Sunday, January 25, 2015

It's Time for My Best Movies List - 2014

Sure, there are the SAG awards, the Critics Awards, the Directors' Awards, the Golden Globes and the Oscars.  But we all know what really matters.

It's Time for my annual Milo Awards for the best in movies in 2014.

It was a down year for movies. There were a lot of disappointments -- movies I heard about, that I was expecting great things from, but which ultimately were disappointing. But even through the chaff, there were some golden grains that sifted through.

Note: I have not seen the following movies, so they were not considered. Theory of Everything (which could change this entire list); Still Alice (by all accounts an incredible performance by Julianne Moore); Cake, Big Eyes, Inherent Vice or Foxcatcher (the Steve Carell drama).

Best Actor:  Winner:  Michael Keaton (Birdman). Great performance in a movie that was
stunning for 100 minutes.  Unfortunately it was 120 minutes long. Using the old phrase, it fell apart in the last reel. But Keaton's performance still shines.

Considered:  Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game); Jake Gyllenhaal (Nightcrawler); David Oyelowo (Selma)

Best Actress:  Reese Witherspoon (Wild).  Wonderful, multi-faceted, gritty performance. Better than her performance in Walk the Line. Just like her backpack, she carried this movie on her shoulders.

Considered:  Emily Blunt (Into the Woods);  Rosamond Pike (Gone Girl); Rene Russo (Nightcrawler)

Best Supporting Actor: Robert Duval (The Judge)

Cosidered:  Edward Norton (Birdman); Vin Diesel (Groot in Guardians of the Galaxy - best 1-word performance ever)

Best Supporting Actress:  Laura Dern (Wild).

Considered:  Emma Stone (Birdman); Meryl Streep (Into the Woods);  Patricia Arquette (Boyhood)

Best song:  Glory (John Legend & Common, Selma)

Considered: Big Eyes (Lana Del Rey, Big Eyes: Yellow Flicker Beat (Lorde, Mockingjay Part 1)

Best Animated Movie:  (Tie)  The Book of Life and The Lego Movie.  Despite Oscar snubs, these were the two best animated movies of 2014. Simply magic.

Considered:  Box Trolls;  Despicable Me 2

1.  American Sniper.  Despite people trying to create a political controversy, Clint Eastwood's film is a staggering movie about what war does to people -- those who fight it and those who stay at home.  It will stay with you long after you watch it.

2.  Wild - Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern as wonderful in this movie about loss and self-discovery set against the challenge of a 1200 mile solo hike.

3. Selma -- Historical inaccuracies aside, this is a really well-done movie that recounts a remarkable episode in our history -- one of which we cannot lose sight.  I just wish they had made it more accurate. Far from opposing Martin Luther King and the Voting Rights Act, President Johnson bravely stood against virtually every other southern politician and worked with King, leading the way in Washington for the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.

4. The Imitation Game -- Benedict Cumberbatch is a wonder in this telling of the greatest secret of World War II. A much more historically accurate film than Selma.

5.  Nightcrawler -- This movie is not for everyone, but it is a caustic reflection on what we have become.

6.  Guardians of the Galaxy -- Okay, when I saw the preview, I thought "Marvel has finally lost it." But this was so entertaining that no best movie list should be without it. Only one thing to say: "Groot!"

7.  Into the Woods -- Great re-telling of the childhood fairy tails of our youth, with a distinctive twist. Emily Blunt is wonderful.

8.  Boyhood -- This is a good, but not great movie, but it has gotten a lot of praise because of the 12 years it took the director and actors to complete this project.  

9.  100 Foot Journey -- It's a bit sappy. But this is a wonderful feel-good movie with wonderful performances. I'd like to see more movies like this.

10.  Birdman -- This is the hardest movie for me to place.  For the first 100 minutes, I loved this movie. It was a great tribute to New York, and acting, and Broadway.  I thought it might be my favorite movie of the year. Michael Keaton was sensational. So too were Emma Stone and Edward Norton. Then, well, it just went all artsy-fartsy, apparently trying for all types of symbolism that just didn't make sense.

11.  Captain America: The Winter Soldier -- Marvel movie-making and story-telling at its best.

12.  Grand Budapest Hotel -- Quirky movie wonderfully done.

13.  Unbroken -- Movie was well done, but it relegated the most important part of Louis Zamparini's story -- what happened when he returned home -- to a couple of sentences the scrolled across the screen at the end. That's why this movie is here, and American Sniper is at the top of the list.

