Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Best Films of the Double-Os

I love writing about movies. Making movie lists, on the other hand, well - that's more tough love.

I know people are into lists. As old hat as they've gotten, and as much as people say they're bored with them they always spark discussion , which is one of my favorite things about the blogosphere. So when the end of the decade finally comes to pass, a list must issue forth.

Actually, picking out the films is never that hard. Ranking them, however, is another matter.  That involves numbers, and I hate numbers. So this post is NOT a ranking of the 10 best films of the decade. I have a hard enough time ranking the 10 best films of any one year, thank you very much.

So I decided to be a little more democratic in my approach. I went back to each of my 10 Best Lists for the decade, and picked the top three films from each year. Therefore,  what follows are chronological lists of the number 1's 2's and 3's of each year. There are some surprising omissions and inclusions. There are films I liked better than I remembered, and films that have faded just a little in my heart, but I wasn't interested in revisionist history. My rankings reflect how I felt and who I was at that point in time, and I'm not about to change them. Besides, that would mean futzing with numbers again.

So that established here are 27 movies that make for very fine viewing and reviewing. Please note that since I live in a smaller market, I count film years differntly than most critics. So for instance,  what may have been a 1999 film for some was really a 2000 film for me - like, say, the very first film in the list.


Magnolia - The best Robert Altman film Robert Altman never made. Plus frogs.

A.I. - This may be the single most misunderstood film of the entire decade. And it doesn't always work. But even the ways it fails are mesmerizing, as only a hybrid of Spielberg and Kurbrick sensibilities could be.

Far From Heaven - Todd Haynes' 50s film with a twist features one of the two greatest female performances of the decade. Julianne Moore was robbed of the Oscar.

Lord of the Rings - Like everyone else, I cheat and count all three as one, although on balance, Return of the King is the best.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind - And Kate Winslet gave the other great female performance of the decade in this brilliantly inventive. fractured romance.

Munich  - Still the best statement on terrorism, post 9-11.

United 93 - Oddly enough I felt elated after this film, because I was so moved at witnessing how heroism rose from the most terrifying of circumstances.

Once - You will notice I have a thing for movies about the rush of a romance that can't last. This one made me swoon more than any other.

WALL-E - And this film made me feel more pure joy than any other. After seeing it, I immediately phoned three friends to rave about it, and then practically flew home from Newport to Dayton. Pixar's crowning achievement.


Almost Famous - Penny Lane is in my ears and in my eyes indeed.

Memento - .mind my blew Nolan Christopher time first the was It.

Minority Report - Contains the best chase sequence of the decade, with seer Samantha Morton forecasting the pursuit of her and Tom Cruise. Brilliantly staged. And the rest of the film made my mind reel too.

Mystic River - Like Magnolia, this film says that we may be through the past, but the past isn't through with us. And it's shattering in the process.

Before Sunset - Hey look, another romance. Only this one is a touch happier!

King Kong - Yes, it's a little too long. But when it works, it dazzles. And it dazzles often.

The Departed - I'm not sure any film I've seen prompted more vocal and visceral reactions from its audiences. Plus, Marty has to be on any list of mind somewhere.

Pan's Labyrinth - Rarely has fantasy been so threatening and frightening as in Guillermo Del Toro's visualization of a young girl's very vivid imagination.

Slumdog Millionaire - I've heard from some people who don't understand why this film is called "feel good" when the lead goes through such trials. It's because without darkness, there can be no light.


Cast Away  - It made me cry over a volleyball, dammit.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon - Rarely have I seen romance visualized in such a kinetic way, but Ang Lee did it.

Spirited Away - The best hand-drawn film of the decade that cast the craft adrift. This film was the best demonstration of why it should stay.

Lost in Translation - Well, what do you know, another poignant romance. Hmm. That was said in a whisper, by the way.

The Incredibles - Forget all those guys in real tights. This was the superhero film of the decade. Yes, even over The Dark Knight.

Million Dollar Baby - When that moment happened - if you've seen it, you know what I mean - the air absolutely went out of the room in that packed theater. I'll never forget that.

World Trade Center - The trailer for this movie looked awful, it was so cloying. And yet, Oliver Stone delivered by evoking the emotions of that day so well, though outstanding performances and a masterful sense of tone and place.

No Country for Old Men - One of the most frightening depictions of evil on screen, not just of this decade, but of all time. And it ranks all the way down here.

There Will be Blood - And this contains the greatest performance of the decade by any actor. I'm finished.

Well, actually, no, I'm not quite finished. You may wonder why there are 27 films in the list and not 30. That's because I'm still working on my 10 Best List for this year. I'm pretty sure I have the top three picked out, but I want to maintain some degree of suspense, so I will present those very shortly after the new year, and I'll show you my 10 best from each year in  a future post too.

In the meantime, feel free to ring out the old year (or ring in the new one) discussing  my picks. What are yours? What did I omit? Or foolishly include?

Monday, December 28, 2009

Sir Critic converts to Blu-Ray - partly

Regular readers of mine will know I have expressed considerable doubts about the longevity and viability of Blu-Ray. Only a month or so ago, I was railing against Disney/Pixar for including so many extras on the Blu-Ray and so few on the DVD.

Well, now I find myself in the curious position of owning Up on Blu-Ray - and, so it must follow, owning a Blu-Ray player. (You can never own too many copies of a movie that good).

What made me change my mind? Christmas. Or, more specifically, my mom. When I made my initial list, I apparently didn't check it twice because my mom asked me if I wanted any "big ticket" items. "No electronics? Blu-Ray player?" she asked.

