Monday, February 5, 2018

The Best Movies of 2017

First, let me apologize for the lateness of this list, but between my summer spinal surgery and the resultant amount of work required to get back financially, I’ve had less time than usual to go to the movies.  As such, I have not yet seen several films, including (alphabetically): “All the Money in the World,” “I, Tonya,” “Phantom Thread,” and “1945.”   Any of those movies might still make the list, once I get to see them.

If you know me and/or have read my list before, you probably know a few things about my movie preferences:
·         My favorite movies have both a good plot and well-developed characters.
·         I don’t like movies about nasty people doing awful things to each other.
·         I enjoy movies that either entertain me and/or in some way uplift me.
·         I don’t watch a lot of animated films, although occasionally, one might make the list.
·         I don’t include documentaries on my list.
·         I tend to like films where the script is fresh and interesting.
·         I’m not invited to free movie screenings, nor do I get to meet the casts or directors.
·         I am not a film "critic," and as such, I don’t write negative reviews.  I respect most filmmakers for trying to produce their art, so if a well-known or well-regarded film is not listed above or below, it’s quite possible that I saw it but did not like it enough to recommend it.
So, with that, below is my list of the Best Movies of 2017, in inverse order.  Also, at the end, I’ll provide a few awards that you won’t see at the Oscars.

23.     “Okja”

Co-written and directed by Joon-ho Bong and starring Tilda Swinton, Seo-Hyun Ahn, Paul Dano, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Giancarlo Esposito, this is a cautionary fable about a Korean girl (Ahn) who raises a giant, genetically modified pig and the corporation, headed by Swinton’s character, that wants to take it and others like it to be slaughtered for food, while being battled by an animal rights group headed by Dano’s character.  After watching this touching film, you may have trouble sitting down to a meat-based dinner again.

22.     “Kong, Skull Island”

Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts and written by Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, and Derek Connolly, from a book by John Gatins, this star-studded film is not another remake of King Kong, but rather an alternative story about the giant ape and the people who visit his island.  Packed with adventure, revenge, and intrigue, it stars Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, Brie Larson, John C. Reilly, and John Goodman, and represents a return to old-style action coupled with the wonders of modern special effects.

21.     “Good Time”

Directors Benny and Josh Safdie revitalized Robert Pattinson’s acting career with this gritty story about a bank robbery that goes awry and the resultant series of misadventures taken by Pattinson’s character.  Written by Ronald Bronstein and Josh Safdie, the film is a roller coaster ride of how one unpleasant circumstance can lead to another.  With excellent supporting performances by Jennifer Jason Lee, Benny Safdie, and Taliah Webster, you keep wondering how much deeper into trouble one man can get.


20.     “Girls Trip”

The best way to describe this is a female, African American version of “The Hangover.”  As such, it is much better than it probably deserves to be, thanks to effective direction by Malcolm D. Lee, a screenplay by Kenya Barris and Tracy Oliver, and an outstanding cast that includes Regina Hall, Queen Latifah, Jada Pinkett Smith, and a hilarious performance by Tiffany Haddish.  This is one of those movies that causes you to laugh while simultaneously being surprised you are laughing.  It ends up being the flat-out funniest movie of the year.

19.     “Spiderman: Homecoming”

There were a whole bunch of superhero movies this year, but what makes the latest version of Spiderman so likeable  is its littleness.  Director Jon Watts and a team of screenwriters went out of their way to make the lead, played by Tom Holland, into “your friendly neighborhood” superhero.  Throw in outstanding supporting performances by Michael Keaton, Robert Downey, Jr. (playing Tony Stark again), Marissa Tomei, and Donald Glover, and you have a movie that eschews Marvel’s typical seriousness and, as a result, is sure to bring a smile to your face.

18.     “Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2”

I actually like this movie better than the 2014 original because it seems to follow a more connected story arc while still providing fun-filled, sci-fi, action/adventure.  Written and directed by James Gunn, it features reprised roles by Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Vin Diesel (voice), Bradley Cooper (voice), and Michael Rooker, while adding in a few action actors like Sylvester Stallone and Kurt Russell.  It all adds up to a fun night (or day) at the movies.

17.     “Downsizing”

This film’s advertising people did it a disservice by portraying it as a comedy…it is not.  It is a very odd social satire about curing overpopulation by shrinking people to about 5 inches tall, so they can live at a fraction of the cost, consume a fraction of the food, and produce a fraction of the waste of full-sized people.  However, the lead character, played by Matt Damon, soon learns that shrinking people doesn’t eliminate their problems any more than it ends differences caused by class, income, and social standing.  Directed by Alexander Payne and written by Payne and Jim Taylor, the film also features excellent performances by Christoph Waltz, Hong Chau, and Kristen Wiig.

16.     “It”

The year’s best pure horror film is from a book by Stephen King and a screenplay by Case Palmer, Cary Joji Fukunaga, and Gary Dauberman.  Unlike the ponderous 1990 miniseries which was also based on this book, director Andy Muschietti keeps us on the edge of our seats as a group of generally unpopular and troubled teenagers take on the evil clown, Pennywise, who has been preying on a small Maine town for decades.  If you like horror/suspense and are not too weirded out by evil clowns, you should see this well-constructed film.

