Jackie (2016, Pablo Larraín) [r]
Chronologically jumbled-up narrative of Jacqueline Kennedy’s life in the immediate aftermath of JFK’s assassination exemplifies a brand of biopic that tends to be tiresome and workmanlike, overly reliant on cultural memory. But it’s rendered in this case with impressive intimacy, and savvy about how various kinds of media form a cult of personality. Even though Natalie Portman’s performance has the artificially tic-ridden quality of so many actors attempting to ape well-documented people, it’s also sensitive; after a while, her plight is gripping enough to hypnotize you whether or not you care about the comings and goings of the American royal family.
Jackie Brown (1997, Quentin Tarantino) [hr]
Engrossing, witty Elmore Leonard adaptation offers an unforgettable heroine in the title character played by the great Pam Grier plus a formidable foil in Robert Forster’s Max Cherry, and is by a country mile Tarantino’s best film.
Jacob’s Ladder (1990, Adrian Lyne) [c]
* Psychotic hybrid of The Manchurian Candidate and “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” kind of goes a bit too far in the first direction to make much sense when it finally takes the last turn, but at least you get a pretty good Tim Robbins performance out of it.
Jacquot de Nantes (1991, Agnès Varda) [r]
This reenactment of Jacques Demy’s childhood, filmed by his wife Varda just before his death of AIDS in 1990, has all the detectably personal sweetness and wartime anxiety of Cinema Paradiso or Amarcord with less sentimentality. Varda harnesses Demy’s taste for complicated camera movements and crane shots while also indulging in her own preoccupation with the convergence of real life and cinema to craft a winning portrait of a young man’s zeal for creation as well as direct evidence of the mutual trust within a marriage. In the end it’s a direct missive between lovers, its larger meanings mostly unknowable to the outsider.
Jailhouse Rock (1957, Richard Thorpe)
* Iconic widescreen portrait of Elvis in the early days is an essential document in the rock & roll story, but as a film it really doesn’t do much.
Jamaica Inn (1939, Alfred Hitchcock) [r]
Hitchcock’s least sophisticated movie, ever, is a wild popcorn flick with Charles Laughton as ruthless kidnapper of a buxom babe who must then defeat smugglers and her uncle is Leslie Banks and shit. In a certain way, it’s awesome; there’s absolutely no depth to it at all, but it was clearly fun to make and remains fun to watch.
James and the Giant Peach (1996, Henry Selick) [NO]
What happened here? The Nightmare Before Christmas team taking on Roald Dahl’s classic children’s story (about a boy who sets sail across the ocean inside a peach with several insect friends) sounds like a can’t-miss idea. But Selick wastes a lot of screen time with boring live action, the stop motion is unimaginative, the Randy Newman songs are just horrific, and the film is thoroughly lacking in fun or insight.
Jane B. par Agnès V. (1988, Agnès Varda) [c]
This love letter / birthday gift is probably a great joy to behold if you’re either the person receiving or creating it; in other words, if you’re Jane Birkin or Agnès Varda, this is the movie for you. If you’re most other people, well… it’s a cute concept — fake a clip show of performances for a well-loved movie star — but it’s mostly Varda just shooting whatever Varda feels like, so it has the unfocused messiness of her weakest narrative films combined with the sterile comedy and action of the “skits.” The only portions that really work are those in which Birkin simply addresses the camera directly and talks for a while.
Jaws (1975, Steven Spielberg) [A+]
Explosive cinematic masterpiece follows the lineage of Psycho: It takes a popcorn book, expands on it and creates a film that, instead of the mere B-movie another director might have derived from the material, captures the heart and imagination instantly. It challenges, entices, thrills, taking everything to another level. None of the subsequent top blockbusters have had the visceral brilliance (and beauty) of this one, and Spielberg even does Hitchcock one better by giving The Birds the bloody orgasm it missed out on. What a fucking movie, you know?
