About Elly (2009, Asghar Farhadi) [r]
The relationships among several people spending a weekend at a ramshackle seaside cottage fracture when an idyllic beach day abruptly turns frantic. Farhadi’s way with a camera is spellbinding, and he’s one of the most absorbing cinematic storytellers currently alive, addressing social problems in Iran within the subtle framework of a story that ends up resembling a mystery or thriller more than the domestic romantic comedy-drama we’re set up to expect in the first act. The characterizations are incredibly complex and intricate, overrun with telling and well-observed details, even if the film finally lacks the emotional kick of A Separation.
About Schmidt (2002, Alexander Payne) [A+]
Jack Nicholson is everybody’s crazed libido and sadsack aggression, and he’s getting old. There’s a certain distance to Payne’s previous movies that finally pays off here, allowing the story, its inimitable leading actor, its characters, and its welcome lack of an aversion to restrained silliness to breathe without overreaching.
The Absent Minded Professor (1961, Robert Stevenson)
* You can’t have much aggression toward something like this, but it’s not a fixture of my childhood (or rather, my father’s childhood) I need to revisit. Great special effects.
The Abyss (1989, James Cameron) [c]
* Cameron in his lamest form, a technically proficient, screaming corpse of a movie.
The Accidental Tourist (1988, Lawrence Kasdan) [c]
What makes William Hurt’s constantly bored, detached travel writer in this film an adult whereas, say, Adam Sandler in Punch Drunk Love is a “man-child”? Is it that he has a readymade tragic backstory? Because from what I can tell he’s no less entitled than any other obnoxious, up-his-own-ass emotional corpse whose purpose is in life is to be “rescued” by the various chattering, nurturing women whose entire purpose in turn is to fix him. A set of decent-to-great actors can barely keep their heads above all the mumbling in this dire, drab “comedy”; Kasdan fails to indicate any greater feel for human relationships than you’d expect for someone whose big claim to fame is cowriting a Star Wars movie.
The Accused (1988, Jonathan Kaplan) [r]
When this courtroom drama about the victim of a gang rape (Jodie Foster) gets into the legal nuts and bolts of such a case, like the way a plea bargain is structured — getting young men off with under two years because they have such a “bright future” — and then how a maneuver around such injustice might be devised through a larger-scale prosecution, it’s heartbreaking, vital and fascinating. Unfortunately, the characterization isn’t as strong or probing as it could be, and it seems unnecessary and exploitative to end the film with a harrowing, traumatic reenactment of the crime itself. Foster herself is flawless, and she and the story deserve better.
Ace in the Hole (1951, Billy Wilder) [hr]
The public appreciated director Wilder’s rampant cynicism in his smash hit Sunset Blvd. because they felt so far away from the open eccentricity of Hollywood; this movie, also known as The Big Carnival, an embittered and astonishingly harsh drama about a newspaperman (Kirk Douglas) who risks a life in order to get a good story, flopped because it implicates us all. Though pessimistic to an ultimately rather cartoonish extent, this is also fascinating and shocking in a way that no other film of the ’50s remains today. It is also as visually accomplished as anything Wilder ever put his name on, particularly a breathtaking crane shot of the titular carnival at its height.
The Ace of Hearts (1921, Wallace Worsley) [r]
Early Lon Chaney picture for Samuel Goldwyn comes close to being a really chilling portrait of the simple coldbloodedness of cult mentality, as it follows a “brotherhood” of anarchists (all male save one member) planning to murder — via bombing of a public space — a man who “has lived too long,” for reasons that are (refreshingly) never explained. The film then gets rather bogged down in moralistic stuff involving a love triangle, but its air of mystery and strangeness still seduces.
The Act of Killing (2012, Joshua Oppenheimer) [A+]
Looking for a movie that will rip you to pieces and put you back together again in a different order? Here you go. This documentary of Indonesian mob killings during a 1965 military coup and the now-elderly gangsters who perpetrated them is one of the truly tragic and terrifying films about the banality of evil; to describe it also as darkly funny and morally complex seems flippant until you see it. It’s truly new, truly unique, and possibly the best film of the last five years.
Adaptation (2002, Spike Jonze) [hr]
Charlie Kaufman’s most personal and awe-inspiring early script is winning, emotionally rich and confoundingly surreal. The best movie Nicolas Cage and Meryl Streep will ever make, and a must for anyone who knows the frustrations and pratfalls of creativity and pretension.
The Addams Family (1991, Barry Sonnenfeld) [r]
* Sonnenfeld’s good move is not to cash in on the charm of the characters but rather on their mythical qualities. Oh, yeah, it’s still cashing in, but by playing with iconic pretty pictures and concentrating on technical design, he makes a fun movie rather than a humiliating one. It’s calculation that works. Not even in the same league as Charles Addams’ brilliant cartoons, but at the very least a good match for the silly / fun TV show.
Addams Family Values (1993, Barry Sonnenfeld) [r]
* The Help! to the Hard Day’s Night original, this plays the spooky revisionists strictly for laughs, but strangely enough is significantly (and maybe accidentally?) better. Those who objected to the cheap attitudes of the original may wish to take a look at this anyway.
Adventureland (2009, Greg Mottola) [hr]
An unexpectedly affecting teen film with a difference; set in the mid-’80s and full of telling detail, it has the genuinely lived-in feeling of a Hal Ashby film, aided by the ache in Jesse Eisenberg and Kristin Stewart’s earnest performances. It feels like youth and summer and all the relevant pangs that come with both.
Adventures in Babysitting (1987, Chris Columbus) [NO]
* Exactly what it sounds like, but a good deal more work than it ought to be. This actually may be Columbus’ most human film. Take that however you must.
The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1989, Terry Gilliam) [r]
* Well, he swears he didn’t do any drugs. Was it worth all those millions of dollars? No. But this bizarre indulgence for Gilliam — which essentially makes no sense — certainly has value; turn off the sound, turn off your brain, dive in.
