The People’s Critic’s Top 10 Films of 2016

Interior of a Movie TheaterWell, movies came out this year, but I think we can all agree that we are looking at a rather bleak field of films this year. It’s not, “2011, The Artist wins Best Picture bad,” but it’s close. And here we are again: Less than a month before the Academy of Motion Pictures releases its list of nominees, less than a week before the Hollywood Foreign Press hands out the Golden Globes, and of the likely list of top films to be nominated for Oscars this year, only five have opened wide enough to see in a suburban city of a Midwestern state. It’s the election all over again!

Last year, films like Sicario, Creed, The Martian, Bridge of Spies, and the eventual Best Picture winner, Spotlight all opened wide well before the end of December. That’s not to say that Sully, Hacksaw Ridge, Manchester by the Sea, La La Land, and Arrival didn’t try to play fair and open wide already; they did. But other potential frontrunners  Moonlight, Silence, Hidden Figures, and Fences are all playing on this double standard of releasing a film in minimal markets so it can qualify for Oscar eligibility only to open wide on some obsequious and noncompetitive weekend after the new year.  This is still an improvement over the 2014 awards season, where basically nothing but The Grand Budapest Hotel really opened wide, but it is a step down from the host of great films released wide during the calendar year in 2015. And let’s be honest, competition for theatrically released films has never been greater. With Netflix, Amazon, HBO, and other streaming sites moving into original cinema, film studios should begin cooperating, making theatrically released films easy to see, and make going to the theater special, but not exclusive!

Oscar nominations will be announced Tuesday, January 24th, bright and early, and after a two years of directorial domination by Alejandro González Iñárritu and three years of Cinematography superiority by Emmanuel Lubezki, it seems these two have left the field wide open for someone else to step up and win something.  Anyway, Oscar nominations are a coveted announcement, but a far more important announcement is being made right now – my list of the top 10 films of 2016.  While no Top Ten List can ever satisfy everyone, great care has been taken to analyze each film on my own particular set of criteria ensuring reliability!  So without further ado, I present The People’s Critic’s Top 10 films (that I was actually able to see) of 2016.

 

eye10. Eye in the Sky 

This film gets more and more fascinating the more I think about it. In the new millennium, we have seen drastic changes to what we consider “warfare,” and Eye in the Sky captures the intensity and complexity of an ever changing definition of modern warfare. Helen Mirren plays Captain Katherine Powell in command of an operation to potentially eliminate some of the world’s most wanted terrorists, who have holed themselves up in a small house in Kenya. When the risks of capturing them become too great, Powell gives the command for a hellfire missile attack via military drone. What complicates things is that a young girl selling bread sets up her storefront directly in the kill zone of the missile’s target, raising one of the many philosophical questions in this film, the first of which is whether there is an obligation to eliminate a potential threat to many lives by inadvertently killing an innocent. I promise you, this film makes you feel the full gravity of every decision that is made, which makes it one of the most intense movies of the year. This film also includes the great Alan Rickman in one of his final performances.

beasts9. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Speaking of Alan Rickman, Snape may be gone, but Rickman would likely be comforted to know that the world is not done with Potter and company just yet. J.K. Rowling does the near impossible by picking up her magic wand again and creating something moving, amazing, and magical yet again in her first effort as screenwriter with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Everyone who fell in love with the eight Harry Potter films will be delighted by this expansion of the wizarding world. Eddie Redmayne plays it a bit clownish as Newt Scamander, a magizoologist whose search for magical creatures brings him to New York City 70 years before “The boy who lived” ever hopped aboard the Hogwarts Express. There is a visual and immersive quality that we have come to expect when entering the Harry Potter universe, and director David Yates delivers once again. The characters are delightful, realized, and fun, and the environments (including the aforementioned “fantastic beasts”) are dazzling and eye-catching.

sully28. Sully

Sully is not a biopic. It is based upon Chesley Sullenberger’s memoir Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters and focuses almost entirely on the events of January 15, 2009 and the subsequent investigation. Bits of ‘Sully’s’ past are sprinkled throughout, but the film’s main objective is to feature the tremendous fortune that results from having the right people performing the right jobs. Sully is a solid film delivering its message and entertainment as effectively as Sullenberger’s miraculous water landing on the Hudson. Like it’s protagonist, the film showcases a couple of the right men for the job (as well as the right woman for a job that wasn’t there). A testament to superlative acting and creative filmmaking that breathes freshness into a story so recently and so publicly told.

