Wednesday, August 31, 2016

On "Likely Stories"

Neil Gaiman is one of my favorite living authors, but I'm not as familiar with his short stories as I am with his work in comics and novels. So, I was very excited when I heard that Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard were adapting four of his short stories for a television anthology, "Likely Stories." Each episode runs half an hour, just long enough to tell a brief, creepy tale. The production values aren't very high, though some of the talent is very strong. Ultimately, the series is a very mixed bag. Most television anthologies are, but there are installments here that are worth a watch, and I think it's best to consider each of the episodes separately.

First, there's "Foreign Parts," starring George MacKay as Simon Powers. Simon is a young man afflicted with a mysterious venereal disease, despite being barely sexually active. The episode reminded me of an old Ray Bradbury story, except with much more body horror, raunch, and embarrassment. McKay's performance is what sells this one, slowly changing Simon's behavior as the disease progresses. There's a subplot involving one of his doctors that doesn't really go anywhere, which is a recurring problem with this series. The storytelling simply isn't economical enough for 30-minute episodes. It also feels like very little happens, as an awful lot of time is taken up with digressions, tangents, and small talk.

Take "Feeders and Eaters," the next episode, where a waitress named Joyce (Montserrat Lombard) has an encounter with an old friend, Eddie (Tom Hughes), who tells her a sinister story about his neighbor, a strange old woman named Effie (Rita Tushingham). The episode is set up to be one of those odd, creepy encounters that people have late at night. This one, however, is a little too strange and graphic to be a casual encounter, and too short to really do justice to the material. It's not so much creepy as weird and a bit campy, ultimately. It's also terribly abrupt, with an ending punchline that simply isn't timed well. I liked the characters and the performances, enough so that I wondered what an hour-long version of this episode would have looked like. In its current form, it takes much too long to get to the meat of the story that Eddie relays to Joyce.

"Closing Time," the third episode, has a similar premise and issues. A writer named Danny (Johnny Vegas) has a few late drinks at a pub where the regulars exchange spooky stories. Danny's story is brief enough and ambiguous enough that it adequately gets across a feeling of uneasiness and dread, but first we have to sit through the other patrons' tedious small talk. The ending bit also doesn't work at all, and reeks of trying too hard. I think the trouble with both "Feeder and Eaters" and "Closing Time" is the storyteller framing device and the nature of the stories themselves, which are very fragmented, piecemeal things. With many of the details missing, the act of storytelling itself becomes the main event. It's not enough to sustain these two episodes.

The one story where this conceit does work is the final one, "Looking For the Girl." A celebrated photographer, Dean Smith (Kenneth Cranham) tells an interviewer, Miranda, (Monica Dolan), about his muse, a young woman named Charlotte (Chloe Hayward). Dean spins a full, rich, and complete story that spans several decades. And while it does have a clear genre component, the story is clearly not concerned with the mechanics of how the possibly supernatural Charlotte lives as she does, but rather her effect on Dean and his obsession with her. I should note that this was the only episode written by Forsyth and Pollard, while the other three were scripted by Kevin Lehane.

Each of the four episodes is also tied together by appearances by Neil Gaiman himself, through television and interview clips incorporated into each story. I found this distracting and unnecessary, but Gaiman is such an engaging speaker that I couldn't bring myself to mind much. His appearances are the best part of more than one episode, I'm afraid. So, the only one of these "Likely Stories" I can recommend without reservations is "Looking for the Girl." The rest are interesting curiosities, but clearly not what they could have been.


Saturday, August 27, 2016

My Top Ten "Hannibal Episodes"

It's been about a year since "Hannibal" ended, and I think it's a good time to look back on what Bryan Fuller and company managed to accomplish with the series. Though there's always hope that the show might continue in some form, especially in the current, content-hungry media landscape, everyone has moved on to other things. And frankly, I think the show went just about as far as it should have. Episodes are unraked and ordered below by airdate. You'll notice immediately that my favorite season was the second one. Some moderate spoilers ahead.

"Apéritif" - The pilot episode introduces us to the new versions of Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter, as well as the show's modus operandi. Here's where we get the first tableau of death, the first cooking sequence, and the first meetings of many of our players. And it shows off the series' stylish visuals and willingness to push the envelope with its disturbing content. May of the early reviews noted how gory the episode was, which is almost funny in retrospect considering how much worse was in store.

"Coquilles" - The first major directing credit of Guillermo Navarro, the celebrated cinematographer known for his frequent collaborations with Guillermo Del Toro and Robert Rodriguez. This is the episode with the notorious angel tableaux, which is still one of the show's most famous images. However, it's also got some other lovely, evocative visuals using religious symbols for horrific purposes. This episode also introduces Gina Torres's lovely Bella Crawford, one of the show's better inventions.

"Fromage" - My favorite tableau by far in the first season was the poor musician whose corpse got turned into a functional cello. There's just something so wonderfully campy and absurd about it, enlivening what's otherwise a fairly typical murder mystery of the week in the show's run of more formulaic procedural episodes. Fortunately, these wouldn't last much longer. The show also gets its first proper fight sequence between the killer and Hannibal, a nice preview of the more showy violence to come.

"Savoureux" - The finale of the first season provides a satisfying conclusion to the arc with Will's encephalitis, and Hannibal's machinations to deflect the BAU's suspicions away from himself. The way the show portrays Will's descent into feverish insanity is the highlight of this set of episodes, and there are some nasty shocks that are executed just right. Pun intended. I also want to extend special kudos to the final scene, which features the show's most prominent homage to the imagery of "Silence of the Lambs."

"Kaiseki" - Season Two starts off with a spectacular flash forward, before settling the audience in to the new status quo: Will in limbo, awaiting an unknown fate, Hannibal playing investigator with the FBI, and more grisly murders to add to the pile. This one has a particularly memorable tableau, the human mural, which actually features in two episodes. I give the premiere the edge, however, because of the final sequence, which is one of the most terrifying bits of nightmare fuel in television history.

"Mukōzuke" - The death of an ally pushes Will to consider crossing some lines and using his newfound powers of manipulation to strike out against Dr. Lecter. I'm stepping lightly here to avoid spoilers, but seeing a familiar face be turned into one of the show's most elegant tableaux really is a knockout moment. This episode sparked some controversy for understandable reasons - the fridge trope is obvious - but I think the development was handled very well, and it's pivotal for setting up the rest of this storyline.

Futamono - Lawrence Fishburne's Jack Crawford is a major part of the show, but he doesn't tend to get enough credit. He's the primary protagonist in this episode, where we see him pushing the investigation forward on his own. There are a lot of moving pieces here, including Hannibal getting cozy with Alana, an epic dinner party, Abel Gideon's last meal, and a surprise ending. The whole ensemble is firing on all cylinders throughout. I also love the tableau with the tree man, and the way that it's set up.