14.  Snow Piercer -- An apocalyptic future sci-fi movie that draws you in to a future world of ice, snow, and classes on a perpetually-moving train.

15.  A Walk Among the Tombstones -- This is a great telling of Lawrence Block's gritty New York City thriller.  Liam Neeson is well-suited for this role of a damaged former cop, but I think many stayed away from this because the trailer looked too much like another of those Taken movies. Too bad because it is much better.

16.  The Fault in Our Stars -- This movie was a surprise. It was not the sappy "Love Story revisted" that I expected. It was really well done.

17.  X-Men -- The Days of Future Past -- Really intelligent, entertaining re-boot of the X-men series. 

18.  Fury -- Brad Pitt stars in a powerful close-up look at war. Brutal and at times heartless, this is at times a hard movie to watch, but very well done.

19.  The Judge -- This isn't a great movie, but it is entertaining with wonderful performances by Robert Duval, Morton Downey Jr., and a great supporting cast.

20.  Gone Girl -- I like Gilllian Flynn's writing and Rosamond Pike is just wonderfully evil in this. But ultimately both the movie and the book suffer from the same malady --  there is simply no one in this movie to root for. 

Also considered:  

Interstellar -- This is on the list because of Matthew McConnaughey and the fantastic special effects. But the plot doesn't hold up to the rest of the movie. A disappointment.
  Mockingjay, Part 1 -- Difficult to make a good movie from half of a book. Lacks the full dramatic structure. But Mockingjay did a nice entertaining job of setting up the finale.

The Hobbit - Battle of the Five Armies -- By this concluding episode, Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings / Hobbit epic is a bit long in the tooth. It has an "I've been here before" feel. But it brings the familiar characters and creatures back one more time for a final battle. I guess that has some value.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Reflection on Visiting Disney World -- 22 Years Later

This past week I met up with my oldest daughter for five days at Disney World.  She is now in her
30s and living with her husband in the Washington, D.C. area. She also loves Disney World.

But I had not been back since she was a young teen, and my two youngest children were about two and four years old.  I wasn't a big fan of Disney, and neither of my youngest children clamored to return. They would rather spend a week at the beach.

So I had not been back to Disney for more than 20 years. And the real reason for returning was to spend time with my daughter.  Disney World was simply the location she chose.

Prices are more than a bit higher than they were 20 years ago. A single day comes in at over $100. But if you plan a longer trip, the per diem price drops considerably. A basic 5-day pass without Park Hopper or Water Park options, and with a AAA discount goes for about $311 - or just over $60 per day. It's only about $15 to add a fifth day to a 4-day pass.

I must say, Disney World 2014 was a pleasant surprise.  Disney's skill at moving masses of people in and out of the park with minimal inconvenience is remarkable. And the park remains spotless, without a trace of age on anything - except by intent.  

The biggest improvement is the electronic tickets with the Fast Pass system. Long gone are the E-tickets, replaced by a modern electronic tickets that look like credit cards or wrist bands that can be purchased.

Fast Pass system that gives those in the know a way to avoid long lines even on the most popular rides. You can pick three rides each day, making reservations for specific times. When you get to the ride, you go to a separate Fast Pass line that admits you at your specific time, and allows you to bypass the long wait.

You can do this up to 30 days in advance on the Disney website. You can also link up tickets for the rest of your group to the same Fast Pass reservations. And after those are used, you might be able to schedule one or two more Fast Pass rides. This must be done in person at a Fast Pass kiosk in one of the parks, and depends on remaining availability for any particular ride.

A big plus is that there are more grown-up roller coasters.  The Mine Ride, Expedition Everest, the Rock 'n Roll Roller Coaster, all are nice additions to the classics such as Space Mountain, Big Thunder Mountain and Splash Mountain.  

But the true classic rides for children are still there. Peter Pan remains a wonderful ride. Dumbo has been updated. And there are still the spinning Tea Party and of course It's a Small World. 

Three of the four parks at Disney are absolutely wonderful.  

Magic Kingdom.  It remains the keystone of the parks, a place of imagination and delight for children and adults alike.It still has all the classic rides like Dumbo, Peter Pan, Haunted Mansion, Pirates of the Caribbean and of course the Jungle Cruise. But it always seems fresh and new.
The entire park still seems sprinkled with Pixie Dust and Disney Magic.