man7. Manchester by the Sea

Everyone you’ve talked to about this film is absolutely right; this is a miserably sad movie. However, what I think too few are saying about it is that it is also hilariously funny. Writer/Director Kenneth Lonergan’s third film in over 16 years is another masterpiece of familial ups and downs. He constructs a film unlike anyone else cutting to the bone with wit, nostalgia, and cold, hard truth. Casey Affleck carries an emotional load as Lee, a janitor who is made legal guardian of his teenage nephew when his brother suddenly dies of a heart attack. This is Affleck’s strongest performance in his budding career as an actor. Understated, but honest, Affleck’s performance has gotten a lot of buzz, but the real champion of this film is Lonergan who gets powerful performances from all of his actors and delivers a fascinating, funny, heartbreaking, powerful film about love, family, and what it takes to survive tragedy.

hack6. Hacksaw Ridge

Hacksaw Ridge is a film that I had trouble placing on this list. First, I wasn’t sure it was top ten material, then once I examined my criteria and determined that it was, I had trouble deciding if it was top five material! Ultimately it’s top six material. Hacksaw Ridge is decidedly two separate films. A coming of age story about a young man named Desmond Doss, played by Andrew Garfield, in Depression-era Virginia falling in love with a young nurse and hoping to find a way to serve his country in World War II as an army medic, even though he refuses to personally pick up a rifle. That story is then catapulted out the window for one depicting one of the most gruesome, gut-wrenching war stories ever set to screen as Doss’s unit is assigned to participate in the Battle of Okinawa, historically referred to as a “meat grinder” of a location for American troops. This is a true story and a remarkable one at that. The first hour is pleasant, sweet, and at times very funny. The second hour is an assault on your senses almost to a breaking point. Vince Vaughn surprises as Doss’s army drill sergeant and the rest of the supporting cast is fantastic including Sam Worthington, Hugo Weaving, Rachel Griffiths, and Teresa Palmer. Director Mel Gibson makes the most of a powerful story and while his depiction of Doss feels a little too similar to that of another suffering protagonist Gibson is known for, it all works. Gibson has been a bit of a pariah as of late, and his off-screen antics are hard to forgive, but if you are one who can separate the art from the artist, this film is one of the year’s best.

midnight5. Midnight Special

This is where I expect I’ll lose a few of you. What is Midnight Special? Why is it number 5? I am just as surprised as you! I stumbled upon this film on a flight. Jeff Nichols is a young writer/director who I am really starting to love. His last two films, Mud and Take Shelter were excellent, and believe it or not, he actually has another film that he released in 2016 called Loving that is getting far more attention than Midnight Special! Still, I am going to put all my chips in on Midnight Special. I don’t think any synopsis of this plot will entice you to see the movie, so just trust me and check it out (it’s running on HBO and HBO streaming currently). Michael Shannon plays a father whose son appears to have some strange abilities. The boy has recently become the worship center of a strange cult, and when Shannon steals his son away in the night, the cult is determined to get him back. The U.S. government has also caught wind of the boy’s abilities and send an NSA agent to track him down as well. This is a sleek, clever, special little movie, and while some will have qualms about the ending, I think it is exactly the right choice.

Arriv.jpg4. Arrival  

Speaking of alien movies with clever endings, here’s another one! Arrival is the latest Denis Villeneuve film, and if you sensed my budding love for Jeff Nichols’s movies, then you can multiply that by a million for Villeneuve. His track record speaks for itself: Incendies, Prisoners, Enemy, Sicario, Arrival, and this year Blade Runner 2049! In a different year, Arrival could easily be the best film of the year. Still, number four ain’t bad. Arrival finds Amy Adams putting out another excellent performance as a linguistics professor tapped by the U.S. military to help them interpret an alien language. What makes this alien film different is that 12 alien space crafts have touched down all over the world, and in a world of itchy trigger-fingers, Adams’s encounters and translations hold the fate of the world in the balance. Adams is accompanied by Jeremy Renner who plays a theoretical physicist, and the two of them have great chemistry making for a richly character-driven sci-fi film.

