Top 5: Robert Downey, Jr.

So The Avengers — one of the most highly anticipated movies in recent years — comes out today. Judging only by the trailers and promos, it does not look very good at all and I remain indifferent to even seeing Joss Whedon’s Marvel Comics early summer blockbuster, even if it does co-star the stunning Scarlett Johansson. The film also marks the return of the character of Tony Stark (a.k.a. Iron Man) played by none other than 47 year-old Robert Downey, Jr., one of America’s most talented, if not complex actors of his generation.

His resume is a long and impressive one, appearing in films for pretty much his entire life – since age 5 actually, when he had a role in his father’s film Pound. If you blinked, you missed his stint on TV’s Saturday Night Live in 1985. He is usually associated with the 80’s “Brat Pack” gang for appearing in movies like Pretty in Pink, Tuff Turf, and The Pick-Up Artist – though I never really put him in that group. Of course he has had his troubles with the law and his drug addictions have been well-documented and publicized. But he has still managed to come out in the most spectacular of fashions – with 2008 bringing him to rock star/blockbuster status. Things were going so well for Downey that he even made it on The Time 100, Time magazine’s list of the most influential people in the world. Makes the word ‘comeback’ sound like a ridiculous understatement. In fact, his popularity seems to be growing the last few years. Anyway, with the release of The Avengers, I thought it would be a fitting time to list what I find to be Robert Downey, Jr.’s Top 5 performances thus far. As always, these are not a list of the best films he has been in – I am strictly looking at performance:

5. Zodiac (2007)

I have no problems with saying I did not enjoy this film, despite my admiration for director David Fincher and its appearance on a multitude of Top 10 lists of that year. I had problems with the script and its dreary pacing. Plus, as I’ve said before, it’s always a bit sad and painful to watch poor Jake try his heart out to less than adequate results. Having said that, I cannot deny Downey’s impressive performance here in which he plays newspaper crime reporter Paul Avery who begins to share information with a political cartoonist, as the two try to decode letters that have been sent to the paper by who they believe to be the Zodiac Killer. Downey almost always plays characters with tremendous egos with little humility and there is no exception here. But it is his performance that kept me (at least somewhat) interested. His sarcastic sense of humor helps this otherwise bleak film and he manages to wear the style and mannerisms of a beat reporter in effortless fashion.

4. Tropic Thunder (2008)

You may laugh at and mock me, but I don’t care. If I had a vote, it would have gone to Downey over the late Heath Ledger (I know – blasphemy!) for playing five-time Oscar-winning Australian Kirk Lazarus in this intelligent and amazingly funny Ben Stiller comedy. I know his casting here raised some eyebrows initially, but Downey does comedy extremely well, partly because he plays it completely straight. His Lazarus gets a pigmentation alteration surgery to play a black sergeant in a Vietnam film. What makes it even funnier is that, because he is such a dedicated Method actor, he refuses to break character while filming and only speaks in “Black English.” As Stiller’s acting rival, Downey is nothing short of hysterical. A brave role for him to take on and he was rewarded with his 2nd Oscar nomination for doing so (which, as we all know, he should have won). You see? Going full retard, can pay off Robert!

3. Less Than Zero (1987)

A very 1980’s look at the culture of the spoiled and the young in Los Angeles based on the novel by Bret Easton Ellis. The film surely has its many flaws and looks pretty dated by today’s standards, but one shining light in it is Downey’s performance as Julian, a young drug addict disintegrating before our very eyes. The movie’s portrait of drug use does seem genuine and at times, downright scary. The same can be said of what Downey does here….his commendable knack for making you laugh one moment and feel incredible sadness the next is clearly on display in this film that really cemented him as a true player in Hollywood. He played some great supporting roles before this (Back to School, Weird Science) and made the most of his screen time. But this truly made him legit and opened everyone’s eyes. Today, when people think of this movie, they first think of Downey’s harrowing and intense work. It should also be noted that it is so easy to fall into the hole of going over-the-top when playing such a character (as many often do)…but I see a lot of subtlety in his work here.

2. Iron Man (2008)

When I first learned that Downey would be starring as a superhero in Jon Favreau’s mega-blockbuster, I thought it a very peculiar casting choice to say the very least. I just didn’t see it — and I am sure many others felt the very same way. But after years of being very successful in film and TV, this is where Mr. Downey hit gold. Now it’s next-to impossible to think of Tony Stark and not picture the the brash Thespian. Tony Stark is an ego-maniac, and we love him anyway. He is eccentric, brilliant, self-promoting, cocky, sarcastic, and courageous. Downey is a master at playing these quirky and gregarious characters – but what makes him so special is that he is also able to show us the vulnerable and the frightened. Whoever thought of casting him at the center of the Hollywood heavyweight surely has more foresight than me. The first Iron Man flick worked in so many ways (unlike the obligatory sequel which was weighed down by an unfocused script), and Downey was indeed a huge part of that. He said of landing the role: “I prepared for the screen test so feverishly that I literally made it impossible for anybody to do a better job.” Whatever he did worked — and he has brought life to one of the more fascinating superheroes to come to the silver screen.

1. Chaplin (1992)

This selection is a no-brainer for me, even with Downey’s many great performances. You can count the number of geniuses who have worked in film on one, perhaps two hands — and Charles Chaplin is indeed one of them. Talk about enormous shoes to fill. Richard Attenborough’s movie left a lot to be desired, but you can’t say that about Downey and his efforts…he gives a tour de force performance and unlike anything he had ever done to that point. Of the project, Downey stated it was, “The biggest humiliation I’ve ever experienced. It was like winning the lottery, then going to prison. I realized that nothing that had worked for me before was going to work here.”  Downey does a brilliant job at not only nailing the monumental moments, but also, at capturing the tiniest of Chaplin’s nuances. He received his first Oscar nomination for his work here and solidified his stature as a leading man. Watch the video below — it is the magical (albeit fictional) moment when Chaplin experiences a life-changing epiphany and creates one of film’s most iconic characters – The Little Tramp. It is a wonder to watch and it gives you just a small glimmer of the masterful work Downey does here. Watch his eyes, his body language, the brows…it’s remarkable work. His best to date, in my opinion. But with the roll he is on, there is no telling what he’ll come up with next.