And I thought, "Well, why the hell not?" At the very least, it would be a way for me to know what I was criticizing RE: Blu-Ray, and I could finally get some of those Pixar extras I had been sorely missing. I selected the LG BD370, because it got really good reviews, was very reasonably priced, and could connect to the Internet so I could stream Netflix movies to my TV. Very handy feature, that.

I also received the following Blu-Ray titles: District 9, Star Trek (2009), Enchanted, Cars, Ratatouille, and Up. You may notice those are all the Pixar titles of the Blu-Ray age, save WALL-E. That DVD was pretty well stocked with extras, unlike the DVDs for the other movies. I'll be renting that Blu-Ray from Netflix to see if the Blu-Ray-exclusive  extras are worth the coin.)

So am I now convinced that Blu-Ray is the wave of the future, and can my friends look forward to me giving away my old DVDs as I replace them with Blu-Rays?

No, and for the most part, no. When I do end up with duplicates I will approach potentially interested parties and let them know. ;)

There is no doubt Blu-Rays look and sound better than DVD. A lot of people talk about the improved picture, but I find the audio to be punchier as well. Even so, my impression is that you can't truly appreciate the difference unless you have a super-duper home theater setup. Mine is merely super. I have not yet added the duper part of getting a flat-screen 16:9 TV, although I hope to do so before 2010 is out. For now, I DO have an HDTV, but it's a 4:3 CRT model with a 27-inch screen. Not exactly breathtaking CinemaScope, but it'll do while I scrimp and save.

However, am I now convinced that Blu-Rays are a worthwhile buy if you're a movie nut?


The extras on Blu-Ray are simply too cool for me to resist. The way they're laid out on the Pixar DVDs is especially cool. They use what the call the Cine-Explore option, in which you can not only hear the filmmakers talk on an audio track, but you can see pictures of concept art and photographs of Pixar's research road trips as the movie is playing. You may also program the Blu-Ray to jump to a mini-documentary about the scene you're watching.  With Cars, I saw footage of Pixar's visits to Route 66 destinations. And thanks to Blu-Ray I learned that Dug from Up  made a very fleeting appearance in Ratatouille - two years before we actually knew of him.

And the coolness is not limited to Pixar. The Enchanted DVD has a nifty trivia game that asks you questions about the many Disney films Enchanted references. And if you get the question right, you're treated to a vintage clip of the scene in question. For instance, when Giselle sings "The Happy Working Song" and her image is refelected in soap bubbles, the Blu-Ray can show you the scene from Cinderella that gave rise to that image.

All that said, I do still find it unfair of Disney and other companies to make certain extras Blu-Ray exclusive when they could very easily go on a DVD. The Enchanted trivia game is understandable, but there was no good reason not to include at least a commentary on the Ratatouille DVD.

So will I buy Blu-Rays or DVDs from this point forward? That all depends. For certain filmmakers (Scorsese) and fimmaking companies (Pixar), Blu-Ray will be automatic now. Otherwise it will depend on the price and the extras. Thankfully, Blu-Ray discs are finally starting to come down in price, so the primary pivot for me will be the extras, especially if I already own a regular ol' DVD of the title.

And there was one other factor that made me take the hi-def plunge. The best movie channel in the whole wide world, TCM, just added a hi-def channel. I was waiting for that particular event to happen before I fast-tracked an HDTV, and with that now in motion, I figured I might as well go whole hog.  

Besides, any format that makes Amy Adams look that glorious has got to be worthwhile, right?

Thursday, December 24, 2009

'Twas the reviews before Christmas

Twas the day before Christmas, when here on the Net,
The film critic felt guilty and started to fret
The reviews were placed in a blog post with care
In the hope that page views and such soon would be there

That's just my rhyming way of saying I'm sorry I've been lax about posting on this blog of late. Crazy busy-ness with my job and the holidays, and  attempts at playing Beatles Rock Band have all slowed me down to some degree. But before some of us plunge TOO headlong into the holly-days, I'd like to leave you with a bevy of short reviews of fare on the big and small screens.


Brothers - This war/coming home drama unfolds with a certain obviousness, and I had problems with a major plot hole in that the military seems to tell the family in this film their loved one has died, when in fact the military would never do such a thing without hard physical evidence (this is per my brother, who is serving in Iraq). However, superior performances from Tobey Maguire as a damaged POW, Jake Gyllenhaal as his layabout brother and Natalie Portman as Maguire's wife still make it powerful. GRADE: B

The Blind Side - I can see why this movie has gone over so well with the public, even if I can't quite praise the film so highly myself. It's inspirational and not overly melodramatic, but for a story with such serious themes, it occasionally comes across as too cutesy and glib, and I get the distinct sense it's reality glossed over. All the same, it's still affecting and well made, for the most part. GRADE: B+

Invictus - Clint Eastwood's Nelson Mandela sports movie is eminently decent - perhaps a bit too much so. It's well worth seeing mainly because of Morgan Freeman's terrific turn as Mandela, but the movie as a whole feels too earnest and loses energy in the third act, when Eastwood relies on too many slow-motion shots. GRADE: B

The Messenger - This may be the most illuminating of all the current war films in that it takes a viewpoint we so rarely see - that of the officers whose grave duty it is to tell people their loved one has died serving their country. The plot thickens when one of the officers (Ben Foster) develops an affection for a widow (Samantha Morton). Powerful performances by everyone, especially Woody Harrelson as Foster's cynical superior, carry the movie a long way, but I wish the movie had done more with Morton's storyline, which dissipates too quickly. GRADE: B+

