Wednesday, October 5, 2016

My Top 10 Films of 2010

*Note: The following is part of the continuing "10 FOR 10" series in celebration of ten years of Jeremy The Critic, in which my choices for the top 10 films of each year from 2006-2015 are revealed. Just a reminder that movies must have a U.S. release date of that particular year in order to qualify.

Previous Posts:


For 2010, it comes down to ONE. And then there's everything else. In the biggest blowout to come out of these rankings thus far, David Fincher's The Social Network lays waste to the competition. In fact, there is no competition. It's not even close, and that's taking into account that this was actually a pretty good year. But the quality gap between the best and the rest is large enough that compiling this seemed like a formality, merely establishing what we already knew. Fincher and Aaron Sorkin crafted a film so gripping and timely that it would likely win any upcoming or previously covered year in this series. It's simply the best of the decade. Full stop. Since it's already been analyzed to death on this site over the years, I won't linger on the details other than to reiterate how it plays just as strongly for me now as it did when I first saw it in the theater six years ago.

While my top pick is bookended by two of the most successfully written, directed and performed in recent memory, everything in between manages to lives up to it, anchored primarily by Jesse Eisenberg's iconic performance as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, presented (imagined?) here as a terminally antisocial, narcissist who, depending on whom you ask, either founded or stole an eventual technology empire to impress a girl. With Inception, Black Swan, Blue Valentine, True Grit, and 127 Hours following behind, this year's list could almost read as a who's who of greatest contemporary American directors putting out some of their best work. This only makes The Social Network's definitive triumph seem like that much more of a feat.

This time, two films make the list that went unreviewed here upon their original release and when writing about both for the first time here, it became immediately apparent the right choices were made. In the case of Banksy's Exit Through the Gift Shop, it becomes the second documentary in the four years covered thus far to make the Top 10. Not too bad, but an appalling reminder that I've still somehow yet to review a single film in that genre on this site. 

The Coen Brothers' True Grit remake just slid under the radar without until finally catching up with it a year or two after its release. It's tough to even imagine this list without it and while it could have easily ranked higher, I finally settled on what still feels like an uncomfortably low number 5. It's fair given the competition, but the ranking on paper doesn't accurately reflect my love for the film as much as the accompanying write-up. Between this and the underrated and unfairly maligned TRON: Legacy (coming in at number 8) it's tough to argue that Jeff Bridges didn't fully capitalize on his '09 Oscar win.

Two strangely similar character driven films rounding out the list aren't too shabby either, as Sophia Coppola's hypnotic Somewhere and Noah Baumbach's difficult Greenberg may seem small in story, both are told in a style that allows them to linger in the mind long after they've concluded. With the latter, my initial 3-star review assessing it as a wildly mixed, sometimes unpleasurable experience proved over time to be overly dismissive. It's a keeper. Some other admirable titles that just missed the cut include The American, The Town, Enter The Void, The Fighter, Let Me In, Animal Kingdom, Never Let Me Go, Shutter Island, The Runaways, Buried, Remember Me and Toy Story 3.  With 2010 in the books, we're marching toward 2011, the first of more recent years that won't have as much time and distance behind them.

10. Greenberg

"It doesn't take but the first few minutes of the picture for (Greta) Gerwig to get us on Florence's side, whether she's just walking the dog or stuck in traffic. And the more time we spend with her the more we like her and if she says we'll be tolerating Greenberg's behavior today, well then, we'll be tolerating Greenberg's behavior today, no matter how irritating it gets. To everyone else he's an angry weirdo, but to her he's "damaged." This is one of THOSE movies, in which a loserish character approaching middle age with regret over a big mistake (or a variety of them) from the past is rescued by a younger, impossibly perfect woman. But in playing her Gerwig instead projects imperfectness, as well as an uncertainty and lack of confidence that would make the scenario plausible. She puts up with his tirades and verbal abuse, yet also somehow makes us understand why." - 9/6/10

9. Somewhere

"The film's style allows its characters, the visuals and the two central performances plenty of room to breathe, very often mimicking the aimless, trance-like state of its protagonist. Despite being told nothing and having to figure out this guy for ourselves, it's a strangely pressure-less experience to sit through, offering relief from the burden of being inundated by too many details. If Coppola's an expert at anything, it's letting the visuals, music and acting speak for itself. Unafraid of letting scenes linger past the point they typically should (or we're used to) to convey a mood, a practice session at an ice rink goes on twice as long as you'd expect and is all the more memorable for it." - 5/30/11

8. TRON: Legacy

"Now that the follow-up to TRON is here and everything we imagined it could be and more, it's kind of mind-boggling (not to mention hilariously ironic) that naysayers are still looking for things to complain about. Most of the unfair complaints leveled against TRON: Legacy have been at its screenplay which makes me wonder what they thought of the original's script, mostly an incoherent mess from middle to end. This story is an improvement in every way, much sharper focused with a clear-end point destination for its characters whose fates we're completely invested in. First time director Joseph Kosinski takes the forward looking ideas from 1982 to the level we always wanted while still managing to remain remarkably faithful to the original. Worth every year of the wait, he's made a sequel superior in every way to its predecessor and a film that comes as close as possible to matching the actual experience of watching it."1-3-11

7. Exit Through The Gift Shop

"Starting as an exploration of the method and madness behind mysterious street art artist Banksy, documentarian Thierry Guetta begins to disappear down the rabbit hole of his own obsession, dragging us along with him before the subversive twist reveals itself. That this wasn't a film about street art, nor necessarily Banksy or even Guetta. It was really about us the entire time, and how our interests and obsessions can boil over to the point that when someone tells you you're capable of doing anything, you actually start to believe it. What is art? And should someone have to earn the right to make it? Since most aren't blessed with the anonymity the film's hooded subject grants himself, the film's opening song becomes cruelly ironic. The streets are indeed ours. And that's a scary thought. Sure, 'anyone' can make art but the bigger question is whether they should, and if they do, will it be any good?"

6. 127 Hours

"Since the book covered Ralston's entire life rather than only those 127 hours, that portion still had to somehow be conveyed on screen, even if I can't help but wonder what we would have gotten if his original wish to have this optioned as a docudrama came to pass, sparing us the bells and whistles Boyle provides. Would the story be more or less moving? Would it be any different from a National Geographic or Discovery Channel reenactment?  The only thing we know for sure either way is the pure power of Franco's performance, creating Aaron from the inside-out, his words and actions shedding light on how the character finally arrives at the mental place necessary to make the brave decision that saves him, as well as the series of mistakes that led him there." - 12/10/10

5. True Grit

"That this can be considered more an adaptation of the original Charles Portis novel than the legendary 1969 John Wayne film that won him his Academy Award is a key distinction that ends up serving the Coens' well, and helps Jeff Bridges escape the shadow of the Duke. But it's not as if he ever needed to since it's the decision to tell the story through the eyes of 14-year-old Mattie rather than aging U.S, Marshal Rooster Cogburn that solidifies this Western as one of the few modern Hollywood remakes that far surpasses the original. Or more specifically it's the whip-smart, slyly humorous performance of young newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, whose nominated work in this deserves a spot alongside Tatum O' Neal in Paper Moon and Henry Thomas in E.T. in the pantheon of all-time greatest child actor performances. She's that good. The Academy can categorize it as they wish, but even amidst immense talents like Bridges and Damon, she's the one leading the way, as the rest of the cast gamely tags along for the ride."