A quick P.S. — I loved Mr. Downey’s work in Short Cuts, Natural Born Killers, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and especially Wonder Boys…but as always, 5 slots goes by way too quickly.

Peter Eramo’s “Top 25 Comedies of the Decade”: The Finale!

              

OK, here it finally is…the last part of my “Top 25 Comedy Films of the Decade” (2000-2009) list!!! The final five films are as follows:

#5. Wonder Boys (dir. Curtis Hanson)

A chaotic mid-life crisis joy ride, if there ever was one. Carnegie Mellon professor Grady Tripp (Michael Douglas) is just one small crisis away from having a complete nervous breakdown. In the course of one weekend, we are introduced to all of the highly unusual characters that make up his harried life – his third wife leaves him, his girlfriend, the Chancellor (Frances McDormand, always so damned good) is pregnant, and his editor Terry (Robert Downey, Jr.) arrives on the scene, peeking and probing, waiting for Grady’s book that has been in the works for over seven years. Talk about writer’s block! Actually, the manuscript is over 2,600 pages long. Add to this the advancements of one of his female students and James Leer (Tobey Maguire), another of Grady’s students who is something of a literary prodigy on top of being a pathological liar and kleptomaniac. Oh yeah, James also shoots the Chancellor’s dog in the midst of all the confusion. It all looked so much easier seven years ago when Grady’s first novel was a sensation and he was, well, a “wonder boy.” What the hell happened to this guy? 

Wonder Boys” is not only one of the finest comedies of the decade, but one of the better films to come out period. Michael Douglas gives what I think may be his finest performance (not at all hyperbole). He is completely natural throughout. He doesn’t look for any laughs…he plays it straight and the laughs simply come. His chemistry with the impressive cast that surrounds him is pitch-perfect, creating a real-life character in this slice-of-life film – a character who we have great sympathy for and laugh at simultaneously. As his agent who is desperate for his client’s new work, Robert Downey, Jr. turns in yet another complex and quirky performance. Tobey Maguire is very funny too as the clearly troubled young writer. His pairing with Tripp makes for a nice father/son combination here. Steve Kloves does a masterful job at adapting from the Michael Chabon novel — very real characters caught in highly compromising situations. This movie is a true winner – smart, impulsive, sweet and really, really funny.

#4. The Invention of Lying (dir. Ricky Gervais & Matthew Robinson)

One of my Top films of 2009, without question — for its intelligent script, non-stop laughs, and terrific cast. Absolute entertainment. The film is set in an illusory world where no one has ever told a lie. That is, until Mark Bellison, a writer who is about to be fired (Ricky Gervais), creates one on the spur of the moment for personal gain. Mark is overweight, under-successful, short and comes from a poor gene pool. He is in love with Anna (Jennifer Garner) who is way out of his league as she is looking for the perfect mate with ideal genes to create perfect, good-looking children without snub noses. Of course Mark begins to take advantage of his discovery little by little until one day, the hospital staff overhear him speaking to his mother on her deathbed as he describes what Heaven is truly like. He’s just making it up as he goes along, but everyone within earshot believes him of course and Mark not only becomes famous, but a prophet of the people as well.

What Gervais and Robinson have created here is one of the better comedies I have seen in years. In its vision and scope, I was constantly reminded of the better films of Albert Brooks and Woody Allen throughout. Gervais gives an endearing, hilarious performance and manages to also include his own personal opinions on God, religion, love and the backwards priorities of our society. An entirely original film, I was blown away at how funny and clever it was. The film also features some great cameo appearances and excellent supporting work from Rob Lowe, Tina Fey, and Jonah Hill. Gervais is certainly making a name for himself here in the States (see “Ghost Town” too)— I only hope that people begin to recognize that this is a major force in comedy now. And not only is this one downright hilarious movie, but on top of that, it has a heart to match.

#3. Wedding Crashers (dir. David Dobkin)

John Beckwith (Owen Wilson) and Jeremy Grey (Vince Vaughn) are best of friends, business partners, and above all, self-confirmed womanizers. They make a habit out of crashing weddings and taking full advantage of all the romance in the air by bedding a gullible, beautiful hottie looking for her slice of the love pie. They even have their own long list of rules to abide by (Rule #1: Never Leave a Fellow Crasher Behind) and as the film begins, the anticipation is in the air because wedding season is just about here.

Chances are you’ve seen this movie already, if not once, then several times. All I know is that if I happen to catch it playing on TV, I can’t take it off. It’s too friggin’ funny and has some wonderful performances in it. Brash, sarcastic, foul, derisive, Vaughn is in top comedic form (“Tattoo on the lower back? Might as well be a bullseye”). His rapport with Wilson is a very strong one and we immediately buy into how close they are as well as when the two have their little break up. How the two scope out, then pounce on their prey is great fun to watch. They’re con men. But they’re not looking for money. They just want to get laid and never see the woman again. That is, until John meets Claire Cleary (Rachel McAdams) at a family wedding as the wedding season is drawing to a close. He is instantly smitten with Claire, who happens to be the daughter of the very influential Treasury Secretary William Cleary (Christopher Walken) and breaks every rule in his Crasher Rulebook in trying to win her heart by attending a weekend party at the Cleary family compound (and dragging his reluctant friend with him). The funny just gets funnier during the weekend with an incredible cast of characters. Walken plays it straight for the most part, but is still such a joy to watch and his relationship with his loving daughter Claire is a very endearing one. Who steals the show here is the dazzling Isla Fisher, who plays Claire’s seemingly unbalanced, sex-crazed sister who falls hard for Jeremy. How Vaughn reacts to and deals with the maniacal Fisher (“I’ll find you!”) makes for some of the funniest moments in the film. Keir O’Donnell plays the son of the renowned politician and is completely creepy, yet we just feel so bad for him. Again, the scenes he has with Vaughn are a riot. Bradley Cooper makes a great bad guy here who we simply cannot stand and Will Ferrell’s mythic Chazz is a great surprise (“hey Mom! Can we get some meatloaf??!!”).

