class in acting. God only knows how hard these parts were for them to play. But the fact these two were among the best actors working back in 2008, you come into this movie knowing they are more than up to the challenge. It’s not just the delivery of Shanley’s dialogue they have to work at; it’s also what they show the audience through their eyes. The eyes are the window to the soul, and I’m sure that these two actors have thought their roles out through and through to where they never have to spell anything out to the audience, and it makes their journey all the more enthralling as we can never be absolutely certain of the thing they have and have not done.

Streep has given us an endless number of great performances in which she created characters so memorable which can never be easily erased from our conscious minds once we have seen her onscreen. Sister Aloysius Beauvier is another character she can rack up with her most memorable work, and the character’s introduction is brilliant as we see know from the back of her head who she is as she gets the young children to pay full attention to Father Flynn’s sermon. Without even seeing her face right away, Streep quickly makes an impact as a strong and frightening authority figure to the students and the nuns under her tutelage. Her performance will quickly bring back memories of the awful teachers you were forced to learn under to where you realize the psychological scars are still very raw. She’s the kind of teacher where everything she says is right, and the students are wrong. I hated teachers like that! Hated them!

Hoffman, as always, is brilliant here and matches Streep from one scene to the next. We keep waiting to see if there will be a slip where all will be revealed, but Hoffman keeps his cards close to his chest. Flynn’s explanations for the private meeting between him and Donald are not implausible, but Aloysius remains unconvinced. Hoffman is great at showing how the simple feeling of doubt can easily destroy a person to where guilt and innocence doesn’t matter. Flynn’s fight to prove his innocence threatens to bring out the worst in him, and he continues to sink deeper into a hole he is desperately trying to climb out of.

Along for this morally complex ride is Amy Adams who plays Sister James, and her character is essentially stuck in the middle between these Aloysius and Flynn. Watching Adams here made me wonder if there was another actress who could the same empathy and kindness which she gives off here, and no one quickly comes to mind. Adams shows the love Sister James has for her job as a history teacher ever so perfectly, and she also shows the desperation her character exudes in her search of absolutely certainty. Sister James is the first to suspect Father Flynn is up to no good when she sees him put an undershirt worn by Donald in his locker, but she knows this proves nothing. At times, Sister James seems rather naïve when it comes to how people act around each other, but she proves to be the most morally grounded of the three main characters as she never loses her sense of right and wrong.

There is also a fantastic performance from Viola Davis who plays Mrs. Miller, Donald’s mother. She shares a tense scene with Streep as they discuss their individual suspicions which proves to be one of “Doubt’s” most unforgettable moments. Mrs. Miller likes how Father Flynn has been so nice to her son because she admits her husband beats him severely when he misbehaves. When Sister Aloysius confides her suspicions to Mrs. Miller, it doesn’t change the level of worry for her son’s welfare as it is already extremely high. Instead, she fears more about what Donald’s father will do to him if the allegations against Father Flynn prove to be true. With only ten to twenty minutes of screen time, Viola does a brilliant job of making you feel her character’s heartbreaking dilemma, and of how she has been with left little choice over how to resolve this potentially unhealthy situation she is just now being made aware of. It’s one thing for an actor to show what their character is going through, but it is quite another for them to make you feel what they are experiencing.

With “Doubt,” Shanley brilliantly shows how the state of doubt affects everyone equally. No character comes out of this story the same, and we are left with a deep uncertainty which cannot be easily dismissed while walking out of the theater. Everyone is harmed deeply here, and it binds them as strongly as it tears them apart. You have to feel for those caught in its ugly wake because they end up having to live with something they did not necessarily bring on themselves. It’s a brilliant play which has been made into a great movie filled with outstanding performances, and of this I have no doubt.

* * * * out of * * * *

The Best Movies of 2008

2008 Year in Review

2008 was a year more memorable for those who died as opposed to the movies which were released. We lost Heath Ledger, Brad Renfro, George Carlin, and Paul Newman among many others, and their individual deaths spread through the news like an uncontrollable wildfire. Their passing left a big mark on us all. When we look back at this year, I think people will remember where they were upon learning of their deaths more than anything else. Many of us will remember where we were when we got the news that Ledger died, but they will not remember how much money they wasted on “Righteous Kill,” the second movie featuring Al Pacino and Robert De Niro sharing the screen at the same time.

2008 did pale in comparison to 2007 which saw a wealth of great movies released. Many said this was a horrible year for movies as high expectations ruined some of the big summer tent pole franchises, and that there were too many remakes being made. The way I see it, 2008 had a lot of really good movies, but not a lot of great ones. There was a big drought of good ones worth seeing at one point in this year, and I started to wonder if I would have enough of them to create a top ten list. If it were not for all those Oscar hopefuls released towards the year’s end, I am certain I would have come up short.

