The Film Fan Perspective’s 20 Favorite Films
In “celebration” of the fact that my blog still exists after two years, I’d like to share with the readers the movies that are closest to my heart and mind. You may already be aware of them, but the idea was to guess as many as possible.
So, without further ado, here are my twenty favorite films, in countdown order:
20. High Fidelity- “What came first, the music or the misery?” Exactly. With all of his odd takes on society and politics lately, it might be hard to remember when John Cusack was the stand in for all of us neurotic, fast-talking, hopeless romantic white guys. The film adaptation of Nick Hornby’s novel High Fidelity is the high point of Cusack’s career. The actor’s inherent neuroses fit the character of Rob Gordon, as we both loathe and love him for being so talented yet so indecisive. His desperate need to not grow up and his need to cling to the ‘fantasy’ speaks to all the males that just haven’t figured it out yet. Oh, and Jack Black is an absolute force of nature here as a record store employee that just keeps showing up. Let’s not forget the graceful and gorgeous Iben Hjejle, and the outstanding soundtrack. It gave me a new angle on music, which led to what my current tastes are. It’s amazing how I loved the movie at first for being so crisp and funny, but now I love it for understanding it. Every guy should meet a Charlie, but end up with a Laura.
19. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan- Those unfamiliar with ‘Star Trek’ lore may not understand the carnal hatred that exists between Captain James T. Kirk and the nefarious Khan, but it matters not for this sci-fi classic. It works on so many levels, from the hell-bent rage of Khan to the overarching themes of birth, re-birth, and death that you don’t have to be a fan to enjoy this, the best of the ‘Trek’ films.
18. The Lion King- As I navigated my pre-teen and early teen years, I wrote off Disney. In my eyes, everything was princesses accompanied by radio-friendly adult contemporary tunes. Then I took a chance and saw The Lion King while I was chasing after a girl (surprise!). It was transformative, for not only would I never see Disney with a jaded eye again, I kept looking for that next Lion King, that next masterpiece. It’s both a darker and more beautiful film than Disney had ever attempted, and every single scene is near brilliance. That soundtrack- not just the well-crafted Elton John pieces, but the Hans Zimmer score as well, just brilliant. It’s just the best thing that Disney has done before, and may ever do, save for Finding Nemo.
17. Alien- It may not be the original “original” sci-fi horror movie, but nonetheless it’s the modern standard for the genre, and the benchmark of female heroine characters. Ridley Scott and crew created a claustrophobic, organic/metallic spaceship, and brilliantly made the choice to hire gothic artist H.R. Giger to design the xenomorph and its’ interiors. Many have imitated, nothing has duplicated, even in its’ own saga.
16. Once- It would be impossible to limit my love of this film to a cell on a spreadsheet. Once is full of wonderful singer/songwriter music, unspoken passions, unspoken loves, missed opportunities, and incredible “moments in time” that seem to last forever, but are limited to 2 hours. The final scene is both touching and heartbreaking in a way that no other film has given me, and the soundtrack is pure, original magic.
15. Monty Python and the Holy Grail- Monty Python’s magnum opus of farce is still the funniest film I’ve ever seen. From catapulted livestock to enchanters named “Tim”, how can one not find this supremely hilarious? Admittedly, humor can be a tricky subject, and some may not find this brand of English witticism to their liking. Me? I think it’s the best comedy ever made.
14. Finding Nemo- Pixar’s best film, in this guy’s opinion, is director Andrew Stanton’s masterpiece. Funny, for sure, but sublimely touching, Nemo is also the most beautiful animated film I’ve seen. Maybe it’s the color of the fish, the interesting way water works with animation, maybe the brilliant Thomas Newman score, I’m not sure. Maybe it’s that I feel exactly like Marlin in the way I see my own son. Wow, I’m getting teary-eyed just thinking of this movie.
13. E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial- This film has meant different things to me at different points in my life. At age 3, it was complete wonderment at the sight of aliens, rousing music, and funny moments. As a teen, I was ambivalent and couldn’t find a copy to watch. As an adult, I was bummed about the special edition changes, but rejoiced when the original edition became available, and enjoyed it with my child. It’s a nostalgic, touching film about how children’s innocence occasionally triumphs over adult paranoia.