Up in the Air - With its themes of loneliness and isolation, and its brilliant writing and directing, Jason Retiman's new film affected me personally and powerfully. It's no surprise that George Clooney and Vera Farmiga give excellent performances, but Anna Kendrick truly impresses in a career-making turn that's more complex than it seems at first glance. This film deserves every bit of effusive praise it's gotten and then some - so much so that I may like this film even better than a certain animated film with a similar but much shorter title. And if you know me, you know that's saying something. GRADE: A+


District 9 - Absolutely terrific sci-fi thriller ingeniously filmed by Peter Jackson protege Neill Blomkamp. If acting awards were given the true consideration they deserve, Sharlto Copley would be a serious Oscar contender. Full review - GRADE: A
(500) Days of Summer - Lilting, uplifting, and eye-filling, this endlessly inventive romance offers more proof that the best romances tend to be the ones with the most anguish. (Casablanca, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind et al.) If acting awards were given the true consideration they deserve, Zooey Deschamel  would be a serious Oscar contender. Full review - GRADE: A+

The Hangover - I've never had one in my life, but I found the movie hilarious too. GRADE: A-

Inglourious Basterds - I remain somewhat surprised this is doing so well in year-end awards.Yes, parts of the movie are outstanding, but at the same time, they only serve to underscore how weak other parts of the movie are in comparison. It's biggest problem is that there's no emotional through-line connecting all the stories, as there is in Tarantino's best work. It's occasionally a great movie - but only occasionally. Full review - GRADE: B+

It Might Get Loud - Just as I've never had a hangover, I've also never been a huge fan of Jack White, the Edge or Jimmy Page, yet I still thoroughly enjoyed this documentary that contrasted their stores and styles in a highly entertaining way. Full review - GRADE A-

Taking Woodstock - Ang Lee's look at the forming of the legendary musical suffers from nostalgia that's too cute and twee, but terrific atmosphere and strong performances put it across. GRADE: B

I hope everyone has a great Christmas - or a great end of December, if you prefer. I'll be back next week with more reviews, my best of 2009 list and my best of the decade list.

Friday, December 18, 2009


Avatar is all too much - in that good kind of way.

I type this less than half an hour after staggering out of the theater and am still attempting to collect my thoughts Is James Cameron's latest the revolution in cinema some claim it will be? Is it even the best film of this year?

At this early stage, I cannot give an honest answer. I'm still absorbing and processing it - but the fact that I'm still doing that now is telling. What I can say without hesitation  is that Avatar is THE most incredible  sensory experience I have ever had, in a theater or anywhere else. Anyone with even a passing interest in movies owes it to themselves to experience the visual wonders of this film. Avatar is a must-see - with the emphasis on the word SEE.

The visual effects and the use of 3D are simply dazzling. The movie washed over me. It happened to me. I completely forgot where I was, and even now, as I write this, issues that had been troubling me seem not to matter. That's how affecting it was.

And it's not just the new techniques that work. Some of the old ones do too.With this film, Cameron reaffirms his status as the preeminent action director of all time. The climaxes of Cameron's movie escalate higher and higher and higher, but never at the expense of character or comprehension. And he's done it again with Avatar, the climax of which is breathtaking.

Some say that spectacle trumps narrative, and that's a valid point. The movie is almost too otherworldly for its own good. So much imagination has gone into creating the visuals that they sometimes overwhelm the characters. The romance in particular, usally one of Cameron's strong suits, feels rather pallid this time around.

That conceded, Avatar absolutely does NOT deserve some of the narrow-minded scorn that has come its way, such as those  glib Smurf and Ferngully references. Once people see Avatar, those concerns will fly away like an alien sucked into a vacuum.

Although the narrative isn't as strong as it could be, I would argue that the way this story is being told is just as important as what it's telling us. Cameron's 3D process so enveloped me, I felt much like some of the characters in the film - as if  I had an out-of-body experience. To say Avatar is transcendent is not hyperbole to me.

Avatar has been and will be compared to many films, but I'll throw out one title that not many people have mentioned: Schindler's List.

When I first saw that Steven Spielberg film, it so overpowered me, I couldn't take it all in at first. Avatar is much the same way. One viewing is simply not enough to appreciate all this movie has to offer. Maybe Avatar isn't the best movie of the year, but I can say with confidence it's the most sensational film of the year.


Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Golden Globe nomination reactions; (sometimes) tentative predictions

So what's my take on the latest movie award nominations? Just call me Magellan as I circle the Golden Globes.

Picture, Drama: "Avatar," "The Hurt Locker," "Inglourious Basterds," "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire," "Up in the Air."

No great surprises here - and no Avatar is NOT a surprise the way it's been gathering steam. I call Up in the Air the favorite to win. The one omission I am somwhat surprised by is An Education, which only copped a single nomination, for lead actress Carey Mulligan.

Picture, Musical or Comedy: "(500) Days of Summer," "The Hangover," "It's Complicated," "Julie & Julia," "Nine."

Again, no jaw-droppers or even "Hmms" here. I actually like Julie & Julia's chances best, though I'm personally rooting for (500) Days of Summer.  And for those who think The Hangover has a shot at a Best Picture Oscar now, you're drunk. Star Trek will get nominated before The Hangover will.

Actor, Drama: Jeff Bridges, "Crazy Heart"; George Clooney, "Up in the Air"; Colin Firth, "A Single Man"; Morgan Freeman, "Invictus"; Tobey Maguire, "Brothers."

The HFPA may go for Clooney, whom they love, but I think the undervalued Bridges has a real shot - and I actually have Bridges in the top spot to win the Oscar at the moment. Maguire is a small but pleasant surprise.

Actress, Drama: Emily Blunt, "The Young Victoria"; Sandra Bullock, "The Blind Side"; Helen Mirren, "The Last Station"; Carey Mulligan, "An Education"; Gabourey Sidibe, "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire."