Overall, the general plot is nothing so very new — but it somehow manages to feel fresh and original. It is certainly great entertainment and funny from start to finish. On top of all the laughs, there is also a sweet love story that, although fairly predictable, is still kind of nice to watch. But most of all, it’s a story about friendship — and that resonates throughout. It’s really very hard not to like this one. Without a doubt the funniest film of 2005, and among the funniest in years.

#2. In Bruges (dir. Martin McDonagh)

I am a tremendous fan of Martin McDonagh’s work as a writer for the stage and think he is one of the very best playwrights to come out in recent years. He already won an Oscar for his short film “Six Shooter” and with “In Bruges,” he makes a phenomenally impressive debut as a feature-length writer/director. McDonagh has a real knack for making violence and brutality outrageously funny and this one is quirky as hell, dark and funny…it simply blew me away.

What holds the film together is the friendship between Ray and Ken, two Irish hitmen. The chemistry between Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson is authentic and pleasing to watch as there’s so much going on between the two polar opposites. Farrell’s Ray is young, brash and wants to live it up, while Ken is much more reserved…he is a quiet philosopher and thinks with his upstairs head as opposed to his partner-in-crime, who thinks with the other. But Ray is suicidal and on edge, struggling to come to terms with a previous assignment that went terribly wrong.  They are stuck in the Belgium city of Bruges – sent their by their insane mob Harry Waters (played with delicious cartoon madness by Ralph Fiennes). Because Ray bungled the job, he orders Ken to kill his close associate. So why are they in Bruges? Because Harry, for some reason known only to him, thinks that Bruges is the most magical, heavenly place on earth and wants Ray to see it before he has him killed.

How Ray and Ken deal with being trapped in this city is great fun. Ken wants to see the sights and take it all in, while Ray is just bored to tears. He meets Chloe, who happens to be a thief and a drug dealer, selling drugs to a film crew that is shooting in the city. He then gets mixed up with a Canadian tourist and yes, Chloe’s boyfriend. The film has a terrific pace to it and never lets up. The comedy is in the situations that McDonagh places his characters in and their reactions to everything that goes on around them. McDonagh also has a wonderful ear for dialogue and comedic repartee. It gets pretty violent at times, but you are laughing the whole way through. I remember ranking this the 3rd best film of 2008 and I haven’t met one person who saw this movie that didn’t like it. It’s simply a great film with terrific comedic performances.

#1. Tropic Thunder (dir. Ben Stiller)

In creating this list, I continued to run through each of the comedies I had seen during 2000-2009, and there was not one film I could point out that I thought was funnier or more daring than Ben Stiller’s comedic triumph, “Tropic Thunder.” From its very opening (the hilarious phony movie trailers) til its closing credits (the classic dance sequence done by Tom Cruise as his wonderfully off-putting, foul-mouthed and somewhat nauseating Les Grossman), this film had me rolling. The casting is flawless, the performances all stellar, and the screenplay is satiric, smart and yes, thankfully politically incorrect.

The film follows 5 Hollywood actors as they set out to make the greatest war movie ever made. At the center of this eclectic group is Ben Stiller’s Tugg Speedman, who is  in desperate need of a comeback movie (especially after the joke of a movie that was “Simple Jack“). Robert Downey, Jr. plays multiple Oscar winner and master Australian Thespian (“I don’t drop character till I done the DVD commentary”), Kirk Lazarus who is notorious for always crawling in the skin of the characters he plays and, in playing an African-American soldier here, does so quite literally by undergoing a skin pigmentation process to turn his skin black. He is a wonderful foil to Stiller’s Speedman and their bonding throughout the film — from clashing on the set to true acting colleagues is a fine course to watch. Jack Black plays Jeff Portnoy, a modern-day Fatty Arbuckle who stars in toilet-humor comedies and has a severe drug problem. Jay Baruchel and Brandon T. Jackson round out the platoon, but both do not fall to wayside next to the more well-known comedians. A disheveled Nick Nolte (is there any other kind?) plays the man who wrote the book that the crew is set to film. An honored war veteran and American hero with a big secret, Nolte’s Four Leaf Tayback has hooks for arms and a no-bullshit code of conduct. Steve Coogan plays the man directing the “Tropic Thunder” project and is at a complete loss as to how to handle his star-laden cast. His inspired speech to his cast in the jungle as they set off for the unknown is a great one – before he happens to step on a landmine and his body is splayed across the fields in every which way. In two cameo supporting roles, Matthew McConaughey (who I normally cannot bear to watch) and Tom Cruise simply rock! McConaughey plays Tugg’s agent and closest friend who will do anything for his longtime client. His phone chats with a distant Speedman who is slowly losing his mind while imprisoned by natives are a riot as is his desperate search to get his man a damn Tivo! Cruise steals each scene he is in and I give him full credit for letting it all hang out and just committing to this vile character 100% (“Look, fuckstick, I’m incredibly busy. So why don’t you get the hell out of here before I snap your dick off and jam it into your ass!”). I can’t remember a funnier closing credits than right here. Those moves, those hips, that chest hair! PLAY-AAA!!!

I loved watching all the varied characters do their thing. I loved all of the racial jokes, actor jokes, drug jokes, and yes, the mentally challenged jokes and I credit Ben Stiller for not caving in to public pressure and keeping it all in. I had read that when Downey was offered the role and told what his role would entail, that he thought Stiller was absolutely insane. That usually means you are onto something, and after seeing this film a handful of times, he was. Watching Jack Black tied to a tree and bribing his cast members with oral sex in exchange for drugs is hilarious. On top of that, Downey’s ‘Full retard’ bit is complete insanity. The entire movie is peppered with truly funny lines. Stiller has created a complex, raunchy, intelligent comedy and his direction is spot on. This was a bold and challenging project to be sure, and could have easily gone wrong in so many ways. In Stiller’s capable hands though, he makes what I thought was the funniest damn movie of the decade. Here’s a little Les Grossman for ya:

HONORARY MENTIONS

As I stated in the previous part of this list, there were so many funny comedies that came out during 2000-2009 (much to my surprise). And I had initially started with a Top 10 List, but it just kept growing larger and larger….I finally had to draw the line at 25. In any case, here are some very funny, well-made movies that I truly enjoyed, but did not make the cut. I wish there was room for them all…