Jaws 2 (1978, Jeannot Szware) [NO]
* The least necessary sequel in history — yes, including Psycho II — manages to remove all that made the original so human and exciting. It also removes the scares, replacing them with numbing gratuity.
Jaws 3-D (1983, Joe Alves) [NO]
* Not quite as offensive as the other two sequels, this shameless popcorn rampage is sort of like the film (mentioned above) anyone besides Spielberg might have made of the original novel, and yet instead of being harmless fun it’s curiously lifeless.
Jaws the Revenge (1987, Joseph Sargent) [NO]
* Michael Caine is in this. The fourth Jaws film is about Roy Scheider’s wife attempting to take revenge on the shark for stealing her family. It’s even stupider than it sounds.
The Jazz Singer (1927, Alan Crosland) [r]
It’s never going to connect with a broad spectrum of people like it did eighty years ago, but there’s still some magic left in this bag. You know the story of the cantor’s son rebelling by turning to the illicit jazz age. Al Jolson’s performance is quite dazzling in its modest way and not just in the song sequences. His affection toward his mother (played by Eugenie Besserer) brings forth something amazingly raw; a character tells Jolson early on that he has “a tear in his voice.” His face expresses just as much, thus giving the lie to the notion of the film having no purely cinematic interest.
Jauja (2014, Lisandro Alonso) [c]
Viggo Mortensen and Adrián Fondari put on pants; there are also landscapes. Absolutely nothing resonates. Garden-variety emotionally distant arthouse dud.
Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back (2001, Kevin Smith) [c]
* Smith’s most awkward film to date tries to fuse Hollywood satire with lowbrow comedy. Some of the jokes (especially involving Internet poster “magnolia_fan”) are funny and Smith’s fans are bound to find a lot to love here, but he doesn’t even try to make a movie that can be taken seriously in any context. Whether that’s admirable or not is your choice.
Jealousy (2013, Philippe Garrel)
Slice of life from latter-day New Waver Garrel is admirably bare, following the messy love life of an only sporadically responsible actor (Louis Garrel) who looks like Nick Cave and Neil Gaiman somehow managed to breed. The characters are too bare and undefined for us to care much about how the shattered, codependent relationship at the center plays out; it feels like Cassavetes in the way it resembles a series of sketches meant to provoke inspiration in an improv class. Still, not bad, just unmemorable, despite a great guitar score by Jean-Louis Aubert and a delightful, mature performance from child actor Olga Milshtein.
Jean de Florette (1986, Claude Berri) [hr]
Yes, it’s a movie about water, but it’s the best damn movie about water you’ll ever see. Gerard Depardieu and his family move on to a beautiful farm, but the conniving weirdos next door (Cesar and Hugolin, later immortalized for Americans in a Simpsons episode) want the land and conspire to prevent the family from discovering a valuable spring on their property. Bleak and shattering but beautiful, with Depardieu full of charisma and the two villains among the best in screen history. But you haven’t really seen this until you’ve seen the sequel, Manon of the Spring, along with it.
Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles (1975, Chantal Akerman) [r]
A scathing portrait of the infinite load-bearing that is automatically inflicted upon women, this slow cinema landmark details the routine of a widow who entertains johns in her apartment while maintaining domestic tranquility, which begins to slip after a few trivial but cumulatively distressing breaks from normalcy. A brilliant movie despite a finale that’s much too cut-and-dried, but while Akerman’s goal is a bodily, involuntary reaction to all of the painstaking repetition and minutiae, the full expanse of the thing doesn’t reveal much that you wouldn’t get from a more condensed version of the narrative.
The Jerk (1979, Carl Reiner) [r]
* Screwy, cartoonish nonsense is just an excuse for Steve Martin to run around doing his early semi-abstract shtick. If that appeals to you — and it should — don’t miss this.