The Adventures of Ford Fairlane (1990, Renny Harlin) [NO]
* Andrew Dice Clay in a Renny Harlin film.
The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949, Jack Kinney & Clyde Geronimi) [r]
Unusually high-quality package feature — Disney’s last — is marred only by the fact that the individual pieces work better on their own and deserve to be seen that way. The Wind in the Willows segment is exceedingly melancholy and beautifully drawn, but the masterpiece is The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, one of the two or three scariest cartoons ever made. The characterization and humor here upstage an embarrassing number of the more famous films the studio was to produce in the coming decade.
The Adventures of Milo & Otis (1989, Masanori Hata)
* A cat and a dog chase one another around Japanese farms and stuff. Good for kids and well-photographed, but the story is just an excuse for a lot of nature photography, most of which might be better served (and more impressive) in a less precious context.
The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938, Michael Curtiz & William Keighley) [c]
Signature Warner Bros. adventure film just doesn’t work if you’re not already inclined to appreciate its indulgences. Flynn is a completely unappealing leader of a fine cast stuck in insipid parts behind layers of bad wardrobe, hair and makeup, and the entire thing just looks so garish and ugly, which makes it seem like it’s geared toward toddlers.
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1938, Norman Taurog) [c]
* Ridiculous light undoing of Twain is no less “pure” than its source material, but doesn’t add anything either. David O. Selznick dumps on the gratuitous gags in one of his strangest films.
An Affair to Remember (1957, Leo McCarey) [c]
* The movie you fear every other “sophisticated” comedy you ever see will end up turning into. Cary Grant is in his element for the first half, lost and afloat in the second, which features some of the most embarrassingly cloying moments in classic Hollywood.
Affliction (1997, Paul Schrader)
Bizarre concoction with Nick Nolte embroiled in a half-hearted murder mystery, but also a half-hearted custody battle, and also he’s a cop who’s bad at his job and makes everyone nervous, and also the Halloween party went badly, and also his dad was mean to him, and his tooth hurts, and evil land developers. Narrated in a weird detached tone by Willem Dafoe, who explains the themes to us at the end. Confusing and pat, despite good use of chilly New Hampshire locations and Sissy Spacek.
The African Queen (1951, John Huston) [hr]
Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn on a boat together in deepest Africa, mistrusting one another then slowly falling in love and deciding to try and take on an impossible task. What could be better?
After the Fox (1966, Vittorio De Sica) [r]
* Classy Peter Sellers wackiness is unmissable for his fans, but of course doesn’t have much on his work with Blake Edwards and may suffer from a mismatched performer and director.
After Tomorrow (1931, Frank Borzage) [r]
Sonya Levien’s script is impressively unwavering in casting attention toward a young couple dealing with economic distress, the blossoming of adulthood and a real sex life (yes, they say the word) and the demoralizing shade thrown by their respective moms. It’s kind of a reverse Make Way for Tomorrow, wherein it’s the kids who are sympathetic and heartfelt and trying and their parents who are one-dimensionally cruel and underwritten. Borzage captures several exhilarating moments of realistic coupledom but falters into pat sentimentality at the conclusion.
The Age of Innocence (1993, Martin Scorsese) [NO]
* Endlessly dull, hamhanded attempt by Scorsese to do Barry Lyndon or some shit; lots and lots of clichés following the Idea of Repression in 19th century society but wasting the storytelling opportunities it provides and lacking every trace of wit and intelligence that might compensate. The movie looks great, but so what?
The Agony and the Ecstacy (1965, Carol Reed) [r]
* Expansive and hugely entertaining nonsense with Michelangelo as portrayed somewhat ridiculously by Charlton Heston. Some great dialogue and splendid set design, and the bad things about it somehow make it better.
Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972, Werner Herzog) [r]
For Herzog, the tale of insane-to-the-core explorer Lope de Aguirre (the off-putting Klaus Kinski), who split off in South America on a crazed search for mythical El Dorado, must have seemed a godsend; its built-in symbolism is staggeringly rich. There are shades of expressionism, much of which would color Francis Coppola’s and arguably Terrence Malick’s work later, and a lightly surreal, exposed visual style that is undeniably hypnotic (courtesy of cameraman Thomas Mauch), but it all feels a bit flat and cheap, like a competent documentary following a group of reenactors, and neither the screenplay nor Herzog’s self-satisfied distance are helpful.
AI: Artificial Intelligence (2001, Steven Spielberg) [c]
Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg’s admirably ambitious cautionary (?) tale about an emotionally needy robot played by the reliable Haley Joel Osment is a complete mess, full of ideas but no structure, emotion but no resonance. A nightmare to sit through, and there’s no reward at the end for those who make it.
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013, David Lowery) [r]
Wispy story of a habitual criminal taking the fall for a police shooting his beloved committed is moony and cripplingly overserious but does have good characterizations, feels genuinely romantic and vital, and packs it in after a lean 90 minutes. It takes place in 1971 but aspires to a more distant time despite owing a good bit to Badlands. Rooney Mara is extraordinary — delivering a bracingly realistic performance in a film that can’t live up to it.
Airplane! (1980, Jim Abrahams/David Zucker/Jerry Zucker) [hr]
* Still as funny as it’s reputed to be, even if you have never seen any of the movies it is making fun of, and I haven’t. Presumably there’s a reason it’s outlived its targets. The best “ZAZ” film easily.
Airport (1970, George Seaton) [c]
Absolute swill following Burt Lancaster in crisis-control mode became a mass cultural phenomenon and franchise throughout the ’70s. Largely because it features so many good actors humiliating themselves but perhaps even more because Seaton has one powerhouse of a tense thriller sequence up his sleeve, it gave rise, of course, to the brain-atrophying likes of The Towering Inferno, The Poseidon Adventure and the TV shows Hotel and The Love Boat, but taken on its own its broad, soapy, sub-telefilm melodrama almost begs to be mocked (which it would be, the creation of another phenomenon).
