Slumdog Millionaire (2008)*

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Starring: Dev Patel (his first feature film), Freida Pinto (her first feature film), Madhur Mittal, Anil Kapoor, Irrfan Khan, Saurabh Shukla, Ayush Mahesh Khedekar (his first film), Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail (his first film), Ankur Vikal, Ashutosh Lobo Gajiwala (his first film), Rubina Ali (her first film), Tanay Chheda

Director: Danny Boyle

Summary: A Mumbai teen reflects on his upbringing in the slums when he is accused of cheating on the Indian version of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?”

Other Nominations: Director*, Adapted Screenplay*, Original Score*, Original Song (“Jai Ho”)*, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing*, Cinematography*, Film Editing*

What makes the film something worth watching is how the score, cinematography and editing all blend together so well and give everything a wonderful energy throughout, even when the film goes to some very dark places. It’s an interesting mix of the harsh reality of abject poverty and what’s close to a storybook fantasy of fate and destiny, where everything feels consistent in style and tone and the framing device screenplay structure works well for the story. One thing that I think the film got right is how it depicted children: no matter who or where they are, kids are remarkably resilient; they don’t really wallow in how bad their circumstances are or their regrets, only teenagers and adults really do that. It was for that reason that I think the segments involving the characters as young children were probably the strongest.

However, if there is something negative to say about the film, it’s that I can see why a lot of people from India did not like it: the films’ depiction of the country as a whole is for the most part, relentlessly negative. It’s always going to be controversial when an outsider (especially one from the colonial power who used to rule over that country) tries to represent someone else’s culture, but outside of our male and female lead, nearly every Indian person in the film is violent and/or an asshole and the film mostly shows India as a land of almost nothing besides extreme poverty or extreme opulence (the latter part being mostly true actually even if it’s starting to slowly change). While you could argue that this only makes sense given the story they were trying to tell, it also says something that THIS is the story that you decided to tell, and that THIS is the one that got made into a Hollywood film and got huge critical acclaim.

This is a movie that is great at what it is trying to be-a sort of uplifting fairytale story about a person with an indomitable spirit that cannot be crushed by his circumstances featuring a lot of energetic elements that work perfectly together…but with some elements at its core that really rub me the wrong way.

Rating: B-

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No Country For Old Men (2007)*

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Starring: Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Kelly Macdonald, Woody Harrelson

Directors: Joel & Ethan Coen

Summary: Violence and mayhem ensue after a hunter stumbles upon a drug deal gone wrong near the Rio Grande

Other Nominations: Director*, Supporting Actor (Bardem)*, Adapted Screenplay*, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Cinematography, Film Editing

I’m glad I watched this-I saw it in theaters when I was 19 and was unable to appreciate how great this movie is back then, probably because it starts off as more of a slow, atmospheric movie. No Country For Old Men does a remarkable job of expressing a theme, that of aging and how older people can sometimes feel like the world they live in no longer makes sense to them, even if in some ways things are the same as they always have been. This theme is expressed through both some of the direct dialogue involving Tommy Lee Jones, but also through the narrative-while the death of a main character, off-screen, with about 30 minutes left and the totally unsatisfying resolution to another character’s story may be confusing and nonsensical, that’s sort of the point: the universe is often a place that lacks logic, order or justice and often random chance rules.

Beyond just theming, this is a movie that has truly outstanding cinematography (not in a flashy way, but just that every frame is perfectly lit and composed) and is full of great dramatic tension. In terms of acting, Javier Bardem steals the show and gives off the kind of genuine menace and lack of feeling or soul that Charles Laughton had in The Barretts of Wimpole Street and Oliver Reed had in Oliver! No Country For Old Men is one of the best movies of the decade with original themes and an original way of presenting them in a remarkably slick package.

Rating: A

The Departed (2006)

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Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Vera Farmiga, Mark Wahlberg, Martin Sheen, Alec Baldwin

Director: Martin Scorsese

Summary: An undercover cop and a mole in the police attempt to identify each other while infiltrating an Irish gang in South Boston.

Other Nominations: Director*, Supporting Actor (Wahlberg), Adapted Screenplay*, Film Editing*

One of the most pure fun movies I’ve had the pleasure of watching for this project. I have not seen Infernal Affairs, the Hong Kong movie that The Departed is a remake of, but they did a great job translating the story to an American audience and I have no complaints about it being 40 minutes longer than the original was because it never feels like we hit a dead spot-it’s thoroughly entertaining and interesting with loads of twists and turns and the movie has a real energy to it that never lets up. The cast is outstanding with DiCaprio giving what is my favorite performance from him I’ve seen, Nicholson being a giant ham in the best way possible and Wahlberg playing the glorious of shitheads where even though he’s technically a good guy, you still hate him because of how much of an asshole he is. It reminds me of L.A. Confidential or The Maltese Falcon in story, tone and energy, and that’s high praise indeed. The Departed was a worthy Best Picture winner, and in my opinion the best BP winner since Schindler’s List (although Million Dollar Baby and Chicago aren’t too far behind).

