Friday, December 31, 2010

Epic Dialogue

      This video above is taken from the opening scene of Quentin Tarantino's directorial debut, Reservoir Dogs.  This scene is a perfect example of how to effectively construct believable and exciting dialogue.  The camaraderie of the actors on display here is palpably refreshing.  You get the idea that these guys hangout on a regular basis and this is just another morning at the local diner for them.  The beautifully rhythmic, real life conversational back-and-forth among the actors is superbly rendered.  Even the little physical machinations of the characters such as the way Madsen's character maneuvers his cigarette is impeccably executed.  Any aspiring screenwriter should take a page from Tarantino's book when it comes to creating true-to-life conversational dialogue that is engaging, exciting, and flows as fantastically as a well-told poetry reading. 

Happy New Year to everyone who reads my blog! 2011 should be a heck of a year!! 

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Best Films of 2010

Top 10 Films of 2010

      If you're like me, then it is always a good practice to quantify things by developing top ten lists.  Maybe ten is an arbitrary number, but for most, it is a uniformly agreed upon starting point for valuing highly competent works.  Realizing that standards may inevitably differ across the overwrought cyberspace of film critiques, I am preparing to field off an onslaught of contentious debate regarding my selections.  The staunch lines of sensibility have been irrevocably drawn.  Opinions have been readying for my impending execution.  Target acquired.  Unleash the vitriol.
      Before any formal attacks can be mounted though, I must provide a little more insight into the formation of my list.  Quite frankly, the first ... really two-thirds of 2010 have offered up a fairly sobering array of movies—which unrequited film fans like myself forcibly and painfully must endure before getting to the quality cinema.  There was an extremely inordinate amount of mediocre films to sift through including such timeless classics as: The Clash of the Titans, Prince of Persia, Last Airbender, and Lovely Bones.  However, all of this middling, jarringly bad film crap that I subjected myself to lead to a burgeoning, pent-up desire for seeing great film.  Finally, the fourth quarter of 2010 allowed me to suppress this overwhelming feeling of detached skepticism and reconstitute my love for cinema as great films began furiously pouring out week by week. 
      Though I have not been fortunate enough to have seen every exceptionally made film of 2010—I missed out on a smattering of indie-films, in addition to a host of internationally based productions—my list is still concrete and will occupy a more Americanized bent.  Despite the fact that I may see a film made this year at some point in the future, adamantly believing said film earnestly belongs on my top 10 of 2010 list, I cannot go back and make any revisions.  This is a list as ironclad as the likelihood of Mike "The Situation" rejoining the cast of Jersey Shore for a third season of debauchery based shenanigans.  Call it cheap entertainment and I'll agree with you, but the guy makes the show watchable...and his paycheck is too extravagant to forfeit.  If all I had to do is shamelessly show my abs off, talk with an overly exaggerated Italian machismo accent, all while simultaneously playing the part of the comedic, alcohol gluttonous host, I would say where to do I sign.  I am kidding of course but I digress.
      Without further ado, I will jump right into my list starting with number 10.  Undoubtedly number 10 (sounds like a character in a James Bond or Tarantino flick) was the most competitive spot to nab as this film beat out a host of deserving just missed the cut candidates.  

*If you click each movie title (for example: The Town just below), you will be linked to an Official YouTube Trailer for each film.

      Lately these days, it seems that Ben Affleck is more suited for work behind the camera than in front of it.  Considering the robust surplus of praise levied upon his directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone, Affleck has surpassed the initial test of the actor gone one-hit-wonder director by delivering the equally raw and gritty action film, The Town.  It is a compelling heist-genre film suffused with great emotional tonality. Strong performances and an emotionally wrought character-driven engine help establish it as a must watch film.  
      Many cynics may deride The Town as another poorly executed rendition of sucker-stylized action and drama.  But these cynics make these accusations from afar; if you were able to watch The Town in a local theater setting, you can gauge from the enthusiastic audience responses that it effectively strikes a chord with every town in America. 
      I may have taken a slight shot at Affleck with my initial statement, but his directing expertise does not preclude him from giving a meaningful character portrayal.  His role as Doug MacRay is played with minimalistic sophistication and potent conviction, aided by an authentic Boston personage.  Moreover, Jeremy Renner's spirited depiction of the criminal lifer is as riveting as it is frustrating.  A destructive quality is inherent in Renner's character, James Coughlin, which makes each of his seconds on screen fully immersing.  
     The Town's crowning achievement is evidenced in its brilliantly realized cinematic direction.  The Charlestown setting is delineated beautifully in an almost rugged and rundown manner.  Fueled by smartly engineered pacing, the action sequences keep you fastened to the butt of your seat.  It is almost as if Ben Affleck took a page from Robert Ludlum—the brainchild of the Bourne Trilogy which features Affleck's best bud, Matt Damon—in masterminding the believably gripping action of the number ten film on my list.

9). Shutter Island 

      It was an extremely difficult decision to include Shutter Island on my list and conspicuously neglect Buried; I truly loved both films on almost similar levels.  Admittedly though, I could not justify Cortés' finely crafted psychological and survival thriller because of its extreme lack of a re-watch-ability factor.  The same argument can be made for Shutter Island ... hat is, if you have not been fortunate to catch it a second time on blu-ray.  Another important caveat for this vital difference between the two films comes from the fact that Shutter Island more effectively creates a standalone, memorably inventive cinematic experience.  Immediately from the outset, I was enthralled with the story of Teddy Daniels, who is played so exemplary by Leonardo DiCaprio.  On the contrary, Ryan Reynolds character from Buried, Paul Conroy, requires too much exposition (mostly dictated over the phone) to gain my attention.  And this disconnect occurs despite the fact that Conroy is involved in a rapidly dire, harrowing circumstance. 
      The true intrinsic value of Shutter Island is derived from the experience of repeat viewings.  It plays so much more effectively and sincerely that one is not distracted by the impending revelation of the film.  Scorsese is incredible at brokering an emotional investment with his audience.  His wield of cinematic power reaches such great depths. The emotional core of Shutter Island is enhanced by the strong acting of DiCaprio who completely enraptures you as he treads along this compelling psychological journey of a guy trying to discover who he is.  There is such an elegant, yet profound style and execution to the film, which has become requisite with any Scorsese production.  The classically omnipresent film noir aspects, particularly with the flashback sequences thoroughly captivated me.  The story of the fractured or self probing mind is explored beautifully.  I have come to expect nothing less from the kismet dynamic duo pairing of Scorsese and DiCaprio which I hope never departs.