12. The Dark Knight- There is no doubt that this is the penultimate superhero film. It’s hard to even consider this a superhero film- it’s more of a crime thriller with a moral center. With perhaps the most bravura performance in recent memory, Heath Ledger cemented the Joker as one of entertainment’s best villains, and the chaotic nature of the film’s events make this just as much of an experience as a movie.
11. Shakespeare In Love- Despite the clamor to strip this film of its’ Best Picture Oscar, it really is an amazing film, stooped in romance, whimsy, and as Gwyneth Paltrow’s character calls it, a ‘stolen summer’. It may not be an accurate account of Shakespeare’s life, but who cares. It’s the most enjoyable romantic drama I’ve ever seen, topping even the material that it apparently inspired, “Romeo & Juliet”.
10. Contact- No film to this date has better encapsulated the hope, spirit, and arrogance of the human race as it relates to space travel and the universe than this film. Based on Carl Sagan’s novel about first contact, Foster plays my favorite role of hers as Ellie Arroway, a stubborn yet determined astrophysicist. I watch it every July 11th to celebrate the film’s release.
9. Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope- Although not my favorite, it’s the best film of the saga, and one could argue that modern cinema exists in the fashion that it does because of this film. It’s constructed so well, and so delightful in every way that we forget George Lucas created it. It may just be the most popular film of all-time as well. There’s nothing I could say that would be revelatory. Everyone already knows Star Wars.
8. Poltergeist- To me, this is the penultimate ‘scary’ movie. Steven Spielberg’s brilliant mind is all over this project, even if he isn’t credited as director. The touches of nostalgia, the subtle commentary on suburbia, post-Vietnam paranoia, and Reaganomics, and the graceful way Beatrice Straight explains the possibilities of an afterlife are the hallmarks of this classic. I watch it every year in October now, and it seems to get better every time.
7. Field of Dreams- Don’t mistake this as being simply a ‘sports’ or ‘baseball’ movie. While it certainly is both of those, it’s more of a father and son movie, and learning to accept and love who your parents are after you learn they’re real people, and not superheroes. The fact that the film’s main set piece is still available to visit and play on certainly helps to play up the aura of the film.
6. Star Wars, Episode VI: Return of the Jedi- Not the best of the saga, but always my favorite. The nostalgia oozing out of this film always brings out the best in cinema for me, despite its’ obvious flaws. This film may be the most important to me on this list, simply for the awe factor involved with this being the first real blockbuster saga I experienced.
5. 2001: A Space Odyssey- THE quintessential science-fiction film for me. It holds more sway when taking in the entire story, including the subsequent sequel film and novels. Groundbreaking for its’ time, but perhaps no longer as relevant due to the lack of wide interest in the space program, it is interestingly the most spiritual story I know.
4. Aliens- Not only does this deliver on thrills and science fiction goodness, but Weaver’s Ellen Ripley is perhaps most enjoyable female role I’ve ever watched. This is a classic as a sci-fi film, a special effects showcase, a well-honed script, and a blockbuster.
3. Raiders of the Lost Ark- A throwback film to a time when movie serials existed, Spielberg’s adventure masterpiece deftly weaves heroism with archaeology, and manages to make history exciting. Harrison Ford has never really been better, and Karen Allen’s spitfire of a sidekick/love interest is still one of my favorites.
2. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King- No other film that I’ve watched has combined so many varying emotions into one and pulled it off with flying colors. It’s an astonishing accomplishment that pushes all of my emotional and technical “film buttons”. Hard to defend as one of my ultimate favorites, and I just recently unseated it- but I still love it, and the whole series.