I would have called this for Mulligan in a walk, but with the film getting no other noms, I'm not  so sure now. I would rule out neither Sidibe (the HFPA loves to award newcomers) or Bullock (the HFPA loves stars).

Director: Kathryn Bigelow, "The Hurt Locker"; James Cameron, "Avatar"; Clint Eastwood, "Invictus"; Jason Reitman, "Up in the Air"; Quentin Tarantino, "Inglourious Basterds."

So the trivia question comes to frutiion Which category has a former married couple competing against each other? Cameron and Bigelow. Barring an Up in the Air sweep, I think Bigelow's chances are very strong here. 

Actor, Musical or Comedy: Matt Damon, "The Informant!"; Daniel Day-Lewis, "Nine"; Robert Downey Jr., "Sherlock Holmes"; Joseph Gordon-Levitt, "(500) Days of Summer"; Michael Stuhlbarg, "A Serious Man."

Delighted to see Damon and Stuhlbarg here; and Gordon-Leavitt as well. Not sure what to make of Downey's nom; that feels to me like a "Well, what else IS there?" pick. I actually like Damon's chances best, and the win would be well-deserved; it's Damon's best work to date.

Actress, Musical or Comedy: Sandra Bullock, "The Proposal"; Marion Cotillard, "Nine"; Julia Roberts, "Duplicity"; Meryl Streep, "It's Complicated"; Meryl Streep, "Julie & Julia."

Roberts' selection is the biggest surprise among the major categories, and I say this as someone who found Duplicity extremely underrated. Roberts is fun in the film, but I am disheartened to see that Zooey Deschanel of (500) Days of Summer missed the mark. Ultimately, it doesn't matter - this is Julia Child's award in a walk.

Supporting Actor: Matt Damon, "Invictus"; Woody Harrelson, "The Messenger"; Christopher Plummer, "The Last Station"; Stanley Tucci, "The Lovely Bones"; Christoph Waltz, "Inglourious Basterds."

Very odd group. Damon is good but not THAT good in Invictus.  Harrelson is outstanding but his film doesn't have enough traction. Tucci could well win since he had an excellent year with excellent work in Julie & Julia, but The Lovely Bones is fading badly in the home stretch. As magnetic as Waltz is, I would not rule him out at all. He just may win. 

Supporting Actress: Penelope Cruz, "Nine"; Vera Farmiga, "Up in the Air"; Anna Kendrick, "Up in the Air"; Mo'Nique, "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire"; Julianne Moore, "A Single Man."

The Up in the Air women will cancel each other out. Cruz has a shot, but Mo'Nique has built up great momentum, so I think it's hers to lose.

Foreign Language: "Baaria," "Broken Embraces," "The Maid (La Nana)," "A Prophet," "The White Ribbon."

I've seen none of the noms, but based on reputation, I like The White Ribbon to won.

Animated Film: "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs," "Coraline," "Fantastic Mr. Fox," "The Princess and the Frog," "Up."

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. Really. Up is pretty well unbeatable here, as it should be.

Screenplay: Neill Blomkamp, "District 9"; Mark Boal, "The Hurt Locker"; Nancy Meyers, "It's Complicated"; Jason Reitman, "Up in the Air"; Quentin Tarantino, "Inglourious Basterds."

I LOVE the nomination for District 9,  which was very clever, but Up in the Air's got this pretty easily, I think.

Original Score: Michael Giacchino, "Up"; Marvin Hamlisch, "The Informant!"; James Horner, "Avatar"; Abel Korzeniowski, "A Single Man"; Karen O, Carter Burwell, "Where the Wild Things Are."

Giacchino is a top candidate here, but I also loved Hamlisch's delightfully quirky/cheesy tribute to the sound of the 70s. Neither would surprise me.

Original Song: "Cinema Italiano" (written by Maury Yeston), "Nine"; "I Want to Come Home" (written by Paul McCartney); "Everybody's Fine"; "I Will See You" (written by James Horner, Simon Franglen, Kuk Harrell); "Avatar"; "The Weary Kind (Theme from 'Crazy Heart')" (written by Ryan Bingham, T Bone Burnett), "Crazy Heart"; "Winter" (written by U2), "Brothers."

Of course, Sir Critic is delighted to see Sir Paul, but even this Beatlemaniac has to admit it's not a great tune; I think T-Bone Burnett, who has done such good work as a musical arranger in the movies (he was the musical brain behind O Brother Where Art Thou and Walk the Line just to name two) could well win for his Crazy Heart song. I will also note that I am disappointed that none of Randy Newman's songs from The Princess and the Frog made it.

Your thoughts?

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

REVIEW: The Princess and the Frog

The magic is back.

I have long been a Disney aficionado, but even so, I was pleasantly surprised at just how highly The Princess and the Frog lifted my spirits. I came out of the film feeling like I was walking on air, and I haven't gotten that lift from a Disney movie for a very long time. It's not up to the latter-day crown jewels of The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin, but it is Disney's best animated film since Lilo & Stitch.

In all of the end-of-the-decade wrap-ups floating around right now, I have been unsurprised but still displeased to see no one mention the demise of hand-drawn animation as one of the key events in movies over the last 10 years. As CGI increasingly dominated the scene, misguided studio executives believed that audiences were no longer interested in hand-drawn animation, never mind that the real problems were weak stories and poor marketing.  Regardless, studios gave up on the format, consigning it to direct-to-video junk. Disney, the studio that started it all, ended the era ignominiously with the pleasant but relentlessly underwhelming Home on the Range in 2004. For me, it was one of the saddest turning points of the decade, and hardly anyone paid it any mind.

