BEST OF 2019
Finally, a return to actual adult films. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is probably the best film this year. Another film for mature, thinking and feeling adults (with a creative use of models and some CGI): A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. Richard Jewel is a moving story of a contemporary tragedy forged by irresponsible media and misguided officials — one of the best films of the year and surely nominated for several Academy Awards.
BEST OF 2018
A good film with a great deal of CGI, but also good themes and thought: Black Panther.
BEST OF 2015-2017
Hollywood and popular culture is in a rut: recycling Marvel heroes reflects in an ever diminishing pool of stories that will be found inoffensive to mass audiences. One is hard-pressed to find recent films of significance. However, there were some films of note: Mad Max, Inside Out, The Martian, and Irrational Man and Concussion were among the best films of 2015.
An example of Hollywood’s self-absorption and indifference to actual performance art is awarding DiCaprio an Oscar for acting his role in The Revenant. In terms of acting craft, Will Smith in Concussion was far superior.
Another example: Other than trying to resurrect the artistic and intellectual achievement of Blade Runner, one wonders what is the justification for spending time and energy to produce the overwrought, lugubrious Blade Runner 2049? At two hours and forty-four minutes running time, perhaps half of that with actual dialogue, it is a small wonder that the film has not fared well at the box office. Excellent critic A. O. Scott from the New York Times says: “Daring in its own right, this broodingly sumptuous saga explores the primacy of feelings, the nature of memories and the essence of being human.” Perhaps…but one can hardly say this is the most moving or insightful treatment of such themes.
As we progress through this recent period of stagnation a significant question remains: When, if ever, will audiences tire of CGI-dependent storylines? Are we entering an age of “alternate realities only”? If so, why?
BEST OF 2014
Academy Award Nominations for Best Picture (2014) and any appropriate comments:
American Sniper (Unlikely. Not best film, but Best Actor probable.)
The Grand Budapest Hotel (No way!)
The Imitation Game (Way! See prediction about Cumberbatch below.)
Selma (Way! Hollywood’s prejudice for political causes rather than the greatness of the film may put this at the top.)
The Theory of Everything
Truth and Fact in 2014: With 50% of Best Picture Nominations as historical dramas, 2014 is the year of “true” stories brought to the screen. The notion of “true” presents a dilemma for postmodernist approaches to narrative — a problem that cannot be detailed here. Suffice it to say that anyone wishing to go to contemporary films to be educated on the “facts” of history will be disappointed and misdirected. Moreover, viewers will sometimes have to suffer through pointless and diminishing politically correct “codas” (e.g., captions and/or inappropriate music) attached to the ends of these films. Nevertheless, from the point of view of the study of popular culture, there are important films to see this year.
Most disappointing film of 2014: The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. No need to see this film except to experience that audiences will pay to see something essentially empty when expectations are high and the “brand” is “good.”
Funniest 5 Minutes in 2014: First 5 minutes of Penguins of Madagascar.
American Sniper (2014). For any film “based on true events,” one needs a scorecard upon entering the theater these days. Perhaps a full vetting of all “factual” information presented in the film would do the trick. Fortunately, this film was vetted by the family. At least in terms of capturing the personality and many of the major events in the career of this soldier, principal members of the family (including the hero’s wife) have publicly stated that the film is accurate. This is reason enough to see the film. Necessary viewing for 2014.
Selma (2014). Probably the best film of 2014. While pure fiction dramatically expresses general truths about the human condition, reconstituted historical dramas express a portion of these truths as we would have liked them to be. This film is no exception to this general rule. Fortunately, these two elements of popular film (general and historical truth) meet in one of the most powerful narrative segments in any recent film: the death Jamie Lee Jackson. One scene in this segment, the meeting between King and Jamie Lee Jackson’s father at the city morgue, is among the finest moments of intimate film making in recent years. The film should be seen for this scene alone. Many other scenes in the film are much inferior, including odd and distracting camera angles. Auteurs and DP’s will study these other scenes for lessons about what not to do with a camera. Another extraordinary aspect of the film is that it demonstrates how much the borderline for inclusion of sexual truth in films has moved since the ’60s. Under no circumstances would the information about King’s extramarital encounters have been included in a film meant to honor his legacy in any film of the prior to the 1990s (Clinton changed all that). Best use of a Biblical reference in 2014: Selma jail scene, Matthew 6:25.
