2015 IN REVIEW: My Favorite Films
Alright! Final entry in my 2015 in Review series! Gosh, this was a hard year to review. I broke another record for number of films I saw before finishing this review series: 144 films from 2015, either seen theatrically, streaming, or rental. I don’t think I’ll be breaking that record any time soon, but that’s what I said about 2014, too, so…
Anyway, I’m about ready to start reviewing movies again on an individual basis. I did this series while going through a particularly tough time, personally, which is why it’s taken so long to do. I had the goal of finishing by the end of January, and that simply didn’t pan out, and I was so busy with stuff outside of this site, including doing a bunch of work on the weekends, that I just wore myself out! No worries, though. I’ve finished, and while I know the stuff I wrote was roughly edited, I’m still pretty happy with what’s there.
These movies below are all, in my opinion, good to great, but all of them were pretty much my favorites from throughout the year. As a result, as with last year, I am separating them out, roughly, into genres and then ranking them based on level of their being my favorite from the past year in that genre. (There’s obviously genre overlap, so I have divided based on what I believe is the main draw of the film, such as Jurassic Park being in the Action/Adventure section rather than the sci-fi, ’cause we’re all watching it for the action, right?) As such, you will probably see some admittedly lesser films ranking above objectively better films or films that were generally considered mediocre appearing here because I simply just liked them a lot. Again, they’re my favorites, not necessarily the best – though I did see all the Oscar Best Picture nominees, once again! I have included the Rotten Tomatoes score next to the release date, though, so you can easily compare whether I’m crazy or whether you should see the movie. In general, though, I do believe these are great films, and I hope you enjoy them, too!
But, seriously, I’m glad to move on from 2015 finally…
The Good Dinosaur – 11/25/15 – 77%
Pixar’s first film to lose money at the box office, The Good Dinosaur was probably doomed to such a fate from the start, given the director swap outs, delays, and even a last minute casting overhaul to go along with its story revamp. The film’s underperformance and behind the scenes issues, however, does not hold this movie back from being a good movie, however. In a lot of ways, this is even one of Pixar’s bolder efforts, similar in tone to Brave in that it’s a film about child-aged characters making big mistakes, living with the consequences, and attempting to either make right on it or move on. Here, it’s a young dinosaur named Arlo, who is separated from his family when he goes to pursue the varmint who caused a problem Arlo was tasked with solving but failed, indirectly leading to his father’s death. On his journey back, however, he is confronted by the varmint, a young cave boy who seems to be attempting to help Arlo. On the journey back, the two learn to understand some common ground, learn from their mistakes, and move on. A lot of criticism has been aimed at the movie for tis overly simplistic dinosaur designs, which I do understand. However, the film is still a technical and visually stunning film in its own right, with the backgrounds never looking as lifelike in a Pixar film as it does here, while the animation on the nearly mute little boy is incredible, with a lot of human emotion infused with his dog-like qualities (dinosaurs have become the most evolved creatures in this world). The story is admittedly pretty standard, with the two characters facing the odds to get home, and while the film takes the more dramatic than comedic route there, I actually really admired what was attempted and mostly achieved here.
Furious 7 – 4/03/15 – 81%
I marathoned all the previous films in order to catch up with the story on this one. When the fifth film managed to get the series’ best reviews, I kind of dismissed it as being a fluke and never bothered to see it. Then the sixth one came out and also managed to get really solid reviews. That’s when I knew that I needed to start paying attention to this series again. I’d only previously seen the first and second and had forgotten most of the second, so I threw them all into my Netflix queue well ahead of time and caught up. Things I learned: this series definitely works best when it’s both not trying to take itself so seriously but also has the sensibility to not be so stupid that it assumes audiences are also stupid enough to simply accept flashy cars driven by pretty people set to a percussive soundtrack of hip-hop and engine roars. Fast Five and Fast & Furious 6 were the films where the series became self-aware and thus, appropriately, much more alive, and with Furious 7, the confusingly named series has seemingly reached its apex. Cars are jumping across skyscrapers, being driven off of planes, and characters are wielding giant wrenches like freaking swords here, and it’s pretty freaking amazing! I came out of the experience feeling as if I’d seen one of the most masterfully made dumb action movies ever. They even managed to do justice to Paul Walker’s sendoff, with reasonably seamless use of CGI and body doubles, courtesy of his brothers. It’s almost a shame that the film was so highly acclaimed, as it’s now been announced that a new trilogy of films is coming out in the next few years, and I don’t know if I can deal without the Vin Diesel/Paul Walker bromance that was at the center of these films.
Jurassic World – 6/12/15 – 71%
Dinosaurs running amok while sympathetic, entertaining humans dodge them. That’s all I wanted and expected from Jurassic World, and that’s certainly what was delivered with Colin Trevorrow’s admittedly sometimes-too-reverent homage to the original Jurassic Park (the movie – not the book). The director was an unexpected and unlikely choice of director, having one major film credit to his name – Safety Not Guaranteed, an indie sci-fi romantic comedy in which a reporter falls in love with her subject, who claims that he can travel back in time. A lot of people loved that film, while I merely liked it, so I admittedly had expectations set fairly low for Jurassic World, just in case we ended up with another Jurassic Park III or even The Lost World. Chris Pratt makes for a fantastic new lead as Owen, who raises the new park’s velociraptors, being neither overly serious as Sam Neill’s Dr. Grant nor as neurotic as Jeff Goldblum’s Dr. Malcolm while also mixing in some Pratt humor and charm. Bryce Dallas Howard is also pretty fun, if underused, as the new head of the park and obvious love interest. Still a far more interesting character than the fuss over her footwear would have you expect. I also liked the kids, brothers who are dealing with the impending separation of their parents who are sent on the trip as to get away from the fuss. Of course, the dinosaurs remain the highlight of the film, and, man, does this movie deliver, and it even brings back the fear factor, at times resembling a dinosaur-featuring slasher film. The new dinosaur, a hybrid monstrosity, is a welcome step in the right direction of acknowledging that these really aren’t dinosaurs, and emphasizing once again that humanity is fooling itself into thinking it can master nature, while the remaining dinosaurs are a welcome blend of familiar dinosaurs in new scenarios and new creatures that expand the scope of the types of set pieces they can do. While the effects could’ve been better, with already dated-looking visual effects that really should’ve been augmented with animatronics, Jurassic World remains an undoubtedly fun summer blockbuster.
Spectre – 11/06/15 – 64%
This isn’t the first falter in the Daniel Craig line of Bond films, with Quantum of Solace being a decent but much lesser film than its predecessor, Casino Royale, and so it is with Spectre, which is not anywhere nearly as great as Skyfall. That’s not to say that the movie isn’t pretty darn good, though, so when I hear gloom and doom naysaying about it, I’m just kind of left puzzled. Spectre is an incredibly stylish, exciting film that returns the series to its roots without going overboard on the silliness. Bond is once again a womanizing alcoholic (which may be why Lea Seydoux feels so underdeveloped as the latest Bond Girl, though I don’t think that’s an excuse) who doesn’t give a second thought about using them as a means to an end, that being solving global conspiracies that will help explain why, exactly, he always manages to find himself taking on one power mad supervillain with a diabolical scheme and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. This can be both a blessing and a curse, I admit, though I’m positive that we cannot determine which that will be at this point. The Spectre organization is an old part of the Bond mythos that was inevitably going to show up, and the seeds of its introduction were present from the very beginning of Daniel Craig’s tenure, though I do worry that that’s going to be a crutch for future filmmakers who feel as though they don’t really need to come up with an interesting villain so long as they’re in league with Spectre and this film’s primary villain. Spectre doesn’t have to worry about that just yet, though, and while I admit the revelation of the ties he has to Bond were totally unnecessary and hokey, I still loved Christoph Waltz in the role. Great casting in a pretty entertaining action flick.
Ant-Man – 7/17/15 – 80%
Full disclosure: I don’t feel whatever this superhero fatigue people are talking about. I can understand reservations regarding certain lines of films, particularly the fears surrounding DC’s plans to apparently use the same grim-dark tone for all of their heroes’ films, but Marvel Studios productions have, I think, have diversified themselves enough so that even their lesser films are still massively fun. Ant-Man was another film like Thor and Guardians of the Galaxy that a lot of people were worried wouldn’t translate as well to film or appeal much to audiences as easily and obviously as films starring more straightforward heroes like Iron Man and Captain America or even the Hulk, but somehow Marvel, by choosing the right talents behind the scenes (even when it leads to some conflict and disappointment – RIP, Edgar Wright-directed Ant-Man), always manages to succeed in at least making even the most bizarre concepts land by fully embracing the fun and silliness while also finding the potential depths of those concepts. Case in point: Ant-Man’s main power is that he can shrink. Neat visuals naturally follow, but there are stakes to using the power in that one could potentially find themselves forever shrinking into a new dimension that they may never return from – which is revealed to be the cause of a fairly significant loss for two of the characters. Another and even stranger power he has, though, is the ability to communicate with and control ants, which the film finds plenty of great uses for with its heist trappings. Even there, they find some way of allowing for emotional investment with the way that the ants are adorably animated (without getting sickeningly cute) and even making characters out of them, with Scott Lang being the only Marvel hero with a mighty steed, Antony the flying carpenter ant. Ant-Man has a lot of fun with its concepts, and the cast – from leads Paul Rudd, Michael Douglass, Evangeline Lily, and Corey Stoll to supporting cast Michael Peña, Bobby Cannavale, and Abby Ryder Fortson as Scott Lang’s little girl – all doing great work. I can’t wait for the sequel, but at least we’ll see Scott again soon in Captain America: Civil War! Woo!
Kingsman: The Secret Service – 2/13/15 – 75%
Matthew Vaughn once again adapts a comic book from Mark Millar, leaving behind the violent, sophomoric world of gritty superheroes in Kick-Ass for the violent, sophomoric world of super spies in Kingsman: The Secret Service. I knew as soon as Colin Firth was shown kicking around a thug in a bar fight during the trailers that this was at least going to be a fun, if maybe pretty dumb film. Kingsman is pretty mindless, in that you don’t really have to put much thought into following the plot, but I’m not certain it’s exactly “dumb,” either. The film is pretty much one big middle finger to government control of its citizens, and no leaders are left unscathed – the film very nearly celebrates its villain’s nefarious plot while still acknowledging the importance of limited governance. The story itself is your typical rags to riches, following in a father’s footsteps story, only in this case it’s a chav punk learning to be a gentlemanly do-gooder. I really liked the relationship between the kid, played by Taron Egerton, and his mentor, played by Colin Firth, and I actually genuinely loved the training sequences, which had some clever and welcome twists I won’t spoil. The performances were solid, really making you care for the main characters amidst the insane action, which is like watching a Roger Moore era Bond flick, but turned up to 11 with the violence. Once you see it, you can’t listen to “Freebird” the same way anymore. Kingsman could’ve done a better job with the side characters, certainly, but for pure entertainment value, it’s solid.
