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Best Films of 2003

2003 saw the ending of a fantasy saga as well as some great indie films and big-budget animation giants. It was an eclectic year that saw a return to form for directors like Clint Eastwood and the emergence of new greats like Sofia Coppola.

Best Film – The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

Capping off the greatest film trilogy of all-time, director Peter Jackson delivered his most grandiose and dramatic Lord of the Rings film in The Return of the King.

The quest has taken a toll on Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood). On the last leg of the journey, the evil forces opposing him and his shattered fellowship push forward with devastating effect. Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) must ascend to the throne he has hidden from and Gollum (Andy Serkis) continues to plot his own nefarious deeds that could spell doom for the world.

Relieved of the pressures of needing to introduce realms and species to an audience, all of the building storylines are brought to a close that is heartfelt, intimate and epic, creating a sensation few films have ever been able to achieve. In due time of course, Jackson would return to Middle-earth to complete another trilogy in The Hobbit series, but he needn’t have bothered. With The Return of the King, Jackson delivered an emotional epic that may never be topped.

Finding Nemo

Pixar delivered one of their greatest hits and most memorable films in Finding Nemo.

The tale of a father clownfish, Marlin (voiced by Albert Brooks), searching for his young son, Nemo (voiced by Alexander Gould), Marlin is forced to swim across half the ocean, aided by his bumbling sidekick, Dory (voiced by Ellen DeGeneres). They come across sharks and jellyfish and all sorts of dangerous creatures, pushing forward to find young Nemo, who must confront his own mortality in a dentist’s fish tank.

Featuring great comedic moments, mesmerizing animation and a heartwarming message, the film still stands today as one of Pixar’s finest achievements.

Lost in Translation

Sofia Coppola’s masterpiece of finding simple connections between people regardless of gender, age or status, Lost in Translation features two of the best performances of Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson’s careers.

Bob Harris is a past-his-prime film star scraping work together in Japan, where he is completely out of his element. He meets Charlotte, similarly lost, her husband a photographer on assignment. Finding each other and trying to find themselves on the crazy streets of Tokyo, they learn about the nature of connection and what their futures entail, whether it is what they want or not.

Understated in its approach, strong in its emotional power, Lost in Translation succeeds by using Bill Murray’s brilliant sense of comic timing to punctuate the laughs and bring meaning to the story.

Mystic River

Clint Eastwood had been a touch out of step after his instant classic film Unforgiven (1992) won him two Academy Awards in 1993. Making rather average movies such as The Bridges of Madison County (1995) and Blood Work (1992), it was natural to wonder whether the movie icon would ever reclaim his past success. With Mystic River (2003), those fears were laid to rest.

Dave (Tim Robbins), Jimmy (Sean Penn) and Sean (Kevin Bacon) are three friends growing up together in Boston in 1975. When Dave is kidnapped by two mysterious men and sexually abused for days, their friendship wanes. Now adults, they are drawn together once again as Jimmy’s daughter, Katie (Emmy Rossum), is found murdered with Dave the prime suspect and Sean the police detective working the case. Fate has brought them together again and their destinies are all intertwined, for better or worse.

The film is about childhood loss of innocence and how that loss impacts us for the rest of our lives. Dave, Jimmy and Sean are all tied together through their past, present and future, helpless against the pain of time and regret. Mystic River is a haunting, beautiful film that truly explores the connections between people and the past.

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring

Ki-duk Kim’s Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring (2003) is a story of rebirth. The soul, the body and the world are reborn over the course of its telling, set in the Korean countryside.

A young boy (Jae-kyeong Seo) is raised by an elderly Buddhist master (Yeong-su Oh), who yearns to teach him the ways of peace and solitude. But the young boy, as all boys are, is impatient and gives in to his emotions, torturing animals and acting destructively. Once he gains sexual lust, he abandons the master and ventures off into the world. Only after he commits a heinous crime does he return to try and find the peace that the monk had tried to teach him. But both wonder whether it is too late; too late for the boy to find the inner peace he desires and too late for the master to overcome his previous failure and purpose in life.

Featuring beautiful cinematography and a deliberate pace, the film is a touching examination of the essential forces at work in the world: love, nature, mentorship, anger, desire and the continual rebirth of those forces over and over again.