CW3. Captain America: Civil War

Surprise, surprise! The People’s Critic liked a Captain America movie, but this time I’m not alone. Everybody liked this movie. It’s hard not to. Civil War boasts three outstanding achievements that no Marvel film before it has managed thus far. First, it introduces two of the best new characters (Black Panther and Spider-Man, both slated to receive upcoming stand-alone films) and does it with panache! I’ll leave the details about these new characters out so not to spoil anything for the rare reader who has yet to see this film, but both are quite satisfying and Spider-Man especially receives a worthy reboot after some questionable recent attempts by Sony Pictures. Second, the “Civil War” battle is a remarkable scene. This scene replaces the “Battle of New York” from Marvel’s Avengers as the Infinity Stone in the Marvel crown. DC executives responsible for Batman v. Superman (See my five worst films of 2016 for my thoughts on this one!) should take notes on how Marvel succeeds at fighting internal conflict with external conflict! Third, Captain America: Civil War manages to give all of its cast members room to breathe and make a memorable and worthwhile contribution.  No character is squandered, and as I alluded to earlier, this film explores some emotional depth but uses just the right amount of levity and humor to maintain an even tone.

rogue2. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Surprise, surprise, surprise! The People’s Critic liked a Star Wars movie! Again, everybody liked this movie, or at least the last 20 minutes, which are perhaps the best 20 minutes in any Star Wars movie ever! Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is a strong, balanced, and entertaining film that plays how we wish the original prequels could have played. There’s a hint of nostalgia along with new and fresh perspectives, which make us forget that we all know where this is going and “forces” us to care and root for these new characters. Director Gareth Edwards designs and directs this film to feel connected but not tethered to the other films, and I think that is a delicate task to accomplish. There are also some major bombshells and any misgivings you have about the film are wiped clean away with the final 20 minutes. If you have any level of appreciation for Star Wars, you will leave the theater in high spirits!

la1. La La Land

I tried people. I tried not to toe the line. I tried not to be all “critic-y,” but goddamnit, my toes are still tap, tap, tapping to this beautiful, heartwarming, goosebump inducing, musical masterpiece. If Rogue One: A Star Wars Story had the best final 20 minutes of any Star Wars movie, La La Land has the best first and last five minutes of any movie in the last five years! What puts it at number one is that between those amazing first five minutes and outstanding final five minutes are 118 exhilarating, beautifully crafted, musical minutes. La La Land is a simple story of Jazz musician meets struggling actor, Jazz musician loses struggling actress, etc., but that’s ok. If the plot were any more dynamic, it would take away from the sensory experience of this film. Gosling and Stone are captivating as the leads and while their voices may not be meant for Broadway, they are perfect for a film that “dances” between worlds. Half nostalgic and half prognostic, La La Land shows us that writer/director Damien Chazelle is more than the real deal. He’s the next big thing! La La Land puts a nice bow on a tumultuous 2016 and is definitely the front-runner for best picture in my book.

The Five Worst Films of 2016

C25. The Conjuring 2  

I’m sad to start this list with a sequel to a film that made my top 10 in 2013. The Conjuring 2 doesn’t really advance the narrative of the original’s characters or reveal any depth to the uncertainty of its source material. In the same way that a television series might be developed for a network, but then the studio makes a deal to tie it to an already proven property in order to reap an existing audience, The Conjuring 2 feels like a Mad Libs horror movie script and the studio slapped The Conjuring 2 on top of it. This is a “been there, done that,” movie for the ages.

BvS4. Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice

At the end of 2015, we were all gearing up to see what DC had to offer to combat the cinematic monopoly Marvel Studios has had over the superhero genre. Well, the results are in and two of their films make my worst of 2015 list; Batman v. Superman being the first. Yet another bloated set-up piece, these movies need to stop hinting at something and start showing us something. Warner Brothers needs to stop holding its cards too close to the vest and start revving this thing up before we lose interest entirely. Wonder Woman and Justice League are next up for 2017. Let’s hope I don’t have to reserve two more spots on the Worst list for 2017.

nerve3. Last third of Nerve 

I had other films in mind for this list, but I kept coming back to how disappointed I was with the ending of Nerve. Let me start by saying, Nerve as a whole has no business being on a worst of the year list. However, given that my top two movies of the year were given that status in no small part due to their phenomenal endings, I think Nerve stands as a wondrous example of how damaging a bad ending can be. I’ve never been more disappointed in an ending for a movie. Not because it was bad. It was fine. But if the ending was as principled and interesting as everything that came before it, we’d have a much better film. Director Henry Joost is a newbie, but if you’ve seen Paranormal Activity 3, Paranormal Activity 4, and the film Catfish, you’d see where I’m going with this. Endings are crucial and bad endings to good movies are exponentially more damaging.

