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There may be other movies with more artistic merit, but these are my own, heartfelt, very personal ten favorites of all time:
1. Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942)
Bogart, Bergman, Rains, Greenstreet...as close to perfection as a movie can get, and in beautiful black and white. It simply does not get any better than this.
2. The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972)
An amazing piece of movie-making. This ain't just another gangster movie. It's Shakespeare. Really. (In colour, but gloomy enough so I won't hold that against it.)
3. Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977)
Of course it made the list! I saw it 15 times when I was 12 years old! C'mon! (Too bad each sequel's worse than the one before it...)
4. Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)
Wow. Just...wow. Technically stunning to this day, and amazingly broad and deep in its scope. Don't get caught up in the superficial view that it's about Randolph Hearst; it's not. It's about America, gang. Black and white, too!
5. The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks, 1946)
The best of the Bogie/Bacall flicks, with the sharpest dialogue and most complicated plot...in black and white, as befits film noir. (Key Largo comes 2nd on the Bogie/Bacall list, followed by To Have and Have Not. You can give Dark Passage a miss, though.)
6. Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan (Nicholas Meyer, 1982)
The best of the Trek movies, or anything Trek, for that matter. And that's saying a lot. Forget Old Yeller; I still cry when Spock dies. (Okay, space operas are better in colour.)
7. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (Stanley Kubrick, 1964)
My favorite comedy. A black one. In black and white, of course! Great comic performance from Peter Sellers (in three different roles), but also hilarious stuff from Slim Pickens and George C. Scott of all people, who shows a talent for comedy here that he rarely got to show off in the rest of his career.
8. Wings of Desire (Der Himmel �ber Berlin) (Wim Wenders, 1987)
This movie is so un-Hollywood, so anti-movie, so subtle yet completely uplifting, I couldn't help but love it. Bastardized later into City of Angels; stick with the original, and see it on a big screen if you can. (Mostly filmed in black and white, too--the shift to colour near the end is, of course, significant.)
9. Raging Bull (Martin Scorsese, 1980)
I had to include something directed by Scorsese; it was a toss-up between this and Goodfellas, with Mean Streets, The Last Temptation of Christ, and The Last Waltz as runners-up. But this wins because it's powerful, raw, honest, and hey, it's in...you guessed it...black and white.
10. Chasing Amy (Kevin Smith, 1997)
And I had to include something written and directed by Kevin Smith, and this is clearly his best. Clerks is funny (and B&W), and Dogma is thoughtful, but this one packs the emotional wallop.
Honourable Mentions: In addition to all the films listed above, my other favorites include Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, The Shawshank Redemption, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Repo Man, Airplane!, American Beauty, The Good the Bad and the Ugly, Unforgiven, Henry V (Kenneth Branagh's version), Jaws, Koyaanisqatsi, The Lion in Winter, Lawrence of Arabia, The Maltese Falcon, Laura, M*A*S*H, The Man Who Would Be King, Psycho, Pulp Fiction, The Seven Samurai, The Usual Suspects, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, The Terminator, This is Spinal Tap, Rocky, From Russia with Love, Patton, The Stunt Man, When Harry Met Sally, and Risky Business.
The Bourne Legacy (2012)
Pales in comparison to the other Bourne films
I'm a fan of the Bourne series so I had high hopes for this film despite the absence of Jason Bourne/Matt Damon. Unfortunately, while the movie had some appealing elements it fails to manage them properly.
The biggest problem is the exceedingly slow start to the film. It takes an intolerably long time to get the main plot going; there's too much unnecessary exposition and too many superfluous "look how cool our hero is" action sequences. Furthermore, the best thing about the film is the genuine chemistry between Weisz and Renner, two very talented actors I'd like to see together again in a better vehicle. I'm amazed that the filmmakers could be so blind as to the appeal of the two leads that they let the movie meander for something like a third of its length before bringing them together.
Other problems include the lack of any genuine opposition for Aaron Cross (Renner). A supposedly superior assassin is eventually sent after him, but much too late and with too little character development or screen time. Compare that to Karl Urban's genuinely menacing turn in The Bourne Ultimatum.
