The Top 10 Greatest Movies to Win the ‘Best Picture’ Oscar

A few weeks ago, I created a Top 10 List of what I think are the worst films to “win” the Academy Award for “Best Picture.” The terrific website ListVerse was kind enough to pick it up and what followed was a barrage of comments (over 400+ in less than 48 hours) that was great fun to read. Comments ranged from highly complimentary to others that were, well…not so nice and aimed at yours truly. No matter. That is what is such fun about these lists and what I was hoping for when I began my Magic Lantern Film Blog — a place for film lovers to speak passionately about the films that they love and hate, a place where people can have healthy debates with one another…quite simply, a place for movie geeks like me to communicate. A handful of those commenters suggested that rather than be so negative, that I create a Top 10 List of those “Best Picture” winners that I found to be the most deserving. I thought that was a fair point and that is what you see here – The Top 10 Greatest Movies to Win the “Best Picture” Oscar!

This list was a bit easier for me to compile, especially the Top 3. What I found to be most difficult was trying to squeeze in so many wonderful films that took home the award in just ten slots. Sadly, a few of them didn’t make the cut, though I wish there was more room. My criteria? Well, first it has to be a superb, timeless movie; a film that, looking back, you can still tell that it was the best in that respective year. A movie that if it didn’t win “Best Picture,” you’d say, “Really? That didn’t win?” Second, it had to be (in my opinion) the best of the films nominated in that year. If I thought another film was better, then it didn’t make the list (i.e. I think “JFK” is far superior to the victorious “Silence of the Lambs“). Finally, I looked at the competition each winning film faced and what the movie had to beat out (have you ever looked at all fantastic films battling it out in 1939?). When all was said and done, I came up with these 10 magnificent Oscar-winning films. I hope this brings just as much reaction and discussion as the prior list. 

10. The Best Years of Our Lives (dir. William Wyler, 1946)

Wyler made some truly unbelievable films (“Mrs. Miniver,” “The Heiress,” “Jezebel” and the Oscar-winning “Ben-Hur” which could have easily made this list), but for some reason, few cite this one as being one of his greatest. I first saw this film only three years ago and was completely blown away by it — and the war-film genre is not one of my favorites. Winner of 7 Academy Awards, this is the film that beat out “The Yearling” and the classic “It’s A Wonderful Life” and in my mind, deservedly so. The movie centers on three WW II veterans who come home to Smalltown, America from the war only to find that everything has drastically changed. Wyler and screenwriter Robert E. Sherwood aren’t concerned with showing us any scenes of the men in battle, but are wholly invested in showing us the crisis that each man faces upon his return. Sixty years later, the movie leaves a lasting impact on its audience and the cast is stellar. Frederic March won an Oscar for “Best Actor” here and Harold Russell, who plays Homer, a man who lost both hands during the war, won “Best Supporting Actor” — both great to watch. Teresa Wright and Myrna Loy also give heartfelt, riveting performances here. I was so impressed with how real everything seemed to feel and, like another film on this list, did such a beautiful and poetic job at showing the psyche of a post-war nation. All three stories blend so brilliantly together, I wish it had continued even longer than its 160+ minutes. For some reason, I am under the impression that many have not experienced this American classic. If you are one of those, you should put this in your queue right away.

9. Annie Hall (dir. Woody Allen, 1977)

You can count the number of comedic films to win “Best Picture” on two hands and this one is arguably the best of the lot (unless you want to debate “The Apartment,” which I could understand). I look at it like this – people bitch and complain that Stanley Kubrick, Charles Chaplin, Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, & Robert Altman never won an Oscar. Fine. The same would be said for Woody Allen if one of his movies never took home the golden statue. “Really? How could that be possible?! He never one after all those great movies?” Now of course if you’re not a Woody fan, you won’t like this selection. I had to find room for it. It is one of the all-time greatest comedies and stands as the seminal turning point in the filmmaker’s career. Diane Keaton created one of film’s greatest screen characters here (“Lah-di-dah”) and the chemistry between the two is a marvel and tremendous fun to watch. A classic love story filled with some of Woody’s greatest one-liners (“I don’t want to move to a city where the only cultural advantage is being able to make a right turn on a red light”), there are also moments of great drama and depth. I know “Star Wars” nuts think that their film got robbed. I understand that it was a ground-breaking film and changed the way movies were made. When a comedy wins, most don’t find it deserving. I like “Star Wars” very much, but to me, it looks a bit dated now and perhaps that’s because special effects has grown by leaps and bounds. I just know “Annie Hall” (which I believe is his 2nd greatest movie) will be looked at as one of cinema’s greatest comedies decades from now. It also doesn’t sell out at the end and gives a realistic portrayal of a relationship gone sour. I can watch this anytime, anywhere…so it makes the list.

8. Terms of Endearment (dir. James L. Brooks, 1983)

I think James L. Brooks is one of the finest, most clever screenwriters we have and there are usually about 10 classic lines in each of his best works. Here, after years of writing successfully for television, he made his directorial debut and, after winning 5 Oscars, has become a modern-day classic. I know many poo-poo this movie, though I am not sure why. Perhaps because it is overly sentimental and falls under the genre of “tear-jerker,” but I think that’s just silly. It’s a beautifully woven story with rich and fascinating characters. I love that it always makes me cry when Emma (Debra Winger) has to say good-bye to her two sons or when her mother Aurora (Shirley MacLaine) is screaming for someone to help medicate her daughter. The chemistry between Jack Nicholson (as the vain ex-astronaut turned playboy, Garrett) and MacLaine is so strong and they are simply a delight to watch. Their first date is one of the great screen dates and Jack gets to do his thing throughout, which is enjoyable to watch. But even he goes through a maturation process that leaves the viewer quite moved. The core of this film however, rests in the mother-daughter relationship, which is funny, conflicting, heart-breaking…the stuff of real life. Brooks gets top supporting performances from a young Jeff Daniels (what a cad!), Danny DeVito, and John Lithgow. The movie strikes the ideal balance between comedy and drama and flows into one another so effortlessly. I find this to be such a charming, slice-of-life film. You’ve heard the old adage, “I laughed, I cried.” Each time I watch this movie, I find it to be the epitome of that very saying.