Jerry Maguire (1996, Cameron Crowe)
Strange, overlong Billy Wilder pastiche with gross yuppie showboating aplenty about a sports agent trying to come back from a major flameout. It’s all predicated on an implication that Jerry marries a woman because of how much he likes her kid, which is pretty soul-crushing in an influential portrayal of adult romance. The miscasting of Tom Cruise in this part is one of the all-time emperor’s new clothes moments; the story and script would be so much more innocuous if he didn’t keep playing it manic. Cuba Gooding Jr.’s flamboyance is fun to watch, at least.
Jesus Camp (2006, Heidi Ewing & Rachel Grady)
Distressing horror documentary about Christos running a freaky summer camp at which kids are meant to get saved and preach the anti-scientific gospel, etc. Very much a picture of its time, capturing a weirdly quaint Bush-era America, with a lot of finger-wagging from an Air America (remember Air America?) commentator. Between feeling terrified for the children, terrified by the families, and that creeping sense that every minor on the screen is being exploited, this is a highly unpleasant experience.
Jesus Christ Superstar (1973, Norman Jewison) [NO]
* I’m so glad I wasn’t alive when this was popular.
Jetsons the Movie (1990, William Hannah & Joseph Barbera) [c]
* I was infatuated with this at age 10 and watched it every day for a month. I cannot imagine why. It does inexplicably feature Tiffany in the role of Judy, and her “song” sequences are rather enjoyably witless, ill-advised, and trashy, especially the Hannah-Barbera “music video” treatment of her “You and Me.” What the hell?
The Jewel of the Nile (1985, Lewis Teague) [NO]
* Tired, joyless sequel to the lovely Romancing the Stone. Without the wit of that film you just have Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner whining a lot, and nobody wants to see that.
Jezebel (1938, William Wyler) [r]
This is an attempt by Warner Bros. at taking a slice out of the Gone with the Wind market a year ahead of its release — though it’s black & white and thus cannot live up to such lofty aims, it is undoubtedly one of the studio’s handsomest productions of the period. The rather insipid story of an obstinate woman’s backfired bid at gaining back the affections of an ex-fiancee set against the peak of Yellow Fever in 1850s New Orleans, it’s really only worthwhile in dramatic terms because of Bette Davis’ exciting brattiness.
JFK (1991, Oliver Stone) [NO]
Don’t get me started. Seriously. Did you know the “facts” outlined in this movie are all completely fabricated? Like, to make the whole thing more interesting, he just made it all up. The only reason it’s even about the JFK assassination rather than George Kaplan’s assassination is to sell more tickets. Can you explain to me why that isn’t evil cynicism that renders this already insanely dull, hamhanded piece of shit entirely worthless to anyone? If not the worst movie ever made, probably the most offensive.
Jimi Plays Monterey (1986, D.A. Pennebaker & Chris Hegedus) [r]
Jimi Hendrix is limited to one song in Pennebaker’s Monterey Pop, but the rest of his performance at the festival could easily have squeezed into that feature and would likely have enhanced it. It was finally edited together and released as its own film nineteen years after the legendary weekend itself. The set includes songs from the Experience’s first album but is dominated by covers, most movingly of Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone.” Pennebaker and Hegedus bring us fuller picture here of Hendrix as a musician and human: relaxed but committed, feeding off the audience and their energy.
Jingle All the Way (1996, Brian Levant) [NO]
* Why the hell have I seen this? I wish I could come up with some excuse, but it was a long time ago. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sinbad (!?) fight over some toys in the most sickeningly trite “comedy” about The Christmas Spirit in our era. And it gets even worse as it goes along.
Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011, David Gelb) [c]
Barely a movie, more a commercial for Sukiyabashi Jiro, a world famous sushi restaurant in Tokyo with an 85 year-old chef, and to that end essentially a celebration of being a person with an empty life motivated strictly by work, who boasts about his shitty parenting and how more kids would succeed if other parents were equally shitty. I’m sure the food’s great but what a depressing set of philosophies to build a documentary (or a life) around, and cinematically it’s all pedestrian, slow and inconsequential with no creativity to speak of.