Suicide.jpg2. Suicide Squad

DC is back again with the number two worst movie of 2016, Suicide Squad. Anticipation couldn’t have been higher for this one. What seemed like dream casting, mixed with a lighter, funnier tone lead many of us to believe this was the film that would right a sinking ship. Instead, it blew one more big, giant hole in the hull. Unfortunately, the box office total of my, Five Worst Films of 2016 list is nearly identical to my Top Ten Best Films of 2016 list. What does that tell you. People are paying for and going in droves to see these bad movies. Suicide Squad is hardly a movie. It’s disjointed, it’s annoying, it’s shallow, and worst of all, it’s boring. Viola Davis attempts to give some credibility and Margot Robbie will be iconic as Harley Quinn, but nothing can save this mess.

now1. Now You See Me 2

Lightening definitely didn’t strike twice for this fledgling attempt at building a franchise. Now You See Me was a perfectly fine, fun little movie, but not everything that is moderately successful needs a part 2 (or a reported part 3!). All the tricks are played out for this band of illusionists. The style was corny this time around, as original director Louis Leterrier was replaced by Jem and the Holograms director, Jon M. Chu. They couldn’t even get all of the original cast back for this thing as Isla Fisher would not sign on and also refuses to sign on for the third film. Red flags abound and poor Daniel Radcliffe never saw them coming as he looks utterly lost and confused in easily the year’s worst movie. Yuck.

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Sully

sullyDirector: Clint Eastwood

Screenwriter: Todd Komarnicki

Cast: Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, Mike O’Malley, Anna Gunn, and Laura Linney

When the FX series American Crime Story: The People vs. OJ Simpson and the subsequent ESPN documentary OJ: Made in America came out earlier this year, many wondered if anyone would watch them. The events detailed in these shows happened only 20 years ago and they were so overtly covered by the media that many wondered, “What’s left to tell?”  The same can be said about the announcement for the film Sully, a film based on the “Miracle on the Hudson” where Captain Chesley Sullenberger successfully landed a commercial aircraft on the Hudson River with no casualties. And the events of this film took place only 8 years ago!

What happened with the OJ Simpson programs was rather surprising. People watched. Lots of people. And awards upon awards were laden upon these projects. The reason being that creative measures and expert storytelling were combined with strong performances and new information to create an emotive project that stood for more than simply a retreading of public knowledge.  Fortunately, Clint Eastwood’s film detailing Sullenberger’s story follows suit by avoiding pointless exposition and crafting a deeply watchable and at times powerfully evocative depiction of American heroism in the face of insurmountable odds.

Tom Hanks plays Sullenberger, nicknamed Sully, a commercial pilot with over 40 years of experience in the air and over a million passengers safely delivered. The film opens post-event with a shaken Sullenberger preparing for a hearing with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) who believe Sullenberger may have been negligent in his decision to not return to LaGuardia Airport. Sullenberger and his co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) are holed up in a Marriott hotel in a surreal twist of fate where on one hand Americans are celebrating their heroism and on the other, they are being investigated for endangering 155 passengers aboard the plane.

Sully is not a biopic. It is based upon Chesley Sullenberger’s memoir Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters and focuses almost entirely on the events of January 15, 2009 and the subsequent investigation.  Bits of ‘Sully’s’ past are sprinkled throughout, but the film’s main objective is to feature the tremendous fortune that results from having the right people performing the right jobs. Time is a major motif in the film, making outstanding use of factual evidence to show us just how much can happen in a short amount of time – for better or for worse. Hanks plays Sullenberger with quiet confidence, and Eastwood crafts his story with intensity and enlightenment. The effects in the plane crash scenes are second to none, and at a svelte 96 minute running time, the film clips along at a swift pace. One criticism on the film would be its handling of Sullenberger’s wife Lorraine, played by Laura Linney.  The film holds her at arm’s length and only features her in reactionary mode on the phone with Sully or as a way to illustrate the invasiveness of the media on the Sullenbergers’ daily lives. Linney joins a long list of good actresses cast in good films as wives who are written as screenplay tools to manipulate emotion.  Think Helen Hunt in another Hanks film, Cast Away. This is becoming a rather sad state of things, and is only highlighted by a scene during the credits where the real Lorraine Sullenberger gives a tearful speech to the survivors of Flight 1549 about how these survivors continue to send Christmas and greeting cards to them every year. This little moment in the credits gives more depth, heart, and life to who she is than anything Laura Linney does in the film.

