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Best Films of 2016

31 Dec

(With a little TV included!)

Most exciting to me about the films on this ‘best of’ list are the directors, none of whom are old guard. I should state that while I very much believe diversity of all kinds is of the utmost importance in the arts, I myself don’t think about the age, race, sexual identity or gender of an artist when I view a work. Is this a dichotomy? Some would say yes. I think not. A work of art is great or it isn’t no matter who creates or guides it, at least by my own judgement. 

A debate for another post.

Something wonderful is happening in movies, though. Only after I compiled this list did I realize all the directors were younger or less established than the directors we usually find on year-end lists. A very diverse collection of artists were involved in the movies I found worthy of note in 2016. I didn’t compile the list with this in mind, it just happened. Which fired me up.  

Agree with my list or not, the directing (and writing!) talent found here bodes well for the future of my favorite art form.

ARRIVAL

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Denis Villeneuve is my favorite director working today. As evidenced previously in two incredible thrillers, Prisoners and Sicario, Villeneuve builds tension and dread better than anyone. In Arrival he does the same, brilliantly, but for very different effect. A thought-provoking work of science fiction with a dazzling emotional payoff, I’ve seen the movie three times. It gets better and richer with each viewing.

Along with stunning cinematography by Bradford Young and an innovative score by Jóhann Jóhannsson, Villeneuve creates an atmospheric movie that somehow is simultaneously majestic and intimate. All of the actors shine, even in the smallest parts. Jeremy Renner does some of his warmest, most charming work ever. And Amy Adams is my pick for best actor of the year, male or female. Her understated performance is filled with great emotion and depth. She grounds the movie with a quiet power that makes the last twenty minutes even more thrilling and eye opening. A second viewing only elevates her work, given the final revelations. I’m not ashamed to say I wept the first time I saw ArrivalIt’s a masterpiece.

For the rest of the picks, click here to  Continue reading

A Movie for the Political Season Vol. II

7 Oct

Spellbound, a 2002 documentary about kids competing in the Scripps National Spelling Bee, is hands down one of the most entertaining movies ever made. You may not think a movie on this topic could ever be enjoyable but damn! Alternately hilarious, joyous, spellbinding (had to go there) and heartbreaking, the second half of the movie also becomes as riveting and suspenseful as The Fugitive or Die Hard. 

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Beautiful in its narrative simplicity, the first half of Spellbound introduces us to eight different teens. We meet each contestant, one after the other, in short vignettes. We find out about their families, their interests, their various quirks. Then all arrive at the National Spelling Bee and, given the wonderful emotional work done by the filmmakers in the first half, the spelling bee itself is an absolute nail biter. When I saw it in the theatre, people were audibly reacting in the second half as if it was the original screening of Rocky. As Ann Hornaday wrote in the Washington Post, “This just might be the most action-packed suspense thriller of the summer.” 

Please don’t let the title of my post put you off. Spellbound is not an outwardly political movie. It truly is wildly entertaining and is one of my personal favorite movies of all time. (I’ve seen it many, many times, it is that much fun to watch.) Yet given everything that is currently going on in our country — and world —  Spellbound, without trying to do so, has a subtle yet very powerful message, much more so than when it was released almost 15 years ago. Given the broad range of families depicted in the movie, Spellbound will make anyone who watches it, whatever their own background and political belief, proud to be an American. At the same time, it might challenge some beliefs on what exactly our nation of immigrants means.

For a few years, Spellbound was unfortunately difficult to find. It’s such a good movie and was so popular, at times even used copies on Amazon were going for over $50 dollars. While I still can’t find it streaming anywhere, a bunch of very cheap used copies have turned up on Amazon:

https://www.amazon.com/Spellbound-Ted-Brigham/dp/B0000WN13Q

This is worth the few dollars the DVD copies cost! So stop what you are doing and watch this movie!