"Yakimono" - My favorite minor character in the show is Dr. Chilton, played by Raul Esparza. He makes a great comic foil, and when the time comes, a wonderful tragic figure too. This is his big episode, where Dr. Lecter frames Chilton for his latest murder and the abduction of Miriam Lass. This isn't a particularly violent episode compared to some of the others that we've seen, but it's Dr. Chilton's reaction to the carnage that makes all the difference. And then there's the shameless cliffhanger, which I can't even be mad at them for.

"Mizumono" - This is probably where the series should have ended, if I'm being honest with myself. How could it have topped itself after this? The devil reveals himself, wreaks bloody havoc on everyone who wronged and underestimated him, and we don't even hate him for it. I had some issues with the show's plotting leading up to this ending, especially how Alana and Abigail were handled, but the payoff is so spectacular. I can't think of any other television show that pulled off anything so daring and so horrific.

"The Wrath of the Lamb" - The second half of the third season was a retelling of Thomas Harris's "Red Dragon" novel, which both of the cinematic adaptations did better. However, the finale distinguished itself by bringing in the Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter relationship that we've watched develop over three eventful seasons, and taking it to a logical, poignant conclusion. I also appreciate that this is the only take on the Great Red Dragon that literally has wings, which wouldn't have worked in either of the other versions.


Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The Miserable "Batman v. Superman"

Why so serious, Zack Snyder? You're making a movie about a face-off between two of the most beloved comic-book superheroes of all time. You're supposed to be using this as a launching pad for Warner Bros. "Justice League" franchise too. So why is the finished product one of the most morose, unhappy, depressive slogs that every tried to call itself a superhero film? And who, but the most self-serious comic book fanboys would this even appeal to? But before I really get into my complaints, I should offer some context. I didn't see "Batman v. Superman" in theaters. Instead, I watched the extended version at home. More importantly, I watched it about a month after I saw "Captain America: Civil War," which handles many of the same themes in a much, much better way.

In "Civil War," the clash between Captain America and Iron Man develops mostly organically through their personal interactions, and we understand that neither side is right. In "Batman v. Superman," the conflict arises out of Superman (Henry Cavill) and Batman (Ben Affleck) fundamentally misunderstanding each other's intentions, and never being on good enough speaking terms to clear things up. After the events of "Man of Steel" result in grievous loss of life, Batman views Superman as a threat. With the help of loyal manservant Alfred (Jeremy Irons), he seeks an incoming shipment of recovered kryptonite, intending to weaponize it. Superman, with reporter girlfriend Lois Lane (Amy Adams), believes Batman is a dangerous vigilante and seeks to expose him. Then we have the U.S. government holding an inquiry into Superman's actions, lead by Senator June Finch (Holly Hunter). Also in the mix is Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), a young business mogul, who deftly manipulates both sides against each other.

Firstly, a big part of why this movie was so hard to watch comes down to basic editing and pacing. Many scenes go on too long, which is compounded by Zack Snyder's infuriating use of slow-motion. We constantly jump between different characters and storylines, dreams, visions, and flashbacks. And it is shocking how difficult to film is to follow. There's a dream sequence with Batman which is interrupted by some sort of vision sent from the future, with no context whatsoever, and I had to go online to figure out what I'd just seen. Near the end of the film, Lois Lane appears to be kidnapped twice in quick succession by different groups of people. A exposition scene with Jena Malone was left out of the original cut, and understandably, since the movie doesn't bother to identify who her character is. Then there's the point where the movie stops dead in its tracks for ten minutes to introduce us to all the future members of the Justice League. For a major release, especially one that's supposed to be targeting younger audiences, this is borderline incompetent.

Now, in other hands, I think that this take on Batman and Superman could have worked. Ben Affleck makes a perfectly decent older Bat, and I continue to enjoy Henry Cavill and Amy Adams as Superman and Lois Lane. Lex Luthor's machinations are too convenient, but we've seen worse offenders in many other films - most spy thrillers depend on it. However, the tone of the film is so grim, and the atmosphere so relentlessly heavy, it completely sucks all the fun out of he proceedings. Scene after scene show the heroes brooding, worrying, and grappling with their fears. There's a lot of talk about gods and demons in the characters' discussions of Superman. We're constantly being bombarded by news reports and television commentators delivering grandiose, fearmongering statements about what his existence means for the world. Snyder enjoys showing Superman's power in epic, almost operatic terms - hovering in the sky like an angel, or dispatching the baddies en masse like a natural disaster. Alas, we get very little about how Supes feels about being treated like this. Cavill is terribly underused throughout.

It's hard to relate to either of our brawlers, ultimately, who are so doggedly shoved through the convoluted plotting that they have little time to gain our sympathies. Batman, who in many incarnations is a master detective, allows himself to be guilted and twisted around until he's out for Superman's blood based on a pretty flimsy pretext. Affleck has a couple of good scenes - his verbal sparring with Gal Gadot's Wonder Woman is a highlight - but the majority of his scenes involve being haunted or guilty or enraged, over and over again. It's exhausting to watch. It's a relief when there's any hint of levity - Alfred's sarcasm, some bluster form Laurence Fishburne's Perry White, or Jesse Eisenberg's nutty Luthor schtick. Now, I don't think this is a very good version of Lex Luthor, but at least Eisenberg offers some liveliness and some solid laugh lines to cut through the lugubrious murk of the rest of the film. He may have clashed with the tone at times, but it just underscored that I would have rather been watching whatever film his performance was aiming for instead of "Batman v. Superman."

I'll say kudos to the action scenes, which are nicely staged and exciting to watch. The opening scene of Metropolis's destruction from Batman's POV on the ground is perfect. The trouble is that there isn't nearly enough action to justify the two hours of nonsense around it. The title brawl lasts about ten minutes altogether. There are a couple of other set pieces where Batman and Superman fight individually against others, and a big finale where they join forces, but even so it feels like very little time was spent letting the superheroes be superheroes. I know I griped about the action scenes in "Man of Steel" being too much, but too little is just as bad. And when you've got men in masks and capes running about, a little goofiness should be par for the course. I didn't even mind the last-minute secondary villain, because his arrival signaled that we were finally getting down to the business of mindless spectacle and the heroes could stop wallowing.

In short, I'm sorely disappointed with "Batman v. Superman." However, I want to single out one particular bright spot. I was worried about the introduction of Wonder Woman, but she turns out to be one of the best thing in the movie. Unlike Batman and Superman, she's all action and no angst. And Gal Gadot looks absolutely fabulous in costume.

Monday, August 22, 2016

"Game of Thrones," Year Six

Minor spoilers ahead.