7. Schindler’s List (dir. Steven Spielberg, 1993)

Simply put, a glorious piece of filmmaking. Splendid cinematography by Janusz Kaminski, a stirring score by John Williams and Michael Kahn’s adept editing help create this engaging and important work of art. I have not read the Keneally book (though most of my students have), but Steven Zaillian’s screenplay brings this chilling and inspiring true story to life in such a skilled, crafted way. There are many films focused on the Holocaust, and though this may not be my favorite one, it is surely the one that most people point to as being the quintessential “Holocaust film.” Liam Neeson plays Oskar Schindler, who starts off as a vain and avaricious businessman who uses the Jews as cheap labor to start a factory in Poland during WW II. Slowly, he begins to see first-hand, the horrors endured by the Jews and begins a quest in trying to save as many lives as possible. In the end, he composes a list of over 1,100 Jewish people who he rescued from death. I know there is a lot of praise & glorification being thrown around throughout this list, but that is because these are 10 magnificent films that stand out among literally thousands. Here is one statement though that is in no way hyperbole — Ralph Fiennes, in bringing to life Amon Goeth, created (in my estimation) the most vile screen villain ever put on film. In Goeth, we witness the true evil a human being is capable of. He is terrifying, unpredictable and oh-so genuine. He wants so desperately to be admired and liked as Schindler is; the way he looks at himself in the mirror, the clumsy manner in which he tries to “pardon” a Jew that he so desperately wants to kill, the blunt manner in which he shoots another human being…Fiennes does it all with impeccable authenticity. The film didn’t have much competition that year, but I don’t think it really matters. No matter what movies were released that year, Spielberg’s movie (winner of 7 Oscars) was taking home the grand prize…it’s that remarkable an achievement.

6. The Deer Hunter (dir. Michael Cimino, 1978)

One of the great war films ever made, Cimino’s epic examines the lives of three close friends, all working-class factory workers in Pennsylvania, who decide to enlist in the Army during the Vietnam War. Before they go, Steven (John Savage) marries his pregnant girlfriend and the first act of the film shows us the wedding, which also serves as a farewell party for the bridegroom and his friends Michael (Robert DeNiro) and Nick (Christopher Walken). I know many people to find this part of the film to be a bit slow and lengthy, but I take the glass-half-full approach and say that Cimino and screenwriter Deric Washburn do an incredible job in developing their 3-dimensional characters. Plus, a lot of what is here is essential when you get further into the movie. The second act picks up and we are thrust into a prisoner-of-war camp where the three friends are detained in nightmarish conditions. The final act shows the horrific effects that war has on people and their surroundings. The film is graphic, daring, sincere and deeply affecting. Wonderful performances all around. A young Meryl Streep is so good here (a real shock, right?); sometimes she doesn’t even speak a line and we know exactly what she is thinking. This is also when DeNiro and Walken weren’t just cashing in checks and really immersed themselves in their craft — and both are spectacular here. A shell-shocked Walken in the hospital trying to answer what his name is — or those haunting Russian roulette scenes are images that I have yet to forget since I first watched this film. “The Deer Hunter” shows us a quaint small town in America, the merciless horrors of war and the daunting effects that it has on the people who served and those who are close to them. A 5-time Oscar winner (beating out “Midnight Express“), it remains one of the most powerful films ever made.

5. On the Waterfront (dir. Elia Kazan, 1954)

Winner of 8 Academy Awards, “On the Waterfront” is one of the great American film ever made. Having been nominated for “Best Actor” the previous three years, Marlon Brando finally won his first Oscar in his fourth consecutive year being nominated playing Terry Malloy, an ex-prizefighter turned longshoreman who witnesses a murder and struggles with himself to stand up to a corrupt union boss (a terrific Lee J. Cobb). Watching Brando’s transformation of this character is something to behold. Like something out of an Arthur Miller play, Budd Schulberg’s screenplay is authentic, powerful and enduring. On top of the flawless performance by Brando, Rod Steiger, Karl Malden and Eva Marie Saint turn in moving performances as well. The controversial film does not seem to have aged at all either, though the politics of the time may not be the same as today, especially in the aftermath of HUAC and Kazan’s highly publicized “naming of names. It has been said that Brando didn’t even want to work with Kazan after he named names of some of his close friends. Thank God he did do this. Close friends and collaborators, Miller and Kazan always wanted to do a film together covering the corruption on the docks – but never got to after HUAC. Miller did “The Crucible” and here, Kazan answers back with a statement of his own in this brilliant piece of filmmaking.

4. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (dir. Milos Forman, 1975)

Milos Forman’s powerful, disturbing and, at times, humorous film is a brilliant adaptation of the Ken Kesey novel.  Jack Nicholson has been outstanding in so many roles, but this may be his very best work to date. Here, he plays the rebellious Randle P. McMurphy who is serving time at a state mental hospital and instantly tries to challenge all authority. In doing so, he tries to recruit the other patients to take on the dictatorial rule of Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher) who is more despot than nurse. Every time he tries to have a little harmless fun (playing cards, watching the World Series), he is stopped by this oppressive woman. This film is a modern classic, featuring great supporting performances by Danny DeVito, Christopher Lloyd, Ted Markland, and Vincent Schiavelli. Brad Dourif is painful to watch as Billy Bibbit who is terrified of Nurse Ratched and the haunting image of his mother (who we never see). Fletcher is perfect in this role and creates one of cinema’s most despicable characters ever. Every note she hits is just right and her toe-to-toe scenes with Nicholson are akin to watching two heavyweights battle it out. McMurphy’s scenes with Chief Bromdom are also a treat to watch. The symbolism of McMurphy as a Christ-like figure, though more perceptible in the novel, are still quite evident here, albeit in more subtle fashion. What starts out as McMurphy trying to get out of work and prison by pretending to be insane, slowly morphs into something dark, perverse and terribly unsettling as he begins to win over the patients one by one. Forman manages to hit so many notes here, and just when things seem to be jubilant and hopeful, it all crashes down and your stomach is in knots. The film had pretty fierce competition for the “Best Picture” prize and was the first to win the 5 ‘major’ Oscar awards since 1934 and in viewing it, you can easily see why.

3. The Godfather (dir. Francis Ford Coppola, 1972)

This could just as easily be #1 on this list as I find it the second best film ever made. Coppola’s masterpiece lost out to “Cabaret” in a number of categories, but thankfully, it took home the one Oscar that mattered. Marlon Brando, back at the top of his game. Exceptional performances by Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton, James Caan, and Talia Shire. The coming out of Al Pacino, playing one of the most complex characters in movie history in Michael Corleone, the dutiful war-hero son turn immoral Don. I have seen this film more times than I care to mention and it never gets dull to me for a second. A young Coppola handles this film with such subtlety and such grace, showing audiences the inner workings of a mafia family before “The Sopranos” and others of its ilk romanticized it to the point of being cartoonish and false. The Corleone family, on the other hand, rings quite authentic. The transformation of Michael is mesmerizing to watch; Brando meeting with the heads of the five families after declaring that the war stops here; the infamous horse head under the sheets; Carlo finally paying for Sonny…I can go on and on with another thirty or forty moments and it won’t be enough. An iconic film score, a great screenplay adaptation and glorious cinematography by the legendary Gordon Willis help make this a film you simply can’t refuse.