A Movie for the Political Season Vol. I

10 Sep

As I noted a few weeks ago, when it comes to politics I tend to keep my big fat mouth shut. I’m not going to change my current habit. Instead, over the next eight weeks or so, in line with my previous posts about Great Movies You’ve Probably Never Seen (Volumes I, II and III), I’ll feature a few outstanding movies many haven’t seen that everyone should encounter. These films also have eye-opening parallels to our current season.

The first is the groundbreaking masterpiece, Children Of Men.

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Released at Christmas in 2006, Children Of Men is a dazzling thriller loosely based on a novel by the great P. D. James. James’ idea was a not too distant future where humankind has gone infertile. The movie takes place in 2027, 18 years after the birth of the last baby, Diego Ricardo. Opening with the death of Diego, which causes worldwide grief, Children of Men thrusts us into a dystopian society that is immediately unsettling given how similar much of this crumbling civilization is to our current world. Britain, where the movie takes place, is the only stable government remaining in the world though it too seems on the verge of collapse. The movie explores what happens when the first woman in 18 years becomes pregnant.

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A Food and Film Affair

10 Feb

This is mostly for my Texas friends and readers, although anyone is welcome to make the journey to the utterly charming town of Fredericksburg, Texas!

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Fredericksburg, Texas

Friday, February 19th, I’ll be in the glorious hill country of Texas hosting a “Food in Film” benefit for The Hill Country Film Society, a terrific organization I’ve had the pleasure of working with for the past 5 years.

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Bluebonnets of Texas Hill Country

In partnership with Hoffman HausOtto’s German Bistro and Pedernales Cellars, I’ll be sharing some of my favorite “food in film” clips and discussing film while we all share in a multi-course meal designed with the clips in mind. The menu is incredible, it’s going to be delicious.

Better yet, your ticket will help benefit a great organization dedicated to supporting Texas filmmakers, independent film and children interested in filmmaking. (Proceeds benefit the Hill Country Film Society’s year-round programming: the Hill Country Film Festival, Indie Film Series and Summer Film Camp.)

Five Star ranked Hoffman Haus is offering 20% off accommodations if you are not local. 

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Hoffman Haus

So come out and join us for what should be a blast of an event. Click the link below for more information and tickets. Feel free to contact me as well! Would love to see you there.

For tickets and information click here: 

https://www.universe.com/events/film-affare-tickets-fredericksburg-ZM6R58

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Clemenza teaches Michael how to make Spaghetti Sauce

 

 

Best of 2015 Pt. 2 (Books & TV)

15 Jan

Last week I posted my favorite films of 2015. Here is part 2 of my ‘best of’ list:

Only 3 of the many books I read this year make the list… but wow, are these three terrific:

A MONSTER CALLS

No other narrative in 2015 affected me as deeply as this heartbreaking, brutal yet beautiful novel. My good friend Shay handed me A Monster Calls, recommending it highly, and, with no other warning from her, I made the mistake of reading it on a plane. I can’t imagine what the passengers in the surrounding 5 or 6 rows were thinking when, during the last third, I audibly fell apart and then could not pull myself together when I finished. And I don’t cry. (Too much a man… you know…) Patrick Ness’ exquisite prose with deep emotional insight and stunning illustratations by Jim Kay create a book, an experience, that will be with me a long, long time. I will return to it often.

A Monster Calls. Patrick Ness.

WEST OF SUNSET

If you love 1) Old Hollywood 2) Movies and/or 3) F. Scott Fitzgerald, you will be in heaven reading this near perfect rendering of the last year or so of Fitzgerald’s his life as he struggles to survive in the film business and the world at large. I’ve read and enjoyed a number of author Stewart O’Nan’s novels but nothing prepared me for the beauty and craft of his latest, and best. The book is fictional, yes, but based largely on the actual facts of Fitzgerald’s life. Peppered with other real life characters such as Dorothy Parker, Humphrey Bogart and Hemingway, this was pure pleasure to read, even though recounting perhaps the darkest era in the famous author’s life.