The infuriating thing about "Game of Thrones" is that it gets away with turning in some pretty lackluster episodes because the finales are always exceptional. So Benioff and Weiss get away with shamelessly writing off the Dorne storyline, mucking up much of Arya's trip to Braavos, spending most of the Mereen story stalling for time, and continuing to portray Jon and Sansa as much duller than they should be, because the Battle of the Bastards and the breathtakingly destructive final episode are amazing, and get all the attention. It's a little infuriating, and yet I still end up eagerly anticipating the next round. Let's take this season storyline by storyline, working our way from worst to best:

Dorne has been a mess on every level, and I was glad to see it mostly swept under the rug this year. It's a heartbreaking waste of good talent, but at this point the less we see of these characters the better. Sadly, Arya also had one of the worst storylines, thanks to murky rules about the Faceless God and some downright clumsy writing. While I enjoy all the characters here, including the addition of Essie Davis as a new target, it's never clear what Arya's arc is supposed to be until some hasty retconning in the last episode. Also, while "Game of Thrones" often stretches credibility with regards to surviving injuries, Arya's fights with the Wraith push it too far.

In the mixed category, the Iron Islands are finally seeing some action. The writers reportedly apparently reduced a longer, more involved story into a very brisk one, and boy does is show. The new villain, Euron Greyjoy. scarcely has time to make an impression. At least this means more of Yara, who is a lot more fun when she has other scene partners beyond Balon. Then there's the Brienne/Jamie/Blackfish situation at the siege at Riverrun, which isn't quite its own storyline, but warrants a mention. Blackfish makes more of an impression than Euron or Coldhands in the Bran storyline, but he still feels wasted. The interactions between Jamie and Brienne, however, are good to see.

Faring a little better are Bran, Meera, Hodor, and the three-eyed raven north of the Wall. I like this one mostly for being a source of some really satisfying answers to some of the show's big questions, even if a lot of it was filler. I respect the creators' decision not to have many flashbacks, but the jaunts to the past were sorely needed. It's also fun having Max von Sydow around for a few episodes. I'm also going to put Sam and Gilly here, since their storyline may have been low-key, but there was a lot of character-building for Sam in it. These two have slowly grown to be a comforting fixture in the "Game of Thrones" universe as everyone else is in so much constant turmoil.

Cersei and the Faith Militant at King's Landing built up to something quite memorable, but it felt like a story stuck on the backburner for most of the year. Characters like Jamie and Olenna came in and out, and there were multiple people to follow, making the story one of the more sprawling ones. it was also one of the most narratively inconsistent. I dreaded any time that Tommen had any significant screen time, though Margery and the High Sparrow mostly made up for it. As happy as I am with where the story ultimately took us, I'm very glad that we can put the bulk of this one firmly behind us as the series ramps up towards it finale.

I had some issues with Daenerys and Tyrion, but the highs of their stories were high enough to win me over. Occasionally it felt like they were treading water, replaying the duller parts of previous Dothraki and Mereen arcs, but they're also finally working up some momentum and are on their way out of Essos. Also, I'm so glad that Dany has cut ties with several characters who have been emotionally holding her back for far too long. I'd be happy to see them back eventually, but only after a long break. Dany's messiah moments haven't always worked in the past, but here they're deployed exactly when necessary, to pretty great effect.

And finally, the Battle of the Bastards may be one of the most satisfying episodes of the series. It's epic scale, cinematic as hell, and justice is served on someone who richly deserves it. The lead-up had some vast logic gaps - Sansa and all her allies make some egregious mistakes, and the Davos and Melisadre beef is put on hold for far too long - but I think it works overall. The Starks' luck has been so bad over the past few seasons, I'm automatically suspicious when anything turns out well for them, but this pendulum shift was long overdue.

So now the board has been cleared of many more pieces, and the remaining ones rearranged in anticipation for the bigger battles to come. With only two seasons and a limited amount of episodes left, the end game of "Game of Thrones" is in sight. Things are moving faster, and the fat is getting trimmed everywhere. I have my own theories abut how this is all going to turn out, but as more and more characters cross paths and the scope begins to narrow, I just hope that Benioff and Weiss don't pull their punches.


Saturday, August 20, 2016

"Person of Interest," Year Five

Spoilers for the entire series ahead.

I don't know if it's because I've been watching better shows, or if "Person of Interest" has slipped so much in quality, but its final season felt awfully dumbed down compared to previous years. The bits of exposition to help catch audiences up with the plot never felt more blatant or clumsy. I wasn't even bingeing episodes, and the hand-holding was obvious. And for a show that used to be so good about bending and evolving its formula, it was disappointing to find that much of the writing has gotten positively formulaic - Reese's deadpan quipping, Fusco's bluster, and Root's thinly disguised flirting. There were some bits of plotting that felt positively sloppy - the repeated emphasis on the simulated battles between the Machine and Samaritan really didn't lead to anything, for instance.

Or maybe it's the portrayal of the Machine. I've read several opinion pieces praising the lack of humanization of the A.I. in "Person of Interest." That all went out the window at the end of last year, when the Machine started communicating directly with its assets, and in increasingly emotional terms. This year, adopting Root's voice and much of her persona, it became practically human. Or maybe it was simply that the format of the show changed again, leaving aside all the government conspiracy and local organized crime storylines to focus on the final battles between the weakened Machine and the oppressive Samaritan. The Machine had to become more vulnerable in order for the potential loss of it to feel greater. Maybe I just wanted an ending with more finality than the one we got, which felt more like the end of a season and storyline rather than the end of the whole series. Even with the multiple deaths. Note that we've seen multiple fake-outs too recently for the resurrection of Reese not to be an option.

I liked individual episodes and individual performances though. Shaw's time in the Samaritan simulations was a highlight. So was Finch's solo mission to acquire the Ice-9 virus, holding existential conversations with the Machine on the side. He's still my favorite character, and his happy ending was the only part of the finale I really liked. It was a relief when Lionel finally got full Team Machine status at long last, but there wasn't enough time to indulge in the full comic potential of the idea. There wasn't time for a lot of things this year, with the shortened episode order. So many developments felt hurried. After all the dramatics around the capture of Shaw last year, the deaths of Root, Greer, and Elias felt positively brisk. The biggest victim was the season's only new villain, a Samaritan recruit named Jeff Blackwell (Joshua Close) whose loyalties are ambiguous, but not for long. I also can't help wishing we'd seen more old faces. It was great checking in with Zoe and Control last year, and I still can't help wondering whatever became of Leon.