Sully is a solid film delivering its message and entertainment as effectively as Sullenberger’s miraculous water landing on the Hudson.  Like it’s protagonist, the film showcases a couple of the right men for the job (as well as the right woman for a job that wasn’t there). A testament to superlative acting and creative filmmaking that breathes freshness into a story so recently and so publicly told. B+

Sully is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 1 hour and 36 minutes.  

Bridge of Spies

BridgeDirector: Steven Spielberg

Screenwriters: Matt Charman, Ethan Coen, and Joel Coen

Cast: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Alan Alda, Jesse Plemons, and Austin Stowell

Recently Tom Hanks went on The Tonight Show and did a Kid Theater skit where he performed scripts written by elementary school kids who were told to write a scene for a movie called Bridge of Spies.  Most of them involved either a bridge made of spies or spies on a bridge.  Imagine my surprise when I arrived at the climax of Steven Spielberg’s latest film, Bridge of Spies and a group of spies met on a bridge.  This is no slight on the actual film’s screenplay as the scene is actually quite riveting, but more a testament to this film’s transparent nature in that what you see is what you get – quite rare for a “spy” film.

This is the fourth pairing of Steven Spielberg as director and Tom Hanks as actor.  Each film they’ve done together has been a period piece of sorts with a true story at its core.  Bridge of Spies is no exception.  In it, Hanks plays James Donovan, a partner in a successful New York insurance law firm at the height of the Cold War.  When a suspected Soviet spy named Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) is captured by the FBI, Donovan is recruited to provide a “credible defense” in a trial designed to railroad this spy right to the electric chair.  Donovan’s duty as an American trumps his hesitation for taking a losing battle and he agrees to take the case.  From this point on, Spielberg’s film ceases to be a “did he or didn’t he” film (he did), and begins a fascinating exploration into the murkiness, hypocrisy, and complexity of espionage during one of American history’s most turbulent periods.  Abel is not depicted as an enemy but as a cautious, thoughtful man doing an important job for his country in a time of unrest.  His story is paralleled by another depicting the training and deployment of Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), a U-2 pilot for the CIA who is later shot down in his spy plane over Russia.  In the wrong hands, these stories could come across as preachy or downright absurd, but thankfully the Coen brothers crafted the screenplay and tell an intelligent story about perspective rather than a heroic tale of valor.  In one early scene, Donovan is seen discussing one of his client’s responsibilities for paying a claim to a victim who wants five times the settlement because a driver ran into five motorcycle drivers.  Donovan goes on to explain that to the victim five things happened but according to the insurance policy, one thing happened.  This conversation holds new meaning when Donovan’s life as one type of lawyer leads him to act as an entirely different type of lawyer and that two sides of a seemingly black and white conflict are actually one.

Powers’s and Abel’s stories converge with a prisoner exchange plot that holds Donovan firmly in the middle.  Hanks embodies Donovan’s struggle with great appeal.  He is born to play roles like this and Spielberg knows it.  In fact, Spielberg’s cinematic voice has been diminished lately by the enormous shadow cast by his actors and screenwriters.  With Lincoln it felt like Spielberg simply had to put the camera on a tripod and let Daniel Day-Lewis have his way with Tony Kushner’s script.  The same formula is at work with Bridge of Spies.  Spielberg is certainly gifted at his attention to detail as this film drips with authenticity, and some of his transitions are enlightened and stark, but ultimately this film’s success rests on Hanks and the screenwriting of Charman and the Coens.  Also, Rylance’s subdued performance as Abel is understated but pivotal. Several times throughout the movie, he is relegated to utter the schmaltzy phrase, “would it help?” as a little inside joke between Donovan and himself, but it works every time.

