Mr. Movie

20 years at the Herald, 20 years at the movies, Part 1

January begins my 20th year as the Tri-City Herald’s movie critic.

This month, in 1992 I produced my first column and reviewed a really bad sci-fi flick with Emilo Estevez and Mick Jagger called Free Jack.

Reviewing film — as you’ll learn in my mid-week rant on Wednesday — is my favorite thing to do. It’s a hobby, it’s a job and it’s a life love.

As the 20 year mark approached, I sat down and tried to put my feelings about movies and about this job in perspective. I wanted to talk about movies. So I went through lists of movies of every year from 1992 to now. There are thousands of them. I paired them down to a list of more than 200 and from there to the list below.

Some are the best of their year. Others are not. These are just the films that stuck when I finished whittling down the list.

What I did notice is that some years there are a lot of movies that stuck with me, while other years didn’t offer much.

1992

Unforgiven — The film that put Clint Eastwood in a league of his own as a director and actor. It is one of the all-time best westerns and deserving of the best picture Oscar.

Reservoir Dogs — Raw, gritty and bloody and the exceptional three-guy gun fight is an amped-up version of the model perfected in Eastwood’s Spaghetti westerns.

Strictly Ballroom — Baz Luhrmann’s Land Down Under dance flick is so good it made me want to take ballroom dance lessons and gave me a deeper love for a good dance movie. By the way, I never did take the lessons.

1993

Groundhog Day — A Bill Murray comedy on the surface, deep and profound philosophy underneath. One of my top-10 all-time favorites. I watched it again the other day and enjoyed the hell out of it.

Jurassic Park & Schindler’s List — Steven Spielberg reinvented state of the art and did a film more fun than a theme-park roller coaster ride. At year’s end, he switched gears and released an Oscar winner that some consider one of the greatest holocaust movies of all time.

1994

Pulp Fiction — Quentin Tarantino’s punchy, and at the time, outrageous dialogue and way-out-there action sequences blew everyone’s mind. Forget Forrest Gump, this was the best movie of 1994.

Nobody's Fool — The first movie to make me mad when the credits rolled. I got really involved with these people and wasn’t ready to leave the lives of these characters. Why is it films this terrific never get a sequel?

By the way, I had the pleasure of interviewing the film’s writer/director Robert Benton a couple of years ago. It’s always fun to tell someone you admire that they made one of your all-time favorite movies.

The Shawshank Redemption — Finally someone did one of Stephen King’s pieces as it should be done. Before disappearing into obscurity, writer/director Frank Darabont also went on to do King’s The Green Mile with equal skill. I watch very few movies a second time. I’ve seen this one a half-a-dozen times.

Speed — Total guilty pleasure. A great example of how much fun can be had at a movie. It’s the film that made big stars of Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock.

1995

Babe — Mel Gibson’s Braveheart got all the attention and won all the awards but the family friendly Babe stole my heart. It’s the only time Gene Siskel and I ever agreed on a best picture of the year pick.

Toy Story — Toying with toys kicked the inventive Pixar into the mainstream limelight and put it a notch above it’s partner Disney in terms of creativity. The film also spawned one of the all-time great series of animated films. It’s clever script was punctuated with perfect casting.

1996

Fargo — Put the Coen Brothers on the movie who’s who map and is still laugh-out-loud outrageous.

Independence Day — Other than a whodunit, nothing is more fun than a great blow-the-world-up film. The 20-minute world destruction sequences boggled the mind and are still on my top-10 list of the best special effects ever done in a movie. By the way, in a good theater when one of the characters shoots a Coke can off of a space ship you can hear the can land behind you. Now how cool is that?

I’ll still stop and watch this one when surfing the 700+ sleep-inducing channels offered by our cable source.

Kolya — In 20 years, the only movie to make me cry.

Fly Away Home — Carroll Ballard did The Black Stallion and Never Cry Wolf and is one of the great cinematographers of the 1970s and 80s. His films may not have been plot-giants but they were beautiful beyond description. This one is based on a true story of a guy who raised some wild geese and had to teach them to migrate.

It’s gorgeous.

As a P.S., on the same topic and from 2002, a documentary called Winged Migration is also stunning. You’ll need a big screen. The cinematography in some scenes is so clear that you can see the individual feathers of the birds. This was mind-boggling on a large theater screen.

1997

The year Titanic sank everything else at award time, there were films that, while not as daring or as much of a technological achievement, were much better.

As Good as it Gets — As good as Jack Nicholson ever got and his Oscar proved it. Also as good as Helen Hunt, who also got an Oscar, and Greg Kinnear, who didn’t, ever got. And definitely light years better than writer/director James Brooks has gotten since.

