Remember those halcyon days when you could turn on a football game or awards show and not worry that you were going to be assaulted by someone’s inane political opinion?  Those were the days, way back in the early 2010’s.

We now live in a world where even a feel-good Budweiser ad can’t be shown during the Super Bowl without splitting the country in two over its purported political message.

As for the awards shows, they have become increasingly mouthy.  Even back in the Age of Obama, when award winners adored the president, they still found something to gripe about.  But now that Donald Trump is in the White House, Hollywood is melting down and the awards shows have become a major platform of dissent.

Meryl Streep, the industry’s grande dame, opened the floodgates with her anti-Trump tirade at the Golden Globes.   Then the SAG awards unleashed nearly a dozen speeches condemning the Administration.  The subsequent Director’s Guild Awards took it easy on the president – only five direct attacks.  As recently as last Saturday night, Streep doubled down at a fundraiser for the Human Rights Campaign and called Trump’s supporters “brown shirts,” a commonly used term for followers of Hitler. And then at the Grammys on Sunday, Busta Rhymes blasted “President Agent Orange.”

And into this environment comes the Academy Awards, the biggest stage of them all.  The Oscars show is usually the most-viewed non-football broadcast of the year.  It’s one of those special live events that keeps some people holding off on cord-cutting just a little while longer.

But while there is no official anti-Hollywood Oscar boycott in the works (not yet at least), there does seem to be considerable word-of-mouth chatter among Trump voters that this is the year to skip it.  I’m surprised by the number of people who have told me they won’t watch because of the politics.

This could be more than an idle threat.  In 2008, the left-leaning Jon Stewart delivered the least watched Oscar broadcast in history, drawing just 31.7 million viewers.  By 2015, the number of viewers had climbed back to 37.3 million but last year, in the middle of the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, viewership fell back to 34.4 million.

Even if ABC and the Academy would like to see politics kept out of the ceremony, and they probably do, there’s no way for them to accomplish that.  For starters, there’s the case of the Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi, whose film “The Salesman” is nominated for best foreign language film.  As a foreign national from one of the seven countries from which the Trump Administration suspended travel, Farhadi would have been prevented from coming to the U.S. if the travel pause hadn’t been suspended. He still might not attend in protest (and of course if the pause is reinstated by February 26, he will be officially shut out again).    Given that he is someone directly affected by a government policy, Farhardi becomes a potent symbol for Hollywood “resistance.”

Farhardi won the Oscar in 2012 for the excellent “A Separation” and would have been a favorite again this year, even without the martyred status.  Now, if there’s anything more certain than “La La Land” getting the best picture it’s an Oscar for “The Salesman” and a righteous speech by whomever is designated to accept on his behalf.

But if Farhardi has a legitimate reason to make a political statement, what’s the excuse from the fine folks who brought us “La La Land”?  If Ryan Gosling wins Best Actor is he going to mention that he’s an immigrant (albeit from Canada)?

“La La Land” is a lovely movie, but it’s a self-reverential paean to the movie-making industry itself and the fact that it is poised to win a slew of awards demonstrates what’s so aggravating about the political posturing at the Oscars.  After all, this is a movie about a white guy who wants to save Jazz from bastardizers like the African American bandleader played by John Legend.  Its hands aren’t exactly clean on the political correctness front.

The entertainment business is as brutally capitalistic as any industry in America, with a price tag applied to everything and executives who are as richly rewarded as you can get.  Male actors are routinely paid more than females.  By constantly portraying Muslims as terrorists Hollywood has done more to shape negative perceptions of Islam than any other institution in the country.  It doesn’t take much courage to stand up before a group of film colleagues and criticize Donald Trump.  It would take a lot more courage to criticize the industry itself.

Until now, conservative viewers have responded to the Oscars’ political speeches with bemused eye-rolling but in today’s hyper-politicized environment they might now be so forgiving.  We’ll know whether they voted with their eyeballs on February 27, when the ratings come out.

The older I get the more out-of-step I feel with the film industry.  In a year of kiddie animation and cinematic super heroes, I saw only two of the year’s top twenty grossing movies and most of the movies I did see were at independent art houses.  It was never my intention to be at odds with popular taste but it does seem that the movie business is primarily focused on audiences who are not old enough to vote. Consequently, there were months and months when there was nothing worth going to see, followed by a crazy rush to catch everything good in December.

Of course there were a few decent mainstream “adult” movies that were aimed at a general audience but most of them fell immediately out of circulation.  Maybe adults have gotten so out of the habit of going to the movies that they no longer bother.  In any event, 2016 was a pretty disappointing year.  Here’s what I saw, ranked from best to worst.

l. Moonlight

A beautiful and mesmerizing story of a poor, sensitive, black, gay kid named Chiron growing up in the Miami projects.    This feels like something you’ve never seen before, not only because of the unsparing depiction of life among the desperately poor but because of cinematography choices that seem almost documentary-style, with a lingering camera and a lack of narrative dialogue. The story is told in three stages of Chiron’s life, depicted by three actors ranging in age from youth to teen to adult.  After two years of #OscarSoWhite, this once had a good chance to win the Academy Award and it still deserves to.

2. Manchester By The Sea

This is as bleak, unsparing, and visually arresting as “Moonlight,” but without any attempt to pretty-up a tragedy with a hint of a happy ending.  Every time you think this movie’s going to give us a conventional feel-good twist it pulls back.  To that end, it feels more like real life than anything I’ve seen in a long time.  You feel like this is exactly what would happen when an already grieving uncle returns to his hometown after his brother’s death and is unexpectedly informed that he’s to be his nephew’s guardian.  Life will go on, but it will be a struggle.

