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In the word "best," I mean to give not my opinion concerning which films are the most entertaining, but which movies are the most worthy of timelessness.
Of course, more movies will probably be added to this list.
Upstream Color (2013)
Beautifully shot, if somewhat lacking
UPSTREAM COLOR contains moments of truly brilliant film-making. Nonetheless, I believe it lacks coherency.
The film has been compared many times with Terrence Malick's masterpiece THE TREE OF LIFE. But to watch THE TREE OF LIFE is, admittedly, different in effect. After having seen the film, one does not have to understand it in a conventional sense; one does not have to know what Malick is trying to say but, a good film critic would, at the very least, realize that Malick was trying to say something. It is doubtful whether a mature film viewer would ever attend a screening of THE TREE OF LIFE and exit the theater with the conviction that everything they had seen was pointless and pretentious.
I consider it quite believable, however, that a major critic e.g. Roger Ebert or J. Hoberman would find UPSTREAM COLOR to be lightweight in depth, and argue that its ambitions were greater than its satisfactions. It features little character development, partly because its dialogue is sometimes unintelligible. Although Shane Carruth is a master of music-video juxtaposition, and the film's cinematography is striking, the impression that it all leaves, in the hours after viewing, is surprisingly slight largely because one is not left with the feeling that its events could cohere into one meaningful whole.
Though it may have been the most technically intelligent film of 2013, UPSTREAM COLOR ultimately plays like a mere succession of scenes rather than a full-fledged narrative work. There is probably a masterpiece within the conception of this film, but it was not achieved in the final product.
I would still like UPSTREAM COLOR to be remembered as a high point for 2013 in movies, albeit on purely cinematic terms. For those who love THE TREE OF LIFE and view it as the finest film of the decade (an opinion with which I agree), note that this is comparable in its film-making style, but not necessarily its depth or emotional effect.
Keiko desu kedo (1997)
A powerful and rewarding work for patient viewers
It is difficult to summarize KEIKO DESU KEDO/I AM KEIKO in a sentence without revealing all of its major plot elements. It should not, however, be thought of as a film in which 'nothing much happens'; indeed, the mundanity of depression has rarely been captured more distinctly on screen. Viewers with enough patience will find that the film is a work of considerable merit.
KEIKO DESU KEDO is self-referential from the beginning, with the clapstick of a clapperboard being shut in front of the titular character within the first minute. Keiko later tells the audience that the film will end in an hour and a minute - and this is not simply part of a gimmick, for what Keiko expresses a wish for, over much of the next hour, more than anything else (besides successfully keeping the time), is an audience. The presence of one will make her believe that something here must be interesting; that her life is not fully boring.
She is shown hosting a sort of home-produced news show, looking into the camera as she discusses her day's events. There is an argument to be made that the difficulty of KEIKO DESU KEDO - arising from long sequences in which the protagonist simply counts, as well as color schemes and set pieces which are notable yet austere - is fully intentional, serving not only to emphasize social isolation, but also as a means of further polarizing the audience; of preventing viewers from being 'lost' in the film's events and ensuring we know we are still an audience, still that thing which will assure Keiko her life is not defined entirely by mundanity. Perhaps this is why she stays with us until the very end.
(She does, after all: she reads the film's credits.)
Dark Legacy (2009)
Eye-opening, despite being clearly low-budget and biased during some points
'Dark Legacy' is a film that everyone interested in the Kennedy assassination and its circumstances should watch. It's on Netflix instant streaming, which greatly increases its accessibility.
First of all, the film presented tons of pieces of evidence that prove JFK was probably murdered as the result of a conspiracy. It proves why the single-bullet theory is absolutely ridiculous. It uses government memos to prove the points it makes. Basically, it has more detail and convincing arguments than other works that try to do the same thing. The person who made the film claims that it proves the conspiracy's existence beyond a reasonable doubt. Maybe so.
Unfortunately though, even the most casual of viewers could tell that this is a low-budget film. There's nothing wrong with low-budget films, but this one had a couple of spelling mistakes (i.e. "Napoleon" being spelled "Napolean," and lack of punctuation in a crucial sentence (i.e. at one point it says, "Hoover knew that the Bushs were Nazis"). This is not good for a documentary, because it lowers the credibility.
