2024 in movies, 5 sentences each (January through June)

OK, I’m going to try this! I’m starting this post on December 31, 2023, and if all goes according to plan, I’ll publish at the very end of 2024. [UPDATE! You can see right now that this is dawning six months early. I’m doing this because the post has become awfully long already, and I figure nobody’s going to scroll through this entire thing if I wait until December 31 or so. I’m splitting it in two, basically.] This is a roster of the movies we end up watching this year, with a capsule review for each. Some movies will warrant more than that, depending on how I feel, so if I do an actual full post on a film, I’ll just link it from here. And these will be in the order that we watch them, starting with last night’s final film of 2023, which I’m doing on the 2024 post because as I write this I’ve already closed the blog on 2023. Does that make sense? Maybe, maybe not. But anyway:

::  The Feast of Seven Fishes. Slice-of-life drama-slash-romantic comedy about an Italian family living in an old town upstream of Pittsburgh, someplace. (The movie was filmed in two towns on the Monongahela River in West Virginia.) The focus is the youngest in the family who wants to go to art school but is expected to take over the family grocery. He is also deeply concerned about his ex-girlfriend, on the same night that he meets a new girl. Complications ensue. Warmly made, delightfully written with excellent characters, and as the film’s events center on a traditional Italian night of feasting, this movie will leave you hungry.

::  Love Hard. Cheesy rom-com in which a big-city woman (Los Angeles) goes to a snowy mountain town (Lake Placid) at Christmas to find love. Misunderstandings and hilarity ensue. And at one point, our heroine (Nina Dobrev) needs to fit in with the local crowd, so she eschews her normal attire and dons a pair of overalls. (I shit you not!) Frankly, there’s room in my life for cheesy Christmas movies in which the big-city woman goes to a small snowy mountain town for love and at one wears overalls to fit in. I liked this one a lot. It’s pure schmaltz cheese.

::  Moonraker. For more thoughts on Moonraker, check out my Ultimate Definitive Ranking of James Bond Movies. On this particular night, it was my week to pick a movie and I needed a comfort watch, so Moonraker it was–back to my personal beginning with James Bond, eh? And it was still a fun movie. Moonraker will forever hold a special place in my heart.

::  Lucy. The Wife picked this one out. Based on the first few scenes, I expected a crime drama about a drug deal gone wrong. And the movie is that…but not long in, it takes a strange sci-fi turn…and then…it leans hard into that turn the rest of the way through. The result is one of the trippiest and interesting thrillers I’ve ever seen, even if the central concept (a riff on the idea that humans only use ten percent of their brains) has long since been classified as nonsense. Excellent acting by Scarlett Johansson and Morgan Freeman.

::  Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga and La La Land warranted discussion in their own post, here.

::  The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar is a short film by Wes Anderson. The Wife picked it one week when it was her turn to pick a movie; unbeknownst to her, it’s only 40 minutes long, so she ended up picking another movie (see the next one). This was my first ever Wes Anderson movie! I loved the visual invention, the constant spoken-word dialog as the entire text of the Roald Dahl story was acted out, and the sheer panache of this production. This film made me incredibly happy.

::  The Imitation Game: Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing, the wildly eccentric mathematical genius whose work developing code-breaking machines in World War II anticipated what eventually became the modern computer…and whose treatment by the British government, as a homosexual, eventually led to his suicide. It’s a moving and involving character study with a terribly sad ending. Western civilization’s treatment of gays is historically awful, but the British managed to do even worse by Turing than many.

::  The Fugitive showed up in January for free on YouTube, so I watched it on my lunch breaks over several days. Not the best way to watch a movie, but it still works! In fact, I wonder if The Fugitive has become more overlooked in recent years than it should be, given how good it is. The cat-and-mouse game between Kimble (Harrison Ford) and Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones), who end up being two protagonists revolving around each other ever closer while the real antagonist is still out there, is as riveting as ever. The movie’s central mystery isn’t all that great, admittedly, but it really doesn’t matter a whole lot. One thing, though: in the scene on the El, why would Richard sit directly across from a guy who is reading the newspaper with Richard’s picture on the front page? And if the guy sat there, why didn’t Richard move? There’s nobody else on the car! Anyway….