8).  Scott Pilgrim vs. The World

      Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is a film that is characterized by an immense, gravitational energy that pulls you right into its colorfully rendered story.  From an objective level, it is not the best film made in 2010.  But in terms of its stylistic adaption of the comic book theme, it is best understood as a hipster flick, emblematic of the wired 2.0 generation.  In fact, the focal point of the plot revolves around the existence of seven evil exes that control the future of Romona's (played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead) love life.  Moreover, Michael Cera was born to play the titular character—all of the quirky, physically comedic, densely expressive elements of Pilgrim exude from Cera's pores.  
      Scott Pilgrim is spectacularly unique cinema that is relentlessly paced.  Edgar Wright is an incredibly talented Director whose impressive resume includes such dynamite classics as Election and Shaun of the Dead.  Wright takes a literalistic temperature gauge of today's culture of gaming and parody based humor and both encapsulates and satirizes these elemental sensibilities—which are cornerstones of my generation.  Wright's sense of comedic timing in the visual space is unrivaled.  
      Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is an incredible work of cinema that functions on myriad levels: it's beautifully enjoyed as a fun comedic-action movie with an impressive musical score (Beck, Metric, Broken Social Scene) and more importantly, Scott Pilgrim is the kind of film that effectively defines our generation as well as ... well scan further down my list to find the true generational significant film.

7).  127 Hours

      It does not take 127 continuous hours to realize that a film directed by Danny Boyle and starring James Franco has tremendous potential.  127 Hours is an inventive biographical film tracing the harrowing circumstances of real life mountain climber Aron Ralston as he gets trapped by a boulder.  The film brilliantly illustrates that a static premise with a dominant, mostly solo in-your-face character portrayal can be both intensely moving and imbued with electricity.  It is precisely the kind of film worth seeing in theaters.  I will not give it away but "the momentous scene" gives you an intensity you just cannot mimic in a home theater setting.  
      James Franco's acting career has undergone an upward momentum that has seen his last few works gain increasing critical acclaim (Howl is a fine example of Franco's acting chops).  127 Hours solidifies Franco's ability as an actor to completely immerse himself in a character under the full methodical approach.  Benefiting by the prodigious direction of Danny Boyle (who has produced a number of critically praised classics including Trainspotting, Sunshine and recently, Slumdog Millionaire), Franco's portrayal of Ralston is blissfully engaging.  127 Hours should serve as a blueprint, not in terms of a harrowing survivor tale of a finite timeline but instead, as a blueprint for its strict disciplinarian adherence to a simple, but often ignored rule of strong filmmaking; all it takes to effect great cinema is the coalescence of talents from both a gifted Actor and  masterful Director.

6).  True Grit 

      It is not necessary that an individual be comprised of "true grit" to realize that the latest Coen Brothers film is exemplary.  True Grit, in its most infant state, is a fun movie that is not striving to be as ambitious as say, No Country For Old Men.  I am a big fan of traditional westerns as I have seen all the classics including the original True Grit.  Additionally, I am a big fan of the Coen Brothers who once again do not disappoint in applying their unique sensibility to True Grit's derivative western premise.  Though the ending of the film does not sit well with me in terms of climactic film finishes, the entirety of the film is without significant flaws.  
      The Coen Brothers invoke a certain polarity—in terms of criticism—by enlisting their off-beat, often times helter skelter filmmaking approach, True Grit serves as a fine addition to the library of any fan of the classic western genre.  The summation of the individual acting performances: including the seemingly omnipresent Jeff Bridges (who plays the John Wayne role, Rooster Cogburn), the smartly competent Matt Damon (Texas Ranger La Boeuf), and precocious Hailee Steinfeld (as Mattie Ross)—help establish True Grit as an enjoyable, superbly acted exhibition.  The erratically competent visionaries also known as the Coen Brothers may have directed True Grit, but more surprisingly, they re-created a film classic by delivering a first-rate, true-to-genre western.  In the spirit of such an ingenious about-face on a come-to-be-expected Coen Brothers work of art, True Grit deserves an about-face as it pertains to the predominantly niche fan base of western genre films.  In fact, I anticipate the emergence of an increasingly fervent fan movement charged with the task of influencing the re-creation of other Western classics. 
5).  Exit Through the Gift Shop 

      Is it a documentary or a fictionally pieced together account of varying real life events?  No one critic can be too sure at this point.  But whether what we see is real or not or whether the film qualifies as a documentary is irrelevant.  Exit Through the Gift Shop is a fantastic cinematic ride that does in fact exude an unmistakable element of truth concerning bigger questions. 
      Exit Through the Gift Shop is a documentary about a failed documentary about graffiti art about an aspiring documentarian's graffiti art.  What all this sequential storytelling results in is quite markedly, one of the most involving story driven documentaries I have ever seen.  The film gives stark insights into street art while simultaneously providing a scathing criticism of the proliferating art scene.  Consequently, questions about the nature and motivation of art begin to ferment.  The bottom line is that the intended meaning behind art is realized through its own disparate and numerously translatable offerings. 
      Whether the real life characters of Thierry Guetta, Banksy, or Shepard Fairey are part of a well crafted manipulative hoax or a truly inspiring real life tale is not important.  What is important is all of these characters provide compelling and complex performances that make Exit Through the Gift Shop a can't miss stop as one journey's through the elaborate medium of cinematic arts.