But now, with the arrival of The Princess and the Frog,  attention is being paid, and rightly so. Co-Writers and directors John Musker and Ron Clements were at the forefront of Disney's renaissance when they made The Little Mermaid in 1989, and in the great tradition of history coming full circle, they're at the helm of another resuscitation. In this tale, our heroine, Tiana (Anika Noni Rose of Dreamgirls) wants more than anything to open  her own restaurant and realize the unfulfilled dreams of her late father.

Of course, there are a few bumps in the road on the path to dreams come true. The flippant, devil-may-care Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos) unwisely falls under the spell of the black magic master Dr. Facilier (Keith David), who turns Naveen into a frog. He believes Tiana's kiss will turn him human again, but the kiss turns her into a frog as well. The two make their way into the bayou to find a way to become human again and restore normality - so far as it goes.

Some might say this is formula Disney, and it is, up to a point. However, Musker and Clements and their co-writers put several fun spins on the formula. I liked how the heroine's dreams didn't revolve around landing a man, and how she was even skeptical of wishing upon a star.  The villain isn't bent on domination so much as he is under pressure from evil spirits. And the sidekicks don't just crack wise on every other line.  I feared that the Cajun firefly Ray (Jim Cummings) would just be an excuse for fart jokes, but even this character had real heart to him.

Befitting the vibrant diversity of its setting, New Orleans, The Princess and the Frog feels like a synthesis of Musker and Clements' past work.  It blends the classicism of Mermaid,  the wild stylization of Aladdin and Hercules and the zippy, zany humor of all their movies. When a jazz-loving crocodile lands on a riverboat to blow his trumpet, the ensuing chaos made me laugh harder than I have in a theater all year.

I also noticed nods to the movies of Walt's era, and some of the bayou animation even reminded me of the Disney films of the 70s, like The Rescuers. Click here for a fun article listing references to other Disney movies; I suspect there are many more.

Naturally, I was also thrilled simply to see hand-drawn animation in all its glory from the studio that revolutionized the process. The Princess and the Frog looks spectacular, featuring not only lush and beautiful scenes but eerie, foreboding ones too. The movie's use of shadow play in Dr. Facilier's scenes is a perfect example of why hand-drawn animation was the right choice for this movie. As gorgeous as computer animation can be, there are some effects and details it simply cannot convey. May studios never again forget that pens and pencils can =make for beautiful art, and beautiful storytelling.

Just as The Princess and the Frog looks great, it sounds great as well. Randy Newman wrote the songs and the score, and they're marvelous. While his work probably won't have the staying power of Alan Menken's best tunes, all the songs are solid at the very least.  My favorite was Tiana's bright "I want" anthem "Almost There," followed by the bayou  showstopper "Dig a Little Deeper."

I notice I'm gushing, and I have to wonder - am I overrating the film simply because it's the first hand-drawn Disney film in five years, and their first fairy tale in 17? Am I the starving man who thinks the cracker he's been tossed is the greatest meal he's ever had?

I won't deny some degree of nostalgia rose-colors my view of the movie, but I do recognize minor flaws. A scene in which Tiana and Naveen tangle with some redneck hunters is padding and could easily be dropped. The climax also feels a touch too frenetic, which drains the ending of the emotional wallop Disney's best movies deliver.

However, 2009 has delivered one great animated movie after another. The Princess and the Frog may not be the best of the bunch,  but for me, it's the happiest. The movie proves that Disney can, indeed, make 'em like they used to.


PS: Anybody hear anyone calling the movie racist now?

Friday, December 11, 2009

Reviews of every Disney 2D animated film I've seen

Some people are most looking forward to seeing Avatar this holiday season. Some are most looking forward to Up in the Air. Some are most looking forward to Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakuel. And I really hope I can look down on most of those people.

Ah, but the film I most want to see in the remainder of this year is Disney's The Princess and the Frog.

I freely admit, I'm a fool for most things Disney, and with good reason. Their animated films were among the first powerful stories I heard in my youth. And being a Disney aficionado has earned me some of my most wonderful friends.

While I have been a staunch Disney defender, and even something of an apologist for their work, I have to admit, the past decade has not been kind to Walt Disney Feature Animation. There have been a couple great films and a lot of good ones, but the 2000s have been nowhere close to their magnificent run in the 1990s. Somewhere along the way, Disney's storytelling went slack.

Pixar picked up that slack, and I've made it abundantly clear I adore their work. However, Pixar is not Disney. Pixar picked up a lot of traits from Disney, to be sure, but each studio has a very different vibe. I want both. And I am very hopeful that Disney is on the rebound with a most welcome return to hand-drawn animation, given the reviews so far.

I hope to see The Princess and the Frog on Saturday. In commemoration and in preparation for that imminet viewing, I offer up short reviews of every Disney hand-drawn animated film. (Please note this list does not consider hybrids like Mary Poppins or Pete's Dragon,  and certainly does NOT cover the direct-to-video titles, which were largely responsible for watering down the brand.). The list that follows is considered Disney's official roster.

Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs - I always thought Snow herself was kind of dull, but the dwarfs and the wicked queen absolutely make the move. GRADE: A

Pinocchio - Still my favorite animated film of any kind. Magnificent. GRADE: A+

Fantasia - Remains ahead of its time, nearly 70 years later. GRADE: A+

Dumbo - "Baby Mine" ... oh god ... GRADE: A+

Bambi - Bambi's mom. oh god ... GRADE: A+

Saludos Amigos - Fun, but too slight; it's barely a feature. GRADE: B-

The Three Caballeros - Delightfully zany and trippy. One of the studio's most underrated films. GRADE: A-

Cinderella - My favorite of Walt's princess movies. GRADE: A+

Alice In Wonderland - A little disjointed story-wise, even for a Lewis Carroll adaptation, but visually inventive, very funny, and far too maligned over the years. GRADE: B+

Peter Pan - A bit dated, particularly in its depiction of the Indians, but mostly delightful. GRADE: A

Lady And The Tramp - The famous "spaghetti kiss" is seriously one of the most romantic moments in the movies, animated or otherwise. GRADE: A+

Sleeping Beauty -  I've never cared much for the angular style of the animation here, and story problems abound. On the plus side, Maleficent is one of the most terrifying villains ever created. And the three fairies are quite funny, just to balance the scales. GRADE: B

101 Dalmatians - Great fun, and Cruellla is another great villainess, but for some reason I can't quite define, has never been one of my favorites. As dog movies go, Lady and the Tramp has it all over this one. GRADE: B+

The Sword In The Stone - Has one great scene in the battle between Merlin and Madame Mimm, but otherwise, this is depressingly average, and the weakest movie of Walt's era. GRADE: C

The Jungle Book - Walt's final film is just a touch thin narratively, but great characters and irresistible songs carry it a very long way. GRADE: A-

The Many Adventures Of Winnie The Pooh: (Starts humming the theme, which means you'll all have the theme song stuck in your heads now.) GRADE: A-

The Rescuers - Not one of the great Disney movies, but I have a very soft spot for it because it was the first new Disney film of my childhood - that I can clearly remember, anyway.  GRADE: B+

Oliver & Company - Billy Joel's musical number "Why Should I Worry" is fun, but otherwise, barely memorable. My vote for Disney's low point. GRADE: C

The Little Mermaid - Hello, renaissance! GRADE: A+

The Rescuers Down Under - Entertaining if fairly indistinct sequel. GRADE: B

Beauty And The Beast - My absolute favorite of the "renaissance" period. It should have WON the Best Picture Oscar. GRADE: A+

Aladdin - The funniest movie Disney has ever made. GRADE: A+

The Lion King - Excellent at its best, but I never understood why people went SO bananas over this film. It has some excellent scenes, but "Circle of Life" and "Hakuna Matata" aside, the songs were weak. GRADE: B+

Pocahontas - Not a great film overall, and it IS a tad on the preachy side, but I will forever maintain this is a better film than The Lion King. So there. GRADE: A-

The Hunchback Of Notre Dame - The comedy mixes a little uneasily with the drama, but this is the great underrated Disney film of the 90s. The opening sequence especially is a knockout, and Alan Menken's score is one of his best. GRADE: A

Hercules: Yes, this one is underrated too - and I thought that even BEFORE a certain bias took hold, just so you know. GRADE: A

Mulan - The songs are a bit flat, (by now, "Reflection" has been sung by 341 American Idol contestants too many), but quite moving and powerful on the whole. GRADE: A-

Tarzan - Stunning in almost every respect, particularly in the amazing visuals rendered with the "deep canvas" process that made camera movement more fluid and the backgrounds more lively. GRADE: A

Fantasia 2000
- Couldn't possibly match the original but at times comes astonishingly close. GRADE: A

The Emperor's New Groove
- I remember being distinctly underwhelmed by the trailers,  then couldn't stop laughing when I saw it. GRADE: B+

Atlantis: The Lost Empire - Has some great action scenes and fun comedic touches, but the story is  extremely scattershot. It feels like the script was endlessly tinkered with and picked over. GRADE: B

Lilo And Stitch - The ad campaign intermingling Sitich with classic characters was a stroke of genius - and the movie pretty much lived up to it. GRADE: A

Treasure Planet - This dazzlingly inventive movie got shafted, even by its own studio. It did NOT deserve to stuff at the box office the way it did. GRADE: A

Brother Bear - What do you know, another underrated film. The moose Rutt and Tuke's comedy alone makes it worthwhile. GRADE: A-

Home On The Range - Has some funny moments, but it evaporated from memory very quickly, and it contains not one memorable tune. Alan Menken was way off his game here. GRADE: B-


Make Mine Music/Fun And Fancy Free/Melody Time - I've seen parts of these omnibus films, but never the complete works, so I can't consider them here.

The Adventures Of Ichabod And Mr. Toad - I've seen the Ichabod sequence many times, and it's great, but I've still never seen Mr. Toad. I know him only from the fairly lame ride.

The Aristocats - The first actual Disney film of my childhood, but I was a wee bit young to see it then and have still never gotten around to it.

Robin Hood - My understanding is it's better that I've missed this one.

The Fox and the Hound: Actually, I have seen this one, but it's been so long, I can't review it fairly.

The Black Cauldron: It can't be THAT bad, can it?

The Great Mouse Detective: The Disney film I most regret missing. Many say the renaissance had its roots in this movie.

I'd love it if my readers would chime in with their own Disney critiques - or at the very least, name their favorites.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

The return of the pithy DVD reviews

Since my, um, compact DVD reviews went over so well last time, I'm going to try that tact again. In 10 words or less:

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince: Second best, after Azkaban, Best photography of the series. A (full review)

Julie & Julia: Ah, dear Amy. Meryl who? Kidding! Well, half-kidding. A- (full review)

Public Enemies: Underrated. Depp and Mann score, but Bale missed the mark. A- (review)

Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithonian. Amy's great as Amelia. The rest? Feh. C

Terminator Salvation: Too mechanical, even for a movie about robots.  C+ (review)

Monday, December 07, 2009

Are these the 10 Most Significant Movie Developments of the decade?