By the way, it should be clear by now that the “No more than five sentences” thing is more a guideline than an actual rule for this post.

::  Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny was fun, and it had some interesting follow-ups on the previous film’s thoughts on the aging of old heroes. Here, Indy isn’t just old, he has pretty much aged out of the world entirely. I’m fine with an old Indy, a reluctant Indy…but this movie gives us a grumpy and embittered Indy whose life went to shit, and I had trouble with that. (See this old post quoting William Goldman for more on this point.) I also thought Dial went on way too long. I’m not sure where exactly I started being super-conscious of how long the movie was taking, but aware of it, I became. Did I like it? Sure, but as with Crystal Skull, I don’t think it worked as well as it might have.

::  This Is Where I Leave You is an entry in a genre that I tend to like a lot: a group of people who have known each other for years but drifted apart when they were younger are brought back together again after a traumatic event (in this case, a large family reunites after Dad dies in old age), and what results is a lot of dredging up of old stuff, reopening old wounds, fanning old flames, and so on. I love these kinds of movies when they’re done with heart and underlying warmth, as this one is. Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Adam Driver (pre-Kylo Ren!), and Jane Fonda headline a really good cast. I really enjoyed this movie. It’s not surprising at all, but it doesn’t have to be.

::  The Sting showed up on Netflix (or, at least I was made aware of it) in February, and I had somehow never seen it before! I’m always one to love a good con artist/heist story, and this is a good one, with one of the sharpest, wittiest scripts I’ve ever seen/heard. Wonderfully made, terrifically acted–this movie deserved every one of the Oscars it won, and I wonder if it’s not an overlooked classic by this point. I did find the ending a bit easy and pat, and the way the movie wraps up its story and gets out of Dodge is interesting…but still, this thing is wonderful. Loved it.

::  Step Brothers. We watched this instead of the Super Bowl. I love this movie, but I fully grant that if you’re not attuned to Will Ferrell, you’re not going to like this one. Subtle, it ain’t: this is Ferrell and John C. Reilly in full-on raunchy, gross-out mode. I love the moxie of this movie, though: the state of affairs depicted in this movie couldn’t exist in real life for one second, but nobody cares, they just go with it. “Did we just become best friends?” “Yup!” “Do you wanna go do karate in the garage?” “Yup!”

::  Queenpins is an enjoyable diversion of a “dramedy” type about two young women who are struggling for money for different reasons who form a friendship, and then a partnership in crime when they escalate their “professional couponing” to levels that involve mail fraud, theft, and various other activities of a less-than-savory nature. It’s hard not to root for them because their money struggles are relatable and because they’re ripping off the Proctor-and-Gambles of the world, and nobody feels sorry for them, right? Their story is intercut with the loss-prevention specialist and the mail fraud investigator who are tracking them down, and the ending is oddly satisfying in the “they don’t get away with it…for now” kind of way. Not a great film by any means, but entertaining.

::  Apollo 13 remains one of my favorite films of all time. It is, for my money, the greatest movie about teamwork ever made. One time at work my managers solicited suggestions for movies about teamwork that could be screened at an upcoming management training event, and of course everyone tossed out sports titles–many of which are fine films!–but I got a few blank stares when I suggested Apollo 13. But think of it: it’s a movie about first of all, a crewed mission to the Moon, which is a deeply difficult thing that requires tons of teamwork just to get the mission to go off correctly; and then, quite famously, the Apollo 13 mission does not go off correctly, and the teamwork becomes even more critical as groups of engineers work with the small team of astronauts in the ship to get them home safely at all. This movie is nothing but teamwork from the first frame to the last, and I will shout it from the rooftops until I can’t reach the rooftops anymore because I’m actually in the ground.