4).  Black Swan 

      Besides being the accomplished author of the best ending of a film this year. Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan is a uniquely sensational melodrama—and for once, being a melodrama is a good thing.  Characterized by an unmistakable yet piercingly absorbing operatic bent, Black Swan is theatrical not for the sake of being artsy but in the sense of providing a mirror to the duel reliant world of ultra-competitive ballet and inexorable ambition. 
      Natalie Portman gives a phenomenal performance as Nina Sayers and helps establish Black Swan as an intensely enriching movie experience.  The inability to discern what's reality and is not is central to Aronofsky's psychological tale and precisely points to his vast skill in direction.  The visual ambiance of Black Swan demands a staged performance type illustration and the theater is a great approximation of that dynamic. Therefore, I implore you to watch this film in a theater if you can.  The intensely passionate, visually stunning, psychologically moving elements of Black Swan will yield your undivided attention.  Aronofsky's genius as a director is put on stage with this film and he delivers a "break your legs" type riveting performance that demands the supreme attention of every serious moviegoer.    

*For a more in-depth analysis, check out my review for Black Swan under my "reviews" section.
3). The Fighter

      Christian Bale delivered tremendously impressive performances with American Psycho and The Prestige, while giving underwhelming and disappointing performances with Terminator Salvation and The Batman Series (only to the extent that his wacky Batman voice is distracting).  But with The Fighter, Bale has emphatically returned to form and in so doing, elevated his stellar acting pedigree by playing the crack-addicted "Pride of Lowell" boxer/trainer, Dicky Eklund.   Bale has tremendous acting power, insomuch that the power of Dicky's right hand—that may or may not have knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard—fails to deliver as much potency.  
      Director David O. Russell returns to his past film success (I loved Three Kings) with The Fighter by seamlessly fusing the underdog boxing story (of Micky Ward, played excellently by Mark Wahlberg) with an intense family drama.  Russell accomplishes this by evoking a consistently deliverable comedic tone throughout the film.  For me, The Fighter generates as much euphoric love for the movie going experience as Inception.  These films remind me of how going to movies can be both fun and energizing.  The Fighter manages to encapsulate this sentiment while simultaneously providing a mainstream crowd pleaser with an oft kilter sensibility.

*For a more in-depth analysis, check out my review for The Fighter under my "reviews" section.

2).  Inception

Boldness adj., showing or requiring a fearless daring spirit; standing out prominently. 

      The best descriptor for Christopher Nolan's latest film achievement, Inception, is the symbiotic idea of boldness as defined above.  Though the choreographed action sequences may be inscrutable at times and the dialogue is often heavy on exposition, Inception is a truly gratifying cinematic adventure.  In the true sense of the medium—the movie going experience—particularly in the case of big budget blockbuster films, is all about championing sentiments of escapism and shock and awe style visual displays.  Inception wonderfully captures this movie going spirit and effectively slams a Ruthian style home run out of the park. 
      "What's the most resilient parasite? An Idea. A single idea from the human mind can build cities. An idea can transform the world and rewrite all the rules."    These are the thought provoking words uttered by Cobb, the dream manipulator played magnificently by Leonardo DiCaprio, that forms the basis of a film that successfully undertakes an exploratory examination of the mind.  Many detractors may conclude that Inception thinks it's smarter than it actually is.  But Christopher Nolan is that friggen smart.   
      Inception is simply a cool movie.  What other movie can boast elaborately crafted sequences of guys dressed in designer suits killing projections at a lighting pace faster than Usain Bolt's 100 meter Olympic sprint.  Inception's grandiose success foretells something tremendously auspicious for Hollywood: when you extend an unlimited budget to an extremely talented director, Inception is the kind of ilk, the kind of standard of a movie you can ultimately get.  
      The visuals in Inception are amazing; in fact, this daring attempt to incorporate complex visual artistry is quite rare—some of the memorable examples include the "hallway fight scene," which is almost a fitting homage to its cinematic precursor of special effects, The Matrix Trilogy.  Such elaborate sequences require tremendous editing as the characters (and the audience must keep up in a sensible manner) are traveling between multiple layers at the same time.  Inception also provides an invigorating score that beautifully accentuates the bold action and special effect driven sequences.      
      Undoubtedly though, my favorite scene in a film this year was the anti-gravity scenes with Joseph Gordon Levitt.  These are truly one-of-a-kind sequences that left my friends and I in complete jaw dropping awe.  I guess my most unforgivable problem with Inception is that it shows us these brilliant, amazing anti-gravity scenes and simply just does not give us enough of it. 

1).  The Social Network 

      I do not know who opined that number one is always the cat's meow in any listing.  But my brain underwent a near mental breakdown in trying to determine what film of 2010 coveted the number one title.  The answer became easier to discern once I accepted an important tenet of great filmmaking: great films materialize when a prodigiously talented director teams up with an equally talented writer.  More specifically, the accomplished tandem of David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin fulfills this age-old tenet and what results is pure cinematic gold.  In fact, Sorkin contended that Shakespeare himself would have written The Social Network, for it deals with themes of friendship, loyalty, jealousy, power, money and social status—markedly powerful themes pertinent to any great human tragedy and raconteur.  
      The rapid fire, fustian trademark-style dialogue of Sorkin and the sonorous, flashy filmmaking style of Fincher make the menial exercise of talking in a room exciting.  The Social Network may be criticized for reasons unrelated to its merits—particularly, when it comes to a misunderstanding of Mark Zuckerberg who is a notoriously abstruse figure.  But Fincher avoids this seemingly dire trope by focusing his thematic direction on a search for deeper truths and what motivates people.  Moreover, the true crux of the film lies with the grand idea of social networking and how it navigates these truths.  
      The Social Network is going to win Best Picture at the Oscars this year.  Aided beautifully by an exceptional score, Fincher's film defines our generation more reasonably and truthfully than Edgar Wright's Scott Pilgrim vs The World or any other film of recent memory.  It is a thrilling, smartly crafted movie with a fascinating focal character in Mark Zuckerberg, who is symbolic of the niggling, manipulative genius. 
      The single greatest element of the film lies within its exploration of the Internet and how it drastically impacts our lives and the way we interact with another.  Fincher has an uncanny eye for defining the visual sensibility of a film.  Such a crafty eye is advantageous for a film package that includes a superb script where verbal sparring is continuously compelling throughout the film.  The Social Network is an impeccable model of a film that I can effortlessly defend, as its strengths are easily identifiable; and for eternity, praise it to the high heavens.