The Imitation Game. The smartest film of 2014. This film will get Benedict Cumberbatch an Academy Award nomination, although Alex Lawther (Young Alan Turing) may well be the best actor on the screen and does the best job since DiCaprio’s 1993 performance of portraying a young man with emotional/intellectual problems. You should know what is basically real and what is not real before going, since you can’t trust Hollywood when it releases films “based” on true events. The girlfriend is basically real and he (Turing) was really engaged to her (Joan Clarke). But leave it at that. Don’t investigate too much before going to see it, or you will spoil the story! Overall, a great lesson in utilitarianism, which the Brits also invented in addition to modern computer architecture. Best line: “You are not God, Alan. You don’t get to decide who lives and who dies.” See the film for Turing’s response.
Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014). God, as a petulant 12-year old, meets delusional man with an attitude. It’s true that in the Old Testament Moses actually argues with God and questions His decisions, but this film takes that idea to a whole new level. Best moment: Death of Pharaoh’s son, enhanced by the sudden silence of the overbearing score. Production values: Filmed through a glass darkly, the entire film has the aura of cheap, backyard production filmed on old film stock. Optional viewing, but good for a thesis of how thought and theology are being marketed today.
Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part I (2014). A continuation of the best film of 2013, this film also is “one of the few films to self-consciously examine media politics and the construction of character and emotion through action” (see 2013 comments below). The film follows the book faithfully, as the plot takes a new direction in following the heroine’s moral and intellectual development. The problem now is not just to sort out emotional ties but to learn how to engage in psycho-political warfare through media. Much more subtle and deep than the other “teenage angst films of 2014” (listed below) this film addresses the real situation now faced by millennials — especially in the Arab world — who understand what love and freedom should mean, but who are unable to find any viable political routes to it. The credits are followed by a beautifully animated logo that reasserts the reality of the film’s message to totalitarian regimes.
Interstellar (2014). Possible subtitles: “Gruber goes Galactic” or “Timeless Echoes of Hume and Plato.” Hume states: “In general, it may be affirmed, that there is no such passion in human minds, as the love of mankind, merely as such, independent of personal qualities, of services, or of relation to ourself” (Treatise, II, 1). In other words, various forms of self-interest motivate our actions; presuming that any abstractions such as “love of mankind” will motivate people is folly. Plato implies it is necessary for rulers to issue “noble lies” to the general public in circumstances where the truth would be too much for the public to bear. In other words, “Gruber” is a necessary political being. Interstellar deals with both of these ideas about our motives and political truths, as well with many more precise questions: (1)Are human beings multi-dimensional beings who can travel in time as well as space; (2) Are feelings of love, rather than the testimony of the senses or the machinations of reason, a signature of deep knowledge about the nature of reality? Interstellar will surely rank as the most philosophically rich film of 2014, although certainly not the best. Much of the plot and dialogue are more forced than it needs to be, so be prepared for much willing suspension of disbelief. Also be prepared for the mumbled dialogue of Matthew McConaughey, who makes the main character sound like he is only talking to himself most of the time. Great Sci-Fi, such as 2001, Blade Runner, Terminator, GATTACA, or Avatar it’s not, but still a must for 2014.
Fury (2014). A general principle of films is that those set in a “historical” context tell us more about our contemporary consciousness of social/political/moral situations than they do about the actualities of the historical setting in which the action takes place. Fury is no exception to this principle. How should we react to the open brutality of totalitarians who terrorize their own people? Best line: “Ideals are peaceful. History is violent.”