4. Blue Valentine

"Flashing between past and present to track how a relationship implodes, this could have easily been titled (500) Days of Hell, with even the smallest, fleeting moments of happiness (and there are some) tempered by the knowledge of where we know things will end up. Yet strangely, I found it doesn't leave a completely depressing mark, maybe because there's relief in encountering a film that's truthful, or at least tells a side of the truth we're rarely exposed to in big studio pictures. But it's really about the astonishing performances of the two leads, one of whom was previously the best current working actor not to have a great movie to his name and the other a rapidly rising actress extending her winning streak." - 6/15/11

3. Black Swan

"The whole film could basically be viewed as a running commentary on not only Portman but the plight of Hollywood actresses in general, cruelly discarded once they've surpassed their point of perceived usefulness and marketability. Strangely, the performance further confirms what I've suspected of her skills all along, only this time the one-dimensionality works in her favor like never before. Still, it couldn't have been easy for her to put herself out there like this, emotionally inhabiting a character so uncomfortably close to how she's publicly perceived. We frequently praise actors and actresses for taking unexpected risks by leaving their comfort zone, but it's sometimes even more special when a performer is pushed to the limit within it, owning a role they seem destined to play."12/23/10

2. Inception

"The best scenes in Inception come early when we're teased with all the excitement and potential possibilities the central concept has to offer and learn the very specific rules of the world the characters inhabit, which reflect our own preconceived notions and questions about dreaming. How do you come out of it? How do you KNOW you're out of it? Or in your own and not someone else's? How much time passes? What if you free fall? What if you die? The answers aren't what you'd expect and that second question is the foundation on which the film is built. And that isn't even to speak of the idea of planting a concept in someone's subconscious and all the potential ramifications of that, which are explored, shown and discussed in intricate detail, without slowing the narrative of the plot."12/20/10

1. The Social Network

"They talk and talk, firing Emmy-winning writer Aaron Sorkin's dialogue at and over each other at machine gun speed in a crowded, dimly lit bar with the conversation becoming more contentious as he turns sarcastically condescending. At first, (Erica) seems almost interested and amused, until it becomes obvious this is someone without a clue how to interact with people, and as shocked as he is at being dumped, we are at how she's dating him in the first place. That question of whether Zuckerberg really is an asshole never completely goes away. And if he is, does that preclude him from being a genius? Or a visionary? Or maybe he's just lucky. We don't get what resembles an answer until the final scene but it's the aftershock of that opening one that reverberates through the rest of the picture."  - 10/5/10

My Top Ten Films of 2010
1. The Social Network (dir. David Fincher)
2. Inception (dir. Christopher Nolan)
3. Black Swan (dir. Darren Aronofsky)
4. Blue Valentine (dir. Derek Cianfrance)
5. True Grit (dir. Joel and Ethan Coen)
6. 127 Hours (dir. Danny Boyle) 
7. Exit Through The Gift Shop (dir. Banksy) 
8. TRON: Legacy (dir. Joseph Kosinski)
9. Somewhere (dir. Sofia Coppola)
10. Greenberg (dir. Noah Baumbach)

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Eddie The Eagle

Director: Dexter Fletcher
Starring: Taron Egerton, Hugh Jackman, Christopher Walken, Iris Berben, Mark Benton, Keith Allen, Jo Hartley, Jim Broadbent
Running Time: 105 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

Besides being at the center of an inspiring underdog story that seems tailor made for the big screen, the qualities possessed by British Olympic ski jumper Eddie "The Eagle" Edwards will be familiar to anyone who's ever seen an underdog sports movie. A person who's so singularly focused on achieving the impossible that they're not taken seriously in the slightest. They either have a lot of guts or are really dense, and through much of Dexter Fletcher's deliriously entertaining biopic Eddie The Eagle, our title character is confronted by naysayers informing him it's the latter. Whether that be a parent, his teammates or coaches, the one thing they can all agree on is that he's a lost cause. And while much of that is realistically warranted and grounded in concern for his safety, more of it has to do with how he looks and acts. Viewers who think they know how it's all going to pan out are completely right, mainly because it did actually happen and the scenario represents one of the most reliable and predictable movie formulas around. But when it's executed well, it's also really effective, and this is one of those great reminders of that.

As a young boy growing up in Great Britain in the 1970's, Eddie Edwards (Taron Egerton) always dreamed of one day competing in the Olympics. Awkward and hardly much of an natural athlete, he practiced various events in the backyard and around the house, frequently encouraged by his supportive mother, Janette (Jo Harley) while his hard-nosed father, Terry (Keith Allen) dismisses his Olympic dreams as a time waster. After succeeding as a skier as a teen, he sets his sights on the Winter Games, eventually taking an interest in ski jumping.

With Great Britain having gone decades without a ski jumping team and the British Olympic Committee determined to keep him out, Eddie begins training in Germany, where he meets former American ski jumping champion turned alcoholic snow groomer, Bronson Peary (Hugh Jackman). Still bitter from his acrimonious exit from the sport, he initially refuses Eddie's pleas to train him, dismissing him, as an unteachable klutz. But Eddie's tenacity and the verbal abuse he takes from the more experienced Norwegian jumpers causes Bronson to take him under his wing, attempting the impossible in helping him qualify for the 1988 Winter Olympics. But what might be the bigger challenge is him being taken seriously once he gets there.

Even during a time when amateurs like Eddie could actually qualify for the Olympics, what he accomplished was pretty newsworthy. Then again, the sports movie template is built on true stories exactly like this, so while the amount of truth always varies, it all really comes down to the execution. This has a lot going for it, including some excellent early practice scenes establishing the young, awkward Eddie's Olympic fanaticism, seeking inspiration from books like "Moments of Glory" and "My Life in Ski Jumping," the latter being the memoir of Bronson's former, estranged coach, Warren Sharp (Christopher Walken). Once we get to the actual competition, the action scenes are well staged by Fletcher, at times even inducing a sense of dread as we look down through the eyes of this clueless rookie who's talked himself into believing he can jump from 40 to 70 and then eventually 90 feet.

More often than not, Bronson's job seems to be stopping this kid from killing himself, reluctantly and against his better judgment evolving into a coach and mentor. It's only upon realizing that with a lot work, he may actually have a shot. Sure to be overlooked, Mark Margeson's throwback musical score stands as one of the year's big achievements in marrying a film's era with its story and thematic content. Somehow sounding like a blissfully bizarre cross between Vangelis' Chariots Fire, Hans Zimmer's Days of Thunder and the theme from The Greatest American Hero, it's so steeped in the scores of that era that many will probably assume it was lifted from an 80's sports movie. That extra touch goes a surprisingly long way here, as it's tough to imagine certain scenes working as well without it in the background, or even in some more obvious moments, the foreground.