Also, I couldn't help but notice that some of the facts presented were biased after doing some research. #1: Allen Dulles actually was not a Nazi sympathizer. #2: Saying that Bay of Pigs was done without any of JFK's approval or foreknowledge is kind of misleading. #3: JFK's head moves forward a little before going back and to the left.
Parts of this film are eye-opening, and much of it is good film-making. However, it's obviously low-budget and some of it is kind of biased. I guess I'd say the good kind of outweighs the bad.
The Great Gatsby (2013)
Luhrmann's 'Gatsby' may seem gaudy at first, but overall, it works
Baz Luhrmann's 2013 'The Great Gatsby' is the first adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's masterpiece that I've seen. Apparently, Hollywood has a poor track record with this novel. After five attempts that, according to some critics, would be better left forgotten, this one is a huge success in some respects.
First of all, one can't see a Baz Luhrmann film and not expect an abundance of arresting visuals. 'The Great Gatsby' is a great example of it. The mansions and parties poetically described by Fitzgerald in the source material look just as good as I imagined them when reading the book.
Secondly, Leonardo DiCaprio's performance is stellar, as usual. Maybe the Academy Awards will choose to reconsider their ridiculous grudge against him and at least nominate him this year. At first, it seemed like DiCaprio as Gatsby was a slight miscasting, although it didn't turn out that way. DiCaprio was able to capture the vulnerability of Jay Gatsby greatly.
Now, the reason why I think that the critics weren't so enthusiastic about this film adaptation: because it simply isn't as profound. When Fitzgerald wrote the source novel and published it in 1925, he had written a poetic, cerebral masterpiece (I've read the book). It wasn't a love story so much as a statement about the Roaring Twenties and the bourgeoisie during that time period. The one problem with this film (besides some of the scenes being a little gaudy) is that it doesn't really seem to make that "statement." It's much more emotional than intellectual. I'm not saying it's Hollywoodized dumbed-down entertainment for the masses, but at the same time, it indeed seems to sometimes lack that evocation of the time period and its morals that Fitzgerald succeeded at.
In other words, it's everything I expected in a Baz Luhrmann 'Gatsby': while it may not show the same intellect that its source material does, it's entertaining, well-acted, and contains amazing visuals that ultimately make it a great movie.
Rightfully praised as one of the best Bonds yet
'Skyfall' is certainly not flawless, but it is one of the best films of the year. The movie yanks the iconic character right into action, and he fights the murderer of an MI6 agent on top of a train. I really can't say much about the plot because there's suspense everywhere, and I'll feel as if I'm spoiling a part of it if I do say any more.
The film, as expected, contains lots of action, as Bond jumps on the bottom of an elevator and dodges a falling train. In a good way, the setting jumps from set-piece to set-piece: the London Underground, a public inquiry, a casino, a childhood home named after the movie title - - so while there are some scenes that are a little slow and driven by mostly just talking, it's difficult to get bored.
Some people have criticized the lack of chemistry between Daniel Craig and Naomie Harris, dismissing it as "non-existent". However, Eve is not a big character in the film; thus, it doesn't bring the whole movie down. 'Skyfall' doesn't have to be a romance.
The third act also, to a few critics, didn't live up to what came before it, which I don't understand because the third act is practically non- stop action, and frankly the most entertaining part of the movie to me.
Overall, 'Skyfall' is an awesome 50th anniversary present. It's stylish, it's action-packed, it has expansive set-pieces, Daniel Craig is a good Bond, and it's entertaining for a majority of its (somewhat long) running time. On a smaller note, the theme song is definitely an accomplishment for Adele. Highly recommended.
Ben Affleck, arguably becoming one of the finest modern action directors
Director and lead actor Ben Affleck is likely to get even more "cred" for this one. That's saying a lot about someone who's already directed 'The Town'. Well, his new film is suspenseful, entertaining, and surprisingly funny.
You may think this film is about the 1979 Iran hostage crisis. The reason is because it starts off with the beginning of the US embassy break-in, etc. However, it really does more of following Ben Affleck's mission to try to get the six hostage-evading Americans out, and the CIA's excuse: them being crew members of a fake film named...you guessed it..."Argo". I won't reveal any more after that, but that's not really a spoiler.
