¡Fo Reels, Yo! (...and for rants, and for other things too.)

1989 - DO THE RIGHT THING (Spike Lee, director) (Universal)

Genre: Neighborhood-Drama

Tagline: It's the hottest day of the summer.
               You can do nothing, you can do something, or you can...

Synopsis:  Mookie is a black 20-something who lives and works (as a pizzeria delivery man for "Sal's Famous") in a predominately but not exclusively black area of Brooklyn.  Through his deliveries, Mookie is allowed to interact with the entire neighborhood.  One filled with a vast array of distinct characters, from different backgrounds, political and social leanings but united in an edge.  An angry edge enhanced by an oppressive heat wave.  That edge boils over by nightfall in a fight which takes place inside the pizzeria, between its owner, Sal Frangione, and one of his customers, Radio Raheem.  Responding police officers grab Radio Raheem, put him in an illegal choke hold and to everyone's dismay, kill the young man before driving off.  Stunned, Mookie needs to do something.

Our Take:  Surreal in it's vivid colors (Lee had an entire city block repainted before shooting) and unique camera tricks but even stronger in its very real message.  The characters seem so authentic, the story so powerful, and yet it all unfolds organically.  Incredible mix of style and substance.  The first but not the last time Lee's Oscar was robbed.

1990 - GOODFELLAS (Martin Scorsese, director) (Warner Brothers)

Genre: Mob-Drama; Biography; Period Piece

Tagline: Murderers come with smiles.

Synopsis: As far back as he can remember, Henry Hill wanted to be a mobster, a wiseguy, a goodfella.  The fast money, girls, violence, and respect that violence garnered (all while working stiffs struggled in simply getting by) enticed Henry to even as a kid, roll with made men.  Despite being half Irish, and thus incapable of ever becoming made himself, Henry still happily did his part.  From being a numbers runner, to petty thief, to debt collector, to co-orchestrator of one of the biggest heists ever committed, Henry loved his life.  But when he disobeys his crime boss, Big Paulie Cicero, and secretly gets into the drug racket, things begin to fall apart.  Henry finds that simple survival supersedes all of the life-long romantic notions he had always held for la cosa nostra.  

Our Take:  Greatest.  Movie.  Ever.

1991 - HANGIN' WITH THE HOMEBOYS (Joseph Vasquez, director) (New Line)

Genre: Neighborhood-Comedy

Tagline: Four guys, one night, no problems.

Synopsis:  With nothing to do, a group of acquaintances (two black, one Puerto Rican, and one Puerto Rican pretending to be Italian) from the Bronx, decide to go clubbing together in Manhattan.  Tom, an aspiring actor, and Johnny, who has recently gained a college scholarship are looking for a way out of the Bronx.  Willie, a black nationalist who doesn't work, go to school, or even bother to vote, looks down at Tom as being a sellout.  This while Fernando (who calls himself Vinny) contributes even less to society while still looking down on Johnny for being soft.  Despite the multi-layered tension, they're all united in the pursuit of good times.  Good times which, for different reasons, becomes nearly impossible for each to achieve.

Our Take:  Immediately following in the footsteps of Spike Lee, the early '90s became a boom for novice filmmakers in New York.  For a very brief moment in time this new generation including Matty Rich, Nick Gomez, and Joseph Vasquez took the indie film world by storm.  Ultimately it was not to be.  Failed second efforts on the parts of all three saw Rich leave the business completely, Gomez turn to television, and Vasquez slip down a dangerous road of self destruction.  He died in 1995, at the age of 32.  Sadly, Homeboys shows us what could have been.  A pre-Swingers type of "guys night out" flick which tries capturing the early '90s NYC club scene in much the same way Swingers captures the mid '90s LA lounge scene.  Done on a smaller budget, and in a sillier, more slapstick sort of way, but also revealing a darker less "feel good" message to both dating and friendship.

1992 - GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS (James Foley, director) (New Line)

Genre: Office-Drama

Tagline: Lie.  Cheat.  Steal.  All in a day's work.

