Welcome to 5 Favorites. Each week, I will put together a list of my 5 favorites (films, performances, whatever strikes my fancy) along with commentary on a given topic each week, usually in relation to a specific film releasing that week.
With five tremendous actresses working together on this stylish action film, it feels appropriate to take a look at my favorite film from each. For some of them I have multiple favorites, but I’m going to limit myself to one for each of Angela Bassett, Karen Gillan, Carla Gugino, Lena Headey, and Michelle Yeoh.
Ranking among the great science fiction films in history, Contact has the contemplative nature of traditional literary sci-fi, with the grand scale of modern blockbusters. It’s a film that remains compelling almost 25 years after its initial release. It stars Jodie Foster as a passionate astronomer who receives, and helps decipher, a communique from a distant alien species. After a terrorist cell blows up the first transportation vessel, a second one is built that will take Foster to meet this faraway alien race.
Filled with wonder as much as it’s filled with political and philosophical themes, the film fires on nearly every cylinder, the lone misfire being Matthew McConaughey’s weak performance. Angela Bassett doesn’t have a huge role here, she plays a congresswoman in the film, but she gives the film’s finale potency and delivers the film’s most important line. This is every bit Foster’s vehicle and she’s wonderful to watch. While it might not be the kind of performance that won her Oscars, it’s no less a towering achievement. Further, while director Robert Zemeckis has struggled to make anything half as good as this film and numerous other of his prior efforts, he did something incredibly right with this film, which leaves an indelible impression on all who would see it.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)
Until Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, director Ang Lee made movies on a small scale. After well received outings in Taiwanese cinema, Lee branched out with Sense and Sensibility, which made a star of Kate Winslet and brought him his first Oscar attention. His film was nominated although he was not. After that, he delivered the critically acclaimed The Ice Storm. Upon release, this film was a huge hit with American audiences and landed his picture 10 Oscar nominations, including two for Lee himself. The film would go on to win four Oscars, including Best Foreign Language Film, a category his films had been twice nominated for before. Although it would be another 5 years before he scored his first of two Oscars, this film will be one of the few that are best remembered by audiences and critics alike.
This fantasy Wuxing martial arts film is a gorgeous picture with wonderful settings and spectacular effects. The film co-stars Chow Yun-fat, Michelle Yeoh, and Ziyi Zhang. Yeoh was already a well known actress in American cinema, but the other two were breakout successes, each finding plenty of new work in American-made films. The film is about a young Chinese warrior who steals a sword from a noted swordsman and then goes on a high, romantic adventure. It’s exciting, breathtaking, and death-defying. Nearly every part of the film works with Ziyi and Yeoh delivering the film’s two best performances.
The Lookout (2007)
Trying to prove himself to be more than the kid from 3rd Rock from the Sun, Joseph Gordon-Levitt has done a tremendous job stepping into the cinematic world as an actor of solid skill. After the popular television series ended, he embarked on a long quest to carve out a Hollywood career of esteem and managed to do so with the one-two punch that was Mysterious Skin and Brick in 2004/2005. Although I haven’t been able to catch either film, The Lookout is one I did catch and it’s well worth the effort. Gordon-Levitt plays a once-promising High School athlete left with a brain dysfunction that prevents him from forming new long-term memories, a condition he manages through use of a small notebook.
While working as a janitor at a bank, he becomes involved in a major heist of the institution and must come to grips with the reality around him and the memories of the event he struggles to maintain. Co-starring Jeff Daniels, Matthew Goode, Isla Fisher, and Carla Gugino, the film doesn’t give Gugino enough to do, but it’s a taut heist film directed by Scott Frank (writer of Get Shorty, Minority Report, and Out of Sight among others). Frank does fine work with this action thriller and while it’s not in the upper tiers of such films, it’s certainly one of the best Gugino has ever worked on and is among Gordon-Levitt’s best performances.
The Purge (2013)
I’ve talked several times in the past about this film, the progenitor of a series of films and television series that delve into the heart of the class struggles between the wealthy elites and the working class poor, a notable rebuke of racism an important sub-thread. While the first film tackles that notion as a general concept and less as a foundational element of its plot, there’s just enough tinkering with the idea to make itself potent.
Forced to make his ambitious concept into a horror film with a very limited budget, James DeManaco’s American directorial debut is a fascinating locked house horror feature that stars Ethan Hawke and Lena Headey. Hawke is the designer of a security system that can be used during the annual Purge, a bloodletting exercise that enables the populace to get their violent instincts satisfied by legalizing all crime, including murder, from sunset to sunrise one day a year. As he prepares to secure his family behind the metal shutters of his safehouse, the rescue of an outsider (Edwin Hodge) being pursued by a group of bloodthirsty rich teens, endanger them all with a riveting exploration of the overarching theme left mostly as background detail, but potent detail nonetheless.
Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017)
This is actually the second time I’ve tackled a favorite film of Karen Gillan, but the last time I went with her stint on Doctor Who. It was a bit of a dodge then, but this time, to avoid duplication, I’m going to stick to the big screen and there’s one obvious film for this week’s 5 Favorites Redux: Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. Based on a children’s book and a prior 1995 adaptation starring Robin Williams, this film is a new adventure set with different characters, but the same fantasy game world. In the original film, the kids had been playing with an obscure board game that caused a breach between worlds where the universe of the game began impeding on the real world.
For this 2017 feature, the story is about four High School students sentenced to detention who discover an old Atari-like video game console in the storage room of the school. Intending to just divert themselves a little from their monotonous work, the four are sucked into the video game itself where they are embodied by stars Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Jack Black, and Karen Gillan. As the four discover their precarious situation and struggle to find a way to get themselves free, they embark on a grand, hilarious adventure to save the world of the video game and thus escape back to their own reality. Gillian is the absolute MVP of the film, far outperforming her funny co-stars. Black is almost her equal as is Hart. Johnson does deliver his best performance to date, but he’s just a step behind his co-stars in what is one of the funniest films of the last decade.