Disguised enough behind crooked eyeglasses and oversized clothes to bare a striking physical resemblance to the film's real life inspiration, Taron Egerton makes Eddie endearing, gutsy and likable, portraying him in the best tradition of screen sports underdogs. In the too few instances when the material calls for him to get serious, he proves capable of that as well. Playing a fictional composite of the real-life Eddie's various coaches, it isn't a backhanded compliment to say Hugh Jackman gives one of his more charismatic recent performances as Bronson Peary.

Effortlessly owning every scene he's in, it was a good move to cast Jackman and an even better one to completely ignore reality in favor of letting him help create this character whose relationship with the protagonist drives the story. He also has the film's best musical moment, when Bronson takes to the slopes to show his pupil and a shocked Norwegian ski team how it's done. Like most sports movies, it's usually as much about the mentor as his student and Bronson still has some demons to deal with concerning how his career ended, permanently damaging his relationship with his ex-coach. Of course redemption can only come through coaching Eddie.

Possibly the strongest aspect of the entire film is the fleeting acknowledgment, even made by Bronson himself, that this kid is in danger of becoming a joke, viewed as nothing more than a circus sideshow act to be laughed at by fans and the ratings-seeking media.  If he fails to deliver then his 15 minutes are up, and Olympic history won't look kindly on him, if at all. Briefly, the script explores this fascinating idea before safely retreating to comfortable confines of its formula. That's fine, but you can't help but think it's a reminder that as immersive as these sports movies are, there is a creative glass ceiling in place that very few have been able to shatter.

It's slightly disappointing when the screenplay leans more heavily on the comedic elements than the interesting implications of Eddie's popularity, but this just isn't that type of movie. That much is clear with the casting of Christopher Walken as Bronson's legendary Olympic coach. On one hand, his presence in any film is always a welcome event, but accompanying it is this undeniable expectation of weirdness. Surprisingly, there isn't too much of that here and he does a fine job in his one major dramatic scene, adding to rather than distracting from the movie's inspirational climax.

It's hard to find a genuine crowd pleaser that goes down as easy as this, and regardless of how many details or facts were adjusted along the way, whatever was done worked in terms of providing maximum entertainment value. Fitting comfortably in the wheelhouse of similarly themed sports films like The Rookie, Miracle, Remember The Titans, Invincible, Cool Runnings and the more recent McFarland, USA, Eddie The Eagle may even be a cut above a few of those, managing to get more little things right.

Whether it's the performances, the direction, the soundtrack or the skiing scenes, there are are many moments where you think it will take flight like it's protagonist, ascending to upper echelon of sports movies occupied by the likes of Rocky, Rudy or The Karate Kid. The story was certainly ripe for it and there's an artfulness in Fletcher's filmmaking that suggests that if the writers took things a little more seriously, it could have gotten there. And while that's an ironic criticism given its subject, I'm not completely sure this would be as enjoyable if it did. So what we're left with is a solid, inspiring mainstream sports movie that can be recommended with unqualified praise to basically anyone. And that counts for a lot.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Everybody Wants Some!!

Director: Richard Linklater
Starring: Blake Jenner, Zoey Deutch, Ryan Guzman, Tyler Hoechlin, Glen Powell, Wyatt Russell, Temple Baker, J. Quinton Johnson, Will Brittain, Juston Street, Dora Madison Burge
Running Time: 116 min.
Rating: R

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

Richard Linklater has this gift of being able to extract meaning from what on the surface should seem like nothingness. It appears as if he's more interested in watching people hang out than plot, conflict or any kind of narrative structure we'd normally associate with crowd-pleasing movies like the one he's made. Even its jarringly punctuated title, Everybody Wants Some!!, doesn't seem to mean anything aside from the obvious Van Halen shout-out, or at least means as less as its previous working title, That's What I'm Talking About. It would be all too easy to write this off as a self-indulgent nostalgia trip for its director, who chose as a follow-up to his recently Best Picture-nominated Boyhood, a movie centering around a bunch of 80's college jocks looking to get as drunk, laid and stoned as possible in the last days before classes start. And yet, it's still strangely wonderful.

This has been Linklater's specialty, dating all the way back to 1993's Dazed and Confused, to which this will be most closely compared, and for good reason, since he's labeled this its "spiritual sequel." That's a good way to put it as the tie that binds both (besides their period settings and autobiographical angle) is that laid-back, fly-on-the-wall quality of watching authentic characters hang out, only to realize by the end how much you've grown to care about them. It's the opposite of self-indulgent, as it never really asks you think or feel anything and the beats of its bare bones story hardly register as it's unfolding. You just watch and listen, losing yourself in it.

Working also as the perfect follow-up to the experimentally significant Boyhood, it picks up at the same life stage, only with entirely new characters and set in a different era. Carrying with it the same sense of almost improvisational spontaneity that's become Linklater's calling card, you rarely feel your strings being pulled.  And of course, the soundtrack rocks. If there are certain filmmakers who need to spread their wings and branch out in different directions, he's definitely not among them. Not when he does this so well.

The year is 1980 and college freshman Jake (Blake Jenner) has arrived at the off-campus house he'll be sharing with the other players on the Southeast Texas State University baseball team. A star pitcher in high school, he's now suddenly the small fish in a much larger pond, a reserved, quiet guy surrounded by teammates from different walks of life, each with wildly distinctive personalities. There's team captain McReynolds (Tyler Hoechlin), the best player and seemingly the only one with legitimate major league potential; Jake's roommate, Billy "Beuter" Autry (Will Brittain), a farmboy with a girlfriend back home; Scheming, intellectual pick-up artist, Finnegan (Glen Powell), who's often the ringleader of a group that also includes fellow party animals Roper (Ryan Guzman), Dale (J. Quinton Johnson) Plummer (Temple Baker) and Brumley (Tanner Kalina). There are also two tranfer students with completely unhinged pro-level pitcher, Jay (Juston Street) and bearded, stoned philosopher Willoughby (Wyatt Russell).

Upon their arrival, the coach promptly lays down two rules: No alcohol in the house and no women upstairs. Within 12 hours, both are broken and whatever superficial differences these teammates have evaporate in their united quest to attain both, finding them party hopping in search of the wildest time. What Jake finds instead is Beverly (Zoey Deutch), a quirky theater student with whom he connects on a level that's far different than what his new friends are experiencing. As he comes out of his shell and the guys take him in as one of their own, there's still that looming issue of classes beginning in a matter of days, and while they might be too stoned, drunk or hung over to notice it right now, the rest of their lives are about to start.

Considering this is a movie about a college baseball team, there's only one extended sequence late that takes place on the field. It's worth noting that section works really well because so much quality time is spent with all these personalities beforehand. We're either at the house, in the car prowling for girls or at a nightclub or party from the minute we're introduced to the team. It's one of those movies that will have detractors complaining that "nothing happens" throughout its running time. To an extent, they'd be right since so little occurs in terms of actual action, at least as we're accustomed to seeing it in a coming-of-age comedic drama like this. But it's also a movie where everything happens since Linklater has the ability to capture what's it's like just hanging around, and in talking about seemingly innocuous things, revealing more than any manufactured conflict would. Much of that can be attributed to the casting, with a group of little known actors who so believably slide into the skin of these early 80's jocks that leave little doubt that we're watching or listening to anyone other than the authentic article.