So, let us commence with this fine list, if I do say so myself, of the ten best movies of 2008:

  1. The Reader/Revolutionary Road

I had to put these two together for various reasons. Of course, the most obvious being Kate Winslet starred in both movies and was brilliant and devastating in her separate roles. Also, these were movies with stories about relationships laden with secrets, unbearable pressures, and deeply wounded feelings. Both were devoid of happy endings and of stories which were designed to be neatly wrapped up. Each one also dealt with the passing of time and how it destroys the characters’ hopes and dreams.

The Reader” looked at the secret relationship between Winslet’s character and a young man, and of the repercussions from it which end up lasting a lifetime. There is so much they want to say to one another but can’t, as it will doom them to punishments they cannot bear to endure.

Speaking of escape, it is what the characters in “Revolutionary Road” end up yearning for, and the movie is brilliant in how it shows us characters who think they know what they want but have no realistic way of getting it. Each movie deals with characters who are trapped in situations they want to be free from but can never be, and of feelings just beneath the surface but never verbalized until too late.

Both Stephen Daldry and Sam Mendes direct their films with great confidence, and they don’t just get great performances from their entire cast, but they also capture the look and setting of the era their stories take place in perfectly. All the elements come together so strongly to where we are completely drawn in to the emotional state of each film, and we cannot leave either of them without being totally shaken at what we just witnessed.

 

Doubt movie poster

  1. Doubt

Looking back, I wondered if I was actually reviewing the play more than I was John Patrick Shanley’s movie of his Pulitzer Prize winning work. But the fact is Shanley brilliantly captures the mood and feel of the time this movie takes place in, and it contains one great performance after another. Meryl Streep personifies the teacher you hated so much in elementary school, Philip Seymour Hoffman perfectly captures the friendly priest we want to trust but are not sure we can, and Amy Adams illustrates the anxiety and confusion of the one person caught in the middle of everything. Don’t forget Viola Davis who, in less than 20 minutes, gives a galvanizing performance as a woman more worried about what her husband will do to their child more than the possibility of her child being molested by a priest who has been so kind to him. Long after its Broadway debut, “Doubt” still proves to be one of the most thought provoking plays ever, and it lost none of its power in its adaptation to the silver screen.

 

Vicky Cristina Barcelona movie poster

  1. Vicky Cristina Barcelona

This is the best Woody Allen movie I have seen in a LONG time. Woody’s meditation on the ways of love could have gone over subjects he has long since pondered over to an exhausting extent, but this is not the case here. “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” is a lovely and wonderfully character driven piece filled with many great performances, the best being Penelope Cruz’s as Javier Bardem’s ex-wife. Cruz is a firecracker every time she appears on screen, and she gives one of the most unpredictable performances I have seen in a while. Just when I was ready to write Allen off completely, he comes back to surprise me with something funny, lovely and deeply moving.

One day, I will be as sexy as Javier Bardem. Just you wait!

 

Slumdog Millionaire poster

  1. Slumdog Millionaire

Danny Boyle, one of the most versatile film directors working today, gave us a most exhilarating movie which dealt with lives rooted in crime, poverty and desperation, and yet he made it all so uplifting. It is a love story like many we have seen before, but this one is done with such freshness and vitality to where I felt like I was seeing something new and utterly original. Boyle also reminds us of how “Who Wants to Be A Millionaire” was so exciting before ABC pimped it out excessively on their prime-time schedule. “Slumdog Millionaire” was pure excitement from beginning to end, and it was a movie with a lot of heart.

 

 

10290A_UNI_FNX_DOM1sh_Spread_R4

  1. Frost/Nixon

Ron Howard turns in one of the best directorial efforts of his career with this adaptation of Peter Morgan’s acclaimed stage play, “Frost/Nixon,” which dealt with the infamous interview between former President Richard Nixon and TV personality David Frost. Despite us all knowing the outcome of this interview, Howard still sustains a genuine tension between these two personalities, one being larger than life. Howard also has the fortune of working with the same two actors from the original stage production, Frank Langella and Michael Sheen. Langella’s performance is utterly riveting in how he gets to the heart of Nixon without descending into some form of mimicry or impersonation. You may think a movie dealing with two people having an interview would be anything but exciting, but when Langella and Sheen are staring each other down, they both give us one of the most exciting moments to be found in any film in 2008. Just as he did with “Apollo 13,” Howard amazes you in how he can make something so familiar seem so incredibly exciting and intense.