*Just missed the cut and frankly some pretty big omissions: Toy Story 3 (the Best Animated Feature of 2010), How to Train Your Dragon (Best 3D Movie of 2010), Buried (read below) and Kick-Ass (Just a fun, kick ass Movie).  I did not get a chance to see The King's Speech, Winter's Bone, Catfish, Animal Kingdom, and some other highly regarded films of 2010.


      Finally, a few lasting thoughts on Buried, it's Director and Ryan Reynolds because I want you all to see it.  Given its more dangerous and daring premise.  I absolutely bought into Director Rodrigo Cortés' claustrophobic narrative style.  If a film is administering a potion that is meant to project a specific tone and sense of time and place, I must be thoroughly absorbed in the story.
      Rodrigo Cortés likely provided the most shocking ending to a film this year, which refreshingly cements Rodrigo's place in Hollywood as an audaciously and originally sensible entity.  Hollywood needs more inventive and daring filmmakers.  Visually infused with both visceral suspense and gritty vitality, Buried successfully furnishes an idea that is articulated with momentous simplicity.
      Other than thunderously announcing the "I am talented" presence of Rodrigo Cortés, Buried also significantly augments another film career.  Ryan Reynold's career has been defined by leading roles in many trivial films, which has resulted in tremendous popularity among his growing legions of adoring fans—but it has also positioned his career, from a critical standpoint, closer to six feet under.  But his character in Buried as the frantic, trapped in a coffin lead role illustrates to scathing critics that he is a viable actor and can be taken seriously.  More than a rising star among fans of the box office hit The Proposal, Reynold's proves to critics that he possesses real acting chops and has the clout to carry a dramatic and suspenseful film. 

Thanks for reading!  I hope you enjoyed my list and feel free to comment ...

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Person(s) of the Week IV

The Coen Brothers Bloom-ing and Gritty Career Track

      For the first time with my "Person of the Week" segment, I will shine the illustrious spotlight on a non-actor.  In fact, I will highlight the extraordinary achievements of two talented filmmakers more fittingly known as the "two-headed director," Joel and Ethan Coen.  In recognition of their latest critically acclaimed hit, True Grit -- a derivative story of the western genre that has a non-derivative technically and visually staggering arrangement—the Coen Brothers have continued to provide compelling, artistic, quirky and effectual films that deliver widespread praise and on occasion, reasonably strong box office numbers. 
     The Coen Brothers may not match Spielberg or Lucas with box office receipts, but in terms of masterminding a distinctive and smartly executed mise-en-scène, they are every bit as prodigiously effective.  A Director's primary responsibility is to conceive of a focus and—how apropos, "direction"—for their film and employ every ounce of disciplined tact in seeing through to that focused direction.  Consequently, any skilled director will be assertive and diligent in getting their vision for the movie realized.   The Coen Brothers are exceptional masters at completing this vastly important and often times, challenging task.  I can watch a Coen Brothers film without seeing the credits and quickly ascertain that what I was watching is the ingenious work of the Coen Brothers.  Raising Arizona, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, and No Country for Old Men all exhibit a distinct sensibility and tone that effectively imprints the Coen Brothers signature design.  
      From what I'm reading, True Grit is living up to this high Olympic size standard of achievement.  Though western films tend to be derivative or formulaic in terms of plot development, I am anticipating the Coen Brothers film to be more consistent with their prior works—meaning its non-derivative in approach.  Thus, I will not be remotely surprised if True Grit is a composition of layered plot twists anchored by a contrast of both dark and oddball inspired humor.  Kudos Coen Brothers for your work blooms as auspiciously and audaciously as a perennial flower flourishing in a well-manicured garden.

Coen Brother's Stellar Film Resume:
Raising Arizona
Barton Fink 
The Big Lebowski
No Country for Old Men
A Serious Man
And the most recent addition: True Grit

Other Notable Coen Brothers Films:
O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Intolerable Cruelty
The Man Who Wasn't There

* In the below video is a nicely put together tribute to the Coen Brothers.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Sparring with the Champ

      Review: The Fighter

     Seldom does a film that is constrained by a hackneyed premise leave one with an indelible feeling of jubilation once the end credits roll.  The cumulative result of a highly gifted actor's performance and age-old storytelling with the hero overcoming insurmountable odds style-pathos, The Fighter creates this jubilant effect and positively sends a euphoric tingle down just about anyone with a warm heart's spine.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Achievement of Perfection

Review: Black Swan

      Nina Sayers farewell remark to The Gentleman sums up Black Swan as beautifully as the artistry of the ballerina dancers ... "I was perfect."  Indeed, Darren Aronofsky, you were perfect.

Film News

True Grit Opens Today
      True Grit—a remake of the 1969 original of the same name—opens up today in both the United States & Canada in wide release.  The enormously talented Coen Brothers have enlisted their directing expertise in this remake of a classical Western.  What the Coen Brothers ultimately do with this distinguished property is all the more intriguing.  
      Late December is usually a time for Hollywood to test its Oscar mettle.  I will be watching the film in the coming days and will post a review.  We shall see if True Grit is as truly firm and unyielding as it's parent name suggests.  Of course, John Wayne earned his only Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role as Marshall Rooster Cogburn in the original film that opened in 1969.
      It is very fitting that Jeff Bridges has been tapped to follow in Wayne's immortal footsteps by taking the role of Rooster Cogburn.  After all, it took Bridges almost as long as Wayne to win that first, elusive Oscar for Best Actor—Bridges won the Award for his character portrayal of Bad Blake in Crazy Heart.  
      My expectations for this film are at an enormous peak and I just cannot wait to see it.  If my expectations are met, then a glowing review will follow.  

*Below is the Official Trailer for True Grit. 

