Thursday, December 31, 2009

Hammervision's 10 Best and Worst Movies of 2009!

Another year, another Top 10 list. Given work and family obligations, and other social activities, I did fairly well this year, having seen 131 movies. Would I liked to have seen more? Of course. Are there still some I need to see before the Oscars? Yes (An Education, A Single Man, and The Messenger). But the list below represents the ten best moviegoing experiences I had in 2009. So, let's get to it:

10. (500) Days of Summer. In a year of crappy romantic comedies, (500) Days stood out as a breath of fresh air and restored some respectability to the genre.

9. Drag Me to Hell. Unleashed from the big-budget confines of the Spider-Man franchise, Sam Raimi had a blast returning to his Evil Dead roots, and put the fun back in being scared.

8. Up. Pixar does it again, in this, their most emotionally resonant work to date. It will have you bawling in the first ten minutes.

7. Fantastic Mr. Fox. This stop-motion animated wonder reinvigorated Wes Anderson's career and proved effortlessly charming and fitfully funny, all at the same time.

6. I Love You, Man. In a perfect world, Paul Rudd would get recognized with an Oscar nomination for his stellar comedic performance in this hilarious and insightful look at modern male friendships.

5. District 9. Neill Blomkamp made a heck of a first impression on audiences with this wholly original, instant sci-fi classic.

4. Zombieland. Stylishly funny and wickedly demented, Zombieland kicks serious ass and features a truly great A-list star cameo.

3. Up in the Air. A nearly flawless comedic drama, with a brilliant star turn by George Clooney. I'd be shocked if this didn't win Best Picture.

2. Star Trek. Easily the most re-watchable movie of the group (I've already seen it 6 times), J.J. Abrams' smart reboot of the long-running franchise did the unthinkable: it made Star Trek cool.

1. Inglourious Basterds. Quentin Tarantino's best movie since Pulp Fiction is a love letter to cinema disguised as a war flick, and a master class on how to build nerve-racking suspense out of sharp dialogue. Surefire Best Supporting Actor winner Christoph Waltz, as "Jew Hunter" Hans Landa, gives the performance of the year.

Honorable Mention: Anvil! The Story of Anvil; Avatar; State of Play

So that's the best of the year. But for every gift the movie gods giveth, they also taketh away, and here are the 10 worst movies I had the displeasure of suffering through this year.

10. Paul Blart: Mall Cop. Stupid but benign, you might say? True, but when junk like this makes $145 million (!) at the box office, I have to question the sanity of American moviegoers.

9. Did You Hear About the Morgans? Yes, I did hear about them. They suck.

8. Dance Flick. Why some lesser-known Wayans brother was given millions of dollars to make this unfunny "parody" when there are so many other talented, unknown filmmakers out there is beyond me.

7. Inkheart. You can blame the success of Harry Potter for this - yet another adaptation of an uninspired, children's adventure book. An incoherent mess.

6. The Final Destination. Weak 3D effects and a past-its-prime storyline have put the final nail in the coffin of this franchise. Borderline incompetent.

5. Jennifer's Body. Juno's Diablo Cody suffers the very definition of the "sophmore slump" with this witless horror comedy that elicits zero scares and even fewer laughs.

4. Bride Wars. A slap in the face to females everywhere. Gives the term "chick flick" such a bad name that it's almost a crime.

3. Pandorum. Sci-fi fans will find themselves scraping the very bottom of the barrel with this one. The action scenes are incomprehensible, and so is the plot.

2. Halloween II. I cannot believe I paid money to see this as a form of entertainment. Unnecessarily gruesome without any style or purpose.

1. Everybody's Fine. Not so fine? The audience after sitting through this cloying, tidy, and suffocatingly cute/quirky dysfunctional family dramedy.

Thanks for reading this year. See you at the movies in 2010!