Akira (1988, Katsuhiro Otomo) [c]
* My introduction to anime, this is an action movie of sorts that would suck in live action and sucks just as much as a horribly pretentious cartoon.
Aladdin (1992, John Musker & Ron Clements) [NO]
* Flat and irritating followup to Beauty and the Beast features audaciously bad comic relief from the more-painful-than-ever Robin Williams; the fact that his segments are the only memorable part of the movie speaks for itself. Except for one very computer-generated sequence, the animation isn’t great either, and the songs are worse than in any of the other Disney Renaissance features.
The Alamo (1960, John Wayne) [c]
An overbearing behemoth, but watchable.
Alexander Nevsky (1938, Sergei Eisenstein & Dmitriy Vasilev) [hr]
At first it’s strange to witness Eisenstein taking on such a conventional, linear story (the 13th century defeat of the Holy Roman Empire’s attempted Russian invasion) — and he was certainly reined in a bit by forces beyond his control — but he’s great at it, rendering an obvious piece of wartime propaganda compelling despite its skeletal simplicity; as usual, nearly every shot and edit is striking and almost nightmarish in its angular cleanliness. Then comes the battle scene, which occupies the majority of the film’s second half, and oh yeah, there he is; like his best silent work, it transcends ideology through sheer cinematic excitement.
Alice (1990, Woody Allen) [hr]
Allen’s blissful, dreamy haze, a fairy tale of yuppie insecurity uprooted with magic that may not finally be necessary. The director’s most magnetic fantasy until Midnight in Paris, triumphantly funny, whimsical and poignant.
Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974, Martin Scorsese) [r]
Scorsese’s out-of-place, hyperactive blocking and camera movements are mostly a distraction from this low-key drama of a widow packing up and trying to make a life for herself. The script by Robert Getchell is often perceptive — though too often forgiving of its male characters’ bonehead masculinity. The cast is outstanding, particularly the brilliant Ellen Burstyn but also Diane Ladd and a very young Jodie Foster, adding flavor and dimension to a flawed film and all but redeeming its issues. Also memorable for its rare and satisfying sense of America in 1974, detailed and steeped in its era without feeling dated.
Alice in Wonderland (1951, Clyde Geronimi & Hamilton Luske) [hr]
With the stigma attached to this in the post-acid era (thanks to its uncredited spawning of George Dunning’s Yellow Submarine), it may be a difficult item to latch onto, but it’s worth the trouble. Episodic though it is, it is a sumptuous and impressively disturbing version of the Lewis Carroll classic from the Disney studio, settling back into experimental mode after reasserting itself with Cinderella, which, significantly, has not aged nearly as well.
Alien (1979, Ridley Scott) [c]
Scott’s big festival of jump scares is sillier than you probably remember. While the technical mastery and the infusion of sexual imagery into sci-fi themes are both to be commended, the film in the end is just a horror story that cannot stand up to the better examples of that genre or of its pretended one without a good deal of excuse-making. All of the smart people and excellent pieces add up to a hollow, and depressing, whole.
Aliens (1986, James Cameron) [c]
Cameron’s perplexing Alien sequel makes up for some of the original film’s problems but drops all of its virtues as well. The result is high-octane action, and while the breakneck pacing is a fine showcase for the director and his technical staff, the movie is exactly like a thousand other movies. And really, really, really fucking stupid.
Alien3 (1992, David Fincher) [c]
* The best director to work on the Alien franchise was squandered by 20th Century Fox in his attempts to inject basically anything worthwhile into it, so the result is a clone of the first film except nastier and more nihilistic. Fincher is a better visual stylist than Scott or Cameron, but he can do more with a Madonna video than he was permitted to do with this.
Alien: Resurrection (1997, Jean-Pierre Jeunet) [NO]
* You cannot blame the problems of this movie on Jeunet with any conscience, but forgive no one else. The cast and screenplay are terrible, and this time out the CG-heavy special effects are none too impressive either. No more, please.
All About Eve (1950, Joseph L. Mankiewicz) [A+]
Mankiewicz’s sizzling examination of theater people and how the gradual acquisition of humanity by one oozes the life out of (and the ego into) another. It’s blessed with a bruising, hilarious script, but more importantly, it’s one of the most chilling, cynical films ever made, and its finale is breathless genius. Entire cast is perfect, but Anne Baxter and George Sanders reach individual peaks here.
All About My Mother (1999, Pedro Almodovar) [r]
Sensitive, evocative characterizations are the prime selling point of this lopsided narrative. Particularly when the four central women are gathered together and enjoying themselves, there’s something refreshingly real and unfussy about their interaction. The story — organ donor melodrama, long-lost theater people and dead offspring — bears less scrutiny.
All Dogs Go to Heaven (1989, Don Bluth) [NO]
* Bluth’s most infuriating, offensive film has the man who once rightfully accused Disney of creative bankruptcy reaching a nadir to which they never came close, as he arranges cute animals and the afterlife into a constellation of lies for kiddies to swallow whole with the Ritalin and Lunchables.
Alligator (1980, Lewis Teague) [c]
* Sledgehammer irony.
All Is Lost (2013, J.C. Chandor) [hr]
Fascinating silent-ish drama about a man (Robert Redford) alone on a boat in the Indian Ocean, trying to protect himself from leaks and the elements after the hull is breached. A gripping and enveloping survival story, impeccably filmed.
All of Me (1984, Carl Reiner) [hr]
Steve Martin and Lily Tomlin’s dazzling performances anchor this insightful comic romp that is enough to give amnesty for the many subsequent sins of Martin and all others involved.
