Posts Tagged ‘FTRQ’

“Five Favorites” – Review of 2014 Best Picture Nominees

Thursday, July 10th, 2014

Donna: Welcome to this month’s edition of “Five Favorites” with Mike Siegel! This month we’re abandoning our formula of fives to bring you a review of the nine Best Picture nominees from the 2014 Academy Awards. Now that all nine nominees are available for rental we’ve both seen them all and will be ranking them in order of how much we liked them, starting with the ones we liked least and moving up to our favorite of the nominees. Before we get going, I’d like to tip my hat to a few films that I feel deserved a place on this list, in particular “Blue Jasmine”, “August: Osage County”, “Rush”, “Kill Your Darlings” and, for my daring outsider pick, “Upstream Color”, which should have at least gotten nominations for Best Director and Best Cinematography. I’ll know Hollywood has finally caught up to the burgeoning indie scene when films like “Upstream Color” gets the award nods they really should.

Mike: So, in going over the list, I first wanted to mention a few films that got snubbed. “Rush”, “Before Midnight” and “Fruitvale Station” were all among the best films of 2013 but were not nominated. And I have yet to see “The Wind Rises” and “Blue is the Warmest Color”, which I suspect might end up on my top films of 2013 list. Still, the overall Oscar selection was not horrible. While some of the films were not my cup of tea, I can see why each was nominated and none was a horrible selection.

Onto the nominees! We both rank them in reverse order of our opinion.

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Donna’s #9: “Nebraska” – I’m just going to start by saying I have no idea how this film made in onto the Best Picture list. Sure, it’s a good film, well acted and well scripted. But there’s nothing extraordinary about it that makes it jump out at me. I have a hard time remembering details about it, and that alone knocks it out of Best Picture contention in my mind. It’s good, but not great, and just not strong or compelling enough to be on this list.

Mike’s #9: “The Wolf of Wall Street” – I feel this film was massively over-rated, as Scorsese films tend to be when he returns to his oeuvre of awful people doing awful things. Dicaprio is great and the film certainly has a lot of energy. Matthew McConaughey has a wonderful five minutes as a guest star. But it way way too long, spending far too much time reveling in the supposed excesses of its main character. And as I wrote in my long-form review, I am uncomfortable with glorifying a narcissistic convicted financial criminal.

Donna’s #8: “Captain Phillips” – I seem to be in the minority of people who weren’t incredibly moved by “Captain Phillips”, but I believe I know why. You see, before I saw “Phillips” I watched “A Hijacking”, a Swedish film about a strikingly similar true story of pirate capture. I was incredibly moved by “A Hijacking” – I found it poetic, heart breaking, well acted and edited to a devastating conclusion. So when I saw “Phillips” I couldn’t help but compare it to “A Hijacking”, and I found it lacking in every single aspect. Perhaps if I had seen “Phillips” before “Hijacking” I would feel differently, but as such, knowing a very similar and superior film is out there, I just can’t rank “Phillips” any higher than this.

Mike’s #8: “Nebraska” – I enjoyed it this film, mainly because of the acting. It’s a solid film with good characters and some humor (although a bit of it feels forced, especially with Kate). But while I like almost everything by Alexander Payne, I didn’t see why people *loved* it. It seems like the critics read a lot more into his films than I see.

Donna’s #7: “Dallas Buyers Club” – Let me be clear – as a film, “Dallas Buyers Club” wasn’t strong enough to be nominated for Best Picture. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a solid film, but for me the plot wasn’t compelling or drawn well enough to deserve a nod for the best film of the year. The reason “Dallas Buyers Club” is here is because of the incredible acting of Jared Leto and Matthew McConaughey. Both men were absolutely marvelous in their roles, with Leto putting in one of the best performances of the year as Rayon. Both men deserved their Oscar nods for acting, but as far as best picture goes, it wasn’t enough for me. Good, but not extraordinary, and thus the low placement on my list.

Mike’s #7: “Dallas Buyers Club” – The main reason to watch this was McConaughey, who thoroughly dominated the film. It also has an appealing anti-establishment story about the buyer’s clubs and provides very strong insight into the early days of the AIDS crisis without being heavy-handed. Definitely a cut above the first two and worth the investment of time.

