Category Archives: Reviews

Top 10 Films of 2015

[Click here to see my rundown of the rest of the 2015 films.]

'Room' is a journey out of darkness, director says

  1. Room

Room is essentially two separate films. The second half (I can call it “post-escape” without giving away any more than the preview does) is a finely crafted and superbly acted family drama. But the claustrophobic first half, which never leaves the small room and thus never allows for anything longer than a medium-shot, is a truly unique experience. We see the world through Jack’s eyes. It may be tiny, but he fills it full of wonder as any 5-year-old can.

ExMachina_Alicia-Vikander

  1. Ex Machina

Great independent science fiction movies are getting harder to find. Gorgeous setting and special effects support a tight little cerebral thriller. Oscar Isaac and Domnhall Gleason are fantastic. (They show up again in another little sci-fi further up this list, but sadly don’t get to share the screen.)

Big Short

  1. The Big Short

Adam McKay – that’s right, the co-creator of Funny or Die and the man behind Anchorman and Talladega Nights – took a side step from his frat-house humor well and stunned with this insightful and bruising comedy. It’s full of risky stylistic choices. He throws so much at the screen that it sometimes feels muddled and confusing. But that’s on purpose to mirror the insanity of the situation. It’s exhilarating, current, and in a way that is all too real, deeply depressing.

trainwreck

  1. Trainwreck

Amy Schumer’s comedy may not be as poignant or risky as The Big Short. But it’s touching, personal and wall-to-wall hilarious. Judd Apatow brings his trademark authenticity to the comedy. Bill Hader is the heart of the movie, and John Cena and LeBron James leave you gasping for air. But this is Schumer’s movie through and through. If you like her work as a humorist – and I do – you will love this.

What-We-Do-in-the-Shadows-A-Vampire-Comedy

  1. What We Do in the Shadows

Ok, the mockumentary style has been done to death by now right? Wrong! Or right, I guess when you consider that the subject here is vampires. (Pause for groans…) I’m a sucker for this kind of deadpan humor, but once again it’s the sincerity of relationships in spite of the crazy backdrop that elevates these proceedings to cinematic gold.

Spotlight

  1. Spotlight

Now we reach the point where I wish all of these movies could be higher on the list, but competition gets tight. Spotlight is a fantastic procedural. The performances and filmmaking are across the board phenomenal. But it’s never showy. Everything is in support of the story. As much as you think you know about the Catholic priest scandals, think again.

THE MARTIAN

  1. The Martian

Full disclosure: I’m biased by my absolute love of the book. The film could never quite equal my fascination with reading it. But Ridley Scott does the next best thing: he captures and translates the tone and feel perfectly. What makes this story so much more than “Cast Away in Space” is the light tough and the emphasis on real science. Scott’s greatest sci-fi achievements have never been accused of being “light,” so I was all the more delightfully surprised by this. So much for the argument that intellectualism and populism are mutually exclusive!

Star Wars force-awakens

  1. Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Amid the deafening build-up to this release, I convinced myself it was likely to be merely acceptable. It probably wouldn’t be as bad as the prequels – what could, right? But there’s no way it could live up to the originals. Well, I’m thrilled to say JJ Abrams’ new episode blew away all my expectations! It’s one thing to honor the originals and focus on the epic excitement that we all fell in love with in the first place. But he’s raised the bar by handing the reigns over to a new, more diverse generation of heroes. The new Star Wars honors the past without getting stuck in it.

Mad Max Fury Road sniper

  1. – TIE – Inside Out and Mad Max: Fury Road

Mad Max: Fury Road is a perfect work of minimalist art. Its tight circular plot is stripped of all extraneous exposition. Conversely, all of the gratuity is in supporting visuals. Elaborate practical stunts, extravagant set pieces and found-object works of art build a lived-in world that needs no extra explanation. There’s almost no dialogue besides what’s absolutely necessary. And then there’s Charlize Theron, the most badass movie heroine since Alien’s Ripley. In a cinematic landscape where action heroes – and in fact pretty much ALL heroes – are STILL, even in 2015, almost exclusively the realm of men, Furiosa fires a shot across the bow to the film industry. No, not across the bow: straight into the forehead of every Bullet Farmer with a camera.

Pixar has the best track record (even with it’s couple of duds) of any movie studio in history, with some of my favorite movies of all time. Inside Out is Pixar’s best movie to date. And it’s one of the most accomplished, nuanced, original, daring, moving cinematic achievements I’ve ever witnessed. It touches nerves so deep inside they’ve never been exposed before. I haven’t met a single person who hasn’t cried at multiple times throughout. You may leave the theater a bit shell-shocked, but it somehow leaves you a better, more complete person than you were 90 minutes before.