 

Rachel Getting Married movie poster

  1. Rachel Getting Married

Jonathan Demme’s “Rachel Getting Married” had a huge effect on me with its raw emotion, and I loved how he made us feel like we were in the same room with all these characters. When the movie ended, it felt like we had shared some time with great friends, and Demme, from a screenplay written by Jenny Lumet, gives us a wealth of characters who are anything but typical clichés. Anne Hathaway is a revelation here as Kym, the problem child of the family who is taking a break from rehab to attend her sister’s wedding. Kym is not the easiest person to like or trust, but Hathaway makes us completely empathize with her as she tries to move on from a tragic past which has long since defined her in the eyes of everyone. Great performances also come from Bill Irwin who is so wonderful as Kym’s father, Rosemarie DeWitt, and the seldom seen Debra Winger who shares a very intense scene with Hathaway towards the movie’s end. I really liked this one a lot, and it almost moved me to tears.

 

untitled

  1. The Wrestler

Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler” has grown on me so much since I saw it. While it may be best known as the movie in which Mickey Rourke gave one hell of a comeback performance, this movie works brilliantly on so many levels. To limit its success to just Rourke’s performance would not be fair to what Aronofsky has accomplished as he surrounds all the characters in the bleakness of the urban environment they are stuck in, and he makes you feel their endless struggles to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table. “The Wrestler” succeeds because Aronofsky’s vision in making it was so precise and focused, and he never sugarcoats the realities of its desperate characters. Rourke more than deserved the Oscar for Best Actor, which in the end went to Sean Penn for “Milk.” Furthermore, the movie has great performances from Marisa Tomei and Evan Rachel Wood as those closest to Rourke’s character, and who look past his faded fame to see the wounded man underneath. The more I look at “The Wrestler,” the more amazed and thrilled I am by it.

 

Let The Right One In movie poster

  1. Let the Right One In

Tomas Alfredson’s film of a friendship between a lonely boy and a vampire was so absorbing on an atmospheric level, and it surprised me to no end. What looks like an average horror movie turns out to actually be a sweet love story with a good deal of blood in it. Widely described as the “anti-Twilight,” “Let the Right One In” gives a strong sense of freshness to the vampire genre which back in the early 2000’s was overflowing with too many movies. The performances given by Kåre Hedebrant as Oskar and Lina Leandersson as Eli are pitch perfect, and despite the circumstances surrounding their improbable relationship, I found myself not wanting to see them separated from one another.

 

Wall E poster

  1. Wall-E

Pixar does it once again and makes another cinematic masterpiece which puts so many other movies to shame. With “Wall-E,” director Andrew Stanton took some big risks by leaving a good portion of the movie free of dialogue, and this allowed us to take in the amazing visuals of planet Earth which has long since become completely inhospitable. Plus, it is also one of the best romantic movies to come out of Hollywood in ages. The relationship between Wall-E and his iPod-like crush Eve is so much fun to watch, and the two of them coming together gives the movie a strong sense of feeling which really draws us into the story. The fact these two are machines quickly becomes irrelevant, especially when you compare them to the humans they meet in a spaceship who have long since become imprisoned by their laziness and gluttony.

I gave the DVD of this movie to my mom as a Christmas present, and she said you could do an entire thesis on it. Nothing could be truer as it is such a brilliant achievement which dazzles us not just on a visual level, but also with its story which is the basis from which all Pixar movies originate. “Wall-E” is the kind of movie I want to see more often, a film which appeals equally to kids and adults as this is not always what Hollywood is quick to put out.

 

The Dark Knight poster

  1. The Dark Knight

The biggest movie of 2008 was also its best. I was blown away with not just what Christopher Nolan accomplished, but of what he got away with in a big budget Hollywood blockbuster. “The Dark Knight” is not just an action movie, but a tragedy on such an epic scale. Many call it the “Empire Strikes Back” of the Batman series, and this is a very apt description. Many will point to this movie’s amazing success as the result of the untimely death of Heath Ledger whose performance as the Joker all but blows away what Jack Nicholson accomplished in Tim Burton’s “Batman,” but the sheer brilliance of the movie is not limited to the late actor’s insanely brilliant work. Each performance in the movie is excellent, and Christian Bale now effectively owns the role of the Caped Crusader in a way no one has before.

Aaron Eckhart also gives a great performance as Harvey “Two-Face” Dent, one which threatened to be the most underrated of 2008. The “white knight” becomes such a tragic figure of revenge, and we come to pity him more than we despise him. The movie is also aided greatly by the always reliable Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman. Everyone does excellent work here, and there is not a single weak performance to be found.

