Monthly Archives: December 2013

Movie Review Anchorman 2

I was going into the seventh grade when “Anchorman” came out. I was just the right age to be completely inspired and blown away by a fairly raunchy PG-13 comedy. Watching the original “Anchorman” was basically a right of passage for anybody around my age. If you can’t quote it by heart, then there might be something wrong with you.

So of course something this iconic called for a sequel.

“Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues” knows at this point that it is kind of a big deal. Hell, it even has “The Legend Continues” in its title. That means that unfortunately, like many other sequels, it lacks the surprise of its predecessor.

Don’t get me wrong, I laughed at “Anchorman 2″ a lot. It ups the ante on just about everything it can that worked in the original. Ron has many more expressions to capture his anger beyond “great odin’s raven!” In fact, by biggest regret was not writing them all down.

“Anchorman 2″ takes place in the 1980s and weirdly the characters haven’t changed at all since the 1970s, except that they like disco and are much more casually racist than they ever were in the past. I don’t know if their lack of change is bad writing or intentional, but I would like to think that it is the latter. The gang all moves to New York to take place in an experiment called 24 hour news. Nobody thinks it will work. It actually does, when you don’t actually report the news at all. “Anchorman 2″ weirdly becomes a piece of social commentary.

The first “Anchorman” ran smoothly at a brisk 94 minutes. Meanwhile, “Anchorman 2″ runs close to two hours and proves that editing is secretly the tool that can make or break a comedy. At times, “Anchorman 2″ felt more like a blooper reel than an actual film. I guess you could say almost the same thing for Adam McKay’s last film “Step Brothers.”* However, “Step Brothers” knew when to end a scene. While blooper reels are fun, even a great extra take can drag a film down.

Weirdly enough though, the best scenes in the film are the ones where Will Ferrell is allowed to be Will Ferrell. Say what you will about how good some of his films have been lately, but the guy oozes funny. That doesn’t just disappear. To me, he is as funny as he was all those years ago in “Old School” and “Elf.” Like any good comedian, Ferrell is fearless. He is never afraid to make himself look terrible, or make himself say and do things that are borderline racist. It’s okay though, the joke is on Ron Burgundy.

“Anchorman 2″ is at its best when it revels in absurdity the same way its predecessor did. There is an entire subplot where Ron and his son take care of a baby shark. It is one of the weirdest things I have seen in a film all year. It makes no sense and yet I bought every second of it. Ditto for the fight scene, which is even more ridiculous than it was before. This time, Ron and his news team face off against one of the most successful rappers in the world, a legendary movie star, and an Academy Award winning actress, among many others. It seems like everyone wants to jump on the “Anchorman” train.

Where the film doesn’t work is when it takes a bunch of jokes that worked really well the first time around, and runs them into the ground. I love Steve Carell, and there were some classic Brick moments here, but he seemed less and less committed the more screen time he is given. Some side characters are side characters for a reason: they are good to pop in with a funny line to save a scene here and there, and that’s it.

Other times, “Anchorman 2″ veers away from utter weirdness and goes into obvious joke territory. Seriously, there is a good 20 minute chunk of jokes about being blind and not being able to tell different objects apart. Come on, Adam McKay and Will Ferrell are so much better than that.

Ultimately, it is really the running time that brings “Anchorman 2″ down. As I said, I laughed a lot. But the laughs were spread out whereas in the first “Anchorman,” they crammed in as many jokes as possible, and nearly all of them landed. Instead, there are long stretches of “Anchorman 2″ that are kind of dull. Jokes land here and there. At this rate: the “Anchorman” franchise is going the way of “Austin Powers”: still funny as it moves along, but with diminishing returns.

*I mean absolutely no disrespect to “Step Brothers.” That movie is a freaking comedy miracle.

The Top 10 Movies of 2013

Year-end lists sometimes seem self-defeating. Taste and opinions change over time. What I liked this year might fall out of favor a year later. I can already tell from lists I’ve made in the past. For example, in 2010, I said that “127 Hours” was better than “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.” However, I would re-watch “Scott Pilgrim” over “127 Hours” any day. Part of making a good end of the year list is to try and predict what will also be good five years down the road while also living in the spectacular now (SORRY I HAD TO). 

Making this list drives me crazy, but it is also one of my favorite posts to write. Thinking back helps to put the entire year into perspective. For instance, I found that some of the best films of 2013 had much in common. 2013 in film meant economic woes, nostalgia gone wrong, and exploration of what it means to be a success. Along the way, there were some great laughs, songs, and explosions. 

Here is my list of the top 10 films of 2013:

10. The Kings of Summer
Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ stellar directorial debut is a modern “Stand By Me.” “The Kings of Summer” is a coming-of-age story that is equal parts moving and hilarious. It is the rare high school comedy that doesn’t resort to exploiting awkwardness for laughs (“Superbad” and “Dazed and Confused” are about the only ones that ever did that right). Some great actors (Nick Offerman, Megan Mullally) and some very brief cameos (Kumail Nanjiani, Hannibal Buress) bring the banter to life. Keep an eye out for young Moises Arias, who plays Biaggio, who is no doubt one of the weirdest and most memorable characters in any film that came out this year. 

9. Frances Ha
With the help of star and writer Greta Gerwig, Noah Baumbach turns out his best film to date. It’s earnest, funny, and never pretentious. Many of the confused twentysomethings seem startlingly like people I have met, and personalities I have embodied. It is light on its feet, serious when it needs to be, and fearless enough to take big detours and let its awesome soundtrack blare. “Frances Ha” is ultimately a redemption story, and the kind of film I hope that Noah Baumbach (and others like him) keep making. 

8. This Is The End

The best blockbuster of the summer was not a movie about robots fighting monsters, but rather a comedy about a bunch of actors living through the rapture. “This Is The End” might be the smartest, most complex movie ever to come out of the minds of Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. This is the dick-joke laced send-up of a bizarro Hollywood that I didn’t realize I was waiting for. “This Is The End” uses long back-and-forths as action set pieces. It wears its influences (such as “Rosemary’s Baby” and “The Exorcist”) on its sleeves, and it gives us Michael Cera snorting cocaine. For that alone it more than deserves a spot on this list. 

7. The World’s End

“The World’s End” is the fitting conclusion to Edgar Wright’s Cornetto trilogy. “The World’s End” shows Wright is a visual storytelling prodigy. He is undeniably skilled as both a satirist and action director; everything that he spoofs is out of love. Plus, “The World’s End” contains a performance from Simon Pegg that would be getting more awards buzz if the world wasn’t such a cruel place. During a time when many people seem to think that “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” was the best show ever invented (because nostalgia), the partial message of “The World’s End” is that the past is never as perfect as we remember. This seems like the perfect theme for the year 2013 in general as well as years to come, as “The World’s End” only gets better on repeat viewings. 