Along the same lines, Edward Norton is miscast as the chief spook chasing Cross. He's too young (despite the obviously-artificial grey in his hair) to bring the needed gravitas to the role. Again, I couldn't help comparing him unfavourably to similar Bourne antagonists such as Chris Cooper, Brian Cox, and David Strathairn, all of whom had the necessary lined faces and weight of years to sell the idea that they're men who've given their lives--and souls--to a series of dirty jobs in the service of their country, and are therefore willing to cross any moral line, including coldly sentencing their own agents to death.
Finally, as I watched the film, and despite the aforementioned charisma of the two leads, I found myself growing tired of yet another variation of the action hero/damsel in distress trope. I couldn't help thinking what a more interesting movie this would have been if the roles had been reversed--if Weisz had been the uber-capable agent and Renner was the fish-out-of-water scientist reluctantly helping her. Someday, perhaps...
Thor: The Dark World (2013)
Good for action, but lacking the emotional depth of the first film
Thor: The Dark World has a lot going for it: charismatic leads, strong supporting characters, lots of great action sequences, and a straightforward story. It's entertaining and is a decent, solid entry in Marvel's cinematic universe.
But it could have been so much more. I see in this movie yet more evidence of a troubling habit in Hollywood action films: cutting vital character moments for the sake of inserting more action.
The emotional underpinning of the first Thor film was the title character's growing maturity and redemption. In its follow-up, the heart of the film should have been Thor and Jane's growing romance. In particular, we had the opportunity for a compelling love triangle (Thor-Jane-Sif) that would underscore the differences between Asgard and Earth, between making the safe, obvious choice (Sif, the practically-immortal warrior maiden) and the hard, risky one (Jane, the vulnerable, short-lived human). But aside from a few seemingly throwaway lines that hinted at what could have been a much better story, we get none of this. This is a problem, because what is it that's driving Thor in this movie? It's his quest to save the woman he loves, even if it means betraying the realm where he grew up and is destined to rule. At least it's supposed to be, but we never get more than token acknowledgement of Thor's inner struggle--unlike the first film.
Instead, what we do get is a pretty standard action movie: seemingly unstoppable bad guys; the stalwart good guy and his spunky love interest; their quirky helpers; clever one-liners; and, of course, action, action, special effects, action. It all holds together well enough, but the first Thor movie had so much more of an emotional foundation. This one feels rushed, as though several important (quiet, emotional) scenes are missing. Apparently some of those will show up on the DVD; I certainly hope so.
Marvel should learn not to be afraid of making its movies a little longer. Thor, with his basis in mythology, deserves a big, epic canvas, and if it takes an extra 10-20 minutes or more of screen time to fit in the whole story, then so be it.
A rarity: A sequel that surpasses its predecessor
I can probably count on one hand the number of times this has happened. The precedent that this reminds me of, however, is Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. We get more character development, more complexity, and as a result, a richer fictional world. All the while, the film ratchets up the tension, building to a big ending with a twist reveal and the inevitable mid-trilogy cliffhanger.
There are great performances from everyone, but especially from Jennifer Lawrence and Donald Sutherland, whose few incredibly tense scenes together are a highlight. (I also loved the scenes of President Snow at home, where we are shown that his harshness is borne out of fear and the sense that his entire world is slipping away because of the actions of this lone young woman.)
Assuming that the creative team can keep this going, the final chapter should be terrific.
Nice try, but disappointing
My wife and I saw The Mortal Instruments together. She has read the books, I haven't. Our take on the film was nevertheless similar: so close, yet so far.
The film had many things going for it. The cast for one, a mix of impressive young talent (Collins, Bower, West, and Sheehan) and stalwart veterans (Hodge, Rhys Meyers, Pounder, and the always-impressive Lena Headey). The visuals are striking, the effects seamless, the fight scenes combining just the right mixture of battle ballet and visceral desperation.
But in many ways this is a film without focus and without heart. It's obvious that the world built in the novels is one of rich complexity, and it's understandably a challenge to squeeze that into a film. The best solution, usually, is to selectively pare away the gild to get to the heart of the story. In The Mortal Instruments, however, the filmmakers were too reluctant to let things go. As a result, we get too much world-building, back-story, and exposition--not to mention a lot of superfluous elements like warlocks, werewolves, and vampires--and not enough time spent for us to really care about these characters and what they're trying to achieve.