As a fan of hard science-fiction and cyberpunk, I'm still happy with the show overall, but felt it made too many concession to the mainstream CBS audience in the end. Sure, they killed off some major characters, but once the stakes started being more about the survival of Team Machine and less about the frightening Samaritan takeover the planet that was so nicely set up last year, it lost a lot of teeth. We never did find out the extent of Samaritan's plans beyond sinister mentions of "sorting," and that's a shame. It's little boy avatar didn't appear at all. And frankly, the final showdown turned out to be a series of awfully simple action beats with very little time devoted to the larger questions about AI, privacy, security, and morality that were always the best part of the show. "Person of Interest" was excellent when in was operating in the gray areas, but everything in the finale was starkly black and white. The answers that were given felt too easy, and in some cases unearned.

I wanted too much, I suppose. Truthfully, it was a miracle that "Person of Interest" ever made it to air on a major network, or lasted as long as it has, while maintaining its high quality almost all the way to the end. The fifth season was problematic, but it was a decent enough conclusion - especially in light of the non-endings that crime procedurals usually get. The show introduced me to so much good talent, and had some of the best characters I've ever seen in this kind of show. Root and Finch are going to stay with me for a long time. I guess all I can do is look ahead to "Westworld," where a good chunk of the creative team seems to be headed. And prep my top ten list for "Person of Interest," which you should be seeing next month.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

"Eye in the Sky" Has a Pointed View

The subject of drone warfare has been addressed by films before, but never quite like this. "Eye in the Sky," a new military thrilled directed by Gavin Hood, neatly sets up a familiar moral dilemma - British and American forces have the opportunity drop a bomb and kill a collection of dangerous terrorists, but in all likelihood the bomb will also innocents. What's novel about "Eye in the Sky" is the presentation of all the players and the information that they have access to. The military, operating on different continents, are only able to see the situation though the camera in the drone, looking down from miles above, and a tiny surveillance camera that an operative sneaks into the house. However, the audience is given a fuller picture.

Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) of the British armed forces is in command of an international mission intended to capture several members of an extremist terrorist group who are meeting in Nairobi, Kenya. The initial plan is to use ground forces, but when the terrorists change locations and begin preparations for what appears to be an imminent attack, the situation changes and only a drone bombing is considered a feasible method of stopping them. Doubts are raised by the drone pilot, Steve Watts (Aaron Paul), targeting tech Carrie Gershon (Phoebe Fox), and by Powell's superior, General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman), who is observing the mission with members of the British government, Brian Woodale (Jeremy Northam) and Angela Northman (Monica Dolan). There are legal, political, and ethical considerations to using the drone attack, especially in the middle of a civilian population. The situation becomes even more intense when a little girl, Alia (Aisha Takow), starts selling bread in the street outside the house, directly in the predicted blast radius.

The tension in "Eye in the Sky" is ratcheted up slowly, but believably. Delays are caused as decisions have to be run up the chain of command, and officials need to be tracked down and informed. Confirming the identities of the terrorists targets requires a local undercover agent, Jama Farah (Barkhad Abdi), to sneak into a restricted area, where his ability to act is severely limited. As the Westerners in the UK and US argue thousands of miles away, their sophisticated surveillance technology ensures that they know exactly what's going on in Kenya from second to second. However, it also underscores how little control they really have over the situation despite so much power at their disposal. There are a few characters who make grand, broad statements about morality and ethics, but it's clear that the situation is a murky one, and there are no right answers. There are, however, very real consequences, and no one is in a hurry to take the responsibility.

At times "Eye in the Sky" reminded me of "Lebanon," a 2009 movie where we see everything through the gunsight of a tank during the Lebanon war. Through the drone camera, we can only see the people from overhead, their features barely visible. Alia appears on the military's screens only as a tiny red dot in her headscarf, perhaps making her easier for them to write off. Gavin Hood, however, refuses to let the audience do the same. The movie spends many of its opening scenes acquainting us with Alia's life in detail - her home, her parents, and the less-than-ideal environment she's growing up in. And without her saying a word, she serves as a devastating counterargument to the way that the Western characters are using the drone.

It was a canny decision to cast well-known and well-liked actors including Helen Mirren and Alan Rickman as the ones in charge of the mission, keeping them sympathetic in spite of their actions being so morally troubling. Mirren is especially good as the single-minded Colonel Powell, who uses every ounce of authority she has to try and steamroller all doubters and get the job done. From a few unguarded reactions, she clearly does have a heart, but if the film has a villain, it's her. Or maybe she's the hero - it's awfully hard to tell. This is also the first significant film role I've seen Aaron Paul in, and he's note perfect as the inexperienced American drone pilot who does all he can to buy Alia more time.

I'm a little conflicted about the way the film operates as an action thriller, how many of the close calls and moments of suspense are dramatically played up in the same way you'd see in a typical "Die Hard" movie for the audience's enjoyment. And I have to say it's a really effective thriller. However, I think that the way the film ultimately subverts the formula is very strong. Anyone who comes into this movie expecting a typical dumb action flick is going to be sorely disappointed, or at the very least conflicted. For those of us who want something more substantive to chew on, though, it delivers.


Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Into "The Embrace of the Serpent"

It's easy to become intimidated by the sheer otherworldliness of Ciro Guerra's "The Embrace of the Serpent," which was Colombia's first Best Foreign Language Film nominee at the last Oscars. It was shot mostly in black and white, deep in the Amazon jungle, and ten different languages are spoken by various characters. The action is set in 1909 and 1940, but the film feels timeless. There are very clear comparisons to be made to "Apocalypse Now," "The Mission," and "Aguirre the Wrath of God," all nightmare journeys into the jungle that highlight the horrors of Western colonialism. However, the central figure here is not the white man grappling with his morality and sanity as he plunges deeper into the natural world, but a native shaman, Karamakate, who has his own demons.

Karamakate, played in 1909 by Nilbio Torres and 1940 by Antonio Bolívar, is the last of his tribe. He lives alone in isolation in the jungle, until one day a sick German explorer, Theo Koch-Grünberg (Jan Bijvoet) arrives seeking a cure for his illness. Karamakate is reluctant, but agrees to journey with Theo an his Colombian guide Manduca (Yauenkü Migue) in search of the yakruna, a holy plant which is the only thing that can save Theo. In 1940, the now aged Karamakate is sought out by an American scientist, Evans Schultes (Brionne Davis), who has come to the region to study plants. He has read of the yakruna in Theo's published diaries, and has come to investigate, hoping for a cure for a different kind of sickness. Karamakate, his memory now spotty, agree to retrace his steps with Evan on a parallel journey upriver and into the past.