Year of the Dog                                                   
Thumbsucker                                                  
Lars & the Real Girl
State and Main
(500) Days of Summer                                 
Bad Santa
Baadasssss!
Team America: World Police                    
You Don’t Mess with the Zohan
Over the Hedge
Stranger Than Fiction                                   
The Hangover
O’ Brother, Where art Thou?
Keeping the Faith
I Love You, Man
Roger Dodger
Borat
Ghost World
Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle
Ghost Town

Peter Eramo’s “Top 25 Comedies of the Decade”: Part Uno

 

So I already composed & posted my “Top 10 Films” of the decade list (2000-2009), and I thought it would be fun to do the top comedy films in that same time frame, being that comedies usually play a backseat to the more dramatic films. I started by wanting to make a simple Top 10 List. The problem was…it was not so simple. Not at all. In doing extensive research on the many comedy films released throughout the decade, there were just too many good comedic films that would not crack the ten available slots. And I didn’t want to leave these films out. So I increased it to twenty slots, and finally, after much struggle and inner debate, settled on a final “Top 25 Comedy Film List” of 2000-2009” which you see right here. Many quality comedies are still (unfortunately) left out, but I had to draw the line somewhere. In creating the list (which I spent much more time than I really should have), I was amazed at how difficult the task was — not only in the selecting of films, but putting them in their respective order. Not an easy feat.

The only stipulation I feel I must add here is that many of the best films of the decade have both comedic and dramatic elements in them (for instance, I included “Sideways,” “Matchstick Men, ” “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” on my Top 10 List of the decade). I suppose it is up to each individual’s interpretation because though these movies certainly have very funny moments in them, I consider them to be more dramatic films. For this particular list, I went with funny…what made me laugh, what was original & unique, what was an overall entertaining and well-made movie. Some may not even be considered to be great movies by most, but again…I went with funny. And if I enjoyed it and it made me laugh, then I surely needed to consider it. Here’s the list. Enjoy!

#25. You Kill Me (dir. John Dahl)

Ben Kingsley plays Frank Falenczyk, a man who loves his job….which is odd since he’s a hit-man for the Polish mob and on top of this, happens to be an alcoholic who botches a critical assignment. He is then ordered to re-locate and clean up his act (against his will). He attends AA meetings, gets a sponsor and lands a job in a mortuary where he meets and falls for Laurel (Tea Leoni), a very intriguing woman with almost no boundaries. This movie has some great dark humor to it and what makes most of the film so funny is that it doesn’t go for the laughs — the script & direction play the entire story straight. Kingsley and Leoni make a wonderful pair here, though you wouldn’t think this to be the case going in. Kingsley is a remarkably gifted thespian and here, he gets to show off his comedic chops playing Frank who is not a touchy, sentimental guy. His transformation from beginning to end is an enjoyable one to watch. A great supporting cast includes Philip Baker HallLuke Wilson (as Frank’s gay sponsor), Bill Pullman and Dennis Farina.  A hidden gem that didn’t get a wide release at all, but absolutely worth seeing. The script is taut, inimitable and unpredictable and beneath the murders, dark themes and substance abuse, there is a heart to it all.

#24. intermission (dir. John Crowley)

An Irish comedy that doesn’t take itself too seriously at all. What we have here is a collection of numerous stories (11, I believe) set in Dublin that stem from one single circumstance: when John (Cillian Murphy) breaks up with Deirdre (Kelly Macdonald) to “give her a little test.” His plan backfires and sets off a constant stream of conflicts & stories concerning all the people around them. One of those people is Lehiff (Colin Farrell), a career criminal working on his next heist and the detective (a very loose and free Colm Meaney) who will stop at nothing to nab him. At its core, “intermission” is a love story, but it brilliantly portrays all of the repercussions surrounding its opening scene and cleverly illustrates how our lives intersect and relate to one another. You get a great sense of the Irish setting and the unique people who inhabit it — a great, diverse collection of characters to watch here. Though it may take some time to adapt to the very thick accents, the film is a non-stop rollercoaster ride, filled with great comedic performances that keeps you on your toes.

#23. Scotland, PA. (dir. Billy Morrissette)

I absolutely love this movie! A modern re-telling of Shakespeare’s classic tragedy, “Macbeth” set in the 1970’s in…you guessed it, Scotland, Pennsylvania. If you’re familiar with the classic play, you will surely get much more out of this ingenious adaptation. If you aren’t into the Bard, I think you’ll still enjoy the film on its own. Hard-working Joe McBeth (James LeGros) works at a hamburger stand with his much more ambitious wife, Pat (the gorgeous Maura Tierney). Pat is convinced that they can do a much better job at running the place than their kind, but short-sighted boss, Norm Duncan (James Rebhorn) and concocts a plan to do away with the owner (a very comedic & clever scene) and take over the establishment. Most of the elements of the “Macbeth” play are here and part of the fun is seeing how Morrissette modernizes it all. The three weird sisters are three pot-smokers who foresee the future with a magic 8-ball, Macduff is re-created into a vegetarian detective (Christopher Walken) investigating the murder, and the connections keep going and going. Maura Tierney is a fantastic Lady Macbeth here — she is smart, sexy and sinfully ambitious (“We’re not bad people, Mac…just underachievers”). Her chemistry with LeGross is terrific and the two have captured the essence of the relationship that was the Macbeths. But more importantly, the film is just downright funny. The soundtrack of 70’s Bad Company tunes throughout fits very well and adds the perfect mood. The eclectic mix of characters in this small town is great fun to watch and seeing how Morrissette gets the most out of the original story with his crazy, dark script and humble setting is pure pleasure.

