My Top Ten Favorite Performances of the 1980s

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My Top 10 Favorite Performances of the 1980’s:

Eric Roberts – Star 80
William Hurt – The Accidental Tourist
Jessica Lange – Sweet Dreams
Shelley Duvall – The Shining
Holly Hunter – Broadcast News
Paul Newman – The Verdict
Dennis Hopper – Blue Velvet
Mary Tyler Moore – Ordinary People
Al Pacino – Scarface
Michael Keaton – Clean and Sober

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THE CONJURING (2013)

 

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THE CONJURING is in the admirable class of horror films that avoid excessive bloodletting and gore to achieve their desired effect; it understands that its scares originate from the anticipation more than the reveal.

Director James Wan’s new film really knows how to work an audience, and I fully expect it will be the most successful of all the new releases this weekend. And it should be – because if you programmed a computer to equate and combine all of the elements that constitute a profitable horror film, it would churn out a script that looks a lot like ‘The Conjuring’.  It’s an ‘everything but the kitchen sink’ kind of movie, mixing ‘The Exorcist’ and ‘Poltergeist’ with a little bit of ‘Paranormal Activity’ thrown in for good measure. 

Still, as overstuffed, overlong and overly familiar as the film is, it is made with a tremendous amount of craft, an appealing cast and a great sensitivity for the slow burn of suspense.[B]

PACIFIC RIM (2013)

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PACIFIC RIM isn’t the kind of film I normally gravitate towards. Honestly, I’ve had my fill of robots, monsters, superheroes and comic book foes.

But there’s no denying that Guillermo Del Toro’s film works on a level its competition only wishes they could achieve – it’s an 11 on the summer movie fun-ometer. Under his expert direction, Pacific Rim’s bombast and destruction isn’t pampered by the pessimism and fake post-9/11 somberness that plague so many of the big studio adventure rides these days.  It’s vivid, fun, energetic, and filled with moments that play as either wild slapstick or playful melodrama, but rarely in between.

It’s a cutting-edge technological wonder conceived in the service of a 1950‘s B-grade monster movie. The tone of the film is wholly inspired by the wide-eyed giddiness of those old fashioned films, and that enthusiastic spirit infects the audience (the crowd I saw it with erupted into applause at least a half a dozen times during the film).

Del Toro’s handling of the battle scenes between the monsters and robots are realized with a child’s sense of wonder, and they inspire genuine awe.  There’s a purity in the film that’s so rare, especially for an effects-heavy spectacle. 

You can feel the presence of Del Toro throughout, blissfully playing with his toys in a massive sandbox, and you can’t help but share in his joy. B+

WORLD WAR Z (2013)

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In many respects, World War Z is the ideal summer movie ride; grandiose, intense, and breathlessly paced. This is the zombie apocalypse rendered on an epic canvas, and it’s smartly conceived and visualized with a terrific sense of craft.  Two sequences in particular – as U.N. hero Brad Pitt ventures into Jerusalem and later on an airplane filled with the infected, are the most exciting we’re likely to see this year.

But the film is missing a sense of intimacy amongst all that grandeur. The thrills would make out hearts beat even faster if we felt the beating heart of humanity a bit more vividly. The setup dedicates less than 5 minutes establishing the family dynamic between Pitt’s character, his wife (played by the terrifically talented actress Mireille Enos, who is woefully underused here), and their children, before their world goes to Hell. The rush of pace comes at the sacrifice of several potentially meaningful emotional beats, so a few of the family scenes don’t resonate as strongly as they should. Also missing are any real moments of personal horror in the film (zombie themes are never more potent than when your dearest loved one “turns” on you).

The film is to be commended for its complete lack of carnage and gore, though fans of the far more graphic The Walking Dead are likely to groan at their absence.

Criticisms aside, World War Z does deliver its fair share of awe-inspiring spectacle, cleanly directed action sequences that stand in sharp contrast to the herky-jerky camera work in Man of Steel, and several intelligent and original takes on a well-worn genre.  (B)

RICHARD PRYOR: OMIT THE LOGIC (2013)

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‘Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic’, a new documentary that recently premiered on Showtime, achieves the impossible. It fails to offer a single concrete insight into why Pryor was one the greatest comedians of our time.

It breezes through the demons that dominated Pryor’s life in its brief 80 minute running time, but it doesn’t bother to find the links to how these demons informed his comedy. It recognizes the profanity of his routines, but doesn’t find it necessary to plunge into the depths beneath that profanity – the raw, confessional qualities that made Pryor not just a hysterical performer, but a relevatory and intensely human one.