2. Gone With the Wind (dir. Victor Fleming, 1939)

I watch this film and cannot believe that this was made 71 years ago. What a gorgeous piece of filmmaking this is – a grand achievement on such an epic scale. When you think of “classic” films, this must surely be one of them. And still, to this day, it remains the #1 box-office success when you adjust for inflation (besting “Star Wars,” “E.T.,” and “Titanic” among others). Here, we are given Vivien Leigh in one of film’s most iconic roles, doing a masterful job as Scarlett O’Hara. We witness her epic tale through one of the most turbulent periods in this nation’s history. She is truly one of cinema’s most enduring characters, as she goes through so many transformations in her life – and Leigh pulls it all off seamlessly. On top of her duties to the Tara plantation, we watch the love story between her and Rhett Butler (Clark Gable), an immortal story in itself. The film gives us so many classic lines that we all know by heart and never ceases to feel new and timely. Many would probably put this as #1, and I couldn’t call them crazy. On top of being such a fantastic film, look at the competition it beat out in 1939! I don’t think there has been a stronger list of nominees since: “Stagecoach,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “Dark Victory, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and “Of Mice and Men” are just a few and these are all unbelievably great movies. What do they say? “They don’t make ’em like they used to.” Sometimes I think they’re right.

1. The Godfather: Part II (dir. Francis Ford Coppola, 1974)

For my money, the finest American film ever made. How many sequels can you say are just-as-good if not better than the first? Not many at all. I believe this one actually outdoes the masterpiece released in 1972 (though by only a very slim margin). It also beat out stiff competition that year with terrific films such as “Chinatown,” “Lenny” and “The Conversation.” I love the backstory of young Vito Andolini coming to Ellis Island and his rise to becoming Don Corleone which includes the assassination of Don Fanucci. The Little Italy scenes showing us a mesmerizing Robert DeNiro (as the young Don) taking on all of the subtle nuances of Brando are a pleasure to watch. Meanwhile, we watch as the character of Michael (Al Pacino in perhaps his greatest performance) sinks deeper and deeper into the bowels of evil, while tightening the grip on his crime family in Las Vegas. Coppola had so much to lose here, but more than delivers and the performances again, are extraordinary. The late John Cazale gets more screen-time as Fredo (poor Fredo – “I know it was you, Fredo. You broke my heart”), the legendary acting teacher Lee Strasberg makes his screen debut as Hyman Roth, and we are also given terrific supporting performances from Michael Gazzo and Bruno Kirby. A wonderful job of storytelling here and I catch something new each time I watch it. This was a no-brainer #1 for me because I haven’t seen a better film so far and thankfully, it took home 6 Oscars, including “Best Picture.”

P.S. — My apologies to “Midnight Cowboy,” “All About Eve,” “Braveheart” and “From Here to Eternity” — all remarkable 4-star films in my book and all deserving of winning the coveted Best Picture Oscar. As I said in my intro, I wish there was room for all of them. I just couldn’t omit the ten that you see above.

The Top 10 Films of 2009 Ranked by Peter Eramo


2009 was a relatively weak year for films. Unfortunately, I don’t get paid to be a film critic (not yet anyway) so I don’t see eveything that comes out. Though I did manage to view 125+ films for the year — I try and stay away from the “safe bets” guaranteed to be crap like “The Proposal” or “The Land of the Lost” or “The Ugly Truth” and focus on the ones that look as if they are worth my time and money. There was not a stand-out phenomenal film this past year…no modern-day classic to speak of. Hopefully, 2010 brings us a better crop in the months ahead.

In any case, here is my list of the Top 10 films from 2009, complete with a list of honorable mentions that are also all solid films. At the bottom of each post is a link to view the official trailers in case you’d like to give it a peek. Give it a read, and as always, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject…what do you feel I omitted, what film am I nuts for including, where was I actually (dare I say) right on the money?

10. Fantastic Mr. Fox (dir. Wes Anderson)

Featuring the voices of George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Michael Gambon, Bill Murray, Willem Dafoe, among others, this was certainly the best animated film of the year, without a doubt. And don’t give me “Up”…please. Based on the story by Roald Dahl, this film was pure enjoyment to watch — as well as being uproariously funny. For a full review on this film, click on this link.

9. Sunshine Cleaning (dir. Christine Jeffs)

A charming, poignant and offbeat indie film from the producers behind the Cinderella film, “Little Miss Sunshine.” This film revolves around the relationship between Rose (Amy Adams) and Norah (Emily Blunt), two sisters who are leading completely unfulfilling lives — but manage to set up shop and start their own business…crime-scene clean-up! Once upon a time, Amy had her whole future ahead of her when she was a popular cheerleader in high school dating the star football player. Now she is a single mom with a young son and though she still sees that same football player (Steve Zahn), it is nothing more than an illicit, thankless affair since he has married another.

The film focuses on Amy putting her foot down and getting her life in order, but it also does a terrific job at exploring the relationship between the two diverse sisters. Emily Blunt (who is just adorable to watch anywhere, anytime) is incredibly effective here — the hard-as-nails, pot-smoking aunt on the outside, but underneath, we see that she is simply vulnerable and frightened. Alan Arkin is great (no shocker) as their dad and his scenes with his precocious grandson are very humorous. Though it is not laugh-out-loud funny, there are some terribly funny moments here, especially as the gals start going out on jobs cleaning up shackled homes of people who have just committed suicide. When Rose is asked by one of her friends (who apparently has actually made something of her life) if she actually likes her grotesque job, she responds, quite philosophically, somewhat appropos: “Yeah. I do. We come into people’s lives when they have experienced something profound – and sad. And they’ve lost somebody. And the circumstances, they’re always different. But that’s the same. And we help. In some small way, we help.” A bittersweet film, with a genuine and effective script and authentic performances all-around, this one was too enjoyable for me not to include here.
*To watch the trailer for “Sunshine Cleaning,” click here

8. A Serious Man (dir. Joel and Ethan Coen)

I’m not sure I would recommend this film to someone unfamiliar with the ouevre of the brilliant work of the Coen brothers, but to me, it surely ranks as one of their stronger films and is most similar in style and tone to their masterpiece, “Barton Fink.” It is certainly their most universal — and most Jewish film to date. Not a full-out comedy like “The Big Lebowski” or “Raising Arizona,” but filled with much of the dark humor that has been a staple in nearly all of their films. This is a very mature, intelligent work with skilled art direction, use of music, and a helluva image to use as the film’s final shot. No big stars in this film at all, which I think was a bold, smart choice. Rarely do these guys make a wrong turn (well, there was “Intolerable Cruelty,” but so what…one bad turn).

The film is set in 1967 and revolves around the relatively simple life of college professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg). He lives in a world of formulas and certainty, but many times, the world around us doesn’t follow rules or certainty. Ironically, he teaches the Theory of Uncertainty, but really doesn’t grasp its concepts beyond the mathematics. His whole world is coming down around him and he merely seeks answers as to why and the film focuses on Gopnik trying to cope with all the chaos that is swarming around him.