As the protagonist, Jake (serviceably played by Jenner) might be the least compelling character, if only because he's our entranceway into a world where everything seems to be happening around and to him, dragged along for the ride, but quickly adapting. The movie really belongs to Glen Powell as Finnegan who steals every scene in a way reminiscent of Matthew McConaughey's big breakout in Dazed and Confused. He's goofy when necessary, but the smartest and most cunning of the bunch, frequently infusing the story with a surprisingly amount of pathos. It's when he's on screen (which is nearly the entire running length) and eventually when Zoey Deutch enters the picture as Jake's love interest, Beverly, that the movie feels most alive and real. The scenes between them carry a realistic Before Sunrise-like vibe that not only takes the film to an entirely different and welcome place thematically, but to a new setting as well, with the jocks finding themselves at an artsy costume party thrown by the theater students. This entire sequence, and it's results, represent the movie's high-water mark, both visually and in terms of its meaning for the characters.

Whether it's that party, or a punk concert earlier, there's this idea so perfectly captured by Linklater that the social barriers present in high school now cease to exist in this four-year universe where everyone can indiscriminately go from party to party adapting to a different crowd and taking on new identities. And despite the script being a semi-personalized account of his own college experiences and undoubtedly conjuring up memories for those with similar ones, he manages to show this without relying exclusively on nostalgia. Sure, the period details such as the costuming, production design and music are spot-on, but it's just there because we are, rarely drawing attention to itself or stopping for conversations that unnecessarily remind us the era we're in.

In the midst of all this, it also manages to be genuinely funny, and not in the frat boy, toilet humor kind of way the trailers falsely implied. Many of the gags and one-liners are smart, playing off the characters' personality quirks and absurdity of various situations, which is becoming increasingly hard to do well in an R-rated comedy. At nearly two hours, there's a strong argument to be made certain scenes needed tightening and trimming, but that's almost always the case of late. At least here we're given extra time with people worth spending it with. And it would all probably play even better upon a rewatch, as there's a hypnotizing quality about this that practically invites it. Something about it is hard to shake, suggesting a lengthy shelf life for both the film and careers of its stars.

It's tempting to say Linklater's recent work invites comparisons to Cameron Crowe due to the increasingly autobiographical nature of his output, but that's not entirely accurate since he's never been as transparent a filmmaker. This will turn some people off, while others appreciate his dedication to showing instead of telling, wearing us down to the point that we're forced to admit he's on to something with these characters, some of whom may or may not strike a chord of recollection in our own lives. And it's because of his almost maddeningly laid-back approach that the ending feels so right, revealing an unexpected depth that further justifies the film's existence. It's only when considering a key character's name and the phrase written in class in the final scene, that we realize how true the tagline is that they "came for a good time, not a long time."

Sunday, August 28, 2016

My Top 10 Films of 2009

*Note: The following is part of the continuing "10 FOR 10" series in celebration of ten years of Jeremy The Critic, in which my choices for the top 10 films of each year from 2006-2015 are revealed. Don't forget to check out my previous posts for 2006 and 2007 and 2008. This installment will be focusing on 2009. Just a reminder that movies must have a U.S. release date of that particular year in order to qualify.

A passing glance at my selections for the Top 10 Films of 2009 might have some mistaking it for a "Worst Of" list, as three choices in particular leap out as being universally reviled by critics and audiences alike. Whereas my previous entries for this series carried few surprises, mostly falling in line with the general consensus, than this year provides the first major deviation. But I'm most definitely not being contrarian for the mere sake of it, as all three of those films did initially receive raves from me upon their release.

The bigger surprise is that the needle hasn't moved very much in my original assessments of The Box, The Informers and The Lovely Bones since then. If each are extremely galvanizing in its own way, no one can claim any of them are forgettable, which helped them here. While I sometimes saw the same flaws others did, I mostly read them as something that improved the overall experience or didn't care because they came as a result of reaching and risking than most other efforts that year.

That Richard Kelly's The Box made the cut despite it being the weakest of his three outings and my waning interest in the Sci-Fi genre, only underlines the fact that his absence (semi-retirement?) has left a void, as more recent films rarely dare to challenge audiences or provoke nearly as much thought. I wouldn't go as far as to say The Lovely Bones or The Informers are necessarily misunderstood, as people have very valid reasons for disliking each, but much of what bubbles under the surface of both didn't go unnoticed by me. The same is true for The Girlfriend Experience, which through time has revealed to be one of Steven Soderbergh's most successful and memorable indie "experiments."

While Crazy Heart follows a formula as old as time, it's also a reminder why such a formula exists, and what an acting treasure Jeff Bridges is, winning what has to be one of the more tolerable, career "make-up" Oscars in history. Looking back on and rewatching it, it's surprising how well it still plays, guaranteeing its spot. Without its sensational, painfully realistic ending, I'm not sure Up in the Air would get such high marks, but it's a smart character-driven picture director Jason Reitman would only end up topping with his following effort.

I struggled with where to place Inglourious Basterds, if at all. While it's considerably superior to the aforementioned titles, Tarantino suffers from constantly repeating himself in the revenge genre with none of it even remotely approaching his greatest creative success in Pulp Fiction. But he's very good at what he does and therefore can't justify ranking many films from a surprisingly rich '09 above it.  Except three. Another thinking sci-fi entry, Duncan Jones' Moon, deserved all the adulation that the similarly themed The Martian received over the past year, while lacking the unnecessary jokiness. A "romantic comedy" of sorts makes its first top five appearance on a list, if you'd even categorize (500) Days of Summer as that, which I wouldn't.  And neither would anyone who's been through anything resembling what happens between those two characters. It's also a reminder how strong a movie actress Zooey Deschanel was becoming before we lost her to comedy TV.

The number one pick was easier than expected. What Spike Jonze did with his really out there interpretation of Maurice Sendak's Where The Wild Things Are is hypnotizing, haunting and captures childhood in difficult ways mainstream audiences weren't prepared for. It stands as the 2009's most fully realized vision in American filmmaking and one of the great children's book adaptations of all-time. In this fairly competitive year, there were many runners-up, including The Hurt Locker, The Brothers Bloom, Away We Go, World's Greatest Dad, An Education, The Informant!, Bronson, The Messenger, Adventureland, A Single Man, Observe and Report, Pirate Radio (aka The Boat That Rocked), and Halloween II (Director's Cut). All strong candidates, but when pushed to replace any of the titles below, I just couldn't do itAsk me in a month or two and it's possible you'd get a slightly different response. But not likely.  