6. Nebraska

Alexander Payne has been working with comedy, dramas, and comedy-dramas for his entire career. “Nebraska” is not his best film, but it feels like everything he has done has led him here. “Nebraska” resembles a bleak painting of the landscape of Middle America, sprinkled with some of the funniest characters you can imagine. Here is a road trip movie that takes its time, but somehow never meanders. It earns its big emotional ending that will make you want to go buy something nice for your father.

5. Gravity

Watching “Gravity” in IMAX 3D is the closest I have ever felt to how people must have responded when they first saw “2001: A Space Odyssey” in theaters. “Gravity” imitated both the physical feeling of being in space (there were several points where I was literally struggling to breath) and the frightening isolation of being lost in space. It is basically a one-woman show for Sandra Bullock, and boy does she deliver. You know how “Gravity” will end, yet this is the rare film that transcends story structure. With both “Gravity” and “Children of Men” under his belt, Alfonso Cuaron is now the only person who should be allowed to direct science fiction films.

4. Blue Jasmine

Every time Woody Allen seems to have made a comeback (“Midnight in Paris”), he will find himself knocked down a peg (“To Rome With Love”). I guess that’s just what happens when you put out something every single year. Yet, “Blue Jasmine” is the kind of film Woody Allen has not made in a long time, and one I frankly didn’t know he was still capable of making. This is the darkest film he has made since “Match Point.” It is also one of his most haunting and mesmerizing. Out of “Blue Jasmine,” Allen constructs a broken woman who is strong because it is impossible to know what exactly she is capable of doing. It is bizarre to watch her talk to herself, because it is the only way she can connect with anyone. “Blue Jasmine” is the most provocative character study of the year. 

3. American Hustle

I am getting kind of sick of heist movies as well as films that pretend to accurately portray the past. This is exactly why I am thankful for “American Hustle,” a film about one of the weirdest scandals in American history that doesn’t even bother to be faithful to the facts. The fun part is trying to figure out what is real and what is not. “American Hustle” has the most dynamic ensemble of the year, and some extremely catchy dialogue (“don’t put metal in the science oven”). Like its schlubby lead character, “American Hustle” can be messy and sometimes hard to understand, but its utter confidence in itself makes it so appealing.

2. The Wolf of Wall Street

For those who dismiss “The Wolf of Wall Street” as a merely entertaining film with no substance, just look at all of the controversy it has caused in the past few days. “The Wolf of Wall Street” is an epic about the pursuit of happiness gone too far. It is really about the pursuit of excess. During its three hour run time, “The Wolf of Wall Street” contains some scenes that work on such an amazingly high level because they are allowed lots of time to breath (the best among these: Belfort’s meeting with an FBI agent on his yacht; the hilarious Quaalude tripping scene). At its best, “The Wolf of Wall Street” doesn’t feel like its pushing the three hour mark. Most importantly, this film shows why Martin Scorsese makes crime stories better than any other American director: he understands that sometimes the criminals are much more fascinating than the cops.

1. Inside Llewyn Davis

It is easy to tell when a film is directed by the Coen Brothers. However, they also never make the same film twice. “Inside Llewyn Davis” shows that the Coen Brothers don’t lack compassion, it is just that they are not afraid to show that shitty actions have even shittier consequences. This is a meaningful film for anybody who has ever wanted to create anything, and the way that Llewyn’s artistic integrity becomes his undoing is both sad and meaningful. “Inside Llewyn Davis” is nihilism transformed into something beautiful. But enough about that. “Inside Llewyn Davis” is the best directed and most unpredictable script of the year. Its soundtrack is as good as any you will ever hear. Characters do things that make no sense, and you will spend all of your time weeks later trying to figure out why. Most films fade from the memory quickly. “Inside Llewyn Davis” just won’t go away from mine. Even if their films are cynical, the Coen Brothers are the rare directors who don’t pander to their audience. “Inside Llewyn Davis” doesn’t provide any easy answers. It asks questions that I want to think about. I know it will grow even more on me in the years to come until it shapes into something that everyone considers to be a timeless classic. For all of these reasons and more, “Inside Llewyn Davis” is the best film of the year.

Honorable Mentions: 12 Years a Slave, Blackfish, Side Effects, The Spectacular Now, Captain Phillips, Evil Dead

Still Need To See: Her, Spring Breakers, Short Term 12, The Act of Killing, Frozen, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Dallas Buyers Club

Still Not Sure If This Counts: The Hunt- I saw it at Cannes in 2012, but it didn’t come out in America until this year. Either way, this incredible film deserves a list of its own.

Movie Review: The Wolf of Wall Street

Image via Slate

“The Wolf of Wall Street” is the rare film in which its trailer is not misleading. If you came anticipating flying midgets and strippers with money taped to them, that is exactly what you will get.

Although he has dipped his toes into very different territory over the years (“The Aviator,” “Hugo”), Martin Scorsese returns to the world of crime and money again and again. Each time, he seems to have something new to say about it, and gives us another rags to riches villain to engrain into our memories.

Meet Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), a middle class kid from Bayside, Queens who just wants to make millions. His ambition brings him to Wall Street where he meets a broker (Matthew McConaughey) who teaches him how to survive on Wall Street, mainly through increased sex and drug intake.

Through some successes and failures over the next few years, Belfort finds himself in the penny stock business and eventually, he becomes a multimillionaire. He begins to live a life of excess as opposed to luxury. Those with enough money are comfortable. Then there are people like Jordan Belfort, who have more money than they can spend, and thus have wealth-induced anxiety. I hate that I am about to type this, but I feel like I have to: more money really does mean more problems.

Scorsese fights excess with excess. With a running time that just hits the three hour mark, he revels in the insane behavior that took place at Stratton Oakmont and then reprimands it. “The Wolf of Wall Street” embodies the truism that crime doesn’t pay, and it has such a fun time in doing so. “The Wolf of Wall Street” is a comedy, through and through, and by far one of the funniest movies of the year. This is a satire with consequences. It allows its actors to show off comic skills that you knew or didn’t know that they ever had.

Scorsese’s films with DiCaprio has proven to be one of the most successful actor-director collaborations ever, and about as close to the pairing that Scorsese and DeNiro once had. DiCaprio has never had a real comedic role before, which is a shame; he has never been funnier than he is in “The Wolf of Wall Street.” His drug-addled physical commitment to his performance turns Jordan Belfort into the weirdest kind of cartoon – the kind that will slink and slither as much as he needs to so long as it helps him put more money in his pocket. And while DiCaprio could probably make a rock seem charismatic, he has especially good chemistry with Jonah Hill, who plays his sidekick, Donnie Azoff. Many of the scenes are focused on Hill’s ability to bounce off another person in long banter sessions. He is as good with DiCaprio as he has been in past comedies with Michael Cera and Channing Tatum.