Speaking of which, just what were they trying to achieve? Find Carly's mom? Find the McGuffin, er, Mortal Cup? Kill demons, vampires, and other monsters in a cool way? There are too many goals, not enough focus on one of them. Couldn't the screenwriters have combined all these things into one big quest rather than making them seem so randomly connected, if at all?
A bigger problem is the inadequacy of the villain. Anyone will tell you that in an action/adventure story, a hero can only be as good as the villain he/she is facing. Rhys Meyer's Valentine, however, only gets a brief couple of mentions early in the film and isn't a factor until very, very late. He's not there throughout the story, thwarting our heroes nor subtly manipulating them like he should be. This means we're not that emotionally invested in the big final battle against him.
In the end, The Mortal Instruments ends up looking like a pale imitation of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (the exceptional TV series, not the so-so film). More humour, better character development, and a more imposing Big Bad--all hallmarks of BtVS--would have made this a much better film. And according to my wife, the books have all that and more, which makes it all the more disappointing that the film lacks these crucial elements.
Still better than Twilight, though. (But that's not much of a competition.)
Man of Steel (2013)
So much promise in the 1st half squandered in the 2nd half
After watching this film I can only conclude that Zack Snyder and Christopher Nolan watched The Avengers and came away with entirely the wrong idea as to why that movie worked so well.
Man of Steel had so much going for it, so it's disappointing that it fails to live up to its own promise. The first half of the movie is in many ways the best Superman film I've ever seen, and that's saying something, since I'm inevitably comparing it to the '78 Donner/Reeve classic. Man of Steel features some new, original twists on the Superman mythos and a refreshingly non-linear structure to the inevitable origin story. There's a lot of character development, and not just of Clark Kent--Lois Lane and Jonathan Kent also get their due. The cast is very talented and it shows.
Sadly, the film starts to fall apart in the second, action-packed half. Not entirely, mind you; there are moments that show how a much better movie could have shone through. Secondary characters like Perry White, Dr. Emil Hamilton, and Col. Nathan Hardy all get moments of heroism. This fits with what both of Kal-El's fathers have said before this, that he will inspire others by his example.
But the over-the-top destruction ultimately detracts from what the movie should be all about. Superman is a HERO. That means his primary concern is not just defeating the bad guy, but protecting innocent lives.
Again, think back to the Avengers. For all the pyrotechnics and cool fight scenes at the end, that movie emphasized over and over again that the heroes are primarily concerned with protecting "civilians". Us, in other words. "We keep the fight focused on us," Captain America tells the team, i.e. away from innocents. Iron Man nearly dies in the process. THIS is what makes them truly heroes. The public's adulation for them, shown in the film's end sequence, is justified.
The supposed "hero" of Man of Steel, however, aside from a couple of all-too infrequent and brief moments, seems to have little concern for innocent lives. Or perhaps it's more accurate to say that's the fault of the filmmakers. Buildings in Metropolis topple like so many sandcastles kicked over by bullies. News flash, Noland and Snyder: PEOPLE live and work in buildings, and your audience is well aware of this. I sat there thinking that the death toll had to be in the thousands if not hundreds of thousands.
And Superman, the ultimate comic book hero, never gets a chance to save those lives. Far worse, he's probably responsible for many of the deaths; he's far to willing to let his battles with his fellow Kryptonians wreak havoc in Smallville and Metropolis. I kept wondering why he didn't divert the fights to a sparsely-located mountain range or desert. Kryptonians tossing tree trunks and boulders at one another? Still spectacular, and it would have avoided the distraction of wondering how many bystanders were maimed or dying.
So ultimately, the problem with this movie and why it fails to truly capture the spirit of Superman is that the filmmakers never allow the hero to be one. They're too busy blowing things up real good, force-feeding the audience special effects eye candy, to bother living up to the premise of the film and of the character. Snyder and Nolan don't believe in heroes, they believe in production values.