 

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“American Sniper” a modern American fable

Much like Achilles from Ancient Greek mythology, the story of Chris Kyle is presented in Clint Eastwood’s thrilling film as one of growth and acceptance, the tale of a warrior who fights the battle, returns home and must adjust to his new life. It is a classic story, but also a timeless one.

Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) is a Navy SEAL who takes his expert marksmanship to the war in Iraq. As he becomes the best sharpshooter in American history, with a body count reaching into the hundreds, he struggles to adjust to his family life with his wife Taya (Sienna Miller) and kids, not understanding the toll that his desire to help his comrades takes.

A simple PTSD story is in itself not that new or interesting, but what Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall manage to create is something more than that. By basing the film on a mythical structure and viewing Kyle as the prototypical warrior sent to defend the homeland, they make something universal. By taking that same story and molding it around current events, they give the film greater meaning. The two together paint a picture of a highly relatable man that defines an American era.

It is not surprising that the film made so much money as it appeals to so many people. Regardless of its historical accuracy, it presents us with the American ideals we strive for and the cost those ideals take. It gives us the American hero we all root for and the flaws in him that we feel in us.

It is not a perfect film. The story is not that original when taken solely at its plot. The Iraqis in the film are not given full representation and are often marginalized. And it’s not as though there are any real surprises throughout the film. It’s pretty easy to see the plot points before they happen. When compared to other war films, it’s not even the best war film about the recent Iraq/Afghanistan wars (“The Hurt Locker” and “Zero Dark Thirty” are superior in my opinion).

It does strike a core though, right in the American spirit. It is a great example of the sacrifice for freedom, something that will always be an American ideal.

The Best 25 Movies of the Last 25 Years Part 3

Part 1

Part 2

8. Lost in Translation (2003)

As indie film took over the industry in the 2000s, Sofia Coppola’s “Lost in Translation” asserted itself as a quiet, brilliant character examination that utilized so little but created so much. Bob Harris (Bill Murray) is an aging actor doing advertisements in Tokyo. Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) is abandoned in a Tokyo hotel as her photographer husband is out on assignment. A chance meeting brings them together in this land of personal emptiness, and they connect in a way that is so purely human over the course of the story. Revealing their inner fears, hopes, regrets and loves to each other, as the film connects these two lost souls, we feel that connection and remember the connections we ourselves have made and lost over our lives in such a poignant way.

7. Moonlight (2016)

A film about being black, poor and gay all at the same time,  Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight” is a tale of acceptance and identity. Chiron (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes) grows up with a mother addicted to crack. He befriends his mother’s dealer, Juan (Mahershala Ali) and his girlfriend, Terea (Janelle Monáe), and they become surrogate parents to him. As he learns about his homosexuality, he is picked on at school, with only one friend, Kevin (Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome, André Holland), whose relationship with him grows over the course of the telling. The film is told over three periods of Chiron’s life, from youth to adolescent to adult to fully illustrate his journey. It is about the barriers we create to hide from the cruelty of the world and how those barriers block us from true connection. A beautiful story, “Moonlight” will become a classic in the years to come.

6. Unforgiven (1992)

Clint Eastwood not only crafted a great film with “Unforgiven”, he made the defining Western movie. When a prostitute is cut up in the town of Big Whiskey, the whorehouse puts a bounty on the wrongdoer’s heads. William Munny (Clint Eastwood) is called to collect the reward from a young gunslinger, the Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett). They partner up with Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) and begin the trek to hunt down the two men. Big Whiskey’s sadistic sheriff, Little Bill (Gene Hackman), poses a direct threat to their efforts. The film utilizes the tropes of the Western genre, but places a moral compass in the middle of the narrative, showing how killing takes something intangible away from the killer. No film has ever been able to create as much heart from the genre as Eastwood did, and the film stands as the ultimate statement on the Western.

5. Schindler’s List (1993)

“Schindler’s List” is more than just a film. It is a transcendent statement on humanity; the despair and the simultaneous hope that it brings at the worst of times. Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) is a Nazi who owns a factory. As the exterminations of the Jews begin, he decides to save as many souls as he can, hiding them in his factory as “workers.” As the war drags on and the death camps continue, he attempts everything in his power to save his workers. Brimming with history and sorrow, director Steven Spielberg uses all of his creative talent to create not just the story of Schindler, but of the entire Holocaust. Haunting, humbling and unforgettable, it is the most revered film of all time.