Donna’s #6: “Philomena” – The impact of this film didn’t quite hit me for a few days after I saw it. My initial reaction to “Philomena” was that it was good, but not good enough to make the Best Picture list. But, like all good films, this one sat with me for a long time, and I feel now upon reflection that it really was worthy of this nod. I’m a huge Coogan fan so it was lovely to see him in such fine form, and Dench is always magnificent. Frears really did himself proud with this film – a powerful story indeed.

Mike’s #6: “Philomena” – The brutal and cruel history of Ireland’s mother-child homes (and the Magdalene Laundries) cannot get enough attention. The tacked-on confrontation with the nun, which did not happen in real life, was the only real false note. I was reminded of the equally false and equally flawed scene in Schindler’s List where he breaks down. That having been said, the film builds itself around two very well-developed characters played perfectly, incorporates its low key humor well and builds its sense of outrage slowly and convincingly. This may stick with me for a while.

Donna’s #5: “Her” – Spike Jonze created something intensely beautiful with this lovely little film. It’s another simple story told well, and it’s the nuances of the script that make it such a powerful statement on love, lust, and power in relationships. I’m an enormous fan of Phoenix and it was gratifying to see him shine in this film. I was honestly quite shocked he didn’t get an Oscar nod for Best Actor for this performance. The only major flaw to this film was its length – it could have easily been about twenty minutes shorter. The story raises so many great questions about the dynamics of love – I feel this film will be talked about for quite some time.

Mike’s #5: “American Hustle” – I think the 70’s palette and styles caused this film to be a bit over-rated. I am not a huge fan of David O. Russell and don’t think Bradley Cooper is that great. That having been said, the film is very good, with solid dialogue, energy, style and some great performances, particularly the female leads. Frankly, I would watch a film about Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence reading the newspaper.

Donna’s #4: “The Wolf of Wall Street” – I actually debated for a while whether this film would wind up above or below “Her” as I liked them both rather equally, but “The Wolf of Wall Street” was compelling enough of a film for it to take the #4 spot. As much as I love McConaughey, I think DiCaprio should have taken the Oscar for his portrayal of the seedy Jordan Belfort, as he was quite amazing in this. I loved the direction of the film as well, although it certainly suffered from about thirty minutes of bloat. A strong film by Scorcese and a worthy contender for Best Picture.

Mike’s #4: “Her” – This is a bit long, but is quite a lovely film. The idea is intriguing even if the plot kind of fumbles around with it a bit. It takes a much more mature and realistic approach to its ideas than most sci-fi, making the world feel very real and very likely (example: almost all sci-fi films avoid the subject of sex; this one doesn’t). The two leads are excellent. Phoenix got all the attention but Johannson’s voice work anchored the emotional threads. As I’ve said before, if you look beyond the banner franchises, we are getting some very good sci-fi these days and “Her” is a perfect example.

Donna’s #3: “American Hustle” – This was easily one of my favorite films of the year for a whole host of reasons. I loved all of the acting in it – Bale, Cooper, Adams and Laurence were all exceptional. The direction and pacing of the film was stylish and flamboyant in all the right ways. The script was quite compelling and kept my attention throughout. Even the music was note-perfect. I truly enjoyed everything about this – it’s honestly only a tick below my #2 choice on my list.

Mike’s #3: “Captain Phillips” – This had me on the edge of my seat for two hours. It features another great “everyman” performance from Hanks but also excellent performances by the Somali cast. It was so enthralling, I didn’t mind Greengrass’s ridiculous shaky-cam style.

Donna’s #2: “Gravity” – To me, there’s nothing like a simple story told well, and that’s exactly what “Gravity” is – a straightforward tale told with incredible finesse. Cuaron allowed Bullock and Clooney to simply do their jobs, and both acted quite well throughout. But it was the astonishing directing that stole the show here, with the exquisite long opening shot setting the tone for the film (a Cuaron trademark, perhaps, as he did the same in “Children of Men”, one of my favorite films of all time). To top it off, given how much bloat most films seem to carry these days, the ninety minute length of it was just perfect. A beautiful film in every way.