Best-of-the-decade movie lists are starting to roll in (and I will have one for you all this month), but I got a different sort of list today - one that I find questionable in many  respects. It's the supposed Top-10 Most Significant Movie Developments of the Past Decade.

Here's the list, with my commentary:

1.      The evolution of social media (Twitter, blogs) to propel box office numbers - Meeehhh. I  have a hard time believing the social networking sites affect box office in any significant way, as of yet. The influence of Twitter, Facebook at all is extremely pervasive to be sure, but I don't think they've been around long enough to push the numbers that much one way or the other. I think those who push this idea are just trying to seem hip and trendy. 

2.      The advancement of Computer-Generated Imaging - You won't get any argument from me here, but I would broaden the scope and cite the advancement of digital tools as a whole. Take a look at the way films are edited nowadays - the style is noticeably different from when editors were cutting actual film.

3.      The rise of 3D films and IMAX - Agreed on both counts, although the jury is still out as to how much of a foothold 3D can keep. Even with the new system that is easier on the eyes, I still hear a lot of complaints. IMAX has the potential to be more influential, because it's well nigh impossible to duplicate that effect at home.  However, the rise of the so-called LIE-MAX could put a dent in that influence.,

4.      The creation of Netflix, as well as the ability to download movies before they are available on DVD or Blu-Ray - Absolutely. And downloading is only going to be more pervasive.

5.      The launch of online ticket sales - For the exhibitor, maybe. For us ordinary ol' moviegoers? Not so much. I rarely use it except for THE most popular films and even then, movies go out on so many screens, I find sell-outs are rare. (It helps if you avoid going Friday and Saturday nights, like I do.)

6.      The major influx of movies based on comics - There's certainly been an uptick here with the rise of Marvel as a movie-producing force, but one of the top 10 developments of the decade? Not convinced.

7.      Fantasy books made into major feature films including The Lord of the Rings trilogy and Harry Potter - Similar answer to number 6. Fantasy was certainly big, but game-changing big? If you rephrase to say "The increasing dominance of the Big, Dumb Movie," you might have something.

8.      The surge in piracy (Remember the X-MEN Origins: Wolverine leak?) - For the movie studios? Yes, even if they're loath to admit most of the piracy happens in their own walls rather than in movie theaters.  But for the general public? Negligible.

9.      The rise of the Fanboy and nerd culture as movies targeted this influential demo - Isn't this sayng the same thing as number 6, but in a larger sense? Another way to put it might be "The teenage boy emerges as the predominant target audience."

10.  The development of High Definition technology and Blu-Ray: High-Definition? Yes. Blu-Ray? Jury's still out, but I doubt it. 

Here are a few other developments I would consider:  

The rise of the stadium seating theater - Think of it - the very shape of the theaters we see movies in changed. That's no small thing.

The prevalence of in-theater advertising - I didn't say the list had to be all GOOD things. I don't know of anyone who actually likes the ads (despite what some dubious surveys say), but clearly the ads are here to stay.

The decline of the indie market - Unless you're a mini-major like Fox Searchlight or Focus Films, you're in worse shape than you've ever been. And that's not good for movies as a whole.

The shortening of the DVD release window - Wanna know the reason most people don't go to the theater anymore? This, even moreso than rude audiences, is the main reason why.

Agree/disagree? What other "developments" should be on this list? 

Thursday, December 03, 2009

There's never a vacation from the movies!

The French Quarter? Hah. Compared to the attractions I saw Wednesday, it's more like the French Nickel.

I'm on vacation in New Orleans, I'll be going to the Quarter on Thursday, but I honestly doubt I'll have as much fun there as I did Wednesday at the Prytania Theatre and the New Orleans Museum of Modern Art, both of which centered around - you guessed it - movies!

The Prytania Theatre is the ONLY single-screen theater left not only in New Orleans, but in ALL of Louisiana. Places like this are a dying breed, and that's such a shame because these sorts of theaters have something today's megaplexes are sorely missing - personality.

The Prytanina is literally a neighborhood theater - it's smack dab in the middle of a residential district. There aren't even many businesses right nearby. The layout is basically house, house, house, house, theater, house, house, house and house. In location and general appearance it reminded me of the late and lamented Dabel Theatre in East Dayton.

Dad and I trekked there to catch a showing of Miracle on 34th Street. (Tis the season, you know, even with palm trees and temperatures in the 60s.) When we arrived, the owner, Rene Brunet, greeted us warmly, with a big smile, and with a Looney Tunes tie on.

Some movie theaters have character, but the Prytania has  character in Rene, who was an absolute charmer. Introducing the movie, he self-effacingly cracked, "The real miracle will be to get me to shut up." He didn't have to, I could have listened to the guy for hours. He has as many stories about movie theaters as I do Beatle lyrics jammed in my head.

Upon entering the theater, we were treated to a very strange selection of French animated shorts. It was hard to get a glimpse of these; the digital projector they used kept skipping around the titles; turned out they were testing the equipment. The most amusing short we see is a CG one of an elephant jumping and somersaulting on a trampoline.

Just at the classic movie series in Dayton does, our program started with a cartoon, which was Bully for Bugs - that's the one where Mr. Bunny tangles with a bull after failing to make that left turn at Albuquerque. ("Stop steamin' up my tail! What are ya tryin' ta do, wrinkle it?")  It's projected via a DVD, and I am briefly amused when the projector selects the audio commentary track from animation historian Michael Barrier. It's Looney Tunes with a PBS edge - for about five seconds, anyway.

I am initially disappointed to learn that Miracle on 34th Street will also be projected digitally, but am relieved to learn they have a high-resolution projector, not one of those crappy ones that makes it look like you're watching the movie through a screen door. I will always prefer a good-quality film print,  but I recognize those are harder and harder to come by - if digital projection must be done, this is the way to do it.