And in 1997 As Good as it Gets is the best movies got.

Men in Black — I couldn’t stop laughing. One of the most original comedies of the last two decades. While it’s not true now, for years the biggest box office hits of the summer were released on the 4th of July weekend. Combined with the success of Independence Day the year before, Men in Black gave Will Smith status as an automatic to make a movie the biggest hit of the Independence Day weekend release.

And Tommy Lee Jones did his character like Jack Webb. A stroke of genius.

LA Confidential — Nothing beats a great whodunit and LA Confidential is one of the all-time best, if not “the” of all-time best.

1998

Saving Private Ryan — Could you even breathe when the Normandy landing was finished? Only the sappy crying jag at the end kept this from being Spielberg’s best-ever work. BTW, forget his other Oscars and awards, this is Tom Hanks’ best acting.

Pi — Darren Aronofsky’s first movie. It’s black and white and a brilliant explanation of quantum physics lodged in an outrageous plot about a scientist and a secret Jewish sect trying to solve the equation pi. Never much at math, all through the movie I kept saying, “Oh, now I get it. It’s so simple. Duh.”

Ten minutes after the end of the film and while in the theater parking lot I couldn’t remember any of it.

Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels — Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction influence starts to really show up in movies. This is a — pun intended — total, and unexpected blast and made Guy Ritchie one of my favorite writer/directors of the 90s.

1999

American Beauty — Brilliant satire. A wonderfully written and acted tale of moral sickness in suburbia. Kevin Spacey won the Oscar. The film won the Oscar. The director won the Oscar. So did the cinematographer.

For the first time it really occurred to me that the “best” of an awards show can be given to the most politically correct.

The best acting in the movie is done by Annette Bening. Hilary Swank won the best acting Oscar for Boys Don’t Cry. While I agree that Swank is pretty good as a woman trying to convince the world that she is a guy, and that the story is compelling, Swank didn’t look that masculine and in the real world would not have fooled anyone.

Bening laid it all out. She gave the best performance of the year in any category and was robbed.

Haley Joel Osment got robbed, too. The Sixth Sense was the most talked-about movie of the year and the kid gave a gutsy, and difficult performance, and outside of Bening, the best work of the year.

The Oscar went to Michael Caine.

Office Space — Speaking of brilliant satire. One of my favorite anti-corporation movies. I loved it. The person doing the least work is considered brilliant by the corporate hatchet men and those actually getting things done are laid off. I had a blast doing the TV review of this one, and via special effects downsized myself and gave the summation of the review as a computer image of me.

The Matrix — Nothing needs to be said. This is simply the best sci-fi of the last 20 years and maybe of all time. It reinvented state-of-the-art and did effects and moves that no one thought possible. It’s on my 10-best ever list.

2000

O Brother Where Art Thou? — Homer’s Odyssey gets a Coen brothers treatment. Incredible movie. George Clooney gave the best performance of the year and had a blast worrying about goo in his hair. And I still can’t get that song out of my mind.

Memento — Christopher Nolan popped up on our radar for the first time and instantly proved to be a major talent and a creative filmmaker. The mystery is not what happened but why. Hitchcock would have loved this one.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon — Ang Lee’s most beautiful movie. Gorgeous shots of China placed into a wonderful story of two warriors and their unfulfilled love. The best of the wire-walking kung fu movies.

The Dish — Pure pleasure. A wonderful “true” story that actually makes you worry that the astronauts landing on the moon and then taking off in 1969 might not live through the experience.

2001

Shrek & Monster’s Inc. — This is when we first noticed that these days the deepest and richest movie characters aren’t done by human beings. In Monster’s Inc. I wanted to take that little girl home.

I caught Shrek in a not-quite-finished version that I swear was a bit more “mature” than what was finally released but I can’t prove it. An incredible piece of writing and a flick that put Dreamworks on a par with Pixar and Disney.

The Lord of the Rings The Return of the King was the last of the three films and got deserved Oscars, Golden Globes and awards galore from other movie associations. The first one was released in 2001. Director Peter Jackson succeeded in bringing what may be the all-time best fantasy to life. He really did put us in Middle Earth.

The Man Who Wasn’t There — Disgusting characters and dastardly doings dot this film’s landscape. You can’t like anyone in it. As you may have noticed, I have a special love for black and white movies and the Coen brothers. Billy Bob Thornton gave an incredibly flat, lifeless performance in this little known and under-appreciated Coen brothers flick.