Mike’s #2: “Gravity” – You know the best thing about “Gravity”? It’s only an hour and a half long. That sounds like faint praise or even damnation. But in an era where seemingly every Oscar nominee could easily be trimmed by 15 minutes to an hour, this is the only major film in recent years that had no fat. It is tense from beginning to end, the performances are great (Bullock has matured into a first-rate actress) and the filming is simply gorgeous. The opening unbroken shot is one of the most spectacular sequences in recent memory and I desperately wish I had seen this on the big screen. The science is bit questionable (orbital dynamics doesn’t work like that) but the film was so good that I didn’t care.

Donna’s #1: “12 Years a Slave” – Honestly, this wasn’t even a contest for me. In my opinion, “12 Years a Slave” was far and away the best picture of the year for a number of reasons. All of the acting was incredibly solid – not just the leads but all of the supporting actors as well. Fassbender, Dano, Giamatti and Cumberbatch were especially strong, and Chiwetel Ejiofor was a revelation in the lead. The direction by McQueen was unflinching and riveting with good editing that moved the story along. The script was very solid, believable and so gut-wrenching it was impossible not to cry. Outside of Brad Pitt’s appearance, which to me felt hammy and overwrought, I can’t think of a real flaw in this film. It utterly deserved to win Best Picture and I’m glad it took the top prize this year.

Mike’s #1: “12 Years a Slave” – When I look over an Oscar list, I like to think about which films people will be watching ten, twenty, fifty years from now. This and maybe “Gravity” are the only ones I think will really last the test of time. “12 Years a Slave” is transcendent. Many films have taken on the issue of slavery; few with as much resonance and power as this one. The performances are excellent all around — Ejiofor, Fassbender and Nyong’o especially (Fassbender is establishing an incredibly broad range; comparing this to his performance in “Prometheus”, you wouldn’t think it was the same actor). Even the supporting cast are outstanding. McQueen’s directing shows the brutality of slavery without wallowing in it or being exploitative. And it keeps the focus on the characters and the situation. I need to watch this again to confirm my initial thoughts that it might become a classic. But it was definitely my top film among the Oscar nominees.

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Thanks for joining us for another edition of “Five Favorites” and we’ll see you again next month!

Five Favorites – “Five Most Overrated Films of All Time”

Tuesday, June 10th, 2014

Cross-posted from Donna’s wonderful FTRQ blog.

Donna: Welcome to another edition of “Five Favorites” with myself and Mike Siegel! This month we’re straying from our favorites format to tackle a different sort of list – what we think are the “Five Most Overrated Films of All Time”. We wanted to look at films that are revered or considered truly great cinema, and yet seem to us to be either fundamentally flawed or just plain bad. Our inclusion criteria for this list was that the films in question had to be either on the AFI Top 100 list, a best picture nominee or winner, or on the IMDB top 250. In other words, we only wanted to consider films that have been truly lauded as landmark, important, or extremely popular.

For myself this was a difficult task. Because I haven’t seen a lot of classic cinema or recent popular films, I found that I had seen maybe seen fifty percent or less of the movies on each inclusion list. On one hand this made my selection easier as I simply had less to work with, but on the other I feel Mike will have a far more comprehensive list than I will because of my lack of knowledge in this area. I also wanted to make sure I wasn’t simply picking movies I didn’t like. Quite honestly there are plenty of movies I just don’t like on these lists – “2001: A Space Odyssey”, “A Few Dollars More” or “V for Vendetta” are good examples. But I can recognize that all those films have true goodness and even genius in them, even if I don’t enjoy them. It was important to me to only pick films I felt were either truly flawed or ones that defied my every attempt at understanding why they are so loved. In the end, yes, whether or not I liked a film was part of the equation, but I did my best not to make it a popularity contest.

Mike: My approach was identical, although I’m probably not as versed in classic cinema as Donna likes to think! J I’ve already done a long series of posts on my own site where I went through the Oscar Winners one at a time to see which ones were bad. So I excluded Best Pictures from that list. One tweak I put in was to recommend better movies, when I could think of them. I also, like Donna, left off movies that I think are over-rated but where I can see why people like them, such as “Donnie Darko” or “A Christmas Story” or “Forrest Gump”. I found that a number of my picks were stand-ins for general categories of movies I think are over-rated.  You’ll see what I mean when we get there.