15.     “Call Me By Your Name”

There’s no denying the genuine feelings evoked in this film about a 17-year-old, Jewish American (excellently played by Timothee Chalamet), who spends summers in Italy with his parents, and explores his sexuality, first with an Italian girl and then, with a thirtysomething, male research assistant, played by Armie Hammer, that the boy’s father (played by Michael Stuhlbarg) has brought to live with them.  Screenwriter James Ivory and director Luca Gardagnino sensitively explore this second relationship, which blossoms into love in the 1980s, when such relationships were much less open than they might be today.  What stopped me from placing this movie much higher on the list was the pacing, which at times was incredibly slow.  However, that shouldn’t stop you from seeing this excellent film.

14.     “I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore”

Macon Blair wrote and directed this excellent movie about a woman (played by Melanie Linskey) whose home is burglarized, and, after getting no satisfaction through normal, legal channels, attempts to solve the crime herself, with the help of a nerdy neighbor (played by Elijah Wood).  The story spirals out of control, leading to a climactic scene at a rural house and its surrounding woods.  In some ways, this film is an embodiment of the lack of control we sometimes feel over our own lives.

13.     “Logan Lucky”

After making several polished heist films like the Ocean’s series, director Stephen Soderbergh took a left turn with this unpolished heist film starring Channing Tatum, Adam Driver, Daniel Craig, Katie Holmes, Riley Keough, Katherine Waterston, and Seth McFarlane.  The result is a very good film, written by Rebecca Blunt, that examines family dynamics, self-fulfilling curses, and peculiar acts of redemption.  It pleasantly surprises you at many turns and ends up being smarter and more heartwarming than many of Soderbergh’s slicker offerings.

12.     “Wonder Woman”

In a year when many women are finding their voices, I was happy with the artistic and commercial success of this film, directed by a woman (Patty Jenkins) about a strong, female superhero, played excellently by Gal Gadot.  Despite the sexual misconduct accusations against Zack Snyder, who co-wrote the screenplay, I was glad to see so many women of all ages enjoying this excellent film and its outstanding supporting performances by Chris Pine, Robin Wright, Connie Nielsen, and David Thewlis. 

11.     “Detroit”

In 1967, race riots broke out in Detroit, with people looting and pillaging their own neighborhoods.  The police stepped in, but were untrained to work with this kind of situation.  Some officers made things much worse through their own brutality.  This movie, written by Mark Boal and directed by Kathryn Bigelow, tells that story, brilliantly and tensely.  Starring John Boyega, Anthony Mackie, and Algee Smith, it will keep you uncomfortably riveted and leave you with the feeling that we haven’t come so far as we wish we had.

10.     “The Big Sick”

This movie, which begins as a comedy before taking a darker turn, is the true story of the relationship between Kumal Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon, from a screenplay which they wrote.  Directed by Michael Showalter, it stars Nanjiani and Zoe Kazan (playing Gordon’s role), with excellent supporting performances from Holly Hunter and Ray Romano.  It is funny, touching, and poignant, without becoming Hallmark-channel melodramatic, and it is a wonderful film about family and love.

9.       “Molly’s Game”

This has all the characteristics of an Aaron Sorkin movie, because that’s what it is.  His fast-paced, informative dialogue blends perfectly with the tautness of Jessica Chastain’s acting in a movie about the perils of success and the world of gambling.  With outstanding supporting performances from Idris Elba, Kevin Costner, and Michael Cera, it tells the real-life story of Molly Bloom, who wrote the book on which it is based, and who rose to prominence in a profession dominated by men.

8.       “Battle of the Sexes”

In 1973, while I was at UMass Amherst, there was a tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs that was dubbed. “The Battle of the Sexes.”  Of course, anyone who knew anything about sports understood that King was a much better tennis player than Riggs, who was way past his prime and had been reduced to the role of loudmouth sideshow.  But most of the male world didn’t realize how important this match was to women everywhere, and when King won the match, UMass exploded; I spent the next few hours interviewing women for the lead article in the next day’s Massachusetts Daily Collegian.  While the match was indeed important, what was more important were the events leading up to it on which this movie is based.  Not only did King (played expertly by Emma Stone) have to battle for pay equality, but she had to do it while confronting her own sexuality as a lesbian in the 1970s. With a cast that includes Steve Carell (as Riggs), Andrea Riseborough, Natalie Morales, Sarah Silverman, Alan Cumming, Elisabeth Shue, and Bill Pullman (a UMass classmate), this movie, written by Simon Beaufoy and directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, confronts a wide range of issues and does it extremely well.

7.       “Baby Driver”

Written and directed by Edgar Wright, this stylistic film is about a young man (played by Ansel Elgort) who, as a result of tinnitus, wears earbuds and constantly listens to music.  He is also an expert getaway driver who performs this trade for an evil character, played by Kevin Spacey, who puts together crews to perform heists.  As each heist becomes more dangerous, and he meets the woman of his dreams (played by Lily James), the young man begins to consider his options.  With supporting performances from Jon Hamm, Jon Bernthal, Sky Ferreira, and Eiza Gonzalez, this film is a visual, aural, and visceral treat.