Teenage Angst films of 2014 These are all must-sees for those following the zeitgeist:
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1
The Maze Runner
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014). Perfect for the study of cultural themes as reflected in film. Most prominent among the themes — and most importantly in terms of a global audience that includes emerging nations where women continue to be second-class citizens — is the autonomy and life choices of women. It is not unusual to find concise arguments written into great scripts, but this film contains a particularly potent 3-phase formula for expressing a stance for contemporary women: (1) there is such a thing as overprotection of women; (2) women have their own autonomy that must be given both respect and concrete opportunities; and (3) where there is risk (even to life), women themselves should be given the choice to assess and accept that risk. Also included (as so often in recent popular films) is the theme of psychic damage done to young men by absent fathers. Still another aspect of modern life explored in this film: how lack of recognition and the alienation experienced by workers in large corporations can lead to self-destruction and violence. Best Scene/Best Acting: Aunt May (Sally Field) explains to Peter/Spider-Man (Andrew Garfield) why he is her son. Best twist/plot element: sorry, to reveal that would be a huge spoiler! Suffice it to say that apart from the technical/intellectual components of the script noted above, this edition of Spider-Man is thoroughly enjoyable and works on many emotional levels. Recommended.
Noah (2014). Biblical Noah meets Alternate Sci-Fi Universe meets Nietzsche. Contrary to popular belief, the Biblical story of Noah would not make a good film script. For a Hollywood-quality script, one needs a villain, a series of escalating crises, moral dilemmas, a confrontation with evil as personified in the villain, and a resolution showing the success of the hero. Noah has all of these elements, so it is a good film for study as well as for enjoyment. It fulfills the promise of radio ads promoting the film, which describe it as having taken artistic liberties with the Biblical story but in ways that are consistent with Biblical themes and values. Although some critics, and even the director of the film (Daren Aronofsky) have claimed the film identifies Noah as an environmentalist vegetarian, this is certainly not the moral focus of the film. As Plato observed, nothing prevents artistic creators from not understanding their own works at a philosophical level. We should be loath to accept the poet’s interpretation of his own work.
The story apparently does not take place on Earth, at least not at any time within the last 100 million years or so (the daytime sky and the depiction of the global landmass does not correspond to our world) and the story adds a deus ex machina device in the form of sci-fi creatures called “Watchers,” although these may be thought to correspond (very loosely!) to the “giants in the earth” referenced to in Genesis. The moral dilemma is one that Nietzsche knew well: our free will is both a blessing and a curse; it demands that we take full responsibility for our acts and ultimately accept the idea that our will can be coincident with God’s, if not in every respect, at least in the vital respects that correspond with the promise of human flourishing symbolized by the rainbow (the last image of the film). Highly recommended. A great study piece and one that represents contemporary spiritual, theological, and philosophical dilemmas quite well.
The film was banned in the many Islamic countries, ostensibly for “depicting a prophet,” but perhaps also (admittedly, just a guess here) for superimposing the story of Abraham — a vital key to Islamic theology — onto Noah.
Best lines: “A man is not ruled by the heavens but by his will. So I ask you, are you a man? Good. Then you can kill.”
God’s Not Dead (2014). For professional critics of popular culture only. Amateurs will not enjoy this film since they will see nothing but over the top preaching about the beauty of Christianity. Professionals will understand that the film is not about Christianity as much it is about freedom of choice and the fact that humans must cope with totalitarian intellectual repression, loss of love, death, and disease. The story is based on actual court cases where universities have attempted to limit the freedom of speech and association of on-campus Christian groups. If you are a university-level academician, you will have a hard time suspending your disbelief about the initial story premise: a philosophy professor makes signing a declaration that “God is dead” worth 30% of the course. Hopefully, any professor actually caught doing that would be summarily fired. Put that aside, accept the premise, and enjoy the film. The film contains three powerful, emotional subplots that some viewers will find more than make up for any weaknesses in the principal storyline. A good example of the overt politicization of film (as opposed to the more covert, as in The Hunger Games).