Synopsis:  Old timer, Shelley Levene, used to be one of the top real estate agents in town.  Used to be.  Now, like most of his aging, broke, all male   coworkers, Shelley is struggling to make a sale.  Any sale.  John Williamson, their lightly respected young boss (and son-in-law of the agency's CEO) brings in a cut throat named Blake one morning to shake things up.  Blake is there to kick ass, belittle the losers, and show them the necessary brass balls needed in being a true closer.  The entire office is left aghast by Blake's demands.  All are now desperate to hold onto their jobs.  Shelley even more so.      

Our Take:  Too much good can be bad.  Foley keeps this from being true.  In fact, through the camera's rich use of colors which matches the rich dialogue, and by changing the original play's setting from Chicago to Brooklyn (always a positive) as well as adding the Blake character, Foley does the remarkable.  He turns a powerful play into an even better movie.  Of course having one of the best ensemble casts to ever share a screen helps, but again Foley walks a tightrope in keeping all that good, good.

1993 - SEARCHING FOR BOBBY FISCHER (Steve Zaillian, director) (Paramount)

Genre: Family-Drama

Tagline: Every journey begins with a single move.

Synopsis:  For most of his young life, Josh Waitzkin seems to be a normal 8 year old kid.  But after a game of chess with his father, Josh's talents as a chess prodigy are suddenly revealed.  In the span of a year he goes from winning matches against local hustlers in Washington Square Park, to getting his own world renowned chess instructor, to becoming one of the top ranked junior players in the world.  All agree that Josh has the tools to become the next Bobby Fischer.  But does Josh want to be the next Bobby Fischer?

Our Take:  Based on Josh Waitzkin's true story, Zaillian does a commendable job of sticking to actual events while allowing this film to play to mainstream, Hollywood audiences.  Like Rudy, which came out the same year, this caters to the "feel good" crowd.  No shame there, when again, like Rudy, it is done intelligently.

1994 - BULLETS OVER BROADWAY (Woody Allen, director) (Miramax)

Genre: Mob-Comedy; Period Piece

Tagline: A killer comedy.

Synopsis:  A young but only mediocre playwright, David Shayne, arrives to New York in 1928 from his native Pittsburgh to make it on the Great White Way.  Sorta.  Along with his girlfriend Ellen, they live amongst Bohemians more interested in creating art than ever selling out.  Unsuccessful at either, David finally has an opportunity to get one of his screenplays produced.  To do so, however, he must first sell himself.  Only after agreeing to cast a mobster's talentless girlfriend for the lead role does David learn about true art and its importance in the grand scheme of things.  

Our Take:  Has a glossy almost silly look to it, but that only helps in slipping an intelligent story and some comedic twists onto its viewers.  We love Woody Allen when he goes dark (Crimes and Misdemeanors) and we love him when he adds freshness to the Upper West Side wine-and-cheese party banter (Annie Hall).  Here he does both while still bringing his special brand of funny.  Maybe not as good as the aforementioned films, but still Woody on top of his game.

1995 - KIDS (Larry Clark, director) (Miramax)

Genre: Neighborhood-Drama

Tagline: A day in the lives of average, run of the mill teens.

Synopsis:  Telly is an amoral 17 year old, downtown skater kid lacking in any conscience.  He spends his time skating, stealing, and scamming while barely getting by.  He likes partying and getting high but his real love is in deflowering 12/13 year old virgins.  Although he doesn't know it, he's also HIV positive.  When Jennie, a girl in his crew who has only slept with Telly tests positive, she tries tracking him down.  The race is on for Jennie to find Telly before he sleeps with any other young girls.

Our Take:  An Indie-90s, docudrama looking, low budget flick with enough sensationalism to put any parent in panic mode.  Clark works with a cast of first timers, almost all still in their teens, and almost all actual locals.  He gets some surprisingly strong performances out of them, but also loses points for trying too hard to shock.  

1996 - BASQUIAT (Julian Schnabel, director) (Miramax)

Genre: Art House Drama; Biography

Tagline: In 1981, a 19 year old graffiti writer took the art world by storm.
               The rest is art history.