6.       “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”

An amazing script by director Martin McDonagh, combined with world-class acting by Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, and Sam Rockwell, combine to make this odd, quirky movie a real treat.  Nobody in the film is really likeable, but neither are they detestable.  It’s just a story about a troubled town with a difficult past, a few of the characters that inhabit it, and the difficult choices they have to make.  It’s one of those movies where the script made me laugh, but the subject matter is so painful that I felt bad for laughing.

5.       “Dunkirk”

Dunkirk is a little movie about a big topic.  It tells the true WWII story of when thousands of allied soldiers, from Britain, France, and Belgium, were stranded on a beach as the German air force bombarded them and hundreds of British boats, mostly manned by civilians, rushed to save them.  But instead of focusing on the battle or the magnitude of the rescue, writer/director Chistopher Nolan tells the stories of a few people, the difficulties they faced and the trauma they endured.  Starring Fionn Whitehead, Mark Rylance, Barry Keoghan, Aneurin Barnard, and Kenneth Branagh, this is an expertly crafted, personal movie about heroism and survival.

4.       “Darkest Hour”

It’s kind of funny that Dunkirk and Darkest Hour appear after each other on my list, because they tell overlapping stories.  In this case, it’s the role of Winston Churchill in the early days of World War II, including the German bombardment of Dunkirk.  This movie delves deeply and personally into the difficult decisions of one of the 20th Century’s most important people, and the political games he must play, which he clearly despises.  Featuring excellent support from Kristin Scott Thomas, Ben Mendelsohn, and Lily James, the film, written by Anthony McCarten, is driven by the amazing performance of Gary Oldman, who has cemented himself as one of the best screen actors of our time by the way he inhabits each role, and especially this one.  With the help of outstanding makeup and stellar direction by Joe Wright, you actually believe you are watching Winston Churchill, and you are transported to England during its most difficult years.

3.       “Get Out”

Anyone who has followed the comedy of Key and Peele realizes that Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele are two of the brightest, most insightful people on the planet.  So, naturally, when Jordan Peele wrote and directed a movie named “Get Out,” I assumed it was a comedy.  While there is certainly humor sprinkled throughout the movie, it is definitely not a comedy.  It actually starts out like a modern version of “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner,” and ends up as one of the best suspense/horror films of this or any year.  In this case, there are no evil creatures or aliens—only seemingly normal, rich, white people with whom you might interact every day.  However, through Peele’s brilliance, these people are exposed as the racist villains they are.  I can’t say any more without spoiling the surprises, but rest assured, this film, which stars Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Bradley Whitford, and Catherine Keener, is deserving of all the praise it is receiving.

2.       “The Post”

If you lived through the 1960s and 1970s, when every day seemed to expose new revelations about the Vietnam War, the US Government, and the American Presidency, this movie will strike a familiar chord.  However, if you are younger than that, it’s an important movie to see.  The depth of this importance is not purely from a historical perspective, but rather from the perspective of the world today and the assault on the press which we are experiencing.  In those days, there was no “fake news;” there was only news and commentary, and sometimes they overlapped.  In this case, the news focused on Daniel Ellsberg (played by Matthew Rhys) who managed to copy and leak a massive study of the Vietnam War and its underpinnings, that spanned four decades and exposed how every president from Truman to Nixon lied to the American people.  Known as the Pentagon Papers, the first of these pages were released in the New York Times, whose publisher, Abe Rosenthal (played by Michael Stuhlbarg), was banned by the US Courts from publishing any more of the pages.  The pages then found their way to the Washington Post, whose Editor-in-Chief, Ben Bradlee (played by Tom Hanks), pushed for the paper to publish them.  The decision then fell on Katherine “Kay” Graham (played superbly by Meryl Streep) to determine if it was prudent to defy the Times’s court order, publish the pages, and risk losing the newspaper.  Add to this the fact that Graham was America’s first female newspaper publisher who was actually a Washington socialite, and the pressure she faced was insurmountable.  This film, written by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer and directed by Steven Spielberg, features amazing performances by a star-studded cast, including Bob Odenkirk, Sarah Paulson, Bradley Whitford, Bruce Greenwood, Tracy Letts, and Alison Brie.  It is as good as it is important.

1.       “The Shape of Water”

Guillermo del Toro has always made unusual movies that combine fantasy and reality, but this is his best by far, and it features an unlikely relationship between a mute woman (played by the always excellent Sally Hawkins) and an amphibious creature (played by Doug Jones with a massive amount of makeup).  Set during the Cold War, the creature is being held in a secret research facility where Hawkins character and a character played by Octavia Spencer work in maintenance.  Controlled by Michael Shannon’s character, who uses a cattle prod liberally on the creature, the facility is doing research for the US military, and the creature is eventually deemed expendable.  This is all a backdrop for a unique love story that is surprisingly sensuous and heartwarming.  Written by del Toro and Vanessa Taylor, this movie features wonderful supporting performances by Richard Jenkins and Michael Stuhlbarg.  It harkens back to “Beauty and the Beast,” “Splash,” and “ET,” while using music and breathtaking visuals to awaken your senses.  If you are the type of moviegoer who can suspend reality and go with the flow for two hours, you will be rewarded with a memorable experience.