Animal Kingdom.  This was my biggest surprise.  It is my second favorite, only behind the Magic Kingdom on my list.  There is a wonderful mixture of real-life animals and plant life with Disney's own magic creations. I could spend a day just sitting in the shade and watching the world go by. 

Hollywood Studios. This was my least favorite when I last visited, but I must say I now have a different opinion.  I'm still not crazy about the overall layout. The streets seem too narrow, and its hard to find your way around. There are many less-than-top-shelf attractions. But the top level rides are the best in any of the parks. And the evening show is simply the best thing at Disney.

EPCOT.  The Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow is unfortunately in need of a major upgrade. Of all places, this is the one that should never seem dated. But it does. Most of the rides seem tired and not all that different from more than 20 years ago, despite how technology has changed all of our lives.  In someways, it seems like a flashback to the 1990s, not a look forward. Even the Illuminations park-closing fireworks show pales compared to the other parks. 

What does it say when my favorite "attraction" at Epcot was the saki bar at the Japan pavilion and the Bass Ale at the English pub? I enjoy walking around the lake, but if I visit again, I'll probably skip Epcot in favor of an extra day at one of the other parks.

So here are my Top 10 "don't miss" attractions from my recent Disney World trip.

10.  Toy Story Mania - Hollywood Studios: This is one ride you don't want to get a Fast Pass for, not because there isn't a long line (there is), but because the line is almost as much fun as the ride. You wind through a maze of all your childhood delights, oversized: Scrabble, Twister, Tinker Toys, Lincoln Logs, Crayolas. But the electronic pie-shooting target game is fun, too. Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin in the Magic Kingdom is similar - just not quite as much fun.

9.    Finding Nemo Musical - Animal Kingdom. This was the biggest surprise of the trip. This is a full-scale 40-minute musical version of Finding Nemo, complete with extraordinary costumes, special effects, and wonderful performances. Young or old, don't miss this.

8.    Space Mountain - Magic Kingdom. Still doing it in the dark. And still a thrill.

7.    Peter Pan Flight - Magic Kingdom. If any ride at Disney World is sprinkled with Pixie Dust, this is it. It is simply magical as you fly off to Never Never Land.

6.    Twilight Zone Tower of Terror - Hollywood Studios. Love the homage to Rod Serling. Well done ride that is different every time you ride. 

5.    Kilimanjaro Safari - Animal Kingdom. Personally, I would rather spend time close up with real life than watching Disney animatronics.  This gives you a close up view of giraffes, big cats, elephants, rhinos, crocks, wildebeests, and birds of all types, all in an environment that mimics their natural habitat.  

4.    Rock 'n Roll Roller Coaster - Hollywood Studios. Lives up to the Areosmith hype. You're upside down before you've settled into your seat - and the ride doesn't slow down until you're done. It's the best pure roller coaster experience at Disney.

3.    Expedition Everest -- Animal Kingdom.  Another true roller coaster, but with a few more surprises and  Disney touches than the Rock 'n Roll coaster. Pure fun that might even take your breath away.

2.    Seven Dwarfs Mine Ride - Magic Kingdom. This is Disney's newest coaster, and it is a work of art. I've never been on a true roller coaster that is as smooth as this ride. It incorporates the Disney experience, taking you through the bejeweled mine where the dwarfs are working. My view of this ride is a bit skewed because my daughter and I, by happenstance, timed it perfectly to take the ride as the Magic Kingdom fireworks exploded directly overhead. It made for a memorable, dare I say magical, experience.

1.    Fantasmic -- Hollywood Studios. This evening spectacular closes Hollywood Studios for the evening. It is the one absolute "DON'T MISS" at Disney World. Whoever conceived, designed and planned this show deserves some type of national award. It is the consummate Disney experience. Mickey runs the show calling up images of Fantasia. But every Disney character is there, either in person or in laser-light images cast against flowing water. Then there are the villains, particularly Maleficent, the Queen from Sleeping Beauty. Not to entirely give away the story, but by special effects she is transformed into the towering, fire-breathing dragon right before your eyes.  Fantasmic is everything that makes Disney great. It is a tribute to the genius of Walt Disney and the creativeness of those who follow in his footsteps.