1. Cloud Atlas- It took me over eleven years to find a new favorite film, and dare I say that I didn’t even realize it until recently. From the film’s extra-long final trailer to the end of my first viewing, I was moved to tears by this sci-fi fable. The tag line of ‘everything is connected’ is far too simple a phrase to explain the emotional impact this had on me. Sometimes, we ‘put’ things onto a film based on what we want to get from it. Sometimes, the film not only fulfills what we want, but seems to explain that the filmmakers believe it too. The Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer took a beautiful premise and gave it the respect it deserved, resulting in an honest experience that doesn’t pull punches. It is a brave film, occasionally gory and violent, moving to abstract and odd, then tender and graceful. This story blends everything I love about film, and the potential it has to take the fantastic to a higher level of entertainment. It may be pretentious, but maybe I’m pretentious. Or maybe I just fill in the gaps well. Whatever the case is, this is my favorite film.
*honorable mention: Groundhog Day, Casablanca, Seven, L.A. Confidential, Garden State, Ghostbusters, Batman (1989), Pulp Fiction, Fargo.
Note- the following mini film reviews were from 2010 on a different blog that I no longer run.
Role Models (***1/2)- This is one of those movies I said I wouldn’t see (because penis and boob jokes usually bore me), but I watched it to appease friends that insist I’m a movie snob. Admittedly, this isn’t too bad, and in parts, I laughed heartily. I also appreciated how the geek culture was both roasted and praised at the same time, as well as the skewering of the ‘energy drink’ industry. I recommend this with a caveat: I want comedies to stop being so formulaic (i.e. immature/lazy characters get drunk/high, lose/almost lose their forgiving girl, turn the corner, make a big mistake, and then go to great lengths to make everything better). I hope the next comedy involving Paul Rudd isn’t so telegraphed.
Step Brothers (*1/2)- Aside from the occasional humorous line (one delivered by a little girl, and one that you can only find in the DVD’s deleted scenes), I’d have to say I was really disappointed with this. Adam McKay (Anchorman– my #3 funniest film) directs, so where does it go wrong? Well, even in silly comedies, I still expect some semblance of sense. This is a jumbled mess that extends a 5 minute idea (Hey! We’re 40 and live with our parents! How sad is that?!) into a feature. I split this up into two viewings and still almost dozed off the second time around. There are two types of Will Ferrell movies: Good, (Anchorman, Stranger Than Fiction, Elf) and really bad (Superstar, Semi-Pro, Talladega Nights). This falls into the latter category.
The Hangover (**1/2)– For all the hoopla, I’m ultimately left wondering what the big deal is. Sure, there are random funny moments (mostly the scenes stolen by Zack Galifianakis), and it wasn’t terrible by any means, but is this all we get for the top grossing comedy of all time? I shouldn’t expect much from director Todd Phillips (‘Road Trip’, ‘Old School’, ‘Starsky & Hutch’), and this is definitely his best effort, but for the praise this one gets, I’m kind of bummed that this wasn’t funnier. There’s too much Mike Tyson (one scene was enough), and I’m worn out with the whole ‘what happens in Vegas’ schtick. Debauchery is only funny the first hundred times. I really wanted it to be legendarily funny.
Tron (**)– In anticipation of the Christmas 2010 sequel ‘Tron Legacy”, I wanted to bone up on the original. I had to remind myself that in 1982 this was something of a groundbreaking film in the area of visual effects (from what I’ve read). However, in contrast to other sci-fi flicks that HAVE stood the test of time (Star Wars), the effects in this film are extremely dated…and it’s also a rather dull movie with dull characters, centered around the idea that computer programs can interface with real people, or ‘users’., and one such self-aware program wants to ‘rule the world’ or whatever. The whole ‘computers taking over’ thing may have originated here (I’m not sure), but the ‘Terminator’ franchise has beat that idea into submission, along with countless other cautionary tales of technology. I saw this when I was younger, but I never clamored to watch this like the other classics of the time, and I think I know why now. The trailer for ‘Tron Legacy’ is far more interesting than any 2 minutes of this film. It was probably way cooler back in 1982, but good movies always stand the test of time, shoddy effects or not.