3.  La La Land

Yet another startlingly original movie — a musical set in contemporary LA.  Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are barely adequate singers and dancers but you don’t really care because the cinematography is so luscious.  But don’t expect a feel-good experience.  In the end this is an exploration of art, ambition and love. You can succeed at two of those things but not all three.

4. Rogue One

Boy I was surprised that this was as good as it was — a very worthy addition to the Star Wars canon. It’s about the most perfect prequel ever, ending exactly at the moment when the original Star Wars movie (now called “A New Hope”) begins.  The story is a little confusing but not impossible to follow, for once.   The absence of Jedi mumbo jumbo is a relief too — it’s just straight action.

5. Everybody Wants Some

Finally, an intelligent feel-good movie.  Richard Linklater’s homage to his college baseball career, seen through the prism of a freshman jock’s first weekend on campus.  He checks into the baseball team house, meets his crazy teammates, has escapades and meets a nice girl.  Very funny, textured and warm. If only my freshman year had been like this.

6. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

I seem to be one of the few people who loved this movie.  Ostensibly a comedy starring Tina Fey and Billy Bob Thorton about a neophyte journalist embedded in Afghanistan, it’s also an eye-opening account of what our troops are experiencing over there.

7. Arrival

In a year of depressing movies, this one ranks way up there.  Amy Adams is a sad linguist who is called on to translate messages from aliens who have materialized at various locations around the world.  A quasi-intellectual film featuring hard thinking on linguistics and time traveling.

8. Hell or High Water

Jeff Bridges has come a long way since “The Last Picture Show” but he’s still wandering the wilds of small town Texas.  He’s after a couple of bank robbers who are trying to accumulate enough cash to pay off their predatory mortgage.  Again with the bleak world view!  Funny bantering, though, and some serious disquisitions on how to live your life when fate and society seem stacked against you.

9. The Edge of Seventeen

Seventeen-year-old Nadine has been (wait for it) depressed since her father died four years ago.  Wallowing in her own grief, she loses it when her best friend starts dating her brother.  Woody Harrelson is her cynical history teacher whose complete indifference actually increases his attractiveness as a life-adviser.

10. Captain Fantastic

A family of survivalists goes on a road trip to attend their mother’s funeral, with the usual conflicts between the all-modern and all-natural lifestyles.  Their brilliant but didactic father (Viggo Mortensen) is an intellectual bully who has tried to create a new Eden in the woods but is just this side of crazy.

11. Hail Caesar

The Coen Brothers make a pretty funny but not very weighty spoof of Hollywood in the 1950s.  The plot revolved around a studio fixer named Eddie Mannix (a real person btw) who’s trying to decide whether to take a legitimate job outside the business.  Basically everyone in the movie is a moron, which is funny as far as it goes.

12. The Nice Guys

Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe are incompetent detectives in 1970’s LA.  The movie is hilarious until it turns into a convoluted story of conspiracy involving smog and catalytic converters (I’m not kidding).    If you took the first half of The Big Lebowski and combined it with the second half of Chinatown you’d have this movie.

13. Weiner

A behind the scenes and very candid look at Anthony Weiner’s mayoral campaign.  It’s only fitting that this narcissist would trip up the 2016 campaign.  Why kind of man would expose his wife to the prying eyes of a documentary when he knows he’s been sexting with women under the nom-de-plume Carlos Danger?  This is your classic train wreck from which you cannot avert your eyes.

14. Love and Friendship

Who knew there were Jane Austen novels yet to be mined by movie-makers?  Love and Friendship is based on the unpublished novel “Lady Susan,” written when Austen was still a teenager.  Hilarious and deeply cynical about the way the sexes manipulate each other, the movie is populated with dupes, rogues, brazen adulteresses, wide-eyed innocents and even a few honest gentlemen.  Fun.

15. Sully

Sully’s plane goes up, hits some geese and miraculously goes down on the Hudson River with no loss of life.  You may have heard the story.  Clint Eastwood does an admirable job of expanding the narrative of this five-minute flight into a two-hour movie, screwing around a little bit with the truth of the post-crash investigation.  Oh well, it’s only a movie.  Tom Hanks is the only actor who could have played Sully.

16. Eight Days a Week

A documentary about the touring history of the Beatles.  This is well-covered ground but as amazing as ever.

17. Fantastic Beasts

Perfectly serviceable Harry Potter prequel that I might have liked better if I could understand more than half the dialogue.  The film-making is imaginative but I had trouble caring a lot about the main characters.

18. Sausage Party

An atheist allegory in which processed food items worship humans as gods, not knowing that their ultimate resting place is in someone’s digestive track.  This bleak message is supposed to be made more palatable by the extreme coarseness of the animated food characters.  And it is funny to see food sex.  This is not a movie to which you would bring your confirmation class.

19. Absolutely Fabulous (The Movie)

Loved the TV show in the 90s.  Very hilarious.  And the movie is fun too for a while, but it’s hard to maintain that antic quality over a full-length feature.

20. Cafe Society

Late stage Woody Allen. This is a lot like La La Land without the songs, dances, handsome lead actor and brilliant cinematography.  An ambitious young man and an ambitious young woman fall in love in 1940s Hollywood and face the usual complications.  The movie is well-enough made but you feel that Woody Allen has explored all these themes already. (By the way, I saw 24 movies last year and four of them were set in Hollywood.)

