The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999) – Anthony Minghella

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Tom Ripley didn’t go to Princeton.  The Princeton jacket he’s wearing was borrowed from a friend.  But when Herbert Greenleaf (James Rebhorn), a wealthy shipbuilder, assumes that Tom went to college with his son Dickie, Tom doesn’t miss a beat: “How is Dickie?”

On Mr. Greenleaf’s dollar, Tom (Matt Damon) finds himself on a voyage to Mongibello, Italy, to track down his supposed school friend and convince him to return to his parents in America.  All Tom knows about Dickie (Jude Law) is that he’s living with his fiancée Marge (Gwyneth Paltrow), spending hours on his sailboat, burning through his allowance, and listening to jazz, so Tom makes it his business to align himself with these interests — particularly by buying jazz records and memorizing everything he can about the genre.  After staging a chance encounter with Dickie and Marge on the beach, Tom is easily able to befriend the young couple and to convince Dickie that they share an alma mater.

Right from the start of this exquisite period thriller, Tom is obviously untrustworthy.  He admits (jokingly, Dickie believes) to having a talent for “forging signatures, telling lies, impersonating practically anybody,” and throughout the film he does just that — deceiving Mr. Greenleaf, Marge, and Dickie, and even introducing himself as Dickie to a wealthy socialite named Meredith Logue (Cate Blanchett).  We know very little about his actual identity; he seems to try on whichever identity strikes his fancy.  Given this, it’s unsurprising that his friendship with Dickie never quite rings true; Tom’s every move is calculated to win Dickie over.

Homoerotic undertones — heck, let’s call them overtones — abound.  There’s an especially charged scene in which the two men are playing chess while Dickie is in the bath, and Tom asks if he can get into the tub.  “I didn’t mean with you in it,” he amends, seeing the repulsed look on Dickie’s face, but the true meaning of his question is clear.  Tom’s fixation on Dickie is more than just a straightforward crush, though; there’s an almost Black Swan–esque quality to it, an attraction comprised of both wanting someone and wanting to be them.  Dickie is gorgeous, reckless, charming — everything Tom is not — and he’s the very image of privilege, using his father’s money to travel around Italy and do whatever he pleases.  Tom, who makes a living cleaning up after musicians back in New York, has presumably never experienced such luxury before.  Now that he’s had a taste of Dickie’s lifestyle (which describes as “one big love affair”), he wants it for himself, and he’s willing to take it at any cost.

ripleyThe premise of this film is admittedly a little far-fetched (would Mr. Greenleaf really be so quick to pay a stranger one thousand dollars to take a trip to Italy?  Would Dickie and Marge really welcome Tom into their lives so readily, having no memory of him from college?), but it’s made believable by the all-around fantastic performances from the cast. Law as the handsome, petulant Dickie, with whom it’s difficult not to fall somewhat in love; Damon as the friendly, easygoing, and increasingly unsettling Tom; Paltrow as the pretty fiancée, paid little attention by the men but ultimately more lucid and perceptive than either of them.  Particularly strong supporting performances come (unsurprisingly) from Blanchett, chatty Meredith falling more and more in love with Tom — or rather “Dickie” — as they discuss the pleasures and burdens of great wealth; and the late, extraordinary Philip Seymour Hoffman as Dickie’s friend Freddie, slick and blasé and unimpressed by Tom from the start.

Supported by a jazz soundtrack that’s sometimes manic and sometimes unsettlingly saccharine, The Talented Mr. Ripley is one of my personal favorite films, conceptually complex and beautifully told.  The story is terrifying both in its specificity and in its universality: because who hasn’t ever envied the beautiful, wealthy, and charismatic people of the world?  I think many of us would happily live that life if given the opportunity. The question is how far we’re willing to follow Tom Ripley in his determination to get it.

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The 10 Best Movies I Encountered in 2013

It’s been a while since my last post, but that’s because I was brewing up this magnificent list!  Not the top ten films that came out in 2013, but the top ten films I watched for the first time this year, whether I was watching it on the big screen or squinting at a tiny, pixilated player on my laptop. (I did notice that this year’s list includes many more in-theater films than last year’s list, though — maybe because I’m living in a city instead of being tucked away on a college campus, or maybe because I got tired of squinting at tiny, pixilated players on my laptop).

So here it is, in ascending order.  Enjoy, and feel free to share your own top 10! 

10. Django Unchained (2012) – Quentin Tarantino

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Gritty, terrifying, and farcical all at once, Django Unchained has become one of my favorite Tarantino films (I reviewed it earlier this year).  Filmed in the style of old Spaghetti Westerns, the story centers around Django (Jamie Foxx), a freed slave in the Deep South who is on a mission to rescue his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from the infamous plantation Candyland.  The subject matter is weighty and at times incredibly upsetting, but it’s tempered with Tarantino’s trademark snappy dialogue, exaggerated comic-book violence, and dark humor.  It’s worth seeing if only for the fantastic supporting characters: in particular Christoph Waltz as Dr. King Schultz, dentist turned bounty hunter, and Leonardo DiCaprio as the ruthless master of Candyland.