“The Wolf of Wall Street” proves that age has nothing on Scorsese. He recently said that he thinks he only has a few films left in him. However, his directorial style is as fresh today as it was when he first started. His view of the world lends itself to so many different times and places. However, it is fantastic to see him back in his home turf. Whether it is the 1860s in Five Points or the 1990s on Wall Street, Scorsese knows New York better than anyone. He captures the neighborhoods, the accents, and the attitudes. His hyperactive directing style lends itself so well to the chaotic energy of the city.

This film has been compared many times to “Goodfellas,” you know, that movie you will watch to completion anytime it is on cable. While the comparison sets “Wolf” up for high expectations, it is a fair one. “Wolf” is filled with criss-crossing perspectives and multiple voiceovers. This is Jordan’s story, and he gets a chance to try and justify himself with the perspective of time. However, allowing the side characters to comment is a sly way to let the audience know that the narrator cannot be trusted.

In the world of “The Wolf of Wall Street,” stockbrokers are the new gangsters: kids aspire to be them, women want to be with them. They see what they want and they take it. However, Henry Hill is something of a sympathetic figure, while Jordan Belfort does not come close to being sympathetic. The fact that the film is able to get this across is part of what makes it so good. While “Goodfellas” showed that gangsters could be average guys who found some short cuts to success, “The Wolf of Wall Street” portrays criminals as reverse Robin Hoods who got rich by ripping off the working class. “Wolf” is really about class warfare. The scene where Belfort and his gang launch little people for their own entertainment struck me as biting, yet sad comedy. It is about the equivalent of the scene in “History of the World: Part I” where King Louis shoots peasants for fun, the same people he is supposed to be looking out for.

Nobody contradicts himself for artistic gain quite as well as Scorsese does. Throughout the film’s run, quaaludes are snorted and orgies are had, and we get to experience the feeling of being involved in all of these. Scorsese has an amazing ability of being able to boil down the business of crime into something understandable. Sure, little pieces could have been trimmed off of the film here and there, but no scene really needed to be removed completely. There is never a boring moment in the film, something that cannot be said for most films that are half the length of “The Wolf of Wall Street.” You will enjoy every moment of what is on screen, and then question why you enjoyed something about a subject so dark. This is provocation done right in one of the best films of the year.

Brain Farts From The Edge (Minor Spoilers/Spoilers For Real Life Ahead)

  • Matthew McConaughey is barely in the film, but he still deserves an Oscar nomination. I also like how most directors seem to have given up on trying to get him to drop his Texas accent.
  • As Always, Kyle Chandler plays the authority figure. Luckily, he has more of a personality than he did in “Argo” and “Zero Dark Thirty.” Plus, he gets to curse. Go coach!
  • The chimp in roller skates needed more screen time. He is as intriguing as the llama they always show backstage on “Saturday Night Live” but never explain.
  • Apparently, Belfort’s main influence for his get rich quick scheme was Gordon Gekko of “Wall Street.” This once again proves that people are really, really bad at understanding simple irony.
  • The quaalude tripping scene is unbelievable. From the Popeye reference to Belfort’s attempt to gain control of his own body, this is one of the funniest scenes of the year. Like tear-inducing laughter. It’s like a slightly more down-to-earth version of the drug trip sequence from “21 Jump Street.”
  • During the drug trip, one very long lasting shot weirdly reminded me of the hanging scene in “12 Years a Slave.” Talk about two very different kinds of struggles.
  • Something about this movie really makes me want to go eat in a diner in Queens.
  • I immensely enjoyed the scene where Rob Reiner yelled at his wife over the TV show. It is really fun to watch old Jews argue.
  • On that note, I don’t know what “The Equalizer” is, but I would totally watch it.
  • One scene I could have done without (SPOILERS!): After Naomi (Margot Robbie) tells Jordan she wants a divorce and Jordan tries to steal his own daughter. It felt both unnecessary and painful to watch. At this point, I didn’t need any more evidence that he was selfish and pathetic. This scene just felt like overkill.
  • The storm scene. Terrifying. “The Perfect Storm” has nothing on this. (Note: I have never seen “The Perfect Storm,” so it’s probably best to ignore this).
  • I really enjoyed that nice little bit of subway symbolism in the end.
  • The fact that this escaped an NC-17 rating is beyond me.
  • F***ing Benihana.
  • Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna go watch “Goodfellas.”

Movie Review: Saving Mr. Banks

Image via The Guardian

Hollywood loves nothing more than itself. So I guess it’s fitting that a movie about Walt Disney was made by Walt Disney Pictures. Walt Disney made a movie about Walt Disney whether you like it or not.

That sets the tone for “Saving Mr. Banks,” a sometimes dark but mostly sugarcoated view of a Hollywood story that didn’t necessarily need to be told, but here it is anyway.

In actuality, “Saving Mr. Banks” is not even that much about Walt Disney, even if it was one of the film’s major selling points. It is really about P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson), the eccentric author of “Mary Poppins.” Mrs. Travers (as she would want you to call her) is the farthest thing from a sellout, but she is strapped for cash. Disney, who is played here by a mustached Tom Hanks, wants to buy the rights to “Mary Poppins” from her for a film, but Travers won’t do it until she can approve of Disney’s vision. So he sends her from London to Hollywood to work on the script.

Behind-the-scenes looks at Hollywood can be interesting. The process of getting a movie made is such a painstaking process that it usually takes an insane person to get a really good one made. “Saving Mr. Banks” is about pre-pre-production on “Mary Poppins,” before anyone even knew if it was actually going to get made. Therefore, “Saving Mr. Banks” is less about taking huge creative risks and more about the very early creative process of trying to come up with ideas. However, the film never really captures the frustration of trying to get an idea to stick. Rather, it is about a really frustrating person who will shoot down every idea she can.
“Saving Mr. Banks” takes place in 1961, and is intercut with flashbacks to Travers’ childhood. The flashbacks ultimately turn what could have been a fun, breezy look at Old Hollywood into a period piece that takes itself too seriously. The flashbacks serve to reveal Travers’ relationship with her father (Colin Farrell), a man who gave her the cynical outlook on life that was a crucial part of her creative growth. While this is a necessary element of the film, it also feels like it could have been accomplished in just a few simple lines of exposition.