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The Films of 2015

It’s time for my annual ranking of all the new films of the past year… or at least the small handful I was able to squeeze into my schedule.

Once again I saw fewer movies this year than last. I write an article like this one every January, and most of the time it begins with that same disclaimer. People, being an adult sucks. Oh, what I wouldn’t give to return to the glory days of college, when I would watch a movie or two almost every night and spend entire weekends in the theater. I just checked back through some old notes: In 2005, I caught over 65 new movies. Now, ten years later, it’s less than half that.

But enough reminiscing about the past: I’m still a fan of movies, and I have a blog, and I love making lists. So here is my rundown of 2015 in film.

Tomorrow I will post my Top 10, which is almost 1/3 of my total list. With a little deductive reasoning you can probably guess some of them. But for now, I present the remaining 2/3, ranked in fairly broad categories and then listed alphabetically….

 

creed

Very Good

Each of these (as well as a few of my Top 10) actually covers territory that has been fairly thoroughly examined before, but they prove that artistry and skill can breath new life into old stories.

  • Bridge of Spies
  • Carol
  • Creed
  • Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation
  • Sicario

hateful 8 sam jackson final

Good

There’s actually some really stunning work on display, but some of these are brought down by a few serious issues, while others are simply missing that special something to elevate them above the crowd. And then a couple are just empty fun.

  • Brooklyn
  • The Hateful Eight
  • The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2
  • Krampus
  • Magic Mike XXL
  • Mr. Holmes
  • The Revenant

Ant-Man1

Nothing Special

Pixar and Marvel have some of the best track records out there. But all of these blockbusters were like being stuck in a traffic jam trying to leave ‘Meh’ City.

  • Ant-Man
  • Avengers: Age of Ultron
  • Everest
  • The Good Dinosaur
  • Tomorrowland

JURASSIC-WORLD-15-1940x1042

Avoid

I actually had high hopes for some of these. I should have known better.

  • Hotel Transylvania 2
  • Jurassic World
  • San Andreas
  • Southpaw
  • Spectre

 

And finally, no list would be complete with out the disclaimer of all the movies that I wanted see but just never found the time. In descending order of length of title…

  • Straight Outta Compton
  • Shaun the Sheep Movie
  • In the Heart of the Sea
  • Beasts of No Nation
  • The Danish Girl
  • Pawn Sacifice
  • Crimson Peak
  • Concussion
  • Son of Saul
  • Steve Jobs
  • Anomalisa
  • Cinderella
  • Macbeth
  • Chappie
  • 45 Years
  • Legend
  • Trumbo
  • Youth
  • Truth
  • Amy
  • Spy
  • Joy

Crimson Peak

Review – American Hustle

After seeing them both in the same weekend, it’s hard to talk about American Hustle without comparing it to the far superior The Wolf of Wall Street. Both are near-period pieces based on true stories. Both trade in themes of greed and corruption. And both are highly chaotic in terms of style and structure. But where Scorsese expertly sculpted his chaos into a specific vision with something to say, David O Russell seems content to throw a lot of parts on screen and hope that what sticks adds up to a cohesive whole. It doesn’t… Not quite, anyway.

Make no mistake, Russell is a supremely talented artist, working with a top-notch cast and crew – also like Wolf, both films have incredible performances from actors at the top of their game. His last two films, The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, are among my very favorites in recent memory. Both were taut little character studies that hit home in small unexpected ways. This time he brings the same cast from both those films, but the characters all suffer from being drowned out by all their co-stars. A problem exemplified perhaps most fittingly by the 3 different narrators trading the story back and forth. It gets confusing, to say the least.

The standout performances are Jennifer Lawrence as a housewife like no other, Louis C.K. as a fantastically milquetoast FBI chief, and Amy Adams’ side-boob which, as amazing as Adams is, chews up more scenery, with more screen-time, than she or any other actor has the chance to compete with. But Lawrence has the biggest chance of an Oscar nomination, and it would be a deserved one. Along with her Oscar win last March and her performance in The Hunger Games 2, she’s having one hell of a year.

The technical standouts are the costumes, the outlandish hair, and as always Christian Bale’s physical transformation. Seriously that guy is going to die of heart failure in the next 10 years if he keep ballooning his weight up and down with every other film!

All in all, American Hustle is still a really good movie, but it’s not quite a great one.