Avengers: Age of Ultron – 5/01/15 – 74%
I told you – I’m still not tired of these things. Age of Ultron no longer has to deal with character introductions and so begins with a bang, with the team laying siege to a Hydra fort. Right away, the movie is able to play the characters off one another in seriously entertaining ways. We may not have seen them on all of their previous missions together, it seems, but that’s cool because the rapport they have fills in all the blanks, leaving room for the remainder of the story, which feels like a logical culmination of all the previous films, with Ultron’s creation being tied to the idea of securing the world from threats like alien invasions, terrorists, and secret organizations rising up from the ashes and such. The failure of the Ultron system also explains why the stakes will always be so high in this universe where pretty much everything is possible, including bringing allies to the edge of conflict within themselves, clashing over certain ideals on how to handle the situation. Sure, it’s not Watchmen level character insight, but beneath the bombast and spectacle of seeing these heroes and villains interacting is still some pretty solid character work and plotting going on. The movie is pretty rushed, particularly when compared to the much slower first film, and I really wish the rumors of an extended edition were true, even with the runtime of 2 hours 22 minutes. These movies are a culmination of the standalone films, however – a feature length climax to an entire phase of connected films – an Age of Ultron still delivers what you expect from an Avengers film: fun interactions between your favorite heroes and lots of crazy action for them to fly, slug, zap, and smash their way through.
Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation – 7/31/15 – 93%
It’s insane how high the quality of this series has been maintained ever since the third movie. Rogue Nation is the fifth film in this series and very likely the second best, just behind the fourth, Ghost Protocol. I think the fact that the filmmakers aren’t necessarily being pressured into making these movies with sequels already in mind is one key factor in that, as well as the studio’s willingness to let each director make their mark on the franchise in their own style. In Christopher McQuarrie’s hands, Rogue Nation is certainly much more stylish and serious film when compared to the far more fun and lighthearted Brad Bird film, but they don’t feel as if they don’t exist in the same world, either. [gives side eye towards John Woo] This film also introduces one of the best original female action characters, too, with Rebecca Ferguson playing Ethan Hunt’s British counterpart, Ilsa. Ferguson is fantastic in the role, maintaining the character’s cold professionalism while keeping her human. She’s not a robotic, cool killing machine, but someone with feelings and conflicts of consciousness regarding her work. She’s fantastic, and the character also gets some of the best action sequences, too, particularly this nail-biting knife fight. Tom Cruise is also still in fine form, still doing his own insane stunts. I may not like the insane cult he belongs to (see below…), but that man is undoubtedly a great entertainer. Great use of Simon Pegg, too, in just the right amounts. I would’ve loved to have seen more from the rest of the gang, sure, and the plot once again has the IMF agents being disowned and then redeeming themselves, but Rogue Nation is still top notch.
Mad Max: Fury Road – 5/15/15 – 97%
I’m still dividing films into genres this year and for the foreseeable future, but if I had to choose any one film as truly the “Best Movie of 2015,” it would be Mad Max: Fury Road. The long awaited fourth film in the franchise has been years in the making, with Tom Hardy’s casting in the title role being announced just shy of 5 freaking years prior to the film’s actual release date, while production itself finally wrapped at the end of 2013, giving the film nearly a year and a half in post-production. That’s dedication, and the fact that the studio didn’t completely axe the project at some point in the process is a miracle. Perhaps they knew how brilliant the film was going to be and knew to let greatness to its own devices? The experience of seeing this film in theatre was almost inexplicable. I saw it on a giant screen (though not IMAX) and in Dolby Atmos, and by the end, I was so grateful for it. This is a symphony of cinematic chaos in every way, and while the movie is almost non-stop action, director George Miller masterfully makes use of his cast’s acting abilities to convey character development and relationships throughout the action. Hardy is a great recasting for the role, but the standout here is Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa, the breakout action hero (and star) of the year. Furiosa is just… awesome, every bit an equal to Max himself in terms of capability and even manages to steal the spotlight from him, as most of the film is about her efforts to save these women from their sexual enslavement at the hands of the cult leader villain, Immortan Joe, and take them to the paradise home she remembers from her childhood. Even her character design is freaking cool, with her mechanical arm (one of the coolest visual effects), blacked out forehead, and buzzcut. She was so badass that she immediately became a feminist icon and pissed off a bunch of guys whose security in their own manhood was challenged by her mere existence. The way that she and Max work together through mere acknowledging glances at times is a testament to both the editing, the actors, and the characters, particularly since they have to stand out against the backdrop of incredible action setpieces that involve a ton of practical effects, with vehicles flipping, exploding, and acrobats flying between cars. Mad Max: Fury Road is truly an achievement in filmmaking an immediate classic that will go down in history as being one of the best action films of all time.
A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence – 6/03/15 – 88%
This movie might be one of the most “pretentious” films I’ve ever put on my list: a very maudlin, very dark, deadpan comedy from Sweden that’s made up of a series of sometimes morbid or tragic almost always humorous vignettes that are loosely strung together by the presence of two depressed novelty item salesmen. The film is the third in Roy Andersson’s “Living” trilogy after 2000’s Songs from the Second Floor and 2007’s You, the Living, neither of which I’d seen, but it’s not as if the three films are connected narratively – just stylistically. Static camera angles are focused on its subjects, and they’re presented pretty much exclusively in single takes, sometimes running mere seconds, sometimes much longer, and some of which feature subjects who will later return, but many who do not, which can often be even more poignant. Some of the humor is honestly really brutal, and it’s very dry in nature, but even if you don’t think it’s particularly funny, by the time you get to the final moments, you’ll at least feel as though you understand the empathy that is being called for throughout these various scenes. I get that some might see this as merely a bizarre curiosity or even a chore that only snobs could appreciate, but if you enjoy dark or dry humor, you might find yourself feeling the same way I did about this film: that it’s a surprisingly original, witty, and insightful look at humanity that… yes, is admittedly packaged in a bizarre and frequently offputting way. But I still dug it, and I’ve even heard that this is the lesser of the three films, so… I know I’m going to seek those two out now.
Dope – 9/04/15 – 88%
I think I mostly liked this movie because it was so unabashedly itself, which is fitting since it’s centered around a character who’s not really the common focus of most media: a black nerd, obsessed with ‘90s hip-hop, and who aspires to go to Harvard. The character is Malcolm Adekanbi, who mostly spends his days hanging out with his likeminded friends Diggy and Jib, playing in their band (playing songs written by Pharrell Williams), and doing normal teenager stuff – until one day they find themselves unwittingly in possession of a very large amount of drugs that they need to get rid of. This is easier said than done, since the local gangs know exactly who has their drugs and will pull the kids further into their world, while nobody would ever believe them if they turned it into the police and told the truth about it not being theirs, thus hindering their ability to go further in life than what’s expected of them – even by the school guidance counselor. And so they hatch as scheme that sees them walking the gray line between drug dealers and genuinely good kids who can and should feel free to aspire to more than their life circumstances seemingly doomed them to. It’s a great story with really likable characters that is mostly serviced well by its energetic style and plotting, though sometimes the film does seem to derail by having a bit too much to say in the allotted runtime. The film exudes style, but not at the sacrifice of substance, and by the end of the film, you really do understand the plight kids like these guys face. The film respects its subjects too much to revel in misery, though, and it’s a genuinely hopeful film at its core that merely calls for empathy with kids who could easily be written off at first glance. I quite liked this film.
While We’re Young – 3/27/15 – 87%
It’s not terribly insightful to reflect upon just now annoying the stereotypical Millennial hipster can be with their gourmet organic dairy-free alternative ice creams, irreverent retro-leaning tastes, and overall self-entitlement, but the way that Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young addresses the matter is at the very least pretty refreshing, and at its best, it’s insightfully self-reflective and earnest about the shortcomings of previous generations’ own shortcomings, including those whose primetime has already come. While We’re Young isn’t a complex film, by any means, but I like that it’s so accessible, as it’s for every generation. Younger generations will reflect upon that obnoxiousness, of course, but older generations will learn that they’re just as much screw ups as their parents and children and – we’re all pretty much screwing up and figuring things out throughout our lives. Again, it’s not terribly insightful, but it’s a welcome change of pace, as no one ever really gets put in their place – not permanently, which kind of shows you how futile the movie thinks it is. The execution is where it’s at, and the combined forces of Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, Adam Driver, and Amanda Seyfried as the central two couples – whose integrity and perspectives are reflected in their work as documentarians of life as they see it – makes for a hilarious and well-acted comedy that’s at once indie and mainstream feeling, which is very appropriate.
The Peanuts Movie – 11/06/15 – 87%
The marketing for this film left me a bit nervous, with its pop culture references and such, but there was always one thing that was keeping my hopes up about this movie throughout the teasers and trailers, and that was the animation style. Though it’s completely CGI, the animators were careful to not betray the aesthetic and designs of the comic strips and animated features over the years, even replicating the flat camera perspective and, of all things, the original framerates in the translation. The result is a reverent but mostly welcome update for the big screen that also helps set The Peanuts Movie apart from other animated films, which so often go for slick pseudo-realism, even when the character designs are heavily stylized. (If I had one complaint, it would be that the individual strands within the hair looks weirder on characters with more haystack-like designs, like Linus and Pigpen.) The story also remains welcomingly small in scope, borrowing elements from familiar stories and treating them much like a series of shorts that build up the larger story about Charlie Brown’s often disastrous attempts to build up the courage to speak to the Little Red-haired Girl who just joined his class. It’s a very amusing, genuinely sweet story that also makes great use of the side characters without feeling the need to divert too much attention away from Charlie Brown himself so that the studio could make bank on toys or anything. The story does diverge now and then to feature Snoopy and his buddy Woodstock, but even those guys’ wacky adventures are amusing and fit in thematically with the overall story, with most of it taking place within Snoopy’s imagination as he takes on the Red Barron to save the girl of his dreams. These lead to some fun breaks away from reality and some really fun action sequences that break up the everyday drama and comedy of the primary story, and it’s also hilarious and clever how Snoopy’s imagination is juxtaposed with the reality of the neighborhood. The Peanuts Movie was a warm, heartwarming, ad welcome surprise and a faithful and worthy adaptation of its source material.
