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-

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Sideways (2004)

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Starring: Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, Virginia Madsen, Sandra Oh

Director: Alexander Payne

Summary: Two men reaching middle age with not much to show for it embark on a week-long road trip through California’s wine country just as one is about to take a trip down the aisle

Other Nominations: Director, Supporting Actor (Haden Church), Supporting Actress (Madsen), Adapted Screenplay*

Basically, this is the kind of movie that fits my sensibilities to a T. I’d heard of it and remembered it had good reviews when it first came out, but I’d never had an urge to watch it and can’t imagine I ever would have if not for this project. Where to begin? The leads are extremely well-written: relatable but often unlikeable and pathetic characters who play off each other perfectly, and the performances for the two are fantastic (how Giamatti wasn’t nominated here, I have no idea).  Beyond just the leads, the screenplay in general is a well-oiled machine, combining a bleak comedic streak with genuine pathos and great dialogue. Besides Giamatti, I would have also given two additional nominations to the film: the low-key jazz score which fits perfectly and the cinematography, which isn’t the kind of flashy, taking shots of beautiful scenery cinematography that usually gets nominated, but the shot composition is consistently excellent and it uses the camera’s focus well. Movies like this are why I’m happy I did this project.

Rating: A

The Pianist (2002)

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Starring: Adrien Brody, Thomas Kretschmann, Frank Finlay, Maureen Lipman, Ed Stoppard, Emilia Fox, Julia Raynor, Jessica Kate Meyer

Director: Roman Polanski

Summary: A Polish Jewish musician struggles to survive the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto during World War II

Other Nominations: Director*, Actor (Brody)*, Adapted Screenplay*, Cinematography, Costume Design, Film Editing

My reaction to the first part of The Pianist was “maybe I’m starting to get tired of holocaust movies”, as it basically incorporated most of the things you come to expect in non-documentary movies on the subject and didn’t stand out to me. The second part of the movie though is where it really shines-while there are a number of movies about Jewish people who were terrorized, sequestered into ghettos and eventually sent to concentration camps, I hadn’t seen a movie focused on the someone who escaped from a camp and had to find a way to survive until the end of the war, or on the Jewish resistance-most movies present the Jews as meek victims, but here we acknowledge that there were those who fought back: even if it was a hopeless battle, at least they died with dignity.

The film gives a great sense of just how exhausting it was even for the “lucky ones”, those who did successfully escape, how you would have always been desperately searching for sources of food and water in order to meet your basic needs for survival, how you were never sure if you could trust your neighbor or supposed protectors, and how the wrong move could get you killed on the spot.

Brody gives a strong performance, one that pretty much made his career and he hasn’t done a whole lot of real note since which is a shame. If a person in his character’s position wasn’t sympathetic enough, his big, sympathetic eyes are extremely expressive and along with his whole exhausted body language as the film goes on makes him memorable. Overall, the first hour or so was merely pretty good in my estimation, but the last hour and a half was so strong and original that the whole ends up being a great movie.

Rating: A-

The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Rings (2001)

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Starring: Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Bean, Sean Astin, Orlando Bloom, Liv Tyler, Cate Blanchett, John Rhys-Davies, Christopher Lee, Hugo Weaving, Ian Holm, Andy Serkis

Director: Peter Jackson

Summary: A meek hobbit and eight companions set out on a journey to destroy the one ring and the Dark Lord Sauron

Other Nominations: Director, Supporting Actor (McKellen), Adapted Screenplay, Original Score*, Original Song (“May It Be”), Sound, Art Direction, Cinematography*, Makeup*, Costume Design, Film Editing, Visual Effects*

*I watched the theatrical cut (178 minutes), not the extended cut (228 minutes) because that’s the version the Academy voters would have seen at the time of the ceremony*

Before I begin my review, I wanted to say that, as incredible as it might sound, I somehow have avoided watching any of these movies (or read the books) before this project. Having now seen the first of the trilogy, I have to say it mostly lives up to the hype. While the movie does a lot of things exceedingly well, the thing that jumped out to me more than anything else was just how amazing the score is-seriously, it’s one of the best ever, and one of the most recent (as of 2017) that I would call truly memorable and iconic. The whole cast is excellent (with loads of people who became much bigger deals because of the success of these films), but Ian McKellen is always the best and undoubtedly earned his Oscar nomination; considering how beloved he is by everyone, I’m surprised he lost to Jim Broadbent in Iris (although I have not seen that movie to be fair). Frodo is somewhat of a thankless role-much like Luke Skywalker in A New Hope, he’s the semi-bland main character audience avatar surrounded by other more interesting characters, but Wood does a nice job, and his puppy dog eyes are his greatest asset. The effects were a giant leap forward at the time, although some of the CG and chroma key effects look dodgy by modern standards. Even with that, the effects (especially the orcs who look awesome), combined with the overall art direction and the cinematography make for a gorgeous looking film.

The story does a great job of building a unique and complete world (if not one that feels very standard fantasy in the time since it was written), and whatever cuts were made from the novel for the interests of time seem to have been the right ones as you can still follow everything going on with no issues whatsoever. I will say that maybe something was lost in characterization though: with a cast of characters so large, it’s difficult to give them all the attention they deserve in the first installment of a trilogy. Lady Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Arwen (Liv Tyler) feel like they showed up just to set them up to do big things later on, but I would have liked to have gotten more from them here even with all that said. Ultimately, while I’m much more of a sci-fi fan than a fantasy fan, this is still about as good of an adaptation as you could possibly hope for, and I look forward to the next two.