Meanwhile, the film tries way too hard to seamlessly transition into these blasts from the past. Little mind triggers take Travers out of the present and into the haunted events of her Australian childhood. The most ridiculous of these comes from a bowl of pears. From there, the biggest mystery of the film is this: what did pears ever do to her? Did a pear kill her father? Or have an affair with her mother? It was these questions that helped me stay awake through the film’s dullest scenes. I would have preferred that these flashbacks were shoved into the film in a sincerely messy way as opposed to with phony subtlety.

While “Saving Mr. Banks” lets the characters live, it never lets them move around, breath, and truly explore the space. Hanks, who gave one of the best performances of his career in “Captain Phillips” in the fall, seemingly phones it in here. Or at least his potential does not seem to be fully realized. Meanwhile, Thompson gives a standout performance as Travers. At first, her uptight quirks are pretty grating but as the film moves along, they become surprisingly endearing. However, there is a sense of humor that makes up her personality that one can only see from an actual recording of one of their writing sessions (Travers liked to record everything), which is played during the closing credits. Unfortunately, this seemingly funny British sensibility doesn’t come through as much as it should in her performance.

While bias usually only applies to journalism, it can be a major problem for entertainment as well. “Saving Mr. Banks” isn’t necessarily a blatant advertisement for Disney. However, it is definitely a piece of pro-Disney propaganda. While movies don’t need to portray the past accurately in order to be good, they should at least try to come close. Instead, “Saving Mr. Banks” portrays Walt Disney as a big kid with boundless imagination. While I am sure that Disney was like that, he also must have been a pretty ruthless businessman, given the scope of the empire that he created. Instead, we are expected to be sympathetic for him because he had a rough childhood. That tidbit, like most of what the film reveals, isn’t as big of a revelation as it thinks it is.

At one point, Disney gives a cheesy, self-congratulatory speech that is perhaps perfect for this film. We give tons of awards and money to people who make things up, so why do we all need to hear a speech about how important creative people are?

I might have a little bias here myself, as I have actually never seen “Mary Poppins.” I am not sure if this would have changed my opinion on the film or not. I doubt it, because in a weird way, the ending of “Saving Mr. Banks” was emotionally satisfying, even though it fell flat at the same time. Watching the whole film is like watching a good movie duke it out with a bad movie, as if it is trying to give itself an exorcism.

“Saving Mr. Banks” never strives to break new ground. It is a good remedy for anybody looking for a feel good holiday flick. It is more “Finding Neverland” than “Sunset Boulevard.” Disney’s big final speech fell a little short: he should have mentioned that telling a story involves a bit more honesty and sincerity than “Saving Mr. Banks” has to offer.

Brain Farts From The Edge

·      Having just seen “Inside Llewyn Davis,” every other portrayal of an artist going through a creative struggle just seems trite. And on that note, it is hard to say that Llewyn is a jerk (as many have) after seeing some of things that Mrs. Travers does.

·      I am still not sure if Mr. Disney was actually an anti-Semite, but I was half expecting him to yell “bring me your finest writer Jew writer!” at several points.

·      Speaking of which, B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman were completely under-utilized. I could have watched an entire movie about them trying to write a musical.

·      PEARS

·      Walt Disney’s teddy bear attitude reminded me a lot of Hank Hooper from “30 Rock.”

·      PEARS

·      I should probably mention Travers’ friendship with her driver Ralph (Paul Giamatti). This is probably the most weirdly used cliché in the entire film. I am not fully convinced as to how this one man suddenly made her like America more. Their friendship was way too predictable to be plausible.

·      I would love to see a separate Disney biopic made by a different studio that explores what could possibly drive somebody to have such a grand creative vision. The guy was a child, a businessman, and a futurist, all rolled into one.

·      In the film, Disney says that he likes to see the world through a child’s eyes. This film feels like a child’s perception of Walt Disney. That is not a good thing.

·      Everything in her present life echoes her past. Crazy, right?!

The Hits of the Holiday Season According to Your Grandparents

Land of Grandparents

It’s the holiday season. Between Christmas and New Years, you will probably be spending a lot of time with relatives you don’t normally see.

If you’re spending time with your grandparents, prepare for a lot of talk about how everything was better in the past, and how you’re part of the worst generation ever. It’s annoying but it’s family, so you love them. And there’s no better way to connect with family than through a trip to the movies.

Movie titles are hard, and your grandparents might have trouble remembering some of those names. Luckily, they wisely find a way to get around this: by coming up with their own titles. Some of these make no sense, and some of them are much funnier and more creative than the original titles. In order to bridge the confusion of the generation gap, here is a key to the big movies of the holiday season, according to your grandparents:

12 Years a Slave: 10 Years a Slave

American Hustle: The American Hustler

Anchorman 2: All These Comedies Are Garbage

Dallas Buyers Club: The Texas Buying Club

Frozen: Freezing

Her: She

Inside Llewyn Davis: What’s That?

Last Vegas: The Las Vegas Picture

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty: Saving Walter Midas

The Wolf of Wall Street: The One with the Handsome Boy from Titanic

Tyler Perry’s A Madea Christmas: Tyler Perry’s A Madea Christmas (I have no idea why they get this one right)

A Second Viewing, A Second View: Inside Llewyn Davis

SPOILER ALERT: This review is filled with SPOILERS for “Inside Llewyn Davis.” If you don’t want SPOILERS for “Inside Llewyn Davis,” do not read beyond this point. I put SPOILERS in bold/caps lock because you see, I’m trying to make a point. 

A Coen Brothers film can be great on one viewing, but no Coen Brothers film has been truly watched until it has been seen at least twice.

So far, I have gotten a mixed consensus from the few people I know who have seen “Inside Llewyn Davis.” For every time it topped a bestof list or got an A+, it also got a negative review. But Joel and Ethan Coen never really get full acclaim across the board, except in the cases of “Fargo” and “No Country for Old Men.”

The legacy of “Inside Llewyn Davis” will take time to sort out, but I figured now was an appropriate time to sort out a few things about the film that you and me, but mostly me, might have been having trouble with. Here is my SPOILER heavy rundown of “Inside Llewyn Davis”:

On Llewyn Davis Himself: Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is, as Jean (Carey Mulligan) so lovingly describes him, an asshole. She sure does like to call him that. Llewyn doesn’t intentionally try and hurt others around him (mostly), but he doesn’t really consider how his actions might hurt others in the future. He is more careless than thoughtless. 
On That Note, Llewyn is Kind of an Idiot: Part of the reason I wanted to see “Llewyn Davis” again was because of the technical difficulties during my first screening. One of them cut out a small but pivotal moment, where Llewyn accepts his money for “Please Mr. Kennedy” upfront, and cheats himself out of royalties. He needs the money right away in order to pay for Jean’s abortion and his manager simply won’t help him here. 