Furthermore, Bridge of Spies follows some conventional storytelling arcs, but the spy genre is not one easily transformed.  The key to Bridge’s success is that its agenda is not to trick the audience but rather to let us hold all of the cards and experience the weight of each decision that is made.  That along with some brilliant set-pieces, scenery, and top notch performances from Hanks and Rylance allow Bridge of Spies to work very well.  B+

Bridge of Spies is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 21 minutes.

Saving Mr. Banks

ImageWhen nominations were being made for the 2014 Golden Globes, I read that if Saving Mr. Banks were to get a nomination, it would have been in the drama category.  That sounded odd.  I mean Tom Hanks as Walt Disney trying to get the author of Mary Poppins to sign over movie rights, a drama?  Now, the Golden Globes don’t always get it right – it’s kind of their thing, but regarding Saving Mr. Banks as a drama – they were right about this one. 

It may seem a bit self-indulgent for a movie studio to make a movie about how amazing they were when they made another movie, but there’s more to this story than just that.  Primarily, Saving Mr. Banks is the behind the scenes story of Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) furiously courting writer P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) in the hopes of getting her to sign over the movie rights to her Mary Poppins children’s books. Hanks summons all of the likability of well, Tom Hanks, to portray the larger than life filmmaker.  His motive is to fulfill a promise to his daughters 20 years in the making, that he would produce a film about their favorite childhood books.  Travers is the holdout as she has seen Disney’s films over the past 20 years and does not want her beloved characters to be romping around stage, singing, and worst of all…as cartoons!  In 1961, Disney finally convinces Travers to at least visit Los Angeles, sit in with the writers, and see what happens. 

Travers is a terror on Disney, his writers, and his staff.  Her arrogant British ways are on full display, but it is clear that she has high defenses for a reason; these characters are important to her for reasons Disney can not possibly understand.  Director, John Lee Hancock explores the layers of Travers through flashback, sporadically inserting scenes of her childhood with her parents Travers (Colin Farrell) and Margaret (Ruth Wilson).  Through these flashbacks, the audience gets a rueful sense of Poppins’ origin.  Hancock and his editors are brilliant at sensing when these scenes are necessary.  This is especially evident in a fine scene set to the Mary Poppins song, “Feed the Birds.”

Cleary, Mary Poppins becomes a film and a film beloved by generations of people for 50 years now, so whether the film is made is not a source of tension whatsoever.  The strength of the film is in its way that Travers and Disney slowly are able to find common ground.  Doubtless, we are seeing some revisionist history.  I’m sure that if another studio had been granted the rights to tell this story, we might get a different vision of Walt Disney, the man.  However, Saving Mr. Banks does not seek to disparage its characters.  Rather, it desires to explore some of the “magic” that makes characters and stories meaningful to us.  The film is actually quite clever in its construction as it subtly mirrors the conflict in Mary Poppins through Travers’s fear of what blind capitalism might do to something she sees as so precious and pure. 

Disney fans will also find much to enjoy as the nostalgia level is through the roof and hypnotizing.  Memorable songs from Mary Poppins are strewn all over the film, and it is very enjoyable to watch these songs develop and be performed all over again.  In one scene, as Paul Giamatti’s character, Ralph, drives Travers into Walt Disney Land for the first time, he may as well come back and pick us up too!  In fact, during the credits photos of Walt Disney and all of the characters from the film are displayed and a real audio sample of the real P.L. Travers bossing around the writers can be heard.  The film is laced with Disney, but the contact high is pleasant.  

Thompson is irrepressibly repressive as Travers.  It is a delight to see her take the lead again for the first time since reprising her role as Nanny McPhee in 2010; however, this is her finest and most substantial performance in many years.  By the end of the film, she has the audience in the palm of her hand and conveniently one of the film’s final scenes takes place in a movie theater where the audience has no choice but to fully experience and empathize with her literally from per point of view.  Hanks does an ample and sufficient job as Disney, but most of his scenes involve making puzzled looks or smiling a lot.  There are several times throughout the film where viewers will ask themselves, “how is he ever going to get this woman to sign over the rights?” and he succeeds in making us understand, chiefly thanks to one fine speech towards the film’s end.  Otherwise, Hanks is a recognizable caricature.  It is certainly P.L. Travers’s story, but it would have been nice to get a bit more into Disney’s head than this film had intended. 