The Hurt Locker (*****)- The most recent Oscar winner for Best Picture, ‘The Hurt Locker’ is a truly great movie. I say that even though I, like others, have grown tired of the slew of Iraq war movies in recent years. I’ll also admit that I was apprehensive because I hadn’t been a fan of director Kathryn Bigelow’s previous work. However, there’s not a moment that I wasn’t on the edge of my seat. It’s cliché to say that, but I’m not kidding; this is an intense film. I think we all understand by now that ‘war is Hell’, but this film doesn’t concentrate on that. For some, adrenaline is addictive, and for the lead character, played brilliantly by Jeremy Renner, the adrenaline rush war provides is a drug. If there can be such a thing as a ‘fresh perspective’ on war, this film offers it, and does so in great fashion, following a bomb squad on various missions. On a side note, I’m incredibly pleased that this won Best Picture at the Oscars over Avatar. I enjoyed that, but only in the area of technological innovation was it superior to The Hurt Locker. It’s good to know that using politics to sway voters during Oscar season this year didn’t work.
Bruno (***)- Right after I watched this, I commented on Facebook that I’d never been so entertained and appalled at the same time. I think that pretty much encapsulates this movie. Sacha Baron Cohen, as the faux Austrian fashion guru, does everything he can to shock the viewer, and succeeds in that arena. Occasionally, the gratuitous nature of the movie was a bit much, but at other times I was in stitches- not ‘Borat’ stitches, but still. Afterwards I was slightly disappointed that I wasn’t as entertained by this as I was ‘Borat’, but considering the bar that Cohen set for himself, anything short of that was going to let me down. Slight spoiler alert: the scenes with the reforming minister and the large crowd at the end are a little too real to be funny. It’s unfortunate how pervasive bigotry can be.
Drag Me To Hell (***)- Full disclosure- I can’t stand the ‘Evil Dead’ movies, or Army of Darkness, the supposed legendary starter films for director Sam Raimi. However, he has made really good movies since then (A Simple Plan, Spider-Man 2), so I know he’s capable. Keeping that in mind, and knowing that Alison Lohman was the lead (big smile), I figured I’d watch this with mild expectations. I had also heard that this was somewhat ‘light’ on the horror and occasionally humorous- which ends up being the case. Lohman’s character is your average girl, trying to ‘make it in this world’, and thus takes a risk that ends with a curse being placed on her. This film takes the curse very seriously. The lengths her character has to go through in an attempt to rid the curse make this an entertaining, and at times, mildly scary film. I’d have preferred that Raimi drop the amusing moments altogether and do a more ominous straight-up horror flick. I think that would have capitalized on the real strong points of the movie, the scary moments. (SPOILER ALERT): I was surprised to have enjoyed it, and was particularly taken aback by the ending, which was timed perfectly…not too much time in between the climax and the end, and thus we aren’t sure if there’s more coming or not. The look on Justin Long’s face in the final shot is one I can imagine myself having.
Moon (*****)- I was so excited to see this little independent sci-fi film that I rushed to the computer to see which one of our theaters was going to carry it when it released. Alas, NEITHER of them did. Very, very disappointing. I’d have thought that a film starring Sam Rockwell and Kevin Spacey’s voice would be somewhat attractive. Of course, there must not have been room for this film when theaters had to have 10-15 showings of Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen each day. (Sigh) Moon concerns astronaut Sam Bell (Rockwell), who is nearing the end of a three-year mining shift on the Moon when he comes across an odd occurence while out in a rover: himself. Kevin Spacey voices the robot GERTY, who runs things at the moon base, including the medical functions. This is a deeply engrossing film that is part sci-fi, part character study. I’m stunned Sam Rockwell wasn’t nominated for Best Actor; if you see the film, you’ll understand specifically why it must have been a difficult role to pull off, and he was fantastic. Not everyone can show patience with films like this (sci-fi ‘thinking’ movies), but if you can be, it’ll be rewarding. My only beef is with the typeface used during the trailer and credits, which is again the same unoriginal drivel that everyone uses to ‘appeal to a certain demographic’ (sigh x 2).
The Spirit (no stars)- This will be short, mainly because it only warrants a short review. This is an evil, terrible movie, with no direction and no value whatsoever. Even Samuel L. Jackson yelling isn’t the least bit satisfying. I had better check out one of Will Eisner’s comics to see if the source material is better, because this just sucks.