Some have said that Llewyn is plagued by bad luck. More accurately, he creates a lot of his own bad luck by being stubborn and uncooperative. Then again, he is also thrown into a lot of situations like this one, where either choice he makes will be a bad one. 

Llewyn Might Be an Asshole, but it “Takes Two To Tango”: The Coen Brothers don’t like to let anybody off easy. Llewyn is surrounded by a lot of jerks, and a lot of well-intentioned hacks. Jean doesn’t blame herself for the fact that she cheated on her husband and might be carrying Llewyn’s baby. No, it’s all Llewyn’s fault. Every time he brings this up, it is as if she didn’t even hear him. One of the defining traits of a typical Coen Brothers’ character is that they seem to be talking to themselves most of the time. For the most part, Llewyn can try and let his music, rather than his actions, speak for him, it would certainly make him look much better.

That Cat: The multiple cats that stroll in and out of “Inside Llewyn Davis” serve many purposes. I would like to say that they serve as a means of motivation for Llewyn. Whether it is the Gorfeins’ cat or the other cat, they are the one thing on this planet Llewyn has control over, and the one thing he really seems bent on helping. Yet, just like with Jean, he gets no thanks whenever he does provide. Even if cats could talk, they probably wouldn’t thank him. That is how cats operate, you see.

Mainly though, a cat is simply perfect comic relief. Mrs. Gorfein’s very weird relation with Ulysses was more pronounced this time (watch what she does with her tongue at one point). “Where is his scrotum, Llewyn?” has made me laugh way too hard on both occasions. The cut to black immediately after it is also perfect.

Comedy Plus Tragedy Equals…: As usual, Joel and Ethan Coen take tragic situations and fill them with comic characters.

Random Questions: How does Llewyn know the Gorfeins? (Likely Answer: Mike was their son) What did Llewyn hit when he was driving on the highway? (Likely Answer: A random tabby cat, and not a goat as my dad thought)

The Chicago Trip: Some might say that the Chicago detour was too long, or even completely unnecessary. In my humble and possibly incorrect opinion, Llewyn needed that trip as much as the audience needed to see it happen.

In any other film, Llewyn would have knocked Bud Grossman’s (F. Murray Abraham) socks off and gotten the gig. Then on the way home, he would have decided to take that awkward first meeting with his son. Instead, Bud doesn’t see any potential and Llewyn passes the exit to Akron. The rejection shows that even when people are pushed this far, there is the chance that they still won’t make it. Some people just won’t get what you do. While this is sad and cynical, there is something very necessary about understanding the life of a failed artist. One can learn more from failure than success.

If these things worked out for the better, this would be a different film. It would be okay, albeit cheesy, and probably directed by Adam Shankman.

Oscar Isaac: I don’t know if he will win, but I am rooting for him to take home the Academy Award for Best Actor.

John Goodman: Somebody with movie power please get an Oscar campaign started for him.

What the Film Lacks in Character Development, it Makes Up for in Back Story: “Inside Llewyn Davis” is the first film of its kind that I would actually watch a prequel to.

The Chicago detour ultimately means less time spent with the characters introduced during the first act. Unlike most writer/directors, the Coen Brothers work best with flimsy characters that border on being one-dimensional. Llewyn is a fairly selfish man, and all that matters about the other characters is how they have somehow factored into Llewyn’s life. Through this, we learn a lot about their past, and that tells us a lot about who they are today. Most of these characters are not meeting for the first time. We are barging in at a very random moment in their lives, so now we have to adapt. We are insignificant in the grand scheme of things. This applies to the audience watching as well as to the characters on screen.

That Moment: When Llewyn looks at a poster for “The Incredible Journey,” and you realize that “Homeward Bound” is a remake. 
That Ending: “Inside Llewyn Davis” starts and ends in the same place. The same event is shown twice and on both occasions it carries two different meanings.

Basically, Llewyn performs at The Gaslight. He is called outside to meet a “friend.” A shady man proceeds to beat him up. The first time we see it, we know basically nothing about it. It is a confounding event. The second time we see it, there is much more context. Llewyn made fun of the man’s wife. He has once again failed to connect with people. This time, it is very tragic.

Before he gets punched in the face, it almost looks like “Inside Llewyn Davis” is about to end happily, even though we know what is actually going to happen. Llewyn has his most successful performance in the entire whole film. For the first time, he really seems to connect with an audience. After a spectacular rendition of “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me,” Llewyn belts out “Fare Thee Well.” Remember, “Fare Thee Well” was a song he would duet with Mike. Earlier in the film, listening to Mrs. Gorfein chime in with Mike’s verse was painful for Llewyn. He could not even finish the song (also for reasons of selfish pride, but let’s not get into that now). The second time, Llewyn gets through the entire song without a hitch. This is like his moment of redemption. But when you’re a character in “Inside Llewyn Davis,” unlike other films, you will actually have to face the consequences of your actions. Then the punch came.

As Llewyn leaves the bar, unaware of what is about to happen, he happens upon the now familiar sight and voice of Bob Dylan. Dylan is not what Bud Grossman would call a moneymaker, but the fact that Dylan’s insane lyrics and scratchy voice connected so much is almost a miracle.

As Llewyn gets beaten up, you can still hear Dylan singing “Farewell” inside The Gaslight. Yet, Llewyn sits outside in an alley. He is cold, bloody, and defeated. No matter how close he gets to great success, something will bring him down unexpectedly. He is doomed to be a perpetual outsider.

Llewyn Davis strikes me as one of those artists who won’t become famous until long after he is gone. “Inside Llewyn Davis” is a sad yet beautiful portrayal of potential both squandered and fully realized. Some people make it, and some people do not. When you don’t make it, sometimes it is your fault, and sometimes you can’t avoid it. There are some people who will get so close to being Bob Dylan, but instead end up lying in an alley with no house, jacket, or furry animal to return to.

Some people thrive on this chaos, and some people, well, they are Llewyn Davis, and they cannot be described in so few words.

Trading Places: A Christmas Classic Worth Celebrating

Black Friday has passed, but Americans still need something to fight about. Christmas has arrived, so fighting over the best Christmas movie seems like the logical next step.

If you are fighting the War On Christmas Movies, you probably fall into one of five camps:

1. Your Favorite is “It’s a Wonderful Life”: That means you have probably watched all of the AFI List specials.

2. Your Favorite is “Home Alone”: You grew up in the 90s. Also, you have a thing for setting up booby traps in your house.

3. Your Favorite is “A Christmas Story”: You will watch it during the entire 24 hour block that runs on TBS on Christmas Day. Also, you’re probably Jewish and couldn’t convince anybody else to go see something in theaters that day.