10. The Box

"Was there ever any doubt critics and audiences would despise 'The Box?' Seriously, any doubt at all? Burdened by belonging to a genre that doesn't get any respect, made by a director few want to see work again, and starring a polarizing A-list actress, minds were already made up. This never stood a chance. And if that wasn't enough, how many times have we heard the phrase, 'It's like an extended episode of The Twilight Zone' as a supposed insult aimed at high-concept sci-fi or mystery/suspense thrillers? There's no doubt critics' mouths were watering at just the thought of bashing a movie THAT ACTUALLY IS based on an episode of 'The Twilight Zone.' But it turns out writer/director Richard Kelly's third feature can in no way be described as merely an extended version of anything."11/23/09

9. The Informers

"Ellis' work has always been more dependent on capturing a specific mood or feeling. This is a far different '80's than the warm, nostalgia-filled one presented in 'Adventureland' earlier in the year, or the alternate version of the decade we saw in 'Watchmen.' It's much more lived in. The fashions (Ray-Bans), and the music (Flock of Seagulls, Wang Chung, Simple Minds) are all there but they exist only as part of this cold, desolate landscape of greed and excess. As frighteningly accurate as it's portrayed, it's even scarier that you rarely stop to notice. It just is. More than simply watching a movie, you've committed to taking a disturbing time travel trip from which there's seemingly no recovery."10/20/09

8. The Girlfriend Experience

"The men Chelsea encounters and keeps company with aren't nearly as interesting as she is, though that's likely the entire point. We have a protagonist who doesn't know herself or feelings at all and men so incapable of forming emotional bonds that they have to hire someone to pretend that they can. We can only hope the movie's wrong--that people aren't this lonely. But that's probably wishful thinking. For better or worse, it's an experience that stays with you." - 1/23/10

7. Crazy Heart

"There's relief in discovering the movie never feels like it's trying too hard, instead casually letting this world the protagonist inhabits wash over you. The music and performances are what I'll come away remembering most, but it's surprising how much respect rookie writer/director Scott Cooper shows the audience by not playing any games and just delivering it as is. And that was more than enough considering it's Bridges who carries much of the load in the role that justifiably won him an Oscar." - 4/29/10

6. Up in the Air

"Much of the way through, Reitman handles a sensitive subject with intelligence, but also kid gloves, avoiding any shades of gray or pushing uncomfortable buttons that would compromise its mainstream appeal. Then come the final 15 minutes in which all of my complaints are addressed and the events that occur call into question the real purpose of everything that came before. In other words, Reitman takes those gloves off and only the most cynical of audience members need apply. All the accolades and likely awards the film will receive are almost exclusively earned in its final act. I appreciated the rare display of brutal honesty, as at odds as it must seem with the rest of the picture."1/15/10

5. The Lovely Bones

"Reaction to this much-maligned adaptation of Alice Sebold's 2002 bestseller was almost destined to split viewers into two camps: Those who read the novel and hate what he's done to it and those who never read the novel and are impressed. I fall into the latter category, but wouldn't plead ignorance to any of the film's perceived or actual flaws, remaining completely cognizant of why it's attracted so much animosity. But the one complaint against it I won't accept is that it in any way "wussed out." Especially when it so thoroughly denies the characters and audience closure, or at least closure as it's traditionally expected in American movies. Or not a single story beat going down as it normally would in this genre. Are these problems? Or did Jackson actually find a way to capture the sloppiness of everyday life? Part thriller, part metaphysical drama, 'The Lovely Bones' is the best 'Unsolved Mysteries' episode that never aired. Just as long as you don't read the book first." - 5/10/10

4. Inglourious Basterds

"There's usually a section in any bookstore where you can find those speculative fiction novels dealing with various alternate history scenarios. The victory of the South in the Civil War. The survival of the Byzantine Empire. Nazi Germany's victory in World War II. Quentin Tarantino uses the pages of those books as toilet paper in Inglourious Basterds, the alternate history to end all alternate histories, and easily his best film since 'Pulp Fiction.' What everyone expected to be another one of his fun  B-movie tributes (this time to Spaghetti Westerns) over-performs considerably to become something far more, representing a giant leap forward for a director who was written off as peaking a while ago." - 12/23/09

3. Moon

"The most obvious aesthetic influence on the film is '2001: A Space Odyssey,' even if its theme and consequences more closely parallel 'Solaris.' But in reality it's nothing like either, sucking the viewer into a hypnotic vortex of confusion that mirrors the plight of the main character(s). It's appropriate I re-watched the film right after it ended because the entire experience of watching the film is re-watching it as the narrative travlels in circles before shocking us, then arriving at its mind numbing conclusion. Many won't care for it, but the kind of cerebral filmmaking on display here is something we rarely see anymore, as deserving of recognition as the compelling, career defining performance that carries it." - 2/7/10

2. (500) Days of Summer

"In somewhat of a breakthrough, the script doesn't take sides, presenting a free-thinking female lead who's an agent of action rather than a prize to be won. It acknowledges neither character is blameless, with Levitt and Deschanel's performances filling them with too much complexity for you to completely dislike either. Both have their issues, but at the same time actually seem real, making the same mistakes we would. He didn't get the message, while she was careless with his feelings, but the screenplay cleverly disallows us from viewing the film through the same one-sided prism Tom saw 'The Graduate.' It isn't just about a failed relationship and there's a universality in recognizing that everyone's a "Tom" or a "Summer," or at least a combination of both." - 8/23/09

1. Where The Wild Things Are

"Those thinking they wanted an inventive, mature interpretation of the material should have known the commitment that would entail as audience members and the sacrifices the studio would have to make to do that. One of those was not making a children's movie. Instead, Jonze was more interested in making a movie ABOUT childhood and the pain, sadness and confusion that can accompany it, especially for kids with overactive imaginations. More than that though, it's about the child in all of us that fades away as we enter a world full of responsibilities and burdens. If you're lucky enough, a small piece of that kid hangs on for the ride. That small piece is immortalized in Max's journey." - 3/12/10

My Top Ten Films of 2009
1. Where The Wild Things Are (dir. Spike Jonze)
2. (500) Days of Summer (dir. Marc Webb)
3. Moon (dir. Duncan Jones)
4. Inglourious Basterds (dir. Quentin Tarantino)
5. The Lovely Bones (dir. Peter Jackson)
6. Up in the Air (dir. Jason Reitman)
7. Crazy Heart (dir. Scott Cooper)
8. The Girlfriend Experience (dir. Steven Soderbergh)
9. The Informers (dir. Gregor Jordan)
10. The Box (dir. Richard Kelly)

Thursday, August 18, 2016

The Program

Director: Stephen Frears
Starring: Ben Foster, Chris O' Dowd, Guillaume Canet, Jesse Plemons, Lee Pace, Denis Menochet, Dustin Hoffman
Running Time: 103 min.
Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

Here's a first. A biopic in which hardly a single aspect of the subject's personal life is addressed. But when your subject is embattled cyclist Lance Armstrong, you'd figure it makes sense that normal just don't apply, as they certainly didn't for him. As if the pre-release promotional art featuring Armstrong and giant syringe with the tagline, "Winning Was In His Blood," wasn't enough of a hint that Stephen Frears' The Program would be heavily weighed toward exposing the doping scandal that toppled an American sports icon, there are many instances in the film where the person himself fades into the background as performance enhancing drugs take center stage.