Amazing performances by a relatively unknown cast. Michael Stuhlbarg was certainly snubbed of a Best Actor Oscar nomination here as the film is all on his shoulders and he does a wonderful job as our modern-day Job. Richard Kind is great as Larry’s bizarre brother, and Fred Melamud plays Sy, the man who is having an affair with Larry’s wife. Melamud is perfect casting here…a seemingly perfect gentleman on the surface, but what a slimeball this guy is! A top-notch screenplay and careful, astute direction (as always), I cannot wait to give this movie another viewing. Like all of the films made by the Coen Brothers, there is always something new to catch and one gains a greater appreciation for the movie as a whole. A clever, dark, and honest film.
*To watch the trailer for “A Serious Man,” click here

7. (500) Days of Summer (dir. Marc Webb)

Viewers of this film are warned even before the credits even roll that “This is Not A Love Story,” so those who may enjoy the typical formulated, predictable romantic-comedies (can anyone say Hugh Grant, Drew Barrymore, Sandra Bullock) may be disappointed here. It tells the story of Tom Hansen (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) as he reflects back on his relationship with Summer (Zooey Deschanel). The fresh and creative script jumps us back and forth in time through the (500) days of their bi-polar relationship and director Marc Webb uses some amusing techniques (split screens, animation, a hokey/cute musical dance number set to Hall & Oates) throughout to show the viewers how Tom is experiencing things. He is head over heels in love with the quirky and independent Summer – Tom fully believes that she is the one. The only problem is that Summer doesn’t believe in long relationships or in love – she feels that life will always get in the way. Tom seeks advice and guidance from his two best friends, but most of all from his little sister Rachel (Chloe Moretz).

Despite the forewarning we are given, “(500) Days of Summer” is love story. There is no way around it. It may not be the typical love story — or follow the conventional “love story” plot devices, but this is a wonderful departure from all of that and that is what makes this film a breath of fresh air. Gordon-Levitt (excellent in “The Lookout“) is very natural here, very soft-spoken as Tom, the greeting card writer who aspires to become an architecht — and who is desperately trying to win over the woman he loves so passionately. Deschanel is a joy to watch. She is not your typical leading lady at all, but there is something about her that keeps your eyes glued to her every move. She’s got that hypnotic sing-song voice and of course, is lovely to look at – we can see and understand why Tom is bitten so hard here. Their chemistry here seemed very natural throughout. I could not believe the film was snubbed of all Oscar categories, especially for Original Screenplay. But it remains one of the stronger, more creative romantic-comedies (too bad guys…it is one) in recent years and surely one of 2009’s very best.
*To watch the trailer for “(500) Days of Summer,” click here

6. Watchmen (dir. Zack Snyder)

I could not believe how much I enjoyed and how overly impressed I was with this unique superhero film. I am not a reader of graphic novels and knew nothing about this particular one written by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, so I went in completely blind. Unlike most films of its genre, “The Watchmen” is highly stylized, dark, and cynical, containing much more material for adults than teens (in themes, graphic violence and sex/nudity). What I also enjoyed (and was surprised by, quite frankly) was the moral questions that the film raises and tries to answer. I enjoyed this film more than “The Dark Knight” and almost any other superhero film I have seen.

The film is set in an alternative 1985, with Richard Nixon in his fourth term as U.S. president, the Cold War raging on and superheroes are banned from using their powers despite the constant threat of a nuclear war. After one of the masked members of the Watchmen group is murdered, an investigation (initiated by the memorable Rorschach character) follows and with it, a far deeper plot that the heroes must combat.

The film is so beautifully stylized, with tremendous visual effects and art direction. How this film wasn’t nominated in a handful of the technical Oscar categories still escapes me. And though it is high in budget, there still has a feel of art-house in it. The soundtrack is phenomenal, as it cleverly incorporates some classic rock tunes by Leonard Cohen, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel, Janis Joplin, among others. Jackie Earle Haley steals the show as Rorschach, but Billy Crudup (Dr. Manhattan), Patrick Wilson (Nite Owl) and Jeffrey Dean Morgan (The Comedian) are all great here. I remember before its release, a film-blogging friend was a bit worried about the movie because he absolutely loved the graphic novel and was a loyal follower of it. He was so overly impressed with it, I think he went at least 8 times in the theatre to screen it. He told me how faithful it was to the novel and that it far exceeded any expectations he had going in…and this is from a guy who is an avid follower of the literature. Again, I went in “blind” and loved it as well.
*To watch the trailer for “Watchmen,” click here

5. Das Weisse Band or The White Ribbon (dir. Michael Haneke)

A magnificent cinematic achievement, “The White Ribbon” takes place in a small, rural town in Germany during 1913-1914. reminiscient of Bergman’s masterpiece “Fanny and Alexander” in some ways,Haneke’s film explores the darkness of man and foreshadows the darkness of what is to come in Germany in the years that follow. A number of peculiar, horrific crimes/acts occur in this small village and the mystery abounds as to who is responsible for them. But Haneke is not concerned with solving this mystery as much as he is trying to illustrate the brutality that exists in both adults and children. Filmed in gorgeous black-and-white, the white ribbon of the title suggests an innocence which has been lost and possibly the looming apparition of facsism; the small community, an analogy for a world on the brink of war.

The performances here are extraordinary. Though the pacing may be slow to some, it is a riveting drama exploring character and the hypocrisy of domestic and religious values. Yes, there are moments that are rather difficult to watch (in the best way possible), but they surely serve a greater purpose. Haunting, profound, potent and altogether human, “The White Ribbon” is a triumph of a film.
*To watch a trailer for “The White Ribbon,” click here

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

You’re probably laughing at me right now, wondering why in the world is this film included here, let alone ranked so high on the list itself. Is it a higher cinematic achievement than “The White Ribbon” or “A Serious Man“? Probably not, I would agree. But my reasoning here is quite simple — pure enjoyment! Comedies are always overshadowed by their big brothers – the more serious dramas and “arthouse” films on these kinds of Top 10 lists. I did not want to fall victim to that. But that is not the only reason I include this film. It was just too damn funny, too damn smart and too damn fine a film.

The film is set in a 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. 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 desribes what Heaven is truly like. Everyone 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 (although “Tropic Thunder” is right up there as well). I was constantly reminded of the better films of Albert Brooks and Woody Allen throughout. Gervais gives an endearing, hilarious performance here 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 (which I won’t spoil here) and execllent supporting work from Rob Lowe, Tina Fey, and Jonah Hill. Gervais is certainly making a name for himself here in the States — I only hope that people begin to recognize that this is a major force in comedy right now — not only is this one downright hilarious, but on top of that, has a heart to match.
*To watch the trailer for “Invention of Lying” click here

3. Inglourious Basterds (dir. Quentin Tarantino)

Well, one thing is for certain…this film is unlike any other war film you have ever seen. That’s for damn sure. The film reeks of Tarantino dialogue, plot twists, homages to the spaghetti westerns and French New Wave cinema — as well as the dark humor that has been a trademark of his since his debut with “Reservoir Dogs.” I went in really not wanting to like it (as I’m not the biggest fan of his), but I could not deny what an excellent film he helmed here.