Film News

Sequel for Rounders has been Confirmed

      The often talked about sequel for Rounders has finally caught some traction.  The Weinstein Company and Miramax have agreed to a deal that would bolster much of Miramax's past film properties and allow for the creation of sequels, most notably Rounders.  
      For those unfamiliar with the film, it stars both Matt Damon and Edward Norton as two buddies who set upon a precarious path that leads to the biggest high-stakes poker game of their collective lives.  Rounders takes an engrossing look at the underground world of Texas Hold'em poker and it's embittered effects on friendship, trust, love, and ambition.  
      I am often dubious of film studios that attempt to recreate some box office magic with a cult-level film, which has a certain standalone quality.  Going back to the well has resulted in some laughably, lackluster sequels, most recently, The Boondock Saints II.   
      But for some inexplicable reason, I believe Rounders has legitimacy as a sequel.  This statement is contingent upon keeping the original cast intact, which means The Weinstein Company is going to have to work its magic to lure back Damon and Norton.  If the Weinstein Brothers succeed, I can honestly say that I will eagerly anticipate this sequel.
Rounders Sequel has the Green Light

 *Above is one of my favorite scenes from Rounders. Mike McDermott (played by Matt Damon) finally beats KGB (played by John Malkovich). Many of my friends love to endlessly quote this scene. Malkovich's accent is great.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Top 10 Best Sports Movie Actors of All-Time

MVP of Sports Acting

      I was recently watching the Knicks/Celtics game on ESPN and the camera panned across the arena highlighting a Murderer' Row of celebrity actors attending the game.  I got to thinking.  What happens when celebrity actors and sports collide?  Generally, a simple premise for a sports film.  And no, I'm not going to drop a Kardashian Sister's name here because none of them can act.  So other than an inane premise, where am I going with this? I asked the question and started furiously pondering in my head for answers: Who is the best sports movie actor of all time?
Here are my nominees, in no particular order:

1).  Mark Wahlberg
2).  Dennis Quaid
3).  Wesley Snipes
4).  Kevin Costner
5).  Denzel Washington
6).  Paul Newman
7).  Chelcie Ross
8).  Robert De Niro
9).  Sylvester "Sly" Stallone
10).  Woody Harrelson
      *Just missed the cut: Robert Redford (The Natural), Gene Hackman (Hoosiers, epitome of a sports movie coach), Bill Murray (Caddyshack and Space Jam), Jackie Gleason (The Hustler), and Burt Reynolds (The Longest Yard)...oh yeah I can't forget about Emilio Estevez in The Mighty Ducks Series of Films.
          If I were to construct a list of the least talented sports movie actors of all-time, Will Ferrell and Ben Stiller would definitely near the top of my list.  Both Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story and Semi-Pro are hysterical (more so for Dodgeball), but either fail to elicit one iota or pretension of seriousness.  And if I can't take ya serious, I can't put ya on my list.  As true-to-genre comedies, such a premise would have been awkward anyway so I certainly do not begrudge Ferrel or Stiller as actors.  

    10). Mark Wahlberg

          My reason's for this pick are identical to my reason's for putting Sly Stallone and Robbie D higher on my list and just barely neglecting Will Smith.  Generally, I love boxing movies.  And please do not get me wrong because I was absolutely enthralled by Smith's portrayal of Ali. I just cannot nominate you if you have no other meaningful sports work on your resume.  This pick is also mostly the result of short term memory retention.  I just watched Wahlberg's new film, The Fighter, and it delivers a supremely satisfying experience—it's prospects for Awards season are negligibly gleeful. 
          Wahlberg is a physical specimen to behold.  He looks every bit the part of a dogged, tenacious boxer.  The believability factor is instantly sowed with one Google image search of Wahlberg.  The man's got an impressive physique.  If one possesses athleticism in real life, then it is easier for me to take that leap of faith with them as an athlete in film. 
          Marky Mark's portrayal of professional football player, Vince Papale in Invincible—a real life underdog tale—is astonishingly believable and mostly just fun.  Call me a sap but I tend to easily invest in characters that overcome tremendous odds.  The commonly used trope of the tough, down on his luck protagonist often grabs my undivided attention for no other reason than I'm just a glutton for sentimentality and Horatio Alger style accounts.
          Never taking himself too seriously but always putting forth a concerted effort to evoke emotion, Wahlberg has been genetically engineered to play an athlete in film.  Thank genetics for your place on my list Mr.Wahlberg.

    Noteworthy Wahlberg Sports Movies:
    The Basketball Diaries
    The Fighter

     9).  Woody Harrelson

          What kills it for me with Harrelson is his decision to completely squander what was once destined for a Hall of Fame worthy sports career, as an actor, by playing a washed up point guard in Semi-Pro.  Call me biased but White Men Can't Jump, for nostalgic and sentimental reasons, solidifies Harrelson's draft position on my list as a go-to basketball actor.  It is one of my favorite sports movies of all-time.  Bring on the flack.
          By conventional standards, White Men Can't Jump does not turn any heads for being Oscar worthy.  There are myriad conventional flaws with the film—overly contrived plot points, dull and stilted acting performances, a serious lack of emotional investment, and the list goes on and on.  But despite these seemingly fatal flaws, I still watch this movie whenever TNT decides to fill a schedule block with a movie starring recent inductee to a three-year sentencing term in prison, Wesley Snipes. Snipes for conspicuous reasons is on my list and it is precisely because he can evade taxes as well as infielders while running the bases. 
          I love the relationship and rapport between Snipes and Harrelson in White Men Can't Jump.  The dynamics of their coexistence on such diverse levels as both friend and teammate is completely enjoyable to watch.  Their relationship journey starts as vitriolic enemies with predictable gripes and blossoms into the best of teammates and friends.  Then their relationship reverts back to sworn enemy status, and ultimately concludes with a great payout as they become true friends with forgivable qualities.  When executed with precision, this type of character interaction is pure movie gold.
          I also love the fact that Harrelson looks like he can seriously ball.  He does such a solid job of emulating that Larry Bird-esque quality of the great white hope basketball star that when I was kid, I thought Woody Harrelson was Larry Bird.  Harrelson may not be Bird but he is a better baller than Sydney.  The fact that Snipes dons such an over-the-top, flamboyant styled wardrobe, decked out in a tank top with really tight short-shorts and a rainbow colored hat ... well it just makes Harrelson the definitive winner on the basketball court.