Rating: A-

*Crash (2005)*

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Starring: Sandra Bullock, Don Cheadle, Matt Dillon, Jennifer Esposito, Brendan Fraser, Terrence Howard, Ludacris, Thandie Newton, Michael Pena, Ryan Phillippe, Larenz Tate, Shaun Toub, Bahar Soomekh, Ashlyn Sanchez (her first film), Keith David, Tony Danza

Director: Paul Haggis

Summary: Los Angeles citizens with vastly separate lives collide in interweaving stories of race, loss and redemption

Other Nominations: Director, Supporting Actor (Dillon), Original Screenplay*, Original Song (“In the Deep”), Film Editing*

Is this the worst Best Picture winner ever? Well, no: it’s not as mind-numbingly boring as Chariots of Fire, it’s not as hideously antiquated as The Broadway Melody or Cimarron, and it’s not the kind of pointless, episodic mess that Cavalcade or Around the World in 80 Days were. However, it’s up there and easily the worst of the five nominees of 2005.

Everything about it feels either overly simplistic or bizarre and wrong-headed in planning or execution. What’s striking is how many deeply unlikeable assholes there are (basically, every significant character besides Pena, Sanchez and Soomekh)-it’s like they thought “well, we want to make this movie feel even-handed, but we don’t know how to impart depth and nuance, so let’s just make everybody a jerk instead.” There are some fine character arcs here (like with Dillon, Cheadle and Howard), but overall the screenplay feels contrived in a way that a very similar movie, Traffic, did not: every situation seems perfectly set up to deliver some big moment or character-altering epiphany. While it does explore some issues that other films about race often ignore and the idea of there being such a fine line between a “good” person and a “bad” person when it comes to racism, many times it doesn’t explore its issues very well, or there’s a major misstep. Also, for a film about racism in Los Angeles, it glaringly lacks a legitimate Asian-American perspective. It’s a flawed film that features good acting (Pena and Dillon giving my favorite performances) and some good ideas, but ultimately doesn’t really conjure up a lot of meaningful thought for the viewer afterwards and pales in comparison to the better films there are on race.

Rating: C-

*Million Dollar Baby (2004)*

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Starring: Clint Eastwood, Hilary Swank, Morgan Freeman, Jay Baruchel, Mike Colter (his first film), Brian F. O’Byrne, Lucia Rijker, Beloved Character Actress Margo Martindale, Anthony Mackie, Michael Pena

Director: Clint Eastwood

Summary: A determined woman works with a hardened boxing trainer to become a professional

Other Nominations: Director*, Actor (Eastwood), Actress (Swank)*, Supporting Actor (Freeman)*, Adapted Screenplay, Film Editing

A simple, stripped down and endearing movie with a…surprising…third act if you weren’t spoiled about it coming in (which I was). With her Oscar-winning performance her, Hilary Swank joined Luise Rainer and Glenda Jackson as the most forgotten members on the “Actresses with Multiple Best Actress Oscars” list for the same reasons as the other two: they all started off with a bang winning two awards in quick succession and then did almost nothing of note afterwards. Regardless, she is excellent in the role: besides the obvious physical dedication required for it, she also possess the pure goodness and earnestness needed for it in spades. Eastwood plays a crusty, grumbling old man, aka basically every role he’s had since 1990, but he always does it well and in the third act displays a lot of genuine pathos. I would be surprised though that Freeman won an Oscar for his solid but not especially noteworthy performance, except that every man, woman and child loves Morgan Freeman and he should have an Oscar to his name, so fine.

The story here is simple but effective, about taking risks and trusting others, moving on from sins of the past, and broadly about the classic American dream of reaching the top through nothing else besides heart and hard work; however, what ultimately makes the film memorable is its basic story about a female boxer wanting to make something of herself and having a sort of father-daughter relationship with an old trainer who is estranged from his own daughter and sees an opportunity to do it right this time, and how well these two characters are written and acted. The film never loses focus on what really matters and the result, along with a talented director, is a mostly great screenplay and overall film. The only thing about the screenplay that I thought could have been better was its total reliance on (multiple) pure evil one-dimensional villain characters, which stuck out as overbearing in a film like this; also, how is the women’s champion not banned from the sport after literally every fight of hers? That one just kind of annoyed me as the film abandoned all real-world logic for the sake of narrative there.

I would be remiss to not mention the “twist”, or that the third act is basically an avalanche of sadness. I didn’t have a problem with Eastwood’s character’s decision because I don’t necessarily think the filmmakers endorsed his actions (his is a deeply flawed and troubled character after all), but it does feel like the film stacked the deck a little too hard and reveled in misery just a bit too much to get the audience there leading up to it. With all that said, this is still a really poignant film that is well worth watching for the dynamic between the main two characters and their respective performances.