And, as a bonus, here's the full rundown of movies seen in '09, ranked in order from best to worst (subject to change upon repeat viewings), with titles purchased and/or to be purchased indicated in bold:
  1. Inglourious Basterds (*****)
  2. Star Trek (*****)
  3. Up in the Air (*****)
  4. Zombieland (****1/2)
  5. District 9 (****1/2)
  6. I Love You, Man (****1/2)
  7. Fantastic Mr. Fox (****)
  8. Up (****)
  9. Drag Me to Hell (****)
  10. (500) Days of Summer (****)
  11. Anvil! The Story of Anvil (****)
  12. State of Play (****)
  13. Avatar (****)
  14. Julie & Julia (****)
  15. The Cove (****)
  16. Sugar (****)
  17. The Hangover (***1/2)
  18. World's Greatest Dad (***1/2)
  19. The Hurt Locker (***1/2)
  20. Taken (***1/2)
  21. Extract (***1/2)
  22. He's Just Not That Into You (***1/2)
  23. Sherlock Holmes (***1/2)
  24. Funny People (***1/2)
  25. Away We Go (***1/2)
  26. Adventureland (***1/2)
  27. By the People: The Election of Barack Obama (***1/2)
  28. The Princess and the Frog (***1/2)
  29. It's Complicated (***1/2)
  30. The Box (***1/2)
  31. Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (***1/2)
  32. Bruno (***1/2)
  33. Two Lovers (***1/2)
  34. Last Chance Harvey (***1/2)
  35. The Informant! (***)
  36. Precious (***)
  37. Observe and Report (***)
  38. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (***)
  39. The Road (***)
  40. Paranormal Activity (***)
  41. The International (***)
  42. Moon (***)
  43. The Last House on the Left (***)
  44. The Time Traveler's Wife (***)
  45. Trick 'r Treat (***)
  46. The Soloist (***)
  47. Michael Jackson's This Is It (***)
  48. Crazy Heart (***)
  49. Watchmen (***)
  50. Public Enemies (***)
  51. Duplicity (***)
  52. Terminator Salvation (***)
  53. Brothers (***)
  54. 17 Again (***)
  55. Monsters vs. Aliens (***)
  56. 9 (***)
  57. Defiance (***)
  58. A Serious Man (***)
  59. Humpday (***)
  60. Sunshine Cleaning (***)
  61. Fast and Furious (***)
  62. Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian (***)
  63. Underworld: Rise of the Lycans (***)
  64. Sorority Row (***)
  65. Friday the 13th (***)
  66. Management (***)
  67. The Twilight Saga: New Moon (***)
  68. The Great Buck Howard (***)
  69. Where the Wild Things Are (**1/2)
  70. Coraline (**1/2)
  71. Angels & Demons (**1/2)
  72. The Blind Side (**1/2)
  73. Law Abiding Citizen (**1/2)
  74. Couples Retreat (**1/2)
  75. G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (**1/2)
  76. Ninja Assassin (**1/2)
  77. Knowing (**1/2)
  78. My Bloody Valentine 3-D (**1/2)
  79. The Invention of Lying (**1/2)
  80. G-Force (**1/2)
  81. Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs (**1/2)
  82. Fired Up! (**1/2)
  83. 2012 (**1/2)
  84. The Taking of Pelham 123 (**1/2)
  85. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (**1/2)
  86. The Uninvited (**1/2)
  87. Surrogates (**1/2)
  88. Invictus (**)
  89. The Brothers Bloom (**)
  90. The Men Who Stare at Goats (**)
  91. The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard (**)
  92. Year One (**)
  93. Shorts (**)
  94. Whip It (**)
  95. Tyson (**)
  96. X-Men Origins: Wolverine (**)
  97. Fighting (**)
  98. Confessions of a Shopaholic (**)
  99. Land of the Lost (**)
  100. The Ugly Truth (**)
  101. The Pink Panther 2 (**)
  102. Alvin & the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel (**)
  103. 12 Rounds (**)
  104. Planet 51 (**)
  105. Race to Witch Mountain (**)
  106. Push (**)
  107. The Unborn (**)
  108. Disney's A Christmas Carol (**)
  109. The Girlfriend Experience (**)
  110. The Haunting in Connecticut (**)
  111. Notorious (**)
  112. Obsessed (*1/2)
  113. Fame (*1/2)
  114. Crank: High Voltage (*1/2)
  115. Fanboys (*1/2)
  116. Orphan (*1/2)
  117. The Proposal (*1/2)
  118. Whatever Works (*1/2)
  119. Nine (*1/2)
  120. I Love You, Beth Cooper (*)
  121. Ghosts of Girlfriends Past (*)
  122. Paul Blart: Mall Cop (*)
  123. Did You Hear About the Morgans? (*)
  124. Dance Flick (*)
  125. Inkheart (*)
  126. The Final Destination (*)
  127. Jennifer's Body (*)
  128. Bride Wars (*)
  129. Pandorum (*)
  130. Halloween II (*)
  131. Everybody's Fine (*)
- John

Nine (*1/2)

Nine. 110 mins. PG-13. Directed by Rob Marshall. Written by Michael Tolkin and Anthony Minghella. Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Marion Cotillard, Penelope Cruz, Nicole Kidman, Judi Dench, Kate Hudson, and Sophia Loren.

