Finding Neverland - Director Marc Forster brings to life Allan Knee's stage play to life in a powerful portrait of J.M. Barrie's life. The film is exceptionally touching and offers a unique insight as to how Peter Pan and the fairy-tale of Neverland blossomed. This is definitively my favorite performance from Johnny Depp. He is beautifully understated, except when his imagination is at play and I can think of no one that could have embodied this role better. Kate Winslet is exceptional, as one has come to expect and Julie Christie is magnetic. But it is young Freddie Highmore that steals the show, offering a strong, emotionally rich and textured performance at age 10. The film has a great look to it and has some nice beats of imaginative digital scenery that lends to the creation of Neverland. Jan A.P. Kaczmarek lends a sweeping score that acts as perfect undercurrent to the emotional impact of every scene. This really is a fine film that deserves your attention.
Hero - Jet Li stars in this reworking of the Rashoman formula that tells the story of how China became one nation through the imaginative use of mythic storytelling. The film is about two men having a conversation. One man is Nameless and the other is a King. Nameless tells a story to the King as to how he slayed the great warrior Sky. We see a mesmerizing bit of swordplay before Nameless continues with his story as to how he killed Broken Sword and Flying Snow. But the King sees holes in Nameless' story. Nameless retells the story until the narrative constructs the uniting of Sky, Moon, Broken Sword, Flying Snow and Nameless. Through unity comes great strength, but this story does not unfold as you would think. Each segment is coated with a different color scheme that plays into the themes of each story. Visually, it is captivating on a level I have not seen ever since. The choreography is unbelievable. Literally, I can not think of a better display of swordplay and martial arts skill put to film. What really helps sell the many action beats are the pauses between action. In the first sword fight, the two fights pause, eyes closed in front of one another and each envisions how the fight will play out in grand, operatic gestures that last minutes before their eyes spring open and the real fight takes place, lasting mere moments. It is cinematic greatness, but the best part comes before the fight when Jet Li pays a musician to score their battle and the camera rests on the musician as he readies himself for the task. Later, the film has a stunning sword fight through trees and on water, but between deadly blows, the camera settles on how the water is disturbed during the fray. The film is budding with life in its grim portrayal of how a nation unites through death. The film is every bit about philosophy as it is about action storytelling or building the myth a nation lives by. This is one of two movies that I remember as being the first that actively brought me to tears when I first saw them in the theatres (the second will be right below this one). This really was a case of all the stars aligning to create something absolutely magical. Director Yimou Zhang took this outstanding screenplay and brought unique visuals and brought together a team of actors that could sell the action while also being able to deliver genuinely powerful performances. This is easily Jet Li's best work. Ziyi Zhang, Daoming Chen and Donnie Yen all do nice work as well. But the emotional pivot of the film comes from Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung's dynamic performances and striking chemistry. And it needs to be said, but Dun Tan's moving score does wonders in making this film the achievement it is
Jersey Girl - I can hear the angry cries now. The amount of flack I am going to get for putting this on my list. "HOW DOES JERSEY GIRL MAKE A BEST OF LIST?!?!" Pause. Breath in. Breath out. Take the time to reevaluate this movie. When it first came out, it took heavy flack for being a Bennifer production. This was the time (the first time) people were really down on Affleck and negative response to his very public relationship with J-Lo stole the attention and sent this film to the morgue.
When I first saw this film, I did not get the hate. I thought it was a sweet, inoffensive film and marked a certain level of maturity in the filmmaking and screen writing of Kevin Smith. It was always a film I really quite liked and would keep coming back to over the years. And then I had a kid. And now this movie speaks to me is a really unusual way. That makes me sound a little horrible if you have seen the movie and remember how Dad-fleck is basically portrayed as the bad guy for large sections of the film. I swear I am not relating to the film in that way, but rather how real the relationship with a dad and his daughter is. It is fully authentic. It taps in to inescapable lapses where you can't help but wish your life would go back to a simpler time before you had a child, where life was easy to navigate and you could live freely as you once did. But then, reality resets and you have in front of you a person you would move mountains to please, and pour all of your loving adoration. The film paints this picture in a way that is heart-on-your-shirt-sleeve simple to understand, and gets kudos for doing so, because it isn't often shown. At the end of the day, this is a strong film about parental love in its purest form and lives by a simple theme laid quite beautifully by Liv Tyler's character; "Forget about who you thought you were and accept who you are."
The film follows Oliver Trinkie who raises his daughter Gertie as a single parent when his beloved wife (played by Jennifer Lopez) tragically dies. Raising a child alone scares him, so he kind of pawns his daughter off on his dad, so that he doesn't have to face the profound pain he is in. But as time passes, he grows into being a genuinely wonderful dad to this little girl. But, fate offers a chance at the life he once had before he had a baby when he is offered his old position back in New York City that would be a perfect opportunity for him but upend the life of his daughter. The plot sounds simple and it is. The film is not great because it is wholly new or original (it is in fact a riff on the John Hughes film She's Having a Baby), but because of how likable the characters are and pure of intentions the film has. Smith set out to make a family friendly look at the bond between a father and child and succeeded. His script offers plenty of laughs which sells the idea that he can be funny without reliance on profanity (however, as this film was a flop, he would never really come back to his more PG material). There are several one liners that I quote from this all the time.
