1917 poster

Emotionally rich, hilarious and exciting, “Onward” (Disney-Pixar, 2020, 103 min.) is the first great movie of the year. (I’ve already seen it twice, the second time to try and scrutinize the Easter eggs and background detail.) Its intriguing notions about magic vs. technology would make for a great double bill with Ralph Bakshi’s “Wizards” (1977).

Once upon a time, there was magic, and a world populated by wizards, elves and all manner of mythological creatures. But rather than learn a complicated illumination spell, it was easier to invent the light bulb. This leads to a modern world that still hearkens back to the storybook: suburban little boxes with mushroom roofs, castles turned theme restaurants.

In this droll, inviting milieu, two elven brothers Ian and Barley Lightfoot (Tom Holland and Chris Pratt) are given a magic staff left to them by their late father. The boys—Ian the unsure and insecure sort and Barley the blustering screw-up—try to resurrect their dead dad but only succeed in bringing back the lower half of his body. The guys climb into their ’70s beater van with a Pegasus painted on it in a madcap road trip/quest to track down what they need to finish the spell.

It’s only afterwards, taking in the rosy glow of the end credits that I realized that “Onward” was something of a reunion for two of my favorite cast members from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Tom Holland’s Ian is certainly very close to what he’s done with the character of Peter Parker in the recent “Spider-Man” movies, and Chris Pratt is doing a variation on the brash, loud-mouthed Peter Quill in the “Guardians of the Galaxy” films. Julia Louis-Dreyfuss is a dowdy delight as the kids’ up-and-at-‘em mom, likewise Octavia Spencer and Mel Rodriguez as, respectively, a brassy manticore and a cop centaur, who is also the kids’ mom’s new boyfriend.

Think of your very favorite Pixar movies. I’m thinking of “Coco” and “Wall-E” and “The Incredibles” and “Inside Out” and the first three “Toy Story” movies. Behold! Forsooth! “Onward” ranks up with the very best films that the studio has produced.

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Ben Affleck wasn’t my favorite Batman for sure, but even back in the day when he was making junk like “Pearl Harbor” and “Paycheck,” I knew he was a very talented actor. I’d seen his promise early on in films like “Chasing Amy,” “Dogma” and “Changing Lanes.”  He’d co-written his own movie early on and won an Academy Award. Since his “Gigli” days, he’s turned out to be a talented filmmaker, too, helming “The Town” and the Oscar-winning “Argo.”

So, I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised at how good Ben Affleck is in Gavin O’Connor’s “The Way Back” (Warner Bros., 2020, 108 min.), in which he plays Jack Cunningham, a self-loathing alcoholic tasked with going back to his Catholic high school, where he was a star basketball player, to coach the new kids.

I’ll admit that I’d seen the film’s trailer so many times before it opened that I was derisively referring to it amongst friends as “Not Hoosiers.” That is the curse of doing this job as long as I have: Most movies, you feel like you’ve seen them a thousand times. But as Roger Ebert once wrote, it’s not what it’s about but how it’s about it.

“The Way Back” does manage to hit every sports movie and recovery movie cliché, but done in understated ways that respect the audience’s intelligence and never come off as didactic or mawkish. Affleck taps into an anger that I haven’t really seen since his extended cameo in “Boiler Room,” and the supporting cast is top-notch, starting with the team itself, where we meet the usual school archetypes: the team leader, the screw-up, the lothario. Then there’s Janina Gavankar as his estranged wife; Brad Inglesby’s screenplay is very smart about where in the story we discover the reason that Jack began drinking. Al Madrigal as the team’s assistant coach and John Aylward (“Down with Love”) as the Father who recruits Jack are also low-key and effective.

It’s common knowledge that Affleck has some experience with addiction, and it’s the little fetishistic details—the way he puts the next beer in the freezer, the way he ritualistically raps his fingers on the can that he’s opening—that make the character cast a real shadow. And “The Way Back” has enough respect for all of its characters that the story’s not over after the last winning game of the season.

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I suspect that Sam Mendes got the idea of shooting a feature film in one unbroken shot when he directed a similar sequence as the opening of the James Bond film “Spectre” set in Mexico during “Day of the Dead” festivities. What turned out as a spectacular opening sequence still won’t prepare you for Mendes’ latest, the Oscar-winning 1917 (Universal, 2019, 119 min.), now available on iTunes and home video.

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