29 Jan 2010 @ 6:00 AM 

Friday Minute
No. 21 | January 29, 2010

Best of the Decade

Our theme this week
Best movies of the decade at Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes

Featured this week
Monday         —   The Hurt Locker
Tuesday         —   Ratatouille
Wednesday    —   4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days
Thursday        —   Pan’s Labyrinth

“The Lord of the Rings” Trilogy

The essentials
The Fellowship of the Ring
(2001) / The Two Towers (2002) / The Return of the King (2003)
Metacritic:  92 / 88 / 94
Rotten Tomatoes:  92% / 96% / 94%

lord_of_the_ringsConsidered together (and I can’t see why you’d do it any other way), the three films in The Lord of the Rings saga were the movie event of the decade.  Filmed under the direction of Peter Jackson in his native New Zealand, the films were released in successive Decembers.  All were hits at the box office and with critics, and they are beloved by legions of devoted fans around the world.  The series won 17 Academy Awards (of 30 nominations), including Best Picture for the finale.  The trilogy grossed nearly $3 billion worldwide, surpassing the record-setting movies in the original Star Wars trilogy.

The films are adapted from the three volumes of J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic series.  Set in the mythic world of Middle-earth, the story follows the adventures of the hobbit Frodo Baggins on his quest to destroy the One Ring, an object of supernatural and malevolent powers.  Frodo is aided by members of the Fellowship, including his companion Sam and the wizard Gandalf, as they battle the forces of darkness, including a twisted little creature named Gollum who seeks to regain possession of the ring (which he affectionately calls “my precious”).  The ring was created by Sauron, the dark lord whose forces pursue Frodo on his mission to Mount Doom, the volcano where the ring was forged and is to be destroyed.  The tale culminates in an epic battle between good and evil, before peace, at last, is restored.

Conceived and filmed as one continuous story, the trilogy runs about nine-and-a-half hours (more than eleven hours in the extended version on DVD).  Even for epics, that’s not the scale of storytelling we’re used to seeing.  Thankfully, it was split into three films—no one had to sit through the whole thing at once.  Was it altogether too long?  I think you could make the argument, yet it’s hard to argue with success.  Many  fans eagerly await the Blu-ray version coming in April, with its seven hours of extras, and future versions with even more scenes not seen before.

Beyond the final credits
The selections this week were taken from top-rated films based on Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes scores.  In choosing from two lists I had a little wiggle room on what to write about.  Here are some runners-up, highly rated movies that, on another day, may have made the short list:  Spirited Away (94/97%), Sideways (94/97%), 35 Shots of Rum (93/96%), Yi Yi (A One and a Two) (92/96%), The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (92/93%), and There Will Be Blood (92/91%).

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

Final Friday Five, the monthly mini-quiz
1.  What is the name of the theater in Inglourious Basterds?
      a.  Der Stolz der Dreyfus
      b.  The Bijou
      c.  Le Gamaar
      d.  Le Royale
      e.  The Quentiplex
2.  For the acting duo below, list the movies in which they co-starred in chronological order by release date.
      Robert De Niro / Joe Pesci
            Raging Bull
            A Bronx Tale
            The Good Shepherd
            Once Upon a Time in America

3.  The three historical figures below were portrayed by three of the actors listed to the right.  Name the one actor who did not play the character on film.
      Jesus Christ:  Jim Caviezel, Willem Dafoe, Charlton Heston, Max von Sydow
      Abe Lincoln:  Gary Cooper, Henry Fonda, Walter Huston, Raymond Massey
      John Dillinger:  Johnny Depp, Harvey Keitel, Warren Oates, Lawrence Tierney
4.  For the four films below, select the following four:  release date, director, actor, actress.
      a.  Manon of the Spring
      b.  (500) Days of Summer
      c.  Legends of the Fall
      d.  The Lion in Winter
      Release dates:  2009, 1968, 1994, 1986
      Directors:  Marc Webb, Edward Zwick, Claude Berri, Anthony Harvey
      Actors:  Peter O’Toole, Brad Pitt, Yves Montand, Joseph Gordon-Levitt
      Actresses:  Julia Ormond, Emmanuelle Béart, Zooey Deschanel, Katharine Hepburn
5.  Rearrange the mixed-up titles below to form the names of five films nominated for Best Picture.
      a.  Nazi Necktie
      b.  Bearcat
      c.  Xavier Dirt
      d.  Christ’s Ills End
      e.  Altair God
      (Hint:  the film titles for a. through e. are in chronological order.)