    Noteworthy Harrelson Sports Movies:
    White Men Can't Jump

    8).  Chelcie Ross

          Ross' placement on my list is signed, sealed and delivered due to his fantastic quote in Major League; "you tryin' to say Jesus Christ couldn't hit a curveball?" Aside from this epic accomplishment, Ross also garners significant points on my list because he owns the distinction of playing supporting roles in three of the best sports films of all-time.  His roles as Coach Dan Devine in Rudy, Eddie Harris in Major League, and George in Hoosiers rank him among the zenith of sports actors in terms of great film exposureThough none of these are starring roles, they are three of the highest grossing and most successful sports-themed movies of all-time.
          I'll unload a baseball analogy to clarify my point.  Derek Jeter may not put up prodigious numbers and never leads the league in the big statistical categories, but he is unquestionably a Hall of Famer.  The reasons, like in Chelcie Ross' case, are similarly compelling.  Jeter carries himself exceptionally well and at the end of the day, the man has more World Series rings on his fingers than any other current baseball 'star' save for three of his teammates.  Ross, likewise, is fortunate to have exclusively played meaningful, though not legendary roles in World Series level films. Anytime you can be compared to the iconic Derek Jeter—I am a die-hard Yankees fan—without a great deal of hyperbole, then you deserve noteworthy recognition.  Enough said.

    Noteworthy Ross Sports Movies:
    Major League
    7).  Dennis Quaid


           A voluminous track record in sports film and a country boy sensibility is what earned Dennis Quaid a non-last place finish on my list.  I liken his sports filming career to that of the stubborn journeyman athlete who refuses to call it quits.  In other words, Dennis Quaid's career in sports cinema is identical to the real life football career of Brett Favre—they never quite know when to hang it up.  If you question my logic, then you have never seen Any Given Sunday.
          Quaid's character in Any Given Sunday is a fitting testament to his legacy as a sports actor.  He play's the beat-up, once prolific athlete who's intestinal fortitude and inherent badass-ness clashes with the ever constant specter of a career ending injury.   A refusal to face reality in sports is an essential trait of any sports fan of a losing franchise.  I have been a fan of the lovable losers also known as the Detroit Lions my entire life and consequently, I can easily relate to Jack 'Cap' Rooney.
          The fact that Quaid has been in so many sports films solidifies his standing.  His memorably sincere role as Mike in Breaking Away—a coming of age tale with competitive bicycle racing as the driving force of the plot—also brings back good childhood memories.  Whenever a movie causes me to longingly look back at my childhood, then I say job well done.

    Noteworthy Quaid Sports Movies:
    Everybody's All-American
    Break Away
    Any Given Sunday
    The Rookie
    The Express

    6).  Denzel Washington

          "That's Denzel" is just one of the many songs of praise that adoring fans of the prolific A-lister shout out at a Rave Movie Theater in my neck of the woods.  And believe me when I tell you, the manner and inflection of their quips are drawn from a state of pure euphoria.  Denzel indeed walks down a glory road with his head held high when it comes to building an admiring fan base.  When it comes to Washington's standing on my list, I have to follow the convincing chants of his fans and grant him a favorable position.
          Although, Denzel does not have a voluminous library of sports films under his acting belt, the three roles he did play were all outstanding.  Beginning with the role of Jake Shuttlesworth in the Spike Lee joint, He Got Game, Denzel vaults into prominence as an extremely believable sports actor.  The scenes between him and real life, soon-to-be Hall of Fame baller Ray Allen are absolutely awesome.  More so than just providing great choreographed basketball action; on a fundamental level, Denzel actually looks like he can ball.  If he can hold his own against Ray Allen ... well then I'm sorry Woody, White Men Can't Jump.
          The Hurricane illustrated in a more complete way, Denzel's unique ability to play both athlete and dramatic actor—and do so with great consistency and flair.  The Hurricane helped manifest Washington's versatility.  On a greater level, this film beautifully showcases his ability to meticulously play truthfully to the various human elements—the gamut of emotions from anger, hubris, and ultimately, sadness. 
          There is one film that my network of close friends and I can all agree is universally enjoyable as a sports film.  And it just so happens that a meaningful theme -- the injustice of racial inequality—can also play a vital role.  Remember the Titans is this film.  All my friends may not be passionate filmgoers like myself, but they all value honest and good work.  Denzel's portrayal of Coach Herman Boone is tremendously executed.  Washington allows you to feel sympathy, anger, happiness, pride, and satisfaction beyond a Varsity Blues level of just being on the surface fun.  The depths of emotion that stem from the central race theme and teammate interactions in Remember the Titans are superbly realized—and the payoff is a result only because Denzel's talent as a working man's actor led the way.

    Noteworthy Washington Sports Movies:
    He Got Game
    The Hurricane
    Remember the Titans

    5).  Paul Newman 

          How can Newman not be on my list!?  His breadth of achievements, which span from film directing, entrepreneurship, and humanitarianism signal an almost renaissance quality.  In fact, Newman has been a successful race car driver in the Sports Car Club of America, which means not only can Newman hack it as an athlete on the silver screen but he can do so in real life with equal spates of success.
          I'm sorry to digress for a moment, but if I were comprising a list just to recognize 'best actors,' there is no doubt that Newman would finish in the top two of this list as presently constituted.  Other than Robert De Niro, Newman's acting chops dwarf every other name on this list.  Maybe I am making this brash proclamation because it's Friday night and I feel so right—I mean, I just finished watching The Sting.  For those who have not yet had the privilege to observe true genius in an actor, please watch this film immediately.  Newman's on screen charisma will absolutely knock your socks off—truly mesmerizing.  Like few actors, Newman always exudes a smart and calculating presence that results in brilliant character decisions.  If you do not want to take my word for it, watch The Sting, specifically, the poker scene on the train and then come argue my point. 
          Now back to this list.  Newman's early foray into sports film is the stuff of movie legend.  The weighty role of real life boxer Rocky Graziano in the film, Somebody Up There Likes Me was originally slated to be played by James Dean, but wound up going to Paul Newman due to Dean's tragic death.   This film would garner significance as an early starring role for the prodigious Newman, but more importantly, it would mark his sudden emergence as a force to be reckoned with in the sports film genre. 
           It would ultimately be a movie about pool hustling that would cement Newman's status as a vaunted sports actor.  The Hustler, a film that explores the budding ambitions of real life pool shark "Fast" Eddie Felson, helped ignite a transformation of the classic sports film premise.  Not simply a tale of winning and losing, The Hustler redefined the idea that a skill contest can be more about the humility and complexity of a hungry competitor than about the outcome.  Newman's performance in the film nailed this human dynamic quotient to an absolute tee and became influential in expanding the popularity and fervor of pool.
          Newman would reprise his role as Eddie Felson in The Color of Money and confirm his rank in the annals of great sports acting.  He did so, quite simply, by winning the Oscar for Best Actor.  Frankly, if an actor can win an Oscar in a sports film for playing a pool shark, then he is damn good.
          I have a vivid memory as a kid that helps provide insight into my decision to cast Newman on my list.  During my upbringing, when I was barely able to play sports outside my apartment past sundown, my mother would allow me to watch an R-rated movie—one in particular that she absolutely loved.  That movie was Slap Shot.  A true sports comedy—breaking one of my cardinal rules that a comedy can't be taken seriously—Slap Shot is absolutely hilarious, satirical, and overwhelmingly fun.  Newman plays the offbeat, raunchy athlete with a short fuse and penchant for knocking fists with such a degree of conviction and ease that it is difficult to not take him seriously.  Newman delivers a game winning Slap Shot on goal and skates his way into high respectability on my list. 