All Quiet on the Western Front (1930, Lewis Milestone) [A+]
Shattering antiwar masterpiece defines a humanism that transcends Hollywood and the motion picture business while somehow defining it in perhaps its most watershed year, 1930, when directors who could not make the transition to sound began to be tragically and systematically cut off. Locked in its time yet startlingly permanent; could make you cry if you have never done so at a movie.
All That Jazz (1979, Bob Fosse) [hr]
Spectactularly messed-up autobiographical chronicle of Fosse working himself to death has a nearly unique, almost avant garde rhythm and is altogether extremely disturbing, though it doesn’t lack for considerable opulence and pizzazz. It owes a lot to a few older films, especially 8 1/2, but it really represents a rare moment of a Hollywood studio signing on for a no-holds-barred personal vision that is, at bottom, monumentally apeshit.
All the King’s Men (1949, Robert Rossen)
It’s refreshing to see a studio-era Hollywood feature, based on the Robert Penn Warren Pulitzer-winner about the corruption of a small-town politician, that’s this tough-minded and cynical about politics, people, and America itself — but the film gives you too much to think about in too little time, and feels like what it is: a dilution of a sprawling literary work.
All the President’s Men (1976, Alan J. Pakula) [A+]
The ink of Watergate was still wet when this movie came off the presses, and it is enhanced to no end by its timeliness; we watch the scandal erupt, fade, and erupt again before our eyes, and we must remind ourselves constantly that it isn’t fiction, because it certainly seems as if it had to be.
Almost Famous (2000, Cameron Crowe) [hr]
Crowe’s deeply personal autobiographical film about his adolescent career as a rock journalist is one of the most heartfelt films about young love, being a fan, and a life on the road. It is unmistakably lived-in and truly touching, with wonderfully sweet and believable performances by Patrick Fugit and Kate Hudson in the two lead roles.
Along Came a Spider (2001, Lee Tamahori) [c]
* Not worth your time.
Alps (2011, Yorgos Lanthimos) [r]
Bizarre black comedy is kind of a macabre variant on a Charlie Kaufman story, about an enthusiastic team of young abnormals who step into the lives of others, posing as the recently deceased to supposedly aid in the grieving process. It all goes awry, of course, in alternately nightmarish and affecting fashion. In all caps: NOT FOR ALL TASTES.
Always (1989, Steven Spielberg) [c]
* Certainly not the easiest film in the world to dislike, but one of the hardest ones to enjoy. Spielberg’s attempt at romantic comedy, ten years after his attempt at wacko comedy with 1941, is so ham-fisted it may as well be a straightfaced WWII B-picture, which may or may not have been the director’s intention. Either way, this technically impressive, masturbatory showcase is cold and hollow. How wonderful to see Audrey Hepburn one last time, though.
Amadeus (1984, Milos Forman) [hr]
Has nothing to do with Mozart, really, but everything to do with competition, jealousy, failure. The glory of the material Forman is working with does a big part of getting him past biopic trappings that he has succumbed to in other efforts. Visually sumptuous, and the music? Of course.
Amarcord (1973, Federico Fellini) [r]
Fellini’s episodic semi-memoir of life in fascist Italy is saccharine but irresistibly charming, maybe more so than a film about Il Duce’s regime ought to be. Its strikingly weird yet mostly grounded imagery along with the fourth-wall breaking give it levity and exuberance despite being overstuffed and often superficial; it revels in sexual juvenilia even at the same time as it mocks it, and maybe that’s healthy.
Amazing Grace (2018, Sydney Pollack) [hr]
Pollack’s unfinished documentary about the recording of the best-selling gospel record of all time is both a musical powerhouse and a cinematic joy, shot on phantasmagoric 16mm film in 1971. Aretha Franklin’s performance feels like humanity in peak form, in terms of raw emotion and elegant artistry; this isn’t unusual for her, but it’s amplified in the context of the Church, the world that spawned her as no other could have. You get front-row seats to Detroit musical history transplanted to L.A., and to the awe-inspiring scope of American music (specifically, black music) in all of its spiritual heft. Unmissable.
Amélie (2001, Jean-Pierre Jeunet)
A cutesy, gooey cloud of fluff about a misfit girl and her mission to force the lives of those around her to improve through various forms of idle deceit. The story is hampered by both its lack of direction and its reliance on labored quirkiness. The same goes for Jeunet’s visual style, which is opulent and flawless but quickly becomes intolerable.
America America (1963, Elia Kazan) [r]
Haskell Wexler’s stunning black & white photography is the most obvious virtue of this Kazan passion project — a three-hour narrative of his uncle’s journey to America from his impoverished village in Turkey — but by no means the only one. While episodic by necessity, the film is frequently absorbing enough in sections to get across a genuine sense of harrowing journey, all driven by Stathis Giallelis’ incredibly well-controlled performance as young, determined, struggling Stavros. Despite an unevenness of tone and some odd casting, it still has depressing relevance to the killing-yourself-to-live nature of poverty.
The American (2010, Anton Corbijn) [r]
Like the subsequent A Most Wanted Man, Corbijn’s first foray into the “anti-Bond” genre is a slowly-paced thriller suffused with dread that transcends its stylishness. George Clooney stars as an out-of-sorts arms maker with a weakness for young flesh that entraps him during an ominous retreat in a remote Italian town. The rhythm is odd in a manner that’s alternately exciting and ineffectual, but the minimalism and bleakness are much appreciated, as is the exploration of a terrified macho hero who doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing.
The American Astronaut (2001, Cory McAbee)
Certain films cross genres; certain films are simply frenetic. Certain films are minimalistic; certain films are minimal. This cheap black & white strip of inside jokes and forced wackiness may or may not be a musical, a western, sci-fi, a new interpretation of Austen, a movie at all. The moments of greatest confusion are sublime, and they sit firmly at the beginning and end. The metaphysical mumbo-jumbo is tiresome, however deliberately.