21. Ghostbusters

The most ridiculous controversy of the year was the eruption over whether redoing Ghostbusters with a female cast defamed the spirit of the original movie.  So then the female movie critics got on their high horse and said it was better than it really was, and the sexist pigs said it was worse than it was, when in reality it was just kind of meh.  Let’s face it, the original wasn’t that great to begin with. This was not an all-female remake of Citizen Kane.

22. Magnificent Seven

Another unnecessary remake.  It was fine.  Your average western.  Can’t remember much about it now.

23. The BFG

Steven Spielberg and Raul Dahl make a very strange pairing, although they’re both obsessed with childhood.  A little orphan girl gets abducted by a lonely giant and gives meaning and purpose to said giant’s life.  Technically beautiful and even charming, but a little languorous.

24. Office Christmas Party

This had a dynamite cast (Jason Bateman, Jennifer Anniston, T.J. Miller, Kate McKinnon, etc.) and a crazy antic quality, but it never lifted off to the realm of pure comedic genius.  Nice try, though.

watching netflix.jpg

As Labor Day approaches, most of us past the age of consent are realizing we’ve been denied one of the season’s sweetest pleasures: that great summer film that everyone’s talking about.  It was left to television to produce 2016’s only terrific summer movie, “Stranger Things,”an homage to the great films of the ‘80s. Unfortunately it wasn’t shown in an actual cinema, but only on Netflix.

Film was the great mass communication medium during the first half of the 20th century, with the average American attending two to three movies per week.  The introduction of television in the 1950s dealt Hollywood a body blow, stripping away its monopoly on visual entertainment and significantly cutting into movie attendance.

But early TV didn’t kill the movies.  If anything, by drawing away viewers interested only in mindless entertainment, TV did cinema the favor of making it a more serious and ambitious medium.  For Baby Boomers, going to movies in the ‘70s and ‘80s was akin to attending the opera or the museum a century earlier, and going to a summer movie with your friends was a rite of passage.

Well, that was then.  By the time 2016 rolled around, the major movie studios had almost abandoned any hope of attracting adult audiences.  To the extent there are still serious movies, they are generally produced by independent film companies and shown in art houses to discerning but small audiences, or released at Christmas so they can be eligible for the Academy Awards.

For the last dozen years or so, Hollywood’s business model has been to create blockbusters that generate hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office.  To get a blockbuster, you need to attract repeat viewing, which has generally meant developing movies for teens or kids who are eager to get out of the house (it’s no coincidence that the groups most likely to go to the movies also watch the least amount of TV).

There was a time when blockbusters meant exciting original content (“Jaws,” “Star Wars,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” etc.) Today the industry is fixated on franchises, remakes or sequels.  So it’s no surprise that the top 10 movies of the year to date are literal or figurative cartoons (i.e., animation or action movies based on comic books.)  What’s a little bit of a surprise, however, is that box office receipts are down from last year.  Maybe even kids and teens have had their fill of sub-par films.

Is television to blame for this sorry state of affairs?  Has it finally finished off what it started in the 1950s?

In some respects, TV didn’t kill cinema. The film industry itself committed suicide.  No one forced Hollywood to stop making movies that appeal to adults.

And yet you can’t help feeling that much of the talent and energy that would have gone into making general-appeal movies 20 years ago is now focused on TV.  The best blockbuster of the year is not “Captain America.”  It’s “Game of Thrones.”  And the best horror experience is “The Walking Dead.”  And the best documentary is ESPN’s “O.J.: Made in America.”

Hollywood’s fate may have been doomed by the artistic and commercial success of “The Sopranos,” which demonstrated there was a mature audience hungry for adult storytelling.  Soon thereafter, Alan Ball, who had won a screenwriting Academy Award for “American Beauty,” took his talents to HBO to produce “Six Feet Under.”  A decade later, David Fincher, the Oscar-nominated director for “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” and “The Social Network,” created and produced “House of Cards” for Netflix.  We’ve reached a point where Martin Scorsese, the world’s greatest living director, is now doing occasional TV work, directing the series premieres for both “Boardwalk Empire” and “Vinyl.”

But what’s really drained Hollywood has been the renaissance of the TV mini-series and the anthology series.   Hugely popular in the 1970s and 80s, with such shows as “Roots,” “The Thorn Birds” and “The Winds of War,” these self-contained, multi-episode TV shows have returned with a vengeance.  Mini-series were once a rare and special TV event, but have now become a regular part of the TV diet.

It’s the mini-series that is really drawing star power to television.  Major movies stars like Matthew McConaughey, Woody Harrelson, Colin Farrell, Rachel McAdams and Vince Vaughn agreed to do TV work on “True Detective.”  And Billy Bob Thornton and Kirsten Dunst appeared in “Fargo.”

Storytellers have always craved time to tell their stories.  Exactly 100 years ago, D.W. Griffith brought forth the three-and-a-half-hour blockbuster “Intolerance,” and in 1924 Erich von Stroheim infamously produced the eight-hour-long silent movie “Greed.”  Since then, some of Hollywood’s greatest films (“Gone With The Wind,” the earlier, 1959 version of “Ben-Hur,” “Lawrence of Arabia,” “The Godfather”s, part 1 and 2, and “The Lord of the Rings”) have all clocked in at three hours or more.   Hollywood rarely has the nerve to do that any longer, but HBO and Netflix, with hours to content to fill, are happy to give their storytellers as much time as they need.