::  Something’s Gotta Give is a romantic comedy featuring Jack Nicholson and Diane Keaton as the main couple, with helpful supporting work by Amanda Peet and Keanu Reeves. I’ve heard the film recommended many times by people I trust, but somehow it’s always eluded us, until finally I pulled it up on The Wife’s birthday. I was a bit surprised that it was made in 2003; somehow I thought it was a mid-90s movie, but it’s not. It’s probably the last real shot Nicholson had to be believable in a rom-com, too. It was also really good, a lovely look at two older people who aren’t terribly compatible but aren’t terribly incompatible either, finding each other despite not looking for one another and in fact spending a chunk of the film actively looking away from each other. Nicholson’s character is, well, a pure Nicholson character, one of those crusty guys with a dark side concealing the heart of…well, maybe not gold, but silver, anyway. And Keaton is the older woman who is happy where she is in life and isn’t much interested in romance. The romance doesn’t even so much happen in this movie as it emerges, which is a nice touch. I liked this one a lot. Oh, and Nicholson has one of the great movie lines: “I have always told you some version of the truth!”

::  If you’re wondering “Hey! Maybe the humor in Blazing Saddles isn’t that questionable, is it?” Let me assure you: it is. It most gloriously is. This movie’s raucous send-up of prejudice across the board is still hilarious, and you can’t help thinking–many times throughout it, actually–that “This movie couldn’t possibly get made today!” I still wonder about its ending, which not only breaks the “Fourth Wall” but basically stomps it into oblivion; I like to think that they were making this movie with no end in mind and just landed on the sudden shift into surreal absurdity that is the film’s climax. Oh, and special commendation for having a terrific pie fight! I especially like when the tour group on the movie studio heads inside because it’s next on the list, unaware that a pie fight is going on, and when they come back out to go to the next place on the tour, they’ve all been pied. Nice touch!

::  A struggling singer-songwriter in England is about to give it all up when a weird world-wide blackout happens, causing him to get hit by a bus on his way home. When he wakes up in the hospital, banged up but on the mend, he discovers that he and he alone remembers the music of The Beatles. So he proceeds to reconstruct The Beatles’ entire catalog from memory, thus achieving stardom. That’s the conceit of Yesterday, a delightful if “safe” musical fantasy. I can’t help thinking that a novel might have given this idea a much deeper look: when you really start thinking about pop culture since the 1960s, just subtracting The Beatles from that would leave a giant hole, not just of music but of influence and shaping what came after. But maybe it’s asking too much of this movie, which is more a rom-com fable than anything else, to delve that deeply into its big idea, and the movie does at least have the guts to not hit a cosmic reset button toward the end, restoring the rightful history of music. The movie is terrifically well-made and witty and the music is fantastic. Yes, it plays it safe, but that’s not the worst thing in the world.

::  How did I not see Mamma Mia until just this year? I’ve no idea, really…it’s been on my radar forever, what with loving the music of ABBA and having nursed a crush on Meryl Streep for equally forever and especially for this movie, half of which she spends rocking a hippie-like top under a pair of wonderful overalls. The movie is famously an adaptation of a Broadway show that scotch-taped the songs of ABBA into a story about a young woman getting married in Greece and inviting the three men who might be her father. The songs aren’t always totally convincing in their use in the story, but that happens in this kind of musical that uses pre-existing songs. The movie is a sunlit confection, and it’s a delight.

::  Also a delight? Barbie. I thought the conceit here might be terribly silly when I learned they were making this movie–the beloved doll lives in a Doll World but crosses over to our world!–but then the movie came out and everyone started finding it hilarious and moving and deeply affecting in how it argues against The Patriarchy. It took me all of about four minutes into the movie before I was pretty much in total agreement. I loved it.

::  “Hey, I haven’t seen that movie in…oh wow…at least 25 years!” The movie? Animal House. Which I had not, in fact, seen since watching it on TBS way back when we had cable. And there it was, on Netflix! So we watched it. And then, about 20 minutes in, I realized that I had only ever seen Animal House in its edited-for-teevee version, so this was my first viewing of the film in its uncut version. It’s still hilarious, though maybe not quite as much as it was when it was filmed, nearly (gulp) 50 years ago. You know what’s weird, though? I remember the food fight being a pretty lengthy scene! It actually ends almost immediately after Bluto shouts “FOOD FIGHT!”