Trainwreck – 7/17/15 – 85%
Judd Apatow’s comeback film after the mediocre This Is 40 also happens to be Amy Schumer’s big screen break, proving that Apatow can direct more than just man-children in male-centered fantasies and also that Schumer’s got what it takes to carry an entire film, be consistently endearing even when she’s firing off crude humor for over 2 hours (Apatow is admittedly still in need of a strong-willed editor), and earn the movie studio a solid chunk of cash. Schumer here basically seems to be playing a fictional version of herself, also named Amy, who at a young age was instilled with very little value for monogamous, lasting relationships by her cynical, divorced father. As a result, Amy has an issue with seeking out a lot of one night stands, bailing out on the guys before morning even breaks. Of course, this is a romantic comedy at its heart, and so, as a writer, she is assigned to cover the work of a sports doctor, Aaron Connors, played by Bill Hader. Amy and Aaron hit it off surprisingly well, considering that she couldn’t care any less about his work, and, naturally, she starts to fear that she might be losing her mind when she considers the possibility of Aaron being that proverbial “one” for her. Trainwreck is built upon familiar tropes, yes, but Schumer and Hader are tremendously likeable, have great chemistry, and, best of all, are great at working off one another as professional and genuinely funny talents. The film also has a solid supporting cast, with Brie Larson as Amy’s more put-together younger sister, Colin Quinn as their hard-to-love father, Vanessa Bayer as Amy’s spacey friend, and John Cena, of all people, proving that he’s got some solid comedic chops – more so than he gets in Sisters, for sure. This movie is maybe a bit predictable, but it’s so funny and so well acted, I honestly had a hard time deciding between this and the next entry for top comedy of the year. I think, even, that they could pretty much share the spot, if it weren’t for the fact that…
Spy – 6/05/15 – 93%
… I think Spy might be the better put together and more consistently enjoyable film of the two. You really can’t go wrong with either one, honestly, as it really depends on your mood. Trainwreck is definitely the “smarter” film, but Spy is for when you’re in the mood for a goofy comedy that also features a hilarious actress in the lead. (Spy is also not needlessly long.) Melissa McCarthy once again teams up with director Paul Feig in this send up of spy films, with McCarthy playing Susan Cooper, CIA handler for the suave field agent Bradley Fine, played by Jude Law. Susan and Agent Fine work excellently together, with him providing the muscle and Susan providing the intel, working from a computer back in Langley and alerting Fine of any imminent dangers he couldn’t possibly have noticed on his own. When a mission goes south, however, and the identities of all active CIA agents are compromised, it’s up to Susan, a skilled field agent in her own right but one that lacked the confidence to follow through, to shut down a global weapons trade that will put nuclear weapons into the wrong hands. The best thing about Spy is that it doesn’t rely exclusively upon the expected Melissa McCarthy jokes – they’re there, for sure, but the nice thing about this movie is that it plays with those expectations, with everyone around her forcing them upon Susan while she knows she’s capable of more and is just not living up to that ability. It leaves both the actress and the character with their dignities intact and doesn’t rely upon truly mean-spirited humor to deliver its laughs, though it’s totally self-aware. McCarthy is incredibly likable in the role and very endearing, even when she’s spouting off a bunch of profanity, as she is wont to do. (It’s part of her charm, really.) As in Trainwreck, the actress is also surrounded by a competent and hilarious supporting cast that includes Jude Law, Rose Byrne as a hilariously smug arms dealer, Miranda Hart as Susan’s best friend, Alison Janney as the head of the CIA, and freaking Jason Statham playing a blowhard rogue agent out for revenge who keeps crossing paths with Susan and mucking everything up. Statham is particularly hilarious, and, much like Cena, he should definitely continue to show up in these comedic roles. Spy is probably the most fun I had at the theatres this past year with a straight up comedy (though the action’s not bad, either!), and so, combined with its much tighter editing, that’s why I’ve chosen it as my top comedy of the year. But you really should see Trainwreck, too!
Batkid Begins – 6/26/15 – 81%
Not going to lie: The whole Batkid craze actually kind of mystified me when it was happening. Not that I mind catering to sick kids’ wishes and such – not by any means – but it did strike me as being somewhat insane to go to such extremely big scale lengths to satisfy the wish of a single kid when there are so many sick kids out there who would’ve also loved to have had this same sort of treatment. I’m not so much faulting anyone who participated as I am just… trying to keep this all in perspective. I dunno. And, honestly, even after watching the documentary, I don’t know if I feel as though everything was entirely justified, particularly given how much effort and money went into it. And even though it’s for a charity, the whole thing feels like a giant ad for what they’re capable of doing. I can’t say I blame them for exploiting it for all it’s worth – and possibly in the best way any sort of exploitation could, I guess. I contemplated not putting this on my list of best documentaries, specifically for that reason, and I’m still kind of feeling oddly guilty about it, but I did genuinely enjoy the smaller scale aspects of the documentary that did at least focus on the family and the kid, Miles Scott, and the guy who played Batman and assisted him along the way really was moving, particularly when he took the kid into the “superhero training room” and he saw a bunch of other “heroes” (acrobats in costume) training. The whole stunt and the amount of people involved for this one kid was admittedly too much, I think, but even so, it’s worth seeing just for those little moments when the documentary focuses on Miles and not the ridiculousness of the scale of what became this insane event. I still can’t help but feel as though a bunch of other kids were also deserving of similar treatment, and I think it’s irresponsible for Make-A-Wish to endorse these kinds of expectations, however. When all is said and done, I guess, it’s likely that we’ll all forget this in a couple years, as Miles himself is likely going to do, given that he’s 5 and will likely move on to other phases of fandom.
Monkey Kingdom – 4/17/15 – 94%
This was my first experience with Disney’s surprisingly popular Disneynature films, which I’ve always meant to watch but somehow always never get around to. Not so, this year! And now I know why they continue to be made. Monkey Kingdom successfully blends documentary filmmaking with narrative, focusing on the life of Maya, a lower class toque macaque who lives in the ruins of a temple with her colony in the jungles of Sri Lanka. The story that is formed around Maya, through footage actually captured by the documentarians, is pretty thrilling, with Maya giving birth and then struggling to ensure his safety not just from outside threats, but also within the social structure of her group, with the primary antagonists ranging from a monitor lizard, rival colonies, and even what the film humorously calls “The Sisterhood,” which consists of the alpha male’s mates. It’s a very clever and endearing way of getting kids interested in the lives of these creatures without ever feeling as if it’s not accurately portraying nature (the film does not shy away from the seriousness of these dangers), even when it’s anthropomorphizing them into more human contexts. There’s plenty of beauty to be seen, fun to be had, and nail-biting here, and Tina Fey’s narration is well suited to the task of keeping the audience invested in the narrative. Overall, the film is quite an amazing accomplishment, and while I personally still prefer the less narrative-based documentaries (I grew up watching Discovery Channel when it was nothing but!), I was surprised by how much I was enjoying their approach and appreciate what Disney is doing here. I just hope that it’s not revealed later on that they’ve manipulated stuff, like with the really old documentaries they used to release back in the ‘50s.
Hot Girls Wanted – 5/29/15 – 80%
I sincerely do not understand why anyone would want to do pornography, but obviously there are some who do. Putting aside my own beliefs about such things (I’m morally against porn, FYI), it’s a fascinating subject that deserves to be studied and talked about. This Netflix release (produced in part by Rashida Jones!) follows a number of “barely legal” girls aged 18 to 25 who go out to Miami to make a living in amateur pornography, documenting their rise to fame in the community as well as their hesitations regarding a lot of the work they’re expected to do, sometimes not even certain it’s what they are comfortable doing. It’s an undoubtedly strange area where the girls often feel as though it’s all in a day’s work and yet sounds disturbingly similar to a molestation, and many of these girls are coming right out of high school, inexperienced with the real world still and having an idealized vision of merely having fun in front of a camera and making a ton of money off of it. However, the film shows them living together in a communal house, led by their Hugh Hefner-wannabe agent Riley Reynolds, who sends them off to various gigs. He’s a bit of a sleaze, to be honest, and his line of work also has him straddling the line between someone who provides for his girls and an honest-to-goodness pimp, who is merely prostituting out his girls to people who happen to be remotely accessing them. It’s truly disturbing stuff, and even if you have a moral objection to pornography and don’t think you can stomach some of the frank talk, this is a well-made, thought-provoking documentary that’s worth your time.
Amy – 7/03/15 – 96%
I never cared for what little I heard of Amy Winehouse’s music before I saw this documentary about the late singer’s tragic life. Then again, I had never paid any attention to the career of F1 driver Ayrton Senna, either, and yet Asif Kapadia’s documentary about his life and career, Senna, was one of the most compelling documentaries I’d ever seen, and so when I saw that when Kapadia’s Amy was at the Redbox, I decided to check it out. Much like Senna, Amy consists mostly of collected footage from various media sources, amateur cameras, home movies, and the like while narration is provided via interviews with Amy’s family, friends, and associates, all without ever cutting away to talking head shots. The resulting film feels deeply intimate, as all eyes remain on the subject, with pictures of Amy and the person speaking serving as contextual queues for who they were. I’m personally still not that into her music, but as with all good documentaries, I do now understand why there was such a fandom that formed around her in her brief and tumultuous career. Winehouse was a victim of her own celebrity, joining the infamous 27 Club due to her public battle with readily available drugs and alcohol, especially tragic since it seemed as though she was sincerely doing what she loved and had been on an upswing. Winehouse’s father has criticized the film for its depiction of himself and his involvement in her life and has vowed to set the record straight in the future, but I’m oddly enough willing to believe this unbiased documentary’s take on events, given that he created a reality TV series around himself dealing with his daughter’s rehab process. That being said, the film doesn’t make him out to be a villain, either, and in fact never really points any fingers at anyone – except maybe the paparazzi, but those scumbags deserve every bit of vilification they get, quite honestly. Amy is an intimate, moving portrait of a tragic icon that never feels exploitative nor gratuitous, and even those who aren’t fans of the singer could gain some understanding about this kind of celebrity life.
Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief – 3/13/15 – 94%
HBO’s documentary about one of the world’s largest and most prolific cults is an unsettling exposé that goes right for the throat, interviewing former members, many of them pretty high profile, and discussing openly the practices that take place behind closed doors, including the awful conditions that lower level members are forced to endure. The movie takes its shots at celebrities who belong to the church, too, and who seem to either not be aware of what’s happening, are possibly being blackmailed into staying, or, worse, who are totally taking advantage of their privilege. The documentary even manages to show videos produced by the church that were really only meant to be shown internally. It’s stuff that we’ve heard discussed before in YouTube leaks and, heck, primarily from South Park, but it’s utterly chilling seeing it pretty much in the raw. Going Clear is fascinating and terrifying all at once, and yet it does a good job of summing up why someone would end up joining in the first place – though, often, it’s just because their family always has been.
Mommy – 1/23/15 – 89%
I’d seen a couple of Xavier Dolan’s films before Mommy – his debut I Killed My Mother and its follow-up Heartbeats – but Mommy was the first of his that I’d seen that didn’t also star him in one of the roles. Mommy is set in a near future where Canada has passed a law that allows for parents to give up their troubled system to the government if they feel as though they cannot control them, a program put into existence to keep them off the streets. For Diane Després, the program is fairly tempting. She’s single, not making enough money, and thus hardly has the time to put up with the shit her son, Steve, puts her through on a fairly regular basis. He pines for his absent father and is frequently arrested and outright abusive – but he’s not unremorseful, either. Steve has some serious boundary and mental health issues, and Diane, as tough as she is, just doesn’t know what to do with a son who she loves and yet sometimes cannot stand to be around. Diane is played by one of Dolan’s most frequent collaborators, Anne Dorval, who has also played the smothering mother to Dolan’s character in I Killed My Mother, as well. It’s easy to see where the semi-autobiographical elements of the film come into play here, as a result. Mommy, though, takes it from the mother’s perspective this time, however, with Dolan seemingly acknowledging what may have been his own regretful behavior towards his own mother when he was a kid (hopefully just amped up for the film). The performances are fantastic, including Antoine-Olivier Pilon as Steve and Dolan’s other frequent collaborator Suzanne Clément, who plays the nervous, stammering neighbor across the street, who helps Diane with her issues, makes an unlikely connection with Steve, and learns herself to become sociable again with this unusually candid family. And while it takes some getting used to, the unusual 1:1 aspect ratio actually makes the film feel more intimate, making the infrequent use of other aspect ratios all the more poignant when Dolan employs them.
Straight Outta Compton – 8/14/15 – 88%
I feel like I know now why hip-hop exists, having watched this movie. It’s not so much that I thought that there was no reason or that it shouldn’t exist, mind you, but having not grown up with the music and never developing a taste for it, all I ever heard, I feel, is the negativity and controversy. Straight Outta Compton, if you couldn’t already figure it out from the title, documents the rise of N.W.A. and the careers of members Eazy-E, Ice Cube, and Dr. Dre, MC Ren, and DJ Yella in the midst of a culture war in the late 80s onward. While I get the strong feeling that the film is heavily sanitized, rarely finding fault within the group beyond personal issues that get resolved or make them look badass, and it is likely skewed in its depiction of people the group went up against, including producer Jerry Heller, thanks to Ice Cube and Dr. Dre serving as producers, and with Cube’s own son playing him in the film, Straight Outta Compton is still a very strong dramatic depiction of the misunderstood group’s motivations in writing the songs that they did. I left the theatre feeling like I got it, even if I didn’t listen to it. The performances all around are also particularly strong, with Jason Mitchell as Eazy-E being the standout, and smart editing and plotting keeps the film interesting, which is important when the film is nearly 2 hours and 27 minutes.
Far From the Madding Crowd – 5/01/15 – 86%
Thomas Hardy’s novel has been adapted multiple times before, most famously back in 1967 with Julie Christie and Terrence Stamp, and this is just the latest – though it is my first. This one stars Carey Mulligan in the lead role of Bathsheba Everdene, who inherits and gamely takes over her uncle’s estate. In the process of trying to run the place, the strong-willed woman weighs her options with three different love interests: the humble farmer Gabriel Oak, the rich and mature William Boldwood, and the passionate Sergeant Frank Troy. The story spans many years, and her relationships with the three men evolves over time as she ultimately doesn’t seem to know much of what she wants, either, since she can’t help but see past their flaws. I do feel as though the film telegraphs the ultimate suitor, however, but even so, the performances and beautiful production on display kept me interested and invested in these characters – some less so than some, for sure. I’d like to say that the film has compelled me to read the novel, but, honestly, with a film this fine, I’m not certain that’s completely necessary for me.
Mr. Holmes – 7/17/15 – 87%
With all the adaptations of Sherlock Holmes recently, it’s a wonder that this is the first one that tackles the literary character’s twilight years. Here Ian McKellen plays a 93-year-old Holmes, who has only now finally decided to retire to his countryside home. There he recounts his last case to his groundskeeper’s son, Roger, who is enamored with the old man’s reputation as a great detective and his unusual hobbies, which includes beekeeping. Holmes’ mind isn’t what it used to be, however, and given his usual callousness towards others, it’s a question of whether or not he actually values Roger’s company or is merely using him as a means to an end in solving the mystery of what it was that he’s can’t seem to recall so that he can finish his memoirs, having been unhappy with Watson’s fictionalized takes on their work. McKellen, as usual, is fantastic as the aging Holmes, while Laura Linney as Mrs. Munro, the concerned mother of Roger and groundskeeper of Holmes’ property, is also pretty much perfect, playing a character who is familiar with Holmes’ usual behavior and is worried enough about his influence over Roger that she’s willing to give up job security to ensure his integrity. I fear I may be making it sound like a psychological drama, however, when that’s far from the case. It’s a surprisingly warm film, with Holmes himself learning something new, even this late in life, as it seems that he’s actually bonding with Roger and coming to realize that company may, in fact, be something he finally values. It’s a little slow at times, but the film is a very enjoyable one, and the back and forth plotting keeps things interesting.
Brooklyn – 11/04/15 – 98%
I’m not certain Brooklyn is necessarily worthy of being considered for the Best Picture Oscar this year – if I had to swap it out for anything, I’d have probably put Sicario in its place, but it’s still a great romance story, based on the 2009 novel by Colm Tóibín. Saoirse Ronan plays Eilis Lacey, a young woman who is leaving her nosey smalltown in Ireland for the titular big city across the Atlantic. Taking up residence in an Irish boarding house run by a strict landlady, Eilis struggles to make her way in the world apart from her sister and mother while failing to connect with the new people she’s meeting. She’s saved by her homesick state, however, when she meets Tony, an Italian who has a thing for Irish girls and is instantly smitten by Eilis. Her homesickness returns, however, when issues arise back home, and she is suddenly finding herself torn between her new life ahead and that of her old obligations. Let me get this out of the way and say that the performances from everyone in this film are phenomenal, particularly from Saoirse Ronan, who has always given her all to the roles she’s bene in, even when she was a child. I feel like this may be her first real, solid role as an adult that will secure her a sure spot as a superstar actress for years to come. I also really liked Emory Cohen as Tony, who never crosses over into suspect territory and therefore maintains his sweetness without an ounce of manipulative ulterior motives. My one issue with the movie is that I don’t know if I really fully bought into the drama towards the end, but perhaps that’s because I just couldn’t buy into the implied motivations she had. I don’t want to spoil it. It’s still a fantastic movie, regardless.
Slow West – 5/15/15 – 92%
An American western produced in New Zealand and Scotland, Slow West was bound to set itself apart from the more common image of westerns and gunslinger flicks we’re used to. As its title suggests, the film is a slower take on the genre that, even at only 84 minutes long, feels like it’s taking its sweet time getting to its conclusion. Not that you’ll be complaining. The film follows a young Scottish man, Jay Cavendish, who has come to America to seek out the love of his life, who has fled to the U.S. frontier after an incident back home separates the two. On his travels, Jay falls in with a bounty hunter named Silas Selleck, who offers his cold company and protection in exchange for most of Jay’s money. Being a soft, inexperienced guy, Jay reluctantly agrees, and the rest of the film is basically these two on their journey, encountering a few unexpected characters along the way who don’t necessarily fit in with your usual expectations – desperate thieves, friendly strangers, philosophers, and even someone with progressive views on Native Americans. Of course, there’s also the gang of rival bounty hunters following them, but even they’re made up of a few unexpected individuals – including a woman! Slow West is beautiful to look at, decently acted (though Kodi Smit-McPhee’s odd accent is distracting), and its plot unfolds at a steady pace, flashing back every now and then to fill in the history between Jay and the object of his affection, Rose.
The Big Short – 12/11/15 – 88%
I’m no expert on economics. I hate working with numbers, and my mind nearly fritzed trying to comprehend the fourth-wall-breaking bits here that tried to explain it. I felt so condescended to, for example, when the movie brought out Selena Gomez to explain to me one of the concepts explored by the film. But then, even if that’s the case, that’s kind of the point. Adam McKay’s multi-Oscar-nominated film about the mid-2000s financial crisis knows that a lot of this happened due to general apathy on the American public and government’s part. And so the movie is more than happy to bring in distracting, often irrelevant cameos to speak to the audience and explain the concepts being discussed. Believe me, it’s all still very amusing, even if you still find it hard to follow – again, because the film knows that it is and uses that to its advantage. It’s still fascinating to watch, and multiple viewings will likely, personally, make it all the more clear. The performances from this all-star cast are all greatly entertaining, of course, almost on a heightened reality level, save for Christian Bale, oddly enough, as the eccentric Dr. Michael Burry. This is a dense film that jumps around in time frequently, and frequently between characters, as well during those times. It’s all very easy to follow, however, and you’ll only really struggle if you’re trying to understand the crisis the first time through and you’re so very bad with fast numbers-related stuff, as I am. I’ll watch it again, though, which I guess shows how good the movie is.