Maybe the slate of fall movies will surprise me and the year will redeem itself. but it will be hard for any film to beat the experience and joy of watching “Stranger Things” this summer.

Good luck, Hollywood.  I like to get out of the house, too, so I’m rooting for you.

Crowd watching movie in theatre

Last year was a decent year for movies, with a nice mix of arty serious cinema, a few serviceable blockbusters and a good comedy or two. There was nothing as groundbreaking as last year’s “About a Boy,” but there were still quite a few good films, all of which seemed to premiere after Thanksgiving.

Some trends: this was a big year for “based on a true story” movies (Spotlight, The Big Short, Joy, etc.) and also a good year for rebooting old franchises (Star Wars, Jurassic World, Mission Impossible and Creed.) What’s next, Indiana Jones?

I avoided obviously violent movies, so once again: no Quentin Tarrantino. Also, no Revenant. I also avoided any movie based on a comic book character and movies where sexual confusion is an obvious theme. So this is an incomplete list.

In the end, I felt fortunate that I never saw any outright terrible movies. So again, this is an incomplete list.

With that as preamble, here are my rankings for the year.

1. Spotlight

I love movies about how people do their jobs and “Spotlight” is a nuts-and-bolts depiction about news reporting. The Boston Globe’s expose about child-abusing priests is probably the most consequential newspaper story of the past twenty years and although we know how it turns out “Spotlight” is surprisingly gripping. Great acting all the way around as we see the personal toll taken on anyone who loves his or her job a little too much.

2. Inside Out

Wildly inventive, if a little over-praised. I was bored in the middle as Joy had to overcome one obstacle after another (after all, in “The Hero’s Journey” there’s only one obstacle). However, the beginning and – especially – the end were deeply moving. I wish I’d seen this before becoming a parent because of all the wisdom it dispenses.

3. The Big Short

Certainly not a conventional movie since there’s no real plot, and it’s weird to root for the economy to collapse so some short-sellers can reap millions in profits. Yet this is the best take on the 2008 financial crisis and scary as crap. I can’t remember concentrating as hard to understand what’s actually going on in a movie as I did in The Big Short but the payoff is that I now know what a Collateralized Debt Obligation is.

4. Joy

This is the third movie made together by Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Robert DeNiro and David O Russell, and if it’s not quite as good as “Silver Linings Playbook” and “American Hustle,” it’s still pretty great. Joy sure has a lot of obstacles to overcome, starting with her soul-destroying family, but she’s got gumption, dagnabit, and she invents the Miracle Mop and becomes the queen of QVC.

5. The Martian

Matt Damon is a quintessential American hero – laconic, brave, resourceful. A actual space cowboy. This is another nuts-and-bolts “how to” movie, except this time the focus is how to stay alive on Mars when you’ve been left behind by your crew. As in “Inside Out,” there’s a little dragging in the middle but it has a thrilling start and finish.

6. Star Wars: The Force Awakens

I’m not ashamed to admit I had a lump in my throat when that Star Wars title, the narrative crawl and the swelling of music first boomed forth. The good news is that it’s vastly superior to the prequels, but it doesn’t quite measure up to the original three. Great action, but too much of it. Love all the new cast and it’s fantastic to see the return of LukeLeiaHan. Unfortunately I don’t understand any of the geopolitical landscape. There’s a republic, a rebellion AND a First Order? I thought we settled all that in “The Return of the Jedi”?

7. Pitch Perfect 2

Actually funnier and more enjoyable than the original. We learn that real heroism can be demonstrated simply by plugging on after experiencing extreme humiliation. I’m happy to report that this is a female empowerment movie that didn’t feel that it had to be raunchy. Congratulations to Elizabeth Banks who appeared in three movies on this list but made a bazillion dollars producing and directing PP2.

8. Jurassic World

This is about all you can ask for in a summer blockbuster – excitement, awesomeness, an understandable and somewhat memorable plot. And Chris Pratt, who is suddenly and unexpectedly a major movie star. It is not as exciting as the Stephen Spielberg original but it does deliver a few chills. I don’t know if the movie’s retro gender politics are intentional or put in to build an audience but I can’t believe Sheryl Sandberg can be very happy about what happens to the female executive in this movie when she decides to lean in.

9. Brooklyn

It’s the late 1940s and a young Irish woman emigrates to Brooklyn, where she experiences loneliness, career satisfaction and ultimately love. A nice reminder that we’re a stronger nation because immigrants came here, found opportunity and worked hard to make their own contributions.

10. Love and Mercy

Better-than-usual musical biopic about Brian Wilson, in which Paul Dano and John Cusack play the younger and older version of the greatest Beach Boy. Terrific songs of course and a fascinating back story to the dynamics of the band and of Brian’s mental illness. Here we have the second of three co-starring roles for Elizabeth Banks this year.

11. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2

The darkest and most philosophically deep of all the major blockbusters this year, and not exactly fun. This series has been a prolonged meditation on terrorism, propaganda, tyranny and the evils of war. I don’t really understand Katniss’ taste in men, but I assume that’s a political statement by the (female) author. This is the hat trick for Elizabeth Banks.

12. Creed

Like “The Force Awakens” this is essentially a remake of a monster hit from the mid-1970s in which father issues are at the center of the conflict. Adonis Creed is Apollo’s son, who he goes to get trained by Rocky Balboa and you can imagine the rest. Another warm bath of nostalgia.