4. Your Favorite is “Die Hard”: You understand that “Die Hard” isn’t a Christmas movie in a traditional sense. But you don’t care, because you are way too cool for school.

5. Your Favorite is “Jingle All The Way”: Haha we get it. You like being ironic and you probably own a pair of bacon socks from Urban Outfitters and also you’re probably me.

However, I would like to stage a coup, and add a sixth film to the battle. Would anybody care to join me on Team “Trading Places”?

Okay, “Trading Places” isn’t the most traditional Christmas story. Like “Die Hard,” Christmas is more of a backdrop rather than front and center. But the holidays are an open and inviting time, just not for your drunk uncle who won’t stop talking about Obamacare.

In “Trading Places,” two rich old men with too much money and time on their hands want to settle the nature vs. nurture debate once and for all. So they find their lab rats in the form of stock broker Louis Winthorpe III (Dan Aykroyd) and homeless criminal Billy Ray Valentine (Eddie Murphy). Louis finds his money, safety, and sanity all gone. Billy Ray, meanwhile, ends up with millions. The way in which this all transpires is actually quite brilliant and elaborate. Along the way, you’ll get a glimpse of a young Giancarlo Esposito, and way more of a glimpse of Jamie Lee Curtis than you probably ever expected.

“Trading Places” came out in 1983, and is one of the best comedies of the 1980s. It is part of the trend of 80s comedies about how entertaining it is to make fun of the country club crowd. It has been playing on Comedy Central a lot lately, and it gets much better after multiple viewings. It contains some of the best work from all of its stars. It is also a sad reminder that Eddie Murphy was once one of the funniest people on the planet. “Trading Places” is a bit different from the likes of “Caddyshack” and “Ghostbusters.” A lot of jokes fall through the cracks upon a first viewing. It has a much drier sense of humor than most other mainstream American comedies of that time. Well, now that I think about it, watching all three of those movies back to back right now would be pretty awesome.

Anyway, “Trading Places” might be dark for a Christmas movie, but it still embodies the holiday spirit in a way that no Christmas movie starring Tim Allen ever could. “Trading Places” is a film about a bunch of completely different people coming closer together to defeat a common enemy. Who ever thought a businessman, a hobo, and a prostitute could get along? Well, the holidays are a time to put aside your differences and revel in warmth to escape the cold, dark winter.

While you might not have wanted your Christmas movie of choice to feature a lot of talk about whether or not man is good or evil, maybe you might want one where all the Scrooges get screwed to put you in a good mood. It’s nice that the moral in the end is that sometimes, stock fraud is okay.

Plus, if you wanted a good reminder of a few of the racist jokes you might hear during the holidays, look no further than Aykroyd’s blackface. It’s pretty offensive, but also really funny. It’s a forgiving time of year. So you can be forgiven for laughing at it.*

*You can still laugh at it any other time of year. In fact, the great thing about “Trading Places” is that unlike other Christmas movies, you are still legally allowed to watch during any time of the year that you want.

Movie Review: American Hustle

Here Comes the Sun(glasses). Image via TotalFilm

From the very beginning, “American Hustle” announces that it is only sort of based on true events.

Fitting, as this is an historical event so complex and bizarre that the whole truth simply could not do it justice. This is where movie truth steps in and offers a helping hand.

“American Hustle” constantly blurs the line between real and fake. In fact, the film opens with Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) giving himself the most passionate combover you’ll ever see. Irv’s life philosophy is to fake it until you make it. He kind of has to, as this is part of his job: Irv is a con man, and a very good one at that.

From there, “American Hustle” is like a much better version of “The Informant!” crossed with “Goodfellas” on crack. Once Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) enters the picture, the film is a manic mix of criss-crossing voiceovers and flashbacks. The two of them try to commit the perfect crime, yet they have trouble doing this, as they are not the perfect couple. That is exactly why it is easy to get attached to these people, but especially Irv, as he does not look like a slick member of the “Ocean’s 11″ crew. Rather, he resembles a schlubby Ron Burgundy knockoff.

The other characters are crime movie misfits as well. Set in 1978 during the ABSCAM Scandal, ambitious FBI Agent Richie Dimaso (Bradley Cooper), who tries to use Irv and Sydney to bring some powerful politicians down, is terrible at his job. Meanwhile, Irv’s manipulative wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) is all too aware of her husband’s misdeeds. The only character who actually acts like a real criminal is Sydney. Lesson learned: being able to fake a British accent is a very useful skill in the world of con artistry.

The difference between “American Hustle” and most heist films is that the twists here are actually surprising. Leave it to director David O. Russell, who has also added new spins to the war movie (“Three Kings”), the sports biopic (“The Fighter”), and the romantic comedy (“Silver Linings Playbook”) as well. Nobody manipulates form quite like he can.

While David O. Russell is a uniquely talented director he is also fortunate enough to be working with such interesting material. The characters here are so well fleshed out that they each deserve their own miniseries. Much of O. Russell’s work has been focused around people who call each other out on their BS. “American Hustle” is no exception (consider this elegant and stinging putdown: “she was a master at passive aggressive karate”).

O. Russell and co-writer Eric Singer have come up with some great one-liners here, but the cast truly brings the words to life in a way that, well, actors are supposed to. The fact that “American Hustle” was shut out of the SAG Awards is a travesty that should have ended awards season. Irv is one of the most interesting criminals in any movie in years. As Sydney says when she first meets him, Irv doesn’t look like much, but his confidence takes him a long way. He may be a professional liar, but he just wants people to accept him for who he is. Irv is the most authentic faker out there. There was no better choice to play him than Christian Bale, who lovingly portrays him while hiding behind a big paunch and a garish Star of David necklace.

What I would have done to be invited to this prom

While Bale probably could have done it all on his own (I’d like to think that one day he’ll get his own “Nutty Professor II: The Klumps”), he gets a lot of help from a fantastic array of supporting actors and actresses. While “Silver Linings Playbook” co-stars Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence don’t get much screen time together, they both get a lot of milage out of playing against type. As Richie, Cooper gives the sense that this guy is thinking at an ADD pace, and this is exactly what stops him from ever doing or saying the right thing. Meanwhile, Lawrence plays Rosalyn who has been holding her rage back for far too long and now she just can’t take it anymore. Perhaps she just watched “Network.” She would rather let a microwave explode than have to listen to her husband tell her how to properly cook something. It’s hard for anybody to get a word in when Rosalyn is around, which plays quite nicely with Lawrence’s outspoken public persona, and is a fitting personality trait for just about every loud New Yorker out there. When they are all together, the ensemble plays like a great band during their finest concert.