2002

Hero — Stunning. My favorite Jet Li movie. Scene after dazzling scene is packed with excellent effects and they surround a terrific story. The fight on the lake is set in one of the most beautiful places on Earth.

A special thrill is getting to tell Jet Li that this on my top-10 of all time best list. He told me how they shot the lake scene and how complicated it was to do.

Standing in the Shadows of Motown — I had a 19 year on-air radio career, played dozens of Motown songs hundreds of times and had no clue the music was done by one band.

At the critic’s screening I stood and clapped at the end. My critic friends thought I was wacko. The band — known as The Funk Brothers — deserved it.

Adaptation — Charlie Kaufman hasn’t done much lately but in the late 1990s and through the mid-2000s, Kaufman was a force. He wrote the scripts for Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. This is his best work.

Most people missed the subtle plot twist 3/4 of the way through the story. In a packed theater just 20 of us got it, and we all laughed our butts off. Very clever.

American Splendor — Clever movie about comic book writer and ultra negative personality, Harvey Pekar. By the way, the “e” in Pekar is long. It is Paul Giamatti’s first great role and he made the most of it. As a nice twist, the real Harvey Pekar and some of the other characters had roles in the movie as themselves.

2003

The Fog of War — One of the great political lesson documentaries of all time. Released not long after the U.S. invaded Iraq, I suggested President Bush and Congress needed to sit down and watch it. One of the great truths presented by former Defense Secretary and film subject Robert McNamara is “know your enemy.”

The Station Agent — My pick for best picture that year and like Nobody’s Fool, it is a movie I didn’t want to end. One of the few movies I can watch over and over.

Bad Santa — Outrageous Christmas movie about a safe-cracking drunk who plays Santa at malls in order to rob them. It is a disgusting film and so outrageous that it quickly became my holiday season favorite. Billy Bob Thornton is the only person on the planet that could play this character.

And I got to tell him. He said thank you, sir. For some reason he called me "Sir" all through the interview. So did Clifton Collins, Jr. in an interview last year.

I never did figure out why.

The Triplets of Belleville — A couple of lines of dialogue and that’s It. The rest is image and a marvelous animated story about an old woman and an old dog looking for her kidnapped grandson. It’s one of the most creative films of the decade and the opening tune is one of my all-time favorite movie theme songs.

Thirteen — This is Twilight director Catherine Hardwicke’s first film. It’s not meant to be a horror movie but the two 13-year old girls in this are the scariest creatures of any movie of 2003.

2004

Millions — Forget Slumdog Millionaire this is Danny Boyle’s best.

The Door in the Floor — This is the role Jeff Bridges should have gotten an Oscar for doing.

In Good Company — A great film about downsizing and corporate takeovers. Dennis Quaid was terrific. It’s a personal favorite. I took my wife to see it on our first date.

Ella Enchanted — A neat and syrupy sweet “girl” movie that is one of those really entertaining and unforgettable movies. It is — indeed — enchanting.

2005

Good Night and Good Luck — Finally someone managed to do an intelligent movie about broadcast news. And it’s in black and white. Perfect. It also perfectly captures the style and substance of one of the mediums pioneering greats, Edward R. Murrow.

Hustle and Flow — Who’d of thought a self-absorbed, low life pimp could end up so likable and so sympathetic. A great performance from Terrance Howard didn’t hurt and neither did writer/director Craig Brewer’s screenplay. And that song, It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp is a great rap song and one that I couldn’t get out of my mind for weeks.

2006

Once — Proof you can make a great movie for pennies. I loved the music. Not quite rock. Not quite folk. Just great stuff. And it’s a realistic but sad love story that leaves you feeling oddly good about the outcome.

This music, too, was impossible to get out of my mind. It stuck with me until I was able to find the soundtrack.

Pan's Labyrinth — The only horror story on my list. I almost lost it when one monster picked up his eyes.

The Lives of Others — Superb storytelling. The communist version of Peeping Tom is listening Tom. The film tells a fictional tale of a real corrupt and paranoid government and its officials. Lifeless men and women with no real lives do all in their power to manipulate and control those that do have real lives.

Hollywoodland — Who knew Ben Affleck could actually act? His portrayal of the most famous of the actors to play Superman is exceptional. So is the movie that questions whether George Reeves really did commit suicide.

Thank You for Smoking — A truly intelligent film that remains rather neutral on the title topic. Great characters and a strong message about manipulating information worked on every level.

2007

Enchanted and Stardust — Two great fairytale movies in one year. Both are well-written, have exceptional acting and are great fun for kids nine to 90. Some of us never grow tired of a well done kid flick.