Synopsis:  A simple rise and fall type story, Jean-Michel Basquiat was a homeless graffiti artist (but one from an educated, well-to-do background) upon being discovered by Andy Warhol.  Overnight this inner city, college-aged kid becomes a star within the post-modern art community.  Like the many who are not ready for fame and fortune, slowly it all comes tumbling down as his life does a complete 360.  Back at the bottom, but no longer young or fresh, with Warhol no longer around, and with other bridges burned, there is now no one to help when he needs it the most. 

Our Take:  Through the rich cast, and many cameos, Schnabel succeeds in making a beautifully shot minimalist film.  One which fits well with Basquiat's art of the 1980s, and also the indie-movie scene of the 1990s.  Still this was panned for its simplicity upon release, particularly by those who actually knew the fallen artist. Critics and even its star saw it more as Schnabel's bio than Basquiat's.  Either way, it's still the best NY flick of 1996.  Much praise considering how deep that particular year was.

1997 - PRIVATE PARTS (Betty Thomas, director) (Paramount)

Genre: Slapstick-Comedy; Biography

Tagline: Never before has a man done so much with so little.

Synopsis:  The inside story of the man who would become king of all media.  We watch as nerdy, geeky, awkward Howard Stern stumbles through childhood, college years, and early adulthood as a radio dj in various small markets before suddenly finding himself.  His real voice.  Still a nerd and geek, it's his breaking of all Main Stream Media taboos, including his unrepentant, unapologetic love for hot-assed slutty lesbians that makes him the innovative radio voice of truth.  It also makes him the original "shock-jock" and number one radio personality in the country.  But is all that truth too much for conservative programmers to handle?  

Our Take:  Surprisingly sweet.  Several hot-assed slutty lesbians aside, rather mainstream for a bio pic about an anti-mainstream icon.  Maybe the real Howard Stern is just a gentle family man after all.  Either way, we know he's giving.  This comedy does much more in showing the people who helped Howard along the way than in glorifying Howard himself.

1998 - Pi (Darren Aronofsky, director) (Live Entertainment)

Genre: Suspense-Thriller

Tagline: Faith in chaos.

Synopsis:  Math prodigy Max Cohen is a genius.  His love, his life, his obsession is in numbers, particularly the infinite fractions of pi which he feels can unlock the secret code to life itself.  This love pushes him to the brink, however, as he struggles daily with serious migraines and a general discontent.  While fighting his inner demons, Max is also being courted by two separate groups.  Wall Street financiers who think Max' findings can unveil patterns within the stock market, and a sect of Orthodox Jewish Rabbis who think Max' work can unveil some message from God.  The added pressure of these haunting groups worsen Max' migraines to the point where his head is about to explode.  Something must give for Max to continue living.   

Our Take:  Where as Dog Day Afternoon was so unbelievable it had to have been true, Pi is so unbelievable (a thriller where the predators are a number, Wall Street suits, and an odd sect of Rabbis?) it had to have come from the world of top-notch indie filmmaking.  Despite a shoe string budget, Aronofsky matches his originality with an excellent use of shadows and highly stylized effects.  Although the quick and constant repeated shots don't really work in his next film (Requiem for a Dream, a two hour "just say no" commercial) here they fit perfectly with Max Cohen's quick and constant repeated inner thoughts.  Thoughts so damning that in one way or another they are begging to be released to the outside world.

1999 - BRINGING OUT THE DEAD (Martin Scorese, director) (Paramount)

Genre: Action-Drama

Tagline: Saving a life is the ultimate rush.

Synopsis:  Fast talking, fast driving, hard drinking Frank Pierce, a cowboy of a paramedic was once the best in town.  After failing to save a dying asthma victim however, he becomes haunted by visions of her.  As other dying patients become a more common occurrence, Frank falls deeper into despair and the world of insomnia-induced hallucination.  Driving ambulances around at night, through the dark, gloomy areas that gentrification has yet to touch, Frank is now simply bringing out the dead.  He is the one in need of saving before becoming another victim of the cold, city streets. 