So, that’s my list today.  It may change tomorrow, which is the beauty of posting it on a blog.  Please let me know if there are other movies you feel belong on this list.

The Reid Awards

And now, for the third year, I will present awards based entirely on criteria that only I understand:
·         Breakout Actor of the Year: In the past, this award has gone to Alicia Vikander and Mahershala Ali, and this year, it unquestionably belongs to Michael Stuhlbarg, who has already had a decent career in movies and TV, but this year, had important roles in three movies on this list: “Call Me By Your Name,” “The Post,” and “The Shape of Water.”

·         The Future Meryl Streep Award for Best Young Actress: Not yet a household name, Lily James is a British actress who shined this year in “Baby Driver” and “Darkest Hour.”  She already has three movies coming out including playing the young Donna (Meryl Streep) in the Mama Mia prequel.

·         Best Child Actors: Last year, one of the recipients of this award was Jaeden Lieberher, who again was a candidate as the star of “It.”  But instead, I will give this year’s award to Sophia Lillis, who played opposite Lieberher in “It.”  At 15, this girl exudes star power that will only continue to blossom.

·         The Boomers Who Keep Going Award:  As a baby-boomer, I feel a certain kinship with over-60 actors who keep making good movies, year after year, and made my list this year (listed alphabetically): Kevin Costner, Tom Hanks, Samuel L. Jackson, Richard Jenkins, Michael Keaton, Bill Pullman, and Meryl Streep.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

My Blog

Thanks for viewing my blog.  I hope to resume my blogging more frequently in the weeks to come.

My Spinal Fusion

Below is an X-Ray of my lower back, including titanium plates, screws, and spacers.

I met with the surgeon's assistant today, who informed me that everything looks good and I can slightly increase my activity level.  It will still be another month before I can swim, bathe, or engage in physical therapy, but my recovery is on track.

I can't say that it doesn't hurt at times, because it does.  But I'm almost completely clear of medication (except Tylenol), I'm walking often, and I even drove today.  I'm also back at work, which mostly involves sitting and typing (like I'm doing right now).

Thanks to all of you for your support, encouragement, prayers, and occasional food (although my appetite has diminished and I'm seizing on that occurrence to try to lose weight).

Thursday, February 9, 2017

The Best Movies of 2016

2016 had some good movies early in the year, and a bunch that were released at the end of the year, or not to the general public until 2017.  Because of my time constraints this year, I have not yet seen several films, including (alphabetically): "Captain Fantastic," "Elle," "Fences," "The Founder," "Jackie," "Paterson," "Queen of Katwe," "Silence," "Southside With You," "Toni Erdmann," and "20th Century Women,"   Any of those movies might still make the list, once I get to see them.

If you know me and/or have read my list before, you probably know a few things about my movie preferences:

·         My favorite movies have both a good plot and well-developed characters.

·         I don’t like movies about nasty people doing awful things to each other.

·         I enjoy movies that either entertain me and/or in some way uplift me.

·         I don’t watch a lot of animated films, although occasionally, one might make the list.

·         I don’t include documentaries on my list.

·         I tend to like films where the script is fresh and interesting.

·         I’m not invited to free movie screenings, nor do I get to meet the casts or directors.

·         I am not a film "critic," and as such, I don’t write negative reviews.  I respect most filmmakers for trying to produce their art, so if a well-known or well-regarded film is not listed above or below, it’s quite possible that I saw it but did not like it enough to recommend it.

So, with that, below is my list of the Best Movies of 2016, in inverse order.  Also, at the end, I’ll provide a few awards that you won’t see at the Oscars.

20.     "The Magnificent Seven"

OK, so I'm a sucker for this story.  I reveled at Akira Kurosawa's "Seven Samurai" (1954),  loved "The Magnificent Seven" (1960), and enjoyed "Guns of the Magnificent Seven" (1969).  So, when this version, directed by Antoine Fuqua, came out, I had to see it.  While not so noble and more violent than the earlier versions, there is still something magical about this story about a bunch of brave souls willing to risk their lives to help the oppressed residents of a small town.  In addition, it stars some of my favorite actors: Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, and Peter Sarsgaard.  With a screenplay by Richard Wenk and Nic Pizzolato, this film continues the legacy of Kurosawa's masterpiece.

19.     "Bridget Jones's Baby"

You might be thinking, "Oh, this is just another sequel in the tired, old Bridget Jones series, but it actually puts a fresh spin on that series.  With Renée Zellweger (post plastic surgery) and Colin Firth reprising their roles, the plot adds Patrick Dempsey to create a romantic triangle that is generally amusing and occasionally extremely funny, along the lines of "Nine Months." Written by Helen Fielding, Dan Mazer, and Emma Thompson, this film from director Sharon Maguire is one of this year's few, truly funny comedies.

