Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Movies in Review: My Best Rentals of 2010 (Part 1 of 2)

I love movies of all kinds, from all different genres and cultures. Unfortunately, I don’t get as much of a chance to go out to see current movies at the theaters. But I find I can often get more mileage out of renting older movies from the local video store. While other critics will likely bombard you with lists of their favorite theatrically released pictures that you may have already seen, here is my list of movies that I watched at home. Some you may know but never seen and some you may never have heard of at all. It took a while to narrow down all my choices to these; the top ten best movies that I saw for the first time this year.

A Patch of Blue (1965)
Starring Sidney Poitier, Shelly Winters
Directed by Guy Green
No Rating

A blind white teenage girl and black man discover an unlikely friendship.

Performances are everything in this movie. Sidney Poitier delivers his part with considerable grace, acting as a mentor and friend to Shelly Winters (in her Oscar winning role) who perfectly personifies the role of a modern day Cinderella, liberated from her abusive family and experiencing the everyday pleasures of life for the first time.

The late Jerry Goldsmith provides a remarkable score for this film. Primary known for his big rousing action movie music, here he is able to create a soft, gentle symphony that feels like a lofting summer wind. He also shows great skill, knowing when be silent and gives the audience an opportunity to linger on the emotions of the actors.

Dawn of the Dead (1978)
Directed by George Romero
Rated R

Recognizing the danger of the coming zombie apocalypse, four strangers find refuge in an abandoned shopping mall. While they have every conceivable comfort imaginable, over time we discover the futility of their daily living. The isolation from the rest of deceased remains of humanity slowly drives them mad.

The zombies in this movie are slow and lumbering with silver painted skin and blank

expressions. They are all dressed like they were about to go somewhere and had lives, jobs and purpose before they suddenly died. These are “blanks”; they look human, but have been wiped clean of anything that made them people. Their appearance serves as a haunting mirror of what our survivors stand to lose. It felt almost as if their soul had been wiped away and left behind nothing but the empty shell and is a subtle, yet terrifying concept to consider. The film is a masterpiece in multiple layers of horror ranging from shocking to subtle.

Dirty Harry (1971)
Starring Clint Eastwood, Andrew Robinson
Directed by Don Siegel
Rated R

“You’ve got to ask yourself: Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?”

The quote, paraphrased and recycled throughout the decades, still weighs heavily when spoken by Clint Eastwood’s most indelible character. Through then lens of director Don Siegel’s brilliant camera work, the streets of San Francisco become a maze as the cynical Police Inspector Harry Callahan hunts a deadly serial killer.

This film was crucial in starting the “cop on the edge, who doesn’t play by the rules” archetype. While we side with Harry’s devotion to justice because we follow his point of view, amidst the pulse pounding suspense and violent action scenes, the movie encourages viewers to reach their own conclusion about whether or not Harry’s actions are in the right or wrong. Harry himself contemplates his decisions in the final frame that serves as a monumental deconstruction of the action hero.

Gone With The Wind (1939)
Starring Vivian Leigh, Clark Gable
Directed by Victor Fleming
Not Rated

This is a movie that I must admit, is difficult to sit through. I don’t mean that is difficult because of its four hour run time, or its historical setting that is so vastly different from out own, or because of its

harlequin romance tropes. No, what makes this a difficult is that our two lead characters, Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler, are horrible people. Scarlett is a cold, harsh woman who lusts after her best friend’s husband and is willing to manipulate the emotions of others in order to get what she wants. Rhett is a rougish womanizer, who is just as, if not more self-serving. Then why, you might ask, have I placed this on a list of movies that I enjoyed the most in the past year?

I find something refreshing about characters who are willing to admit their selfishness and it does help that we see these people change in the face of adversity. Scarlett does not sit around and wait to be rescued, but takes action into her own hands and by patient industry works to rebuild the life she once knew and loved. The onslaught of war devastates the Old South, and while it has been presented like our human leads as beautiful but flawed, seeing it in blazes, almost brings a tear to my eye. The conflict is presented with remarkable scale. In particular, there is a scene in which the camera pulls back on a field covered in the bodies of wounded and bloodied soldiers, is a heart-stopping image.

Those looking for a more shorter and more lighthearted movie may want to stop at the intermission at the two hour mark, where you’re most likely to find a more optimistic conclusion than how the film actually closes.

How to Train Your Dragon (2010)
Voices of Jay Baruchel, Gerald Butler
Directed by Chris Sanders and Dean BeLois
Rated PG

If I were to attempt to describe the plot of this film, I could say that it is the best of “The Hero’s Journey” plus a “Coming of Age High School Story” multiplied by “A Boy and His Dog”. Hiccup Haddock is a string bean of a gangly teenager living in a village of muscle bound Vikings, constantly at war with viscous dragons. However, when Hiccup inadvertently captures a young dragon, he finds it is a social animal and develops a strong friendship and understanding with the creature.

Ordinarily Dreamworks Animation causes me to roll my eyes and turn off my brain, as they are best known for assaulting the viewers with smarmy pop culture references and over-the-top celebrity voice cameos. However, in recent years their animated feature have developed remarkable maturity in visual style as well as storytelling with movies like “Kung Fu Panda” and “Monsters vs. Aliens”. With that said, “How to Train your Dragon” represents an astonishing new leap in what this studio is capable of doing.

The setting and the characters showcase an amazing level of detail when it comes to animation. The expressive body language of the dragons is dynamic and the flight sequences easily steal the show.

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