Joe’s Apartment (1996, John Payson) [r]
* The classic MTV short is expanded somewhat haphazardly into a full-length feature. It’s sometimes amateurish but often delightful; as amusing as the singing roaches are, it’s the gags about the band “Shit” that have stuck with me over the years.
Joe vs. the Volcano (1990, John Patrick Shanley)
* How do things like this happen, I wonder? What’s alarming about this artficial, creepy movie is that the people making it obviously thought it was charming, cute, and funny. And they are not stupid; Steven Spielberg was among the producers. Of course, he was working on Hook around this time…
Johnny Belinda (1948, Jean Negulesco) [r]
Superficial social-problem melodrama brings us the dependably boring Jane Wyman as a deaf-mute woman working for her father, a farmer in Nova Scotia. The most inappropriately wacky rape scene in history — it involves someone maniacally pretending to play a violin — sends the already shunned heroine into the semi-exile of a pregnancy out of wedlock, though she receives considerable help from a kind (if slightly oily) doctor played by Lew Ayres. This is a breezy, competent production and despite its obvious bows to the patriarchal structures of its time, it does call out the societal shaming it depicts.
Johnny Eager (1941, Mervyn LeRoy) [hr]
Snappy MGM gangster noir with Robert Taylor as a gee-whiz cab driver who turns out to be a big-time slimeball underground, living his life as a series of interlocking puzzle pieces until his fixation on a beautiful woman (Lana Turner) unravels him. Both a crackerjack genre movie and a sober examination of the detrimental effect a career con man has on himself and others. Van Heflin is swooningly good as the title character’s drunken confidante.
Johnny Guitar (1954, Nicholas Ray) [hr]
The storyline in this effortlessly modern, progressive-feeling western isn’t that far removed from the conventions of the genre, but Ray’s sublimely serious-minded yet unpretentious execution places it in its own class, as does the extraordinary cast led by Joan Crawford, Mercedes McCambridge and Sterling Hayden, those first two embodying powerful and sophisticated female characters that aren’t easily boxed into traditional hero or villain roles. Riveting and intriguingly modern all the way through.
Johnny Mnemonic (1995, Robert Longo) [NO]
* Longo, director of enormously pretentious music videos like R.E.M.’s “The One I Love,” designer of enormously pretentious album covers like the Replacements’ Tim, debuts as feature filmmaker with enormously pretentious science fiction film starring Keanu Reeves. If you can make sense of it, it’s hardly offensive, but… you can’t make sense of it, you just can’t.
Johnny Tremain (1957, Robert Stevenson) [r]
* Disney delivers a fun romp through highly idealized American history through the eyes of deformed-hand boy. Esther Forbes’ Newbery-winning novel is what it is, but it makes a pretty terrific disposable kids’ movie, and only eighty minutes, too!
Jojo Rabbit (2019, Taika Waititi) [NO]
A young anti-Semitic boy suffers a crisis of conscience after he makes friends with a Jewish girl to the chagrin of his imaginary friend, Adolf Hitler; if that summary makes you want to see this, I’d like a word. The numerous tonal and sociopolitical problems with this deeply wrongheaded misfire pale next to just how aggressively unfunny it is — not one joke even kind of lands. The script is built from anachronistic Avengers-like smarmy dialogue, and the story is wildly overstuffed with ideas in a way that smacks of deep insecurity; it’s the most tone-deaf film to attain its level of notoriety since Life Is Beautiful.
Joker (2019, Todd Phillips) [NO]
Witless, inhumane bid at bringing sophistication into the factory-farmed comic book movie is exactly what you’d imagine the director of The Hangover thinks a really deep film for grownups looks like. Perfunctory regurgitations of Scorsese sit within the umpeenth “gritty” reboot of the Batman universe, forced like all others to sacrifice its sense of irony in the fruitless quest to render an inherently dumb mythos hard-boiled and realistic. Phillips is much too dim to have any clue what he wants to say and, along with Joaquin Phoenix embarrassing himself in the title role, only ever takes the most clearly marked path through this shitshow.