9. The Last of the Mohicans (1992) – Michael Mann

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This film features gratuitous smoldering on the part of Daniel Day-Lewis.  Taciturn, shoulder-length-haired, weapon-wielding smoldering.  You have been warned!  The premise: in the midst of the French and Indian War, Native American–raised trapper Hawkeye (Day-Lewis) strives to ensure the protection of a British Colonel’s daughters, Cora (Madeleine Stowe) and Alice (Jodhi May).  This is a classic adventure story, complete with chase scenes, epic battles, and some steamy romance on the side.  What makes The Last of the Mohicans particularly stand out, however, is its brutal, lifelike twist — there’s a realistic edge to the violence, an almost Game of Thrones–esque willingness to kill off characters.  The end result is something both romantic and realistic, a compelling combination.

8. Zero Dark Thirty (2012) – Kathryn Bigelow

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I went into this film with some doubts, unsure of whether it was too soon to make a blockbuster about what the trailers were calling the greatest manhunt in history, but I shouldn’t have worried.  As we saw in The Hurt Locker, Bigelow has a way of handling the events of war thoughtfully, tactfully, and with an almost Hemingway-esque injection of emotion that you barely even notice until it hits you.  Jessica Chastain plays Maya, a young, feisty, and incredibly intelligent CIA officer who becomes obsessed with the search for Bin Laden and, after years of investigating, ultimately leads the troops to his whereabouts.  The film is exciting, as any good mystery/thriller should be, but it’s also hesitant, bittersweet.  There are implicit questions about who we are as a country right now and what we’re trying to do.  I was rooting for it for best picture last year (somewhat halfheartedly because it seemed like Argo was kind of a shoo-in).

7. Dallas Buyers Club (2013) – Jean-Marc Vallée

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Based on a true story, this film follows Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey), a rough-and-tumble rodeo man who is given a shock when he’s diagnosed with HIV and given an estimate of thirty days left to live.  Before he knows it, Ron’s entire life has changed direction, and he finds himself starting a buyers club with an HIV-positive transvestite named Rayon (Jared Leto) to provide alternative treatments for HIV/AIDS.  Considering the content, Dallas Buyers Club is surprisingly upbeat and uplifting, focusing on human resilience in the face of disease and hardship.  The film is also carried by tremendous performances from McConaughey and Leto, who give nuanced renderings of characters who are at once strong, flawed, and loveable.

6. Spring Breakers (2012) – Harmony Korine

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Scored by Skrillex and featuring gun-toting former Disney Channel stars, Spring Breakers could have easily been one of the worst films of the year — and indeed, I fully expected it to be.  Instead, director Korine somehow managed to fashion an evocative and strangely alluring fever dream about four college-age girls who get carried away with the autonomy that spring break provides.  There was a slew of films this year about decadence and irresponsibility — Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring and Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, to name a couple — and Spring Breakers handles the material in a completely unconventional and effective way.  The film draws you into its circling, nonlinear narrative and leaves you haunted.  I wrote a full review this summer.

5. Despicable Me 2 (2013) – Pierre Coffin, Chris Renaud

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My pride is the only thing keeping me from making this movie #1 on the list.  I couldn’t have loved it more!  There is some semblance of a plot — lovable former-villain Gru (voiced by Steve Carell) is living a domestic life with his three adopted daughters when he’s forced to return to the field, this time teeming up with agent Lucy Wilde (Kristen Wiig) — but the main focus of the film is, shamelessly, sheer adorableness.  Most scenes revolve around the delightful, butter-yellow nuggets that are Gru’s minions bouncing about and jabbering in their helium-high voices, and Gru’s daughters causing trouble and tugging on Gru’s (and all of our) heartstrings. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll laugh till you cry.

4. Stoker (2013) – Chan-wook Park

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A tribute to Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Stoker tells the story of a young woman named India (Mia Wasikowska) whose father dies, and what happens when her handsome, enigmatic uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) comes to visit.  From an aesthetic standpoint this film is perfect.  I raved about it in my review this summer; director Chan-wook Park has created a neurotic, unsettling, and tremendously beautiful world, balancing every shot and amplifying certain details, letting us into India’s subjectivity. The film’s content is twisted and dark but every moment is visually magnificent, and that combination of horror and beauty is captivating.

3. Blue Jasmine (2013) – Woody Allen

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Like much of Allen’s work, this film is cleverly written and incredibly uncomfortable.  Cate Blanchett plays Jasmine, a wealthy New Yorker who arrives in San Francisco to stay with (read: impose on) her adoptive sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) while recuperating from the collapse of her marriage.  Blanchett gives a truly outstanding performance as the neurotic, unstable Jasmine — radiant and poised in some scenes, frighteningly haggard in others, and constantly struggling with an undertow of panic and desperation.  Also featuring Alec Baldwin, Blue Jasmine has that sort of painful, cutting insight that is a hallmark of Allen’s work, and humor that is not without sting.