We are in Nazi-occupied France during World War II and a platoon of Jewish American soldiers are enlisted to spread fear throughout Hitler’s Third Reich…they have one mission — to kill and skin the heads of us many Nazis as they possibly can. The Basterds are headed by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), a Southern American with a thick accent and passion for killing Nazis. The other part of the film focuses on Jewish refugee Shosanna Dreyfus (a very impressive Melanie Laurent), who is plotting her revenge several years later after witnessing the slaughtering of her family. The first scene of the film itself (a long, fascinating scene) keeps you glued to the edge of your seat…Tarantino does a brilliant job of building the suspense here with effective use of editing, exceptional dialogue and the masterful performance of Christoph Waltz (Col. Hans Landa) who steals the film and has created one of film’s very best villains, wholly deserving of his Best Supporting Actor Oscar win. Waltz is unbelievable and is at his most evil when there is a smile across his face.

There is hardly a dull moment here and when you are thinking one thing is going to happen, you find that you are wrong and something else does. Pitt is fine here with his deadpan delivery and is actually quite funny. Great use of color, set design and photography, this is a film that builds from the very first scene and never lets up. Yes, it is not at all historically accurate, but Tarantino knows that and he also knows his business is to entertain….he does that here in spades.
*To watch the trailer for “Inglourious Basterds” click here

2. Up in the Air (dir. Jason Reitman)

An American film that does such an interesting, on-the-mark job of conveying modern American values and the historical unemployment recession that has fallen on us these recent years. Jason Reitman wrote/directed the utterly brilliant “Thank You for Smoking” and the tad over-rated “Juno,” but rebounds nicely with this superb script which makes for a highly pleasing film and one of the year’s very best.

Ryan Bingham’s (George Clooney) job is to fire people from theirs. He spends nearly his entire life living out of a suitcase, going from airport to airport and hotel to hotel – and he loves every minute of it. He has almost no connections in his life – not even his family. The firm takes on young Natalie (Anna Kendrink) who has come up with a method of firing these poor schleps via video conferencing, thereby threatening Ryan’s way of living — his way of being. He takes her under his tutelage on one of his cross-country firing sprees and as the brash Natalie begins to see the actual pain and suffering she is causing real people with real families, Ryan is beinning to discover a lot more about himself. Along the way, we follow the relationship between Ryan and Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), a fellow corporate traveler. The two try and meet up as often as their schedules will allow and Ryan begins to feel that perhaps he may want more from Alex than just sex in a different hotel room each time.

The script in itself is a great achievement. I’m still angered that it did not capture the Best Original Screenplay Oscar as it most certainly deserved it. The performances, all solid. Clooney is perfect as Ryan Bingham – he is confident, charming, quick-witted and at times, vulnerable…in other words, he does his “Clooney thing” – he can do this in his sleep. Vera Farmiga is wonderful here and in one scene in particular (she’s in her car alone), you just want to smack her. Jason Bateman also has a strong supporting role as Bingham’s boss – a clever bit of casting here. “Up in the Air” is a timely film, a well-made film and most of all, a very, very enjoyable film. Reitman is really building up quite a nice resume here and I am anxious to see what he gives us next.
*to watch the trailer for “Up in the Air” click here

1. District 9 (dir. Neill Blomkamp)

I am in no way a science-fiction film. But it is so much more than that. I was not expecting to enjoy this movie as much as I did and though it came out relatively early in 2009, it never lost its ranking as what I perceived as the best motion picture of the year. The onset of the film has an authentic docu-drama look and feel to it, but as the film builds, it morphs into sci-fi character drama and finally, a police thriller. And all the while, it never loses its sense of realism, nor do we ever not believe in any of the characters or their choices.

An extraterrestrial race is forced to live in slum-like conditions in Johannesburg — a refugee-camp where humans refer to them as “prawns” as they exploit and abuse these creatures since they arrived on Earth in 1982. Now it is 2010 and Multi-National United, a munitions corporation is forcing the eviction of these aliens from District 9 to a new camp. The man in charge of the operation is Wilus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley). At first quite clumsy and a somewhat silly authoritative figure, van der Merwe is suddenly exposed to a strange alien chemical and must now rely on his new prawn friends to save his own life as his human family and friends begin to turn on him.

The analogies in the film (apartheid, Guantanamo Bay) are evident, but it doesn’t hit you over the head or insult the viewer. The relatively unknown Copley gives an outstanding performance here and the visual effects are top-notch even though it’s not technically a high-budget film. What makes “District 9” such a remarkable film is its excellent work of character, its sense of authenticity, crisp editing, great action sequences (especially the last 20 minutes or so) and the way it makes you sympathize and feel for the aliens. The very last shot in itself is a memorable, chilling one. A powerful, intelligent, and moving film on a whole. This is Blomkamp’s first major film (produced by Peter Jackson) and he has delivered a near-masterpiece of a film that I think will be remembered for years to come…the best to come out in 2009!
*to watch the trailer for “District 9” click here.

HIGHLY HONORABLE MENTIONS
Though they did not crack the Top 10 list, here is a brief listing of some other excellent films that came out last year that I would surely recommend. They are, in no particular order:

Sin Nombre (dir. Cary Fukunaga)
Funny People (dir. Judd Apatow)
The Cove (dir. Louie Psihoyos)
Julia (dir. Erick Zonca)
Management (dir. Stephen Belber)
The Road (dir. John Hillcoat)
The Last Station (dir. Michael Hoffman)
Crazy Heart (dir. Scott Cooper)
The Great Buck Howard (dir. Sean McGinly)

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The Top 10 Films of Woody Allen

He’s been directing films since 1969 (debuting with the hysterically funny “Take the Money & Run“) — about 40 in all. Some are modern-day classics, some very good, others not so great, and then there are those handful of films that were, well, just hard to stomach. I have remained a loyal, ardent fan of his short stories, plays and films for years. When there is a new Woody Allen film, I will most surely go out and pay my $10 to see it. Here is (for better or worse) my Top 10 Woody Allen Films of All-Time; a very difficult list to put together, I assure you. I desperately tried to squeak “Deconstructing Harry” or “Take the Money…” in there, but alas, ten spots goes pretty quickly. All ten films are outstanding in their own ways. Give it a read — and please make sure to let me know what you think…where you agree, where I was led astray and anything else you might like to add. Your comments are always welcome. Enjoy!

10. SWEET AND LOWDOWN (1999)

In my opinion, the last film of Woody’s that I can actually classify as “great.” A great mix of comedy and drama in this one with Sean Penn in the lead role as Emmet Ray, the world’s second greatest guitar player behind Django Reinhardt. Unlike most actors who take on the male lead when Woody takes a backseat, Penn does his own thing; not becoming the typical Woody-archetype (the perfect example being Kenneth Branagh basically mimicking Woody throughout the dreadful “Celebrity“) – and he is nothing less than sensational, giving one of his best performances in a career filled with so much strong work. In Emmet Ray, Penn creates a despicable, immature, conceited, narcissistic, rude human being who cares about nothing but his music – and Django Reinhardt. When he meets Hattie, a mute, simple gal, his life is turned upside down. As Hattie, Samantha Morton breaks your heart. She is simply adorable here and without saying one word through the entire film, earned a well-deserved Oscar nomination. She matches Penn in each scene they share merely with her body language and facial reactions. Two great actors here and it is so enjoyable (though at times painful because of how Ray treats her) to watch.