Our Take:  With feverish cuts and eye popping computer graphics which match The Matrix, Scorsese takes flashy late-90s technology and slaps it on a somber mid-70s story that has the feel of '50s styled noir.  Although hidden better than in previous decades, New York is and will always be a city filled with darkness.  Here Scorsese (in his last great work) again reminds us of this, while delving into one of the city's many lost souls.

2000 - AMERICAN PSYCHO (Mary Harron, director) (Lions Gate Films)

Genre: Horror-Thriller

Tagline: No introduction necessary. 

Synopsis:  Set in the "Greed is Good" 1980s, Patrick Bateman is a young Wall Street player quickly climbing the corporate ladder to endless fortune.  Despite his impressive social standing, Bateman's animalistic hunger is always in need of more money and power.  A hunger which delves into self-hatred, envy, and the intense feeling that the lives of others are worthless.  Lacking in any compassion but for the material, Bateman's monster is soon released as he becomes a gruesome, serial killing sociopath.  Only his impulses to kill seem to soothe Bateman's hunger.  Impulses which Bateman himself can't stop.  Impulses which can't be stopped by Bateman's colleagues either.  An inner   circle of people too consumed in their own quest for the material to even notice Bateman's terrifyingly horrific actions. 

Our Take:
  Harmon stylistically captures the shallowness of the '80s, slashes through the unforgettably gruesome violence and leaves us with a timeless (and at times, very funny) satire on the emptiness of Modern American toy chasers.  Special bonus for casting an out of control sociopath to play an out of control sociopath!

2001 - VANILLA SKY (Cameron Crowe, director) (Paramount)

Genre: Sci-fi Drama

Tagline: Is your subconscious your conscious? 
               Is your conscious your subconscious?

Synopsis:  An heir to his recently deceased father's publishing empire, David Aames is filthy rich and still fairly young, when meeting Sophia at a cocktail party.  An ex-girlfriend, Julianna is also there, watching jealously.  Days later Julianna spots David, gets him into her car, and relentlessly berates him before recklessly driving off a bridge.  David survives but is left with severe facial  deformities while Julianna is killed.  After plastic surgery and time to recover, David again runs into Sophia.  A relationship, haunted by hallucinations of  Julianna, ensues but when things turn very ugly, David must sort out which parts are actual and which were simply dreamt.

Our Take:  A remake of Spain's Abre Los Ojos, this version is colder though a technical marvel and stylistically awe inspiring.  Like The King of Comedy and Basquiat, this was panned by critics.  Again, the critics (who somehow did like Crowe's previous uneven, long winded, and ridiculously corny, efforts; Singles and Jerry Maguire) were incredibly wrong.  Accused of being over the top and pretentious, Crowe uses David's endless supply of cash and his own endless supply of story turns and sci-fi tricks to underscore a popular theme of his; the simple but infinite importance of being loved. 

2002 - 25th HOUR (Spike Lee, director) (Buena Vista Pictures)

Genre: Crime-Drama

Tagline: One choice...once last night...24 hours to live a lifetime.

Synopsis:  Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, Monty Brogan reexamines his life.  He has one night of freedom to do so before facing his biggest decision yet.  Brogan, convicted on drug charges and out on bail before staring down a seven year sentence, is in some respect, living the final night of his life.  One last night of resentful anger to go over the situation he's in.  One last night of happiness with his dad and the two childhood friends he has grown up with.  One last night of ambiguity, with the girlfriend he suspects might have tipped off the cops, but the same person he dreams of skipping bail and running off with.  No matter what he decides, by daybreak, Monty's life will never again be the same.

Our Take:  Although drawn out (at times feeling 25 hours long) and a bit "on the nose" in dialogue, Lee deserves much praise for tapping into the hostility that lingers deep inside each New Yorker, even after the post-9/11 unification of the city.  All the characters here are openly fighting their own demons, particularly Monty, who, through a bathroom mirror chaotically vocalizes his hate for all types of New Yorkers.  It's not, however, a cheap, repeated DTRT trick.  Rather it reinforces the anger that New Yorkers still have for each other even during a time when we were all working together against a far greater, more hateful, murderous enemy.  Unlike the DTRT monologues, here we also find closure as Monty concludes that he and not any rival ethnic or social group, is to blame for his own troubles.