Answers here.


Posted By: John Farmer
Last Edit: 29 Jan 2010 @ 11:18 PM

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 28 Jan 2010 @ 6:00 AM 

Thursday Minute
No. 20 | January 28, 2010

Best of the Decade

Our theme this week
Best movies of the decade at Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes

Featured this week
Monday         —   The Hurt Locker
Tuesday         —   Ratatouille
Wednesday    —   4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days

Pan’s Labyrinth

The essentials
Metacritic:  98
Rotten Tomatoes:  95%

pan's_labyrinthPerhaps there’s something in the water.  Or maybe the tequila.  Whatever the reason, Mexico is home to some of the great moviemakers of this past decade.  That select group includes Alejandro González Iñárritu (Amores Perros, Babel), Alfonso Cuarón (Y Tu Mamá También, Children of Men), and Carlos Carrera (El Crimen del Padre Amaro).  Add to the list Guillermo del Toro, director of Pan’s Labyrinth, one of best-reviewed films of the past ten years.

The film takes place in 1940s Spain, under the repressive regime of Francisco Franco.  A young girl, Ofelia—portrayed wonderfully by eleven-year-old Ivana Baquero—accompanies her pregnant and sick mother on a trip to visit her stepfather, Captain Vidal, in the Spanish hills, where he’s in ruthless and brutal pursuit of rebels.  An avid reader, Ofelia takes refuge in the world of fairly tales.  One night, she follows a winged insect into a labyrinth.  She meets a faun, who tells her that she is a princess of a kingdom from underground, and that she must complete three tasks before she can return, where she will meet her father, the king, and achieve eternal life.  The tasks are a gruesome test for Ofelia, and at story’s end, she faces a terrible choice—to join the immortals or to save her new infant brother.

Pan’s Labyrinth is a fable mixing horror and fantasy, with monsters both real and imagined.   It’s a story about a child, but hardly a movie for children, or for the squeamish.  Del Toro’s images are scary, vivid, and highly imaginative, and along with a great score, the production is one of the more artfully rendered films of the last, or any other, decade.

Beyond the final credits
Next up for Guillermo del Toro, he’ll be collaborating with Peter Jackson on a two-part adaptation of the J.R.R. Tolkien book The Hobbit.  Jackson will produce and del Toro will direct.  The films are due out in 2011 and 2012.  (The Hobbit is, of course, the prequel to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.  More about those films tomorrow.)

Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
Ivana Baquero

Point of View
I dream for a living.”
— Steven Spielberg


Posted By: John Farmer
Last Edit: 27 Jan 2010 @ 08:26 AM

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 27 Jan 2010 @ 6:00 AM 

Wednesday Minute
No. 19 | January 27, 2010

Best of the Decade

Our theme this week
Best movies of the decade at Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes

Featured this week
Monday         —   The Hurt Locker
Tuesday         —   Ratatouille

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days

The essentials
Metacritic:  97
Rotten Tomatoes:  96%

4months_3weeks_2days_2It’s 1987, a small town in Romania.  Ceauşescu is dictator, abortion is illegal, and Găbiţă is desperate.  She is pregnant, in her third month, she says.  It’s a lie.  It won’t be her last.

Găbiţă has the help of her dorm roommate, Otilia, who sells belongings, down to cigarettes and soap, to help pay for the abortion.  Nothing goes right.  The hotel has no record of her reservation.  Another hotel is expensive.  Mr. Bebe, the abortionist, wants more than just money.  Otilia is late for a birthday party.  She tells her boyfriend about the abortion, the least of what’s happened.  There’s only so much truth she can share.  She returns to Găbiţă, and even with her, she can never speak of what happened again.