And the film? It's one of my five favorite Christmas movies, and really, it should be anybody's. Edmund Gwenn  richly deserved his Oscar for playing Santa - it's the best performance in a Christmas movie this side of Alistair Sim. The movie always gets to a sap like me, who really belives in those "lovely intangibles."  After all, they're the only things that are worthwhile.

After the movie, I chit-chat with a few fellow patrons, regaling them with trivia about how Gwenn won an Oscar and helping to clarify lines from the film. More importantly, I introduce myself to Rene, who really seems touched by my interest in the place. He gives me a copy of Preservation Magazine, which features a profile of him, which he has autographed.  It's my first souvenir of my trip - and surely my favorite. I'm only sorry I can't return here this weekend when Rear Window is playing. But I WILL be back when I return to NOLA.

After that, Dad and I venture to the New Orleans Museum of Modern Art, which has an exhibit called "Dreams Come True," which features original artwork from Disney's fairy tale movies, from Snow White to The Princess and the Frog, which is timely, considering the latter is set in New Orleans. The artwork ranges from concept art to rough animation to finished stills.

Predictably,  I wasn't allowed to take pictures inside, and that handicaps me here. Skilled writer through I may be, no prose of mine can adequately convey the power of the imagery on display. Suffice it to say that for a Disney nut like me, this was absolute bliss. Just seeing ORIGINAL works by legends like Les Clark, Norm Ferguson, Mary Blair, Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston, Glen Keane and so many more was thrilling. In my mind's eye, I felt like I was at the studio while these drawings were created. And the clips displayed on hi-res TVs throughout the exhibit looked absolutely stunning.

The exhibit also has those little audio guides you carry around with you - these look like early cell phones that are about the size of a baton. The audio clips, including sound bites from Walt, are fun, but I've always felt these devices make the tours a little less personal because you get sucked into the audio and not into the people around you. Luckily, my dad alleviates this. Being a graphic artist himself, he points out aspects of the drawings I would have never spotted on my own, such as lightly drawn grids that help dertermine the sense of space.

The exhibit does have one MAJOR mis-step. It omits Aladdin entirely, and I can't figure out why. Aladdin does have a princess, so it counts as a fairy tale. Considering it was made by John Musker and Ron Clements, who also directed The Princess and the Frog, Aladdin's absence is especially unfortunate.

That aside, the exhibit is a marvel. It ends with a teaser of sorts - a single painting from their next fairy tale, Rapunzel, due in theaters next year. If only I could see The Princess and the Frog in the very city in which it is set, but that will have to wait till next weekend. It is the film of the holiday season I am most eager to see.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

REVIEW: The Fantastic Mr. Fox

One of my dearest friends, who is a big animation fan, saw The Fantastic Mr. Fox recently and told me she didn't know what to make of it.

I had to grin and giggle a little, because that's when I truly knew the movie worked as it should.

Well, no, scratch that - I first knew it when I saw it myself and found it highly entertaining. In a banner year for animation, Mr. Fox ranks third, behind Coraline and Up. But  my friend's puzzled reaction confirmed for me this film's very particular and unusual effect - you might call it the Wes Anderson effect. He was the main reason I saw the movie, which never even advertised its creator.

Anderson, of course, is known to film buffs like me for movies such as Rushmore, The Darjeeling Limited, and my personal favorite of his, The Royal Tenenbaums. Outcasts and misfits run strong through his films, as does a general sense of alienation - all these movies are about their characters trying to get a better sense of who they are.

So it goes with The Fantastic Mr. Fox. The alienation is just as strong, the humor is just as quirky - this is every inch a Wes Anderson film that just happens to be stop-motion animated.

Mr. Fox (George Clooney) being the animal he is, has a penchant for stealing chickens from farms. When he and his wife are trapped one day, the wife (Meryl Streep) convinces Mr. Fox to give up his pastime. For a while he does, becoming (of all things) a newspaper columnist. Ultimately, however, the urge to steal proves impossible to quash, and Mr. Fox sets out on daring hiest plans to rob three highly guarded farms.

My friend's boyfriend described The Fantastic Mr. Fox as "a midlife crisis story with animals," and that's actually a pretty fair description. That is the core of the story, adapted from Roald Dahl. However, there are some wonderfully funny vignettes besides. The heists on the farms have a zany, Rube Goldberg-like quality to them that isn't far removed from Looney Tunes. Some of the dry, low-key humor reminded me of the work of Aardman Animation, the creators of Chicken Run and Wallace and Gromit. To my eyes, the animation styles are somewhat similar as well.

Even so, Anderson has taken those styles and distilled them into a work that is distinctly his. It helps that Anderson, as is his wont, stocks the soundtrack with  musical gems that range from the familiar to the unfamiliar - sometimes in just one artist. Not only does it include the Beach Boys' hits "I Get Around " and "Heroes and Villians" but it also features their rare version of "Old Man River." Then there's the Disney double dose of "The Ballad of Davy Crockett" and "Love" from Robin Hood. I can't help but love a soundtrack that has all that, PLUS the Rolling Stones' "Street Fighting Man."

The movie is a little light on emotional pull, but it's so funny and creative, I had a great time all the same. Still,  what about people not attuned to Mr. Anderson's style? Mileage may vary. He can be an acquired taste, as my friends' reaction proved.  On the other hand, my best friend's six-year-old daughter very much enjoyed it.

The obvious answer, then, is to at least give The Fantastic Mr. Fox a try. Whatever effect it has, many people are likely to agree that it's unique - a quality too rarely seen in movies these days.