The acting was top-notch, especially by Ben Affleck. The casting was excellent except for a thing that some are already talking about: why does Affleck (a Caucasian guy) play Tony Mendez (a Hispanic guy)? Personally, I think it's not enough of a gaffe to bring the whole quality of the film down, but it's really something the crew should have considered a little more. The pacing is good; people should rarely, if ever, be bored by the combination of a fake sci-fi film and a CIA rescue mission in Iran anyway.
The suspense is amazing. You'll constantly be watching to see what happens with Mendez and the six Americans. There's also a good amount of humor packed in these two hours, and it's not just a bunch of forgettable one-liners, it's recurring jokes, lots of them delivered by just the right guy: Alan Arkin, who is the producer of the movie-within- the-movie.
Overall, 'Argo' is amazing. So many scenes are well-executed with good acting, pacing, camera angle choice, and obviously it handles the historic story well.
Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)
Nearly perfect film is poignant and well-made, but sometimes unrealistic
Would I see 'Beasts of the Southern Wild' again? Sure. It's a great film. The acting by Quvenzhané Wallis is great (just as everyone has been saying). She portrays "Hushpuppy" with the fearless, but curious attitude that her character has. Dwight Henry (playing "Wink") also gives a great performance that has been slightly overlooked.
The storytelling in this film is absolutely amazing. It's essentially a narrative. Hushpuppy sometimes tells us about flashbacks that are visualizations of stories her father told her. She also tells us an informed prediction of the future (in visualizations), which gives away how the film got its name. 'Beasts of the Southern Wild' is also very confident. The characters help take away the sense of impending doom that should be associated with the Katrina-like plot, and make the film more enjoyable because of that. Every person is developed, and it focuses on each character even though there is essentially just one story. VERY few films can do that well.
Not only that, there's real emotion in this movie. In most movies, scenes just use sad music to get tears out of the audience, but this one isn't manipulative. The only problem I have with the film is: sometimes the characters are overly happy (as in, TOO confident) -- these victims of the weather who want to be independent, which is a good thing. However, they end up drinking as much as they used to, and having informal parties at the alcoholic's surviving house. They even have ideas about just staying in the "bathtub". It seemed unrealistic for a six-year-old to be in this situation. She was a minor, yet she was treated nearly as an adult. I guess this just happens because we're supposed to see the film through her eyes -- I don't know.
There's a lot of hand-held camera; while it's not nauseating, it can be a little much. It can open opportunities for interesting and different angles...but it also is better to sometimes just make the camera stationary. Overall, 'Beasts of the Southern Wild' benefits from a variety of strong performances and stellar storytelling. Your friends will probably see it. They'll probably tell you to see it. So don't miss it.
The Avengers (2012)
Mostly entertaining popcorn-flick with amazing action; not much else
'The Avengers', first of all, is a good movie. While sometimes overlong, it's entertaining, and the action scenes are amazing. However, it doesn't have enough depth to be another one of those "classic superhero films". The reputation instead should be "enjoyable superhero flick". First off, if an effort is made to assemble all of MARVEL's Avengers, that effort must be made with a little more success than this.
'The Avengers' ends up feeling like more sequel than spin-off, instead of studying and developing each character. If we're supposed to care about all these superheroes...give them noticeable differences, more display of emotions, and a distinctive background. Just because they're superheroes who have some funny one-liners doesn't mean the viewers will automatically think they're the best people who ever lived. In other words, the characters have too little depth. Something that bugs me is that a few people have been saying this is better than Christopher Nolan's "Batman" trilogy, yet the latter is a perfect example of a series of films that have greatly influenced (and perhaps even transcended) the superhero genre.
In 'The Dark Knight' there wasn't a single character who was "just there for nothing". Meanwhile, Loki is an uninteresting villain and doesn't hold a candle to Heath Ledger's disturbing, brilliant portrayal of The Joker (who, on the other hand, actually seems like a villain even when he's just not doing anything). How come 'The Avengers' all have to work to defeat Loki and his army, while Hulk can simply toss him around like a plastic spoon? That said, the long action sequence where the assembled Avengers all defeat Loki's army is quite outstanding, and many detractors of this film admit that this is also the best part.
It contains amazing cinematography, like a minute-long shot that steadily observes each Avenger and sees how they're doing with the aliens. Of course, the rest of the action scenes are also top-notch, considering there's fighting for most of the movie. The sequence with Black Widow running away from The Hulk is especially memorable, and displays arguably the most likable Avenger here, along with Iron Man. The two that we care the most about.