So, nice try, once again, DC, but Marvel just keeps kicking your butt in the movie department.
X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)
Too much action, too little character
Here's an irony for you: take one character out of a successful three-film franchise about a team of superheroes, put him in a film of his own... and he gets less character development than he did in any of the three previous films.
Apparently, the intention of producer Hugh Jackman and others with this film was to do more of a "character-driven" story. If that was their intention, they failed miserably. X-Men Origins: Wolverine suffers from far too little time spent developing character and, thereby, emotional resonance. Instead, we get an overdose of action. The problem is, when you don't care about the characters, you don't care about the outcome of the action very much, no matter how well-done those sequences are.
The opening title sequence, which shows Wolverine and Sabretooth fighting through over 100 years of war, is typical of this flick. Everything whizzes by so we can get to the next tidbit of eye candy. All the characters and their relationships are underdeveloped to the point of being caricatures. It's a shameful waste of talent, especially that of the two leads, Jackman and Schreiber.
This movie also commits a similar sin to that of the other recent X-Men movie (First Class): instead of focusing on the potentially-fascinating relationship between two leads, the filmmakers instead feel obliged to shoehorn in as many characters from the X-Men universe as possible. I suppose this is some attempt to court favour with the fans, but instead it just makes the movie worse; it takes time away from characters we should care about most, and leaves us with unsatisfying peeks at other characters who deserve more development.
Part of the fault lies with the very idea of trying to tell Wolverine's origin story. Anyone familiar with the character's long, convoluted back-story in the comics will tell you that there's just too much narrative to distill in a satisfactory fashion into a single movie. They would have been better off basing the film on Frank Miller's excellent Japan-based Wolverine mini-series, which leaves Wolvie's origins out of the narrative entirely. As I understand it, that's what they're doing for the next Wolverine movie, so I have hopes that it will turn out better. Then again, it couldn't be much worse than this noisy mess.
The Avengers (2012)
A movie that shouldn't work, but does--remarkably well
Full disclosure: I'm a big Joss Whedon fan. Buffy, Angel, Firefly, even his comic book efforts (Fray, Buffy Season 8)--I've loved them all. Even so, like any Whedon fan, I know he's capable of disappointing us (most of Buffy season 6, Titan A.E.), so I didn't approach this film without some reservations.
Even with the very talented Joss at the helm of this movie, you see, it still shouldn't work. Consider the following impediments: First, there are too many characters involved (six Avengers, three S.H.E.I.L.D. agents, and one villain, just for starters) to do justice to them all; Second, Whedon has really only been somewhat successful on television (Buffy, etc. had more of a "cult" audience rather than broad mainstream appeal) and less so on the big screen (Serenity was a flop); Third, in the finished product, there are a number of plot "conveniences" used (Thor is able to visit Earth despite the end of his own movie making that impossible, the Hulk suddenly gains control and is able to direct his rage, the alien invaders die when their mothership is destroyed, etc.) And yet, it all works, and works very well indeed. For that, I give credit mostly to Joss Whedon (surprise, surprise) who not only directed but also co-developed the story and wrote the screenplay, and also to the extremely talented cast.
As a long-time Whedon fan I can tell you that all the best things about his previous successes are evident here. The Avengers works because Whedon is extremely talented at writing for ensemble casts. Buffy, Angel, and Firefly worked BECAUSE each had a large cast, not in spite of that fact. It's the characters' relationships that matter, and the conflicts that arise between them even though they're on the same side. Thus, we get a fan-boy wet dream three-way fight between Thor, Iron Man, and Captain America early in the film that is completely logical. The tensions between the disparate members of this would-be team threaten to tear it apart--which is why the spectacular action finale is so rewarding, because it's the fulfilment of the desire we've had, as an audience, to see these characters come together. (The best moment in that final battle is a brilliantly-shot sequence that follows one Avenger to another as they work together to fight the alien invaders. It isn't just great action, it's the fulfilment of their collective characterization; the action has emotional heft, not just spectacular visuals.) While none of the characters really have a major arc (that would be too much to expect in a film that is, as I've asserted, fully loaded already), they do each get significant minor ones: Stark challenged by Cap to show that he can make a self-sacrificial play; Thor nobly, perhaps pathetically still trying to reach a remnant of goodness in his wayward brother; Black Widow struggling with the memory of atrocities she's committed; Nick Fury desperately looking for a way to make this dysfunctional group come together as a team; and so on.