Donna’s #5: “The Green Mile” – At the time of writing, this film was #45 on the IMDB’s Top 250 list, and I have never ever understood why this film was so loved. I know I am treading on somewhat sacred ground for putting this on my list, but hear me out. I read “The Green Mile” books when they came out – I think most every fan of King did given that these were his first releases after a long spell of silence. I adored the books and have always thought that the detail of them was their genius – it was possible to live in and fully understand the world Kind created in this tale. Most importantly, there was a “why” for everything. Nothing happened in these books for no reason – King always gave us a “why” for each and every moment. When I saw the film, I was angered beyond belief at it, as was my husband, so much so that we had to keep pausing the film to yell and complain about it. Why? Because all that precious detail, all the “whys” that made the book so believable, was missing from the film. Now, I realize that most book-to-film adaptations suffer from a loss of detail, but in this case I feel that loss is egregious. The “why” for nearly everything that happened in the film was omitted, and without that “why” the film made little to no sense. In the world of the film, there was simply no reason given for most of what took place, and that, for me, destroyed the integrity of the story. I would start a list of examples but honestly I would be here all day. The only reason I felt I could even follow the film was that I was filling in the missing details from my reading of the books. I believe that is why most people don’t notice how many things have been stricken from the film – they remember the books too well. Without those books this film would have no context or rationale to it, and that is why I feel it is one of the most overrated films of all time. I could go on, but I won’t – I’ve ranted enough as it is I think.

Mike’s #5: “Rope” – Regarded as a marginal classic, rated #242 on IMDB and praised effusively for inventive technique of using long unbroken takes, I find this film to be over-rated like a lot of Hitch’s early stuff. I haven’t seen it since college, when I reviewed it for the Carletonian. But I found the characters to be wooden, the suspense to be a bit trite and Stewart’s character to a bit of a snotty professor type.  It’s not a bad movie and I would recommend seeing it.  But IMDB gives it an 8.0 and many critics give it four stars.

Donna’s #4: “Hachi: A Dog’s Tale” – At the time of writing, this film was #189 on the IMDB Top 250 list, and this entry on my list probably needs far less explanation than my last. I mean… seriously? “Hachi”? Sure, it’s a cute enough movie. It’s sweet and sappy and sentimental and based on a true story, so I get that people enjoy it. But a Top 250 movie? Not a chance. It just isn’t good enough in any way. The acting is stiff, the plot overly saccharine, the directing absolutely average. In fact, “average” is probably the best way to describe this film – there is simply nothing extraordinary about it. So why is this film so beloved? It’s honestly beyond me. If you want to watch a tearjearker animal move, why not “Black Beauty”, “Old Yeller” or “Lassie Comes Home” – they are all superior films and will certainly make you cry. I simply have never understood why this film seems to hit people as hard as it does, and I certainly cannot understand how it wound up on the IMDB Top 250 list, so I am including it as my #4 pick.

Mike’s #4: “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” – This is another pick that isn’t a bad movie, per se. It’s been 20 years since I watched it and I probably should watch it again. But it’s status as a classic (on the AFI and IMDB lists) is unmerited.  It drags in the later parts and I didn’t care for the characters. This is representative of a class of movies from the 60’s and 70’s that are badly over-rated.  Movies like “Bonnie and Clyde” and “Six Easy Pieces” and “The Graduate” are frequently over-rated because, in their day, they were revolutionary.  Now that the language of cinema has evolved, they’re still good, but not amazing. “Butch Cassidy” is not bad and IMDB gives it a sterling 8.1 rating. I just don’t think it’s that good. I’d give it a 6, maybe. You’d be much better off watching The Man With No Name trilogy, which is truly great.

Donna’s #3: “Bringing Up Baby” – This film appears at #88 on the AFI’s Top 100 of all time list, and I know I’m not alone in not understanding the appeal of this movie. This film has divided audiences from the start. Some think it a hilarious and side-splitting romp, while others find it contrived, unbelievable, silly and inane. I’m solidly in the latter camp – I disliked this film immensely. I didn’t enjoy the comedy, I hated the acting, and I found the whole setup ridiculous and cringe-worthy. I do not understand what about this film is appealing or funny, I really don’t. And it’s because I, like so many others, just cannot understand the appeal, I have to put this on my list.