American Beauty (1999, Sam Mendes) [hr]
I can’t be sure what’s meant by this film’s Larger Statements, but as a very long Wilderesque sitcom about a bickering family with an ironic twist, it’s extremely funny and quite slick. Strong writing from Alan Ball is overshadowed by not just the excellent performances of Kevin Spacey, Thora Birch, and Chris Chooper but Thomas Newman’s brilliant music score.
American Gangster (2007, Ridley Scott) [r]
Better than most organized crime films because of its French Connection-influenced law/order structure. Denzel Washington’s anti-hero is truly consumed by evil; there is no Corleone-ish masculine dichotomy of faith and dignity to his life of crime, which invades at every turn. But we go one better here with the unsettling question of evil as class struggle, and no one with a realistic view of narcotics crime in America can protest that this film’s tackling of the behemoth is one-sided. Responsibility in ambiguity, imaginatively rendered.
American Graffiti (1973, George Lucas) [c]
Lucas’ tiresome, idyllic vision of teenage existence in the early ’60s grows harder to watch as the years pass. Like the director’s other boomer fantasies, it replaces insight and fun with pretension, and its humor seems designed to make people remember some superficial impression of the time it depicts rather than the various half-stories it tells. It’s no big news that the music is great, but by using it to fill his own storytelling gaps, Lucas fathers a generation or two of rotten teen movies.
American History X (1998, Tony Kaye) [NO]
Glorified afterschool special with a script worse than anything Ed Wood filmed features Edward Norton and Edward Furlong as white supremacist brothers and is as subtle as a swastika tattoo. Directed by a wild-eyed crank, taken out of his hands and reedited by an egomaniac movie star; proceed if you dare.
American Honey (2016, Andrea Arnold) [hr]
The magazine scammers in indentured servitude who knocked on your door and posed as friendly college students looking to fund this or that are brought to aching real life by an ensemble of disparate young adults in this lengthy, meandering but wondrously vivid slice of impoverished life, a movie that’s so cinematically expressive it can’t be reduced to words. The feeling of being an outsider among a tight-knit group, the way life lived on the edge of legitimacy can turn on a dime from recklessness to hilarity, the unexpected moments of splendor within a total lack of freedom: it’s all here, and it couldn’t be more passionately presented.
American Hustle (2013, David O. Russell) [hr]
Somehow languid and hyperactive at once, this exuberant and immaculately cast heist picture, semi-based on semi-true semi-events, features superb characterization and a distinctly felt sense of time, place and people. It somehow lost the Academy Award for costume design, but we all know that’s nonsense.
An American in Paris (1951, Vincente Minnelli)
The plot of this wistful, opulent Gene Kelly vehicle makes very little sense, and its resolution never met a copout it couldn’t sink its teeth into. But it still has its moments of visual and musical romance that nearly justify its rampant sexism. It’s no Singin’ in the Rain, though.
American Pop (1981, Ralph Bakshi) [NO]
* Bakshi’s seemingly unfinished epic story about the evolution of popular music in the U.S. and, um, its effect on a family is little more than just strange and overreaching.
An American Tail (1986, Don Bluth) [NO]
* As usual, Don Bluth gets by on the cheapest emotional qualities that allowed many to look past the rudimentary animation and the fact that the film has no substantial ideas or characters at all.
Amistad (1997, Steven Spielberg) [hr]
Four years after giving the action movie an air of social relevance with Schindler’s List, Spielberg resists the temptation to make this “powerful” or “inspirational.” Instead, it’s a slow-burn of a movie… a great and important story, told with a sense of complexity and genuine, uncompromising depth. It is quite unsatisfying, but that may indeed be the point.
Amores Perros (2000, Alejandro González Iñárritu)
This three-episode jumble of hyperactive stuff, all of it involving dogs and miserable people, has its riveting elements — confined mostly to the first and last segments, the middle one being a riff on idle rich angst — but doesn’t really hang together at all and goes on an hour longer than it should.
Amour (2012, Michael Haneke)
Haneke coldly dissects an end-of-life scenario: silent stroke, protracted death. Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant give two of the most haunting performances in any modern film, but a reach for the universal in something that cannot be pared down to a shared experience results in an impersonal, trite drama of misery.
Anastasia (1956, Anatole Litvak) [r]
Though slick and entertaining, this stagy Cinemascope exploration of so-called “Anastasia impostor” Anna Anderson is oddly frivolous given its epic-scale framework. It has post-exile Ingrid Bergman as a suicidal drifter drawn into a Pygmalion-esque plot to imitate the probably long-dead duchess for financial motives. Eventually, this improbably evolves into a romance with Yul Brynner (in an exciting, well-controlled performance). If you can look past the strained blocking and overstuffed art direction, this is passable, engagingly glamorous and even quite funny at certain moments… though it’s hard to imagine its anticlimactic finale playing well with audiences who came for spectacle in 1956.
Anatomy of a Murder (1959, Otto Preminger) [A+]
In one of his all-time finest turns, James Stewart plays an enigmatic lawyer and jazz pianist who takes the defense on a seemingly impossible murder case in this clinical, painstakingly detailed coutroom drama, also featuring good moments from Lee Remick, George C. Scott, Saul Bass (the title sequence), and Duke Ellington (score plus cameo). Preminger’s most absorbing, conflicted effort.
…And God Spoke (the making of…) (1993, Arthur Borman) [hr]
* Unjustly forgotten mockumentary in the style of Christopher Guest except with whinier people, who are gathered to try and make a biblical epic. As funny as Spinal Tap.
Andrei Rublev (1966, Andrei Tarkovsky) [hr]
One of those movies that instantly humbles you. To call it a biopic of a medieval Russian painter of icons, famous for his Trinity, and an “epic” is technically truthful while missing the essence completely. Its eight individual episodes each work as singularly impressive short features all on their own, whether transfixed with spare dialogue and moments between Rublev and other characters, with Tarkovsky’s endlessly hypnotic movement of the camera that seems instrinsically tied to our emotional experience of everything we see, or with the genuinely arresting portrait of both the mundane and the extraordinary. It seems somehow to contain everything.