13. A Most Violent Year

The year in question is 1981. This is a little-heralded but excellent drama about a guy who wants to run a clean and legitimate trash hauling business but has to overcome the mob without resorting to violence himself. Oscar Issac, who went on to fame as the Han Solo-like pilot in “The Force Awakens,” is the brave and honest businessman and Jessica Chastain is the skeptical wife who wonders if he’s tough enough.

14. Bridge of Spies

Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks and the Berlin Wall get together to produce an extremely old-fashioned drama about a lawyer who defends a spy and then negotiates a prisoner swap that gets two Americans sprung from the clutches of the communists. If Jimmy Stewart were alive he’d play the lawyer but Tom Hanks does a pretty good job too.

15. Amy

A harrowing documentary about the life of Amy Winehouse. Before this, I never knew anything about her except that Dave Letterman used to make jokes about her relapses. But what a talent and what a waste.

16. Trainwreck

Amy Schumer became the flavor of the month this year. She’s obviously extraordinarily talented, but I’ve reached the age where the crudeness of the comedy makes me cringe. Any you have to wonder if there’s self-loathing underneath all those fat and wasted jokes. The movie was pretty funny and LeBron was surprisingly good. Don’t look for a plot that makes sense, though.

17. Mr. Turner

Really should be on last year’s list but didn’t see it until this year. I never thought I’d be interested in seeing a biopic on the eccentric British painter J.M.W. Turner, but this was impressively evocative of life in the mid-19th Century.

18. Listen To Me Marlon

Absorbing documentary about Marlon Brando that relies heavily on audio tapes he’d made for an autobiography. The documentary convincingly makes the case that Brando was the most influential actor of all time.  He was also psychologically damaged as a child, which explains his extreme personal selfishness and support for a hodgepodge of left-wing political causes.

19. Mr. Holmes

I like the conceit – that Sherlock Holmes was a real person who retired for mysterious reasons and who is now forced to confront his past. There’s a nice mystery or two, and Ian McKellen is fine as Holmes but overall it’s a bit dry.

20.  Cinderella

A perfectly respectable live-action rendering of the old tale. Lily James, better known as Lady Rose on Downton Abbey, is nearly perfect as the title character and Cate Blanchett brings unexpected depth and pathos as the evil stepmother.

21.  71

Set during “The Troubles” of Northern Ireland in 1971, a British soldier gets separated from his unit in Belfast and needs to be rescued with the help of competing IRA gangs. I think. The action is a tense but it’s tough navigating the politics.

22. Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation

Tom Cruise used to be a great actor, but unlike that other Tom (Tom Hanks), he’s refused to let himself age. He looks good in this movie, but weird, like he’s a cyborg. The movie itself has all the strengths and weaknesses of a big-budget blockbuster. It’s mildly diverting while it’s on the screen and completely forgettable when it’s over.

23.  Spy

Melissa McCarthy is funny as an under-appreciated CIA analyst who is awesome when she gets a chance to go into the field, but the movie is disconcertingly violent for a comedy. And crude too. Congratulations Paul Feig for getting an erect penis into a mainstream movie. Your mother must be so proud.

24. The Peanuts Movie

I’m a big Peanuts fan and this movie was big-hearted, but it was a little too low-key for a full-length feature film. Perfectly fine for kids – small kids.

25. Paddington

Another kids movie. Again, perfectly fine but a little too tame for my taste.




There’s been a lot of hand-wringing about the state of the cinema, starting with the announcing that box office receipts were down five percent for the year.  Well, as I survey the past year from my own personal experience, the answer is clear.  Except for one highlight, 2014 was a dud movie year, which is surprising after the very strong years in 2012 and 2013.  All fall long I wanted for the high-quality Oscar contenders to come out for the holiday season yet they never materialized.  Usually I’m in a rush in late December to see all the good stuff but that wasn’t really the case this year.  So in the end, I ended up seeing fewer movies than usual. (And movies that I do want to see – “A Violent Year” and Mr. Turner” – are only available in limited runs in the big cities.)

The one exception in my general disappointment of the year is my number one movie “Boyhood,” which is the most compelling film I’ve seen in years.  When it came out this summer my wife and I felt very proprietary about it, like it was our little secret, so we’re excited to see that it’s in the running for all the important awards.

In any event, here’s my annual take on the year in movies:

1. Boyhood 

As noted, far and away the best movie of the year.  For 12 years, Richard Linklater shot a film that followed a young boy as he aged from six to 18.  This is a movie in which nothing much happens but everything happens.  Watching little Mason grow into a college student is fascinating and a reminder that life is full of little moments of grace, not big climaxes. But this is not just Mason’s story, it’s also a story about his parents, played by Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke, who also grow and mature over 12 years.  You come out of this movie shaken by the enormity of time’s passing but with a sense of hopefulness in how a parent can make mistakes and still produce a child with a future.

2. Selma

Possibly the best movie ever made about the civil rights act, and the first one ever made about MLK, “Selma” tells the story of the protests and marches in Selma from 1964-65, which helped drive the passage of the Voting Rights Act.  Tense, taut, dramatic and ultimately thrilling.  Remarkably accurate except for the depiction of LBJ. Oprah’s in it, but don’t hold that against it.

3. Birdman

In any other year (i.e., in a year without “Boyhood”), Birdman would have been considered the most original film in years.  It’s almost impossible to come into this movie with a clear understanding of what you’re going to experience.  Michael Keaton is an actor made famous for playing superhero movie star who now wants to be taken seriously as an actor.  The film is shot in a series of single-takes, with no apparent cuts and editing, which adds to the strangeness of an already strange and compelling story.