Hitchcock once said (and Roger Ebert has also cited in a review) that he enjoyed “playing the audience like a piano.” “American Hustle” enjoys doing the exact same thing, except this time it has dismantled the piano so much that the movie plays itself as much as it plays the audience. The film gets confusing and convoluted beyond belief at times, but then it backtracks and reverses until it ultimately reaches an immensely satisfying finale that asks the viewer to be skeptical of everything that just occurred. Finally, a movie that understands that history is much more interesting when you look at it from a completely different, or even wrong, perspective.

Once it ended, I felt like I could have sat through it once more. “American Hustle” is a smart summer movie wrapped in a December Oscar bait shell. Here is a film about a long con that is also one big long con.

Brain Farts From The Edge

  • I tried to keep as much plot detail out of this review as possible. While much of the story has been altered, the less you know about ABSCAM, the better. It is definitely worth a good Wikipedia search afterwards though.
  • Some things I would talk about after a second viewing/review of this film: Irv and Richie are dopplegangers; the idea of maintaining a certain physical appearance to shield parts of your personality that you don’t like; how people in the 1970s spent way too much time fixing their hair
  • I hope that the film’s likely success doesn’t create a sudden disco nostalgia craze. Please, everybody is still distracted by 90s nostalgia!
  • No matter how brief his appearance was, seeing Robert De Niro play a gangster again delighted me to no end. More of this and less “Last Vegas,” please.
  • Louis C.K. has had minor roles in two of my favorite films of the year from two of my favorite directors. Luckily, he gets a bit more screen time here than he did in “Blue Jasmine.” He plays hilariously timid so perfectly. He doesn’t seem like a typical FBI guy here. But then again, most of the government agents here are very against type.
  • Funny how the criminal is more sympathetic than the FBI agent here. Guys, anti-heroes are the greatest.
  • For some reason, I have expected Kyle Chandler to show up as “Authority Figure #000003″ in just about every Oscar prestige movie now. Couldn’t believe he wasn’t in this at all. Come on, somebody get Coach into comedy!
  • Jeremy Renner pulls off a good Elvis hairdo, and a convincing New Jersey accent to boot.
  • There are few things in this world funnier than the site of Bradley Cooper with curling irons in his hair.
  • A David O. Russell movie without any Led Zeppelin on the soundtrack. AND it’s set in 1978? What is the world coming to??!!
  • Speaking of music, there is a scene where Jennifer Lawrence sings along to a song. I will not spoil it any further, but I will say that it is a moment that her entire career has been leading to.
  • I really want to hear how that ice fishing story actually ends. But you know Richie, whatever sounds best in his head works for him.
  • “Don’t put metal in the science oven” is the most quotable line from any movie that has come out in 2013. Apologies to “I am the captain now” from “Captain Phllips” and “[audible Sandra Bullock yelling sounds]” from “Gravity.”
It’s okay, JLaw. You’re still America’s sweetheart.

Movie Review: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

“You see Mr. Powers…I love gooold!” Image via WhatCulture

If insanity is repeating the same thing over and over again expecting different results, then it is the perfect word to describe my viewing of the “Hobbit” series.

“The Desolation of Smaug” is at least a little better than its predecessor “An Unexpected Journey.” However, it still feels like a lot of filler space for a trilogy that did not need to be a trilogy.

“Smaug” begins with a prequel-to-a-prequel introduction where Gandalf (Ian McKellen) meets Thorin (Richard Armitage) at the Prancing Pony (a fun callback to “The Fellowship of the Ring”), and the two of them set the entire “Hobbit” adventure in motion. This little scene is there simply to declare that Thorin, and not Bilbo (Martin Freeman), is the main character of “Smaug.”

That may be where the biggest problem in “The Hobbit” movies lies: backstory and character development are constantly at odds. “Smaug” has some solid world-building, as the tension between all of the different races on Middle Earth is more in depth than ever. This is all entertaining to see, and it makes Middle Earth even more alive. Yet, the more “Smaug” adds on to itself, the less it focuses on its central characters. While the main goal of “Smaug” is to help the Dwarves win back Lonely Mountain, throwing Bilbo off to the side seems unfair. The Dwarves are constantly praising Bilbo for his newfound sense of bravery. Bilbo has been reduced to somebody who can get other characters out of central situations. His own safety and well-being seems irrelevant in “Smaug.”

It really is too bad that “Smaug” didn’t utilize Bilbo more, because he is one of the best characters J.R.R. Tolkien ever created. Bilbo utilizes his short stature, as if he likes to be underestimated. What he lacks in height he makes up for in courage and cunning. Watching Bilbo work his way out of a giant spider’s nest is the highlight of the film. It’s an exciting sequence that makes Frodo and Sam seem like wimps when they battled Shelob in “Return of the King.” It stands in deep contrast to the rest of the film’s action set pieces, which often come off as cheesy.

Unfortunately, the biggest battle in the film, and the promise of the title, is something of a letdown. Smaug himself is a CGI marvel, even if he does look a little too much like the dragon from “Shrek.” et, it takes so long to get to him and it almost doesn’t feel like it was worth the wait. There is a rule of film that what we see is better than what we don’t see, and buildup to the unknown makes it even better once it is revealed. However, the buildup to Smaug never feels like a Jaws effect. Instead, it points to one of the film’s central problems: it just feels like its stalling.

“Smaug” runs much smoother than “An Unexpected Journey,” and there much more of a sense of connection between events. “Smaug” feels more like filler space than an actual film of its own; it is simply a bridge between the setup of the original and the final battle that will likely occur in the conclusion (so long as Peter Jackson doesn’t split it into another three parts). Despite the more concrete Middle Earth that is established, “Smaug” still ends with what feels like more loose ends than cliffhangers.

Brain Farts From The Edge (Some Minor Spoilers Ahead):

  • Smaug totally got Goldfinger’d.
  • Guillermo del Toro is listed as a writer. As much as I admire Peter Jackson’s work, part of me wishes that del Toro could have gotten the chance to direct.
  • I really hope that Mr. Jackson takes all of the money and clout he has earned from “The Lord of the Rings” and “Hobbit” movies and uses it to make another weird sci-fi fantasy along the lines of “Heavenly Creatures.” 
  • Is it too late to get all of the writers from “Game of Thrones” to rewrite “There and Back Again”?
  • I saw “Smaug” in 2D, and I noticed that there were many shots specifically made for 3D, which were thus ruined. For instance, the underwater shots during the barrel sequence looked like footage from a Six Flags commercial. Did anybody else have this experience?
  • While I am grateful that “Smaug” didn’t contain 45 minutes of Dwarves singing, I wish it least had something half as entertaining as that to fill the dull hour or so before they all finally reach Lonely Mountain. 
  • After Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) heals Killi (Aidan Turner), he confesses his love to her. This scene is marked by some soft lighting, and the only thing that could have made it cheesier is if they played “Dream Weaver” in the background. Or if Killi had just gotten up and done this.
  • I am now taking bets on the likelihood that Gandalf will use his giant eagles to get himself out of this mess. 