::  Wanderlust is a frustrating movie because it has one of the best casts I’ve seen in a long time, and it’s beautifully shot, and its story is basically a long sitcom. Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston are a couple forced by economic reality to ditch their dreams in NYC and move in with family in Atlanta…but on the way down there they somehow end up spending a night at a hippie commune, and then they decide to live there. Hilarity ensues. There’s some nice character work here and the cast is terrific and to the film’s credit it doesn’t make the commune seem entirely lunatic–some of their beliefs are deeply odd, but others make total sense–but for all the warmth and terrific acting, the story doesn’t have a single surprising beat in it. If they set out to make a pleasant movie, they did! But it really could have been something special.

::  The 1993 version of The Three Musketeers isn’t what I would call good, honestly. But it’s fun and watchable and everybody in it seems to be having a good time making a somewhat watered-down swashbuckler, it’s a very nice looking movie, and the most beautiful swords in film history are to be found in this movie. And where it’s top-notch? Michael Kamen’s score, which is quite honestly one of the best adventure-swashbuckler scores ever written. Moreso because Kamen manages to avoid aping Korngold throughout.

::  The Holiday is an absolute delight. It’s a thoughtful rom-com, written and directed by Nancy Meyers (her follow-up to Something’s Gotta Give, which we had already previously watched!). The idea here is that Kate Winslet and Cameron Diaz are women, living in London and LA respectively, whose love lives implode right around Christmas. They connect via the internet, both looking for a getaway, and they decide to swap homes: Winslet goes to LA and Diaz goes to London, and some fish-out-of-water stuff ensues before both meet intriguing men from the other’s circle of loved ones. This movie is wonderfully shot, beautifully acted, intelligently and wittily scripted, and it even boasts a lovely rom-com score by Hans Zimmer, whose rom-com music chops tend to be very underrated. And since this is technically a Christmas movie, I may make it part of our Christmas regimen moving forward.

::  I don’t have much to say about Tower Heist. If you like heist movies in which a group of people who don’t trust each other for various reasons (some of them good) get together to steal a whole bunch of money from someone who deserves to have a whole bunch of money stolen from them, then you’ll probably like this. There is nothing new here, structurally; Act One intros the players and establishes their need for money and who has it; Act Two has the forming of the group and the hatching of the plan; Act Three has the heist where nothing goes right and the plan changes on the fly. This ticks all the boxes, and it does so very well. If that’s what you want, check this out. (Oh, and it has a great cast: Ben Stiller, Eddie Murphy, Alan Alda, Tea Leoni, and Judd Hirsch, and that’s just the ones I remember off the top of my head the day after.)

::  My God, I can’t believe how badly Falling for Figaro faceplants at the end. It’s a rom-com about a woman with a successful finance career who rejects a lucrative promotion so she can go to a tiny village in Scotland (the pub is the village) and learn to sing opera from a cranky has-been singer. Of course, she has a boyfriend to start the movie; of course she incurs the enmity of the local young lad in Scotland, who of course happens to be a really gifted baritone who is also studying to sing and whose “career” is mired in the doldrums until his inspiration arrives in the form of this naive wanna-be. Of course they fall in love along the way, of course they have to sing against one another at the big vocal competition, and so on, and so forth. I love the cast, the music is heavenly, it’s gorgeously shot (it’s the damned Scottish Highlands, I could shoot a gorgeous movie there on my phone). But for one thing, the movie relies on the music too heavily to sell its story, and I can’t believe I’m saying that, but these characters get very few actual conversations to talk about music and why they want it and so on; for another, this is one of those movies that can’t figure out how to get to its desired ending organically so it just…cuts to the ending with a “Three years later” title card. Falling for Figaro could have been really lovely. Alas!

::  The Judge is really well-made. It has a fantastic cast, everyone in it is terrific, and it’s beautifully shot. I just wish it was better written. It’s a mash-up of several genres: the one where “Our hero who escaped the small town for big city success has to go back because of family reasons”, and it’s also a courtroom drama where Our Hero is a defense attorney and the defendant really really really looks pretty damned guilty. In this case, the accused is Our Hero’s father (Robert Duvall), who has been the court judge in this small town for 40 years, and his almost-estranged son, Chicago attorney Robert Downey Jr., has to represent him. Now, the court case does play out not quite in the way one expects, but much of the movie does play out exactly the way one expects: the run-ins with old girlfriends, the family secrets that have been town whispers for decades, and so on and so forth. The Judge is good and certainly worth watching, but it could have been great.