A quick glimpse at the list of Tour de France winners immediately reveals the seven blank spaces where Armstrong's name was, drawing so much sensationalistic attention to itself you start wondering if that punishment accomplished the opposite of its goal. Second only to O.J. Simpson as the most disgraced sports figure of recent times, you almost get the impression from watching this film that he'd bask in any kind of attention he could get. And that's why it's so cruelly ironic that hardly anyone knows this Lance Armstrong film exists or was even released, albeit briefly on V.O.D and theatrically earlier in the year.

Frears seems to present an argument that the man himself never really existed before that scandal and hasn't existed on any level since. It's tough to tell how much of that approach is deliberate or the result of crucial editing room cuts that excised what could have been deeper insights into his personality. Then again, what personality? He wanted to win at all costs and that's it. This a cold, clinical framing of events that's adequate enough because the detached style feels so oddly appropriate in this case. And they got the best actor they possibly could in both physical resemblance and temperment to play Lance, emotionlessly reflecting back at us our worst suspicions. It should be seen for that performance, which probably didn't get a chance to go to the places it otherwise would in a traditional sports biopic. In a way, that may have been for the best. Any portrayal of Armstrong as something other than a blank slate of deception would likely ring false.

Based on Sunday Times sports writer David Walsh's 2012 book, Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong, the film covers Walsh's (Chris O' Dowd) struggle to expose Armstrong's (Ben Foster) use of banned substances in gaining an illegal advantage that led to his seven Tour de France wins. In tracing a link between the cyclist and notoriously controversial Italian Michele Ferrari (Guillaume Canet), Walsh opens the floodgates in eventually revealing the Armstrong-led US Postal Team's involvement in the most sophisticated doping program in professional sports.

While serving as a role model and ambassador for cancer survivors worldwide with his Livestrong foundation, Armstrong was deceiving not only the public, but the UCI governing body, which brushed off Walsh's valid claim while turning a blind eye to obvious signs of cheating in order to bolster cycling's bottomline. And in expecting teammates like promising newcomer Floyd Landis (Jesse Plemons) to risk their careers for the sake of protecting his reputation, Armstrong finally meets his match in the determined Walsh, who's gathering the necessary witnesses and evidence to finally let the world know their icon is a fraud.

The details absent from the film might be more revealing of its approach than what is. There's no information on Armstrong's childhood, what spurned his decision to become a cyclist or the collapse of his marriage. Screenwriter John Hodge seems to be working on the assumption it doesn't matter, and sadly, he's probably right. Armstrong's life as a public figure really began in the early 90's and the most damning information provided is he really wasn't all that good of a cyclist at the start of his career, making Walsh's eventual claims sting that much more. An early, cordial interview between the two is a highlight, setting the table for what follows.

The public and media's refusal to see what was right in front of their faces the entire time spoke to their desire to have a hero, and according to the film, no one knew that more than Armstrong himself.  In what pretty much plays as a synchronized summary of events that occasionally comes off as a full-on reenactment, the most controversial revelation is that his 1996 cancer diagnosis created a monster. The very idea he came so close to dying sickened him more than any medical treatment could, and it's here where Ben Foster's compulsively intense performance (he actually took PED's for the role) is off to the races, hooked to wires and wearing a Vader-esque oxygen mask to begin his evolution into this racing cyborg.

Bringing himself back from the dead to become the best cyclist in the world was how the media framed the story, and Foster plays with this righteous indignation that no one or no thing stops Lance Armstrong. Therein lies the birth of "the program" as Dr. Ferrari transforms the cyclist (and eventually his teammates) into his personal lab rats and we find out exactly how Lance evaded and manipulated the drug testing. One of the recurring mantras is his repeating, "I have never tested positive," as if in an effort to convince himself. Foster's delivery of it and his acting choices when visiting juvenile cancer patients give off just the subtlest pangs of guilt and briefest glimpse of what vaguely resembles a conscience.  How he and his agent Bill Stapleton (Lee Pace) raised his profile and reputation with philanthropic work and conned SCA Promotions founder Bob Hamman (Dustin Hoffman) out of millions are almost minor indiscretions compared to how he screwed over Floyd Landis in the film's most compelling sub-plot.

Played really well by Jesse Plemons as the cycling prodigy from Amish country, Pennsylvania, Landis puts it all on the line for Lance, only to discover what happens to people Armstrong no longer has use for. It's the final piece of the puzzle for Dave Walsh and when the walls start closing in on Armstrong, Foster plays him even angrier, more entitled and arrogant, as if anyone could have the nerve to expose his lies. With an untouchable attitude, the thought that all this could come crashing down doesn't even occur to this competitive athlete Foster portrays as a delusional narcissist.

As big a stretch as it seems, anyone who saw the recent O.J.: Made in America documentary could make reasonable comparisons, obviously not to the severity of crimes, but to their subject's unwavering sense of entitlement and lack of self-awareness. The argument that drug abuse was so rampant in cycling that Armstrong was vilified merely for obtaining the best results and perfecting a system isn't presented in a film where a syringe is credited with all the work. Ultimately though, it was the deceit that unraveled him.

This isn't one of Frears' stronger efforts visually, as some location shots look downright awful due to budgetary constraints and it's probably too short, not nearly expansive enough in depth for the issue covered. Presented chronologically, it moves too fast to ever really get a strong sense of time, place, or the public's reaction. This is a Cliffs Notes version of what happened, so while it's kind of dramatically flat in that respect, much of what's on screen works largely due to Foster's performance.

There's a scene at the peak of Armstrong's career where his teammates are speculating which actor could play him in a feature film version of his life. And yes, as strange as it now seems, Matt Damon and Jake Gyllenhaal were both once attached to what would have been at the time a far different movie. An inspirational one. Instead he gets Foster, but it's far from a downgrade as Armstrong's indiscretions send it down a darker alley this actor proves even more equipped to handle. Whatever its issues, The Program is still a better film than many feel the person deserves.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Stranger Things

Creators: The Duffer Brothers
Starring: Winona Ryder, David Harbour, Finn Wolfhard, Millie Bobby Brown, Gaten Matarazzo, Caleb McLaughlin, Natalia Dyer, Charlie Heaton, Cara Buono, Matthew Modine, Noah Schnapp, Joe Keery, Shannon Purser
Original Airdate: 2016

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

                                                 **Spoiler Warning: This Review Reveals Minor Plot Details**

If you told me a month ago what I'd most need out of entertainment in 2016 would be a final, missing season of Steven Spielberg's Amazing Stories nearly thirty years after the fact, delivered through the spirit of The Goonies, E.T., Poltergeist, Close Encounters and Stand By Me, I'd call you crazy. And that's what's so funny about knowing what you need. Sometimes you just don't until it's arrived. A one or two line description of Netflix's nostalgic supernatural series from The Duffer Brothers, Stranger Things, could have easily been met with some collective eye rolling for fairly obvious reasons.