The music used throughout the film is sensational – one of Woody’s best compilations. I never get tired of the soundtrack. Another period piece, the look and feel (from art direction to costumes) is wholly authentic. A smart, insightful script by Allen. In the end, this comedic “biography” plays out like a tragedy. One of the definitions of the tragic hero is that he/she brings about his/her own downfall. Here, we watch as Emmet Ray does just that. And as miserable as he is, we still have compassion for him throughout – a testament to the work of Sean Penn here under Woody’s subtle direction. It is tough to make a top ten list of Woody’s films without trying to make a spot for this winning film.

9. INTERIORS (1978)

Following the phenomenal success that was “Annie Hall” came this film, Woody’s first entirely dramatic film, sans any humor really at all. In fact, during a dinner scene when the characters are all laughing at a joke, we never even get to hear the actual joke. Another note: this is the first film Allen directed in which he did not act in at all.

Of all his films, this is the one that most resembles that of Ingmar Bergman – in theme, story and how it is shot (by his longtime collaborator, Gordon Willis). The entire film takes on a very somber, pragmatic aura. Arthur (E.G. Marshall) decides to leave his overbearing wife (Geraldine Page). The three daughters must now come to terms with this as they also come to terms with their own lives and their own relationships with one another. The family is an artistic one: one daughter is an actress, the other a successful writer and the third, is trying desperately to find her artistic niche. Diane Keaton, Mary Beth Hurt and Kristin Griffith play the trio of sisters. Geraldine Page as Eve sparkles in this very demanding role of the matriarch of this dysfunctional family. She is the nucleus of this film. Maureen Stapleton is great comic relief (if you can call it that) and she brings great life and color to this otherwise bland, upper-class, eastern Long Island existence.

Though nominated for 5 Oscars, the film is not for everybody. In fact, I would only recommend this one to devout fans of Woody Allen. I surely wouldn’t cite this film for someone to watch if he/she was just starting to view his films. I look at this particular work and appreciate, admire and enjoy it. After churning out those “early, funny” movies, this was quite a daring move. And the performances here are bold and strong. I admit, I need to be in a certain mood to watch this one, but it does truly stand out as one of his finest, most mature efforts.

8. LOVE AND DEATH (1975)

Classic early Woody Allen comedy and one-liners here. Filmed mostly in Hungary, the film revolves around the ultimate coward, Boris Grushenko (Woody Allen) being forced to enlist to save his country from an invasion by Napoleon himself. Most improbably, Boris becomes a war hero and he may now finally make for an ideal partner for Sonja, the woman of his dreams (Diane Keaton), who always preferred his brother Ivan to him. The film is filled with timeless banter between Keaton and Allen here – such a pleasure to watch. When Sonja finally relents to Boris’s proposals, she convinces him to help her assassinate the French dictator.

In addition to some very clear references to Ingmar Bergman’s Persona” (the camera angles of various close-ups during the infamous “Wheat” scene) and Dostoyevsky’s works, Woody is his hilarious, incompetent, psycho-babble self. When the Countess tells him he is the greatest lover she has ever had, Boris deadpans, “Well, I practice a lot when I am alone.” Nothing cracks you up like a primo masturbation joke. The blithe music of Prokofiev works well here and the script harkens back to Allen’s earlier prose tackling such subjects as love, loyalty, fear of death, honor, and morality (“If it turns out that there IS a God, I don’t think that he’s evil. I think that the worst you can say about him is that basically he’s an underachiever”). Like his prose, Allen manages to face such profound themes by way of slapstick and comedy. A wonderful comedy and a pleasure to watch anytime.

7. THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO (1985)

Woody has said on a number of occasions that this was his personal favorite of all his movies. If nothing else, it may certainly be the most original and compelling, simply for the premise alone: Set in New Jersey during the Great Depression, Cecilia (Mia Farrow) needs an escape. An escape from her tedious job as a waitress and from her abusive husband, Monk (a nasty Danny Aiello). She goes to the movies. Here she sees the handsome and enchanting Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels) in the film “The Purple Rose of Cairo.” She goes again and again until one day…Tom just walks off the screen – and into Cecilia’s life. There is a problem though: Tom is not…you know, real! While Cecilia and Tom begin their own fascinating relationship, Hollywood execs are furious as they discover that Tom Baxters across the country are leaving their own movie screens. This is amazing stuff — what more can you ask for?!

Woody’s period pieces always feel quite authentic and this one is no exception. He has always written wonderful, 3-dimensional dialogue for women – again, this film does not disappoint. Jeff Daniels plays the 1930’s movie star with pizzazz, dignity and good humor. Things really get interesting when he begins to realize that this very real world is different than the imaginary one he just escaped from. There is also some very funny banter between the characters on screen waiting to see if Tom will return to them so they can get on with their own (movie within a) movie. An ingenious screenplay with a tremendous heart, this one goes right at #7, though I can fully understand why Woody himself places it at the apex of all his work.

6. BROADWAY DANNY ROSE (1984)

There are the films known as Woody’s old, ridiculous comedies (“Sleeper,” “Bananas,” “Everything You Always wanted to Know About Sex…” etc.). Then he began getting a bit more dramatic. And then he went back to full-out comedy with this delightful and uproarious black-and-white film. Now for many, you either love Woody’s humor or you don’t. Not much room in between. He certainly is an “acquired taste” and has his own style/brand of humor. But if you like his comedy and haven’t seen this one yet – do yourself a favor and go rent it…now!

Woody plays Danny Rose, a very unsuccessful talent agent with a heart of gold. He goes above and beyond for his bizarre list of clientele. His one big client is Lou Canova (Nick Apollo Forte), who stays with Danny more out of loyalty than anything else. Canova hasn’t been big for quite some time, but now has a chance of making a tremendous comeback that would pay off for both. He asks Danny Rose to do him a huge favor…make sure his mistress Tina (Mia Farrow) is there to see him perform at a very important concert. Canova is married, so Danny and Tina must play off like they lovers. What happens from there is great comedy from Woody – original and warm…downright hilarious stuff. This makes the final scenes between Tina and Danny so effective…it really does hit you in the gut.

Woody’s comedic acting chops shine here. And Farrow, as the Italian broad is equal to the task. Woody has made a career out of playing the “loser” type who is down on his luck. Danny Rose is the epitome of this model, but we sympathize with this character 100%. The Thanksgiving Day dinner scene is a sad, tender one. His advice to his pathetic clients is classic Woody and him trying to get them work is even more hilarious. When trying to get a booking for an unimpressive client, Danny says, “My hand to God, she’s gonna be at Carnegie Hall. But you – I’ll let you have her now at the old price, OK? Which is anything you wanna give me. Anything at all.” Great stuff.