Ultimately the film would not work were it not for the performances, and with the exception of Jason Biggs who overplays his role, the performances are great. J-Lo really fueled Affleck's performance. Their love reads on screen. He gives one of his best performances in this. His speech to his new born child about the death of her mother and how he will be a better father to her is so moving. That was the very first time I cried at a movie in the theatre. He sells the character and really knows how to execute Smith's material. Liv Tyler has a lovely role that she nails. She is gifted at making quirky sort of odd duck character read realistically and not forced. Raquel Castro was a great find. She works really well as the titular Jersey Girl. And, George Carlin gives a strong dramatic turn as Affleck's dad. He was one of the highlights of the film. Overall, I think this is a lovely film, and though it has a few dopey moments that feed into family film tropes, it is a good movie often overlooked because it came out at a disastrous time in the press. Revisit the movie. It is good.
Kill Bill Vol. 2 - Quentin Tarantino swaps Eastern motifs for Western in this strongly scripted conclusion to his Kung Fu Revenge Drama. The Bride has taken out two of her would-be assassins and narrows in on Bill who is played by David Carradine in a striking performance that was robbed of Oscar recognition (as was Tarantino's screenplay and Uma's chilling performance for that matter). This film is a contender for my favorite Tarantino film. All elements at play are firing on all cylinders. I love how Bill is characterized here. We spend the entire first film learning to fear and hate this man, and when we finally meet him here, he is charismatic and likable. He has a deadly edge, but you get why The Bride was so taken with him. He is pure magnetism. Not to sell anyone short, Michael Madsen's Budd is wonderfully performed and offers a different kind of threat to the Bride than any of the other characters involved. And Daryl Hannah is viscous fun with Elle.
The film is divided into five segments and each one both progresses the narrative as well as betters the previous section, all culminating with a final act that is harrowing and rich with emotional meaning for all characters involved. It all really hangs on conversation, rather than dynamic action as the first film did. For some, this might seem a letdown, but the conversations had between the Bride and Bill showcase some of Tarantino's strongest work with dialogue and meaning with metaphor. Everyone remembers Bill's little Superman speech (and they should, it is great), but people seem to get lost in some of the other things being said. At the end of the day, this scene is a scene of reconciliation, it is a break up, it is catharsis verbalized, it is love distinct, and it is how to truly exact revenge. It isn't about violence, but understanding. Also, I posit you this: did she really Kill Bill or was that final moment play acting? When the final segment begins, there is a beat of playacting between Bill, the Bride and a little girl. In my eyes, they replayed this little performance so that each character got what they wanted or deserved with honor.
Spider-Man 2 - Up until 2019, I considered this to be the greatest comicbook movie ever made. As it stands, it is still the greatest singular superhero effort. This film took the elements that worked with the first film and elevated them far beyond where that film took them, all the while channeling the conceptual narrative established with Superman 2 but bending them into the modern era. What graces the screen is less a standard superhero movie and more of a character deconstruction which lends itself to reaffirm the heroes journey.
Borrowing heavily from The Amazing Spider-Man #50 - Spider-Man No More and coupling that scenario with the origin of Doctor Octopus, Spider-Man 2 finds rich drama wherein to unfold a morality tale about the reluctance of being a hero. This is all accomplished without sacrificing any action and still offering plenty for the actors to perform with. This film has some honest and earnest weight to it, and this all soars with exceptional performances from Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst (who has an honest to gosh role in the film....until--you know--they damsel in distress-a-fy her), Alfred Molina, Rosemary Harris and J.K. Simmons. It is James Franco's dark and moody performance that steals the show and ensured his star power. And, while all these people really make the film soar, it is minor performances and walk on roles that secure the film's fun buoyancy. It never gets too weighted with drama because an excellent bit of--often--reactionary humor adds levity. Joel McHale, Bruce Campbell, Hal Sparks, Emily Deschanel and Ted Raimi all have incredible beats of comedy and all of it is brought forth from and in influence of further providing character advancement in our main players.
Raimi really honed in on what made Spidy work in the first outting and constructed a thrilling character drama. He also made a far more cinematic presence with this outting that still feels grand by today's standards (albeit with some, now, clunky CG). The action of this film works and Raimi really was able to master swinging from genre to genre with ease. At times it feels like a broad comedy, but then it becomes a horror film before being a heartfelt drama about a young man breaking his mother figure's heart, and then it is a hard hitting actioner. It is this film that really established the current Marvel tone that later films like Iron Man, The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy would harness into Box Office gold.
This film has several scenes of cinematic genius and one of which was so good that it would go on to become something of a trope of the genre. I am of course discussing the epic Train scene which would be reworked in many films including Batman Begins, Age of Ultron and Spider-Man Homecoming. But there are several other scenes that are strikingly well executed. The birth of Doc Ock scene is chilling and fun in the classic monster movie sense. The "Spider-Man no more" scene is fantastic and offers Cliff Robertson one last stunning performance. The confrontation between Harry and Spider-Man is haunting and so well earned. Franco is great in the scene as he looks on at Peter's face and holds back tears. And, Harry's discovery of what his father did adds fuel for what would surely not be a misfire for Spider-Man 3. Kidding aside, this is my pick for best film of 2004 and still stands in the top 5 comicbook films to date.
Best Picture : Million Dollar Baby - Clint Eastwood directed his way to Oscar gold for a second time with this film that starts as simple boxing drama and switches gears into something quite different. It is a fine film, but I think the 3rd act twist took so many people off guard that the film gets a little too much undue praise. That said, it is a solid feature and worth seeing.
Biggest Box Office : Sherk 2 - What can I say? It is Shrek...but again. It is on par with the first film and the inclusion of Puss in Boots was inspired. Antonio Bendaras kills it.