2003 - ELF (Jon Favreau, director) (New Line)

Genre: Family-Comedy

Tagline: This holiday, discover your inner elf.

Synopsis:  On the North Pole with the rest of Santa's helpers, Buddy is raised to believe he is just another elf.  Three times the size of others and at least three times more clumsy, Buddy is suspicious.  These suspicions are confirmed when it is revealed that he's not only human, but that he's actually a New Yorker.  Buddy returns to his native land to reunite with his biological father, a Scrooge of a man who ironically works as a publisher for children's books.  Buddy's fish out of water adventures take several turns until he's in a position to truly connect with his recently discovered dad, while also saving Christmas.

Our Take:  It's kinda cute, kinda warm, kinda funny, kinda imaginative, and in the mother of all mind-numbingly weak years for New York films, it manages to be the "best" of 2003.

2004 - MARIA FULL OF GRACE (Joshua Marston, director) (Fine Line)

Genre: Crime-Drama

Tagline: How far will she go before she's gone too far?

Synopsis:  Maria Alvarez is a 17 year old from Bogota.  Stuck in a job she hates, living with overly demanding family members, pregnant by a boy she doesn't love, and unable to get out of the poverty that is Columbia, Maria takes a chance.  Work as drug mule for local mobsters who offer a huge payday and the opportunity to leave everything behind for a new life in New York.  Things do not go as easily as promised, and it's upon her arrival to New York (Newark International, to start) where things begin to quickly, and dangerously unravel.

Our Take:  Perhaps a smartest director category?  Marston would be our pick.  He proves that all the pseudo realistic but still highly sensational drug movies of the past had it wrong.  Marston is the first to understand the "Keep It Simple, Stupid!" philosophy.  Realizing that the international drug trade is in itself shocking enough, Marston instead puts attention on a real story, with a real main character.  One we can not only understand, but want to learn more about.  A main character that is obviously tied to drugs, but done in such an authentically delicate manner, it never needs to shock in playing up "the drug angle."  Through his lead and her situation of course, Marston again succeeds.  Maria manages to make more of a political statement than Traffic ever dreamed of while avoiding tired clichés, and comically "scary" moments that Traffic and many-many others fall into.  This is not another silly "just say no" PSA.  It's a doc-styled, honest look at the drug trade.  Without playing the victimization card (everyone is fully aware of what they're getting into) and without slipping into melodrama, it's also an honest look at the casualties of that trade.

2005 - BROKEN FLOWERS (Jim Jarmusch, director) (Focus Features)

Genre: Dry-Comedy

Tagline: Sometimes life brings strange surprises.

Synopsis:  Back in the day, Don Johnston (with a "t") was a real ladies man.  Never having settled down, he's now alone while slipping into old age.  One day he get an anonymous note from a former girlfriend stating that he's the father of a 19 year old.  With the help of his friend, Winston, a would-be detective, Don skips from town-to-town in search of the mystery writer.  Subsequently, this allows Don the opportunity to relive his past one final time before finally saying goodbye to it. 

Our Take:  OK, so this ain't a New York flick.  In our defense, despite its "Anytowns, USA" feel, one brief scene was shot at JFK Airport and the rest was shot entirely in the surrounding (nearby Westchester and New Jersey) areas.  Ironically, the fact that so many locations seemed to be a short drive from the city was our one problem with this piece.  Jarmusch uses planes to skip through these towns which makes little sense since it's obvious he's never leaving the Northeast.  At least get rid of the many NY and NJ license plates, no?  That faux pas aside, this is still a fun character changing "in search of" film.  Much more sincere than the whiney Lost in Translation which it's often compared to, this is also Jarmusch's most accessible work to date.  Hardly "Hollywood" in its subtlety, it still portrays a strong ambivalence to the past that anyone of age can relate to.