Gone Baby Gone (****1/2)- Ben Affleck’s directorial debut is a well-acted, emotional thriller that basically forces the viewer to examine some of their own thoughts. Based on the book by well-known author Dennis Lehane (Mystic River), Gone Baby Gone is a visceral film that deftly runs the gamut from child abduction to police corruption. No scene is wasted, especially those involving Amy Ryan, who plays the drug-abusing mother of the abducted child. After seeing her in ‘The Office’ first, I couldn’t help but be slightly shocked each time she swore or did something despicable. Ed Harris is brilliant (again) as a cop with a unique perspective on justice, and Casey Affleck is surprisingly effective as the street-smart private detective that has to make the tough choices once he’s in over his head. I looked back to see what was nominated for Best Picture the year this film came out, and both No Country For Old Men and There Will Be Blood are films I consider on par with or better than this, but I cannot believe this didn’t get at least a nomination over ‘Juno’, which I couldn’t stand. I’m not sure I should feel comfortable quite yet, but based on this film, I admit I’m looking forward to Ben Affleck’s next directorial venture, The Town, which seems to have a nice little cast. (*note- I’ve since seen both The Town and Argo, and they’re both brilliant)
Zombieland (****)- I like my post-apocalyptic films to be a bit more serious, so I can really get a feel for the desolate nature of a world on the brink of extinction. However, this was just plain fun. It follows two, then four, survivors of a virus outbreak that has, as you guessed it, turned most of the population into flesh-eating zombies. The zombie thing is incredibly overdone, but this film isn’t concerned so much with the zombies as it is with the characters, and how they’ve learned to survive. Jesse Eisenberg (The Squid And The Whale, Adventureland’ is the main character, who suffers from a lack of self-esteem, but has made a list of ways to survive in Zombieland, a list that brought a smile to my face. Woody Harrelson is the gun-loving redneck (no WAY) that has a soft side, and Emma Stone teams up with Abigail Breslin as con-artist sisters. Zombieland is effective in part because it knows not to take itself too seriously. It also has some fun set pieces, like the mansion of a celebrity (I won’t give it away), a grocery store, and an amusement park to play with the zombies. I imagine that if ‘The Sims’ and ‘Resident Evil’ software joined together, we’d probably get something similar to this film.
Iceman (1984) (****)- An effective film starring Timothy Hutton as an anthropologist who tries to connect with a 40,000 year old thawed out prehistoric man. This could have been silly, but the performances are superb, especially John Lone as ‘Charlie’, the ‘iceman’. I think anyone that can make a 40,000 year old person seem realistic deserves some kudos. Also, there is actual science used and discussed throughout the entire ‘thawing’ process, not just a montage of scenes to move the plot along. Look for Danny Glover in a role as a gamekeeper, and the principal from the Back To The Future films, James Tolkan. I used to watch this often when I was younger, and I just revisited it a couple of weeks ago as a streaming file via Netflix online. The film quality was incredibly poor, but I’m hoping that someday Universal will remaster it on Blu-Ray, and I’ll surely pick it up then.
Bolt (****)- I’ve had the benefit of getting to know this movie’s ins and outs VERY well, as my son wants to watch it…A LOT. Bolt is one of those rare Disney animated films that isn’t in the category of The Lion King or Toy Story. I remember being intrigued by the trailer, which, as it turns out, contains the best jokes from the movie. It’s an easy to digest movie for kids, and interesting enough for adults. Bolt is touching without being forced, and I was able to appreciate the subtle humor. Similar to the ‘Madagascar’ penguins, some quirky pigeons show up for comic relief as well. You won’t mistake this for the Pixar movies, but it isn’t too far behind.