#22. Zoolander (dir. Ben Stiller)

I am aware of how ridiculously absurd this movie is. That said, I can’t help but find this movie hilariously funny. Ben Stiller plays Derek Zoolander, an incredibly dim-witted fashion model who was once at the pinnacle of the industry and now finds himself fading and at the end of his career. He is brainwashed by the evil fashion guru Mugatu (Will Ferrell) to kill the Prime Minister of Malaysia – so no, the film doesn’t take itself seriously at all. Owen Wilson plays Hansel, Zoolander’s chief competition and the fashion industry’s next hot model, usurping Zoolander of his title. The rivalry here is great fun to watch and Stiller and Wilson, we know, work well together. Stiller has created a very engaging character here too — from his walk, to his speech to his contorted facial expressions…he truly does something entirely different. There are some amusing cameos and most of the laughs stem from a combination of Zoolander’s complete stupidity, his obscene vanity and childish vulnerability. His budding romance with Matilda (Christine Taylor) gives the movie its love story, which has its own unusual arc. His “Derek Zoolander Center For Kids Who Can’t Read Good And Wanna Learn To Do Other Stuff Good Too” always makes me laugh, as does the infamous “Walk Off” scene. The one-liners and outlandish, silly scenes are relentless — but in the end, it delivers what it sets out to do and that is make us laugh. For serious!

#21. Old School (dir. Todd Phillips)

Three men who aren’t feeling so great about their personal lives all try to recapture their youth and re-live their wild college days. The catalyst for the insanity that ensues is when Mitch discovers his nymphomaniac girlfriend cheating on him. He finds a new home and his friend Beanie thinks it would be a great idea if they turned it into a frat house. You probably know what happens next. Vince Vaughn, Luke Wilson and Will Ferrell make a riotous trio and all are great fun to watch. Ferrell is usually more effective in a supporting role and here, he makes the most out of playing “The Tank,” a man who was once considered a party animal and is now struggling with the obligations of marriage and the mundane life that sometimes comes with it. His “trust tree” scene with his wife while in therapy is hysterical. Jeremy Piven plays their nemesis well — the longtime nerd who is now Dean of the college and has it in for the popular threesome. This is all-out comedy with a slice of romantic subplot thrown in for good measure. Vince Vaughn is as sarcastic and dry as ever and the whole “ear muffs” thing gets me every time as does Kansas’ “Dust in the Wind” to Blue’s passing (“You’re my boy, Blue!”). Great, raunchy fun that doesn’t seem to tire on repeat viewings. Had to find room for this one some way.

#20. Superbad (dir. Greg Mottola)

A filthy, warped, and at times sweet coming-of-age movie in the same way as the original “American Pie” was in the previous decade as it focuses on a trio of male friends who are preparing to start their college careers come the end of summer. Well, they aren’t doing much preparing, to be honest. The main goal for these boys is to get laid. Half the teen dialogue here revolves around either booze or getting laid. Seth and Evan (Jonah Hill and Michael Cera) are best friends who have known each other their entire lives. They luck into getting an invite to a huge party and want to make sure to bring enough liquor to get the gals trashed, thereby having their first sexual experience. They bully their good friend Fogell (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) into using his new fake ID to purchase the booze and that’s when everything goes nutty. Fogell falls in with two completely inept cops (Seth Rogen and Bill Hader) while Seth and Evan get separated and map out their own routes to the big party. Mintz-Plasse steals the show here with his wonderfully dorky McLovin character. Some of the funniest scenes are when he gets his groove on, when he’s in bed with a good-looking girl (“I got a boner!”) and when he mimics his machismo. The friendship between Hill and Cera is a very believable one and the separation anxiety between the two continues to build throughout. On the surface, “Superbad” is a perverse, foul-mouthed movie with a lot of laughs. Beneath, there is an intelligence and warmth to it all, focusing on the close bonds between friendships that will not be forgotten.

#19. The Amateurs (dir. Michael Traeger)

Before “Zack & Miri Make A Porno” there was this movie. This one has the better cast, the more original script and most importantly, more laughs. Andy (the ever-talented Jeff Bridges) is a weekend dad who is experiencing a mid-life crisis and is tired of not getting ahead in life. He comes up with the most unconventional, most insane idea this small town has ever heard — he and any citizens who want to join his merry, independent production company are going to make their own full-length adult film! “The Amateurs” is a small film that not many have heard of, let alone seen and with the cast assembled, that is such a surprise to me. Ted Dansen (who gives an impressive comedic performance), William Fichtner, Tim Blake Nelson, Glenne Headly, Joe Pantoliano and the radiant Lauren Graham highlight this delightful film. Bridges is the core here…the ultimate dreamer and he’s the one who has to convince the others to invest their hard-earned money into this crazy scheme. From there, it’s all about who is going to play what role in the making of this movie (in front of or behind the camera). For instance Pantoliano’s ‘Some Idiot’ (that’s what everyone calls him) wants to write and direct the movie. Andy and his pals try to recruit as many village people as they can to help in the making of this adult film and much of the laughter stems from this. Overall, the film is very sweet and tremendously entertaining. Jeff Bridges can do just about anything and anyone who knows “The Dude” knows that comedy is surely one of those things. If you’re looking to rent a movie and in the mood to laugh, I would strongly suggest giving this little unknown movie a watch.

#18. Fantastic Mr. Fox (dir. Wes Anderson)

I’m not much of a fan of Anderson’s work & I didn’t expect much going in to this one, but I laughed out loud throughout this wonderfully written, and at times profound movie based on the Roald Dahl classic story. A terrific ensemble cast lend their vocal talents and is surely entertaining for kids & adults alike. To read my full review of this very witty film, click here.

#17. 50 First Dates (dir. Peter Segal)

Fearful of commitment, Henry Roth (Adam Sandler) is a veterinarian based in Hawaii who lusts after all of the beautiful tourists who come by for fun-in-the-sun, no-strings attachments. He suddenly meets Lucy (Drew Barrymore) and thinks he has finally found the woman of his dreams. The catch? She has short-term memory loss and forgets who the hell he is the very next day. A clever premise with some resemblances to “Groundhog Day,” but stands by itself quite admirably. A very sweet and endearing romantic comedy that actually does not insult the audience and, with Sandler at the center, is very amusing throughout. Henry must repeatedly make Lucy fall in love with him with each passing sunrise, which makes for some great comic moments in itself. Rob Schneider, Blake Clark, and Dan Aykroyd have some funny moments in supporting roles and the scenes with Henry’s foreign female co-worker are pretty hilarious too. Most romantic comedies I was thinking about for this list were more cute and sweet, with touches of comedy here and there (the very charming “Serendipity” comes to mind as a perfect example), but “50 First Dates” stands out because it never forgets that it is a comedy and the premise alone allows for some great opportunities for originality and humor. Sandler makes a charming leading man and Barrymore does her usual thing, but here she is stretched a bit more than usual. We like her character and her illness makes her all the more endearing. A truly original romantic comedy — with a lot of laughs.