And while we do get some early action sequences, the most rewarding scenes leading up to the big climax are, perhaps surprisingly in an superhero blockbuster, the character moments. As expected from Joss, we also get a lot of witty banter and great one-liners. But all of that is in service of building the characters and, more importantly, their relationships with one another. The actors deserve extra credit because in a film packed with so many characters and so much action, they have a relatively small amount of time to make their roles shine. Several moments stood out for me: the tension between government-man Cap and iconoclast Stark; Stark encouraging Banner to cast aside caution and contribute in the most powerful way he can; and especially that marvellously tense scene between Black Widow and Loki. (Isn't it interesting that although we first saw Black Widow in Iron Man 2--a film where, arguably, her character had less competition--we learn more about her and what motivates her in this movie that has so much else packed into it? Full credit again to Joss; his fans know how fond he is of strong female characters. She's even the one who really saves the day in the end!) We also get something else that Whedon fans are familiar with: a straightforward, easy-to-understand plot. Loki, the bad guy, wants to rule the world; with the McGuffin... er, tesseract... he can bring an alien army to earth to achieve that goal. The Avengers have to stop him or, failing that, fight his army. After so many blockbusters--especially superhero movies (Superman Returns, anyone?)--with convoluted plots, it's a relief to see one with such a simple story.
Other people involved in the film also deserve credit for its success. Seamus McGarvey is one of the best cinematographers around, and his talent is in abundant evidence here; the special effects are extremely well-done; and Alan Silvestri's score is epic and stirring--precisely what's needed for a film of this scale. All of their contributions come together in that thrilling "Avengers Assemble" scene during the final action sequence, when our heroes are standing together in a circle, facing their enemies, a team at last.
This is one of the best films in the superhero genre--up there, in my opinion, with the original Superman, with X-Men, with Spider-Man. In some ways it may be even better than those predecessors because, as I asserted above, it had so many more challenges to overcome to be successful. It works because, underneath all the action, this is a film with heart, with character, with humanity; a film about how seemingly incompatible people can come together for a common goal.
X: First Class (2011)
Undone by its best scene
The best scene in X-Men: First Class is, arguably, the brief cameo by Hugh Jackman/Wolverine. Unfortunately, that scene also undermines much of the logic of the film.
Just in case you aren't aware of it, a young Charles Xavier (Professor X) and Erik Lehnsherr (Magneto) encounter Wolverine in a bar as part of their efforts to recruit mutants to a team they're forming. They introduce themselves; he promptly and rudely tells them to go away, which they promptly do. It's a very short, very funny scene, a crowd-pleaser, and arguably one of the best scenes in the film, if not the best. It also, unfortunately, ruins the movie.
I can live with a prequel introducing continuity errors into a franchise, which X-Men: First Class does. I can live with an adaptation from another medium making significant changes to established characters--again, the film does this several times. What I cannot accept, however, is a film where supposedly intelligent characters repeatedly make stupid decisions, committing the same mistake over and over, and thereby undermine all their efforts to achieve their goals.
Back to that scene and how it illustrates this problem. Assuming that at least some of the facts about Logan from the comics and X-Men Origins: Wolverine are still true in this semi-reboot, Logan is an extremely experienced and talented fighter who is over 150 years old at the time of this story. Xavier and Lehnsherr are going up against a team of powerful, mature mutants, and yet they abandon recruiting this formidable warrior after a one-sentence brush off. Instead they bring in a group of children, essentially, who are under-powered and/or have little to no control over their powers. It logically would have taken years to shape those X-cadets into anything resembling a potent fighting force--time which, according to the logic of the story, Xavier and Lehnsherr didn't have.