Love Happens (1/2 star)- Why did I watch this? Although I knew everything that would happen based on the trailer, I suppose I got sucked in by the Goo Goo Dolls song playing in the background. Silly me… Anyways, Aaron Eckhart stars as a self-help guru that (big surprise) isn’t quite as strong as he seems. Jennifer Aniston continues to waste screen time as a flower shop owner that makes ‘bad decisions’, even though she OWNS A FLOWER SHOP that is thriving in a big city (Seattle). But I digress- you can tell what happens based on the title of the movie, and nothing interesting is in between. Eckhart continues to confuse me- he’s pretty good in some things (The Dark Knight, Erin Brockovich, In The Company Of Men), and appears miscast in LOTS of stuff (Thank You For Smoking, The Core, Suspect Zero). That might be the definition of mediocre, I suppose. I also want Aniston to go away. I hope that isn’t too harsh. Do give you an idea of how predictable and bad this is, I had the ‘finger gun’ pointed at my head about a dozen times while watching this. I’ll state the obvious…sh*t also ‘happens’, thus we have this film.
Pandorum (***)- It’s really, REALLY hard to find good science fiction films to watch these days. Usually a film advertised as sci-fi turns out to be a ‘boo’ movie, where things just jump out at characters in between quickly edited shots. Pandorum is a film that I’d generally ignore based on plain old intuition- it has Dennis Quaid in it (strike one), gnarly-looking monsters just to have some (strike two), Paul W.S. Anderson as a producer (strikes three, four, five and six), and the same dreaded, overused, unoriginal typeface for its’ multimedia and credits as countless other movies (strike seven, and I’ll get to the typeface/font thing in another post). Imagine my surprise when I was halfway through the movie and thought ‘wow, this doesn’t suck’. That’s a victory in itself, but the film goes further. To summarize quickly, two confused astronauts/’space military guys’ are on a ship travelling to an Earth-like planet called Tanis with the intention of settling after Earth has crumbled away, (awesome name for all you Raiders Of The Lost Ark fans) and are abruptly brought out of ‘hypersleep’ having to piece together what has happened. They try to accomplish this all while dealing with monsters that have a curious secret behind their existence. There are moments in this film that are genuinely creepy, and some occasional dumb moments that do a disservice to the overall intrigue the story has. When all was said and done, I couldn’t help but enjoy it. I even purchased it, maybe because if a sci-fi film shows any promise at all, I’m so excited that I think it’s better than it is.
Away We Go (****1/2)- This might be the most unassuming good movie I’ve ever seen. John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph star as 30-somethings who finally decide to get serious about settling down once they learn a baby is on the way. They travel to various locations across the continent in search for a good place to raise their child, hoping that being around friends or family will ease their fears about parenthood. What they discover instead makes this film a worthwhile watch, and dare I say, a great watch. I was surprised once the credits rolled to see that Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Road To Perdition) directed. This had such an indie-film quality to it that I didn’t envision the heir to the James Bond franchise as its’ helmer. Some critics have called this a snobby movie that imitates indie films in order to attract a certain crowd. I can see that to an extent- Alexi Murdoch tunes are spattered throughout the film, and the ending was a bit over-played (the only thing keeping it from a straight ‘A’ rating from me), but it doesn’t take away from the fact that it has some important things to say about being a parent and a grownup. I look forward to seeing this again as soon as possible, and I’d really like to see Maya Rudolph do more dramatic roles.
Inglourious Basterds (****)- By now, I think we know what to expect with all Quentin Tarantino films, and this time around, we aren’t left wanting. I wasn’t able to discern whether or not the film had any truth to it (according to history), and even though I doubt it, it doesn’t matter. Set during the Nazi occupation of France during World War II, the film centers around a group of Jewish American soldiers charged with the task of killing as many Nazi soldiers and officers as they can, a task for which their enthusiasm has no bounds. As is the norm for Quentin, smaller stories are intertwined and come together towards the end. Also, there are some trademark Tarantino graphic scenes, but I will say this- it appeared to me that he held back just a bit on the graphic stuff, and I appreciate that, because I do believe the movie as a whole benefits. Great performances are abound, but in particular, Christoph Waltz (who won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for this role) was as deliciously evil as any character you’ll see. All this said, I’m honestly not sure I liked this as much as Pulp Fiction, or either Kill Bill film. I suppose that because it isn’t as quotable, it may not be as memorable for me.