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is a story of desperation, secrets, and shame.  It’s simply told, and devastating.  The film is part of a larger project called “Tales from the Golden Age,” stories about life in Romania under the communist regime.  The film is not overtly political.  The focus is instead on people who have suffered hardships, have limited options to pursue, and must pay a price.

Romanian filmmaker Cristian Mungiu wrote and directed 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.  The movie won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2007, the first Romanian film to win that honor.  Mungiu had been to Cannes before, with his film Occident, in 2002.  He has said that Miloš Forman and Robert Altman are among the directors who influenced him. 

Beyond the final credits
It has been two decades since the fall of communism in Romania, and the past few years has seen an emergence of filmmaking in the country that ranks with the world’s best.  The lastest countryman of Mungiu’s to win international acclaim is Corneliu Porumboiu, for last year’s Police, Adjective.  Romania may seem like an unlikely place for great cinema.  Here’s Mungiu, about the reception to his film and how things are changing:

Unless we got this kind of recognition it wouldn’t have been possible for us Romanians to make these films…In 1989, we had 400 cinemas; now we have 35.  So I said:  Okay, whatever I do, I can’t reach many people doing this.  So, last summer I organized a caravan that tours Romania with my film, screening it in places that no longer have a cinema.  We had an excellent result.

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007)

Quote of Note
“My name is Tatiana.  My father died in the mines in my village, so he was already buried when he died.  We were all buried there.  Buried under the soil of Russia.  That is why I left, to find a better life.”
— Tatania (voice of Tatiana Maslany), Eastern Promises (2007)


Posted By: John Farmer
Last Edit: 27 Jan 2010 @ 07:54 AM

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 26 Jan 2010 @ 6:00 AM 

Tuesday Minute
No. 18 | January 26, 2010

Best of the Decade

Our theme this week
Best movies of the decade at Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes

Featured this week
Monday         —   The Hurt Locker


The essentials
Metacritic:  96
Rotten Tomatoes:  96%

ratatouillePixar’s magic touch is evident in all its films, which blend great storytelling with the many wonders of new tools for animation.  Pixar hasn’t made a bad film, and made several on the short list of the very best.  Ratatouille (2007) is the one that critics favor, by a hair, as judged by Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes.  Why this film?  I suspect the critics have a soft spot for the story, which is about more than a rat in the kitchen with a passion for cooking.  It’s about art—what it takes to make art and why it’s important.  Art is something that critics think they know something about (and they should).  It’s a very good film, we all can agree, but perhaps the critics like it a shade more than everyone else.  (My four-year-old son seems to favor Cars, with WALL-E and Up close behind.  He may not know a lot about art, but he knows what he likes.)

Remy is the rat in Ratatouille.  He aspires to be a gourmet chef, an unlikely dream for a rat, but when the owner of the Parisian restaurant Gusteau’s dies, Remy’s talents in the kitchen prove indispensible to Linguini, the heir who lacks his father’s touch and for a time takes credit for Remy’s work.  The big night arrives, as food critic Anton Ego visits to review the restaurant.  The questions to be settled are whether Linguini and Remy can settle their differences to collaborate once again, who will get credit, and what will the critic do if he learns about the rat behind the ratatouille.  It’s an animated film for children—so the ending may be no surprise—but for viewers of any age it’s a fun ride to watch the action unfold.

Beyond the final credits
No other studio had as successful a run, with critics and at the box office, as Pixar this past decade.  (So successful, it was purchased by its onetime partner Disney in 2006.)  Pixar’s has the admiration, and is the envy, of the rest of the industry.  Since the motion picture academy began awarding Oscars for Best Animated Feature in 2001, Pixar has won four of eight (and Toy Story won a Special Achievement Award).  Each Pixar release has earned more than $300 million globally (more than $500 million, for films since 2001).  All ten of Pixar’s features have won their share of critical acclaim.  Since we are looking at Metacritic (MC) and Rotten Tomatoes (RT) ratings this week, here’s how Pixar has done.