The film's final intertitles reveal that Theo and Evan were based on real people, and their writings are the only record of many of the peoples they encountered in the Amazon. Karamakate is fictional, but he's far more complex and interesting than either of the Westerners. We see him at two different times in his life, first as a younger, bitter man who is openly hostile to Theo and Manduca. He is quick to blame them for all the crimes of the destructive rubber barons and their Colombian allies, who have been steadily encroaching on the natives' lands, and slaughtering everyone in their path. He forms a grudging friendship with Theo as their journey progresses, though he remains prideful and demanding throughout. With Evan, thirty years later, Karamakate has become old, haunted by years of guilt and failure. He is far less antagonistic, more thoughtful, and perhaps ready to make amends.

And it's Karamakate's point of view that is vital to the film, that recontextualizes the events to chart the tragic destruction of the native cultures and the decline of its peoples. His is a world that is steeped in lore and mystery, where nature must be respected or the consequences are grave. Spirits and unseen forces hold sway, communicating with humans through visions and dreams. This is key to understanding his motivations. At the same time, Karamakate is a stark departure from the usual portrayals of native peoples, very active in the story and very self-possessed. He is quick to point out hypocrisies and flawed assumptions, clearly on the same intellectual footing as the Westerners, even if the kinds of knowledge that they possess are very different. The two actors that portray him are both excellent, especially Nilbio Torres. He makes Karamakate deeply sympathetic, even at his most disdainful.

The black and white cinematography of the jungle landscape by David Gallegos is mesmerizing, often dreamlike. According to the filmmakers, the lack of color was meant to evoke the ethnographic images created by the original explorers. However, it also helps to blur the lines between the time periods, and between the characters as the two storylines slowly merge at the climax of the film. The filmmakers also display a strong commitment to historical and sociological accuracy, even though Karamakate's tribe is a fictional one. Their accounts of the production are fascinating in and of themselves. The logistics of filming in the jungle with native non-actors must have been daunting, but clearly the film could not have been made in any other way.

Most of all, I appreciate the film for its humanization of a lost people, and for shedding critical light on a terrible chapter of human history largely unknown to the rest of the world. It's difficult at times to figure out exactly which conflicts are being referenced if you don't know much about South America in the early 20th century, but the filmmakers are merciless in their portrayal of its effects. Karamakate and his travelling companions come across many dangers in the jungle, but the worst are those wrought by Western commerce, in the form of the rubber plantations, and Western morality, in the form of a mission that Karamakate visits in both stories.

I expect that this will be a film that will be impossible to avoid talking about in any discussion of South American cinema going forward. Colombia's really only had a film industry for about a decade, but they've already made a masterpiece I'd put on equal footing with any other film released in this decade.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Missmediajunkie v. Pokémon

There's really no stopping them, is there? Almost twenty years after the original "Pokémon" craze, those little pocket monsters are back with "Pokémon Go," and everyone is out to catch 'em all, all over again.

My first exposure to Pokémon was the cartoon, which aired in syndication on the early weekday mornings, before it got snapped up by Kids WB in 1998. The animation was terrible, the characters were dull, and it was obvious that it was only made to promote the video games. Since I had younger siblings and cousins it was impossible to avoid watching it completely. So I learned about Ash, Misty, Brock, Team Rocket, Officer Jenny, and Nurse Joy. I recently quizzed myself and can still name about forty of the original Pokémon. And, of course, I can recite the Team Rocket motto and all the words to the Jigglypuff song. As the craze went on, it invaded all areas of American pop culture - the "Pokémon" movie broke a few minor records, and there were news reports about the first Pokémon Happy Meal tie-in madness. Christmas of 1999 was the height of Pokémania. And I just kind of learned to live with it.

Despite what certain nervous Christian groups maintain, "Pokémon" games and shows are fairly harmless. I can see how the cockfighting aspect might concern some parents, but it's couched in so much fantasy that it's difficult to really draw real world parallels. You could make the same arguments about the Ninja Turtles or the Gi Joes. I found the Pokémon critters themselves to be bright, silly, and appealing. I got used to seeing Pikachu pillows around my college dorm, and the stuffed animals being toted around by my youngest cousins. One year my mother, a music teacher, even let her younger group classes sing the "Pokémon" theme song for the big finale of their winter concert. The one aspect of "Pokémon" I had no connection to were the video games, which were numerous and apparently very addicting. And yet, the original Pokémon fans have grown up into perfectly normal, well-adjusted adults.

As an anime fan, I have a lot to thank "Pokémon" for. The cartoon was such a massive hit in the United States, it led to a big surge in other anime imports in the late 1990s. And while I didn't like "Pokémon," I have a tremendous fondness for the much weirder "Digimon" and "Cardcaptor Sakura" that followed in its wake. The downside was, of course, that all anime was suddenly "Pokémon," or for the slightly more informed average citizen, anime was either "Pokémon" or ultraviolent "Akira" cartoons. A well-intentioned co-worker, upon learning I liked anime in the early 2000s, gave me several pieces of "Yu-Gi-Oh" merchandise, an especially ghastly series based on a trading card game aimed at twelve year-old boys. I was in my early twenties at the time, watching "Cowboy Bebop" and "Ghost in the Shell: SAC." It would take a solid decade of Miyazaki movies and Adult Swim action shows to undo misconceptions.

Eventually, like all the kids' crazes, "Pokémon" subsided as the fans grew up and the next wave of kids decided that SpongeBob was more their thing. However, it never really went away. The anime is currently in its twentieth year and still airing on Cartoon Network and other channels. It's up to nearly a thousand episodes if you add up all the different series and spinoffs. The animation has improved, but not by much. The Pokémon games, of course, are still going strong, though there hasn't been anything to rival the overwhelming success of "Pokémon Go." All the fuss actually reminds me of the original furors in the '90s, when people were scouring stores for Pokédexes. It's oddly heartwarming to see so many people connecting over a shared love of cute anime monsters.

Oh, and no, I'm not playing "Pokémon Go" myself. Plenty of my friends and relations are, but Pokémon was never my thing and never will be. I'm really fascinated by the new AR component of the game, though, which recalls the obscure AR anime "Denno Coil." I suspect that when there are future AR games featuring different IP, I can be convinced to give it a try. Heck, if Disney ever does one, I may actually buy a smartphone.


Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Revisiting "The Little Prince"

I first read Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's "The Little Prince" as a preteen, after hearing praise for it for some time.  My older cousin owned a copy in French, and had let me look at the pictures when I was younger.  It seemed like my kind of book, full of fantastic concepts, but I came away confused, unable to get my head around the sad ending.  I saw bits and pieces of the various media adaptations over the following years, including Rachel Portman's opera, but they didn't help spur much affection for the story.  So I'm glad that Mark Osborne's 2015 animated film about "The Little Prince" takes some time to acknowledge that this can be a difficult story to connect to.