Director Marina Zenovich falls back on the subtitle of her film as a crutch and a cop out. What she seems to be saying is “There’s no way to make sense of Richard Pryor, so why bother trying?” As a result, her film plays like the cinematic equivalent of reading a bio on Wikipedia. (D-)

WE STEAL SECRETS: THE STORY OF WIKILEAKS (2013)

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‘We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks’ is a mildly engrossing portrait of Julian Assange – a man who might have began his groundbreaking whistleblowing venture with the utmost sense of idealism, but was eventually ruined by his uncontrolled ego.

The movie does an admirable job of posing the question of whether his actions (and the actions of those who provided him with classified information) were patriotic in nature or actually harmful to the security of our country.

But the film’s lack of participation from Assange and his chief informant Bradley Manning shortchanges its potential, and keeps it from being anything more than a straightforward and slightly ordinary document of its subject.

The doc’s director is Alex Gibney, who has directed 6 documentaries in the past year alone. He’s a competent filmmaker, but I’ve never found his films particularly immersive. That’s because he doesn’t seem to be immersed in his own subjects, so how can the viewer be? Maybe if he wasn’t so preoccupied with other projects and consumed with keeping his fingers in so many pies at once, his films would actually pop with lasting relevance. (B)

EVOCATEUR: THE MORTON DOWNEY, JR. MOVIE (2013)

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I remember watching Morton Downey, Jr.’s talk show when I was a teenager back in the late 80’s. I was a theater nerd back then, and Downey’s show played in that same sandbox, albeit an obviously grotesque and assaultive form of theater.

But Downey understood that what he did was theater, an observation that’s made evident in the new documentary ‘Evocateur: The Morton Downey, Jr Movie’ (currently available On Demand). Today, his particular brand of confrontation and disrespect has bled into all forms of dialogue on television – from daytime talk shows to nighttime news. It’s not an admirable legacy, but it’s one that belongs in large part to Downey.

The movie does give you a peek behind the curtain into the drives of the infamous host, and they’re about what you’d expect them to be. His was a life ruined by ego (actually believing he was the Messiah of the regular working Joe even as he was flying on private jets) and excess (in the form of broken relationships and 4 packs of cigarettes a day).

For anyone who grew up watching Downey’s show, but knows little about the man himself, the amount of interest. It’s just disappointing to realize that what you saw is really all he was. (B-)

MAN OF STEEL (2013)

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Conceptually, I appreciated much about the new mega-blockbuster-in-waiting MAN OF STEEL. After five films of the same ole formula, it’s a relief to see a new take on the increasingly tired Superman mythology. For example, there’s no mention of Kryptonite in this one (the most predictable and drama-crushing device from previous films), and Clark Kent isn’t relegated to working at the Daily Planet. Instead, he’s an aimlessly wandering laborer and an outcast, trying to remain invisible while keeping his true identity a secret. After all, how might the people of Earth react to an alien figure of superhuman strength?

The movie is really about Superman’s journey in taking that leap of faith. This is probably the Nolan Brothers’ major contribution to the piece, and they hammer it home often during the course of the film. They understand that the world responds to Superman in large part because the character represents the concept of a savior (there’s a reason why the Superman logo is second only to the cross as the world’s most recognizable visual). So, in MAN OF STEEL, we’re given many images of Supes in Christ-like poses. And the moment he’s reborn by revealing his true identity occurs at the age of – yep, you guessed it – 33.

But these attempts at depth don’t translate into something deeply felt, and they succeed in sacrificing one of the major joys of the first two films in the franchise: humor. There’s no bumbling charm or romance to be had in this version of Superman, and the central relationship between Lois Lane and Superman/Clark Kent suffers as a result. Amy Adams seems more than game, but she’s barely given an opportunity to register here. And while Henry Cavill is a definite step above Brandon Routh from the previous film (he played Supes with all the personality of a runway model), his decision to play up the more alien aspects of the character leave him slightly remote. Only Michael Shannon as the merciless General Zod comes through as particularly vivid here.