9 (***)- No, this isn’t the recent musical starring Daniel Day-Lewis, or The Nines starring Ryan Reynolds. This is an animated film from last year that I suspect very few people saw. I had been intrigued by the trailer, which showcased a post-apocalyptic world with little canvas-stitched ‘beings’ running around. The trailer also prominently mentioned Tim Burton and Timur Bekmambetov (Wanted) as executive producers, which didn’t really do anything for me other than convince me that it would be weird. First off, the animation is brilliantly done, and there is a great deal of character in the ‘beings’. Many well-known actors gave voices to the ‘beings’ (Elijah Wood, Martin Landau, etc), further adding to their charm. One may gather while watching this that there are subtle ‘anti-war’ and ‘machines might take over’ messages, and we’ve gone down that road before (see ‘Terminator’ franchise). There are also evil ‘machines’ that may remind some of the sentinels from the ‘Matrix’ franchise. Even with recycled messages and machinery, though, this movie works, at least on the visual level. I applaud director/creator Shane Acker for broadening the scope of his visionary student film, and even if the story isn’t anything new, it’s one of the most fascinating movies I’ve viewed in some time.
How To Train Your Dragon (3D) (****1/2)- Released last Friday, DreamWorks gives us another CG-animated movie in the spirit of Kung Fu Panda, Monsters vs. Aliens’and Shrek. Well, almost. I admit that I haven’t seen the first two, but I have seen the ‘Shrek’ movies, as well as Madagascar and Over The Hedge, so I have a good idea about what kind of movie DreamWorks animation offers. I consider them far inferior in comparison to the offerings of Disney/Pixar, even though they are enjoyable. How To Train Your Dragon belongs in the upper echelon along with the Pixar films. I found it to be visually striking, humorous, touching, and, at times, even unnerving. We’ve seen movies before about a boy and his dragon (Pete’s Dragon), and even a man and his dragon (Dragonheart), but somehow the material seems fresh. There are vikings, dragon training arenas, cool warships, even cooler ‘dragon powers’, and a plethora of ‘fun’ moments. I never felt that the movie talked down to kids or adults, and nary a ‘corny moment’, typical of kid-themed films, was found.
Without giving up major plot points, I’ll try to summarize: a village of vikings has been at war with various dragons for many years, and one boy, the son of the ‘king’, isn’t really enamored with the prospects of becoming a ‘viking slayer’. In fact, he’s considered too much of a wimp to ever be considered. What he does do is manage to corner the most vicious and legendary of the dragons, the ‘night fury’, and what follows turns out to be one heck of a movie. This was the first film that my son enjoyed in the movie theater, and I can gladly say it was a good choice. At 3 years old, he (mostly) sat still, even while wearing 3D glasses, and managed to deal with everything well. Occasionally, the 3D is distracting (I’m still trying to get used to it), but at other times, it’s brilliant. Also, I mentioned there were ‘unnerving’ parts- I felt there were a few scenes that were a bit too scary for younger viewers, and one in particular that, even in the fantasy realm, was more than I wanted my son to see. On the whole, though, this is a great movie- no surprise once I saw the credits and noticed that one of the co-directors was Chris Sanders, who gave us Lilo & Stitch. Those who have seen the ‘Stitch’ character will undoubtedly see some design similarities with the ‘night fury’ dragon. Highly recommended.
“Frozen” **** (out of 5)
Starring (the voice talents of): Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, Josh Gad, Jonathan Groff, Alan Tudyk, Ciaran Hinds, and Santino Fontana
Written by: Jennifer Lee, story by Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee, and Shane Morris, inspired by the story The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen
Directed by: Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee
For nearly twenty years now, Pixar has dominated the animated scene by making far superior films than the competition, including their mouse-eared partner’s in-house efforts. Now that Pixar creator John Lasseter appears to be in charge of Disney’s animated projects, it is clear that a changing of the guard is taking place. Old is colliding with new at Disney, and the culmination of this event takes place with the stunning “Frozen”, a beautiful, touching film with better than average musical numbers, and an unfortunately bland title. If this is where new Disney begins, amazing cinematic experiences lie before us.
