I apologize that this has taken so long to get this out (by my count this is a week and change late) but things conspire from keeping me from sitting down and pounding this out. Not that I've been watching a whole lot of things, so this list isn't too terribly painful to slog through. Lately I've been doing less projects and watching more things I'm interested in, so this list is rated generally higher than a normal slice of movies would be. But there's nothing wrong with watching good movies!
The West Wing (season 2) – *****
The West Wing continues to be one of the best, if not THE best, TV shows I've ever seen. Season 2 was better than season 1, which was amazing in itself. A powerful show.
The Cat Returns – ****
One of the few Studio Ghibli films released in the West not directed by Miyazaki, The Cat Returns still bears a lot of the hallmarks that make Ghibli films so special: a sense of wonder, flight, an emphasis on personal empowerment and imagination. The Cat Returns is a great fairy tale of a young girl stolen away by a kingdom of cats. It reminded me a lot of Labyrinth. Anybody who loves good animation should see it.
Dexter (season 3) – ****
Dexter season 3 went to some interesting places. After Dexter confronted his worst fears in the last season, he entered this season full of confidence and power and the ability to achieve whatever he wanted. A killer in his prime, it was the entanglements on the home front that really made this season, including an amazing guest role by Jimmy Smits.
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus – ****
I'm an unabashed Terry Gilliam fan. That said, I understand that his movies are difficult at best, and downright antagonistic towards the audience at worst. The first half of this movie, especially, fell into that later category, with a whole slew of unlikable characters acting with uncertain motivations. But it all really starts to shake out once Heath Ledger shows up and takes charge. Even forgetting that this is his last movie, he turns in an amazing performance as a smooth-talking man with an ambiguous past and only a flirting relationship with the truth. The Imaginarium works, even with the death of its star mid-movie, and the inclusion of Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell to take the place of Ledger in scenes feels organic and appropriate for this movie. It's a miracle this didn't end up like Don Quixote, but I'm glad it didn't. At the end of the day, Parnassus is up with Gilliam's better movies.
Match Point – ****
Continuing my long term Woody Allen project brought me to this darkly comic little thriller. Match Point starts out as a weird classist British drama about a working man who suddenly finds himself in the upper class and uncertain how to handle it. Watching it all unravel is interesting enough, but the movie takes a late second act turn that really surprised me, and kept me on my toes until the final scene. Match Point is a movie that continually undermines itself in the best way, a riff on an established movie archetype (see Cassandra's Dream, below) that is better for its self-awareness.
Disneynature is in the habit of releasing a nature movie every year for Earth Day, it seems. And I couldn't be happier. On a big screen, in a theater full of people, these movies are breathtakingly beautiful and incredibly engaging. I teasingly refer to it as the yearly public dose of nature porn, but that's not far from the mark. It's a lovingly created tribute to the natural world, and just from a visual standpoint it's worth experiencing. Is it good? I have no idea what metric to compare it to.
Kick-Ass – ****
Make no bones about it, Kick-Ass is violent. But I wouldn't call it violent in a seedy, exploitative way, despite what some people might want to claim. It's transformative violence, people in situations who react in a certain way that goes beyond our day to day responses, to a place where some part of us dreams we could all be, a place of mythic heroes. There are scenes in this movie that have the impact of movies like Old Boy, The Professional, or Kill Bill Volume 1. They're affecting because of their extremes. And the rest of the movie is pretty good, too, a great send up of the same old tired origin stories every super hero movie tries to tell. For anyone with the disposition to handle a little blood, Kick-Ass has plenty to offer.
North by Northwest – *****
North by Northwest is the best James Bond movie ever. No, I'm not kidding. Yeah, sure, it involves a reluctant case of mistaken identity, but the movie quickly drops the pretense that Cary Grant is just a normal guy in an abnormal situation and becomes one of the best cinematic representations of adventure and intrigue I've ever seen. Grant carries this movie, suave and unassuming and convincingly competent without seeming invincible. I love everything about this movie, from it's goofy, out-of-left-field start to its rapturously brief (and dare I say perfect) ending. This isn't just the best Hitchcock movie I've seen yet (not really a big field to dominate, I'll admit) but it's one of the best movies I've seen--ever.
Bronson – ***
I really wanted to like Bronson. In fact, I was going along with it quite well at first. The barely lucid, crazy story of Britain's most notorious prisoner, Bronson opens with the kind of fever dream violence that reminds me of A Clockwork Orange. It's strange, entrancing, and powerful. Unfortunately, that kind of energy doesn't stick around, and midway through the movie seems to run out of steam, plodding across the finish line by the sense of goodwill the first half gathered. It's not a bad movie, but it's so horribly front-loaded that the ending was a crushing disappointment.
Iron Man 2's best feature is that it doesn't feel like a proper sequel. In its fast paced two hours isn't a heavy continuation of the first movie's arc, but instead it is perhaps the first major installment of this new Marvel Universe initiative. The movie is a breezy 2 hours, but it seems to go by in the blink of an eye. Ideas that will pan out in future movies are introduced, nods to other franchises are made, and Tony Stark continues to be the most fascinating Marvel hero put on film yet. It's a strange movie, but I found it incredibly compelling.
Cassandra's Dream – ***
Remember up in the review of Match Point when I mentioned the obvious entries into the thriller drama movie? Well, this movie is that. The story of two brothers who get roped into a murder and how it affects them, this movie has all the charm of a dead fish. It's baffling how the same director can tackle similar subject matter with two wildly different results. The actors (Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell) are both fantastic, but the story is very straightforward and I ended up waiting for the movie to end instead of enjoying my experience with it.