The film though belongs to the adventure that Tina and Danny go through. The helium balloon scene by itself is classic. In a new age of comedy films (either Judd Apatow, teen comedy flicks, Tyler Perry, et al), none of them measure up to this comedic classic…not to me at least. This stands as one of Woody’s best.

5. HUSBANDS AND WIVES (1992)

In the wake of Woody’s well-publicized scandal of a break-up with longtime companion Mia Farrow came this harsh, raw and wonderful film in 1992. Woody has admitted that he wanted to break the traditional rules of filmmaking here and he does so, using hand-held cameras, breaking up scenes in the middle of dialogue and not caring one way or another if the camera was on the front, side or back of the head of a particular character on screen. It does have the style and feel of a pseudo-documentary, complete with narration given by the film’s costume designer, Jeffrey Kurland.

The film opens with Sally and Jack (Judy Davis and Sydney Pollack) announcing to their best friends Gabe and Judy (Woody and Mia Farrow) that they are separating. Jack has taken a much younger lover who may be too much too handle for Jack – and yes, perhaps a little too dumb as well. Judy is way too highbrow for this sort of thing, but she does try to get back out in the dating world once again, even if her prime years are long behind her. Gabe and Judy have the seemingly perfect marriage at the film’s onset. But Allen here delves into and analyzes the long-term effects of being with the same person for years on end. And if you are aware of his works, you know that it won’t end well. Gabe is a college professor and he is soon tempted by a young, fawning, overly-sexed student (Juliette Lewis) that threatens to break up Gabe’s stable world.

I loved this film. I loved how Allen shot it, though many have told me that the constant camera movement made them somewhat nauseous. All of the actors are at the top of their games here. I am not a Mia Farrow fan at all and never thought she made much of an ingénue for Allen (unlike the ever-stronger Diane Keaton) throughout the course of their longtime collaboration, but here she does an admirable job. The wonderful filmmaker Sydney Pollack is very strong here and is quite natural in front of the camera, at odds with his wife and opening up to his close friend, Gabe. Juliette Lewis plays Rain with a very Lolita-like air and is a natural for the role (though she was not Allen’s initial choice). Liam Neeson has a great supporting role here too – he is low-key, polite, charming and stuck in the middle of the chaos that surrounds both Sally and Judy.

This film is unlike most in Allen’s canon of films and that is part of the reason I find it such a great watch. He doesn’t stray from familiar ground very often, so when he does, I am excited for the freshness of it all. Sometimes it doesn’t work. Sometimes, as in this instance, it certainly does.

4. HANNAH AND HER SISTERS (1986)

Woody has said that he was re-reading Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” and was inspired to write this marvelous, enjoyable film. The film spans one full year, opening on Thanksgiving Day and closes at a dinner party on the very same day. I know Woody always manages to recruit an all-star cast, but of all his films, this one feels most like an ensemble film, with no one really taking the lead, but everyone playing an integral role in the story – and doing a damn fine job of it as well (including Michael Caine and Dianne Weist who each won a Supporting Actor Oscar for their respective roles here). Caine is amusing as the conflicted & unscrupulous Elliot, who cheats on his wife – with her sister Lee (Barabara Hershey) who he is absolutely crazy for and woos with the same gusto as a high school sophomore. Weist is out of control and steals every scene she is in – she is dangerous on the outside, but vulnerable and insecure beneath. Mia Farrow does a fine job as Hannah — the glue that holds the cast together. Max Von Sydow plays the reclusive Frederick and it is great to see him here working with Woody, who is an unabashed Ingmar Bergman fan, so that comes full circle. Von Sydow’s scene with his lover Lee is one of the films highlights. If any character is the outsider here, it is Woody himself. He plays Hannah’s (Mia Farrow) ex-husband, Mickey. They are on friendly terms. Mickey impulsively quits his job to find out what the meaning of life is after he realizes that he is not dying of a brain tumor – a theme that occurs repeatedly in the Allen oeuvre. Unlike most of Allen’s films, this one has a rather upbeat, optimistic ending that goes along with the Thanksgiving Day spirit that the film ends with. Allen explores the topics of religion/faith, love, family, and adultery (as always), but it doesn’t get very heavy as in some of his other films…this one seems more light, more airy – with great music and great one-liners (“And Nietzsche, with his theory of eternal recurrence. He said that the life we lived we’re gonna live over again the exact same way for eternity. Great. That means I’ll have to sit through the Ice Capades again.”) For someone who is not familiar with the work of Woody Allen or told me they weren’t crazy about him, this is the first film I would show him/her – it’s that much of a crowd pleaser.

3. MANHATTAN (1979)

Gorgeous to watch from the very beginning in its glorious black-and-white photography set to the music of George Gershwin. Woody is the consummate New York film director…always has been. The sights, sounds and beauty of New York City resonate in his films. This one may be the hallmark of all that. This was Woody’s first film shot using the widescreen anamorphic Panavision process and he disliked the work here so much that he offered to direct another picture for United Artists for free if they just shelved this one permanently. Thank God they didn’t listen to him, as this one ranks right up there with Woody’s best films. Made just two years after “Annie Hall,” we are again treated to the wonderful on-screen chemistry of Allen and Keaton. Isaac (Allen) is experiencing a mid-life crisis and has been dating Tracy (Mariel Hemingway), who is still in high school. He knows that the relationship can’t progress much further and he is embarrassed to take her out in the professional public. Perhaps she is the safe choice to roll around with after taking a beating from his ex-wife turned lesbian Jill (Meryl Streep) who is in the midst of writing a tell-all book about her marriage to the narcissistic Isaac (“I came here to strangle you!” Isaac barks at her). He meets Mary (Keaton) and is immediately smitten. Mary is dating Isaac’s best friend Yale (Michael Murphy). But Yale is married and is never going to leave his wife. Yale gives his Isaac permission to take his mistress out. Isaac does so and immediately falls head over heels in love with her, ditching the sweet-natured, lovable, and loyal Tracy. But – is this the right decision? Streep is terrific as the ex-wife – strong, quick-witted and bitter. Hemingway makes a perfect Tracey and we absolutely want to comfort her when Isaac gives her the bad news or when he patronizes her with her age throughout. Murphy is a great counterpart to Woody here and we can’t stand him for being such a bad friend. Diane Keaton sheds the Annie Hall aura and plays the cerebral, self-confident and urbane Mary. She does a marvelous job and as always, is a delight to watch. A classic Woody scene comes when he is sprawled out on the couch alone, speaking into his tape recorder and answering the question “Why is life worth living?” Uproariously funny, and at times, quite touching, this is a wonderful love letter to the city the filmmaker loves and a picture to relish in with each and every viewing.