This version of "The Little Prince" isn't the straightforward adaptation that I had been expecting.  Instead, the movie is chiefly concerned with a precocious Little Girl (Mackenzie Foy) of about the same age that I was when I first read the book, who is told the story of the Little Prince (Riley Osborne) by the eccentric old Aviator (Jeff Bridges) who lives next door.  The Little Girl is being exhaustively prepared by her micromanaging Mother (Rachel McAdams) to be a success in the upcoming school year and beyond, but she slowly becomes friends with the Aviator, and then part of the story of the Little Prince.  Most of the film is rendered in CGI animation, but the stories of the Little Prince are in stop-motion animation.

I can't emphasize enough how lovely and evocative the stop-motion segments are, which directly adapt the Saint-Exupéry novel to film.  There's such a warm vibrancy and tactile delicacy to the characters, the simple designs reflecting the original watercolor illustrations beautifully.  The CGI animation is good, but not at the same level - there's something a little off about the character designs of the Mother and the Aviator - but there are a lot of ingenious visuals here too, in the glum conformist neighborhood where the Little Girl lives, and the cheerful clutter of the Aviator's home.  It surely made a difference that the director is a veteran of both mediums.  Mark Osborne is a familiar name to animation buffs, having come to prominence with the stop-motion short "More" in 1999, and then as co-director of the first "Kung Fu Panda" movie for DreamWorks in 2008.

The story is a little ungainly, with an extended third act sequence that imagines a nightmarish additional chapter of the Little Prince's adventures that is jarringly modern.  However, the film does an admirable job of showing how the present-day woes of the cynical Little Girl are relatable to the journeys and lessons of the Little Prince. There are a few moments where the fit is awkward, and some of the references and callbacks are awfully twee, but overall this feels like a very personal, genuine exploration of the book's themes and ideas.  I like that the film isn't too precious with the source material, being very faithful to it in one context, but then goes off on some wild tangents through the Little Girl's processing of it.  I haven't seen a children's film so boldly anti-establishment and anti-conformist in a long while - but remember that Osborne did direct "More."

You'll notice a lot of celebrity names in the cast, but most of them make only very brief appearances.  The big exception is Jeff Bridges' as the Aviator, who is a major character in the Little Girl's story and narrates all the Little Prince's adventures.  His performance is fantastic, often acting as a bridge (no pun intended) between the two sides of the movie.  Mackenzie Foy is also very good as the Little Girl, a little abrasive and a little incredulous in just the right proportions, but I think she may have been a bit too old for the role.  The production certainly does a good job of pretending that it's from one of the major Hollywood animation houses, but this was animated at several smaller studios including Montreal's Mikros Image, and was a co-production of several French production companies - which is very appropriate, given the material.  I'm curious about the French language version, where André Dusollier plays the Aviator.

I think that the best thing I can say about the new "Little Prince" film is that I wish I'd seen it when I was younger, and still stewing over the ending of the book.  I think this movie would have gotten me to go back and try reading it again.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Wait, What am I Watching?

The last regular network show that I was keeping up with, "Person of Interest," has ended. Also, "Preacher" recently wrapped up its first season, leaving me without anything serialized to follow at the moment. And it occurs to me that there' not much television that I'm actually watching anymore. To get a better picture, I went and took stock of every television series that I'm still committed to following for at least another season. Leaving out the Netflix shows to simplify this, I ended up with the following list:

"The Daily Show," "Game of Thrones," "Orphan Black," "The Leftovers," "The Venture Brothers," "Preacher," "Fargo," "Rick and Morty," "Doctor Who," "Review," "Humans," "The Expanse," "Top of the Lake," "Steven Universe," and "Sherlock." Not sure about "Mr. Robot" at the moment. I suppose we can also add "Twin Peaks" at Showtime, "Westworld" at HBO and "American Gods" at Starz, which I've been anticipating for a while. At most three of those series will be premiering new episodes before 2017, which means I've got an awful lot of room on the schedule at the moments.

It's a good time to try out some new series, but I've almost completely stopped following the development of upcoming shows. I went back and looked at all the coverage of the upfronts and the new fall shows, and there's not a single thing that I'm looking forward to. Instead, I'm just marveling at the repetitiveness and the dullness of the new programming. Kevin James is getting a new sitcom? "24" is back? And "Prison Break" too? I don't know how you turn "The Exorcist" or "Frequency" into series, but I don't trust the networks to do it right. And of course they're rebooting "Macgyver" and turning "Taken" and "Lethal Weapon" into cop shows. Of course. There are only two sitcoms that Iook vaguely promising based on the talent involved: "The Great Indoors" with Stephen Fry and Joel McHale, and "The Good Place" with Kristen Bell. I have no problem writing everything else off sight unseen.

I should note that cable premieres are relatively sparse during this time of year. Aside from a few miniseries, the biggest new title is probably the "Van Helsing" series on Syfy. I'm not interested, as I haven't seen the movie and have no desire to. However, Syfy produced a good number of series over the last year that have been promising - "12 Monkeys," "The Magicians," and the "Childhood's End" miniseries. I'm still onboard for "The Expanse" after the first season. As you can probably tell from the list above, nearly all the television I'm still watching consists of niche genre shows and a couple of prestige projects. And the shows only come from a handful of sources: Comedy Central, FX, AMC, BBC America, Syfy, Netflix, or the Cartoon Network. I feels strange, because I can still clearly remember a time when premium cable shows were completely inaccessible to me, and now HBO Go and season passes are a thing.

I think my tastes have just fundamentally changed over the last few years as I've changed the way I watch television. Over the past few months I've started a few network shows like "Lucifer' and "Last Man on Earth" that I liked, but not enough to sit through weeks of formulaic filler. If I hadn't already read the series and had a good idea of where the creators were going, I'd have probably dropped "Preacher" after four episodes too. I know bingeing is in, but I rarely have the time to watch more than two or three episodes of something at once. So the bar is much higher and I've gotten much pickier.

But that said, I still enjoy watching great television, and we're living in an undisputed Golden Age of it. So what am I going to watch? Well, I heard that the O.J. Simpson documentary was pretty good. And "Penny Dreadful" ended at three seasons, with twenty-seven episodes, which makes it look much less daunting. "The Night Manager" and "War & Peace" only have six. I guess there's still time to catch up on "Daredevil," "the Affair," or "Broadchurch" if I'm feeling ambitious, or "The Americans" if I'm feeling really ambitious. Or I could pick up a show I quit like "House of Cards" or "Louie."

What am I watching? Whatever I want, but on my own terms.

Friday, August 5, 2016

"Civil War" Makes Up for "Ultron"

I don't know what it is about the "Captain America" series that makes it such a good platform for these more complicated, emotionally fraught Marvel movies.  In the previous installment, "The Winter Soldier," the darker implications of the SHIELD peacekeeping force were raised and dealt with, eventually resulting in the organization's dismantling.  In "Civil War," the series turns its sights on the Avengers, pointing out that a group of super-powered heroes operating with no checks on their power may be an equally bad idea.