18.     "The Infiltrator"

It seems like every year, there's one good movie about drug-smuggling, and this year, it is directed by Brad Furman and stars Bryan Cranston, John Leguizamo, Benjamin Bratt, Kathy Ertz, Olympia Dukakis, and Jason Isaacs.  In it Cranston's character works undercover to bring down members of the Pablo Escobar operation.  Written by Ellen Brown Furman based on the book by Robert Mazur, it succeeds in creating a palpable tension, with several uncomfortable moments that only an actor of Cranston's caliber can pull off.

17.     "Ghostbusters"

Yes, it's a remake, but this one has an interesting slant…the Ghostbusters are women, played by Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones.  Directed by Paul Feig from a screenplay by Feig and Kate Dippold, this film pays homage to the original while creating a different story.  But the reason to see it is the performances of its stars, particularly Kate McKinnon, who takes every scene to another level of comic weirdness. 

16.     "Hidden Figures"

This film tells an important, true story that has never before been told on film, about a group of black women, referred to as "computers," who, in the 1960s, were instrumental in the early NASA missions.  It's a behind-the-scenes version of "The Right Stuff," but in this case, that stuff consisted of personal grit and mathematical genius.  The main character is Katherine Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson), who is now recognized as a pivotal force in the early space program.  She is supported by friends played by Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe (who jumped from music to film in two, excellent movies this year).  Directed by Theodore Melfi and written by Melfi and Allison Schroeder, from a book by Margot Lee Shetterly, this film features strong supporting performances by Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons, and Mahershala Ali.

15.     "Lion"

Directed by Garth Davis and written by Luke Davies from a book by Saroo Brierly, the movie tells the true story of Brierly's life, getting separated from his family at a young age and being raised by parents in Australia (played by Nicole Kidman and David Wenham).  As a young adult (played by Dev Patel), Brierly spent years trying to track down the family from which he had been separated.  Also starring Rooney Mara, Priyanka Bose, and Sunny Pawar (outstanding as young Saroo), it is a heartwarming story of strength, character, and redemption.

14.     "Green Room"

This is the year's most suspenseful film, about members of a rock band who somehow get involved with a group of neo-Nazis, and end up in a fight for their lives.  Technically released in 2015 but not in theaters until this year, the film is written and directed by Jeremy Saulnier, and features outstanding performances by Anton Yelchin, Imogen Poots, and Patrick Stewart as the skinhead leader.  This movie keeps you on the edge of your seat, often squirming but completely riveted.

13.     "The Nice Guys"

The best of the three comedies to make my list, this film is directed by Shane Black and written by Black and Anthony Bagarozzi.  It is a buddy movie, in some ways similar to "Lethal Weapon," which was also written by Black, in which two unlikely buddies, played by Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe, team up to find a missing woman.  In the process, they bungle their way through Hollywood, which the film delightfully ridicules.  While the comic tension between the two leads is surprisingly effective, the real star of this film is the script, which is insightfully funny.

12.     "Deepwater Horizon"

We all remember the explosion and humongous oil spill in 2010 by British Petroleum in the Gulf of Mexico, and this film effectively and tensely tells the story of that event, what caused it, the efforts to quell it, and the lives of those who were lost on the oil rig.  Directed by Peter Berg, and written by Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand, the film stars Mark Wahlberg, Kurt Russell, Gina Rodriguez, John Malkovich, and Kate Hudson.  It's an action film with heart.

11.     "Birth of a Nation

In 1915, D.W. Griffith directed a classic, silent movie that was technically brilliant, but obnoxiously paid tribute to the Ku Klux Klan.  101 years later, Nate Parker's excellent film is a rebuke of the movie which shares its name.  Written by, directed by, and starring Parker, it tells the true story of Nat Turner, the slave preacher who, in 1831, led a rebellion that terrified white America and fueled the movement to abolish slavery.  The movie illustrates the devastating events that changed Turner from a man of God to a leader of violence.  With superb supporting performances by Aja Naomi King, Armie Hammer, Penelope Ann Miller, Jackie Earle Haley, and Colman Domingo, this is a powerful and disturbing film.

10.     "Free State of Jones"

I almost combined the reviews of this film and "Birth of a Nation," because they both tell stories of rebellions in the slavery-dominated South.  However, this is a very different story—the true tale of Newton Knight (played by Matthew McConaughey), who deserted his Confederate battalion after realizing that his poor, white friends and family were dying to protect wealthy slaveholders.  He returned to his home in Jones County, Mississippi to lead a mixed-race rebellion against the Confederate government.  Written and directed by Gary Ross, this film features excellent supporting performances by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Keri Russell, and Mahershala Ali (in 3 movies on this list).

9.       "Manchester by the Sea"

Set in the North Shore area of my home state of Massachusetts, this is a subtle, quiet film about characters suffering from different types of anguish.  Expertly written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, it features pitch-perfect performances by Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges, Michelle Williams, and Gretchen Mol.  This is an absorbing, character-driven movie that leaves you feeling like you were hit by a truck.