Toy Story (1995)
                            MC:  92  |  RT:  100%
A Bug’s Life (1998)
                            MC:  77  |  RT:  91%
Toy Story 2 (1999)
                            MC:  88  |  RT:  100%
Monsters, Inc. (2001)
                            MC:  78  |  RT:  95%
Finding Nemo (2003)
                            MC:  89  |  RT:  98%
The Incredibles (2004)
                            MC:  90  |  RT:  97%
Cars (2006)
                            MC:  73  |  RT:  75%
Ratatouille (2007)
                            MC:  96  |  RT:  96%
WALL-E (2008)
                            MC:  93  |  RT:  96%
Up (2009)
                            MC:  88  |  RT:  98%

Ratatouille (2007)
Voices of Patton Oswald, Brad Garrett, Lou Romano

Famous Firsts
Tillie’s Punctured Romance
:  At 73 minutes, this 1914 film was the first feature-length comedy.  Tillie was played by future Oscar winner Marie Dressler, appearing with Charlie Chaplin and Mabel Normand.  The film was directed by Mack Sennett and featured the Keystone Kops.  (W.C. Fields starred in a 1928 comedy with the same title, but the two films are unrelated.)


Posted By: John Farmer
Last Edit: 25 Jan 2010 @ 09:50 AM

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 25 Jan 2010 @ 6:00 AM 

Monday Minute
No. 17 | January 25, 2010

Best of the Decade

Here are the best movies of the past ten years.  Sez who?  Sez the critics, that’s who.   How do I know?  I can look it up, and you can too.

One distinct change for moviegoers last decade was having easy access to the opinions of movie critics, and lots of them.  (You could argue that critics matter less than ever before, and there’s some truth to that, but I like to think the critics, at least some of them, still count.)  Way back when, if you wanted to know if a movie was worth seeing, you’d look in your newspaper and see what the local reviewer thought.  The four stars (****) next to some reviews meant very good.  Then for a while the gold standard was “Two Thumbs Up!” from Roger and Gene.  That worked pretty well in the pre-internet days.  Now everything is online, just a few mouse clicks away, and the measure of a movie’s worth is all about the numbers—one at Metacritic, one at Rotten Tomatoes.

Both websites provide links to a wide variety of reviews from critics.  The two sites are useful for that, if nothing else.  But at each site it’s a number that matters.  Each takes all the words, all the reaction, for all the critics (or a lot of them, anyway) and reduces their combined assessment to a single number, an average.  The methodologies are different.  Metacritic assigns a number for every review and uses a weighted average to calculate a “Metascore” between 0 and 100.  Rotten Tomatoes judges each review as either positive or not and provides a “Tomatometer” rating, a percentage of reviews that are favorable.  Green scores (60 and above) are desirable at Metacritic.  The “Certified Fresh” seal (75% and up) is the benchmark at Rotten Tomatoes.

How do the two sites compare?  Rotten Tomatoes is somewhat older (it launched in 1999, Metacritic in 2001) and somewhat more popular.  Metacritic, in my opinion, is somewhat more useful.  Rotten Tomatoes looks at nothing more than a reviewer’s thumbs-up or thumbs-down.  Metacritic tries to gauge the level of intensity or excitement behind an opinion, not just whether it was positive or not.  If a film’s response is widely positive but not especially enthusiastic, it may do better at Rotten Tomatoes than Metacritic.  I tend to like films that push the limits one way or another, which may mean a more enthusiatic but divided response, and perhaps a lower score at Rotten Tomatoes than it “deserves.”  The way I see it, if everyone likes a film, what’s left to argue about?  And if no one dislikes a movie, it may not have been trying hard enough.