Netflix's Stranger Things
Telekinesis, alternate universes, government experiments, other-worldly creatures aren't topics that cause me much excitement anymore. In fact, my general interest in science fiction and horror genre has been on such a steep, steady decline in recent years, not only failing to generate trigger the exuberance it once did, but now actually inducing audible groans. Some of that's undoubtedly attributed to age and evolving tastes, but there was always a part of me holding out hope that it was also a quality issue, just needing the right project to come along and impress. Now, it's here.

After watching the eight most mind-blowing episodes of original content Netflix has yet produced, I couldn't help but think back again to Spielberg, and to a slightly lesser extent, Stephen King, who's already weighed in with high praise. Did Spielberg watch it? What did he think? Has he met the kids? This might be the first time I've this strongly wondered or cared about his opinion on anything in years. And that's not a knock on him anymore than it is on myself and others in a similar age bracket who grew up spoiled on the movies he directed and produced in the 80's. Filmmakers evolve and it's at least somewhat unfair of audiences to expect them to keep repeating themselves, but man was Spielberg ever completely in his wheelhouse making those, regardless of whatever well-received work followed.

This will always be the era for which Spieleberg is most remembered and it's been channeled with such honesty and authenticity here, succeeding where so many imitators failed. If much of that is in the tone and execution then The Duffer Brothers nail it, using the 1980's setting to do more than invoke warm, fuzzy childhood memories, instead systematically removing all the shackles restricting most modern-set efforts of the genre. It was at once a more innocent yet entirely less innocent era, all of which is magically invoked and reflected through its story and these kids. In other words, it's a keeper and easily the biggest, most welcome surprise so far this year. In any medium.

The Gang: Lucas, Mike, Eleven and Dustin
Hawkins, Indiana. 1983. A marathon game of Dungeons and Dragons with friends Mike Wheeler (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin Henderson (Gatan Matarazzo), Lucas Sinclair (Caleb McLoughlin) and Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) ends in mystery when 12-year-old Will disappears on his way home from Maike's house after an encounter with a strange, threatening creature. After discovering Will's absence the next morning, his frazzled,  single mom Joyce (Winona Ryder) and outcast older brother Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) enlist the help of grizzled, bitter police chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour), whose investigation into the disappearance awakens him from a purposelessness he's been experiencing since a personal tragedy derailed his life. All clues lead him to the government-backed Hawkins National Laboratory and their head scientist, the creepy, Andy Warhol-looking Dr. Martin Brenner (Matthew Modine), who will stop at nothing to protect the lab's top covert experiments and research.

With Mike struggling to come to terms with the fact that one of his best friends is missing, he must also contend with completely apathetic parents (played by Karen Buono and Joe Chrest)  and distracted good girl older sister, Nancy (Natalia Dyer), who's too smitten with popular school jock Steve Harrington (Joe Keery) to care about anything going on with her brother. Fortunately, Mike, Lucas and Dustin stumble upon Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), a scared young girl with a buzz cut they find in the woods with telekinetic abilities who may have answers as to what's happened to Will. The gang befriend her, with Mike going so far as to hide her in his basement without his parents' knowledge as the two form a special attachment. With Hawkins Laboratories closing in and the truth about how Will's disappearance ties to the creature and Eleven becoming apparent, the boys need to stick it out for the adventure of their lives, even as Joyce insists her son is alive and trying desperately to communicate.

This is a series you can pretty much go to town in describing without fear of giving anything away since so many of its surprises are hidden between the crevices, actually have very little to do with plot. While Amazing Stories is a decent starting point for comparison's sake, that's slightly misleading since this a single, standalone story rather than part of an anthology (at least thus far) and that show creatively missed about as much as it hit. While each of these episodes given a "Choose Your Own Adventure" style chapter title, even just one of them would undoubtedly rank as the strongest entry in that short-lived 80's series' wildly mixed catalog of quality. But the feelings and intentions associated with it remains. In so many ways, Stranger Things could be viewed through the prism of what Spielberg's expectations were for his short-lived TV project, which couldn't thrive at the time due to his exploding feature film career.

Dr. Brenner at Hawkins Laboratories
With an opening title card presented in a recognizably vintage font inspired by Stephen King paperbacks, and accompanied by a John Carpenter-infused synth score (courtesy of the Austin-based band SURVIVE), the pilot episode let's us know we're in for it. And while it's true the remainder of the season leaves viewers aghast at the period specific references, hidden 80's Easter eggs or costume, soundtrack and production design, none of that would matter if the characters were inauthentic or the story wasn't handled this skillfully.

The initial skepticism of watching a season of TV centered around solving the mystery of a 12-year-old boy abducted by a monster that resembles The Thing is wiped away by the second episode when it becomes clear that this is a show that treats the genre and the kid characters inhabiting it with intelligence and respect. Tearing a page out of Jaws, we don't see the creature all that much so when it does appear its presence actually means something, with its eventual impact having been gradually built off-screen over the course of multiple episodes. 

The special effects (which are quite good) just might be the only modern element of the series, but there's a B-movie quality to them that still fit right into place in this world. And there's no mistaking that the Duffers have very much created a world, or a couple of universes to be exact, where anything seems possible and kids and adults behaved in a way that could seem jarring to anyone that didn't grow up on 80's TV or movies this is paying tribute to. But if you did, this will feel like going home.

Joyce, Jonathan and Nancy anticipate the worst
By today's standards, it would appear the kids are almost given a dangerous amount of autonomy and independence by their parents, allowing them to frequently go off on their own with few consequences. While the plot itself is supernaturally unbelievable in nature, the fact that these kids would go unsupervised for days is not. Nor is the possibility that one of them could reasonably hide a kid in their basement for nearly a week without parental knowledge. If the adults just seemed to be more hands-off then Mike's epitomize this attitude, at first showing a shocking lack of empathy regarding the disappearance of their son's friend.

The minimal technology of the era also leads to more exciting, suspenseful situations and better storytelling as there are many points during the series that, save for their walkie-talkies, these kids have no way of communicating the harm they're in, forced to use their resourcefulness and imagination to come up with solutions. This is where it most strongly resembles The Goonies, with no winking at the audience or talking down to children like they're sub-humans. They curse, pull knives on each other and do all sorts of other things you'd never see today in a any series starring children. And only does the very real threat of death exist, it occasionally even occurs.

While the characters are most definitely recognizable "types" from 80's entertainment and even beyond, it's enthralling seeing all of them eventually subverted and challenged while serving the grand design of this genre-bending exercise. The kids each have identifiable personality quirks, with the actors giving some of the best child performances we've seen in ages. There's the always entertaining, toothless mediator Dustin played by newcomer Gaten Matarazzo, stealing scenes and hamming it up as really entertaining comic relief . Caleb McLaughlin's Lucas is the rebellious, free-thinking skeptic of the gang with most of his concerns about Eleven being justified given the situation. We don't get much of Noah Schnapp as Will Byers considering he goes MIA in the first episode, but his few scenes establish him as an outwardly nerdy, nice kid with the ability to summon the inner toughness to fight for his survival if necessary. And it ends up being very necessary.