4. City of God (2002)

Fernando Meirelles’ “City of God” tells the story of three boys, Bené (Phellipe Haagensen), Li’l Zé (Leandro Firmino) and Buscapé (Alexandre Rodrigues). All three live in the slums of Rio de Janeiro in the 1960s. Li’l Zé and Bené become crime lords while all Buscapé can do is witness the events surrounding him through the pictures he takes. The film’s narrative weaves together themes of poverty, opportunity, violence, yearning and history as Li’l Zé’s mob gang rises and falls. A coming-of-age story, the film examines social derision and the problems of the modern world in a powerful way.

3. There Will Be Blood (2007)

Paul Thomas Anderson has only made 7 feature-length films, but his vision and style are distinctive and incredible. Perhaps his greatest achievement is “There Will Be Blood”, starring a sensational Daniel Day-Lewis as Daniel Plainview. On his quest for oil and power, he comes face to face with competition in the form of religion, personified by a radical preacher, Eli Sunday (Paul Dano). The conflict between business and religion illustrates the methods both use to control the people they need, and in so doing, it relegates both as unethical and corrupt. Perhaps nothing speaks to modern times more than the themes utilized in Anderson’s film.

2. Pulp Fiction (1994)

Few filmmakers have defined an era as much as Quentin Tarantino did during the 1990s. From his breakout hit “Reservoir Dogs” (1992), Tarantino blew the roof off with “Pulp Fiction”, as swag and as defining a film as has ever been made. Whether it is the Royale with Cheese, the gimp or walking with the shepherd, the memorability of the film is uncanny. Tarantino brought the B-list storyline into mainstream moviemaking and paved the way for indie films to become a leading force of the industry. “Pulp Fiction” is one of those films that will always be remembered, ingrained in pop culture with as much vitality as “The Wizard of Oz” or “Star Wars.”

  1. Fargo (1996)

We finish this list with, in my opinion, the best filmmakers of the past 25 years: the Coen brothers. As great as “No Country for Old Men” is, their ultimate work came 14 years beforehand: “Fargo.” It is the story of Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy), a man who hires two criminals (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) to kidnap his wife so he can collect the ransom money from his stringent father-in-law. But the star of the film is police detective Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) who is tasked with investigating the murders that transpire as Lundegaard’s plot spins wildly out of control. The Coens don’t make films that are easy to digest. They take a bit of thinking to figure out what it all means and even then, you may find yourself changing your mind upon a second, a third, a fourth viewing. They are artists in an era where more and more of the industry is inundated with banality and a dearth of ideas. When the Coens make films, it’s a cinematic event, and “Fargo” is their seminal work, a film with interesting characters, an ingenious plot, an uncommon theme, great acting and fantastic writing and directing. It is everything we love about the movies.

‘Sully’ a traditional, solid movie

“Sully” tells the story of the “Miracle on the Hudson,” where a commercial airliner, under the navigation of Chesley Sullenberger, performs an emergency landing on the Hudson River in New York City after it loses its engines in a bird strike.

Directed by Clint Eastwood, the film is a sturdy crowdpleaser, building up subtle moments to Sully’s vindication that he did indeed do the right thing. Tom Hanks is great in the central role, showing his unease about being called a hero and the exploration into that label from the world.

It is not especially showy, but that may be to the film’s betterment. Too often directors go for the big moments, showing off rather than letting the story speak for itself, but Eastwood has always gone with a very workmanlike approach, carefully constructing each moment to last as long as it needs to. The execution of the landing is wonderfully realized, using all of Eastwood’s cinematic technique.

If there is a detriment however, it is that there is not a lot of story to actually hold the film together. The crash landing occurs, there’s an investigation, the results of that investigation, and the end. It goes by rather breezily and barely clocks in at 90 minutes.

At its core, the film is about ordinary people doing extraordinary things, not necessarily as individual heroes, but collectively. It is a film worth remembering for substance rather than flash.