After the efforts of the Avengers lead to civilian deaths in Nigeria, they're asked to place themselves under the supervision of the UN.  Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is for this, believing that the group needs oversight.  Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is against it, worried that the move will mire them in politics and remove necessary autonomy.  However, matters really come to a head when Rogers' brainwashed old pal Bucky (Sebastian Stan), now the assassin The Winter Soldier, is the prime suspect after a major terror attack.  Steve believes that he's innocent and takes measures to protect him.  Tony wants to bring him in.  The two end up pitted against each other with the other Avengers having to choose sides, including Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), War Machine (Don Cheadle), Vision (Paul Bettany), Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner).  And if that wasn't enough players, newcomers Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), and a kid from Queens calling himself Spider-man (Tom Holland) also join the fray.

After the massive, headache-inducing crush of "Age of Ultron," which seemed overwhelmed by its large cast and many story obligations, it seems miraculous that "Civil War" manages to cover so much ground in one movie.  First, there's the fallout between Tony and Steve that leads to the splitting of the Avengers.  Then, there are the introductions of Black Panther and the new Spider-man, setting them up for later solo movies.  And somehow the movie also manages to check in with everyone else, from Peggy Carter to Colonel Ross from "The Incredible Hulk " (Hi, William Hurt!) and everyone in between.  And I haven't even mentioned the villain, Helmut Zemo (Daniel Bruhl), who is an absolutely fantastic character and may be the best Marvel antagonist to date.  Clearly there was some paring down and weeding out of unnecessarily storylines - Thor and the Hulk are benched for this outing - but the sheer logistics of "Civil War" are mighty impressive.

A big reason for this is that "Civil War" is a very different type of movie from "Ultron," which was a typical big summer movie that often felt like it was built around giant action set pieces.  The characters in "Civil War" are in political thriller territory, and they talk.  They talk constantly, seriously, and about meaningful subjects.  One of the major themes here is responsibility.  Tony and Steve have to face up to all the negative repercussions of their crimefighting that have built up over the past several movies.  Big questions are asked that the series has been avoiding for years - who should be held responsible for all the collateral damage?  Why should they be trusted to act when they keep breaking the rules?  What about their own biases and weaknesses?  The two men deal with this in different ways, and the nice thing is that neither of them are wrong.  And the film is much stronger because it builds the action on these character dynamics instead of some external threat.  The film actually subverts itself in a few ways, by upending the usual Marvel formula and delivering a remarkably well-considered, ambiguous ending.

And, though it has its share of chases and fights, this feels like a significantly toned down Marvel film as far as action is concerned.  There are two big set pieces, but they're much, much smaller scale than the climaxes of either "Avengers" film.  The big airport sequence where twelve superhero characters get into a massive brawl, is a lot of fun and wonderfully executed.  However, that takes place in the second act, and I really appreciated that the finale turns out to be a much more personal one for everyone involved.  Without the constant pile-up of action sequences, there's some breathing room for the actors to give real performances.  There's time for us get to know Boseman's intriguing Black Panther and Holland's wet-behind-the-ears Spidey - already nicely distinguished from the previous versions.  There's room for Falcon and Bucky to really banter instead of just throwing out one-liners.  There's room for the Ant-Man appearance to be more than a cameo.  There's time to actually set up all the pieces that lead up to the ending fight and the resulting fallout.

I have my usual complaints.  Bucky is simply not a good character, and my indifference to what happened to him impacted my investment in what was happening on a larger scale.  Though the Russo brothers are a vast improvement over Joss Whedon in the directing department, they don't do much that's visually interesting beyond standard spectacle.  And there's no way, with a cast this size, that the movie doesn't feel cluttered and overly busy in the certain spots.  I should also note that this seems to finally be the point where Marvel has given up trying to offer any help to newcomers, and just assumes you're caught up on the previous films.  

"Civil War" works better than I ever could have hoped, and it actually makes me like "Ultron" a bit better in hindsight because it solves many of the earlier movie's problems.  However, there are still some lingering issues of concern.  I'll talk about those later in the summer in a spoiler post.  


Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Anticipating the Movies of 2017

Inevitably, it happens. You hear about an amazing new film project that has just signed on one of your favorite directors. Rumors are swirling about who could be cast in the lead roles. Locations are being scouted. Writers turn in draft after draft. Concept artwork starts to circulate. And then, the whole thing goes nowhere. The director drops out over creative differences. The rumored stars sign on for something else. The production is shelved, and the people who were working on it move on to something else. Eventually you stop looking for updates, but the disappointment never really goes away.

So, keep in mind that anticipation can be a tricky thing where movies are concerned. My personal tactic is to keep tabs on various productions after they're announced, but I don't let myself get too invested until a movie has moved into active production and starts filming. At that point there's so much money involved that something has to go really wrong for a movie to fail to make it to audiences in one form or another. You might be wondering why I'm writing about 2017's films now. Well, it's because this is roughly the point where you can make pretty good assumptions about which projects are actually going to become next year's films, even if many of them don't have release dates. If a movie hasn't started filming by now, it's not very likely that it's going to be ready for audiences by next December.

So what's on the slate for next year that I'm excited about?

Movies that already have distribution and release dates set, arrange by currently anticipated date of release:

- "The Dark Tower" - dir. Nikolaj Arcel - Adaptation of the Stephen King fantasy novel. Stars Idris Elba as Roland the Gunslinger.
- "God Particle" - dir. Julius Onah - JJ Abrams is producing this science-fiction thriller starring David Oyelowo and Gugu Mbatha-Raw.
- "Baby Driver" - dir. Edgar Wright - Stars Ansel Elgort as a getaway driver. Jon Hamm plays the villain.
- "Beauty and the Beast" - dir. Bill Condon - Latest live-action Disney fairy adaptation, with Emma Watson as Belle.
- "A Cure For Wellness" - dir. Gore Verbinski - Supernatural horror film starring Dane DeHaan.
- "Ghost in the Shell" - dir. Rupert Sanders - Science-fiction action film based off the Masamune Shirow manga, with Scarlett Johansson.
- "War for the Planet of the Apes" - dir. Matt Reeves - Third in the series, with Woody Harrelson and Gabriel Cavarria playing new human characters.
- "Dunkirk" - dir. Christopher Nolan - WWII drama with Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, and Kenneth Branagh.
- "Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets" - dir. Luc Besson - Sci-fi adventure film starring Dane DeHaan.
- "Blade Runner 2" - dir. Dennis Villeneuve - Ryan Gosling stars, and Harrison Ford will appear.
- "The Snowman" - dir. Tomas Alfredson - Crime drama starring Michael Fassbender.
- "Live By Night" - dir. Ben Affleck - Crime drama based on the novel of the same name by Dennis Lehane.
- "Coco" - dir. Lee Unkrich - PIXAR original, the only one until at least 2020. Cast not yet announced.
- "Murder on the Orient Express" - dir. Kenneth Branagh - Branagh is expected to star as Detective Hercule Poirot
- "Star Wars Episode VIII" - dir. Rian Johnson