And frankly, the kids aren't very interesting characters. Even if the scene with Wolverine had been dropped to avoid calling attention to the problem I've outlined, it still wouldn't help this charisma-challenged first X-Men team. The movie works best when it focuses on Xavier and Lehnsherr and their complex friendship. The writers could have left out the X-babies and just used Prof X and Magneto and we'd have a much better film. Either that or they should have been recruiting a group of older, more experienced mutants who would have been more of a match out of the gate for Shaw and his cabal.
There were some things I liked about this film (mainly the Xavier/Magneto bromance, but also the many exciting action sequences) and others I didn't (such as the awkward insertion of anti-mutant sentiment, January Jones' underwhelming portrayal of Emma Frost, Mystique's under-written motivation for joining Magneto, the many anachronisms such as Banshee's hairstyle, etc.) Overall, I was disappointed because with a few simple changes X-Men: First Class could have been a much better movie. The first two X-Men films still haven't been equalled. Bryan Singer, come back to the director's chair, we miss you!
Green Lantern (2011)
Not as bad as many make out, but not that good either.
I think a lot of the extremely negative reactions to Green Lantern come from disappointment. This film could have been so much better and pales in comparison to other, much better films in the superhero genre such as Iron Man and Thor. (Why is it Marvel's live-action movies are consistently better than DC's?)
The film has some positive points: the special effects are superlative, the action sequences are fun, GL's costume design is extremely cool, and the performances are decent. Although they try to pack a lot in, I found the film reasonably engaging and didn't get bored.
But I didn't get thrilled either. The music (which is pretty crucial to the epic, operatic world of superheroes) was forgettable. Speaking of lacking epic quality, a more threatening villain should have been used--Parallax looked like little more than a big cloud monster, and Hector Hammond? Seriously?
While the performances were adequate, no one shone (or got a chance to). I also think the lead should have been cast differently. I've seen Ryan Reynolds in a few films and while he has the good looks of a leading man, he lacks the charisma necessary for these sorts of roles. I mean, just compare him to Robert Downey Jr.
Ultimately, though, I think the big problem with Green Lantern is that the screenwriters and filmmakers were overwhelmed by the sheer weight of the Lantern mythos and tried to cram too much of it into one film. The space opera elements didn't mix properly with Hal's all-too human-sized issues at home, and the constant switching between Oa and Earth were jarring rather than building tension. It would have been better, I think, to just have Hal obtain the ring, fight Earth-based evil as he learns to use it, and leave all the exposition about the GL Corps and Oa for a sequel.
The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)
I have nothing against a franchise reboot. It certainly didn't hurt the recent Batman films, or Star Trek. However, the conditions have to be right. And conditions were decidedly NOT right for a Spider-Man reboot.
Sam Raimi's first two Spider-Man films are not only recent (the first only 10 years old), they are also successful, popular, and well-liked. We haven't had a long period of time go by and/or tolerated a series of mediocre franchise entries. As a result, the audience is inevitably comparing this film to the previous ones (I haven't seen a single IMDb review, even the sparse positive ones, that avoid mentioning the Raimi films). Even worse, it's obvious that the film-makers were comparing the films as well. As a result, it's nearly impossible for ASM to include things that WORKED from the previous films because they'll seem too similar. Thus, the whole origin sequence seems forcibly, awkwardly different rather than natural, organic, and elegant.
The film has other problems too. It's incredibly inconsistent in how it treats plot points. Significant elements are raised (the fate of Peter's parents, Spider-Man's hunt for Uncle Ben's killer) and are then dropped for no discernible reason.
Characterization, especially of Peter, is another problem: for a kid who's obviously a scientific/engineering prodigy, he's astonishingly inarticulate. I suppose this was an attempt to recreate the verbal stumbling typical of adolescence, but unfortunately it results in a character who seems more stupid than he really should be and a lot of awkward, forgettable dialogue.
It's too bad, because in some regards the film showed promise. Martin Sheen was great, as he always is. The effects and action sequences are well-done, if not exceptional. And one thing they did better than the Raimi films is including more of the non-stop wise-cracking typical of the comic book Spider-Man. I really think if the film-makers had either (a) let 5-10 more years go by or (b) as some other reviewers have suggested, just got a different director and cast and did Spider-Man 4 without retelling the origin story, it would have turned out a lot better.