::  Wow, the critics and the Internet were really not into Jerry Seinfeld’s directorial debut, Unfrosted. I actually enjoyed it! I found it mostly entertaining and occasionally downright funny. This fictionalized story of the invention of the Pop Tart has a fantastical, “Willy Wonka” air to it, and I think it might have been hurt by some of Seinfeld’s own weird moves during the movie’s publicity phase, in which he did an interview where he trotted out the tired “you can’t be a comedian now because of woke” stuff, and he also indicated that he wanted this movie to be the “anti-Barbie“, whatever that might have meant. If Seinfeld had just let the movie come out and be what it is–a charming little movie riff on pop culture–it might have been better served.

::  May 25 was a Saturday. So we watched Star Wars, as one does.

::  A Simple Favor is aptly titled: a woman asks a simple favor of her neighbor–“Hey, I’m stuck at work, can you pick my kid up from school for me and I’ll come get him when I get home?”–and from this “simple favor” spins a story of hidden identities, faked deaths, decades-old murders, family secrets, and all sorts of fun whatnot. The movie stars Anna Kendrick (whom I adore) as the naive housewife and cooking vlogger who makes friends with a very high-maintenance power-lawyer type (Blake Lively, who is also fantastic). This story has twists a-plenty and is a pretty fun entry in the “trashy thriller” genre.

::  Irish Wish is a romance starring Lindsay Lohan, who is on her way to Ireland to take part in her friend’s wedding to a guy she has a crush on. Along the way she has a Meet-Cute with a photographer, and then she ends up making a wish at a magic spot: she wishes she was marrying the guy, not her friend. Along comes an Irish wizardress or trickster spirit or something; our heroine mistakes her for a colorful local, but the next morning she wakes up to finding that guy in her shower. Because he’s now her fiance. Is this movie good? Not really. But it’s pretty to look at, so there’s that. And it does have a few amusing moments along the way, and there’s a fun guest-turn by Jane Seymour, believe it or not. (I don’t know why you wouldn’t, actually…Jane Seymour is a perfectly fine actress.)

::  The Fundamentals of Caring gives us Paul Rudd as a guy whose personal life is falling apart: his marriage is failing after a personal tragedy (which isn’t initially spelled out, but is clarified throughout the film in flashback snippets that we have to slowly put together), and whose approach to his own problems seems to be to run away from them. Seeking to make a change in his life, he decides to change careers and become a personal caregiver. His first job is to care for an 18-year-old kid with muscular dystrophy who is possessed of a deeply sarcastic and dark sense of humor and whose main ambition in life is being able to pee standing up. (This actually becomes a plot point.) These two have a rough relationship, so of course the next thing is a sightseeing road trip during which two wounded people who barely get along bond at places both amazing and mundane. It’s the same formula as Rain Man, but again it works pretty well here. Part of that is Paul Rudd playing the usual Paul Rudd kind of character–the nice guy with a sad past who is willing to be mean occasionally if he has to–but it’s a well-written version of this familiar story

::  Slap Shot was never a movie that I wanted to see all that badly, though it’s always been on my list of “Sports movies I should watch someday”. Well, one night I spotted it on Netflix, just a few weeks before the third season of Shoresy was to debut, so I thought, “Might as well check this one off the list now!” And wow, what a movie. Now, even as I write this I’m not exactly much of a hockey fan. I don’t dislike hockey, I just don’t know much about it and as long as the local team is mired in year after year of being crappy, the incentive to learn more about hockey isn’t much there…except for these fiction properties involving hockey. Letterkenny, Shoresy, and now the granddaddy of all fictional hockey stories, Slap Shot. I loved this movie, and to my surprise, The Wife was laughing harder than I was, especially in one scene where our “heroes”, the gritty team from a fading steel town in Pennsylvania, drop their gloves and start fighting the other team during the anthem. I suppose if you’re looking for the kind of hockey that’s grace and speed on ice, this isn’t for you; this is the kind of hockey that gave rise to the joke “I went to a fight, and a hockey game broke out,” and where all the players are battered bloody by the end of every game and more than a few teeth are lost along the way. Paul Newman is gold in this, but of course he is; he’s Paul Newman. Too bad they couldn’t figure a way to get Robert Redford in this.