4. The Lego Movie

Everything is awesome in this movie.  And fun.  Another wildly original film about an ordinary Lego figurine who is called upon to rescue the universe from an evil tyrant who wants to cement the world into place.  Lots of great in-jokes about the Lego characters and some hair-raising action sequences.  The movie even raises some mildly interesting philosophical questions about freedom and creativity.

5. Guardians of the Galaxy

Also original and fun and a huge hit.  A space cowboy movie in the spirit of the original Star Wars series, before they got so weighted down with meaning and myth.  The one decent “franchise” movie of the year, this could make Chris Pratt a big star (fyi, he was also the lead voice-over in “The Lego Movie” so he had a very good year, indeed.).

6. Top Five

Just like Michael Keaton in Birdman, Chris Rock plays a former mega star who wants to be taken seriously as an artist.  Rock’s character is at a cross roads as his new arty movie is about to open (and bomb) even as he’s poised to marry a shallow reality TV star.  He spends the day walking around with a lovely smart NYT reporter played by Rosario Dawson, visiting old haunts and generally taking stock of his life.  Be advised, the movie contains crude humor and a male viewpoint that many ladies will find off-putting.

7. Chef

Another movie about an artist (this time a chef) who is sick of compromising his art and finds a way to rediscover himself.  The movie is also about the power of social media to wreck and then rebuild a career.  And also about father-son relationships.  A lot of food porn, but ultimately very sweet.

8. Ida

A young novice is sent to visit her aunt and spend some time in the world before she takes her vows as a nun.  Set in post-war Poland and shot in black-and-and white, the film takes a bleak look at humanity – and, after what happened in Europe from 1914 to 1945, why not? There’s a glimmer of hope at the end as Ida makes a conscious decision on how she wants to spend her life.

9. The Trip to Italy

A sequel to “The Trip,” which was set in Scotland, this doubles down on the premise of the original movie, which is that a couple of comedians travel around a region (this time Italy) eating expensive meals, sorting out their lives and making Michael Caine imitations. The “Trip to Italy” obviously had a bigger budget than “The Trip” because the settings are so glorious and the meals are even more sumptuous.  Considering the sunny settings, the movie is surprisingly obsessed with mortality and all the elements don’t quite hang together, but it’s definitely worth seeing.

10. The Hunger Games Mockingjay Part 1

I was a big fan of the previous Hunger Games movie, so this one was a letdown.  Of course it’s only the first part of a two-part movie, but even so, it was more about PR than actual rebelling.  Katniss is a little cranky, and I really don’t understand her thing with Peeta.

11. The 100 Foot Journey

Yet another food movie, this one about an Indian family that settles in a small French village and strikes up a competition with a snotty restaurateur across the street.  The oldest son turns out to be a cooking genius and there’s a whole lot of focus on getting an extra Michelin star.  A pleasant diversion.

12. Imitation Game

Extremely conventional story of Alan Turning, the British math genius who helped break the German code during WWII.  Benedict Cumberpatch (always a fun name to type) is Turing and plays him like he plays Sherlock Holmes on that PBS show: brilliant but vaguely autistic.   Only marginally based on fact.

13. Monuments Men

Another extremely conventional story about WWII that’s also only marginally based on fact.  This time we have a parcel of American art historians sent to Europe during WWII where they are supposed to protect a civilization’s worth of art.  A George Clooney/Matt Daman crowd pleaser.

14. Magic in the Moonlight

I can’t understand why I keep going to Woody Allen movies.  They always sound interesting but end up being tepid, if nicely shot, disquisitions of some idea that Woody has come up with.  In this case, the idea revolves around whether rationalists are right to insist there’s an empirical reason for every phenomenon.  And the answer is?  Yes and no.

15. The Interview

I had to watch it on YouTube since it was pulled from the theaters, and I’m glad I didn’t pay a full ticket price.  Very dumb and half-baked.  If you’re going to mock a tyrannical monster who keeps his people in a perpetuation state of starvation, the satire should be considerably sharper than this.  Seth Rogen, if you’re going to bring us to the brink of a cyberwar over human rights issues, try a little harder next time.

16. The Grand Budapest Hotel

I’ve liked some Wes Anderson movies and disliked others.  This one gets a thumbs down.  I appreciate that he’s a special filmmaker with a unique vision, but the affect here is so flat and the humor so very very dry that it’s hard to care about any of the characters.  The premise – how modernity, in the form of fascism, destroyed Mitteleuropa culture – is certainly promising but everything’s just a little too ridiculous to be taken seriously.

 17. Anchorman 2

The original Anchorman was mildly funny, but like many sequels, this one falls flat. It’s a spoof of the 1980s and the origin of 24-hour cable news.


“Singin’ in the Rain,” widely regarded as the greatest American film musical and one of the greatest films of all time, turned 60 years old in 2012  – an anniversary celebrated with the release of a new HD DVD and all the attendant critical commentary.

You don’t really need the new $84.95 DVD to enjoy “Singin’ in the Rain,” as my wife and I discovered when we recently watched the movie on a library DVD. Almost all the recent reviews and retrospectives have been rapturous and the movie does deserve almost all the praise it gets. Few movies look as well 60 years later and if you haven’t seen it in the last couple of decades, you owe it to yourself the take a look. The movie is fun, full of life and bursting with optimism.

Like many great classics, “Singin’ in the Rain” is a movie about movies. It is set in 1927 Hollywood, when movies transitioned from silents to talkies (a subject also plowed over by “The Artist,” which for some inexplicable reason swept the Academy Awards two years ago.) The movie holds up, not only because the famous song-and-dance routines remain fresh, but because it’s genuinely funny while not taking itself too seriously.