Whereas the other “Batman” movies, the Joel Schumacher ones in particular, were stories about the good guys against the bad guys, “The Dark Knight” is a fascinating look at how the line between right and wrong can be easily blurred. Harvey’s line of how you either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain perfectly personifies the dilemmas for every character here. To capture the Joker, Bruce Wayne may end up becoming the very thing he is fighting against. I can’t think of many other summer blockbusters which would ask such questions or be as dark. “The Dark Knight” took a lot of risks, and it more than deserved its huge success. It set the bar very high for future comic book movies, and they will need all the luck they can get to top this one.

A Most Wanted Man

A Most Wanted Man movie poster

I have not read any John le Carre novels as of yet, but I have seen many movies based on them. Whether it’s “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” (be it the miniseries or the film), “The Constant Gardner,” “The Tailor of Panama” or “The Russia House,” all of Carré’s stories deal with people who have seen it all and have long since been burned out by the possibility of changing the way people exist in the world. Since he was once an employee of the British intelligence agency MI6, Carré’s books generally deal with spies who are not like the ones we remember from James Bond or Jason Bourne movies. Instead, these are spies who inhabit a morally duplicitous world they have to struggle in even as it tears away at who they once were. They claim to be doing this work for the sake of peace, but after a while, you begin to wonder how much they believe this as they soon look like they are kidding themselves.

A Most Wanted Man” is the latest Carré cinematic adaptation, and it is a perfect example of the kind of spies he has become famous for writing about. This film has also taken on an added importance as it features the very last lead performance from the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman who plays Günter Bachmann, the weariest looking spy who has ever walked the face of the earth. Only Hoffman could have inhabited such a worn-out character and make him so endlessly fascinating as Günter goes through this movie looking like he barely has a pulse.

This movie starts off with a note saying the German port city of Hamburg is where Mohammed Atta and his collaborators planned the September 11th attacks. The fact Atta was able to plan the attacks without being caught beforehand was due to failures in intelligence among other things and, as a result, the intelligence operatives continue to work as hard as they can to make sure this never happens again. The story takes place over a decade after 9/11, and it doesn’t take too long to see how these characters still treat the horrific day as if it just happened yesterday.

Günter is the leader of an anti-terrorism team which seeks to develop sources within the Islamic community in the hopes of getting leads on high-profile subjects. His team eventually finds one in Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), a half-Chechen, half-Russian who has just immigrated to Hamburg illegally after suffering torture and imprisonment which has made him look like a walking corpse. At the same time, he is also on the verge of claiming an inheritance worth millions in Euros. The question is, will any of this inheritance go towards funding terrorist groups, or will Issa make sure it goes to who needs it the most?

“A Most Wanted Man” was directed by Anton Corbijn, a Dutch filmmaker who previously directed George Clooney in another spy movie called “The American,” and he is not out to give us the typical spy thriller designed to give the audience a potent adrenaline rush. The spies here are all about playing mind games with their prey as well as with those from another country than they are in getting into gun fights and car chases. This might frustrate some viewers who prefer their spy movies to exhilarate like few other cinematic experiences can, but Corbijn is intent on taking his time with this story at a pace which befits the le Carre novel it is based on. For those of you who have seen “The American,” this should not come as a surprise.

Seriously, not enough can be said about Hoffman’s performance. You never really catch him acting here. Hoffman simply becomes Günter right before our eyes, and he makes you feel his character’s weariness for all it’s worth. Watching Hoffman is heartbreaking because he really does give us a master class in acting here, and this sadly is one of the last times we will ever get to see him do that.

Among the highlights of “A Most Wanted Man” are the scenes Hoffman has with Robin Wright who plays CIA agent Martha Sullivan. Currently on a critical high from her work on the Netflix series “House of Cards,” Wright matches Hoffman scene for scene as these two play a mental game of chess, trying to guess what the other is thinking without revealing too much of themselves in the process. Looking into the eyes of both these actors, you can tell how much fun they have sparring with one another. When they tell one another they are trying to make the world a safer place, you can smell the deceitful sarcasm dripping from their mouths as their jobs now force them to become competitors over nabbing the next big terrorist suspect.

Granted, Hoffman’s German accent is a little off-putting at first, but we do get used to it eventually just as we do with the one Rachel McAdams pulls off. McAdams portrays Annabel Richter, a deeply passionate human rights attorney who does her best to protect Issa from unnecessary prosecution. However, when Annabel is put in a position where she is forced to betray those closest to her, McAdams makes you feel her character’s agony without even having to use words to express it. As for Willem Dafoe who plays bank manager Tommy Brue, you can never really go wrong with him in anything he’s in.