Overall, I'd say that 'The Avengers' could have been cut about 20-30 minutes short to flow more as a superhero film. I had hoped for more character development, since there were so many characters to pay attention to. I loved the action, and was pleased with the clever action scenes, especially the last 40 minutes and the parts with Black Widow. It's undeniably entertaining, and while it's not transcendent and genius, it's a great popcorn-flick. Would I see it again? Yes, but not my #1 priority.
To Rome with Love (2012)
Far from Allen's best, but undeniably entertaining
'To Rome, with Love' is pretty darn close to a mess. Even those who very much like the movie (including me) should admit that. Yet, it's also hilarious and one of the most entertaining films of 2012. The odds are, you will see half a dozen films this year better than 'To Rome, with Love', but you won't enjoy them as much, and/or they won't be as much fun. It honestly had the potential almost to be a B-movie, except it wasn't actually bad.
I wished that the stories had intertwined a little bit more. Having Jesse Eisenberg's character meet Woody Allen's character would've been great. The problem with non-intertwining stories is, difficult it becomes to put yourself in the lives of all these different characters. Sometimes, it felt like I was only watching the people instead of actually being able to put myself in their shoes. That said, some of the stories require treatment like that.
Take the "paparazzi story" as an example, where a worker suddenly finds himself famous. I thought this premise was brilliant; but at the same time, the execution was overlong...we get it. Satire on how someone doing everyday things will get in the paper as long as they're a household name...but that's mostly all we get every time Allen decides to switch back to this guy's story. However, I will say that the scene with his wife's torn stockings being mentioned on the red carpet is downright hilarious.
I liked the story with Woody, and it was nice to see him acting in his own film, which he hasn't done since 'Scoop'. It was a bit silly, but still creative. I'd say that one has the greatest one-liners ("you're figuring that in Euros, in American Dollars it's much less"). It has a jesting, visual style of humor that worked well.
The story with Penelope Cruz had a subtle and well-executed twist near the end, and it was mildly funny but not as much as the one with Allen's acting. I felt that the Jesse Eisenberg story was very stylish, despite being another one where you felt like you were just watching them.
Overall, I'd say that 'To Rome, with Love' is guaranteed to be one of the most enjoyable films of the year, even though it has very little cohesiveness; none of the stories are really expansive enough for a feature-length film. At times, certain elements are silly and borderline implausible, yet the film stays fresh with great cinematography and visuals of Rome, as well as sufficient comedy. Nearly a mess, but a surprisingly charming one at that.
Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
Arguably, Wes Anderson's greatest yet
MOONRISE KINGDOM, directed by Wes Anderson, is a quirky masterpiece; full of meticulous attention to detail, as well as stylish cinematography. Many of the auteur's signature filming techniques are on display here: optical zooms, deadpan humor; vivid and bright colors, long and smooth panning. But one thing that makes it better than, or equal to, other phenomenal movies of his like RUSHMORE or THE DARJEELING LIMITED is the character development of it all (maybe even mostly the characters themselves, including their costume design). Multiple people that differ greatly become likable through harsh, yet funny dialog ("That's a loaded question"), as well as their reactions to the sticky situations that surround them.
This clever tool, also used in FANTASTIC MR. FOX, especially comes in handy for a film like this, because MOONRISE KINGDOM contains many different fragments making up a single plot: a storm striking, the romance of two people 12 years old, the town's frantic efforts to find them, etc. It's a busy movie, but also one of the best and most enjoyable of the year because of the way everything is handled; each character serves a purpose.
Lines are delivered by great actors/actresses like Tilda Swinton (giving a great performance as Social Services) and the occasionally funny Bruce Willis. Bob Balaban is also there (dressed as a garden gnome) to occasionally give the viewers subtle narration on the history of the idyllic New Penzance (a New England island). Of course, there's a Jason Schwartzman role, as usual in Anderson films. At times, one might think that all of the famous actors/actresses are an overload and an attempt to give the film more buzz. But this is not the case; each actor/actress precisely fits the role of their character.
With a gorgeous set, opulent-quality cinematography, nonlinear characters, and brilliant writing, MOONRISE KINGDOM is arguably Wes Anderson's greatest yet. It may not seem to be for those accusing the auteur of style over substance, but this one's got both, so there shouldn't be that many worries over that either.