The new musical Nine boasts an all-star, oft-nominated cast, an Oscar-nominated director (Chicago's Rob Marshall), glitzy production values, and revered source material (Fellini's 8 1/2), and...I couldn't care less about any of it. Trying to recreate the critical and commercial success of Chicago proves too difficult for Marshall and his collaborators, especially when the script is so obtuse and unfocused, and the music so blah and unmemorable. Most directors would kill to work with this cast, but it's rare indeed when actors as distinguished and respectable as Daniel Day-Lewis come off looking this bad. DDL stars as Guido, a film director struggling to come up with a script for his next film that's days away from start of production. His main problem? All the women in his life, from his mom (Sophia Loren) to his childhood fantasy (Fergie) to his wife (Marion Cotillard) to his mistress (Penelope Cruz). Needless to say, Guido gets around. But who in the audience can relate to this guy? And why should we care? The filmmakers clearly don't know the answer, hoping the audience will just get swept away by the fashion, splashy song and dance numbers, and sex appeal of the cast. While that may be true for about ten minutes, Nine runs about two hours long, and it meanders most of the time. I'm sure everyone involved had awards on the mind when they made the movie. If there's any justice in the world, those dreams will be dashed, and Nine will soon be forgotten.

- John

Sherlock Holmes (***1/2)

Sherlock Holmes. 134 mins. PG-13. Directed by Guy Ritchie. Written by Michael Robert Johnson, Anthony Peckham and Simon Kinberg. Starring Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law, Rachel McAdams, Eddie Marsan, and Mark Strong.

Fun and entertaining in equal doses, yet ultimately disposable, this Guy Ritchie-directed reboot of Sherlock Holmes fits the bill nicely for a night out at the movies. Robert Downey Jr. continues his hot streak as the venerable detective Sherlock Holmes. This 2009 Holmes is just as smart as prior incarnations of the character, but Downey adds his typical sense of mischief, sarcasm, and reckless abandon into the mix. His Holmes is also quite a fighter, and kicks an enormous amount of ass in the film - something I'm pretty sure Basil Rathbone never got to do. Downey is matched quite capably by Jude Law as Watson. The duo's back-and-forth, bickering bromance is the heart of the movie. Less effective is the mystery, which is easily solved, with all the major clues delivered in just one scene. One needn't have Sherlock Holmes' brilliant mind to put this puzzle together. Watching the movie, I was reminded of 1998's The Mask of Zorro, another update of a popular character from the first half of the decade. Like Zorro, Sherlock Holmes manages to please its audience without ever really letting them invest in the events unfolding on screen. Holmes is also about 20 minutes too long - another trait shared by The Mask of Zorro. I'm happy to see Guy Ritchie get some mainstream success, after nearly killing off all the goodwill he earned with Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch. And it sounds like this isn't the last we'll see of Downey's Sherlock Holmes. A sequel has already been greenlit, which is good because there's still room to perfect the formula of this new franchise.

- John

Crazy Heart (***)

Crazy Heart. 110 mins. R. Written and Directed by Scott Cooper. Starring Jeff Bridges, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Robert Duvall, and Colin Farrell.

The boozing, washed-up musician story has been depicted on screen countless number of times before. Crazy Heart is just the latest entry in the sub-genre, and while it doesn't offer anything new, it does give audiences a chance to see Jeff Bridges at his finest. Bridges has received the lion's share of critical accolades and acting kudos for his performance here, and all are well-deserved. Not once does Bridges show off, or overplay things. This is the best role he's been given since The Big Lebowski. He also boasts a fine singing voice, displayed to proud effect in a number of effective musical sequences. The songs are pretty good too - produced by O Brother Where Art Thou's T. Bone Burnett. Bridges plays Bad Blake, who finds redemption (or something like it) in the form of Maggie Gyllenhaal's Jean, a touring music reporter and single mom with a generically precocious kid. Their relationship and Bad's destructive tendencies comprise the bulk of the plot. Colin Farrell also pops up in a few scenes as Bad's protege, and, surprisingly, he has a great singing voice as well. Crazy Heart is a small, modest film, that plays all the right chords but, aside from Bridges, never really goes out of its way to make a distinct impression. It's content just being a good film, not a great one, but is worth seeing for the performances alone.

- John

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Up in the Air (*****)

Up in the Air. 109 mins. R. Directed by Jason Reitman. Written by Jason Reitman & Sheldon Turner. Starring George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick, and Jason Bateman.

Up in the Air is as good a comedic drama as you're likely to see this or any other year. It comes darn near close to perfection, and I'll be very surprised if it doesn't win Best Picture in February. This marks director and co-writer Jason Reitman's third movie, after the well-received Juno and Thank You for Smoking, and it's amazing how mature and confident he has become behind the camera in that short time. George Clooney stars as Ryan Bingham, a frequent flier who travels around the country firing people for a living. He lives out of a suitcase, has no real connections and no home life, and absolutely loves it. Ryan's isolation is tested though when he's partnered up with a young, type-A associate (Anna Kendrick, great in Rocket Science, and even better here), and enters into a romantic relationship with the female equivalent of himself (the wonderful Vera Farmiga). This is a role tailor-made for Clooney and he delivers the goods, and then some. Clooney has never been better or more magnetic on screen, and watching him, I was reminded of Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire. Put the right actor in the right role and give them material to run with, and the result is magical. Up in the Air works as a drama, but it's also frequently funny. The comedy comes not from absurd humor, jokes, or physical gags, like most other comedies these days, but from smartly-crafted dialogue, flawlessly delivered by great actors. Small-scale films made for adults have had a rough year (see State of Play or Duplicity - nobody else did), and with the all-consuming rise of the franchise blockbuster, they're in danger of becoming instinct. Don't let them. Up in the Air flies high above the competition, and proves that, when done well, these kinds of movies prove deeply satisfying in ways no soulless blockbuster can even touch.
- John