About Elly – 8/08/15 – 99%
As soon as I found out Asghar Farhadi released a film this past year and that it was on Netflix, I knew I had to check it out. Of course, it wasn’t actually originally released last year and was, in fact, released all the way back in 2009 in its home country of Iran before releasing outside of film festivals, finally, this past year in the U.S., so I’m counting it. The film follows a group of old friends who are reuniting to welcome back Ahmad, who is visiting from Germany. The friends bring along Elly, a schoolteacher and acquaintance of Sepideh, whose daughter is in Elly’s class, and who thinks that Elly will be a perfect match for Ahmad, hoping to set the two up. One day, however, Elly goes missing, setting into motion a series of emotional events that see the group unraveling and dealing with personal issues that begin coming to the fore as they try to figure out what happened to her and start placing blame on one another. About Elly is a genuinely gripping drama, and the performances incredibly strong, as well. Once the characters settle into their vacation cabin, the film basically takes place within two settings, and yet the film is absolutely gorgeous to look at, as well. (I got a new 4KTV, and even though it wasn’t 4K on Netflix, it still looked stunning.) Farhadi has, personally, had a great track record (admittedly only two previous movies long) of making these melodramatic, potentially mundane relationships fascinating to watch, and About Elly is no exception.
Love & Mercy – 6/05/15 – 90%
Funny enough, this is Paul Giamatti’s other 2015 role in which he manipulates a famous musician for his own benefit. The film is centered around the dual performances of Paul Dano and John Cusack, both of whom are playing Beach Boys member Brian Wilson at two different points in his life: the period of time in which Wilson produced the band’s most famous and transformative album, Pet Sounds, while on the cusp of having a mental breakdown, and in the time period later in life when he was under the control of Eugene Landy, whose unorthodox 24-hour therapy allowed for him to take control over Wilson’s life, rather than help him with his various disorders. Both actors are fantastic in their roles, with Dano probably the most impressive of the two, given the juicier and musically-inclined material, but Cusack especially proves that he can still carry a film with a fantastic performance, giving an empathetic portrayal of a man who has lost control of his life and his sanity while still managing to make his relationship with Melinda Ledbetter, a car saleswoman whom he manages to charm into a series of dates, totally believable. The dude can still act and deserves better than some of the recent crap he’s been in. Elizabeth Banks and Paul Giamatti are also great in their respective roles, with Giamatti bringing some chilling energy to his role as Landy, and Banks bringing some much needed sanity into the proceedings as Melinda, portrayed as an empathetic fireball. The film is also a celebration of Wilson and the Beach Boys’ careers, though, and offers some fascinating insights into Wilson’s mindset, for better or for worse, when he guided the group into uncharted waters with Pet Sounds. (I didn’t grow up with this group, really, and this film compelled me to revisit their music and… man, that is such a good album.)
The End of the Tour – 7/31/15 – 91%
I’ve never read any of David Foster Wallace’s work, and so perhaps that’s why this film wasn’t even on my radar until I’d read a few reviews applauding the film for its performances for my previous article on films I missed. The End of the Tour is based on the memoir Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself by David Lipsky, in which Lipsky recounted his interactions and interviews with Wallace back in 1996, when the two went on a five day road trip towards the end of Wallace’s book tour for Infinite Jest, which Lipsky had intended to turn into an article for Rolling Stone but was never published. The memoir, made up of transcripts of the interview and Lipsky looking back on the trip, was published on its own instead in 2010 after Wallace, who had struggled with depression for some time, finally managed to commit suicide. The film stars Jesse Eisenberg as Lispky and Jason Segel as Wallace, reenacting the conversations about their lives, philosophies about life and issues, their conflicts over personal matters, and ultimately the bonding between the two writers. The two leads are phenomenal in the roles, with Segel in particular proving that there’s some seriously untapped talent beyond his usual goofy comedy roles, playing Wallace as a damaged but persevering man, baring his soul and just being generally very kind in nature, despite his acknowledged issues. Man, is Segel good here, and so is Eisenberg, honestly. He’s more than just nervous energy, misanthropic tendencies, and general assholishness. Ultimately, The End of the Tour is a very moving film about these guys’ short but sweet friendship and, much like the book, intends to show Wallace as he was, rather than as the celebrity figure he didn’t want to become.
Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter – 3/18/15 – 88%
Did everyone forget this film’s existence? It would seem so. That’s really too bad. I loved Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, and it has a really wonderful performance from Rinko Kikuchi, too, as the title character – a woman who has become so depressed and detached from reality that she has come to believe that the money-filled briefcase in the movie Fargo was real and goes out in search of it, hoping that it will bring her joy and happiness. It’s an oddball film, for sure, but one based in both fact and fiction, as it is based on the myth surrounding a real Japanese woman who was found dead just outside of Fargo, ND, having committed suicide, and whose tragic story went on to inspire the decidedly more wacky myth about why a random Japanese woman would have found her way to North Dakota only to die (because Asians be crazy like that, I guess…). Kumiko has been labeled as a comedy, and while it has some certainly comedic moments, I think the film is really more like a dramatic examination of the line between truth and legend as well as cultural misunderstandings, as evidenced by Kumiko’s limited communication skills with the well-meaning Americans. That being said, it’s not like her condition was recognized by those back home, either. Kumiko is a strange but sadly sweet film where you really root for the character, despite her obvious delusions. By staging the legend in acknowledgement of the reality (borrowing a worn VHS version of the title card preceding the movie Fargo), the movie practically begs for understanding of the tragedy of the character’s situation, regardless of which version you heard first.
Creed – 11/25/15 – 94%
Full disclosure: I’ve now seen two films in this series – the first film, and now Creed. I am aware of what has happened in the previous films, however, and can’t say I’m terribly compelled to revisit some of those sequels, though I know Rocky Balboa managed to bring back some of the prestige. Creed, however, is something special, taking the old formula and retooling it enough to make a film that contains all the familiar elements of the previous ones while telling a whole new personal journey through its new central character, Adonis Creed – son of Rocky’s rival and pal, Apollo Creed – who sets out to make a name for himself, outside of his absent father’s shadow. Creed is the brainchild of director Ryan Coogler, who also previously directed Michael B. Jordan in the excellent Fruitvale Station. Coogler brought the idea to Sylvester Stallone, who liked the idea so much he agreed to not only give the film his blessing, but also agreed to star in it. The resulting film is one of the best follow-ups ever produced – part spin-off, part sequel, but every bit a worthy successor to the original classic. Jordan and Stallone are both fantastic in their roles and have a real father-son bond thing going, with Adonis both attempting to shirk his absent father’s legacy for his own and finding himself drawn to the same passions, which are pretty much ingrained in his DNA. It’s incredibly romanticized stuff, but Coogler, Jordan, and Stallone really make this stuff resonate. And even if you’re not into the sport of boxing, watching the fights unfold in the context of the film is incredible stuff, with the camerawork, editing, choreography, and sound design all working together to really get you into the action. One of the fights is filmed as a single take, moving in and out of the middle of the fight, with spectators and coaches shouting from the sidelines. If you have a decent surround sound setup, it’s almost worth the watch just for that.
Spotlight – 11/06/15 – 96%
I say this as a Christian: If anyone ever tells you that spiritual leaders are above reproach, just… don’t associate with those people. Spotlight is the dramatization of how the Boston Globe and its Spotlight reporters helped expose the decades-long cover-up by the Catholic church of numerous cases of child molestation at the hands of priests. The film is not just a reminder of the importance of good, properly investigated journalism, but also the power it can have on influencing society for the better, too, even when it seems impossible to do so. It’s also an unnerving reminder that evil can be found in all places and areas – even if it’s a respected religious establishment, convinced that it can sweep away any wrongdoings and pray that any good it’s doing works as a counterbalance. Directed by Tom McCarthy (who also inexplicably directed one of this year’s worst movies, The Cobbler), Spotlight also features a stellar cast – Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Michael Keaton, Live Schreiber, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci, Brian d’Arcy James, Billy Crudup – all doing fantastic work in their roles. Excellent message, excellent performances – Spotlight is just an all-around excellent film.
Steve Jobs – 10/23/15 – 85%
Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin once again sets out to take a fictionalized look at one of the technological world’s figureheads with Steve Jobs, this time pairing up with director Danny Boyle for a far more expressionist take on its subject matter. The film is based upon Walter Isaacson’s book of the same name, in which he interviewed practically everyone significant in Jobs’ life, including Jobs himself (though apparently not daughter Lisa Brennan-Jobs, a central figure of the film with whom Sorkin did consult). The film condenses all this down into a few relationships across three periods: the 1984 launch of the Macintosh, the 1988 launch of the NeXT Computer launch, and the 1998 launch of the iMac, with Jobs interacting with key figures from his life – marketing executive Joanna Hoffman, Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak, daughter Lisa, and former Apple CEO John Sculley. Each time frame addresses these relationships and then ends just before the product presentation, so, no, this film is not ultimately about the man’s business philosophies and technological innovations as much as it is his life’s state in light of these projects – some of them successes, some of them abject failures, and others huge successes. The key component of this film’s success is that Sorkin and actor Michael Fassbender never let Jobs descend into a caricature or robot. The film shows him for all his failings and successes, never losing sight of the human amidst the legend, something that Jobs himself allegedly encouraged when subjects were being interviewed for the book (though I don’t know if that’s because he figured he’d destroy anyone he thought was deserving of such treatment or not). If you were looking for a straight up, 100% accurate biographical film, you’ve come to the wrong place with Steve Jobs, but if you’re looking for a fascinating interpretation, you could do a whole lot worse.
Room – 10/16/15 – 96%
Brie Larson’s about to become a superstar. I’m calling it now. Her Oscar-nominated work here is excellent and will hopefully get people looking at her previous work, as well, since she was also excellent in Short Term 12. Room, based on the novel by Emma Donoghue (who also provided the screenplay), is the story of a woman named Joy, who was kidnapped at the age of 17 and hidden by her captor in an isolated room for the past seven years. During that time, she gives birth, with the film picking up on her 5-year-old son Jack’s birthday. Jack, whose father is their captor, knows almost nothing about the world outside, believing everything on the TV is fake and that all that exists is within their tiny room, with “Old Nick” magically coming and going through the door. Joy struggles to stay optimistic, but when it becomes clear that their survival may no longer be ensured, she attempts to break Jack of his beliefs, hatching a plan to escape in the process. Room is about as emotionally draining as you’d probably expect from that sort of story, but amidst the darkness and depression over what humans are capable of doing to one another, there’s a great deal of hope, too. As I mentioned before, Brie Larson is spectacular as Joy, and so is Joan Allen as her mother and Jacob Tremblay as her son. Tremblay also provides the film with narration, giving us some insight into his innocent perspective. There’s a shift halfway through the movie that might have you believing that the tension will be over, when they do escape (not really a spoiler, I promise, as that was the main focus of the trailers), but the film makes it clear that the struggle to survive and escape is only part of the battle. Definitely one of the best dramas I’ve seen this year – probably the best.