Rating: B+

*The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (2003)*

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Starring: Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Andy Serkis, Billy Boyd, Liv Tyler, Hugo Weaving, John Noble, Bernard Hill, Orlando Bloom, John Rhys-Davies, Miranda Otto, David Wenham, Dominic Monaghan, Karl Urban, Cate Blanchett

Director: Peter Jackson

Summary: Gandalf and Aragorn lead the World of Men against Sauron’s army to draw his gaze from Frodo and Sam as they approach Mount Doom with the One Ring

Other Nominations: Director*, Adapted Screenplay*, Original Score*, Original Song (“Into the West”)*, Sound Mixing*, Art Direction*, Makeup*, Costume Design*, Film Editing*, Visual Effects*

* I watched the theatrical cut (201 minutes) as opposed to the extended cut (251 minutes) as it’s the cut Academy voters would have seen when voting*

I’m glad I watched these films, but honestly I have absolutely no interest in ever seeing them again. All of the strengths of the previous movies (score, production design, makeup and visual effects) are again on display here, but everything else really has gone downhill for me since Fellowship. I enjoyed Fellowship because it felt focused, it did a great job of establishing it’s setting and premise, and there was still the novelty of the production, designs, costumes, score, etc. I assumed they would develop the characters to make them more compelling by giving them depth over the course of the next two films, but other than Gollum and Frodo at the very end, that didn’t really happen. The problem is how many subplots and characters there are and that way too much time is devoted to the action scenes-the basic story is very straight forward without all that many twists and turns and characters rarely develop in a meaningful way or have all that much depth, so what required so much time? Economy of storytelling is always extremely important to me: the runtime of the trilogy is 556 minutes (9 hours, 16 minutes), and that’s the theatrical cuts; it’s 714 minutes (11 hours, 54 minutes) for the extended cuts. That’s absurd-I could do an entire re-watch of Neon Genesis Evangelion and End of Evangelion in about the same time (approx. 600 minutes if you skip the credits each time) and that’s 26 episodes and a movie. Compare this all to the 376 minutes (6 hours, 16 minutes) for the original Star wars trilogy. What works for a book (which you can pick up, stop and pick up again and read over days and weeks) doesn’t work as well for a movie (which you’re supposed to watch straight through in essentially one sitting), and they should have trimmed more than they did.

So what stood out to me as things I liked about this installment in particular? Well, Nobel as a mad king is a lot of fun and I enjoyed Gandalf having a lot more to do this time (compared with The Two Towers) and he has some of his personality back. Like in the last film, the scenes with Frodo, Sam and Gollum were the best part and we get a nice conclusion to all of their character arcs (even if the film stubbornly refuses to end). This was a makeup ceremony that rewarded the achievements of the series as a whole, and I completely understand that: it was groundbreaking in many ways, and helped (along with the Harry Potter movies) pave the way for all the “epic” franchises we’ve gotten since. Still, it never captured my interest to the degree I was expecting it to and overall feels like a disappointment considering I love a good action-adventure story and with the hype it has.

Rating: B-

*Chicago (2002)*

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Starring: Renee Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Richard Gere, Queen Latifah, John C. Reilly, Christine Baranski, Taye Diggs, Lucy Liu, Dominic West

Director: Rob Marshall (his first theatrical film)

Summary: Murderesses find themselves on death row together and fight for the fame that will keep them from the gallows in 1920’s Chicago

Other Nominations: Director, Actress (Zellweger), Supporting Actor (Reilly), Supporting Actress (Zeta-Jones)*, Supporting Actress (Latifah), Adapted Screenplay, Original Song (“I Move On”), Sound Mixing*, Art Direction*, Cinematography, Costume Design*, Film Editing*

This is the second time I’ve watched Chicago (the first was around its release when I was 14), and my reaction then is the same as it is now: it’s one of my favorite musicals. It’s very rare for the this to be the thing that immediately stuck out to me about a movie, but the editing here is really exceptional: it keeps the pacing zippy, gives everything a nice flow, but most of all it seamlessly switches back and forth between musical numbers and reality in a way that feels totally coherent to the viewer. As with any Bob Fosse work, the soundtrack is fantastic, featuring a litany of great musical numbers (including maybe my favorite for any film, the Cell Block Tango), as well as a healthy dose of cynicism with it’s cast of entertaining scumbags (with John C. Reilly standing out as the schmuck). I also love the whole look of the movie, especially the hairstyling which nails the popular 20s-early 30s women’s look to a tee. The other big thing that works so well about the movie is it’s casting-they hit a homerun with pretty much every decision here, but the single biggest highlight is Catherine Zeta-Jones with a career best performance and is basically a white-hot ball of charisma who can also sing and dance.

The only thing really holding the movie back is that the story is a little thin-not an uncommon issue for a musical (especially one that clocks in at just over an hour and 50 minutes). Overall, the tone, the songs, the performances and the overall liveliness of the movie won me over. Even if you don’t like musicals all that much, give it a look.

Rating: B+