The Departed (2006)


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)*


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)*


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)*


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)*


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+

*A Beautiful Mind (2001)*


Starring: Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Ed Harris, Paul Bettany, Josh Lucas, Adam Goldberg, Christopher Plummer, Anthony Rapp, Judd Hirsch

Director: Ron Howard

Summary: After a brilliant but asocial mathematician accepts secret work in cryptography, his life takes a turn for the nightmarish

Other Nominations: Director*, Actor (Crowe), Supporting Actress (Connelly)*, Adapted Screenplay*, Original Score, Makeup, Film Editing

Big glossy Oscar bait bio-pics aren’t my kind of thing, but it’s pretty good nonetheless. Crowe (and to a lesser extent Connelly) carries the movie with his performance (mainly his post-grad school version of John Nash) and both he and the movie as a whole do a great job of depicting his deteriorating mental state. Along the same lines, the presentation is general is handled well, like with the famous “illuminated words and letters” device to show the viewer how Nash sees patterns and the world differently and the makeup is on point. The movie certainly takes some liberties with the facts (and omits some important ones), but mostly for good reasons and the person at his core and his very real plight feel true to life at least.

The main issues for me is the script which is a mixed bag. Even if the structure is good, the dialogue is extremely blunt and unnatural at times and it felt weak (you mean hiring a guy who’s last two solo screenplays before A Beautiful Mind were Batman & Robin and the Lost in Space remake might not deliver a great script? You don’t say!) The other problem is really with Ron Howard in general. He’s a very competent filmmaker, but he lacks any real creative vision or soul in my opinion. Here, the movie takes very few risks and outside of a creative structural decision (which was thought up by the screenwriter) and doesn’t deviate from big, broad emotions. It’s a perfectly good movie, but it didn’t strike a chord with me.

Additional note: this was the third straight Dreamworks movie to win Best Picture; if Saving Private Ryan had won, it would have been four in a row. (they never won again by the way). The only other time this happened was with United Artists (1975-77).

Rating: B-

*Gladiator (2000)*


Starring: Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Connie Nielsen, Oliver Reed (in his posthumous final on-screen performance), Djimon Hounsou, Richard Harris, Derek Jacobi

Director: Ridley Scott

Summary: When a Roman general is betrayed by an emperor’s corrupt son, he comes to Rome as a gladiator to seek revenge

Other Nominations: Director, Actor (Crowe)*, Supporting Actor (Phoenix), Original Screenplay, Original Score, Sound Mixing*, Art Direction, Cinematography, Costume Design*, Film Editing, Visual Effects*

Gladiator is basically Braveheart crossed with Ben-Hur, where a once-prominent Roman is betrayed and made a slave and seeks out his revenge against the man responsible for murdering his wife. As someone who is a big action movie fan and enjoys film a good epic, this was pretty underwhelming for me. First the good: Joaquin Phoenix does a wonderful job chewing the scenery as a sadistic, cowardly and disturbed bastard of an emperor, and Oliver Reed (who died with 3 weeks left to film, requiring a script change and a CGI body-double) brings a great energy and presence. The costumes and sets are also on point, and the effects for 2000 standards are pretty seamless (especially with the Coliseum, as they only built about a third of it with the rest being computer generated).

The rest of the movie didn’t do a lot for me though. There’s a fine line between steely & determined and dull & brooding, and I would definitely put Crowe’s character and performance on the latter end-he just wasn’t that interesting of a main protagonist, something that wasn’t an issue in movies like Braveheart, Ben-Hur and Spartacus. The fight cinematography and editing is surprisingly poor: it’s entertaining for the sheer spectacle of a couple of scenes (like with the tigers), but the constant quick cuts and frequent close-ups lessen the impact of the blows and you can’t track movement all that well. While it has its strong points, it fails to be great as either an epic or an action film and is one of the lesser Best Picture winners.

Rating: C+