#16. High Fidelity (dir. Stephen Frears)

What is it about John Cusack that we like him so much, especially as a romatic-comedy lead? He is charming, self-deprecating, sweet…just, you know, a nice guy! There always seems to be a little hint of Lloyd Dobler in each of his characters…the dreamer, the philosopher, the romantic; it’s as if we can still see him holding a radio atop his head blasting the tunes of Peter Gabriel. Based on the Nick Hornby novel, “High Fidelity” is another rare romantic comedy that makes this prestigious list. Cusack plays Rob Gordon, a 30’s-something record-store owner and compulsive list-maker (like me!). Here, he is recounting for us, the audience (the breaking of the fourth wall works extremely well here and Cusack is so damn good at it) his Top 5 break-ups, which includes the one in progress to Laura (Iben Hjejle), who he considers to be his all-time true love and tries desperately to get back together with. When we aren’t watching Rob’s fruitless attempts to win Laura back, we are at the record store watching Rob and his two socially inept co-workers (Jack Black and Todd Louiso). Black wasn’t the star he is at this time and here in a smaller role, he truly shines (especially in his rendition of “Try A Little Tenderness“). There are some very funny male bonding moments in the store (speaking to us, Rob says of his assistants, “I can’t fire them. I hired these guys for three days a week and they just started showing up every day. That was four years ago”). We also have Tim Robbins who is ridiculous (in a good way) as Laura’s new-age lover Ian, who Rob of course cannot stand. As always, we root for Cusack to win back the girl and we laugh at the way he over-analyzes himself and the situation at hand. The film shows a great appreciation for music and is a love story told from the guy’s point-of-view, which I can appreciate. Cusack is near perfect here and funny as hell. He opines to us:  “John Dillinger was killed behind that theater in a hail of FBI gunfire. And do you know who tipped them off? His fucking girlfriend. All he wanted to do was go to the movies.” It’s just a great screenplay. I know many have already seen this one, but do yourselves a favor if it has been awhile…see it again. Right away.

That’s the first 10 comedies to make the list. In the next few days, I will make sure to post the remaining films, (#15 – #1). As always, please feel free to leave me your comments – what you think should be included, which have no business being here, and those rare times when you feel that my thinking is actually right on.

Peter Eramo’s Postmortem on the Oscars – The Highs & Very Lows of the Ceremony

OK, so I went 14 out of 21 in my picks (I wasn’t even going to bother venturing a guess in the ‘Live Action Short,’ ‘Documentary Short,’ and ‘Animated Short’ categories). Not so very bad. I went out on a limb on a couple and was thinking that some of the awards would go to those who, you know, actually deserved it, rather than those who ran stellar Oscar media campaigns. In the end, if you bet on the chalk in most of the categories and just stuck with the favorites, you probably fared better than me. I am surprised because Oscar usually likes to distinguish itself from the other, “lesser” awards ceremonies.

In any case, it is a few days later and I thought that since I wrote two posts on this blog leading up to the Academy Awards ceremony, that I would tie a nice little bow on it and write a postmortem on the actual telecast: the highs, the lows, the funny, the embarrassing, the deserving, the unworthy, and the simply moronic. And I’m not getting into who wore what – whose dress was “to die for” and who picked a catastrophic ensemble….I don’t care about that. Not important. Unlike the previous few years though, I thought the ceremony for the 82 Annual Academy Awards was not nearly as boring. True, the list of winners was all pretty hum-drum and predictable, but the show itself…not half bad this time around. Here is a list of all the highlights and lowlights in no particular order:

OUR HOSTS

All things considered, Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin played off each other quite nicely. Really, the host of the Oscars has only the first 10-15 minutes to worry about. It’s pretty much gravy from there, making a brief showing here, a quick cameo there. And they were relieved of most of their opening by Neil Patrick Harris’ song and dance number, “No One Wants to do it Alone.” Martin and Baldwin did have some very funny jokes written for them including one where Mr. Martin referred to his role in “The Jerk” when he said to Best Actress nominee “Gabourey Sidibe and I have something in common: In our first movies we were both born a poor black child.” Some good one-liners throughout and the two did an admirable job as hosts.

MORON OF THE NIGHT

Easily Elinor Burkett. What a train wreck this one was. “Who is Elinor Burkett?” you ask. She is the producer of the Oscar-winning documentary short, “Music by Prudence.” When writer/director Roger Ross Williams came up to the podium to accept his award, he just started his speech when Barracuda Lady came up and pulled her best Kanye impersonation. Yes, the two have had tremendous artistic differences with the film and even had a lawsuit between the two (which was settled out of court). I have no idea who is right and who is wrong – but Ms. Burkett made herself look like a fool, ambushing Mr. Williams in such fashion. Look at the YouTube video – he just stands there dumbfounded, almost wanting to laugh, while she is ranting and raving in a semi-incoherent manner.

IT’S ABOUT TIME

No, not Meryl Streep winning (more on that in a bit) – but Oscar’s tribute to the horror genre in their well-edited Horror Montage. I’m no horror buff by any stretch, but horror films play an integral role in the motion picture industry and this brief mosaic was a nice reminder of that. Just because horror films are rarely recognized come Awards season, that doesn’t mean there is no merit to them. In fact, so many great horror films (domestic and international) have gone straight to DVD without much of a theatrical release at all. Here, we got to see a nice mixture of some of the most memorable horror films in cinematic history, from “The Blob” to “The Shining” – and did I see a quick glimpse of “Leprechaun” in there for good measure???

NOT VERY ‘PRECIOUS’ AT ALL

Boy, did Mo’Nique come across like Queen Diva or what??? They can spin this any way they want – as if she wasn’t backslapping her fellow nominees, but when she started off her pompous speech with, “I would like to thank the Academy for showing that it can be about the performance and not the politics,” a backslap was exactly what she delivered. I’m not saying she deserved the award or didn’t deserve it – she just came across here as arrogant and bitter – no class or grace whatsoever. And to bring up Hattie McDaniel? Give me a break. I was shocked to read all of the kudos pointed at her in the blogs and articles after-the-fact. Were they watching what I was??? Show a little humility…Come on! Even Samuel L. Jackson was rolling his eyes after this disaster of a speech!