A lack of vividity in the action is my other chief complaint about the film. Remember the climax of SUPERMAN II where Superman battled three foes in a destructive tear through the city? There was a real clarity to the camerawork and the choreography there; you could clearly comprehend and appreciate where each character was in relation to the other, and take in all the activity on the screen with appropriate enjoyment and wonder. Directors seem to have lost the ability to shoot action this way (with the exception of Spielberg). The non-stop action set pieces that populate MAN OF STEEL would probably be incredibly impressive if you were able to see them clearly. Zack Snyder’s whipping, jerking camera, coupled with the inherent murkiness of CGI overload, and further amplified by the decreased illumination caused by the 3D format, make these scenes of action headache-inducing, blurred and incomprehensible. (C+)

My Favorite Films of 2012 (20-11)

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20 – THE MASTER. The movie that conflicts me the most from the past year. This movie about identity fails to find an identity of its own, and that kept me distanced from it as a viewer, even though I was invested in the qualities that demand to be savored – Paul Thomas Anderson’s bravura filmmaking, the elusive quality of Hoffman’s performance, and the most unique and uncomfortable performance of the year from Joaquin Phoenix. What Phoenix delivers is really more akin to a piece of performance art; he could be playing the living embodiment of a Francis Bacon painting – all twisty and tortured. For me, ‘There Will Be Blood’ was a far more cohesive work, without the overly self-conscious and unmotivated artsy brush strokes that sometimes plague ‘The Master’. I also feel more of a beating heart in his previous film. That being said, I believe the pleasures and failings of the film may continue to redefine themselves for me upon repeat viewings. ‘The Master’ may feel like a fascinating and cold failure to me at the moment, but it’s one I feel compelled to return to.

 

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19 – HOW TO SURVIVE A PLAGUE. Like ‘The Impossible’, this is a film about the determination to survive, but the aggressor here is the tsunami of indifference. This scathing and emotionally charged documentary takes us back to the time when the AIDS crisis first entered the public consciousness, and the brave activists who worked tirelessly (and many with the last breaths in their dying bodies) to put it there. ‘How to Survive a Plague’ serves as an oftentimes painful, but always inspiring portrayal of the fearless actions that ultimately saved countless lives, and a testimony to a human being’s right to be heard and to exist.

 

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18 – HOPE SPRINGS. An affecting and sharply observed drama disguised as a sitcom. The movie is at its best when it allows Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones the chance to play out the wonderful screenplay by Vanessa Taylor without intrusion. Unfortunately, there are many moments when the direction by David Frankel falls flat, and when the pop music cues work against the drama by spelling out the subtext. Sophomoric missteps aside, Streep and Jones pull off a beautiful dance as a long-time married couple who no longer connect. Watch this as a double feature with ‘Amour’ and pray you never get old or get married (kidding).

 

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17 – THE QUEEN OF VERSAILLES. This portrait of super wealthy power couple Jackie and David Siegel is one of the most infuriating, yet entertaining films of the year. While completing construction on the most expensive mansion in the United States, the financial crisis hits this family hard, and their bumbling efforts to stay afloat (and on a budget) accentuate the great divide between the haves and the have nots. Their family dynamic is put on display here warts and all, and the viewer continues to shift between amusement and disgust at their level of vanity and wastefulness. Even so, the movie bravely manages to display a certain level of affection for them, particularly trophy wife Jackie, who seems determined to hold the family together, although she clearly lacks the tools to do so.

 

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16. THE IMPOSTER. A 13-year old Texas boy disappears in 1994. Three years later, a young man enters the lives of the grieving family, claiming to be their long-lost son. Clearly, though, he is not. He’s actually a French con man by the name of Frederick Bourdin. Although they know in their hearts that this cannot be their boy, the family willfully chooses to accept the lie and take him in as their child. Are they motivated by a need to supplant their grief, or by something far more sinister? This fascinating documentary is filled to the brim with unreliable subjects, and the tales they weave speak to the mysteries of human nature and the perplexities of an unspeakable crime which may or may not have even occurred. Shot in an inventive, cinematic style, director Bart Layton’s first feature documentary is as spellbinding as a classic thriller.

 

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15 – KILLER JOE. It’s good to know the fangs of director William Friedkin are still intact even at the age of 77. The often controversial director of boundary pushers like The French Connection, The Exorcist and Cruising, doesn’t soften one iota for this country-fried trailer park noir filled with garish violence, debased kink and sexuality, and a cast of completely immoral degenerates. Leading up that cast is Matthew McConaughey as the title character, a ruthless hit man/law enforcer who reigns as one of the most unique creations of the year. Colorful supporting performances, and the electric on-the-fly sense of danger and refreshingly unapologetic approach of Friedkin’s direction, make this a standout in a movie landscape too often driven by the need to appease the lowest common denominator. It may alienate many viewers who are in search of a more empathetic ride, but at least they won’t be able to forget it.