Mike’s #3: “Django Unchained” – #51 on IMDB and regarded by many as the best film of 2012, this is really a stand-in for over-rated Quentin Tarantino films in general. “Reservoir Dogs” is good; it’s not a classic. “Pulp Fiction” might be great. “Kill Bill” is a great 150 minute film squeezed into four hours. “Ingorious Basterds” is a great two hour film squeezed into 150 minutes.  And “Django Unchained” is a great two hour film squeezed into 165. It pains me to write this because Tarantino has a very real talent and an extraordinary feel for the language of film. His dialogue is fantastic, his characters memorable and the look of his films is amazing. In every film, there are at least a half dozen shots that make me say, “Wow, that’s great cinema.”  But he badly needs an editor. If his last three films were each about half an hour shorter, I would regard them as classics, rather than bloated. The line between classic and over-rated can often come down to editing.  (There are a lot of recent films you could throw into the pile of “awesome if half an hour shorter”, including both Hobbit movies and the Dark Knight Rises.)

Donna’s #2: “Duck Soup” – This film appears at #60 on the AFI Top 100 list, and again I realize I may be ruffling feathers with this pick. But, honestly, I cannot stand this film, nor can I even begin to understand the appeal of it to anyone. When I started trying to watch more classic films I saw how highly this movie was regarded. I has a vague memory of not enjoying the Marx Brothers as a child, but gladly rented this to see what it was all about. I hated it so very much I could barely finish it. It was the single most inane and insufferable film I’ve ever seen, and that’s saying a lot. I seriously do not understand how this film is funny for anyone, I really really don’t. I grant I’m not a slapstick, screwball comedy fan, but I can appreciate pretty much anything in one way or another. Not this. Never this. I don’t get it and likely never will. I grant that this film is landing at my #2 spot due to a sheer hatred of it more than a quality issue, but that’s how strong my dislike for it is.

Mike’s #2: “Birth of a Nation” This was originally on the AFI list but was eventually removed in favor of Griffith’s “Intolerance” likely because the voters became uncomfortable with the racism apparent in the film. It seems odd to compare this to Butch Cassidy above but it’s in a similar boat.  The methods and techniques it invented were revolutionary; but they don’t stun the senses as much almost a century later. What we’re left with is a film that glories the antebellum south and the Klan. Defenders will tell you to put aside the racism and admire the technique.  But it’s difficult to put aside the racism, especially when the technique is no longer that revolutionary. If you want a silent classic, Griffith’s “Intolerance” and “Broken Blossoms” are much better. And “Wings” has all the beauty of a silent epic and the captivating Clara Bow.

Donna’s #1: “Easy Rider” – This film appears at #84 on the AFI Top 100 list, and I have long felt this must be the most overrated film of all time. This film is loved and revered by so many and I have never understood why. What happens in this film? What plot actually exists here? If someone knows please tell me as I still have no idea. Fully half of this movie is long shots of Fonda and Hopper riding motorcycles, which simply bored me to tears. The acting was nonexistent, the directing ridiculous, the plot absent. Why is this a cinematic masterpiece? For what reasons? There is nothing here of value in my opinion, and I just don’t see how it got included in the AFI list. Considering I generally like films with very little plot you’d think I’d love this, but it just annoys me to no end. Putting this film at the top of my list was a no-brainer to me.

Mike’s #1: “Easy Rider” – Honestly, Donna and I did not coordinate our answers on this!  But I agree with everything she says and then some. One of the first negative reviews I wrote back in my college days was of Easy Rider.  And it has not improved with age.  It barely has a plot.  The symbolism, such as it is, is obvious (I could see Fonda was the Christ figure about 18 seconds in).  The fates of the characters is not foreshadowed at all but just occurs randomly (and I didn’t care anyway).  It glorifies dim-bulb hippie “culture”.  The LSD sequence set the stage for every incomprehensible drug montage to come. The film is frequently praised as “revolutionary” and “ground-breaking” – like just about all the films in my list.  But the difference that elevates it to #1 is that the ground it broke was almost everything that went wrong with film for the next ten years.  I really can’t understand why this movie is so well-regarded other than people’s misguided fascination with the lifestyle depicted. (Interestingly, IMDB does not regard this as a classic, giving it a 7.4 rating — good but not great.  I would say even that was over-rating. I’d give it a 4 or a 5.)  The soundtrack is OK, I guess.  But I mostly watched this movie with a look on my face saying, “Really?”

Thanks for joining us again for another edition of “Five Favorites” and we’ll see you all next month!