Alvin & the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel (**)

Alvin & the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel. 88 mins. PG. Directed by Betty Thomas. Written by Jon Vitti & Jonathan Aibel. Starring Justin Long, Zachary Levi, David Cross, and the voices of Justin Long, Amy Poehler, Christina Applegate, and Anna Faris.

There's really not much you can say about Alvin & the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel. The first Alvin was an unfunny, chaotic nuisance of a movie, but kids loved it (to the tune of $217 million), so a sequel was inevitable. Part 2 is slightly better, if only for its introduction of the Chipettes. The plot is basically recycled from the first film, with the Chipmunks going to high school, and the Chipettes going the famous singing chipmunk route. There are multiple singing competitions along the way, none of which seem to have any impact on anything. There are a handful of pop culture gags for adults strewn throughout the movie, but those feel more obligatory than clever. Jason Lee (playing Dave Seville) wisely spends most of the movie laid up in a hospital bed, while cousin Toby Seville (Chuck's Zachary Levi) takes care of the chipmunks. What still amazes me about these Chipmunk movies is the fact that good money was spent on hiring well-known comedic actors such as Justin Long, Amy Poehler, Christina Applegate, and Anna Faris to voice the chipmunks. Why?! Once the voices are turned up that high, the actor is unrecognizable. What a waste of money. Clearly though, Fox isn't worried. Kids are still going to love this Squeakquel, and a third movie is all but certain. You've been warned.

- John

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Did You Hear About the Morgans? (*)

Did You Hear About the Morgans? 103 mins. PG-13. Written and Directed by Marc Lawrence. Starring Hugh Grant, Sarah Jessica Parker, Mary Steenburgen, and Sam Elliott.

Romantic comedies have had a rough year. After suffering through such duds as Bride Wars, The Ugly Truth, Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, and The Proposal, the last thing audiences need at this time is a movie like Did You Hear About the Morgans? Writer-director Marc Lawrence has never been a great writer-director, but you certainly can't fault him for such simple, audience friendly movies like his past hits Miss Congeniality and Music & Lyrics. Uninspired casting and a flat script can only get you so far though, and Lawrence certainly tests the limits of that notion with Did You Hear About the Morgans? Hugh Grant and Sarah Jessica Parker play a bickering married couple who witness a murder and then are shipped out to Nebraska to hide in a witness protection program. Like true fish out of water, the two city folk have trouble adapting to their country environment. Can they save their marriage before the killer tracks them down? Hugh Grant is normally the best part of any movie but he's left stranded here. The script is lazy and formulaic, and lacks anything close to resembling a laugh. The romance element of the movie is half-hearted and tacked on as if an afterthought. There's no chemistry between the two leads, and even less suspense. If you have had the (dis)pleasure of hearing about the Morgans, then surely you've heard this: they suck, and so does their movie.


The Road (***)

The Road. 119 mins. R. Directed by John Hillcoat. Written by Joe Penhall. Starring Viggo Mortensen, Robert Duvall, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Guy Pearce, and Charlize Theron.

Having never read Cormac McCarthy's The Road, I was not sure what to expect of the film adaptation. The previews suggested a suspenseful thrill ride, but I knew that the final product would be more artful and meditative. Turns out, it's a little bit of both. As directed by John Hillcoat, The Road is a nearly great movie, full of haunting imagery (the amputees in the basement will not soon be forgotten), intense escape scenes, and a hovering sense of dread and menace. The characters in The Road could fall victim to cannibalistic hunters at any moment, and the audience feels that urgency and hopelessness at every turn. Viggo Mortensen is fantastic as the nameless father shepherding his son to survival in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. While not much happens in the way of plot, the movie often proves riveting and keeps its hooks in you. But around the time Robert Duvall shows up as a blind codger, The Road starts to lose its footing and peters out to a generally unsatisfying finale. In fact, given how dark and depressing the movie is for 2/3rds of its running time, and I mean that in a good way, the ending is almost too happy and hopeful. I won't spoil what happens, but in a movie where Viggo is prepared to kill his son in a moment's notice, you're prepared for the worst and that's not what you get. I wanted to come out of The Road emotionally devastated, not mildly satisfied by a movie that is great in parts but not as a whole.

- John

Monday, December 21, 2009

Avatar (****)

Avatar. 163 mins. PG-13. Written and Directed by James Cameron. Starring Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Joel David Moore, Stephen Lang, and Sigourney Weaver.