The second Oscar that the film took (in a bit of an upset) was the Adapted Screenplay award which went to Geoffrey Fletcher. In doing so, Mr. Fletcher became the first African-American to win the screenwriting Academy Award. A terrific honor. But was it me, or did it sound like this guy ran 26 miles before coming up to the podium? Have a clue as to what you wanna say, guy. His speech was so incoherent and so bad that Steve Martin had to immediately joke about it by saying, “I wrote his speech,” which was met with laughter throughout the theatre.

BLUE MAN BEN

Why is everyone all over Ben Stiller? I give this guy credit. He is absolutely willing to commit 100% to the joke and make an ass out of himself to get a few laughs. Good for him. Last year, if you recall, he came out looking like Joaquin Phoenix, mimicking his much publicized stupidity on David Letterman’s show. That was funny. This year, he came out in complete Na’vi make-up and wardrobe from James Cameron’s Avatar.” Mr. Stiller was there to present the award for Best Make-Up, which, ironically, “Avatar” wasn’t even nominated for (a glaring oversight to begin with). Stiller was absolutely committed to the role (especially when he spoke in the ancient tongue of the Na’vi) and had some outrageously funny lines. Great delivery – and whoever did the work on those piercing yellow eyes – great job! I thought this was a great, humorous highlight of the evening. I don’t think he disrespected “Avatar” in any way (though a few of Mr. Stiller’s peers did just this throughout the evening) – and I thank him for being such a willing sport.

INTERPRETIVE DANCE OVER SONG

Did we really need to see all of those dance numbers choreographed to all five nominees for Best Score? Was this necessary? How many people watching on their flatscreens at home used this allotted time as their bathroom break for the evening? Come on – you know you did! I have nothing against dance at all – in its time and place. What bothers me greatly about this was that the producers decided to go with this bit (which took a bit of time) over actually having us hearing the songs that were nominated in the Best Original Song category. I am still upset that I did not get to hear “Take it All” (from “Nine”) and of course, the beautifully written “The Weary Kind,” which rightfully took home the gold. I was thrilled to see that it won the Oscar and I would have loved to see Ryan Bingham perform it. That moment was taken from us – all in the name of interpretive dance – show me your Fosse hands, people!

A FITTING TRIBUTE

The “In Memoriam” tribute dedicated to those in the motion picture industry who died during the year is conducted without fail during each Oscar ceremony. I look forward to this part of the telecast as I find it to be a pleasant reminder of those who have passed on – those who we have admired from afar whether it be an iconic celebrity or a cinematographer who most don’t know, but we love their work.

This year was especially exciting for me because the legendary troubadour James Taylor sang live on stage while the video montage was being shown. I have loved J.T. for years and years and he is without a doubt my all-time favorite musical artist. His appearance was a total surprise to me and I instantly received a text message from my brother saying: “J.T. and the Oscars? Is your head about to explode?” True, I could barely contain myself as I watched the names and faces pass on screen and listened to the voice that, like a very fine bottle of wine, only gets better with age. He performed the classic Beatles song, “In My Life” and did a wonderful, stirring job with it. And dressed in his black tux and bowtie – he looked handsome, elegant and skilled. I equated the event to that of the delectable Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup: two totally separate entities coming together to make a most delicious noise. A wonderful Oscar moment – and done with class, taste and heart.

While I am on the subject, those of you screaming about the omission of Farrah Fawcett –SHUT UP! All I’ve been hearing for the past few days was how “shameful” it was that she was left out of the tribute. Please! Yes, it is true that she did do some film (she was actually damn good in Robert Duvall’s powerful “The Apostle”), but (1) she is recognized mainly as a television star and (2) the tribute is never able to squeeze in every single person connected with the film industry. In fact, I give those who make these decisions some credit for keeping some in that most may have never heard of (composers, editors, et al) and not the iconic Charlie’s Angel. On top of this, I have to hear Ryan O’Neal vent about this like it’s a slap in the face?! Perhaps Mr. O’Neal should pay attention to more important matters like how to properly parent his son so he doesn’t wind up dead or in jail again.

THE DOLPHIN IS CENSORED

The Cove” took home the Oscar for Best Documentary. A truly remarkable, horrific, eye-opening film for sure. The award is well-deserved and I was elated to see it win. During his acceptance speech, producer Fisher Stevens referred to the main subject of the film, the courageous, dedicated and heroic Ric O’Barry. Mr. O’Barry then (remarkably in character) lifted a poster-board reading “Text Dolphin to 44144.” The orchestra immediately started to play (their cue to walk off the stage) and director Louie Psihoyos was never able to give his brief speech. I thought this was uncalled for. Let the man hold up his harmless sign – if you saw the film, you know how worthy this cause is! It makes me more upset because of all the previous political statements made by presenters and winners of past telecasts. Were they cut off as promptly as the artistic team of “The Cove” was? I don’t think so. I simply thought it was a poor decision.

In case you were interested, this is what Psihoyos emailed the media regarding what he would have said had he been allowed to: “We made this film to give the oceans a voice. We told the story of The Cove because we witnessed a crime. Not just a crime against nature, but a crime against humanity. We made this movie because through plundering, pollution and acidification from burning fossil fuels, ALL ocean life is in peril, from the great whales to plankton which, incidentally, is responsible for half the oxygen in this theater. Thank you, Black OPS Team for risking your lives in Japan — and thank
you Academy for shining the brightest lights in the world on THE COVE……Japan, please see this movie! Domo Aragato!” Wish I heard it straight from the horse’s mouth!

THE VICTORIOUS BAD BLAKE

At last, Jeff Bridges gets his Oscar. Great performance, great speech – long overdue. Though of no surprise to anyone, it was a pleasure to watch. I no longer get to call him our country’s most under-rated actor (as I have been for well over a decade), but it is absolutely worth it now. Great to see the Kodak Theatre stand for the Duderino. Touching to hear him speak of his parents. And Michelle Pfieffer’s introduction was poignant and sincere as well. Here’s to you Bad Blake!