Angus (1995, Patrick Read Johnson) [r]
* It’s not that much better than any other given movie of its stripe, but there is a certain humanity to it, and it has George C. Scott.
Animal Farm (1955, Joy Batchelor & John Halas) [A+]
One of the all-time greatest animated films, a sardonic, chilling, engagingly designed version of George Orwell’s classic satire that reaches its own conclusions. Features perhaps the most frightening sequence in any cartoon, involving a horse.
Anna Karenina (2012, Joe Wright)
It’s nice that Joe Wright’s weird adaptation makes a play at spinning Tolstoy into something alive, sensual and invigorating, and there are moments of passionately realized cinema in the opening half hour. The flourishes would make more sense if he put us inside the characters’ heads, an idea that doesn’t gel with Tom Stoppard’s OK script, which adds little to extant understanding of the literature it means to enhance. The performances are all fair, though only Jude Law as Count Karenin seems to communicate any sort of real pain (or cruelty).
Anne Frank Remembered (1995, Jon Blair) [r]
* I admired this movie for helping me appreciate her as a symbol and literary figure a bit more than I previously did; it’s a very slick, well-mounted documentary.
Anne of the Thousand Days (1969, Charles Jarrott) [r]
Expansive, intimate chronicle of the doomed rise to the throne of one Anne Boleyn is legendary for having been bought and paid for at the Academy Awards; but unlike most pictures with that distinction from The Alamo to Dr. Dolittle, it’s extremely competent and engaging popcorn, though it really gets a lot of mileage out of impeccable casting. Richard Burton is as hammy a Henry VIII as Charles Laughton or Robert Shaw and considerably less fun, but Geneviève Bujold brings stunning emotional range to her characterization of Boleyn. The supporting cast is equally impressive, with Anthony Quayle carving such a believably slimy and eventually pathetic figure as the wily Cardinal Wolsey you could almost swear he was a Republican politician.
Annie (1982, John Huston) [NO]
Annie Hall (1977, Woody Allen) [A+]
Winning, funny, heartbreaking movie about a flawed, messy, steadily evolving and declining relationship (dramatized between Allen and the absolutely peerless Diane Keaton) has more leaps in chronology than Memento, allowing every viewer to live this strange love affair in an emotional rather than logical fashion. Allen is not shy at all about using all sorts of time-tested movie gimmicks, as well as fresh ones, to his advantage. This almost seems like the reason the modern romantic comedy was invented.
Annihilation (2018, Alex Garland) [r]
Kind of a fusion of Aliens or The Thing with Stalker, with a crew of scientists investigating a destructive force called the Shimmer that has occupied a section of land after several military teams entered the realm and never returned. A splendid ensemble cast led by Natalie Portman and Jennifer Jason Leigh and some brilliantly freaked-out production design help this effectively creepy, dread-laden horror/sci-fi piece distinguish itself above the norm for both genres, though it fails to conquer mediocre special effects and some tedium and mindless chaos in the story, taken from a popular novel by Jeff VanderMeer.
Anomalisa (2015, Charlie Kaufman & Duke Johnson) [hr]
Kaufman’s second film as director is stop-motion animation about a lonely middle-aged writer, a British expatriate in America, landing in Cincinnati to speak at a conference, haunted in his hotel room by his feelings of displacement and loneliness. Try not to know more about it going in; you’ll be rewarded with one of the saddest, harshest indictments (or celebrations) of long-suffered cynicism you’ll ever see, with shots of genuine tenderness. If “rewarded” is the word.
Another Earth (2011, Mike Cahill) [hr]
Strikingly personal sci-fi about the discovery of a planet identical to Earth and how it impacts the life of a brilliant prospective MIT student whose world was destroyed when she collided head-on with a parked car while driving drunk. An emotionally heavy fever dream that builds to a deeply affecting climax; the lead character is gloriously, believably embodied by cowriter Britt Marling in a remarkable breakthrough performance. You won’t stop thinking or talking about this for weeks.
Another Woman (1988, Woody Allen) [r]
Allen drama full of great scenes and, of course, lovely performances, but it really doesn’t add up to a whole lot, even with the wonderfully strange premise of a woman eavesdropping on the psychiatrist’s patients next door. Worthy but unmemorable.
Another Year (2010, Mike Leigh) [r]
The depths of destiny, happiness, sadness writ in the faces of a complicated brood presided over by a blissfully happy married couple. Leigh’s episodic script isn’t terribly deep or consistent, but its emotional sways are as rich and troubling as you’d expect, the performances brilliant.
À Nous La Liberté (1931, René Clair) [hr]
Endlessly plundered by filmmakers from Chaplin to Kubrick to every Warner Bros. animator and beyond, this classic, socialist-tinged, exuberant French satire of industrialism — about a prison escapee who becomes the wealthy owner of a phonograph factory — manages to fuse poignant, full characterization with farce and utter visual enchantment. More elegant than funny, but briskly entertaining and modern.
Anthony Adverse (1936, Mervyn LeRoy) [r]
Hervy Allen’s novel doesn’t linger much in the cultural memory, and for good reason judging by the silliness of this Warner Bros. adaptation. “Adverse” is the name given to Fredric March’s wandering orphan by his guardian because of, well, all the adversity he’s had in his life, which includes losing his mother at birth as well as her being married to Claude Rains, who abandons him and spends the rest of the film trying to kill him. This is incalculably episodic and disjointed and manages to be both schlocky and incredibly morose, like Forrest Gump crossed with Interview with the Vampire, but it’s also kind of a riot.