You've got to hand it to James Cameron. In the age of On Demand, Netflix, Hulu, high-def televisions, Blu-Ray, and iTunes, Cameron is still making movies that demand to be seen on the big screen. Avatar is his first narrative feature since 1997's Titanic. He's been gone a while, and expectations were high for Avatar, especially given all the hype surrounding the groundbreaking special effects and 3D technology. If judged only on those merits, Avatar is outstanding. There are huge segments of the movie that are completely CGI and not once do you think that you're watching an animated movie. The camera movement, the performance capture of the actors, and the environments are all rendered with a breathtaking realism. Almost $300 million was spent making Avatar, and it all shows on screen. Cameron certainly gives audiences their money's worth. If there's a flaw with Avatar, it's in the story. Derivative and overfamiliar, it basically takes the plot structure of Dances with Wolves and adds a heavy dose of science fiction/fantasy. Terminator Salvation's Sam Worthington plays Jake Sully, a paraplegic marine who steps in for his deceased brother to inhabit the replicant of a bright blue, native species known as the Na'vi on the planet Pandora. His mission to infiltrate and investigate the Na'vi is soon thwarted as he develops a romantic relationship with one of the natives (Zoe Saldana) and starts to question the military tactics of his commanders. It all leads to a big showdown between humans and Na'vi, with the outcome easily predictable. But while the story may lack surprise, it doesn't hamper one's enjoyment of the movie. The visual elements of Avatar (production design, sound, visual effects, costume/character design, acting) are so strong that they overwhelm everything else. Cameron may not be the greatest storyteller, but he is a smart one, and he stages action scenes better than almost anybody else working today. Avatar is designed to appeal to everyone, and it will. It's a mass market blockbuster, pulled off with heart and brains, and you'd be foolish not to pay money to see this one in the theater. For better or worse, true EVENT movies are few and far between these days. It's nice to know that at least one filmmaker out there is still trying to make them.

- John

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Invictus (**)

Invictus. 130 mins. PG-13. Directed by Clint Eastwood. Written by Anthony Peckham. Starring Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon.

When one hears that Morgan Freeman is going to be playing Nelson Mandela in a movie directed by Clint Eastwood, two things come to mind: (1) the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences just got a bit stiff in the pants; and (2) that movie should be pretty good. Based on those expectations, Invictus is nothing more than a well-intentioned, competently filmed mediocrity. Of all the stories to tell about Mandela, Invictus opts for a true, but hackneyed and seen-it-all-before underdog sports story about the South African rugby team that united a country torn apart. Eastwood keeps things pretty mellow and quiet for most of the movie. In fact, the movie is so quiet that you sense a lack of energy. The musical score is very spare too, featuring Eastwood's obligatory and oh-so-dull piano plunking. Man, I hate Eastwood scores. All that quiet fades away in the last half hour, however, when the big rugby match unfolds and Eastwood, a solid actor's director but not all that great with visual effects, cranks up the fake crowd cheering and repeatedly cuts to the same swooping CGI crowd shot. Perhaps the movie would be more exciting if Eastwood and company actually cared to delve into the intricacies of rugby, and present it in a user-friendly manner for those not familiar with the sport. I couldn't tell you a thing about rugby after watching Invictus, and that really dampens any enthusiasm or investment that audience members can have in the final match. Both Freeman and Matt Damon, as the captain of the rugby team, are in fine form, but, as written, there's not all that much to the characters they're playing, and barely any backstory thrown their way. Neither actor is challenged, and apart from the accents, which I'm sure they worked hard on, both Freeman and Damon could play these characters in their sleep. And don't even bother with the supporting characters - none of whom make any impact. Invictus is a noble failure. If you're looking for a movie dealing with Apartheid issues, do yourself a favor and go see District 9 instead.

- John

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Princess and the Frog (***1/2)

The Princess and the Frog. Written and Directed by Ron Clements & John Musker. Starring the voices of Anika Noni Rose, Bruno Campos, Keith David, Terrence Howard, John Goodman, and Oprah Winfrey.

Disney's The Princess and the Frog is a refreshing and modest 2-D, hand-drawn animated movie that brings back some welcome nostalgia for early '90s classics like Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin. It's not quite a return to form, and Pixar's movies still have this one beat, but The Princess and the Frog does have a certain charm to it. Spinning the classic fairy tale on its head, the movie tells the story of Tiana, a strong-willed, hard-working gal in 1930s New Orleans with dreams of owning her own restaurant. When Prince Naveen comes to town and is turned into a frog by the sinister voodoo doctor Facilier, Tiana kisses Naveen to try and turn him back to a prince, but ends up turning into a frog herself. Animal sidekicks are soon introduced (a trumpet-playing alligator and cajun firefly), and life lessons are learned. There are several pleasant, if not quite memorable songs by go-to tunesmith Randy Newman sprinkled throughout, and it's in these segments that the animators really let their imagination run wild - creating some truly delicious eye candy. I especially liked all of the scenes with Facilier and his otherworldly cohorts, where the animation is striking and original, and frankly a little frightening for some of the younger kids. Perhaps most notable about The Princess and the Frog is the fact that it features Disney's first African-American heroine (and about time too). The depiction of 1930s New Orleans, clearly still in its glory days back then, is something new in animated movies and serves as a perfect backdrop for this story. I've read that Disney plans on releasing a hand-drawn animated film every two years in the future. If they're as enjoyable as The Princess and the Frog, that can only be a good thing.