8.       "Midnight Special"

Michael Shannon plays tense, uncomfortable roles as well as anyone in Hollywood, and he is excellent in this story of the father of a boy with special abilities who is trying to protect his son from groups that would use those abilities in different ways.  Written and directed by Jeff Nichols, the film also benefits from supporting performances by Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver, Sam Shepard, and Jaeden Lieberher as Alton—the boy.  The film culminates in an unexpected, visually stunning conclusion.

7.       "Moonlight"

Told in three parts with different actors playing the lead role at various stages of the character's life, this film was written and directed by Barry Jenkins, from a story by Tarell Alvin McCraney.  It follows the life of a boy, named Chiron, from a difficult situation, growing into manhood while struggling to find his identity and appreciate his sexuality.  While the three actors playing the lead are very good, Chiron is most impacted by the characters around him, played by Mahershala Ali, Naomi Harris, and Janelle Monáe.  This film is very intimate and feels more like a stage play than a movie, and Jenkins definitely has a knack for bringing out the depth in each of his memorable characters.

6.       "Sully"

If you haven't seen this movie, you're probably thinking, "Why bother? I already saw the real-life scenes of Captain Chesley 'Sully' Sullenberger landing a passenger jet on the Hudson River."  But that's not what this film is about.  Instead, it chronicles the events that happened after the now-famous landing, as the FAA investigated Sully for failing to return to the airport after the plane's engines were disabled by a flock of birds.  No one plays noble anguish better than Tom Hanks, and in this film, he delivers another stellar performance, under the direction of Clint Eastwood from a screenplay by Todd Komarnicki.  Featuring excellent performances by Aaron Eckhart, Jamey Sheridan, and Laura Linney, this is a surprisingly interesting movie.

5.       "Hell or High Water"

Chris Pine and Ben Foster play brothers implementing a plan to get revenge on the bank that cheated their family, and Jeff Bridges plays the lawman who is out to identify and stop them.  Written by Taylor Sheridan and directed by David MacKenzie, this film combines an interesting plot with outstanding character development.  Through MacKenzie's deft direction, the most powerful scenes are the small, dialog-driven interchanges, rather than the larger action sequences that advance the story, and the best scene, near the end, simply features two men talking on a front porch.

4.       "Patriot's Day"

Joni and I had just ordered Thai food in a small restaurant in Wayland, MA, as we watched the Boston Marathon on a TV in the corner.  She had wanted to go to the finish line, but she was recovering from surgery, so we had stayed away.  Just then, there were two explosions, a few seconds apart, that were heard throughout the Boston area as loudly as the shots in Lexington and Concord in 1775 around which the Patriot's Day celebration is built.  It felt like we were reliving 9/11, and we spent the next few days glued to the news, wondering who perpetrated this crime and if/when they would be caught.  This movie accurately and effectively retells the incidents leading up to the bombing and those harrowing days afterward as it interweaves the personal stories of some of those involved.  It is the year's second collaboration between star Mark Wahlberg and director Peter Berg, who shares writing credits with Matt Cook and Joshua Zetumer, and it features performances by an outstanding cast including John Goodman, Kevin Bacon, Michelle Monaghan, Michael Beach, Jimmy O. Yang, Alex Wolf, and J.K. Simmons.  The chronology is accurate, the emotions are real, and you don't want to miss a minute of this riveting film.

3.       "Sing Street"

I love this little movie about a 15-year-old boy who forms a rock band to impress a seemingly worldly 16-year-old girl.  Set in Dublin in the 1980s, it was written and directed by John Carney (who also made "Once" and "Begin Again") and feels a little like "The Commitments," which is funny because the mother in Sing Street is played by Maria Doyle Kennedy, who also had a large role as a singer in "The Commitments."  It stars Ferdia Walsh-Peelo and Lucy Boynton, both of whom demonstrate the odd juxtaposition between exuberance and discomfort that often accompanies adolescence.  Enabling viewers to revisit 80s classic songs, this film is excellent for the joy it expresses about and through music.

2.       "Arrival"

The last few years have offered many good films about Aliens and space travel, but this one is different because rather than being about those subjects, it uses a possible alien invasion as the impetus for a story about communication, the beauty of it, and the need for it.  Instead of an astronaut, the lead character, played by Amy Adams, is a linguistics professor who is brought on board to try to ascertain what the aliens want and why they are here.  It also doesn't portray the military as war-mongering idiots, as so many movies do, but rather as individuals trying to figure out the best way to defend their country.  Written by Eric Heisserer from a story by Ted Chiang and directed by Dennis Villeneuve, it also features Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker in roles that are suitably nuanced.  The thought-inducing ending has to do with the sequence of time and how events along a continuum are interdependent.  Forgetting for a minute the science behind it, this is an outstandingly well-crafted film.