Antichrist (2009, Lars von Trier) [hr]
It’s not necessarily a fallacy to call this psychological wallow in horrible emotions and genital mutilation the extended widescreen ravings of a lunatic; Trier would probably appreciate the compliment. But deny yourself its oppressive despair and sumptuous atmosphere and you will miss one of the most vital and complete cinematic experiences of the last decade. Open-ended, challenging pure cinema, and a film one is unlikely to ever forget.
Anzio (1968, Edward Dmytryk) [c]
* Another endless late-’60s WWII battle scene movie, notable only because it has Robert Mitchum and Peter Falk.
The Apartment (1960, Billy Wilder) [A+]
Likely the most deserving of all Oscar heavy-hitters, this sumptuous, beautiful comedy is one of our truly life-affirming movies, featuring love that might not conquer all but gets a fair shot. Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond’s cynical, perceptive script about corporate dehumanization and extramarital screwing connects on a primal level, and never lets up on its stranglehold, but the main thing — beyond Wilder’s poetic evocation of a lonely, career-driven life — is the dialogue as delivered by Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine (both at their best), rich and clever and real, sophisticated but believable. Along with the same team’s Some Like It Hot, it’s one of the best scripts ever delivered.
Apocalypse Now (1979, Francis Ford Coppola) [r]
Coppola’s massive Vietnam film slash Conrad adaptation reenacts Hell quite vividly, with Martin Sheen searching for errant soldier Marlon Brando in the “asshole of the world.” High-minded, scary, beautiful, the film is too flawed to be considered a masterpiece of any sort, the ride impossibly bumpy, the thesis muddled, almost futile. But it goes out farther on a limb for the sake of nothing more than cinema than almost any other movie.
Apollo 13 (1995, Ron Howard)
Because of its mostly accurate technical rundown of the titular near-disaster, Howard’s adaptation of Jim Lovell’s dry but superior book Lost Moon has its merit for space buffs. It’s all rather generic, despite competent direction and reasonably good performances by everyone in the cast, shooting for excitement but mostly telling you things are intense, with heavy use of media clips to sell the urgency, rather than finding any inventive way to make you feel it. And once it’s over, despite its lofty statements about longing for the U.S. to return to the Moon, you don’t really feel affected by any of it.
The Apple Dumpling Gang (1975, Norman Tokar) [NO]
* One of the movies you get force-fed in grade school and feel resentment toward for the rest of your life.
Arachnophobia (1990, Frank Marshall) [c]
* Marshall obviously had fun making this movie. Good for him.
Arbitrage (2012, Nicholas Jarecki) [hr]
First-time narrative feature director Jarecki fuses the paranoia and tension of his era, ripped from the Inside Job headlines and from his own life, with a warmer version of the early ’90s pay-channel “tits & cash” genre, and comes away with what amounts to an excellent, tense film noir for the Bernie Madoff age, replete with a brilliantly barbed, unsympathetic yet completely humanized antihero played well by Richard Gere.
Argo (2012, Ben Affleck) [hr]
Assuming you can get past director Affleck’s somewhat ridiculous casting of himself, this is a tense and incredibly witty thriller peripherally connected to the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, all about the way in which moviemaking, real and imagined, alters perceptions. To the extent it’s a straightforward drama, it’s a crowd-pleasing success; but to the extent it’s a self-reflexive and clever comment on itself, it’s exceptionally smart and thought-provoking in the manner of North by Northwest.
Arise, My Love (1940, Mitchell Leisen) [r]
Entertaining romantic comedy about a POW getting rescued by a reporter lurches violently and suddenly into an action-adventure film, then a propaganda piece favoring U.S. entrance into the war. Written by Billy Wilder and his longtime partner Charles Brackett, this will mostly be of interest to fans of theirs, but it also offers a wonderful (and proto-feminist) Claudette Colbert performance.
Armageddon (1998, Michael Bay) [NO]
* It isn’t so much that this film is any more insulting than most summer blockbusters, just that it’s more sadistic. It’s a movie bound and determined to induce migraines, and it seems almost to be designed as a model of bad filmmaking, full of fast music-video cutting, a sledgehammer-dumb story, extreme closeups, and celebrities who are there for the sake of being celebrities. For me, movies don’t get a lot more overbearing and excruciating than this.
Around the World in Eighty Days (1956, Michael Anderson) [NO]
Long and wasteful, like a huge meal tossed down a garbage disposal. Undoubtedly made more sense as the prototypical theme park ride that was its original Todd-AO 30fps engagement in NYC; for home viewing, it’s useless. Hey look, it’s Frank Sinatra!
Arrival (2016, Denis Villeneuve)
More pretend insight from Villeneuve, a schlock merchant who won’t admit that’s what he is, in a genre built for just his sort of posturing. Space aliens land in America and want to communicate, so linguist Amy Adams sets aside some issues in her personal life to help the government. It’s hard to hate a film that clearly intends to strike a chord — better to copy Interstellar than The Martain even if both kind of suck — but the exposition is painful, the dialogue consistently embarrassing, the story a less compelling variant on various better films, Jeremy Renner’s in it, and oh yes, there’s A Twist.
The Arrival (1996, David Twohy) [r]
* Charlie Sheen in a trashy science fiction movie that may be kind of stupid but is full of ingenious visual ideas and enough enthusiasm to fill eight of these movies. I’d take this over Bay/Emmerich/Verhoeven any time.
Arsenal (1929, Aleksandr Dovzhenko) [r]
Experimental, somehow still cutting-edge Revolution propaganda — with more ambivalence baked in than usual — works as an endlessly striking avant garde film, less didactic than similar features by the likes of Pudovkin and Eisenstein. Moments that linger in dreams include the protracted death of a soldier early on, several sequences of people frozen in harrowing situations, and a train crash. The densely layered narrative, cross-cutting multiple ideas across time, space and dimension, requires undivided attention and multiple viewings.