    Noteworthy Newman Sports Movies:
    Somebody Up There Likes Me
    The Hustler 
    The Color of Money
    Slap Shot

    4).  Sylvester Stallone

           Call me biased, but fuck it, I'm Italian.  I mean my ethnicity plays a ... ehhh small part in Stallone making my list, but I certainly carry more objectivity—it's not like Sly's getting top billing.  The birth of Rocky is inspirational.  Sly Stallone's unorthodox path towards getting Rocky made is a combination of sheer tenacity and fortuity.  Anyone that can write a fantastic role for himself, sweep the Oscars—it won for Best Picture—and convincingly play a boxer deserves great adulation.  Stallone took the real life underdog story of Chuck Wepner's near heroic defeat of Muhammad Ali and spun it into cinema gold.
          As Eddie Murphy would joke, Rocky is a great fuckin' movie.  It spawned six films—though some of them were terrible—do yourself a favor and avoid the sixth installment.  Stallone's improbable career arc is owed entirely to the character of Rocky; therefore, the A-list status and his multi-million dollar payday's are direct by-product's of this one, uneducated, lovable club-fighter.  If Hollywood gave Stallone the green-light on super stardom while fans across the world continue to fall in love with Rocky Balboa—I do not care if your Italian or not, Stallone deserves almost exclusive credit for this transformative development.  Come on ... at one point in his life, the guy was living as a bum and even resorted to straight porn to make ends meet.  True life rags to riches tales always get me.  Call me a sucker. 
          I almost forgot to mention another Stallone classic Over the Top.  I guarantee that there is going to be some accusations of blasphemy by calling this movie a classic but Over the Top was one of my favorite Stallone films during my youth.  I always appreciate a story that gives a sincere telling of the father-son dynamic.  Despite its myriad flaws, Over the Top delivers on every note of the emotional spectrum of a boy yearning for a better relationship with his father. Sentimentality is a close ally of good filmmaking. 

    Aaah right Rocko!!

    Noteworthy Stallone Sports Movies:
    The complete Rocky Series (I-V) & Rocky Balboa
    Over the Top

    3).  Wesley Snipes

          Though Woody Harrelson may narrowly edge out Snipes when it comes to fashion on the basketball court—Woody's White Men Can't Jump style was almost as ridiculous as Snipes colorful wardrobe—Wesley trumps Harrelson in every other aspect of sports film acting.  Whether the guy is an athlete in real life or not, Snipes looks every bit the part of Willy Mays, Michael Jordan, and Bo Jackson on the big screen.  For me, this quality is what establishes Wesley's very high showing on my list. 
          The most important level of criteria in judging an actor's sports film pedigree is their believability—and it has to be uniform across all playing fields.  One bad performance as an athlete in film will diminish the distribution of praise for that actor's worth as a dominant sport's character.  This all-important gauge is not a factor for Snipes and so he is afforded almost the highest degree of applause on my list.
         The role that cements it for Wesley is without a doubt, the character of Willie 'Mays' Hays from Major League.  This film can be critiqued to its death bed, but Wesley's exemplary performance as the cocky, superficial superstar—ya know, the T.Ochocinco predating reality TV—is utterly intoxicating.  Snipes exudes a charisma that makes you want to see what he's gonna do next just like any superstar athlete in real life.  The ability of an actor to create this almost unachievable, illusory quality is incredibly rare. Most of the time, I find it difficult to watch sports films because I just cannot envision the actor truly playing an athlete of any consequence.  Jamie Foxx is an Academy Award Winning Actor, but he is not even a third string bench warmer on a real NFL team.  Wesley Snipes; however, makes you believe—the word 'makes' here is the apt term—that he can gain a starting outfield role on any MLB team or starting point guard spot on an NBA team.  In fact, Snipes shoots a bulls-eye on my list and unfortunately for the actor, he now has to share a cell block with criminals who's inability to not shoot lead them to prison. 

    Noteworthy Snipes Sports Movies:
    Major League
    White Men Can't Jump
    The Fan

    2).  Robert De Niro

          Robert De Niro is in my top-5 list of favorite actors of all-time.  So naturally, he is in my top-5 list of greatest sports movie actors of all-time.  There is one performance especially that garners De Niro such high standing on my list.  If you need to think about what that role is ... well then you obviously have never seen Raging Bull.  De Niro could have retired from sports acting after playing Jake LaMotta; in fact, I liken his awe-inspiring performance as the detestable boxer, to the career of any big time athlete that delivered that one, legendary, leave it all on the table kind of performance.
          A truly great example would be someone like Willis Reed of the New York Knicks famed past.  For those who are not familiar, Reed became wildly famous—he even secured a spot on the Mt. Rushmore of awe-defining, single game athletic performances—by rejoining his team on the basketball court after suffering a substantial thigh injury during Game 7 of the 1970 NBA finals.  As both a starting Center/Forward, Willis Reed orchestrated the single greatest one game feat of memory.  As the Knicks battled the Los Angeles Lakers, Reed's superman like capture of the moment by returning to the court helped spur his team to their first NBA Championship.  Voted the greatest moment in Madison Square Garden History -- indeed the Mecca of professional basketball—Reed single handily propelled his teammates, particularly, Walt Clyde Frazier to an emphatic victory.  Moreover, Reed's entire season stands as a mirroring reminder to the incredible performance of Robert De Niro in Raging Bull—Reed won the Regular Season MVP Award just as De Niro won the MVP equivalent for actors, the Oscar.
           If an actor's portrayal of an athlete and performance can garner comparison's to this legendary moment in sports history—as a Knicks fan, it's a moment that I place in high esteem—then said actor deserves the lion's share of my praise.  So De Niro, congratulations, as you have earned a lofty spot on my list. 