1.       "La La Land"

This isn't a traditional musical.  Written and directed by Damien Chazelle, it is an homage to classic films that would be excellent without any music but is further enhanced by the occasional song (by Justin Hurwitz).  As a fan of old movies, I was consistently picking up on more or less obvious references to "Casablanca" and other celluloid stories.  As a reviewer of modern movies, I thoroughly enjoyed the romantic storyline about following your dreams wherever they take you.  As a music lover, I appreciated the excellent songwriting on "City of Stars" and "The Fools Who Dream," as well as the importance of maintaining jazz as a vital art form.  And as a fan of Emma Stone's work, I was glad to see her get to play such a well-developed role (as opposed to "Aloha") opposite another fine actor—Ryan Gosling.  I have to admit that I enjoyed this movie from the opening song-and-dance scene on the highway ("Another Day of Sun") to the what-if "Epilogue."  I left the theater hoping that maybe the success of "La La Land" would encourage producers to make more movies like this.

So, that’s my list today.  It may change tomorrow, which is the beauty of posting it on a blog.  Please let me know if there are other movies you feel belong on this list.

The Reid Awards

And now, for the second time, I will present awards based entirely on criteria that only I understand:

·         Breakout Actor of the Year: I first noticed Mahershala Ali for his role as a lobbyist on "House of Cards" on Netflix, but this year, he was in three outstanding movies—"Moonlight," "Free State of Jones," and "Hidden Figures."  His work in all three films was good, but he deserves an Oscar for his role as Juan in Moonlight.  Given the political climate, it would be nice to see that award go to a Muslim actor.

·         The Future Meryl Streep Award for Best Young Actress: Last year, I gave this award to Brie Larson, who the won the Oscar for "Room."  This year, it goes to Emma Stone, whom I first noticed in "Superbad" and whose alluringly wide eyes convey a Chaplinesque level of expression.  May she continue to get good roles.

·         Best Child Actors: There are a lot of cute kids in the movies, but every now and then, you recognize real talent behind their young faces.  This award goes to Sunny Pawar, who was wonderful in "Lion," and Jaeden Lieberher, who was Michael Shannon's acting equal in "Midnight Special."

·         The Boomers Who Keep Going Award:  As a baby-boomer, I feel a certain kinship with over-60 actors who keep making good movies, year after year, and made my list this year (listed alphabetically): Jeff Bridges, Kevin Costner, Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep, and Denzel Washington.

·         Best Transition from Pop Star to Movie Star:  As someone who perennially earned a spot on my Best Albums list, Janelle Monáe has long been a favorite.  This year, her strong supporting roles in "Moonlight" and "Hidden Figures" only enhances my appreciation for her.

·         Weirdest Movie of the Year:  It didn't make the "Best of" list because it is so weird, but if you want to see something completely out of the box, watch "The Lobster."  Directed by Yorgos Lathimos and starring Colin Farrel and Rachel Weisz, it is set in the future, and the plot is as follows: If you are not married by a certain age, you are sent to a hotel, where you have 45 days to find a spouse.  If you are unable to do so, you are changed into the animal of your choice and released into the wild.  In the woods around the hotel, there are a bunch of "singles" who have escaped and are hunted—forbidden by their peers from finding spouses.  That doesn't even describe the oddness of this film, so if you are bored one night, try it out.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Why Donald Trump Can Win

"What's the difference between a bulldog and a hockey mom?"  Those of you who, like me, watched the 2008 Republican Convention know that the answer to that question is "Lipstick."  After all, it was the first time any of us had heard, or even heard of, Sarah Palin.  But after she uttered that joke and addressed the convention as the vice presidential nominee, we liked her.

Come on, be honest; at the time you thought, "Well, that old John McCain may have ingested some life into his previously boring campaign."  If you are a Republican, you were thrilled, and if you are a Democrat, you were initially worried that Palin could help McCain's sagging campaign.  His polling numbers immediately spiked, and it wasn't until we started hearing more from Ms. Palin that we realized how vapid she is and what a mistake he had made.  But during those first few days and even weeks, people felt an emotional connection to the Republican ticket that they had not felt before, and many were ready to vote for McCain. 

However, Barack Obama had a much better strategy...he would hammer home one message...hope.  He used slogans like "We can do it" to convey a message that if we worked together, there would be hope for the country.

My point is that people don't vote with their intellect--they vote with their emotions.  They connected on an emotional level with Obama's message and rejected McCain's placid negativity.  Here are some other examples:
  • In 1948, Thomas Dewey was an astute statesman renowned for his grasp of the issues, yet he was beaten by Harry Truman (a surprising result) because Dewey sounded like a politician while Truman connected with voters on a personal level.
  • In 1952 and 1956, the Democratic nominee was Adlai Stevenson II, arguably the smartest and most informed nominee in our history.  But he was running against Dwight Eisenhower, the 5-star general who led the allies to victory in WWII.  The voters weren't about to forget that emotional connection, no matter how smart Stevenson was.  It would be like voting against George Washington.
  • Coming into the election of 1992, George H.W. Bush had what appeared to be an insurmountably high approval rating, yet he lost to Bill Clinton, who was viewed as a likable rogue and played saxophone on the Arsenio Hall show.  The truth is that people felt more of a connection to Barbara Bush than they did to George, while Bill (who was promoted as "the man from Hope" Arkansas) made them smile and campaigned with the song, "Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow."
In fact, you can look back at almost any modern presidential campaign and note that the winner was the nominee who made the strongest emotional connection with voters.  So, where does that leave us in 2016?