Millie Bobby Brown as Eleven
Bullied at school and feeling little connection to his old sister and parents, Finn Wolfhard's Mike forges a deep bond with the verbally and emotionally limited Eleven, but one his friends believe only stems from his excitement that a girl is actually talking to him. The friendship that develops between El and these kids, and their attempts to hide her from the government agency both honing and exploiting her powers, is the first thing everyone talks about when discussing the show. Well, that, and Millie Bobby Brown's revelatory performance as Eleven. Simultaneously portraying a naive little girl first learning how the outside world works and a pre-programmed machine both frightened and protective of her skills, she's the big breakout here, with her character most heavily invoking the memories discussed in association with this show, most notably surrounding E.T.  Some of her most memorable scenes involve her wonderment and excitement over simple things like Eggos or a La-Z-Boy Recliner, or the boys trying to put a dress and make-up on her.

As the only one with the ability to locate Mike, El is eventually torn between the only world her young mind knows and this new one with the foreign, but welcome concept of real friends and family. Brown's scenes opposite both Wolfhard and Ryder are the strongest and most touching of the series, particularly one where Mike starts making plans for her to stay with his family permanently. Of course, we know why that can't happen, and even as we hope for at least the second best outcome for her, the scene still rips us apart. As does the mere suggestion that the possibility exists that we've seen the last of Eleven. Regardless of where they go from here, this talented young actress's card is punched for superstardom.

Winona Ryder as ax-wielding Joyce Byers
Similarly, there's something that just feels so right about Winona Ryder as frantic single mother and store clerk Joyce Byers, to the point that she's irreplaceable. More than just the nostalgia factor of returning Ryder to the decade during which her career began, she's doing it this time as something she's never played before: A grieving mother.

Falling through the cracks for a while, her career was always built on being the cool, hip young chick, but when he she aged out of it, Hollywood didn't quite know what to do with her. This feels not just like a comeback, but a full-blown homecoming, with material that plays to her inherent quirkiness while still giving her big dramatic opportunities opposite the adult and child actors (the latter she should understand better than anybody given her past).

Ryder leaves enough room to make Joyce's insistence that her presumed dead son is communicating with her seem like both the ravings of a complete lunatic and a reasonably desperate mom whose son's gone missing. Just watch how she plays the scene where she asks (or rather demands) her boss give her an advance. Undoubtedly high on the list of actresses everyone wanted back in a big way, this feels as if it was written specifically for the now middle-aged but still undeniably youthful actress, taking into account where her career started and, where we hoped, it would eventually end up under ideal circumstances.

David Harbour as Chief Hopper
At first, the blunt, grumpy Chief Hopper would seem to be one of Joyce's biggest doubters, until the evidence starts adding up, and also begins dredging up his own personal demons. The more we learn about his past the more complex he becomes, and well-traveled, but anonymous character actor David Harbour (a consistently solid presence in every project preceding this), takes it to a whole new level here, gradually peeling back the layers of Hopper's "tough guy" persona. We're surprised to discover he's an excellent cop, but perhaps even more surprised to eventually realize how much he cares.

Just as integral to the investigation, if unintentionally, are the teen characters, who on the surface could be viewed as composites from The Breakfast Club before revealing themselves as three-dimensional characters. It's again to the benefit of the series that these roles are played by unknown actors, conveying a certain believability and freshness that couldn't be achieved with big, recognizable names above the credits. Natalia Dyer, Charlie Heaton and Joe Keery and Shannon Purser are all exceptional in bringing something completely different to whom we'd label the good girl, the weirdo, the jock and the nerd, respectively.

Steve, Nancy and Barb
As things develop, motivations change, and results of Nancy's situation and how it manages to organically link to main supernatural storyline is one of the better late-season rewards. and Keery's oddly familiar-looking Steve stands has possibly the most satisfying journey of all the supporting characters. What they do with him is smart and surprising, sure to become a key talking point in discussing how the writing succeeds in even the smallest of ways.

Add to the list of accomplishments the writing of the Mr.Clarke character, a science teacher who's somehow able to explain alternate universes and space-time tears in perfectly logical terms that any 12-year-old could understand, especially these. The Duffer Brothers' Spielbergian ability to never have the adults talk down to kids is most evident here, with Clarke rarely taking a break from encouraging and feeding their curiosity to learn. He's such a minor character, but even this depiction highlights just how much has changed in thirty years about how teachers are portrayed onscreen.

It's tough to tell which of the show's nostalgic influences were conscious choices made by its creators and which may have unconciously seeped in, as not all are homages from decade's past. What it brings back is the idea of the government as the evil, controlling force manipulating the public and exploiting science for its own benefit. All the E.T. comparisons are right on target but the actual plot more closely resembles the 2011 Canadian cult sci-fi horror film, Beyond The Black Rainbow, also taking place in 1983 and featuring an aging hippie scientist conducting telepathic experiments on a young girl.

Eleven trapped in the Upside-Down
While that still criminally underseen head trip is far more inaccessible and abstract than this, its aesthetic evocation of the paranoid mood of that decade is comparable. It's hard not to be reminded of it every time the story flashes back to Matthew Modine's creepily calm Dr. Brenner and his interactions with El in the lab. And upon glimpsing the black, watery Upside-Down dimension El is able enter, it's also hard not to immediately think of Under the Skin, reminding us that the series also may have channeled more contemporary references. 
This is obviously a huge victory for Netflix, as Stranger Things came completely out of nowhere with little advance buzz and relatively minimal promotion. Given the nature of the project, it's easy to appreciate the old school approach of making something great and trusting the audience to discover it and spread the word. It worked. This wasn't shoved down our throats or overhyped since there was simply no need. Known for taking chances on fringe programming that more mainstream networks tend to pass on, everyone involved likely shared the general idea that the Duffers had something special here. And did they ever.

When this season came to its spectacular conclusion I actually found myself upset that it was over, but equally concerned about what's next. These eight episodes were just so perfectly constructed and tightly paced that I almost want it to end now, fearing a second season could tarnish this. But you have to do it. There's simply no choice. The question is whether you literally take the anthology route by telling a whole new story or continue with this one? The ending leaves no doubt as to the decision and it's the right one.

The gang sticks together
There are moments containing genuine shocks and scares and others when the adventure is just plain fun. The tone's handled perfectly, with its creators realizing the goal wasn't necessarily to recreate the decade (though they do damn good job), but replicate our memories of watching movies and shows from that era. I suppose all those little details, but if someone asked me exactly how the Duffers managed it, I'm not sure it's even explicable.

It goes beyond the technicalities of being shot similarly, making the right wardrobe and set choices, or even writing authentic child characters. It's like they were able to hit this nostalgic nerve that's never been tapped before, making the show as much about us and the experiences we bring to it as what's on screen. In barren landscape of disappointing summer popcorn movies, Stranger Things is the best 80's summer blockbuster that isn't a movie or made during that decade. But good luck convincing yourself of that while watching.