Rating: A-

The Insider (1999)

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Starring: Al Pacino, Russell Crowe, Christopher Plummer, Diane Venora, Philip Baker Hall, Michael Gambon, Hallie Eisenberg (aka the Pepsi Girl)

Director: Michael Mann

Summary: A research chemist comes under personal and professional attack when he decides to appear in a 60 Minutes expose on Big Tobacco

Other Nominations: Director, Actor (Crowe), Adapted Screenplay, Sound, Cinematography, Film Editing

Movies based on real events can often be either too dry or too sensationalized, but The Insider finds the perfect balance and is an extraordinarily compelling film. I liked both the leads a lot-Crowe ably navigates a role that combines intense paranoia, anger, intelligence, coldness and aloofness, and it’s one of the last times Pacino actually tried in a movie. Also, Plummer (as Mike Wallace) is terrific and I love his characterization in general since I was never really a fan of Wallace in general.

I loved the screenplay for a number of reasons. First, it’s a great thriller, especially with the paranoia that’s pervasive throughout the first half (the scene at the driving range being my favorite, with perfect pacing, editing and cinematography). Second, it’s very dedicated to historical accuracy, something I think is important in a movie with explosive allegations and negative characterizations about people when the events happened just four years before the movie came out. Third, in a different telling of this story, we might get more broad and obvious characterizations, but here we get much richer portraits, like with Crowe’s character, who is clearly heroic by putting everything on the line for the right cause, but is also unpersonable, a little self-righteous and prone to anger.

The other thing that stood out to me was the cinematography and editing, which felt very “modern” (for better or worse). Lots of rapid-fire cuts, heavy use of steadicam, off-kilter close-ups, and switching the focus from the foreground to the background (or vice versa) within the same shot-it certainly looks distinctive. I think it gives a dynamic feel to the movie, and in the context of a thriller like this, it works well.

Making a compelling, true-to-real-life-events thriller with themes about monied interests and media influence that are more relevant today than ever is an incredibly difficult task, yet The Insider somehow gets everything right. This was the high point for Michael Mann’s career, a bit of a swan song for Pacino, and a movie that further established Crowe as maybe the top actor for the time period.

Rating: A-

Saving Private Ryan (1998)

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Starring: Tom Hanks, Edward Burns, Tom Sizemore, Matt Damon, Harrison Young, Barry Pepper, Adam Goldberg, Vin Diesel, Giovanni Ribisi, Jeremy Davies, Paul Giamatti, Ted Danson, Bryan Cranston, Nathan Fillion

Director: Steven Spielberg

Summary: Following D-Day, a group of U.S. soldiers go behind enemy lines to retrieve a paratrooper whose brothers were killed in action

Other Nominations: Director*, Actor (Hanks), Original Screenplay, Original Dramatic Score, Sound Editing*, Sound*, Art Direction, Cinematography*, Makeup, Film Editing*

In spite of a few imperfections, this is exceptional filmmaking. The two big action set pieces that we get at the beginning and end are truly incredible in scope and execution (especially the Omaha Beach opening)-the cinematography, direction, editing and sound design all put us right in the middle of it, making us feel how jarring and chaotic it was in unflinching and graphic detail. At least for these scenes, it feels real and gives you a true appreciation for what a soldier has to go through in combat, or at least as much as can be for a civilian like myself. Besides just the action, many of the other elements work: the muted color palette of greens and browns fit perfectly, setting the tone for basically every color WWII combat movie after it and Hanks’ character has weight to it, or at least more than the characters he tends to play.

The biggest issue I have is that it sometimes becomes overly-sentimental. I know it’s Spielberg and that almost always comes with the territory, but the ending really went over the edge for me and hurt the film. In general, the story/script is the weakest major aspect relative to others along with the score which was not one of John Williams’ more memorable efforts. Still, the film is a marvel on a technical and action-directing level and deserves its place as one of the great WWII movies.

Rating: A-

L.A. Confidential (1997)

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Starring: Guy Pearce, Russell Crowe, Kevin Spacey, James Cromwell, Kim Basinger, Danny DeVito, David Strathaim, Simon Baker (his first film)

Director: Curtis Hanson

Summary: Detectives clash while investigating political corruption

Other Nominations: Director, Supporting Actress (Basinger)*, Adapted Screenplay*, Original Dramatic Score, Sound, Art Direction, Cinematography, Film Editing

While it does nothing all that new and covers ground that other great film noirs have, it was fresh for the time period and the execution is so good that it’s still a real joy to watch. Everything here feels so vibrant and alive, moving quickly with a lean and mean screenplay that trimmed what was a focus on eight characters in the source novel to just three, with great results. While the story is solid, it really is the three main characters arcs that carry the story along with the strong performances from those playing them (and really the performances of everyone involved). Basinger was the only one who got a nomination (and she won), which surprises me considering 1) Spacey is excellent and should have gotten a Supporting Actor nom, and 2) Basinger’s relatively small role compared to other members of the cast, although she’s perfect in it. Finally, the score feels nearly identical to Chinatown’s but hey, no need to fix what’s not broke for a noir set in Los Angeles. If you like noirs, this is a great one.

Rating: A-