::  Hitman is a sneakily delightful black comedy about a nerdy college teacher who moonlights for the New Orleans Police, when he’s suddenly asked to do something he’s never done: pretend to be a hitman for hire so that when people hire him (actually giving him the money and saying something direct like “Kill the bitch!”), they can be arrested on the spot. This starts to pose problems when he actually finds himself attracted to one of the potential clients, a young woman who is stuck in an abusive marriage and reaches out to a “hitman” in utter irrational desperation. After this, things go awry in a series of ways that are both expected and unexpected. And of course, along the way our initially nerdy teacher starts reflecting new self-confidence, prompting one student to whisper to the other, “When did he become hot?” Anyway, a fun movie.

::  You know, I really wish that Vinny Gambini, genius car mechanic-turned-attorney, had returned in a series of movies along the lines of the Knives Out series featuring Benoit Blanc. Alas, that wasn’t to be…but at least we have My Cousin Vinny, which I hadn’t actually seen in its entirety in many years. Clips a-plenty on YouTube, sure–who doesn’t like watching the “Two yutes” scene?–but never the entire movie. I remember being surprised to learn that actual trial lawyers love this movie for its actual accurate portrayal of the procedures of a criminal trial, and it’s a really effective courtroom movie, as involving as any great courtroom “drama” I’ve ever seen. What I especially liked this time is that the “fish out of water” stuff–the movie features a foul-mouthed rookie attorney from Brooklyn being sent to the Deep South to defend his first murder case–doesn’t make the “country bumpkins” endlessly the source of jokes. The humor arises from Vinny’s complete unfamiliarity with what he is experiencing down there and his efforts to deal with things he doesn’t get, but never does the movie feel like it’s mocking those people. That’s a tough line to walk, but My Cousin Vinny does it.

::  Crazy Rich Asians is a rom-com about a young, not-so-rich Asian woman who gets engaged to a very rich Asian guy and all the expected complications that ensue, including her entry into his social world (which involve first-class flights home to Singapore) and class-based disapproval from his family. Entertaining, emotional, and also an utterly gorgeous film to behold. It’s visually stunning. If you’ve never wanted to visit Southeast Asia, this will get you wanting to do just that.

::  Netflix recommended Hunt for the Wilderpeople, a 2016 comedy-drama written and directed by Taika Waititi. It’s a unique film, certainly: a teenage boy in New Zealand who has bounced from foster home to foster home is given his last chance, with an older couple who live on a farm in the mountains. The farmwife works hard to make the kid feel at home, but the farmer himself wants very little to do with the kid…and then circumstances arise which force the farmer himself to help the kid, and get to know the kid, and ultimately rely heavily on the kid. I don’t want to say more than that because this is the kind of movie where it’s best you don’t know what’s about to happen–and that being the case, some of the emotional beats in this movie hit hard–but it’s also wonderfully written, beautifully acted, and stunningly filmed. Yes, I know, you remember all the sweeping shots of the New Zealand landscape in The Lord of the Rings, but here you get more of the same…but they’re different landscapes entirely. There’s a lot going on in New Zealand, I assure you! Highly recommended.

And that’s all the movies for the first half of 2024! Tune in in six months for the second half! Well, tune in before that, for other stuff.

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2 Responses to 2024 in movies, 5 sentences each (January through June)

  1. Roger says:

    I haven’t had time to revisit any of those films (Animal House, My Cousin Vinny, Yesterday, Blazing Saddles (I own on DVD), Mamma Mia, the Fugitive…)

  2. Roger says:

    Henry Sugar, BTW, won the Oscar for Best Live Action Short film. I have not seen it. I’ve seen several Wes Anderson films. Some I loved, and one or two, I didn’t like at all. Not having it in a decade, I’m guessing The Grand Badapest Hotel is my favorite. https://www.rogerogreen.com/2014/04/17/movie-review-the-grand-budapest-hotel/

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