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14 – LOOPER. The mind warp of the year. Does it all add up? Who knows? Who cares? I enjoyed the invention of the film, the specificity and believability of the future it creates, its audacious narrative, the tight razor-sharp editing of the opening act (and the way the rhythm loosens as the emotional core of the story begins to shape), one of the best Bruce Willis performances of recent years, a leading child performance filled with genuine pathos and dread, and that last oblique head scratcher in the final frame.

 

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13 – SKYFALL. Series newcomer Sam Mendes finds the perfect balance of elements for this thrilling 50th anniversary James Bond film. Not as grim as ‘Casino Royale’, or as loopy as ‘Quantum of Solace’’, ‘Skyfall’ feels excitingly new and respectfully retro all at once. First and foremost, the credit should go to the Broccoli’s – who finally relinquished their iron grip long enough to allow the input of a real filmmaker with real ideas. Perhaps the smartest move for Mendes was assembling the fresh blood with which he surrounded himself – chiefly cinematographer Roger Deakins (the Shanghai sequence is one of the great photographic highlights of the year), composer Thomas Newman, and villain Javier Bardem. They provide a color and depth of expression lacking in many previous installments of the franchise. For me, this installment was perfectly and unexpectedly modulated, right down to its muted ‘Straw Dogs’-type finale.

 

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12 – MAGIC MIKE. A terrific craftsman, and one of our most lucid and infectiously entertaining storytellers, writer/director Steven Soderbergh has a knack for crafting character portraits and environments that feel surprisingly intimate and lived-in. When he’s at his best, his actors play their scenes in a relaxed, almost improvisational way, and no flourish feels too precious, forced or overemphasized. There’s both a little bit of rebel and a little bit of old Hollywood in him – he’s like the weird hybrid of Jean-Luc Godard and Sydney Pollack. In ‘Magic Mike’, Soderbergh shoots the film like an eavesdropper, and that’s exactly how we experience the lives of its characters. Building on a foundation of authenticity based on star Channing Tatum’s real-life exploits as a male stripper in Tampa, you hardly notice the clichés it fails to avoid, because you’re so swept up by its sharply observed setting and comfortable, breezy sense of fun.

 

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11 – ZERO DARK THIRTY. I’ve always had an affection for ‘process’ movies.  On those terms, Kathryn Bigelow’s ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ is a resounding success; meticulously detailed, and patient in its portrayal of each step in the hunt for Bin Laden. What the movie doesn’t do is invest very strongly in its characters, though in fairness it never intends to. Yet that lack of investment, and the occasional lapses in narrative (if torture didn’t result in any actionable intelligence, why do we spend the first 45 minutes on it?) made the film somewhat underwhelming to me.  But the finale is the single most exciting piece of cinema I’ve seen all year. 

 

 

 

My Favorite Films of 2012: Honorable Mentions

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21 Jump Street – the raunch comedy from this year that actually delivered genuine laughs and chemistry between its two leads.

 

The Impossible – A movie singled minded in its theme of survival.  Realistic tsunami effects and honest, aching performances override the occasional made for TV sap.

 

Titanic 3D – The ultimate grand sweeping blockbuster of the past 15 years returned to theaters in a new 3d incarnation, and still managed to out-wow most of the recent pretenders to the mantle.  What sticks most about Titanic is its overwhelmingly haunting sense of destiny.

 

Dark Shadows – Universally reviled, and yet I felt that Tim Burton’s box office dud was the most sumptuous visual feast of 2012, and his handling of story and character felt more consistent here than in many of his other efforts.

 

Side by Side –  A portrait of an industry in transition. Keanu Reeves guides us through the brave new world of digital filmmaking, and the impending obsolescence of celluloid. Interesting confessions from an impressive slate of directors, performers, technicians and photographers attest to the possibilities and limitations of emerging technologies.  The film might not be as relevatory or probing for those who already clearly understand the issues at play, and the economic impact to our theater owners isn’t adequately explored, but it still works well as a primer on this anxiety-riddled moment of change.

 

Arbitrage – No one plays a morally compromised weasel like Richard Gere, and writer/director Nicholas Jarecki gives him a doozy in his corporate-greed-destroys-all morality play ‘Arbitrage’. There’s nothing particularly challenging or new here; just a more than competent treatment of a well worn subgenre. Tim Roth gives a fun and inventive supporting performance as the blue collar detective on the trail of his corporate prey, but the movie is really carried along by Gere’s infectious swagger.