The Ultimate Gift — Speaking of well-done kid flicks. This one is emotional manipulation that travels in Hallmark TV special territory. But it is done so very, very well. A really heartwarming movie and when they’re this good I don’t care if someone does play a bit with my emotions.

Michael Clayton — An intense mystery featuring equally intense performances. It’s as cold and bleak as the weather it’s filmed in and George Clooney, Tom Wilkerson and Tilda Swinton have never been better.

No Country for Old Men — Talk about intense. The Coen brothers work their magic on a drug deal gone bad. Javier Bardem is the best villain this side of Hannibal Lecter.

There Will be Blood — Daniel Day-Lewis could play a spot on the wall and be mesmerizing. He’s spot on here and picked up the Oscar as a reward for not getting one for The Gangs of New York a few years earlier.

2008

Wall-E — My all-time favorite love story and the two main characters never say more than “WALL-E” and “Eve.” It was so good the important life lesson about technology destroying your personality almost got missed. Fun movie.

The Fall — Indescribable on paper. The most beautiful movie I have ever seen. And the story and the story within the story are both wonderful. Those who’ve seen it, didn’t you want to take that kid home?

Young@Heart — So wonderful, so uplifting and such great music. It almost made me cry. People in their 90s singing metal music and Jimi Hendrix and great rock and roll classics. Even out of tune that much enthusiasm is a total treat.

The Wrestler — Forget the current fascinating with Black Swan, this is Darren Aronofsky’s best movie. No one but Micky Rourke could have played the role of a washed up wrestler. He was absolutely mind-blowing and though he’s basically playing himself, this is one of the best performances of the 20-years I’ve been doing this.

And it is another case where the wrong person won the Oscar. Rourke won every other acting award. Is it politics? Rourke lost out to Sean Penn who did Harvey Milk, the openly gay member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and activist.

2009

The White Ribbon — The best film of 2009 on a lot of lists. Mine, too. A whodunit with no easy answers and a film you can’t stop talking about. The black and white compounds the intensity and the kids in this movie eventually grew up to be the people that put Adolph Hitler in power.

Creepy.

Michael Haneke is my new favorite writer/director.

The Secret in Their Eyes — The second best movie of 2009. An intense whodunit with terrific performances and an out of nowhere twist ending. From the opening sequence to the credits you are riveted to your seat.

Star Trek — I am a big fan of the original series and of The Next Generation. The rest of the Star Trek series haven’t interested me. This film breaks all of the series rules and boldly goes where the series has gone before and way too many times. But new director J.J. Abrams makes it work.

It is the best time I had in a theater in 2009.

Inglourious Basterds — After being lost for almost a decade, Quentin Tarantino regained his 1990s form and produced a great film that twists World War II history and introduced us to one of the all-time great villains. The cast is superb but Christoph Waltz and Brad Pitt steal the show and Waltz got a deserved Oscar.

Moon — Science fiction when done correctly is a blast. Sam Rockwell — one of the world’s best kept acting secrets — plays a character and his clone in a one-man, three character show set on the Moon.

The Messenger — Deserves a mention because it’s a great movie that examines how difficult it is for military representatives to inform people that their loved ones have perished in combat. A must see because of Ben Foster’s riveting performance. Most of you don’t know much about him yet but he’s great in everything he’s been in. Foster will someday rock the world when he gets that once in a lifetime break.

Up in the Air — Like Jason Reitman’s Thank You for Smoking, a very intelligent film with outstanding actors in meaty parts. This one examines the heartlessness of corporate downsizing and couches it in interesting discussions about possessions and what we really need to own to be happy.

2010

The King's Speech — Like it’s cousin The Queen, the acting seals the deal. I love great tandem performances. My all-time favorite is Midnight Cowboy. Though this isn’t quite that good, it’s close. Is anyone on the planet a more interesting actor than Geoffrey Rush? And though he’s shined in a dozen great art films, Colin Firth got the meatiest part of his life and makes the most of it.

Great, great movie.

The Fighter — A real life Rocky. Great story but the real reason to catch it is the manic performance of Christian Bale. Batman who? Turns out the guy is an even better actor than any of us imagined.

The Social Network — Again a great performance punctuates a movie. Jesse Eisenberg is deadpan good as the creator of Facebook and the story of the creation of the world’s most popular web stop is fascinating.

Red — A bunch of old character actors have the best time doing this flick and it’s the best time I had in a theater all year.

That’s the list. Agree or disagree, these are the movies that stood out to me.

On Wednesday, I interview myself and explain how I grew to love movies, my life and movies in the Tri-Cities as a kid and how I got the name "Mr. Movie."

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