- John

Monday, December 14, 2009

Hammervision's 10 Best of the Decade: No. 1


On December 31, 2006, I saw Children of Men in the theater and, having been blown away, instantly declared it the best movie of 2006. Three years later, and after several more viewings, I can confidently say it is the best movie of the decade. The filmmaking in Children of Men is revolutionary and jaw-dropping, and stands head and shoulders above everything else. It is the defining movie of the decade not because of story (tight and spare), or acting (excellent, but nothing Oscar-worthy), but because it pushes the film medium in new and exciting directions. You know how people always talk about Citizen Kane as the greatest movie of all time? It's because of the direction and cinematography. Children of Men is to this decade what Citizen Kane was to the 1940s. Directed by Alfonso Cuaron with focused energy and clarity of vision, and featuring a handful of the most intricately staged, uninterrupted one-take action sequences ever filmed, the movie is a marvel. It has a fantastic and bleak sci-fi premise (the human race is on the verge of extinction because nobody can get pregnant anymore) that proves fertile ground for an exciting chase movie, with interesting themes and haunting imagery. There is a great and shocking death of a main character early on in the movie that's the best thing of its ilk since Samuel L. Jackson bought it in Deep Blue Sea (and before that, Janet Leigh in Psycho), and really keeps you on edge for the remainder of the movie's running time. Children of Men is pitch black in its depiction of society on the edge of despair, but it does offer a glimmer of hope in its story and is oddly satisfying. That satisfaction does not come from a "feel good" ending, which, here, is purposely kept ambiguous, but from the knowledge that you've just seen one of the greatest movies of this or any other decade.

So there you have it:

10. Mission: Impossible III
9. The Royal Tenenbaums
8. United 93
7. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
6. There Will Be Blood
5. Memento
4. Wall-E
3. The Lord of the Rings trilogy
2. Moulin Rouge
1. Children of Men

Many of you guessed No. 1 correctly. Good job. Now it's your turn. What's your Top 10 of the decade? What one movie above (you can only pick one) has no place on a Top 10 list? What's the one movie you wish I had included? Where do we go from here - what do you want to see next? Worst of the decade? Best of the 90s?

And now a special shout-out to the runner-ups. These movies came awfully close to cracking the Top 10, and are equally deserving of end-of-the-decade recognition:

The Dark Knight
The 40 Year-Old Virgin
Minority Report
Catch Me If You Can
Inglourious Basterds
Kill Bill Vol. 1 & 2
The Incredibles
The Departed

- John

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Hammervision's 10 Best of the Decade: No. 2


At one point in Moulin Rouge, the characters break into a song called "Spectacular, Spectacular" - fine words to describe Baz Luhrman's ballsy, bombastic, and brilliant revival of the movie musical. An even better word? Passion. Moulin Rouge is as passionate as movies get: about love, life, music, dance, art, theater, you name it. I don't know if it's possible to fall head over heels in love with a movie, but that's exactly how I felt watching Moulin Rouge for the first time. This is not a movie for the skeptical and jaded. Yes, the first 20 minutes are in-your-face and a bit screwy, but for those who stick around, there are rich rewards to be had. By the time Ewan McGregor starts singing "Your Song," the movie achieves liftoff and never really comes back down to earth. McGregor and Nicole Kidman as the doomed lovers are note-perfect, both in song and on screen, and the movie depicts their relationship in a gloriously romantic manner. One of the reasons Moulin Rouge works so well as a musical is that when the characters break into song (all memorable pop songs of the last 20 years), the audience shares in their singing because we all know those songs, and have probably at one point even sung them ourselves. But beyond the base emotional connection the movie forges with its audience through song, the technical elements are just as important. The costumes and production design are splendid eye candy, and, good god, is there a more beautiful moment from the past decade than when, at the end of their Elephant Love Medley, just as McGregor starts singing "I Will Always Love You", that big ball of stars explodes behind the singing lovebirds? Sends goosebumps down my arms every time I see it. To know Moulin Rouge is to love it.

Here's the running list:

10. Mission: Impossible III
9. The Royal Tenenbaums
8. United 93
7. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
6. There Will Be Blood
5. Memento
4. Wall-E
3. The Lord of the Rings trilogy
2. Moulin Rouge

We're almost there! Agree? Disagree? Did you expect to see Moulin Rouge place No. 2? Post your thoughts below, and come back early next week for No. 1, as all will be revealed. I'll also be posting the runner-ups and some afterthoughts next week as well.