Even if you think Hillary Clinton is right on most issues, does anyone feel an emotional connection to her?  In the meantime, Donald generally ignores any substantive discussion of issues, while instead tapping into voter emotions related to their distrust of Washington and those who hold office.  In addition, he taps into our resentment of losing jobs to foreigners (even if he outsources jobs in his own businesses) and he plays to the distrust we feel for all things Muslim.  After all, what was the last action movie you watched in which the bad guys weren't Arabs or Muslim extremists?

If this trend persists...if Trump continues to build emotional connections with voters, even if many of those emotions are less than positive, he will be elected president in November.  The only way Hillary can overcome this emotional deficit is to get off her high horse, stop shouting at rallies, and start to talk about how, as a person, she wants to help right the world's wrongs.  She needs to reach out to all people to build the kind of world in which everyone has a chance to succeed.  That is, after all, the premise on which America was built, and it's what most Americans still feel about our country.

This election won't be decided on the issues...indeed few of them are.  Instead, the winner will be the person who can most effectively win the battle for the voters' emotions, and that's why Donald Trump can win.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Why Bernie is Bad for America

A lot of my friends are supporting Bernie Sanders, pointing to his important positions against income inequality, Wall Street, and the influence of big money in elections.  About these issues Bernie is right, and he has provided an important service by elevating them into the campaign discussion.

I hear those same friends tell me that Bernie is polling better against Trump, and they are currently most polls against Trump, Bernie gets about 53% of the vote, while Hillary gets about 50% (in both cases, Trump gets about 39%).  But here is the problem: nobody has attacked Bernie Sanders.  The Republicans are avoiding attacking Sanders because they'd rather face him in the election, and Hillary has tread softly so as not to alienate his supporters.

Whereas Clinton has faced a lifetime of criticism about everything from Whitewater to her hips, Bernie has not.  While Hillary has been repeatedly grilled about her roles in Benghazi and email messages, Bernie has gone unscathed.

If Bernie were to win the nomination, which is now highly unlikely, that would all change, and the Republicans would revel at the opportunity to expose Sanders's weaknesses, which include:

  • He is a socialist.  Does anyone really think that a majority of capitalist Americans will vote for a socialist?
  • He has been in Congress (House and Senate) since 1991 and has never introduced a major piece of legislation.
  • He has only been a Democrat since last year, after spending his entire professional career as an Independent.  The Republicans would have a field day pointing out that the Democratic nominee is not really a Democrat. 
  • His policies (free tuition, tuition reimbursements, free healthcare, raising the minimum wage, expanding Social Security and Medicare) would cost an estimated $18 trillion (according to liberal economists), while his plans to cut tax loopholes and increase taxes on the wealthy would earn only about $6.5 trillion...when there is already a $19 trillion deficit.  The Republicans would certainly do the math.
  • He would be completely unable to work with the legislature.  Forgetting about the Republican majority for a second, not one Democratic senator has supported his candidacy for president.
  • His plans to break up the Wall Street banks and restructure our capitalist underpinnings sound great, but has anyone considered what they would do to the stock market after a Sanders election?  You can bet the Republicans would trot out experts to predict another crash.
  • He wants to eliminate the Import/Export Bank, which is the only thing keeping afloat companies like Boeing which have to compete against foreign entities that are heavily subsidized by their governments.  This move alone could lead to a loss of hundred of thousands of jobs.
  • He voted against the Brady Bill and several other gun control measures.
  • He has been criticized by Democratic opponents (while he was an Independent) for nasty campaign tactics.  To this day, former Vermont Governor Madeleine Kunin bemoans the things that Bernie said about her, some of which could be viewed as anti-feminist.
  • Sanders has won a lot of Democratic contests in red states that are highly unlikely to vote blue in the general election.  With the exceptions of Michigan and Wisconsin, the states that matter to Democrats in the general election have been largely won by Clinton.
  • Bernie has won a lot of caucuses.  However, voting in a caucus is much different than voting in a primary.  Caucuses tend to be dominated by young people and zealots, whereas primaries are much more like the general election in terms of who votes and how they vote.  As has been demonstrated, Hillary has a better shot of winning that type of vote. 
  • He would be sworn in at the age of 75.  When 73-year-old John McCain ran for president, everyone said he was too old.  How is this any different?
So, why is Bernie bad for America?  
  1. His nomination would likely lead to a Trump presidency, for all the reasons I wrote above.
  2. By staying in the race and continuing to attack Hillary, he only increases the chances of a Trump presidency.
  3. A Trump presidency is bad for America.
If you're a Democrat or Independent in one of the states that has yet to vote, please vote for Hillary Clinton.  Like her or not, she is a solid candidate, with a proven, tested record, and the best chance at preventing Donald Trump from becoming president.