Unfriended – 4/17/15 – 62%
The trailers for this movie made it look like the worst thing I ever could’ve ever imagined watching. I mean, I was cracking up right in the middle of the theatre about how stupid this pile of trash was going to be, particularly with the violent build up before the title appeared – Unfriended. I joked about how the next one would be about a haunted Twitter account called Unfollowed. Perhaps the third film would be LinkedOut and deal with the professional lives of whoever survived! I figured this was going to be one of the worst movies of the year and actually was going to go see it for that purpose alone. And, of course, in came the reviews, which were surprisingly decent for a film of this type. It was then that my intent changed from hate watching to figuring out if everyone else was smoking something. And you know… Unfriended is actually pretty darn entertaining. For a film that takes place in a single night and only depicts whatever can be fit on this girl’s MacBook screen, it’s a very dynamic, fairly intense film that uses the constraints to its benefit in very clever ways. Hesitations in characters typing things covertly to one another as their friends chat away on the side window, choosing and editing what they say, while tension is built up with that little typing indicator you see on so many chat systems. Somehow, this movie found a way to portray acting in things like cursor movements and such. It’s pretty impressive, when you think about it, as they could’ve easily half-assed this movie. The primary antagonist in this film is someone who claims to be the girl who committed suicide not long before after a video of her doing something humiliating goes viral at their school, and then the video of her killing herself also goes viral. Now she’s seeking revenge and intends to expose all the lies and secrets that these supposed BFFs before picking them all off one by one. It’s an incredibly silly premise that may sound like it’s trying a bit too hard to be timely, but Unfriended has some fun with its premise – it’s definitely a horror film with a sense of humor, as evidenced by the ghost sometimes summoning just the right Spotify playlist for the moment. If you’re into slasher films and are sick of the usual found footage crap, Unfriended offers up a unique and fun enough variation on those genres. I haven’t done this myself yet, but watching it on a laptop might even be the most immersive way you could watch this movie.
Krampus – 12/04/15 – 65%
I loved Krampus, a sort of more comedic Poltergeist for Christmas. When horror movies so often take themselves too seriously and Christmas movies are far too precious to tolerate, Krampus comes along to merge the two and create something truly magical: a funhouse horror flick that’s both very amusing and just this side of terrifying. It’s admittedly a bit heavy-handed with the family drama and the proceeding Krampus terrorizing reflecting upon that, but any faults are easily overlooked thanks to the spectacle on screen and some game actors in the roles, including Adam Scott, Toni Collette, David Koechner, and Allison Tolman. The effects and production design alone are reason enough to see this movie, but if you’re in the mood for something different this time of year, I can wholeheartedly recommend Krampus.
The Final Girls – 10/09/15 – 72%
“Sweet” is not normally a word associated with horror movies, and yet that’s the perfect descriptor for The Final Girls, the story about Max, who lost her mother, Amanda, unexpectedly in a car accident. A struggling actress who became a horror movie icon after featuring in a cult classic slasher film back in the ‘80s, Amanda never could shake the image of playing the naïve sexpot Nancy, whose loss of her virginity ultimately costs her her life in the film, as per horror movie rules. Three years after the accident, an incident at a film festival celebrating the Camp Bloodbath series, however, leads to Max and her friends being transported into that very same film, where she reconnects with her mother by way of her mother’s character, Nancy, who has no idea of her real life counterpart’s identity, nor of her own fate. While they cannot leave the doomed summer camp setting and must adhere to the rules of this world, they also find that they can influence the outcome of events dramatically and hatch a plan to defeat the villain and make it out of the film alive. Meanwhile, Max secretly plots to keep Nancy alive and ultimately escape the movie with her into the real world. The film is more of a comedy than anything, though horror movie fans and those familiar with the usual tropes will obviously have the best time with this film. That being said, the film is ultimately about dealing with loss and overcoming grief, at its heart, and the relationship that is struck between Max and Nancy is incredibly moving, even in the silliest moments. A lot of this effectiveness is thanks to the performances of Taissa Farmiga as Max and Malin Ackerman as both Amanda and Nancy, who is sadly not scripted to be very smart but who definitely has Amanda’s warmth and untapped potential. By the end of the film, I was left both incredibly moved and highly entertained by The Final Girls.
Bone Tomahawk – 10/23/15 – 88%
If Slow West was an exercise in de-romanticizing the Old West, Bone Tomahawk is about taking the underlying darkness of traditional westerns and taking it to its most violent and cruelest extreme. Here, a string of sudden violence and kidnappings at the hands of an ancient people living in the mountains results in a posse being formed and going out to bring back the wife of one of its members as well as the sheriff’s deputy. The group is made up of Sheriff Franklin Hunt, the crippled Arthur O’Dwyer, whose wife was kidnapped, the womanizing man about town John Brooder, and elderly backup deputy Chicory. Most of the film focuses on their travels to locate the valley, as a traditional slow burn western would, but this also serves as tension-building, as we get to know the characters and their relationships with one another. Once they do encounter their enemies, however, that’s when the movie goes into full on gory horror movie mode. Typically in westerns, it’s cowboys vs. Indians. Here, the film cleverly subverts any racial issues by having these guys go up against something a lot more understandably horrifying: troglodytes – unevolved human ancestors who have no qualms about butchering and eating the flesh of their more civilized counterparts. Of course, the question of civilized and humane treatment is lightly touched upon, with the rich John Brooder in particular having obvious grudges against those of darker complexion than his own – even his horse and suit are lily white. The film doesn’t bang you over the head with symbolism, however, though its gore, when on screen, is quite potent. Bone Tomahawk was a tense, entertaining experience and a solid merging of the two genres.
It Follows – 4/03/15 – 97%
There’s no question that It Follows was The Babadook of 2015 – an incredibly stylized indie horror film about haunted pasts. Featuring a John Carpenter-esque synth-filled score and genuinely creepy atmosphere, It Follows is essentially about a sexually transmitted curse, which has caused a great deal of speculation over what the film “actually means.” Given the revelations about the central character’s story, I have drawn my own conclusions, but I can imagine that a film of this sort can easily mean more than one thing and read differently for some. The antagonist of the film is a faceless entity that follows its target from place to place, capable of taking on the form of anyone, including a stranger. Who it follows depends on who recently had the curse passed on to them through sexual intercourse, and should it ever reach its target, it will, of course, kill them, then move on to the previous target. The film exploits the nature of its creature by frequently having extras in the background approach slowly, as the creature would, and so you never quite know when it’s present or not, except for when it’s supposed to be obvious. This makes mundane conversations and situations all the more scary for the audience, but it’s also suggestive of the state of mind for the characters of the film, who are always on edge about their surroundings and fearful of what intimacy with those close to them could mean. It Follows is genuinely terrifying and rarely missteps by going for conventional scares. This is my favorite type of horror film: one that boasts expertly crafted atmosphere and tension as well as characters you care about.
Turbo Kid – 8/28/15 – 88%
I only heard about this movie after hearing about it on Red Letter Media’s Half in the Bag review series, and after having seen it, I’m convinced the movie is deserving of at least cult status. It’s another one of those nostalgia grab films that exploits the look and feel of ‘80s films, this time low budget sci-fi B-movies that predicted to great inaccuracy what the next decade would look like, but it does it so joyously and so effectively, I couldn’t help but enjoy it myself. Instead of merely resembling one of those films, however, Turbo Kid actually pretends to be one of them, with the film being set in the “future” – a.k.a. 1997 – and showing us a world where the world as we know it has ended, and factions of people struggling to survive have formed, with despotic leaders of the old world hatching evil schemes to control the world’s resources for themselves and sell it at great expense in order to make a tidy profit. Turbo Kid is actually an orphaned teenage boy who idolizes Turbo Rider, a hero in the comics he finds and collects on his scavenges. He befriends a quirky pink-haired girl named Apple while reading one of the comics, and the two quickly become friends before she is then kidnapped by Zeus, who seeks to harvest more water for himself from the bodies of his kidnapping victims. Inspired by his hero, the kid sets out to take on the villain, rescue his friend, and save the world. The movie is admittedly a lot of referential style humor (its apocalyptic year is even borrowed from The Terminator), but the two leads – Munro Chambers and Laurence Leboeuf as the kid and Apple, respectively – are great together, and Michael Ironside is a great casting choice for an ‘80s throwback villain. The movie is not for kids, however, despite its name – the film is gleefully gory and swear-filled, poking fun at the insane buckets of blood spilled in the movies of the era, as well as a lot of the swearing that was much more prevalent in kids movies at the time. Adults familiar with those movies, however, will have a great deal of fun with this one, even if they didn’t watch those types of movies themselves.
When Marnie Was There – 5/22/15 – 89%
Based on Joan G. Robinson’s novel of the same name, When Marnie Was There is the story about a reclusive teenage girl named Anna, who lives with foster parents in the city. She becomes resentful, however, when she finds out that they are receiving government assistance for taking her in, and the grief results in her having an asthma attack. Worried, her foster parents send her to the countryside to be with their relatives, hoping she can relax and recover in the fresh air there. When she arrives, however, she begins to feel something familiar and is drawn to an old mansion, where she becomes fast friends with Marnie, the mysterious girl who lives there – or, at least, had at one point. When Marnie Was There isn’t completely explicit about the nature of Marnie – is she merely a spirit or a ghost or what? – but the film is most certainly not really about exploring that, per se, and rarely focuses on anything more than simply what the relationship means to Anna and Marnie, whom Anna feels an immediate but inexplicable bond with. The film is currently said to be the final film released by Studio Ghibli, which is currently taking somewhat of a hiatus on projects after the retirement of its founder and most prolific director, Hayao Miyazaki. The studio has left fans with an incredible legacy of films, and while I don’t think When Marnie Was There will go down as one of their most artistically brilliant or well-regarded films, and it has some pacing issues, it’s still an incredibly moving story. Anna is a believably troubled teen without being petulant or off-putting, and while the effervescent Marnie at first seems to be a sort of manic pixie dream girl type (albeit without the romance angle), as her backstory unfolds, the tragedy of her life, in comparison with Anna’s, deepens the character without getting too sullen. The studio’s usual flair in the animation department, both in character acting and backgrounds, also keeps things visually interesting. Here’s hoping Studio Ghibil’s hiatus is merely temporary. They have plenty of talent working for them and should not feel as though they are beholden to only existing in the presence of their founder so long as they keep true to his standards.