The scene where Gene Kelly performs “Singin’ in the Rain” while actually singing in the rain is one of the most famous scenes in movie history, while Donald O’Conner’s performance of “Make ‘em Laugh”  is almost as famous as a masterpiece of comic performance. Both sequences, which we’ve all seen a hundred times, are charming in context.

What is not charming, in context or otherwise, is a 14-minute ballet sequence near the end of the picture that stops the forward momentum cold. This long dance scene serves no plot or character development purpose; maybe the studio thought they needed to class up this otherwise frothy concoction with a serious offering of modern dance, but if so they seriously underestimate the rest of the movie.

“Singin’ in the Rain” came out in 1952, near the pinnacle of America’s global power and self-confidence. And since it’s set in 1927 – just before the Depression – it depicts another moment of great exuberance. The America of “Singin’ in the Rain” is a country where any small-town schmoo with talent and pluck can achieve fame and riches. It’s also a country where the bosses are good natured and reasonable. R.F. Simpson the boss of Monumental Pictures is nothing like MGM’s Louis B. Mayer, Warner Bros’ Jack Warner, Columbia’s Harry Cohn and the other ruthless, crass and manipulative studio heads of the era.

The movie also illustrates America’s ambivalent relationship with class. The plot revolves around the inability of gratingly-voiced Lina Lamont, a silent star played by Jean Hagen, to adapt to talkies. This was based on a number of real cases – stars like John Gilbert and Norma Desmond, whose voices did not fit in their screen personalities. In “Singin’ in the Rain,” however, Lina doesn’t just have a bad voice, she’s a bad person – vain, selfish and hopelessly low class. She has a shrill, untamable, braying voice that reeks of the boarding house or the saloon. Lina is the kind of girl who would have had big hair in the eighties or be hanging with Snooki at the Jersey Shore today.

But it’s not her low origins that are so objectionable. The characters played by Kelly, O’Conner and Debbie Reynolds, Kelly’s love interest, all come from humble beginnings and have a natural grace that makes you want to root for them. Lina, instead, either had a bad upbringing or is irredeemably coarse, and because she reaches above her station with ambition that threatens everyone else’s happy ending, we crave her downfall. Afterwards I felt a little ashamed at being so satisfied with her abject humiliation, but the movie has led us to think this is what she deserves for her crudity and lack of finesse.

“Singin in the Rain” is undeniably a good movie, but is it the greatest musical of all time or the 20th best movie of all time as the recent Sight and Sound poll suggested? It’s certainly an audience-pleaser, but it’s light as air – and it does have that dreadful ballet sequence. But of all the great musicals (and here’s the 25 best according to the American Film Institute) the critics have developed a herd mentality about this particular film.

Myself, I prefer “Gigi,” which has better, wittier songs, a more coherent and believable plot and a more sophisticate view of life. Or, if you must have a Gene Kelly MGM musical, there’s “On the Town,” about three sailors with a day of shore leave to spend in Manhattan. And of course there’s “The Sound of Music,” one of the most popular movies of all time — for good reason.

The movie owes a lot to Gene Kelly. He’s not only the star, but the co-director as well – an unsung “auteur.” He’s impossibly handsome, although not much of a singer. His dancing skills are justly celebrated – more athletic than Astaire, but just as smooth and graceful. I’ve never really warmed up to Kelly – he smiles too much and too hard! – but his good humor helps him carry the picture.

Then there’s Debbie Reynolds. This is her first major role and she does have a certain freshness, although for me, she’s a little bland and generally indistinguishable from June Allyson, Kathryn Grayson and the other MGM girls next door. Of course it’s hard not to watch the young innocent Reynolds and not think about the subsequent scandals with Eddie Fisher and Elizabeth Taylor, or worse, the way she is portrayed as an egomaniac in various books, movies, and one-person shows by her daughter Carrie (Princess Leia) Fisher.

“Singin’ in the Rain” may or may not be the greatest musical ever made, but it’s a must for anyone who’s interested in movies. If you can find it on the big screen don’t pass it up, but even on DVD it’s still a great time.


The “Best Original Song” category – usually an Oscar snoozer – has been the subject this year of more controversy than usual.

First, the Academy inexplicably snubbed all the songs from “Inside Llewyn Davis,” the Coen Brothers depiction of a folk singer in pre-Dylan Greenwich Village.   I can only assume the problem is that there were SO MANY good songs in the movie they canceled each other out.  Because the soundtrack produced by T-Bone Burnett is crammed with great music, including my favorite “Fare Thee Well,” sung by Oscar Isaac and Marcus Mumford.   (By the way, this song is credited as being a traditional folk ballad but Mumford rewrote it so significantly that I think it could have qualified as an original song.  Here’s the traditional version for the sake of comparison. )

Then there’s the controversy over the title song from the Christian-based movie “Alone Yet Not Alone,”  which was first nominated  and then declared ineligible on the grounds of inappropriate campaigning.  Charges of anti-Christian bias flew.  Obviously I’m not in a position to judge any rule violations that but I do note that it is a lovely song.

With the two best songs out of contention, it looks like the path is clear for “Frozen” to deliver Disney its tenth Best Song Oscar for “Let it Go”. This is not a type of song I usually like, coming out of the modern Broadway tradition of big big big big quavering singing and I don’t like this one either. It’s fitting that the song is performed by Idina Menzel, who plays Rachel’s birth mother on “Glee” because a lot of the Glee songs are belted out like anthems: “Here I am, look at me, I can SIIIIIINNNGGG!!!”