- John

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Brothers (***)

Brothers. 110 mins. R. Directed by Jim Sheridan. Written by David Benioff. Starring Tobey Maguire, Natalie Portman, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Sam Shepard.

This remake of a 2004 Danish film of the same name is not quite the movie I thought (or hoped) it would be. I went into Brothers expecting a juicy relationship drama with high stakes that ends tragically a la House of Sand and Fog. The previews certainly sold that concept, focusing less on the Iraq War that is central to the movie's plot, and more on the sparks that fly between Natalie Portman and Jake Gyllenhaal while Portman's hubby (Tobey Maguire) is away and presumed dead. What we get instead is yet another in a long line of war movies where the main character is so tragically haunted by what he's seen and experienced overseas that he can't ease back into life as he once knew it. Here, Maguire plays that man, and though he's gotten the lion's share of acclaim from critics so far, I actually wasn't too taken by Maguire's performance. He barely registers in the movie's early scenes at home, and he's not entirely convincing as a POW survivor, despite some late inning histrionics and lots of bug-eyed acting. Much more effective is Natalie Portman, in a restrained yet highly emotional role, and Jake Gyllenhaal, who really seems to have shed the soft-talking, shy guy sheen he once imbued in all of his characters. I give credit to the casting director(s) for putting Maguire and Gyllenhaal together on screen as brothers. Not too long ago, they were widely regarded as the same type of performer, so much so that at one point during Spider-Man 2, Gyllenhaal almost replaced Maguire - proof positive of their interchangeability. A lot has changed since then though. While Maguire hasn't really grown much as an actor, Gyllenhaal certainly has, and he gives a very believable and mature performance in Brothers. When he and Portman are on screen, the movie clicks despite its overfamiliar subject matter and lack of sexual drama.

- John

Monday, December 07, 2009

Hammervision's 10 Best of the Decade: No. 3

The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-03)

3 movies. 1 slot. A bit of a cheat you might say. True, but who really wants to argue against it? And who honestly thinks they can win that argument? I guess if you're going to have to pick one, you'd have to go with the Oscar-winning third installment, Return of the King, but I'm not going to do that. Peter Jackson and company always intended for these movies to be one organic whole, filming all three at the same time. Jackson aimed for the fences with The Lord of the Rings, adapting one of the most beloved (and bedeviling) pieces of literature of all time. It was no easy task, but in many ways - he did what most movies never do: improved upon the books, streamlining the narrative, accentuating the action, and doing it all with visual sweep and style to spare. The Lord of the Rings trilogy is the gold standard of film adaptations. It was a huge risk for Jackson and New Line, and if Fellowship of the Ring had tanked, it would have ended a lot of careers. But The Lord of the Rings transcended all expectations, and can now be viewed for what it really is: a monumental achievement in filmmaking. Many complained about the dozen different endings in Return of the King, but by then, the movie had earned the right to bask in its own glory. If you've never caught the extended editions on DVD, which add about 40 minutes to each movie, you're really missing out. Sitting down for 12 hours to watch all three is one of the great pleasures you'll have in this life.

Here's the running list:

10. Mission: Impossible III
9. The Royal Tenenbaums
8. United 93
7. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
6. There Will Be Blood
5. Memento
4. Wall-E
3. The Lord of the Rings trilogy

Agree? Disagree? Think I'm cheating by putting three movies in one slot? Have you already figured out Nos. 1 and 2? Post your thoughts below, and come back soon for No. 2, as the countdown nearly finishes.

- John

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Everybody's Fine (*)

Everybody's Fine. 95 mins. PG-13. Written and Directed by Kirk Jones. Starring Robert DeNiro, Drew Barrymore, Sam Rockwell, and Kate Beckinsale.

The big drama that plays out in Everybody's Fine is that everybody is, in fact, not fine. Also not doing so fine? The audience members who have to sit through this atrocious, certifiably fake and corny schmaltz-fest starring a bunch of well-known and talented A-list stars, who clearly ought to know better. It's like the world's worst Lifetime movie-of-the-week, but made even worse by the fact that the filmmakers want to charge you $10 to see it. DeNiro gives a low-key, mannered performance as Frank, a recent widower who goes to visit his four kids when they all cancel on coming to see him. With each visit, Frank learns that his children have been lying to him to make things sound okay when they're really not. One's getting divorced (Beckinsale). One's not a conductor (Rockwell). One's a lesbian with a baby (Barrymore). And, oh yeah, one's a druggie on the run in Mexico who ends up dead (the one who's not on the poster). Speaking of the poster and promotional materials for the movie, don't be fooled. This is not a dysfunctional family holiday comedy in the vein of The Family Stone or something like that. It's a sappy, low-budget drama with zero emotional truth to it. DeNiro is good and better than he has been in years, but he's wasted here. There are so many contrivances in both the script and the direction, and almost nothing in the movie is pulled off successfully. Frank has the unfortunate habit of seeing his grown kids appear (and converse with him) as actual children at times. This may have seemed like a cute idea on paper, but on screen, it just comes across as lame. You know a movie's not working when, during the big dramatic flourishes at the end, you find yourself laughing at the movie (not with it). Avoid this one at all costs.