Paddington – 1/16/2015 – 98%
I have no personal affection for the character of Paddington, but I was familiar with him since the animated series aired on TV right around the time when my younger sister was a kid. I admit I found his adventures as a bear in the big city kind of boring back then, while the trailers for this live action hybrid film, wherein the title bear collects and then samples his own earwax before destroying a bathroom, struck me as something that obviously did not understand its boring source material. Of course, that was arrogant of me, and while I still am not familiar with the literary character himself, I did greatly enjoy the film based on it. While the film has some necessary elements of danger, with a museum taxidermist played by Nicole Kidman bent on adding a talking to her collection, Paddington is incredibly pleasant family fare that will hold the attention of kids and adults alike. Heck, I went and saw it with my older British friend by ourselves, and we both greatly enjoyed it! It’s a simple movie, and that’s very refreshing when it comes to kids entertainment these days. See it, regardless of your age.
Cinderella – 3/13/15 – 84%
I absolutely loathed Disney’s live action reimagining of Sleeping Beauty, that abomination known in name only as Maleficent, and so I was not at all looking to yet another live action remake of one of their classic films that was making itself even more pointless by not even trying to be revisionist. I hated the trailers for this. I hated the casting of Helena Bonham Carter as the Fairy Godmother. I hated the opulent settings. I hated it all and didn’t even care to consider maybe Cate Blanchett would save the film as the evil stepmother. That’s how much I hated the movie before I even saw it, and I don’t even like the animated film nearly as much as I like most of Disney’s other animated films, particularly Sleeping Beauty, particularly since it was also yet another Cinderella story – I mean, that’s an actual term for a rags-to-riches type stories! Of course, the reviews came out and had to prove me wrong. And you know what? I actually really liked it. Next to Ever After, it’s probably my favorite retelling of the classic story, thanks in large part to the film actually attempting to expand upon the character development. Here, Cinderella’s kindness is treated much like Spider-Man’s mutation – it’s a blessing and a curse that ultimately still makes her a hero based on how she wields it unconditionally, explaining how she’s so easily taken advantage of. Her relationship with the prince is also expanded upon, with the two meeting and developing a relationship before their chance encounter at the ball. It’s still rushed, sure, but in the context of the film, it feels fully fleshed out. And I ended up loving the production design, and I didn’t mind Carter as the Fairy Godmother, and I liked that they lowered the presence of the talking mice, and I, of course, loved Cate Blanchett as the stepmother, Lady Tremaine, who is also more fleshed out this time around. This was a character who wasn’t some malevolent evil being, and so I do like that the film provides empathetic context for her cruel selfishness – all while still ensuring that she’s the villain. I’m still have reservations about Disney’s future live action adaptations, including the upcoming The Jungle Book, but I at least feel a lot better about Beauty and the Beast.
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 – 11/20/15 – 70%
I just want to remind everyone that this is a list of personal favorites and not necessarily a ranking of best movies of the year, and in that sense, I couldn’t have been happier with this final adaptation of The Hunger Games books. Combined with Part 1, I feel as though the Mockingjay films took their source material and made them into one of the more emotionally and thematically satisfying conclusions (including a welcome and necessary expansion of Effie Trinket’s presence) to a young adult book series adaptation that its imitators can only dream of matching in terms of quality. Jennifer Lawrence’s performance throughout all the films has been very strong, as per usual, and this has resulted in one of the more interesting and enduring cinematic action heroes of recent years, not even just for the fact that she is a young woman, but also because, despite taking place within a futuristic, despotic society, her story feels realistic and relevant. Her growth from self-sacrificing protector of her younger sister to unwitting symbol of freedom and then to reluctant freedom fighter and then to a weary veteran who is incredibly compelling and much smarter material than a lot of adult science fiction. This isn’t a character who is realizing her full inner potential in a society trying to keep her down. Katniss’ story is actually quite the opposite, in fact, with her fighting for the people only because she has greatness thrust upon her and just so happened to be strong enough to fulfill her assigned role at great personal cost. The Hunger Games movie was the first to compel me to read the book series well before the sequels came out so I could compare them, and so I knew from before the release of Catching Fire onward how things should have progressed. A few missteps aside, I can honestly say that The Hunger Games movies were incredibly satisfying adaptations and, personally, were outstanding films in their own right.
Ex Machina – 4/24/15 – 92%
I really didn’t know what to make of Ex Machina when I first saw it, and it wasn’t until I read a few analytical reviews that it became a bit clearer to me what the film was trying to do. I admit that this was more of my own shortcoming than one of the film itself, though the film is mystifying enough to make you feel like you’ve missed plenty. Ex Machina is set within a remote mansion in a forest, owned by Nathan Bateman, a billionaire and founder of a software company, Blue Book. He has invited via a company contest one of their best programmers, Caleb Smith, to come visit and stay with him at the mansion. When Caleb arrives, however, Nathan reveals to him that he’s not there merely to partake of his kindness and company (and that of Kyoko, who seems to be a servant or even concubine of some sort), but rather to test out the artificial intelligence he’s developed and implanted into a humanoid android he’s named Ava. Nerd that he is, Caleb is thrilled to hear it and enthusiastically dives into the work Nathan has assigned him, which primarily involves Caleb interacting with Ava and gauging how human-like she is – sexuality included. Throughout their interactions, however, Caleb becomes infatuated with Ava, and Ava seemingly with him, and it’s not long before Ava is asking that Caleb help her make a break from her glass prison, under the control of Nathan, who seems to want to turn her into the ideal fantasy woman, using his and Caleb’s interactions to perfect her. Basically, Ex Machina seems to be about the objectification of women as sexual objects, with Ava herself ostensibly being created as a highly advanced sex toy by a misogynist. She is on her way to being perfected so that she can more accurately play to the attractions of nerds like Caleb, the common man who will presumably buy these androids in droves rather than have to make real human connections with someone who may or may not end up liking them nearly as much as Ava will, in theory, be made to be from the very beginning. That’s assuming, of course, that Ava and others like her will not have a will and agenda of their own, something that Nathan never really takes into account, as I suppose many men do when it comes to matters like this. Ex Machina is a smart film with an admittedly superficially cliché finale, but I think it serves the movie’s point well, when all things are considered. The performances from Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander (on a roll this year), and Oscar Isaac are all great, and the film is stunning to look at, too, with incredible special effects, particularly given its low $15 million budget. This was directed by Alex Garland, who previously wrote other quality, high-minded sci-fi films like 28 Days Later, Never Let Me Go, Sunshine, and Dredd and continues that streak here with his directorial debut. The film has its minor issues, but none of them are fatal. Ex Machina is still pretty great.
Inside Out – 6/19/15 – 98%
Pixar still has it. Even with the controversy over their willingness to continue sequelizing their movies, Inside Out comes along and proves that they can still make incredible original films akin to Up and WALL-E. Granted, the premise is similar to previous works, but Inside Out is still its own thing. You’ve probably already seen the film, so I won’t be going into the plot details. The best thing about this film, to me, is that it’s a family film that acknowledges and legitimizes “negative” feelings. So often, parents and children themselves get caught up in maintaining the kid’s outer happiness and encouraging cheerfulness while suppressing sadness that the legitimacy of those less than pleasant feelings are ignored, and films aimed at children and families are so often about maintaining or returning to a more pleasant feeling and escaping the less pleasant emotions. Inside Out isn’t at all a bummer, mind you, but its acknowledgement of life being far more complicated than that is incredibly refreshing when so direct about it. (Pixar, to its credit, has often been one of the emotionally more daring of the big studios, even in their sequels and prequels, as in Monsters University, where the characters can’t just simply win their way into stardom just because they’re the main characters.) Combine this satisfying emotional complexity with some of the most pitch-perfect casting – Amy Poehler as Joy, Phyllis Smith as Sadness, Lewis Black as Anger, Bill Hader as Fear, and Mindy Kahling as Disgust, Richard Kind as a nearly forgotten imaginary friend, and all of them great – and Inside Out is more than making up for the fact that we have to wait until November 2017 for another original film from them. (Until then, we’ve got Finding Dory – which I saw in an unfinished state at a screening and was definitely entertained by – and … sigh … Cars 3, which… I guess can’t be worse than the second.)
The Martian – 10/02/15 – 92%
Ridley Scott’s still got it. Even though he’s released poor to mediocre films in the last few years – your opinion of Prometheus determining how long that drought has been, I suppose – there’s no questioning that when he’s on, he’s still one of the best filmmakers out there. With the Oscar-nominated Drew Goddard adapting Andy Weir’s novel and a fantastic and diversely talented cast that includes Matt Damon, Jeff Daniels, Jessica Chastain, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristen Wiig, Michael Peña, Sean Bean, Donald Glover, and plenty more, The Martian joins the ranks of Interstellar and Gravity in a group of films that’s making smart, emotionally-engaging, space exploration-centered sci-fi films awesome and exciting again, and I couldn’t be happier about it. The film is highly entertaining, with plenty of humor mixed in with the high stakes thrills to keep audiences entertained and enough cool science stuff to keep the nerds like me interested, too. The scenery (recreated, no less, using actual Martian geography) is also amazingly gorgeous, with the red Martian vistas at once emphasizing the isolation of being stranded no a distant planet and yet being filled with wonderment. It doesn’t feel like an effect – it feels like you’re actually there. This is most definitely my pick for top “hard” sci-fi film of the year.
Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens – 12/18/15 – 92%
Was it ever going to be anything else? If you know me, then you knew it wouldn’t be. … Okay, well, if it turned out anything like the sequels, then, sure, I would’ve probably hated it, but it didn’t. Instead, we’ve got ourselves the best Star Wars movie since The Empire Strikes Back. (Return of the Jedi’s still good, but this one’s better, in my opinion.) While the movie certainly recycles plot elements from previous films, it does so in a way that character traits are shifted around to characters whose purpose in the overall story are different from that of the original cast, so everything does feel fresh. The new characters are incredible and immediately connected with me. I already love Finn and Poe and BB8 and… oh man, freaking Rey, man! Rey certainly may be a familiar archetype, but she’s such a fascinating, likeable, and well-acted character, she immediately became one of my new favorite heroes of the franchise. And what’s more, these characters are allowed to emote, thanks to fantastic actors – John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, and Daisy Ridley – and an enthusiastic director in J.J. Abrams, who was such a fan of the franchise as a kid, he couldn’t help but turn Star Trek into one for a while before getting his hands on the real thing and showing us what he could really do. I loved they ways in which this film brought back familiar characters. I loved the new look and the expert merging of practical and digital effects that still felt like we were peering into a tangible universe – one that was still more recognizably Star Wars, even. The Force Awakens is fantastically entertaining sci-fi/fantasy pulp fun, and that’s what Star Wars should be. I’ve seen the movie three times, and each time I found something more to love, making each time special. It’s a good time to be a Star Wars fan again, everyone.
Cop Car – 8/07/15 – 79%
This was a film unlike most of the films I saw throughout the year, and perhaps that’s why I liked it so much. A pulpy, gritty coming of age film in which two adolescent boys who are running away from home come across a cop car and take it out for a joyride and find out the hard way that the particular cop who drove the car is not necessarily the kind you want to run to when you have trouble. Sure, the kids are juvenile delinquents, but the cop – a sheriff, in fact – is a cold-blooded murderer (played chillingly by Kevin Bacon) who needs to bury the body in the trunk of the car, unbeknownst to the kids, before anyone else discovers it. I think we all know who to root for here. The film has a few humorous moments throughout – you really have to with a premise like this – but this is ultimately another one of those films about lost innocence, as the boys, without any parental supervision, do what boys do and then soon find themselves into a situation they can’t possibly handle and nobody they can trust to keep them safe – sometimes even themselves, given their ignorant carelessness. The ending of the film may not satisfy everyone – and even I find myself somewhat conflicted by it – but the rest of the film is tense, entertaining, and somewhat terrifying stuff. Even more interesting, then, that director Jon Watts was selected for the next standalone Spider-Man film.
These Final Hours – 3/06/15 – 81%
This was a film that I discovered through my coverage of films I didn’t see, so that’s another film justifying that practice! These Final Hours is an apocalyptic film from Australia in which a meteor has struck the earth and has sent a life-ending shockwave throughout the planet, which will converge within 24 hours on the Australian continent. There’s no stopping it. There’s no escaping it, as anyone even in space is doomed to watch from a distance. This is an extinction, and if that’s going to be the case, then, figures our lead James, he’s going to go out with a bang, partying with his estranged girlfriend. On his way to the end of days party, however, he encounters Rose, a young girl who has been kidnapped by some depraved men from her father and in need of someone to reunite her with her family so that they can be together when it happens. James, who has made plenty of terrible decisions in life, is thus sent on reluctant spiritual journey in figuring out the right thing to do with so little time left. You can pretty much expect things to go as you’d expect from the premise, but it’s obviously how these events play out that’s most rewarding. The two leads, Nathan Phillips and Angourie Rose, are really solid as James, a tall, muscled beach bum type, and Rose, still young enough to be innocent and mostly helpless but old enough to be realistic about what’s happening, and work very well off one another. I really cared about these two and wanted James to do what was right and for Rose to make it in time to be with her family. This is a pretty bleak film, obviously, with everyone going nuts and sometimes killing each other for entertainment, but there’s always that proverbial beacon of hope that makes it all worth it. I really liked this film.
Bridge of Spies – 10/16/15 – 91%
Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks, and the Coen Brothers (along with Matt Charman) combine forces to tell the story of James B. Donovan, who was responsible for defending Rudolf Abel, a captured KGB spy, in an American court and then negotiating his release to the U.S.S.R. in exchange for a captured U-2 pilot whose plane was shot down. The film depicts the struggles Donovan went through in order to carry out what he believed to be the best course of action, from being called a traitor for being the only lawyer willing to take Abel’s case and then to being a hero for negotiating the release of American citizens against the Russians. The film is a bit slow moving, but never to the point of boredom, though it does feel as though it runs its full 141 minutes, too. There’s plenty of intrigue and even humor, with some fun interaction between Donovan and Abel, both generally nice guys who are caught in the middle of their governments’ conflict. Spielberg’s usual One Good Man style of storytelling has been criticized before, but I do think that he chooses his subjects well, continuing that tradition, and it still stands up here, especially, thanks to Hanks’ performance. There’s also a great supporting cast with Mark Rylance, Amy Ryan and Alan Alda all featuring. The film contains some expected historical inaccuracies, so history buffs and those concerned about omissions muddling depictions are obviously going to be annoyed, but as an entertaining and inspiring political thriller, it’s still pretty great.
The Hateful Eight – 12/30/15 – 75%
I got to see this movie on one of those relatively rare 70mm extended roadshow versions, and I very nearly made a trip to do it during my trip home for the holidays, since my local theatre was only showing it for a short amount of time. Thankfully, they were running it for another week until I got back, so I didn’t have to – but I was totally willing. It was quite an experience, hearing the projector and film in the back again, seeing the grit in the image that you don’t get with digital without manipulation, and then being able to take a bathroom and refill break for 12 minutes at the intermission. I loved it! And I really loved the film, too. It may not be my favorite of Tarantino’s filmography for me, but even a mediocre by Tarantino standards film is still a generally very entertaining one, and this one’s well above average. I really liked the performances of the ensemble cast, and while the film itself is set primarily within the confines of a small cabin for its 187 minutes, but it never felt like it was stifling or lost anything for it. If anything, this is as close as you can get to a stage play by Tarantino, and I have no doubt it could be adapted into one and lose nothing in terms of effectiveness and quality, too. Tarantino might even take pleasure in having a splash zone for all the blood spilled here. Some critics felt as though The Hateful Eight had the director finally going too far, while others have pointed out that the film invokes the American Civil War and racial tensions for a reason before all the violence breaks out. I gotta say, I’m with the latter on this one, now that it’s been pointed out to me. While Tarantino does have a tendency to revel in the dreaded “n-word,” he’s always been empathetic to the struggle of black people (probably why he feels so comfortable with it), and The Hateful Eight’s conclusion certainly feels like a victory for justice and equality for not just races but possibly even the sexes, all amidst the violent bravado of all the usual Tarantino tendencies. Again, not the best he’s done, but it’s still fascinating and entertaining.
The Revenant – 12/25/15 – 82%
If DiCaprio doesn’t win for this, I don’t know what will. And, no, I don’t mean because he’s such a great method actor who is willing to eat real raw bison liver. He really is spectacular in this film. He plays Hugh Glass, a man who is nearly mauled to death by a bear, left for dead, and then driven to survive against all odds by the desire avenge his son’s murder at the hands of John Fitzgerald, a man from his company who held a grudge against him and who had it out for Native Americans after a group of them nearly killed him. The Revenant is almost relentless in its pacing, with one thing after another seemingly going wrong for Glass, and when it seems like his journey is going to be better, you know something else is just looming in the distance. Even so, this is a very meditative film, with a lot of long takes and solitude, and even when there’s action on screen, you’re arrested by the visuals, no matter how horrific or violent. Even so, the film is also very beautiful. CGI was mostly kept to a minimum, though it does still show up and occasionally looks just fake enough to take you out of a moment, but it’s not a huge issue, and you might even be too taken in by the events in which they employ it, such as that infamous bear attack. The scenery shots, though, is incredible and should also win the film its cinematography Oscar nomination. The filmmakers used nothing but natural light, including campfires and torches in night scenes, and the result is something completely out of the ordinary for a film set in the great outdoors. There are no night scenes that are seemingly awash with a blue glow, for example. The film is lengthy at 153 minutes, and while you will feel every one of those minutes, it is entirely appropriate for this film. You will feel the exhaustion in the middle and relief in the end. It’s sometimes a bit ridiculous, I admit, but The Revenant is still a fantastic film, and I look forward to Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s next film.
Sicario – 10/02/15 – 93%
It is a close call between this and my next entry, and I’m only putting this one slightly lower for reasons pertaining to the fact that I think it’s ever so slightly not as nearly well edited as the next film. Even so, Sicario is phenomenal and would, on any other day, possibly surpass it in my opinion, too. Consider it a tie, in fact, as the film continues Canadian director Denis Villeneuve’s high quality streak. Emily Blunt plays Kate Macer, an FBI spec ops lead who deals with hostage situations who finds herself recruited into an operation at the US-Mexican border, ostensibly working with the Department of Defense as an expert on the drug cartel they’re seeking to destabilize. Kate, however, gets more than she’s bargained for, as everything slowly begins to feel incorrect or is just outright revealed to be not at all what was advertised. Sicario is a despairing film about futility in doing the right thing with things are as they are. Kate is a moralist, and this conflicts with much of what’s going on behind the scenes, with Kate herself being manipulated into playing the game of very dark gray-area politics of her superiors, whether she wants to or not. It’s bleak stuff, and it’s not really a hopeful film, either, but it’s an incredible film, all the same, and Emily Blunt is fantastic as Kate, as are her costars Josh Brolin, who recruits her into his team, and Benicio Del Toro as an even more menacing, enigmatic figure on an already shadowy team.
’71 – 2/27/15 – 96%
Set during the early years of what are known as “The Troubles” in Ireland, ’71 follows a young British soldier named Gary Hook, who is deployed to Belfast to handle the violent conflict between Protestant Loyalists and Catholic Nationalists, only to find himself on the run when a mob forms and he and another soldier are separated from the rest of their platoon. The other soldier is murdered right on the spot, and Gary barely makes it out of the crowd on foot. The rest of the film has him basically running all throughout the night into various conflicts, sought after by members of the Provisional Irish Republican Army who are determined to finish the job with him. ’71 contains a lot of the bleakness found in Sicario, but unlike that pessimistic film, ’71 has signs of hope for humanity, with characters breaking from the norm to stand up for even their enemy. This is essentially a conflict steeped in religion, after all, and so it’s obvious that the film will be delving into these sort of conflicts of conscience from all sides. That doesn’t make the film any less intense, however, as this merely puts more ultimately good people in harm’s way, even at the mercy of people who are essentially on the same side but who have fewer qualms about executing a wounded enemy soldier and anyone who harbors him. ’71 is sadly not going to be seen by many, but if you’re reading this and are in the mood for a solid war thriller that flew under your radar, see Sicario first, then see ’71 as a chaser to bring back at least some of your faith in humanity.