Pulp Fiction

Pulp Fiction

“Mmm-mmmm. That is a tasty burger. Vincent, ever have a Big Kahuna Burger?”

Director Quentin Tarantino (Kill Bill, Reservoir Dogs) has distinguished himself as a unique and innovative moviemaker. Love him or hate him, you can’t deny that he’s important. I consider Pulp Fiction to be his finest film. Starring John Travolta, Uma Thurman, and Samuel L. Jackson, this is a wild, entertaining ride, brimming with wit and style as well as Tarantino’s signature grit and violence. You’ll probably feel a bit like a modern gangster while watching this. Tarantino takes the world of the modern professional criminal and brings it to life in a way that few other filmmakers do, showing what happens in-between crime hits as well as the hits themselves. It’s a unique view that’s highly stylized and extremely entertaining, and it earns its spot on this list of great movies.

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Secretary

Secretary

“Who’s to say that love needs to be soft and gentle?”

BDSM used to be a pretty taboo topic—until the godawful Fifty Shades of Grey exploited it as an artless debacle. But back in 2002, it was a pretty foreign topic in cinema, often used as a raunchy joke if it appeared at all. Secretary, directed by Steven Shainberg (Rupture, Hit Me) and starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader, could have been either a sermonizing condemnation of the subject matter or a gratuitous exploitation of it; but the way the movie respects the relationship it portrays elevates this from the drivel that usually surrounds the topic. And with great writing and great performances from both leads, this is a fascinating portrait of how a real relationship with BDSM aspects could develop.

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Sideways

sideways

“Half my life is over and I have nothing to show for it. Nothing. I’m a thumbprint on the window of a skyscraper. I’m a smudge of excrement on a tissue surging out to sea with a million tons of raw sewage.”

There are two types of jerks in this world: those overwhelmed by a crippling lack of self-esteem, and those overwhelmed by a crippling excess of it. Sideways, directed by Alexander Payne (The Descendants, About Schmidt) and starring Thomas Haden Church and the criminally underrated Paul Giamatti, shows a small road trip with one of each type. The movie is subtle, deep, and complex, although not necessarily hard to follow. There are also a lot of smart wine metaphors and tidbits—so much so that this movie actually boosted the sales of Pinot Noir and hurt the sales of Merlot the year it came out. It’s also a great comedy-drama that I thoroughly enjoyed.

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Black Swan

Black Swan

“In four years, every time you dance, I see you obsessed, getting each and every move perfectly right—but I never see you lose yourself. Ever! All that discipline for what?”

If you think “terrifying” and “ballerina” don’t belong in the same sentence, you need to see Black Swan. Directed by Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream, Pi) and starring Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis, this is a psychological thriller as much as a drama, and it is anything but boring. The pressure and uncertainty that most artists face is amplified and captured in horrifying detail as the lead character Nina loses herself in her role as the Swan Queen. It’s a different kind of thriller: very character-centric and rich with symbolism. After watching it, you’ll never look at ballet the same again.

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Following

Following

“The following is my explanation. Well, more of an account of what happened. I’d been on my own for a while and getting kind of lonely… and bored… nothing to do all day. And that’s when I started shadowing.”

It’s fun looking at an artist’s early work and seeing the ideas and themes that will play out the rest of their careers. Legendary writer and director Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight, Inception) got his start with the low-budget indie film Following, and you can see in it the beginnings of ideas that would play out in Memento and even Inception. Though not quite as impressive as his later films, the plot and writing are still a head above most other movies and carry that trademark complexity that Nolan is famous for, and it’s amazing what Nolan was able to do on such a limited budget (estimated at $6,000, most of which was spent on film). In addition to being historically important, the film is also interesting to watch for its mystery and neo-noir elements.

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Little Miss Sunshine

Little Miss Sunshine

“There are two kinds of people in this world: winners and losers.”

In modern society, there’s a lot of emphasis placed on winning, while failing is an uncomfortable subject we don’t talk much about. That’s something Little Miss Sunshine tries to remedy. Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Ruby Sparks and many music videos) and starring Steve Carell, Toni Collette, and Greg Kinnear, this is a movie that says a lot about failure by talking about success. The point it makes is not heavy-handed or forced—in fact, it’s understated and quite entertaining. At its core, it’s a comedy with some dramatic elements that lets us know it’s alright to fall down from time to time.

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Frances Ha

Frances Ha

“The only people who can afford to be artists in New York are rich.”

Danish Existentialist philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, in his book Either/Or, writes out a debate between two viewpoints on life: the aesthetic, which focuses on beauty and integrity, and the ethical, which focuses on morality and responsibilities. In the end, the answer is that nothing we do in this life, whether aesthetic, ethical, or anything else, will give us the meaning and fulfillment we desire—we have to find purpose independent of our beliefs and actions in something larger than ourselves. In a way, indie movie Frances Ha, co-written and directed by Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale, Greenberg) and co-written by and starring Greta Gerwig, has a similar message. It’s a movie about the idealism and values many modern young people cling to, and it paints a vivid picture of the dream of many young in their 20s.

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The Squid and the Whale

The Squid and the Whale

“Mom and me versus you and Dad.”

In general, movies put forth a caricature of real life rather than a snapshot of reality. Reality can be boring at times, yes; but reality can also be a lot more harsh than what we want to see in movies. Every once in awhile, a movie comes along that’s so emotionally real that it hurts. The Squid and the Whale is that kind of movie. Noah Baumbach wrote the script based on his own childhood and originally pitched it to Wes Anderson to direct. Anderson loved the script, but felt that Baumbach should direct it due to how personal it was to him. The writing and acting are brilliant. Emotionally raw and brutal, this movie captures the nuances of divorce unlike any other film I’ve seen.

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Lost in Translation

Lost in Translation

“Let’s never come here again because it would never be as much fun.”

Lost in Translation, written and directed by Sofia Coppola (The Virgin Suicides, Marie Antoinette) and starring Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson, is a hard movie to describe. It’s a strange mix of comedy, romance, and soul-searching without fully being about any of those things. The movie is beautiful and evokes strong feelings that are hard to pin down in words. Overall, it’s a journey, not a destination, but it’s a journey I’m very glad got recorded.

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Juno

Juno

“I knew this girl who like had this crazy freak out because she took too many behavioral meds at once and she like ripped off her clothes, and dove into the fountain at Ridgedale Mall and was like, ‘Blah I am a Kraken from the sea!’ ”

Juno, directed by Jason Reitman (Up in the Air, Thank You for Smoking) and starring Ellen Page, Michael Cera, Jennifer Garner, and Jason Bateman, is an offbeat teen comedy with quirky dialogue and surprising depth. It was written by Diablo Cody, an unknown writer at the time, with the intent of being a small indie film. But when it made back almost 20 times its production budget and won an Oscar for best original screenplay, it was clear that they had stumbled onto something magical.

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