Jonathan Livingston Seagull (1973, Hall Bartlett) [NO]
* Yes, it really happened. I saw it. And Neil fucking Diamond did the music. Don’t let anybody tell you it never existed.
Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple (2006, Stanley Nelson) [hr]
“Children, it will not hurt, if you’ll be quiet,” he says as he slaughters them.
Jour de Fête (1949, Jacques Tati) [hr]
Simultaneously fanciful and totally natural, Tati’s first film is a wonderfully earthy comedy about a small-town celebration in a French village intertwining with the mishaps of a barely-competent, eccentric bicycle-riding mailman and his many inept, drunken stunts, which intensify after he’s exposed to a hilariously overblown industrial film promoting the agility and physical prowess of American postal workers. It’s silly fun, but also quietly lyrical, subtly betraying a sensitivity to which it won’t fully confess.
Journey to Italy (1954, Roberto Rossellini) [hr]
Rossellini’s loose, on-the-run approach is well-suited to the story of an unfurling chasm between an distant couple (Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders), fused with a mournful travelogue. The dialogue has no poetic distance, the camera seeks no beautification of misery, yet the characters’ hearts are always unmistakable and the picture does not shy away from their torment.
Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959, Henry Levin)
* A highlights reel from this harmless fantasy might rate more highly, but like most sci-fi of its period, it’s exhaustingly overlong and boring.
Joyless Street (1925, Georg Wilhelm Pabst) [r]
Avoid the cut version, a cash-in on Greta Garbo’s scenes after she went global. The complete version is about the poor occupants of a street in Vienna and the ways in which their lives intersect with the few wealthy people who own businesses and journey to nightclubs there. Praiseworthy as an expertly crafted, visually powerful piece of atmosphere and sociological righteousness, but the many characters and complicated arcs become so confusing it distances us fatally.
Judas and the Black Messiah (2021, Shaka King) [hr]
Even if it isn’t especially deep or incisive, this hits hard as an engrossingly detailed historical narrative, regarding the betrayal and murder of Fred Hampton during the most powerful and visible years of the Black Panther Party. It looks great and the performances are exceptional, Lakeith Stanfield’s characterization of O’Neal as both an irredeemable rat and a believable human truly haunting even if not as bravura as Daniel Kaluuya’s deservedly Oscar winning performance as Hampton.
Judgment at Nuremberg (1961, Stanley Kramer)
For three hours, Stanley Kramer and Abby Mann present a fictionalized account of the final 1947 Nuremberg trial so cautiously as to be almost apologetic; the result is a pontificating TV movie, and one excruciatingly Hollywood in presentation — a range of celebs are paraded across the screen like the Special Guest Villains from Batman. The airless precision of it all is such that you may have long conversations afterward, but it won’t actually be because of anything the movie does, since it basically does nothing.
Judy (2019, Rupert Goold)
Pandering exploration of Judy Garland’s final months is made a lot worse by Renee Zellweger’s caricatured, tic-ridden performance (although she does sing well) and poor, inconsistent writing that fails to make any of its real-life characters convincingly robust as people rather than historical figures.
Jules and Jim (1962, François Truffaut)
Bohemian morons who talk endlessly about their own misery get their lives fucked up by Jeanne “She’s So Amoral” Moreau. There are lyrical moments and some enjoyably frenetic editing; as a piece of aesthetic technique, it’s perfectly acceptable. And the disembodied voiceover tends to inject a deadpan humor these pretentious characters badly need. The problem is that said characters are neither enjoyable to spend time with nor particularly believable, and the flippant attitude toward women, while not altogether surprising or even totally lacking critical self-awareness, is egregiously adolescent pretty much from start to end. Probably Truffaut’s worst.