2. ANNIE HALL (1977)

A staple in the annals of film history, “Annie Hall” is one of the great films in motion picture history. Period. Ironically, it is viewed as one of the greatest comedies ever made, but the film was indeed a major turning point for Allen as a filmmaker, as it instilled so much drama and serious themes that he had not yet delved into. Diane Keaton (as Annie Hall) created one of the silver screen’s most memorable and beloved characters ever here…she was without a doubt, the perfect yin to Woody’s yang. To this day, she remains one of my most favorite actresses simply because of her portrayal of Annie. What can I say? I love her! Here, she is flaky, quirky, lovable, sweet, innocent, strong and funny. The hat, the tie, that vest? Lah-di-Dah, Lah-di-Dah…She’s a dream. And I cannot get enough of Woody’s Alvy Singer. I love his reactions to things around him, his disgust at others, his paranoia, his egotism…and of course, his revulsion to any and all things on the West Coast. The chemistry between the two (dating back to “Sleeper” and “Love and Death”) is one of film’s greatest duos – not to be overlooked by other classic onscreen couples. And here, everything that happens (big and small) between the two is just so real – things every couple goes through (click on the poignant and comical “Spider in the Bathroom” scene below and you’ll understand exactly what I mean here). Again, some wonderful one-liners (“That’s ok…we can walk to the curb from here”), great characters, terrific performances (Colleen Dewhurst, a doting Carol Kane, a suicidal Christopher Walken, a pretentious Shelley Duvall)…winner of the Oscar for Best Picture of 1977, it deserves every bit of acclaim it has ever received. I can watch it anytime and have seen it more times than I care to admit. At its core, it is a typical New York love story: boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love, boy and girl realize that they are “a dead shark” and break up. It doesn’t sound like much – but with the phenomenally woven script, the delicate direction and our two lead actors – it is one of cinema’s greatest films ever.

1. CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS (1989)

To date, this is Woody Allen’s masterpiece. A perfect fusion of old-style Woody comedy (Woody’s plot line) and Bergman-esque calamity (Martin Landau’s story). Obviously inspired by the seminal themes of Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment,” Woody would later re-visit these same themes in his latter films with much less of an impact. Here, it is done perfectly. Martin Landau is sensational as the married man (a highly respected opthalmologist) who gives in to temptation (Angelica Huston, who plays her character with such desperation, we can’t help but empathize with her) and then wants the easy out. Alan Alda is deliciously snooty and patronizing as Woody’s brother-in-law and Sam Waterston as the blind rabbi brings a “moral structure” to the narrative. There are some classic Woody one-liners here, some profound symbolism sprinkled throughout and it all is woven together so beautifully when Woody and Landau meet one another near the very end of the film.

Woody here plays his classic loser character making documentary films that no one wants to see – and his scenes with Joanna Gleason and Alda are filled with timeless dialogue. He agrees to make a documentary of Alda’s character in order to pay for the much smaller documentary on spirituality he is trying to make. In the process, he falls in love with the TV producer (Mia Farrow), but he’s already in a marriage with a wife who can’t stand him anymore — plus, Alda’s character wants her for himself! Woody has always grappled with the heavy themes of faith in God, truth, deception, love and betrayal, redemption and forgiveness — but he has never done so in such an intense and insightful manner than he does right here. Hysterical and haunting at the same time, “Crimes and Misdemeanors” is a modern-day classic film of the highest order. Woody truly outdid himself here.

THE BOTTOM FIVE (or “Ones To Stay Away From”)

1. Anything Else (2003)
2. Celebrity (1998)
3. The Curse of the Jade Scorpion (2001)
4. Scoop (2006)
5. Shadows and Fog (1991)

Peter Eramo Reviews “Fantastic Mr. Fox”


I’ll start by saying that, like most avid film fans I know, I am not at all an admirer of Wes Anderson films. I enjoyed his debut film “Bottle Rocket,” felt “Rushmore” to be a tad over-rated, disliked “The Royal Tenenbaums” and could not stand “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.” Having said that, I went into “Fantastic Mr. Fox” with little expectations — and absolutely adored it! With an all-star cast and an enormously witty script adapted from the famous Roald Dahl story, this is a wonderfully funny, touching and enjoyable film this is for audiences of all ages.

The film revolves around Mr. Fox (George Clooney) and his mid-fox-life crisis. He says to his wife (voiced by Meryl Streep): “Honey, I am seven fox years old. My father died at seven and a half. I don’t want to live in a hole anymore, and I’m going to do something about it.” With that, Mr. Fox goes behind his wife’s back to re-enter the once adventurous life he had before the Foxes were expecting their first cub. You see, Mr. Fox is a highly skilled chicken thief, but gave his word to the adorable Mrs. Fox that he would give up that life to become a devoted family man. But Mr. Fox wants more in his life…he misses the excitement, the rush; he wants to live better and in a nicer house. In going back to his life of crime, Mr. Fox puts the entire animal community in jeopardy. He’s the one who gets everyone in this mess — and he’s the one spearheading the plan to get them all out.

The stop-motion animation works brilliantly here. The casting of Clooney is perfect. Mr. Fox is quick, charming, whimsical, irresistable and struggling with himself. Mrs. Fox tells him at one point, “You know, you really are…fantastic” to which Clooney replies in that wonderful dead-pan delivery, “I try.” And the film is peppered with the dry humor that is a trademark of Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach (who co-adapted the script). Meryl Streep makes a delightful Mrs. Fox. She knows what she signed up for when she married her daredevil husband (“I love you, but I should have never married you,” she tells him at one point).

The rest of the cast who lend their vocal talents to the film also fit admirably. Jason Schwartzman (an Anderson fav) is ideal playing Ash, Mr. Fox’s son who is dying to be an able athlete and is at odds throughout the film with his cousin Kristofferson (who, of course, is a quite gifted athlete). Ash wants his father’s approval and he wants the attention of the ladies — but Kristofferson has the innate talent to capture both…a great foil for Ash.

Bill Murray (as Badger), Willem Dafoe (playing a bad-ass rat with a knife) and Owen Wilson (as Coach Skip) round out the great cast. Michael Gambon is also terrific as Franklin Bean, the man out to kill Mr. Fox and the entire animal community.

I laughed throughout the film (distributed by 20th Century Fox) — it is just as good, if not superior to Pixar’s output and was robbed by the much-hyped, though sweet film, “Up” at this year’s Oscar ceremony. “Fantastic Mr. Fox” is the better film – it’s smarter, it’s funnier. It is aimed to adult viewers just as much as it is to kids. The chapter titles are fitting and I was amused by the use of the word “cuss” when the characters wanted to…well, use other words instead. And beneath all of the humor throughout the film, there are those serious themes that do not go unnoticed. There are some rather profound moments which hit even harder because of the proper balance with the comedy.

I highly recommend this film to those who love animated films and those who never really give them much of a chance. And if you are like me and said to yourself that you wouldn’t see another Wes Anderson film after you had to sit through the snooze-fest that was “The Life Aquatic…,” then give Anderson another shot…you will not be disappointed.

Film: Fantastic Mr. Fox
Director: Wes Anderson
Year: 2009

Rating: *** 1/2 (out of 4 stars)

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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