Saving Mr. Banks is a surprisingly rich contextual film, appropriately layered to tell not one but two deeply related stories.  I was surprised how caught up I found myself with the flashback scenes and consequently with how much I liked this film.  A-

Saving Mr. Banks is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours.       

Captain Phillips

ImageIn the opening scene of Captain Phillips, Tom Hanks’ character, Rich Phillips, has a frank conversation with his wife Andrea (Catherine Keener) while they drive to the airport.  As a teacher, I took special note of this conversation, as it pertained to Phillips’ concern regarding his son’s performance in school.  He tells his wife that he’s worried that the world is far more competitive than it used to be and that even putting in the minimum is not enough to rise above and have a chance at success.  I’ve delivered various versions of this message to my high school students and while this conversation stood out to me for a different reason than it will to many other theatergoers, this seemingly innocuous scene sets the tone for a far more substantial and contextual film than I had expected. 

Adapted from Richard Phillips’ memoir, Captain Phillips tells the somewhat well-known true story of an American cargo ship hijacked by Somali pirates in the Spring of 2009.  The surprisingly rapid turnaround between original incident and major film production speaks volumes to the merits of the story.  The film presents a form of “bio-pic” that forgoes the melodramatic retelling of fact, and instead uses real life to make a statement, in this case about globalization.  Director Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum), aims his “shaky” camera not only at the heroic protagonist, but also at what leads these Somali pirates to take such risky action.  By the time the pirates board Phillips’ ship, we are thoroughly disturbed and authentically frightened for what they may be capable of doing to take over the vessel.  The four pirates are meticulously realized through some menacing bilingual performances by a group of first-time Somali actors.  As the film unfolds, their story and motivations are every bit as fascinating and gripping as those of Phillips and his crew.  Phillips’ opening conversation with his wife about the stresses of competition and the vanishing opportunities for those less fortunate becomes realized as we see this despair front and center.    

Tom Hanks is sure to earn an Oscar nomination for his performance in this film.  In fact, this may be the performance of his career, certainly his best since Philadelphia.  His pragmatic performance is captivating, and he is never over-the-top.  In a scene where Muse, the lead pirate, invades the cargo ship’s control room, Phillips squares off with the pirates for the first time.  Hanks responds to this scenario so well and so realistically that it is easy to forget that this is a movie and not real life.  As the film goes on, Hanks tempers his performance for every new development culminating in a scene towards the end that is nothing short of brilliant, heartbreaking, and stirring.

Captain Phillips is another great movie for 2013.  While the story is still relatively current and many film-goers will be aware of its outcome, Greengrass, Hanks, and the supporting cast ensure a thrilling experience.  The film also works on a deeper level by examining the motives of the pirates and theorizing about some of the policies that should, perhaps, be revisited regarding freighter security measures and the “acceptable” risks that are taken for the sake of transporting goods overseas.  The film resonates with vivacity but Hanks’ performance is the film’s true strength.  A-

Captain Phillips is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 14 minutes. 

The Weekly DISCussion

In this holiday edition of “The Weekly DISCussion,” The People’s Critic is recommending two films sure to enhance your season!

This week’s Must See DVD of the Week is: Image

It is true that this recommendation is partially because I am trying to not go with an obvious choice.  However, Die Hard is absolutely a movie that is fun to watch around the holidays.  When terrorists take a group of employees hostage during their holiday party, it is up to New York cop, John McClane (Bruce Willis) to save the day.  Die Hard is responsible for reinventing the action thriller.  With its careful balance of terror, violence, humor, and excitement, Die Hard excels above standard action fare even to the extent of creating an iconic villain in Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber.  With another film in the successful franchise arriving in 2013, cuddle up with your special someone this season and check out where it all began with 1988’s Die Hard.

Netflix Must Stream of the Week: Image

This year saw director Robert Zemeckis return to live action film making with Flight.  Zemeckis has spent the last eight years of his career filming three separate, innovative motion-capture animated films, the first being 2004’s The Polar Express.  The story surrounds Billy, who is finding it difficult to believe in Santa Claus.  Suddenly, he is whisked away on a magical train to the North Pole where his belief is restored.  While not a perfect movie, The Polar Express manages to capture most of the magic of the beloved children’s book.  The human characters appear somewhat lifeless, but the film does manage to rekindle some of that childish wonder that may have been lost over the years.