That said, here’s my caveat about both sites:  No one number tells you very much about a movie.  Movies should be talked about, even debated.  But rated?  I don’t see great value in it.  Should the pleasure we take in watching a film be reduced to a number?  Do movies need to be graded like a student’s math homework?  Don’t we get enough scores from watching sports?  If I ask what you think about a movie, I’m interested in more than “I’d give it an 8.”  I’d like to know what you think.  My advice:  read the reviews.  Take the numbers with a great big grain of salt.

Even if the numbers shouldn’t matter, for many people they do (you know who you are).  So—here goes, anyway—let’s see what movies scored top numbers in the past decade.  The two sites don’t always agree, so I’ll be picking among their choices for best-reviewed films.  The selections skew toward the tops films at Metacritic.  A Taste of Others (2001), for example, scored 100% at Rotten Tomatoes (along with quite a few others), but 78 at Metacritic.  It doesn’t make the cut.  Other exceptions include Army of Shadows (99/97%) and Killer of Sheep (94/97%), which truly are films from previous decades, not the 2000s.

The two sites are very much in sync for the movies we’ll cover this week.  The Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes numbers, with one tiny exception, are all above 90/90%.  (One final reminder:  this week’s theme is not my list of best films of the decade.  That you’ll find over at the blog.)

Our theme this week
Best movies of the decade at Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes

The Hurt Locker

The essentials
Metacritic:  94
Rotten Tomatoes:  97%

the_hurt_lockerOf the many events in the eventful decade that just passed, two stand above the rest.  The first is the tragedy of 9/11, an attack of one historic morning (though the rise and threat of terrorism is a decades-long story).  The second is another tragedy, the war in Iraq, which began in March of 2003 and continues to this day.  Movies have been made about 9/11, though no great ones.  More movies have been made about the Iraq war, some of them quite good, and finally, as the past decade was drawing to a close, a great one:  The Hurt Locker.

Other Iraq War movies have delved into the politics behind the invasion, especially documentaries.  The Hurt Lockerdoes not.  It’s the story of a few soldiers at ground level who are in Iraq not ostensibly to fight the enemy but to protect people from danger.  It’s a movie that people on either the left or the right might admire.  An apolitical film, though, it’s not.  Director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal ignore the political leaders and their supposed reasons for the war, but the filmmakers are not playing it safe.  Their focus, with laser-like precision, is on the day-to-day reality of three men in a bomb squad, and in their story the film provides a more lucid understanding of why we are there than hours of political speeches and analysis ever could.  War is a drug.  The addict in the movie is Staff Sergeant William James, played wonderfully by Jeremy Renner.  James does not run from danger.  He can’t get enough of it.  He risks his life and the lives of others, even to the point of recklessness.  As you watch you can’t help but admire his bravery, yet at the same time shudder at his display of bravado.  The rush of adrenaline is palpable, as James gets his fix again and again, unable to stop himself, despite witnessing and suffering extraordinary loss.  That’s what addiction, and war, does to you.  James is hardly the only addict.  Though the film doesn’t state it explicitly, the implication is clear.  Addiction is not just James’s reason for being in Baghdad—it’s ours too.

Beyond the final credits
The screenplay for The Hurt Locker is by Mark Boal, who as a freelance writer was embedded with a bomb squad unit in Iraq.  His one previous film credit was for the story of In the Valley of Elah, a 2007 film about the return of a soldier from Iraq.  The opening quote for The Hurt Locker, however, comes from a 2002 book by Chris Hedges, a former New York Times correspondent who covered wars across the globe over several decades.  The book is War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, and the full quotation is “The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug.”

The Hurt Locker (2009)
Brian Geraghty, Anthony Mackie, Guy Pearce

MAD FilmFest 101 Hint:

The final answer to the puzzle is the title of the American remake of a 1973 film.

Quote of Note
“Nobody ever lies about being lonely.”
— Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt (Montgomery Clift),  From Here to Eternity (1953)


Posted By: John Farmer
Last Edit: 25 Jan 2010 @ 06:51 PM

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