Ten Sequels That Outdid The Originals

Sequels. Who needs them?

We do. Because we demand them.

Sequels are made for many reasons. Sometimes, they are a necessary continuation of the original. Other times, they are a cash grab that the market demands.

Some sequels try too hard to match their predecessor and ultimately forget why the original was even good in the first place. Others take the good elements, expand on them, and then add something new. When that happens, the sequel can often be better than the original.

This December, both “The Desolation of Smaug” and “Anchorman 2″ are coming out in theaters. Well, at least one of them has big shoes to fill. In celebration of Hollywood’s continued sequel mania, I have decided to compile a handy list of sequels that surpassed their predecessors. Feel free to leave your thoughts/yell at me for not including “The Empire Strikes Back” in the comments:

The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

Here’s my unpopular opinion: I don’t really understand why people like the first “Frankenstein” so much. It turned its source material into a fairly standard monster movie. On the other hand, “The Bride of Frankenstein” restores Mary Shelley’s enlightened philosophy and makes the monster more human than ever. But enough of that boring stuff. “The Bride of Frankenstein” is impossible to hate. Its special effects still look great today (see: little people in jars scene). The scene with the Monster and the hermit is funnier than you might ever be (“drink…good!”). “The Bride of Frankenstein” is classic Hollywood filmmaking at its finest.

For a Few Dollars More (1965)

Pinning “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” as the best of the Man With No Name trilogy makes the most sense. However, there’s something special about the middle chapter and it is still unfortunately underrated to this day. “A Fistful of Dollars” is great, but it is just a straight up transference of a samurai movie into the American West. “For a Few Dollars More” felt like something completely different. It was a definite precursor to many great years of filmmaking to come. “For a Few Dollars More” is where the Spaghetti Western came of age.

The Godfather: Part II (1974)

Mario Puzo’s novel of “The Godfather” was so long that it needed to be split in half. All for the better. Its hard to put the first two “Godfather” films up against each other as they are both masterpieces. However, the flashbacks of a young Vito Corleone as played by Robert De Niro are truly what set it apart. This set as a backdrop to Michael’s descent into evil make “The Godfather: Part II” a masterful example of the dark beauty of 1970s American cinema.

Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn (1987)

“The Evil Dead” became a major cult classic over the years. Sam Raimi took everything that made the original so great and stepped it up a notch for the sequel. Normally, this can lead to disaster. However, “Evil Dead 2″ doesn’t fall into the trap of unoriginality. It’s schlockier, more violent and even more hilarious than the original. It has the audacity to completely rewrite the history of the series in its first ten minutes. From there, it rewrites everything you thought you knew about horror.* By the way, Bruce Campbell gets the respect he deserves: when it comes to action stars, he is second only to that other Bruce.

Some monster took the original clip off YouTube. This is the best I could do.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)

Including this one might be cheating, as “The Last Crusade” is not a direct sequel to “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” “The Temple of Doom” is not a bad movie, but it also doesn’t include the revelation that Dr. Jones was named after the dog. “The Last Crusade” feels like an Indiana Jones movie that Spielberg made for the fans, which is why it turns out so good. Had he just given us the John Ford inspired opening that chronicles a young Indy, that would have been enough. If he had just put in an awesome chase scene in Venice, that would have been enough. But then he added Sean Connery as Indy’s father, who might be the best character in this entire series who isn’t named Indiana Jones. Good thing Spielberg ended the series on a positive note, and didn’t make another movie after this where a man is killed by a colony of ants and an ancient pyramid turns into an alien space ship. That would have been terrible.

Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)

Now this is how you make a sequel. “Terminator 2″ is one of the best action movies ever made. It’s bold to take a legendary villain and turn them into the good guy in the sequel, but “Terminator 2″ took a huge creative gamble that paid off for the better. James Cameron shows that along with being the ultimate futurist, few directors know how to conduct a spectacle quite like him. Most importantly, Cameron figured out Schwarzenegger’s strengths and therefore is one of the few directors who knew how to direct him. The less dialogue Schwarzenegger has, the more intimidating, mysterious, and awesome he is. Did I also mention that I wept tears of sadness at the film’s final thumbs up? It’s that good.

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)

When it comes to trilogies, the middle chapter is normally the best. While the third installment of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy won Best Picture, “The Two Towers” cannot be topped. “Two Towers” isn’t bogged down with the exposition of “Fellowship” or the Multiple Ending Syndrome of “Return of the King.” “The Two Towers” is fast-paced storytelling done in a three hour block. The Battle of Helms Deep is still one of the most visually arresting battle sequences ever put on film, and Treebeard might just be my favorite character in the series. “The Two Towers” is dark, filled with uncertainty, and the perfect centerpiece for a nearly perfect trilogy.

Kill Bill: Volume 2 (2004)

I’ve talked about “Kill Bill” maybe a little too much here, but I couldn’t do this list without including it, even if it is more a second part than a sequel. Unlike most sequels which tend to raise the stakes, Volume 2 instead decided to tone it down a bit. While Volume 2 doesn’t have the breathtaking fight scenes or amazing twist ending of Volume 1, it does have some of the best dialogue that Tarantino has ever written. The Superman monologue is just as good as anything recited by Samuel L. Jackson in “Pulp Fiction,” and the fact that it didn’t get David Carradine an Oscar nomination is something of a movie-related crime.

Spider-Man 2 (2004)

Like “Kill Bill: Volume 2,” “Spider-Man 2″ dialed it back a bit for one of the more thoughtful superhero movies. When is the last time you saw a superhero movie where the hero decided he wanted to give up his powers. It’s pretty deep stuff that’s wrapped up in an awesome blockbuster shell. Meanwhile a superhero is only as good as his villain, and Doctor Octopus is just a shade less cartoonish than the Green Goblin (no offense, Mr. Dafoe). Plus, this is Sam Raimi, so you know the action is going to be awesomely cheesy.

The Dark Knight (2008)

Because how could I make this list without it? Not that I felt forced to put this on here. “The Dark Knight” set a standard for the superhero genre that has yet to be matched. Many have tried to imitate its dark tone, but few have been able to replicate what Christopher Nolan achieved. It is a perfect continuation of the already great “Batman Begins.” “The Dark Knight” might be the only superhero movie that had more than one villain and still managed to use it to its advantage (for counterpoints see: “The Dark Knight Rises”).

*Sorry if this sentence too much like an Upworthy headline.