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THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN

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Touted by critics as “this year’s Gone Girl‘, Paula Hawkin’s debut novel is even better and, if you can believe it, even darker. A stunning thriller with one of the most complex main characters I’ve encountered in a while, The Girl on the Train blew me away. I read it in two days then immediately read it again, knowing all the secrets, to appreciate Hawkin’s mastery at deception and the best use of an unreliable narrator I’ve ever encountered. Unsurprisingly, the movie is currently filming with a terrific cast, though the movie’s switch of locale from London to New York is baffling and irritating. Read the book, don’t wait for the movie.

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Best of 2015 Pt. 1 (Movies)

10 Jan

I’m breaking my ‘end of year’ posts into Part 1 (movies) and Part 2 (everything else). Would love to hear your own favorites in the comments!

MAD MAX

I loved this so much, I did a full blog post on the movie (click link below). Suffice to say, it is still the best movie of the year:

https://onfoodandfilm.com/2015/05/20/mad-max-fury-road/

THE WALK

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Tri Star couldn’t pay people to go see this incredible movie, which is a tragedy. Not the movie! But a tragedy people did not go see it. A glorious return to form by one of our best directors, Robert Zemeckis, who wrote the terrific screenplay with Christopher Browne, this magical, breathtaking recreation of  Philippe Petit’s death defying tightrope walk between the towers of the just opened World Trade Center was many things: a caper picture, an adventure film, a beautiful recreation of 1974 New York City, and a love letter to the buildings we lost on September 11th as well as moviemaking in general. I saw it three time and happily wept three times, particularly during the final moments and images. Made for the biggest screen possible, I can only hope it will work as well at home and that people begin to discover it. This movie fills me with joy.

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Mad Max: Fury Road

20 May

There is a car chase in Michael Bay’s The Rock that became instantaneously famous when the movie debuted in 1996. This action sequence, involving Nicolas Cage pursuing Sean Connery through the streets of San Francisco, completely changed the way action sequences were shot and edited in Hollywood. It also is annoying and frustrating and not very good.

The Rock‘s car chase is certainly is visceral and intense. So is accidentally sticking your hand into a Cuisinart. Neither are much fun and both eventually are a complete mess. The main problem in The Rock‘s car chase is that everything is shot so close and edited so tight there is very little spatial sense of what is happening. Where the hell is anyone in relation to anyone else? A car chase is suspenseful only if we know what is going on: is Cage one block or ten blocks behind Connery? How can there be suspense if we don’t know?

Re-watching it, the sequence is rather tame by today’s standards because what it began has intensified and ramped up so ridiculously. Movies like Man of Steel and The Furious Saga are shot and edited so close, so fast… and often so dark… that all spatial sense goes entirely out the window. These movies no longer are about actual suspense, narrative tension or, god forbid, character. They are designed instead to bludgeon the audience into submission.

The use of CGI has also completely taken over these movies, actors mostly performing in front of green screens with everything digitally created around them. Consequently, nothing we see can actually happen in real life which also drains the action of any real intensity.

All of which is why George Miller’s long gestating Mad Max: Fury Road, six days now in theaters, is so incredibly thrilling, exhilarating and, please Lord, game changing. 

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Given that everything about Fury Road is awesome and mind-blowing, I will only cover a few things here. Let’s start, however, with the spatial. George Miller is not just a visionary (see almost any image within this often gorgeous movie). Miller is a master at coherent, definable space. Coherent does not mean tame! Much of this movie is absolutely insane. Take, for instance, the much talked about blind bungee jumping guitar player, hung from the front of a massive rig, who plays a real flame-throwing guitar as he blindly bungee jumps:

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Insane! But whatever is happening in Fury Road, no matter how chaotic, fast or explosive, we the audience always know exactly what is going on. Who is doing what. Where people are in relationship to one another. What is at stake. (We will get to the fact something is indeed actually at stake in a moment.)

FOR THE REST OF THE ESSAY, CLICK HERE > Continue reading