2006 - INSIDE MAN (Spike Lee, director) (Universal)

Genre: Bank-Heist

Tagline: It looked like the perfect bank robbery. 
               But you can't judge a crime by its cover.

Synopsis:  Thieves in hooded orange jump suits storm a Wall Street bank.  They later dress their hundreds of hostages in the same exact uniform.  Their ring leader, Dalton Russell, then plays a game of chess with police detective Keith Frazier, setting his moves for escape.  From the inside.

Our Take:  Lee's fast paced camera work matches an intelligent, witty, funny, politically incorrect, and thrilling story that like Dog Day Afternoon (which gets a mention here) leaves us wanting to rob banks!  Lee and his all-star cast are all at their best.  Incredibly and unjustly shut out of even one single Oscar nomination.  Luckily, Vinny is here.

2007 - AMERICAN GANGSTER (Ridley Scott, director) (Universal)

Genre: Cops and Robbers Drama; Period Piece

Tagline: There are two sides to the American dream.

Synopsis:  Frank Lucas uses his smarts and muscle in rising up through Harlem's underworld during the chaotic late '60s and early '70s.  He takes control at a time when Harlem's criminal elements had no leader.  Ritchie Roberts uses his smarts and unflinching honesty in rising up through the police ranks at a time when corruption ran amok.  Frank, using US Army connections in war-torn Vietnam is New York's top heroin dealer.  Ritchie, studying to pass the bar exam, only has the law and a small handful of friends on his side in his quest of stopping Frank.  Then again, with Ritchie's never ending tenacity, he needs little more.

Our Take:  Take a basic cop/criminal story, add a bunch of ridiculously unbelievable events, have it stretch out for over 2 1/2 hours, sprinkle in one final dab of understanding and even friendship between that cop and criminal, and well, you're left with a trite, silly, bloated, melodramatic mess.  Unless that is, it was actually true and you were spending your 2 1/2 hours with Ridley Scott and his superbly acted cast.  Remarkable for cramming in so much story, for seeming so authentic, for paying such attention to detail, for taking chances, and for being both, mega budget action flick, and an intelligent character study.  Scott gives us the best crime epic since Goodfellas, way back when Scorsese was still king.  There is one critique.  All of those vastly inferior films since Goodfellas (a couple by Scorsese himself) have sorta ruined this entire genre for us.  We'll try getting over that.  In the mean time, Vinny is here to again fix what Oscar got so horribly wrong.

2008 - THE VISITOR (Thomas McCarthy, director) (Overture Films)

Genre: Human Drama

Tagline: Connection is everything.

Synopsis:  Walter Vale, a recently widowed 60-something year old college professor from upscale Connecticut, returns to a spare Manhattan apartment only to find that he is a visitor there.  The apartment, illegally sublet to Tarek and Zainab, a pair of illegal aliens from Syria and Senegal respectively, has been occupied without Walter's consent or knowledge for months.  Lonely and isolated from life, Walter decides to let the couple stay with him.  Despite some slight suspicions from Zainab, Walter and Tarek easily warm up to each other.  Before long, the young, witty, outgoing Syrian street performing drummer even has the older more subdued professor learning to play as well.  Their friendship is halted as a mix up on the subway gets Tarek arrested and later held in a hidden immigration detention center in Long Island City, Queens.  Now Tarek's only hope for freedom, can Walter's newly found zeal for life be enough against the bureaucratic forces of post 9/11 America?

Our Take:  Despite a one time showing at the 2007 Toronto International Film Fest, we're still calling this an '08 film.  And by overlooking this one screening, we have an indie gem to rally behind in what was otherwise a somewhat overrated year for both New York and non-New York films alike.  Thomas McCarthy follows The Station Agent with another quiet yet heart felt piece subtly documenting everyday humanity at its best.  Unlike, say, Rachel Getting Married, which manages to be both the most annoying and politically correct film of the year, Visitor remains pure in capturing the beauty of American multiculturalism.  It shows New York as the melting pot it is without hitting us over the head in its anti-Lou Dobbs message.  As such, this message becomes only stronger.  Extra points for featuring a few of New York's more famous buskers.