- John

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Hammervision's 10 Best of the Decade: No. 4

Wall-E (2008)

No "Best Of" list would be complete without recognizing the tremendous impact that Pixar has had on film in this decade. In fact, since the first Toy Story in 1995, Pixar has been setting the bar for animated movies (and film in general) higher and higher, and just when you think they can't top themselves, they go ahead and do it. For my money, Wall-E is their crowning achievement. It is heartfelt and original, at times exciting and funny, and it never loses sight of character and story in the face of some genuinely amazing visuals. The character of Wall-E is one for the ages - an instantly lovable robot and romantic at heart with a soft spot for old school Hello Dolly tunes. Writer and Director Andrew Stanton plays by his own rules here - the movie is quirky and courageous, with a nearly wordless first 40 minutes that are just riveting. The sound design is particularly awesome (say it with me now: "Waaal-Eeee"), and if you've got a Blu-Ray player at home, the movie looks absolutely gorgeous in high-def. Wall-E may be darn near impossible for Pixar to top, but I can't wait for them to try.

Here's the running list:

10. Mission: Impossible III
9. The Royal Tenenbaums
8. United 93
7. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
6. There Will Be Blood
5. Memento
4. Wall-E

We're getting serious now. Agree? Disagree? Post your thoughts below, and come back soon for No. 3, as the countdown continues.

- John

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

The Blind Side (**1/2)

The Blind Side. 124 mins. PG-13. Written and Directed by John Lee Hancock. Starring Sandra Bullock, Tim McGraw, Quinton Aaron, and Kathy Bates.

Fans of treacly sports dramas are in for a real "treat" with The Blind Side. It's a veritable minefield of cliches and sap, aimed straight at the heart of unassuming moviegoers who want a "feel good" flick that goes down like a spoonful of sugar. The movie has been a surprise hit at the box office, and I have no doubt that millions of moms everywhere are going to love it. The story of Michael Oher, an undereducated, homeless and dirt-poor high schooler who went on to be drafted by the Baltimore Ravens, is certainly one worth telling. But writer-director John Lee Hancock (The Rookie, The Alamo) falls for all the usual traps associated with this type of movie. There's the cutesy 10 year-old kid who spouts wisecracks the entire time. There's the training montage, where Oher learns how to play football. There are truly stupid lines of dialogue - the most egregious being the one in the preview: "You're changing that boy's life." "No, he's changing mine." That last line is spoken by Sandra Bullock, playing Erin Brockovich. Oops - excuse me, I mean Leigh Anne Tuohy, Oher's adoptive mother and NRA-carrying, Republican spitfire of an overprivileged Southern belle. Bullock is good and no-nonsense, and every once in a while, she's given a scene that rings true and sincere, especially the one where Leigh Anne visits Oher's biological mother. But for every one of those scenes, there's another just around the corner that registers as fake and insincere. I'm pretty sure the tough gangster in Oher's old neighborhood wouldn't threaten him with the line, "I'm gonna pop a cap in your ass." Still, The Blind Side is an easy movie to watch and, for better or worse, it delivers exactly what its previews promise.

- John

Fantastic Mr. Fox (****)

Fantastic Mr. Fox. 87 mins. PG. Directed by Wes Anderson. Written by Wes Anderson & Noah Baumbach. Starring the voices of George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, and Willem Dafoe.

Welcome back, Wes Anderson! Who would have guessed that stop-motion animation would have been the perfect fit for Anderson's one-of-a-kind artistic and comedic sensibilities? Fantastic Mr. Fox is, as its title implies, quite fantastic indeed. Based on the book by Roald Dahl, and adapted for the screen by Anderson and Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale), the movie is a nimble, quick-witted visual marvel. The voice cast is top notch, with George Clooney in full-on Danny Ocean mode as Mr. Fox, a devious chicken thief coming out of retirement, who sets his sights on three local farmers. Also great is Jason Schwartzman, stealing every scene he's in as Ash, Fox's outcast, eccentric son. Anderson loads the movie with clever gags, hilarious throwaway lines (love the use of "Cussin" in place of actual swear words), and his patented quirky cool production design. The stop-motion animators' work is a joy to behold and endlessly interesting to watch. Equally charming and funny, Fantastic Mr. Fox is one of the best of the year. Kids should take to it, and adults will find themselves equally smitten, if not more so.

- John