Back in the day, the “Best Original Song” category was almost as competitive as the best actor and actress races.  Some of the losers from the 1930s and 1940s include some of the most beautiful songs ever written (e.g., “They Can’t Take that Away From Me,” “Cheek to Cheek,” “I’ve got You Under My Skin.”)  Modern filmmakers are less likely to use original songs to advance a plot or set a mood, but the occasional great song does slip through.  With that in mind, here are my choices for the ten best Oscar-winning songs of the past 50 years.  (I don’t want to go back further because if I included films from the early days of Hollywood, this list would be made up of solely of songs from before I was born.)

10. Jai Ho (Slumdog Millionaire – 2008)

This is VERY original for an “original song.” It’s both exotic and westernized, providing an emotional release at the end of a generally depressing movie.  The lyrics are a combination of Hindi, Urdu and Punjab (i.e., unintelligible for a Western audience) which makes it all the more remarkable that it won.  Clearly the impulse to get up and dance transcends cultures and languages.  By the way, this particular video is from a 2009 concert in Argentina, which among everything available on YouTube, best seemed to capture the dynamism of the song.

9. “Flashdance” (Flashdance – 1983)

Sometimes I have trouble keeping the dance-themed movies the 1980s straight. There was “Fame,” “Dirty Dancing,” Footloose” and of course “Flashdance.”  What a feeling, indeed!  Hewing closely to a post-Disco vibe, the song seems a little corny now, and of course the movie itself is terribly corny – working class girl just wants to dance!! This was “Billy Elliott “before “Billy Elliott.”  In any event, I have to confess that I love the soundtracks to all the aforementioned 80’s dance movies, but “Flashdance” is my favorite song from all of them.

8. “Falling Slowly” (Once – 2007)

“Falling Slowly” is a very simple love song from “Once,” a movie about a street singer who connects with a Czech flower girl (Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová wrote and performed the songs).  They make beautiful music together, but that’s all they do together because she has a husband and he has an ex-girlfriend with whom he is reconciling.  Alas, their love remains unconsummated. Well, at least they have the Oscar and now a hit Broadway show.

7. Last Dance (Thank God It’s Friday – 1978)

I make no apologies in being a Donna Summer fan.  I even saw her perform this song at a corporate event the year before she died and she was fantastic.  Until I assembled, this list, though, I didn’t realize “Last Dance” came from a movie.  I can’t imagine how I missed Thank God It’s Friday.

6. “The Streets of Philadelphia” (Philadelphia – 1993)

You have to say this for the Academy, they do occasionally reflect the musical tastes of popular culture.  Disco in the 1970s, Rap in the 2000’s and eventually even Rock with this award to Bruce Springsteen.  It’s hard to believe it’s been 20 years since the movie “Philadelphia” came out; and even harder to believe there was a time when Springsteen deigned to appear at the Academy Awards. But then, this is the greatest AIDS awareness song of all time and I’m sure he wanted to use the Oscar platform to further raise awareness.

5. “The Windmills of Your Mind” (The Thomas Crown Affair – 1968)

“The Windmills of Your Mind” is one of the great sultry pop songs of the last 1960s, especially as performed by the always soulful Dusty Springfield.  Yet it’s actually Noel Harrison who performs the song in the movie “The Thomas Crown Affair.”  Hearing his rushed and careless rendition makes you wonder how this song was even nominated, much less a winner.  I’m including both versions below to demonstrate how two singers can achieve dramatically different effects with the same song.

4. “Skyfall” (Skyfall – 2012)

It’s really amazing that no song from a James Bond movie had ever won an Academy Award until last year when “Skyfall” finally delivered one.  Not “Goldfinger,” which is the best of them all, nor “Live and Let Die,”  “Nobody Does it Better” or even “You Only Live Twice.”   It would have pretty hard to deny Adele anything in 2013 and she certainly deserved it.

3. “I’m Easy” (Nashville – 1975)

Of all the movies mentioned in this list, Robert Altman’s masterpiece “Nashville” is unquestionably the greatest.  A story of ambition, corruption and backstabbing in the Country music industry, the film delivered several great songs, including this Oscar winner by Keith Carradine, who plays a selfish womanizer who somehow manages to make every woman in the audience think he’s singing directly to her.

2. “I just called to Say I Love You” (The Woman in Red – 1984)

Huh, this classic Stevie Wonder song comes from a pretty mediocre movie called “The Woman in Red?”  Who knew?

1 “Shaft” (Shaft 1971)

The most electric moment in the history of the Academy Awards arguably occurred in 1971 when a bare-chested, heavily chained Isaac Hayes and his synthesizer were rolled onto the stage during a wild performance of the theme from Shaft. (The only video I could find was in this Oscar wrap-up for the year. Scroll down to find it.)   This was the era when Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis and Dean Martin were considered the cool cats.  Not after this.

So what’s missing from the list?  Well, for starters, I really can’t stand any song by Barbra Streisand,  including “The Way We Were” and “Evergreen” (the theme from “A Star is Born” so they’re off the list.  I also don’t like big loud anthems with a lot of booming vocalism, such as “You Light Up My Life” and “My Heart Will Go On.” Never been a fan of “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head,” which was inexplicably a huge hit.  Having said that, have my perverse music tastes caused me to overlook anything that really should be included on the “best of” list?  Let me know.