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.