“A Most Wanted Man” is, at times, a little hard to follow to where you may come out of it thinking the plot was a little too convoluted for its own good, but most viewers should be able to get the gist of the story. The pace is also a little too slow at times although things do pick up before the end. Whatever the case, it is definitely worth seeing for the performances, especially the ones given by Hoffman and Wright. It will be hard to escape the bittersweet feeling this movie leaves you with as this is one of Hoffman’s last, and I came out of it wondering if we would ever see an actor like him ever again; one who doesn’t look like a movie star but whose talents have more than earned him the right to be one.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

The Ides of March

the-ides-of-march-poster

This movie’s title refers to the day Julius Caesar was assassinated by a group of senators who feared his role as a dictator would forever destroy their constitutional government. Some of these senators were close friends of his which make their actions all the more shocking. In the political arena, then and now, you would think those running for office would have their friends and loyal advisors to instill their trust in. But as history shows, the quest for power can tear friendships apart and corrupt the seemingly incorruptible. In William Shakespeare’s play of “Julius Caesar,” a soothsayer warns him before he is stabbed to death:

“Beware the Ides of March.”

George Clooney’s film is based on the play “Farragut North” by Beau Willimon, and it looks at how dangerous a political campaign can be for all those involved. They may not get stabbed in the back literally, but there is a lot of backstabbing to go around figuratively speaking. It all makes for an intense political thriller which never lets up.

Ryan Gosling stars as Stephen Meyers, a Junior Campaign Manager for Governor Mike Norris (Clooney) who is seeking the Democratic nomination for President of the United States. As the movie opens, Norris is campaigning in Ohio where a win there will all but guarantee him the nomination. Meyers is a strong believer in Norris and what he stands for, but his belief in him and the world of politics is in for a rude awakening. After a secret meeting with rival campaign manager Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), trust becomes a precious commodity in very short supply. Meyers also stumbles on an even bigger situation which could destroy the campaign to where it can never recover.

This is Clooney’s fourth movie as a director, and the abilities he shows behind the camera are never in doubt. “The Ides of March” doesn’t necessarily break any new ground in the political movie genre, but Clooney does great work in generating tension throughout as characters suddenly find themselves on a precipice which threatens to fall out beneath them with little warning. He also gets great performances from the entire cast as they face off against each other as if they are playing a game of chess. Everyone is holding their cards close to their chest, and only the eyes can give them away in showing where they are most vulnerable.

Gosling had a heck of a year in 2011 with this, “Crazy Stupid Love,” and “Drive.” As with the latter, he brings a smoldering intensity to his performance as he takes Meyers from a political idealist to one who sells out his values when things get rough. With one look, he can let us inside his thoughts without saying a single word.

Two of my favorite performances in “The Ides of March” come from two of the best character actors ever: Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti. Playing campaign managers for their individual candidates, they brilliantly bring out the moral complexities of each person as their agendas become clear as the story continues to unfold. Both of them also make what could have been seen as convoluted actions or maneuvers completely believable as they try to get the upper hand in a fragile political environment. They essentially represent the cynical side of politics where idealism vanished a long time ago and the path Meyers may be forced to go down if he wants to continue working in this realm.

The fabulous Evan Rachel Wood is great as always as Molly Stearns, a campaign intern whose confidence collapses when her secret is realized. Seeing her go from a sexy seducer to the campaign’s most vulnerable employee is handled by her like a pro, and she makes us see Molly as a person while others view as a crippling concern which needed to be quickly and quietly removed. The cruelty of politics comes to hit her character the hardest.

And then there’s the equally fabulous Marisa Tomei who portrays New York Times reporter Ida Horowicz. She enjoys a friendly banter with Gosling from the start which draws us in on a more personal level. It’s there where Tomei traps not just Gosling, but the audience as well. She provides us with a friendly face, but she is later revealed to be a manipulative journalist who wields more power than you might expect a journalist to have. I have yet to see Tomei give a bad performance in anything she does.

What I really like about the screenplay of “The Ides of March” is it’s not about good guys and bad guys. It’s all about shades of gray and how the hope in politics can be easily and quickly worn down to a cinder of what it once was. Some of the actions in the movie almost feel like something out of the “Saw” movies as they almost seem illogical and impossible to put together, but it makes sense in regards to the political realm it takes place in. This would make a great double feature with Mike Nichols’ “Primary Colors” as both movies deal with the moral compromises made in getting your candidate elected. But while “Primary Colors” sees a light at the end of the tunnel, “The Ides of March” doesn’t let the viewer off as easy.

* * * ½ out of * * * *