The symbolic merging of old and new begins before the film itself in the form of a new film short starring, of course, Mickey Mouse and friends. What appears at first to be an old “Steamboat Willie” cartoon quickly comes to life, going from black and white to color and three-dimensional characters. The short is clearly representative of what has made the company great in the past, and what is expected to come. As a bonus, children today may be familiar with these old characters due to the popularity of the newer “Mickey Mouse Clubhouse” show. Seeing them rendered in 3D isn’t a shock to their system like it is for us; conversely, they may be shocked to see the 3D characters in black and white. This interesting amalgamation of technology and nostalgia not only gives us some laughs, but sets a specific tone for “Frozen”.
The film itself begins with a montage of melancholy. Young sisters (and princesses to boot) Anna and Elsa are playing in the palace, when younger Anna prods Elsa to ‘use her powers’. It appears that Elsa can make and manipulate the cold from her fingertips, and in a freak accident, Elsa harms her sister to the point where Anna needs ‘magical’ treatment, and cannot remember the injury. These events lead to an understandable, if not shortsighted overreaction by the king and queen to isolate their ‘dangerous’ daughter until she can learn to ‘control’ her power.
Unfortunately, they can’t control turbulent seas, and they perish- leaving Elsa and Anna alone to mourn their parents and grow up separate from each other. The distance between them becomes exaggerated over time, until they barely know each other by the time Elsa becomes the queen. Perhaps the original story by Hans Christian Andersen tells us (I haven’t read it), but there is no mention in the movie of a curse put on Elsa, or an evil witch, or some poisoned fruit she eats that causes her to have powers. It simply exists, meaning Elsa transfers all of the blame to herself. She’s been isolated and riddled with so much guilt, self-doubt, and angst that you can’t help but feel for her. Keeping that in mind, when her bubble bursts (and it does), it’s frightening and gratifying all at once. She escapes the kingdom, retreating to the mountains to be alone. Her ‘outburst’ turns into one of the most magnificent animated spectacles you’ll ever see; exquisitely beautiful, yet strikingly dangerous as it covers the kingdom in ‘eternal winter’ (it’s called ‘eternal’, but how do we arrive at that conclusion? There is no explanation)
Anna goes after her sister, meeting the rugged yet approachable Kristoff (an ice salesman) and his pal reindeer Sven along the way. Naturally, they join the search. These two have an interesting relationship as it pertains to animated films- Sven doesn’t talk, but Kristoff holds a conversation with him nonetheless. As other critics have pointed out, a Disney movie of yore would’ve given Sven the ability to talk; shifting the way that it’s presented gives the film a different, and dare I say better, dimension. Another character joins the fray on the way to confront Elsa- a snowman named Olaf (Josh Gad), who can talk. Olaf is a memorable character, in the same vein as Donkey from “Shrek”- a silly yet endearing sidekick. The movie’s biggest laughs come from him.
The inevitable confrontation between Elsa, her sister, and the frightened citizens of the snow-covered kingdom resolves itself soon enough. The conclusion is satisfying, sure, but more important is the way in which it concludes. The heroines, one a queen and the other a princess, are allowed to persevere without first securing a ‘Prince Charming’, or tying their fates to the procurement of a love interest. I love that the filmmakers respect their audience, children and adults alike, enough to give their female leads a different solution. What results is far more powerful and satisfying.
Again, we can see the changing of the guard clearly through the lenses of “Frozen”. It’s not a perfect film- in particular, I’d say some of the lyrics in the musical numbers are downright comical, and the title is particularly lame (why not just go with “The Snow Queen”?). On the whole, however, “Frozen” strikes a near-perfect balance between emotion and comedy that brings traditional Disney storytelling into a new age. It’s by far the best animated film of the year, and although it may not sit at the head table with other Disney heavy-hitters like “The Lion King”, I think it’s fair to say it’s not far behind.
*note- I saw this in 2D, and instantly regretted it. The natural way that snow and ice looks in this film would have seemingly popped off the screen had I seen it in 3-D. That isn’t often something I clamor for.
*** Feel free to listen to me talk about this review as I make another guest appearance on the “I Hate Critics” podcast with host Bob Zerull and professional film critic Sean Patrick. The website is http://www.ihatecritics.net, and you can find the podcast link there, or search for it on iTunes. Thank you for reading and/or listening. 🙂 ***