Now, here's the fun stuff, the films that we know are coming pretty soon, but not exactly when or how. I expect some of these will spill over into 2018:

- "Annihilation" - dir. Alex Garland - Science fiction thriller starring Natalie Portman and Oscar Isaac.
- "Battle of the Sexes" - dir. Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris - Emma Stone will play Billie Jean King opposite Steve Carrell's Bobby Riggs.
- "Dark River" - dir. Clio Barnard - Thriller starring Ruth Wilson and Sean Bean.
"Downsizing" - dir. Alexander Payne - A social satire where Matt Damon's protagonist decides to improve his life by shrinking himself.
- "Okja" - dir. Bong Joon ho - Fantasy film with multinational cast.
- "Stronger" - dir. David Gordon Green - Stars Jake Gyllenhaal as a survivor of the Boston Marathon bombing.
- "The Breadwinner" - dir. Nora Twomey - Animated film from Cartoon Saloon, based on the book by Deborah Ellis.
- "The Thousand Miles" - dir. Sylvain Chomet - Animated film, based on the writings of Federico Fellini.
- "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" - dir. Martin McDonagh - Stars Frances McDormand as a woman who goes to war against the local police.
- "T2: Trainspotting 2" - dir. Danny Boyle - All the leads from the first film, including Ewan McGregor and Jonny Lee Miller will return.
- "Untitled" - dir. Darren Aronofsky - Javier Bardem and Jennifer Lawrence star in a film about "uninvited dinner guests."
- "Wonderstruck" - dir. Todd Haynes - Period children's film starring Julianne Moore, based on the book by Brian Selznick.

I'll update on these films and others in my 2017 Top Ten Anticipated Films posts next year, once we know more.


Monday, August 1, 2016

The Top Ten Films of 2005

This is part of my continuing series looking back on films from the years before I began this blog. The ten films below are unranked and listed in no particular order. Enjoy

The Death of Mr. Lazarescu - Romania had one of the great film renaissances of the decade, and "Lazarescu" is one of its highlights. It's the darkly comedic odyssey of a man being transported by ambulance to seek medical care, but thanks to bureaucracy and incompetence, he keeps being turned away from hospital after hospital. Told in a starkly realistic style, it's tense, disturbing, and terribly funny. Never have a health care system's pitfalls been so infuriating or enlightening of the human condition.

The Secret Life of Words - A simple, understated melodrama from Spain's Isabel Coixet, about two badly wounded people who connect in unusual circumstances. Starring Sarah Polley and Tim Robbins, it's such a minimalist, low-key work, built around small interactions and brief moments of intimacy. Its secrets are revealed slowly, with great care and thoughtfulness. Polley's Hanna is a heartbreaking figure, who delivers one of my favorite film monologues in the final act. The subject matter may be ugly, but the film never is.

The New World - Terrence Malick's take on the relationship between Pocahontas and John Smith is that of a clash between different peoples, worlds, and inherent ways of being. Dreamlike at times, but with a great commitment to historical authenticity, the filmmakers succeed in making the Virginia wilderness feel like an entirely different world. The early scenes where Colin Farrell's John Smith is learning to live with the native tribe have some of the most beautiful images that Malick has ever put onscreen.

Caché - Michael Haneke's disturbing masterpiece plays with the audience's perceptions, blurring the line between realities, recordings, and dreams. It's a mystery that offers plenty of answers, but suggests that they cannot be trusted. It requires the viewer to be as paranoid as the main characters in order to even begin to sort out what's going on. Add the social commentary simmering just beneath the surface, and the shocking use of violence, and it's a film that packs quite the emotional and visceral punches.

Grizzly Man - It's strange, but fitting that New German Cinema master Werner Herzog should have come back into the mainstream public's consciousness through one of his documentaries. Tracing the final days of bear enthusiast Timothy Treadwell, whose life ended tragically, Herzog never hesitates to interject his own thoughts and theories. This might have been obnoxious from another director, but Herzog is always thoughtful, careful to leave the big conclusions up to the viewer, and handles many dilemmas with uncommon insight.

Brokeback Mountain - Still the only real mainstream gay romance to date, "Brokeback Mountain" remains an exceptional film. I still consider this to be Heath Ledger's best performance, displaying an amazing emotional range as he plays Ennis Del Mar through several decades and stages of life. It's also a great achievement for director Ang Lee, whose best films have always been these smaller, heartfelt human stories. The cultural impact of "Brokeback Mountain" is undeniable, but I think it needs more credit as a great film.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang - Beloved screenwriter Shane Black takes his first spin in the director's chair, and the result is one of the best comedic detective stories in recent memory. Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer are paired up together for a Los Angeles murder mystery, full of furious quips, silly violence, and endless self-aware lobs against the movie industry and Los Angeles in general. The writing is so clever, and the chemistry is so good, this is just pure, unadulterated movie fun from the opening credits to the ending ones.

Broken Flowers - This is my favorite Jim Jarmusch film at the time of writing, a wonderfully wry, well-observed dramedy about a serial Lothario, played by Bill Murray, who is feeling his age. Learning that he may be a father, our hero embarks upon a journey of self-discovery, revisiting many of his past girlfriends and having a series of illuminating conversations with each. The ensemble is a lot of fun, lead by Bill Murray at the top of his game. The oppressively banal suburban visuals are also a constant source of amusement.

Sympathy for Lady Vengeance - The final film in Park Chan-Wook's "Vengeance Trilogy" imagines a wrongly convicted mother who orchestrates an elaborate plot to seek vengeance against the real villain. It's by turns vicious, thrilling, darkly funny, and genuinely moving. The movie goes to such wonderful extremes, narratively and visually, embodying so much of the Korean cinema movement that spawned it. I especially love the use of color, and Park's ability to give his larger-than-life heroine so much humanity.

Hustle and Flow - One of the best films about the transformative power of music that I've ever seen. It's also an unusually complex, sympathetic look at the life of sex workers and hustlers of various stripes, including the main character, a pimp named DJay. Though Brewer never shies from the grime and the sweat, the film is never exploitative of its characters or their circumstances. Rather, it's complex, fascinating, and allows a great collection of character actors to get some well-deserved time in the spotlight.

Honorable Mentions

A History of Violence
Everything is Illuminated
Hard Candy
Match Point
Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles
The 40 Year Old Virgin
The Squid and the Whale
The Weather Man