Julia (1977, Fred Zinnemann) [NO]
Jane Fonda obnoxiously self-mythologizing and aiding a ruthless self-mythologizer (Lillian Hellman) at same.
Julius Caesar (1953, Joseph L. Mankiewicz) [r]
Mankiewicz’s Shakespeare ateempt takes cues from Laurence Olivier’s starkly photographed Hamlet, amping up its feeling of artificiality and rarely tipping its hand as a high-budget production. John Gielgud and James Mason are terrific as Cassius as Brutus, enhancing and enlivening the text; Marlon Brando’s Antony may be his least characteristic early performance, so it’s one of his best. The weak point is Louis Calhern’s dull Caesar. Narratively, the violent assassination itself rivets and so does much of what’s before and around it, but Mankiewicz never conquers the feeling of contrivance that takes over even most of the better Shakespeare films.
Julius Caesar (1970, Stuart Burge)
* You have to see this if only because Jason Robards is in it, as Brutus, and inexplicably gives just about the worst performance in a major movie ever. And I love Robards; was his coffee spiked or something? Otherwise, this is par for the course.
Jumanji (1995, Joe Johnston) [c]
* I don’t really mind the idea of a movie that’s just a bunch of random destructive action setpieces strung together. But when you throw Robin Williams in…
Jumpin’ Jack Flash (1986, Penny Marshall)
This is a pretty enjoyable movie, a vapid caper with a great lead performance from Whoopi Goldberg. But it’s just so thin and forgettable, and I don’t think most people will need to see it more than once.
The Jungle Book (1967, Wolfgang Reitherman) [hr]
Yes, it’s rough and episodic, but Walt Disney’s last contribution to the form also has some of the best songs in any of the animated classics (“I Wanna Be Like You” is a firecracker on the level of “He’s a Tramp”) and some genuinely striking character animation, especially in the final stretch toward the climax. As much as it may lack a certain spark of ambition, this is still a thrill to watch and the last chance we would have for a long time to see genuine ingenuity in an American cartoon.
Junior (1994, Ivan Reitman) [NO]
* Not that anyone might have expected this to be good, but it’s still surprising just how unfunny it is to watch Arnold Schwarzenegger “act” like a “woman.” “Feel my skin, it’s so soft,” he says. I won’t even ask what Danny Devito was thinking because I don’t want to know.
Juno (2007, Jason Reitman) [r]
A comedy shouldn’t deserve praise simply because its central character is female, but that’s the fucked up world we live in. Juno (Ellen Page, wonderful) is a teenage girl who gets accidentally pregnant and wants to do the Right Thing by finding loving parents to adopt it. There is some scattered truth in this perception of relationships and maturity, even if there is also sometimes the distinct feel of market tested bullshit.
Juno and the Paycock (1930, Alfred Hitchcock)
Okay, you’ve got sound now, so what’s the first thing you do? Abandon cinematic imagination and go film a play! For all Hitchcock’s own consternation about this widespread philosophy in 1930-31 throughout the film industry, he wasn’t any better at the time, engaging immediately in a rather lifeless (but, for Hitch buffs, fascinating) take on his beloved Sean O’Casey. He disowned the film rather quickly, of course, especially after he received accolades for it despite the lack of real creative work it required (a subsequent filmed play of his, The Skin Game, is a marginal improvement). The performances (especially by Sara Allgood and John Laurie) are excellent and a few visual ideas do survive, but the tale is pointlessly bleak and lacking in filmic value.
Jurassic Park (1993, Steven Spielberg) [r]
No one who was nine years old during the release of this theme park disaster film with revived-by-DNA dinosaurs run amok can be fully objective about it, despite its dramatic shortcuts and surplus of buildup to a facile anticlimax. It’s got nothing on Jaws as a narrative or an exploration of character but nearly matches it on cinematic spectacle and in its consistently outstanding suspense sequences.