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Review – The Wolf of Wall Street

I’ve never taken cocaine, but I imagine the effect is something like how I felt after watching The Wolf of Wall Street. It’s a hilarious 3-hour drug- and sex-fueled ride through the depths of white-collar 1-percenter debauchery. Martin Scorsese’s comedic masterpiece is controversial, and I can understand why: Jordan Belfort is a horrible human being, and Leonardo DiCaprio plays him with a raucous, joyous energy that audiences would rather associate with a character much farther on the “pro” side of “protagonist”. And make no mistake, (mild SPOILER ALERT, though it’s far from unexpected) Belfort hardly gets what he really deserves for his crimes (END SPOILER). But you’d be a fool to believe that the comic treatment is in any way condoning what’s on screen. We may be taken so far into the lions’ den that we don’t see the rabbits, but we get one hell of a graphic close-up of the claws and fangs. They’re more gruesome than most of us would expect.

DiCaprio’s performance is his best ever. He throws himself into the role of Jordan with terrifying commitment. Beyond that, he takes the physical comedy to a new level that makes me wonder why we haven’t seen this side of him before. The rest of the ensemble is fantastic across the board, but for me there was other clear standout. Matthew McConaughey – smack dab in the middle of his remarkable “McConnaisance” – appears for all of maybe 15 minutes near the beginning as Jordan’s mentor. But in one scene he breathes such life into this “minor” character that he is infused throughout the next 2 and a half hours, never shown again, but never forgotten.

A word about the length: 3 hours is a long movie, no question. But in this case you don’t feel it, not the way you’d expect anyway. The energy is super-high throughout, and you’ll never have a chance to be bored. But beyond that, Scorsese uses the very length of the film to service its theme, namely: excess. He tells the story of a monster through his own eyes. Jordan doesn’t see himself as the monster he clearly is. He sees his life as a joyous endless thrill ride, so that’s what he shows us. And in that chaotic mess is the exacting genius of a filmmaker perfectly presenting a precise vision. The separation between audience and characters on screen is nothing more or less than the conclusions we take away after the credits role. As it should be.

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Review – Inside Llewyn Davis

Probably the most honest and accurate reaction I can give is that this is the type of film that defies quick reactionary reviews. For instance, I enjoyed the Coen Bros’ A Serious Man when it first came out a few years ago, but since then I’ve come to absolutely love it – though I’ve still only seen it the once. As I’ve sat and ruminated over it the past few years, it’s grown fonder and fonder in my memory. I strongly suspect this new movie of theirs to have a very similar effect. I can say this is one of the Coens’ best films, but I have to qualify that by saying I think that category includes about 70-80% of their work.

It’s much more of a character study than a plot-driven story. The structure is so cyclical that even after the credits you expect Llewyn Davis [Oscar Isaac] to trod through all the events of the movie again and again, exactly the same, over and over and over like Sisyphus on Groundhog Day. Isaac does a perfect job (including his own singing and guitar work) as Davis. He’s a wholly unpleasant, unlikable guy, until he’s behind his guitar. I kept expecting this or that character (or cat) to be the entry point for the audience to be ale to connect with him, but each of them is merely a passing bystander. Instead the music is the soul that makes us feel for the poor guy.

And soulful it is. In a perfect world this soundtrack would do for 60’s folk music, what O Brother Where Art Thou did for Roots Americana. Unfortunately it won’t. That film had the added benefit of being more easily accessible to the every day movie-goer. This is a bit more cerebral. It’s hilarious too, yes, but headier and darker. But for those of us who enjoy that sort of thing, it’s much much MUCH more fulfilling.

One final note: John Goodman has a “minor” (I use that term ironically) role that has him onscreen for all of maybe 15-30 minutes. But holy SHIT that’s one hell of a show! Seriously that guy is getting better and better with every movie these days, and he’s doing a lot. But this may be his best yet. The Oscars should have a Best Cameo category, for smaller supporting roles, just for him.

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Review – Nebraska

This is director Alexander Payne’s best work since Election. (Yes, I do mean to say it’s better than Sideways and The Descendants and About Schmidt – all of which I loved, by the way.) The pace is relaxed and comfy, and yet just a little stilted, mirroring the main character’s arthritic gait. The script uses that to hilarious effect, with a number of jokes and situations that could only work with the slower rhythm. The first half is a very good, very funny movie, and about halfway through it becomes a great film.

The black and white photography is beautiful, and the score memorable and a perfect fit. Payne seems to be nodding slightly at the Coen Bros. style of bruised character study – not too far off from his own usual bread and butter, but refreshingly less acerbic. Woody is the heart and soul of the film. It’s very personality is his personality, and Dern gives an a hell of a performance. But perhaps my favorite and most fun character is that of his wife, played by June Squibb. She’s an unfiltered loud-mouth who’s put up with Woody’s shit for a lifetime, but she’s also a surprisingly strong and confident no-nonsense gal, and one of the few people who actually has a clear head on her shoulders.

I don’t yet know how my Top 10 for the year is going to play out, but I have a strong suspicion this will be a big part of it.

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