    Noteworthy De Niro Sports Movies:
    Raging Bull
    Bang the Drum Slowly
    The Fan

    1).  Kevin Costner

          Aha, the inevitable build up to number one and already the accusations claiming an inferior selection mount.  Even my roommate Vinny claims confidently that Kevin Costner possesses such a "douche bag" quality.  Maybe so, but this list is not designed to highlight the greatest person's of Hollywood, and most great athletes effuse prima donna qualities anyway.
          In the vein of every narcissistic, top-flight athlete, I select with great conviction, Kevin Costner, as number one on my list ... as the single greatest sports movie actor of all-time.  The reasons are numerous and diverse.  Chief among these reasons is the simple fact that Costner manages to incorporate in each of his sports roles, the best elements from the other actors reasons for inclusion on my list.
          For instance, a huge component of my criteria is the believability factor, which justifies Wesley Snipes high placement.  Well, I have yet to see one actor who looks, acts, and plays more like a professional baseball player than Kevin Costner.  The GM of the woefully inept Pittsburgh Pirates should already have placed a call into Costner's agent about a starting infield roster spot, full-time catcher position, and a fill-in reliever role.  Baseball is America's pastime and because Costner executes with such effortless flair, the intricate mechanics of a baseball player in so many films, he deserves to be top dog—just as many sports historians consider baseball to still be the preeminent American sport despite erratic television ratings.
          Costner's role in Bull Durham as "Crash" Davis, which is widely considered to be the greatest sports movie of all-time helped lead to the imprint that baseball and Costner are synonymous entities.  Indeed, Costner's exploits in both Bull Durham and Field of Dreams exude a quality of cinematic exceptionalism.  Bull Durham hit such a no doubt-about-it home run in the commercial and critical ballparks that Sports Illustrated named it The Greatest Sports Movie Ever Made.  Sports Illustrated is devoted to sports journalism.  If their acute sense of sporting authenticity leads to such a lauded proclamation, then I must follow SI's grand wisdom.
          Field of Dreams is a childhood favorite of mine.  This film cemented the belief that Costner can enlist sentimentality in a world consumed by statistical achievements.  Additionally, the surreal elements of Field of Dreams enhance the mysticism of baseball.  Tin Cup illustrated Costner's aptitude for humor in a comedic setting whilst an ability to provide humility.  Though Costner's sporting endeavors rely heavily upon a skillful propensity for America's Pastime, Tin Cup illustrated a glimmer of cross sport greatness.  While Jim Thorpe does not have to fear competition from Costner in this multi-sports category, any actor certainly does. Yankee Stadium has it's monument park and the history of film has "Crash" Davis, Ray Kinsella and Roy McAvoy.

    Noteworthy Costner Sports Movies:  
    Bull Durham
    Field of Dreams
    Tin Cup
    For Love of the Game

        Sunday, December 19, 2010

        Person of the Week III

               In a purposeful effort to establish a familiar trend with my "Person of the Week" selections, another actor scores the coveted title.  Instead of finishing up my last minute Christmas shopping yesterday afternoon, I ventured to the Cinema and watched The Fighter.  
              If you are part of the fortunate early few to have seen this film, then you can quickly infer who my selection is ... without turning any heads, congratulations Christian Bale.  Such an ingenious master of his craft, Bale thoroughly owns his character in The Fighter. His absorbing rendition of real life professional Boxer/Trainer, Dick "Dicky" Eklund, is fully engrossing.  
              The realization of Bale's on screen charisma is as potent a force of memory as the physical charisma of any gifted athlete.  Witnessing Bale perform on the screen is equivalent to witnessing Michael Jordan command his team on the hardcourt—you expect great things to happen and when they do, you are still infinitely mesmerized.  I refer to this inexact scientific process as a scalable degree of breathtaking-ability—quite simply, it is the ability of a performer to cause your hairs to rise, your heart to palpitate, and your body to tingle in anticipation and excitement. 
              There is a certain visceral shock factor with any Bale performance.  Though most critics panned his last two roles with the two notably underwhelming films, Public Enemies and Terminator Salvation, Bale leaves no doubt in confirming his precocious acting talent by his work in The Fighter.
              It did not take more than five minutes in viewing The Fighter to become fully immersed in the magic of the film.  This magical leap is owed largely to the gravitating force of Bale as an actor and assisted by solid directing from David O. Russell. 
              In the opening sequence of the film, Bale is dancing and pacing the streets of Lowell, Massachusetts with his kid brother, Micky Ward (played solidly by Mark Wahlberg).  At this point, the audience is immediately kidnapped by the harrowing, energized spirit of the film.  While Bale's character Dick is unleashing his addictive, drug influenced antics on the small time video crew that is documenting his life as a crack addict, the audience is witness to a duel examination—a seldom, if competently used film technique that allows the audience to watch Eklund perform for the video crew, while Bale performs for the overall film. A camera within a camera approach that only a handful of actors can masterfully execute but Bale effortlessly perfects. 
              Bale has always delivered awe shuttering performances.  American Psycho, The Prestige and The Dark Knight represent just a small sampling of films, in which Christian Bale has rewarded his growing fan base with outstanding character portrayals.  The Fighter gets Bale back in the ring of film's top echelon of performers.  Christian bails his two most recently disappointing performances out of critical condition by giving a dazzlingly captivating Oscar worthy performance in a Best Supporting Role.  Like a fervent Christian supporter should, I bow to you Mr. Bale.  

        * In the video below, Christian Bale talks about his latest film and the subject of my great admiration over the last two weeks, The Fighter.  By the way, kudos to Bale and the entire cast for pulling off wickedly believable Boston accents!