Arsenic and Old Lace (1944, Frank Capra) [hr]
Fast and furious comedy with awesome cast including Cary Grant, Peter Lorre, etc., is inescapably stagy and at first unbearably twee, but becomes so insanely funny and richly entertaining after the first ten minutes as to be undeniable; whether it’s great cinema is up for debate, but whether it’s great comedy (for most) is not.
Arthur (1981, Steve Gordon) [r]
Dudley Moore is obnoxious and inescapably funny as the wealthy, drunken heir of the title, who learns a little bit about life in that classic carefully structured Me-decade fashion with the help of a cranky butler (John Gielgud) and a new love (Liza Minnelli). More likable than the majority of prestige New York comedies of the time. There’s also something oddly sad about it (Gordon died a year later, rendering some of the dialogue permanently uncomfortable), which isn’t wholly detrimental.
The Artist (2011, Michel Hazanavicius) [c]
Some of us are constantly hoping that silent films make a comeback, so it’s a pity that when one becomes successful and takes home Oscars it’s as rote and anonymous and tired as this Singin’ in the Rain retread turned out to be. Watch out for one wondrous dream sequence, and be prepared to wish the entire picture was more like it.
As Good as It Gets (1997, James L. Brooks) [hr]
Overlong but sometimes incisive comedy of asshole, OCD-suffering romance writer Jack Nicholson attempting to reform himself into a member of the human race, prodded along by a waitress and single mom (Helen Hunt) and a struggling neighbor (Greg Kinnear). Brooks’ talent for crafting characters and memorable dialogue makes this a pleasure despite its indulgences.
Atonement (2007, Joe Wright)
Formally interesting, dramatically inert adaptation of a celebrated Ian McEwan novel that clumsily drums up silly English Patient-style romantic melodrama from a false rape accusation made by a child. It’s all very stuffy and kind of troubling, and the structure, which clearly means to impress in its audacity, has the ring of desperation, and it’s finally just another gooey vehicle for Keira Knightley and James McAvoy to give the exact same performances they always give.
Attack of the Clones (2002, George Lucas)
Probably Lucas’ best film, simply because by this point even he no longer seems to be following the Star Wars franchise with the kind of grave overseriousness that has historically marked it. For the fifth film in the series, cultural recognition (of this and that character and future plot point) plays as much of a role as storytelling; it is more self-aware, livelier, and far more over-the-top than any of the prior efforts, and its trashy soap opera narrative hokum fused with barely-sci fi war movie battle sequences make it basically a modern revision of the WWII propaganda genre for the Iraq War period.
Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman (1958, Nathan Juran) [NO]
* Some of these people are actually talented. They are wasting their time.
Attack the Block (2011, Joe Cornish) [r]
A roving gang of hooligans in an outer London housing project end up saving the city from certain doom when aliens have the audacity to land on their watch. More charming and agreeably weird than it sounds.
Au Hasard Balthazar (1966, Robert Bresson)
A man — er, donkey — must break his back to earn his day of leisure, etc.
Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997, Jay Roach) [NO]
* The trailers looked great, but this intolerably stupid (and remarkably unfunny — it’s not hit-and-miss, it’s miss-and-miss-and-miss) Mike Myers vehicle will put you right to sleep.
Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (1999, Jay Roach) [NO]
* More entertaining than the original but also more offensive.
The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu (2010, Andrei Ujica)
Without more than a passing familiarity with the history of the Soviet bloc, this narration and context-free collection of footage pertaining to the former Romanian president can be dull and confusing. Apart from some riveting moments here and there, you come away just appreciating the power of film editing, a tool rarely noticeably employed here.
Autumn Sonata (1978, Ingmar Bergman)
Ingrid Bergman and Liv Ullmann are both extraordinarily intense and satisyfing in readymade Bergman roles as overbearing mother and anguished daughter in the affected story of the general hopelessness of their relationship. Though it’s startlingly direct and (of course) beautifully shot, this is a shrill and uncomfortably simplistic film that lacks Bergman’s typical sense of life and subtle humor. It’s also surprisingly annoying, like a family member who won’t shut the fuck up.
The Avengers (2012, Joss Whedon)
The finest exposition-spewing A-listers and smarmy rejoinders $220,000,000 can buy.
The Aviator (2004, Martin Scorsese) [r]
This lavish Hollywood biopic of lavish Hollywood legend Howard Hughes concentrates on the years from the shooting of Hell’s Angels through his late 1940s battle with the Senate and with Pan Am. One of director Martin Scorsese’s more conventional — but also more enjoyable — efforts, it benefits from the fact that Hughes is such a fascinating and eccentric figure, which makes the obscene overlength (170 minutes) a little easier to take. We get to fawn over stars impersonating other stars (Cate Blanchett is divine as Katharine Hepburn, Kate Beckinsale as Ava Gardner) and admire a few bravura effects sequences, most impressively the dramatization of Hughes’ fiery XF-11 crash in Beverly Hills. Glittery and superficial, but appropriately so.
Away We Go (2009, Sam Mendes) [hr]
Uncharacteristically quiet stuff from Mendes, who convincingly illustrates the shared life and impending pregnancy of a long-running couple; the performances by John Krasinski and (especially) Maya Rudolph render moot any issues you may have with the use of stereotypes in filling most of the peripheral roles. You root for them because you fall in love, and that flattens their world and places them above others. Few movie couples have ever been more illustrative of a concept of both unconditional love and caring about same, and that — compared to the years when Joel McCrea could ask Laraine Day to marry him on a boat a few hours after they met, for no apparent reason — is beautiful progress.
The Awful Truth (1937, Leo McCarey) [hr]
Shocking though it is that Cary Grant isn’t the best thing in this elegant romantic comedy, he’s upstaged indeed by the fiery wit of Irene Dunne; their messy divorce and strange courtship begins with deliberate politeness and restraint, all the better to make the thing explode into a third act mess of drunk party crashes and night drives and one of the sexiest closing scenes in American film history.