2. Taxi Driver (1976) – Martin Scorsese

Taxi-Driver-4Taxi Driver is widely recognized as a classic, and I certainly expected to be impressed, but the film grabbed me in a way I hadn’t anticipated.  Travis (Robert De Niro) is a former marine who takes a job as a taxi driver to cope with his insomnia, and slowly the job changes him into someone emotionally, intellectually, and physically unrecognizable.  The film features its own bizarre kind of worldbuilding, nighttime New York becoming a seedy city of the underworld colored by the slick black streets and the lurid clothing of prostitutes.  Travis’s journey from being a generally likeable (although somewhat adrift) person to being a person with a frightening, violent sense of purpose is aided in no small part by the repeated appearance of a child prostitute, Iris (Jodie Foster), whom Travis feels he must personally rescue from this damned place.  Scorsese draws you into Travis’s perspective and takes you with him as far as you’re willing to go.  It’s terrifying, evocative, exciting, and strangely beautiful.  Full review here, in the NYC roundup I posted this summer.

1. Sleepwalk With Me (2011) – Mike Birbiglia, Seth Barrish

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I gushed about this film when I saw it in February.  I would go so far as to compare Mike Birbiglia to David Sedaris in terms of the caliber of his storytelling (high praise!).  Sleepwalk With Me is an autobiographical story that follows Birbiglia’s early pursuit of a career in standup; his crumbling relationship with his long-term girlfriend; and his experience with a rare sleeping disorder in which, to put it simply, he wreaks havoc while sleepwalking.  The story is at once funny and heartbreaking, and it’s so earnest that it’s difficult not to love.  Keep an eye out for Birbiglia — he has good things coming.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012) – Peter Jackson

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Let me just start this off by saying that when The Fellowship of the Ring came out in 2001, my sister and I (ages 11 and 8) literally wrote a petition to my dad about why we should be allowed to watch it, despite its PG-13 rating.  Our petition was successful (!!!), and after giddily enjoying the first film in the trilogy, I began literally counting down the days until the second film would come out.  I go a little crazy for the Lord of the Rings movies.  I don’t know why.

You can imagine, then, my excitement/anxiety concerning The Hobbit.  I wanted it to be as awesome as The Lord of the Rings, but I had my doubts, mostly because of the decision to split the story into three films.  The Hobbit —the only Tolkien work I’ve actually read — tells the story of Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and his journey with a band of dwarves and the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) to reclaim the dwarves’ mountain home from the dragon Smaug.  If Tolkien could fit that entire adventure into a 300-page book, Peter Jackson should be able to squeeze it into a 3-hour movie.  Right?

I tried not to worry about it while I was watching, although there are certainly some aspects of the film that suffer because of that choice, particularly in the beginning of the film.  After a necessary but sort of cloying introduction with Frodo (Elijah Wood), we are taken into Bilbo’s past to witness the arrival of Gandalf and the dwarves.  The entire first hour of the film could probably be cut in half (did the dwarves really need to sing two songs while feasting at Bilbo’s house?), and you get the feeling that Jackson is taking his time with these early scenes in order to fill out the film.  Annoying.

Once the action finally gets going, though, The Hobbit really does take on the excitement and grandeur that I was hoping for.  Tolkien’s brilliant story is there, and even chopping it up into three segments and beefing them up with supplemental plotlines can’t ruin it.  For LotR fans, this film also has a satisfying mix of familiar characters — Frodo (briefly), Gandalf, Elrond, Galadriel, the unforgettable Gollum — as well as some new and equally likable ones.  Freeman, with his kind face and bumbling demeanor, is a perfect choice for Bilbo, and we watch him stumble from mishap to mishap and root for him every step of the way.

The Hobbit, unlike the LotR trilogy, is a book for children, and the film is actually pretty lighthearted and sweet.  While it’s certainly refreshing not having constantly to worry about the Dark Lord Sauron destroying Middle Earth, there are moments in The Hobbit in which things seem a little over-simplified.  The dwarves are constantly making quips at each other, which fits with their jolly nature — but I hard time believing that more serious characters like Gandalf and the Great Goblin would also throw around one-liners in moments of peril.  Perhaps my biggest problem with the film was Azog, the Pale Orc, an archetypal villain complete with a scarred face and an evil laugh.  These aspects of the film were not taken directly from Tolkien’s text, and I felt that they strayed from Tolkien’s style in favor of a more generic blockbuster formula.

This film definitely wasn’t perfect.  I would have loved to get the entire story in one go, because, unlike the LotR trilogy, it wasn’t meant to be experienced in segments. That being said, I really enjoyed the movie and I thought it was quite well done.  The Riddles in the Dark scene was pretty perfect, and the ending was killer (I was shocked that Jackson didn’t go for his usual monologue-about-the-dark-times-to-come-but-how-there-is-still-hope-and-even-little-hobbits-can-make-a-difference type of ending).  And by stretching The Hobbit into a trilogy, we get that much more time to absorb the beautiful spectacle that is Middle Earth, and to delve into some of the other texts that Tolkien has written.

And let’s be real — no matter what Peter Jackson does, I will always be excited for the next Tolkien film to come out.  I just can’t help myself.