BABS OVERDOES IT

When Martin Scorsese took home the Best Director award a few years ago for his much over-hyped, and somewhat over-rated “The Departed” we knew he was going to win before the winner was even announced. Why? Well, the choice of presenters for this category that year was clue enough – with Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas handing the statue to their longtime colleague. This year, when we saw Barbra Streisand make her way across the stage, the odds-on-favorite to win became a shoe-in. We knew right then and there that Kathryn Bigelow would make history by becoming the first woman to ever win the award. True, she was the favorite here; I picked her to win though I surely did not feel she was deserving – and still don’t. Plus, I also considered this to be an anti-Cameron vote as well, with James Cameron rustling many Hollywood feathers over the years.

So there was Babs. And she looked so giddy right off the bat with the prospect of a woman finally winning. I thought her commentary here was not necessary either. Upon opening the sealed envelope, she commented, “Well…the time has come.” A bit over-the-top, don’t you think? Perhaps I am just upset because I still don’t believe “The Hurt Locker” was all that it is cracked up to be and that the media helped enormously in its many wins on Oscar night. I will give it a second viewing and perhaps I will feel differently. Perhaps not.

STILL RECUPERATING

I am still trying to get over what I perceive to be those undeserving who actually went home with an Academy Award. I knew Sandra Bullock was the media darling and the favorite to win. I couldn’t pick her. I think Ms. Bullock said it best with the very first thing she said in her speech: “Did I really earn this or did I just wear y’all down?” She knows it herself and she’s saying so right there. Way to get out there and campaign, campaign, campaign! And see what ya get? A nice, shiny Oscar. Again, very weak category this year and very few great leading roles for women in 2009, but Carey Mulligan clearly gave the strongest, most multi-layered performance of the five. Ms. Bullock is fine and I hope she continues to choose better roles in better films, but I will say it again: This is not an Oscar-worthy performance by any stretch of the imagination. I am still having trouble saying it: “Sandra Bullock…[gulp]…Oscar-winner.”

And even though the Best Picture category seemed like it was down to two films (“Avatar” and “The Hurt Locker“) and there was no surprise to it, I am still trying to cope with the idea of Bigelow’s war film winning the evening’s most prestigious award. I feel very strongly that “Up in the Air,” “District 9” and “Inglourious Basterds” were all superior.

“VOICE OF THE 80’S” HONORED

Being in my late 30’s, I sadly had no choice but to grow up during the horrid decade that was the eighties. I graduated high school in 1989 and the films touched by John Hughes permeated the decade. “The Breakfast Club,” “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” “Pretty in Pink” and “Planes, Trains & Automobiles” are pretty much a staple of 80’s films, right? It is safe to say that John Hughes was “the voice” of film in the eighties on a certain level. I see that, I understand that, I accept that.

Having said that, I had very mixed feelings about the tribute to Mr. Hughes on Oscar night, which was led by 80’s prom queen Molly Ringwald and the very talented (and still working) Matthew Broderick. On one hand, this was a very sweet, touching, tasteful homage to the late filmmaker who passed away much too soon in August 2009. The video medley of films that he worked on was edited quite nicely and when 80’s stars such as Judd Nelson, Anthony Michael Hall, & Ally Sheedy came out to speak about their mentor and friend, it was a nice touch. I get all of that.

But was this honorary tribute truly necessary? I mean, in all, John Hughes directed only eight films…eight. He mainly worked as a writer and a producer. Not a big deal at all, as he was still surely a very creative aspect to the films that he did not helm. What bothered me was I don’t remember any Oscar tribute resembling this one for much more accomplished directors who have died – I’m talking about the great Sidney Lumet, Alan J. Pakula, the exceptional Sydney Pollack, John Sturges, the ingenius Ingmar Bergman, the auteur that was Stanley Kubrick, Richard Attenborough, Akira Kurosawa, and the list goes on and on. Why does John Hughes merit this? Because his movies were more “popular”? He was never at all nominated for an Academy Award and his films were mainly targeted towards adolescents. We like them now in part because it is nostalgic – it brings us back to our own days of graduation. So though touching and well-done, I felt that this tribute to Mr. Hughes was gratuitous. Will Woody Allen get this sort of treatment when he passes? (And let us hope that is a far, far way off.) What about Mr. Coppola? Scorsese? David Lynch? After this, I sincerely hope so….but I’m not holding my breath.

MISCELLANEOUS TIDBITS

Cameron Diaz: Rehearsal would have been nice. Come prepared.

Sean Penn: I love ya! I really do. But I’m still trying to figure out what you were saying.

Tina Fey and Robert Downey, Jr.: Loved the writer vs. pampered actor schtick. Great stuff.

– Zac Efron, Tyler Perry, Taylor Lautner, Miley Cyrus, Kristen Stewart, Amanda Seyfried: WHY???!!!

Tom Hanks: Was he just running late for a dinner reservation or something? Never saw an envelope ripped open faster than that.

– What was with the bizarre Lamps-R-Us backdrop?

James Cameron knew that eyes were on him and played a good sport throughout the night, taking all the ribbing in stride. At least on the outside. And he stood and clapped for Ms. Bigelow before just about anybody. Well played, Mr. Cameron.

– I want to see more clips from the actual performances being nominated! Each year they never show enough. Showcase the films being honored so people at home will think, “Huh…that looks good. I gotta go out and see that.”

– “Up in the Air” goes home empty. Cold, man. I thought it was a dead-ringer for Best Adapted Screenplay. You could make the argument that the film deserved Best Picture honors – as it was a much stronger film than “Avatar” and “The Hurt Locker” in addition to be more topical and making a great, subtle statement on our country today. Years from now when we look back at the films of 2009, this is the one that leaves its mark.

So it’s now mid-March 2010…a new year of films to catch up on. I hope it is a stronger year than last. A lot of new blockbusters that will start to rear their heads in a month or so. I will keep posting on this blog with various “Best and Worst” lists as well as film reviews throughout the course of the year…until the Awards season is upon us once again in December 2010.

As always, I cannot wait.

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