Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Top Ten of 2015

Directed by Sean Baker
Original Review

It's difficult these days to makes something that is as unique as Tangerine. It's unapologetically low-class dive into the lives of two trans women (played wonderfully by Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor) is the funniest comedy I've seen this year. Rodriguez plays Sin-Dee, a prostitute fresh off a short jail stint on the look out for her pimp and boyfriend, Chester (James Ransone, in a pitch-perfect performance). Taylor plays Alexandra, a fellow prostitute and Sin-Dee's closest friend. She has dreams of becoming a singer. Sin-Dee is the engine of the film, her thunderous struts throughout the gritty streets of seedy Los Angeles are about as heart-pumping as anything you see in Mad Max: Fury Road; but Alexandra is the film's heart and Sin-Dee's conscience. If it weren't for her, Sin-Dee might set the whole world on fire. There's also an Armenian cab driver named Razmik (Karren Karagulian) who has a surprising fetish for transgender hookers and car washes, who's participation in Tangerine seems passive until his family starts to get involved. Tangerine was famously shot on iPhones, which is a gimmick that has helped the film's publicity, but does nothing to distract from the wonderful filmmaking. Sean Baker's film is overwhelmingly cinematic despite itself, and the arrival of this film proves that there is still unforeseen territory for independent cinema to explore. I've now seen this movie three times, and the experience has gotten richer (and funnier) with each viewing. The movie is ferocious throughout before landing gently on a conclusion that is both subtle and heartfelt, executing the year's most difficult dismount with stunning grace. Sean Baker doesn't make awards-bait and Tangerine doesn't waft with the kind of stuffiness of most prestige cinema, and yet his little film manages to be better than all of them. It really is a colossal achievement.

Directed by Tom McCarthy
Original Review

Tom McCarthy's ensemble story is a fierce procedural drama, a stark stomp through the Boston Globe's uncovering of pederasty run rampant through the Catholic church. With a brilliant cast including Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Jon Slattery, Brian d'Arcy James, Stanley Tucci and Liev Schrieber, McCarthy makes his most impressive film to date. Spotlight's conscious steering away from heightened drama, it's fervent grip on the nuts-and-bolts nature of investigative reporting will remind many of the 1976 masterpiece All The President's Men. This film is just as grilling, just as ripe with tension and just as filled with phenomenal performances. When a new boss (Schrieber) enters the hallowed halls of the Boston Globe, he calls upon the paper's prestigious investigative team to tackle a subject matter he thinks is getting too little attention: sexual abuse at the hands of Catholic priests. The team, called Spotlight, is led by a grizzled veteran (Keaton) and they dig into the story with fervor. They interview various victims, talk to lawyers who have settled cases for the church, and even to members of the Boston archdiocese. The nature of the cover-up begins to reveal itself and the monstrous size of the crime becomes apparent. No one, not even the members of Spotlight and the Boston Globe are prepared for the kind of numbers they dig up with their reporting. McCarthy shows us Spotlight as a true ensemble, with the performances for the actors working for each other, and enriching the screenplay (written by McCarthy and Josh Singer). Keaton, Ruffalo and Schrieber, in particular, stand out amongst all the actors, but what really shines is the exceptional filmmaking, the fine attention McCarthy pays to editing, sound and narrative amidst the chaotic structure of the story. It's a thriller masquerading as a newspaper story, and McCarthy plays all the right notes.

Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer
Original Review

Is there a more important movie made in the last ten years than 2013's The Act of Killing? It's a documentary so haunting and spirit-breaking it will forever change your thoughts on human nature. Joshua Oppenheimer's 2015 companion piece, The Look of Silence, mirrors the mind-altering power of the previous film. Act of Killing was a vast exposure of the celebrated soldiers at the head of the anti-communist purge in Indonesia in the mid-1960's, which resulted in the killings of over a half-million people. The Look of Silence takes the view of one of the victims, or more specifically, the younger brother of one of the men who met their horrific fate during this dark time. This man (like many members of the crew, he goes by 'Anonymous' for the sake of his own safety) is an ophthalmologist, and under the ruse of giving an eye exam, he visits some of these killers and takes the opportunity to confront them about the acts they've committed. The results are stirring, tense, mortifying; there's a bevy of nauseating adjectives to be used and yet none of them ever seem to be truly fitting. The ophthalmologist has to escape the horrors of his hometown country, but the effects his brother's murder has had on his family is shattering, creating ripples throughout generations. With Oppenheimer by his side, camera-ready, the ophthalmologist asks these now elderly men about their experiences, about their killings. Their answers are direct, their rationalizations elaborate. Some men claim that they drank the blood of their victims to stave off PTSD-induced insanity (read that sentence twice please). The Look of Silence is a feel-bad doc, for sure, but it carries just as much power as its predecessor, exposing these horrific deeds to many unaware of them.

Directed by Todd Haynes
Original Review

The return of Todd Haynes to feature films (he hadn't made one since 2007's I'm Not There) is reason in and of itself to get excited, but this Patricia Highsmith adaptation (from her novel The Price of Salt) goes well beyond a lipstick lesbian melodrama and evolves into the most heartbreaking love story of the year, thanks to the careful hands of its director. The script is written by Phyllis Nagy, and it's the first time Haynes has directed a film from a script he hasn't written. The result is what I find to be the best film he has ever made. Cate Blanchett is the titular Carol, a wealthy 1950's housewife with a history of female romance who falls for Therese (Rooney Mara), a shy, young shopgirl who is swayed by Carol's regal beauty. Blanchett is approaching peerlessness as a screen performer, but Mara matches her performance beat for beat, to create a stunning, symbiotic pair of performances unlike anything else in the movies this year. The story is simple, the intrigue and tension palpable, with terrific supporting performances by Kyle Chandler (as Carol's hangdog, loveless husband), Jake Lacy (as Therese's suitor who can't understand how she wouldn't marry him), and especially Sarah Paulson (as Carol's best friend and former romantic entanglement). Much like 2005's Brokeback Mountain is a gay love story that isn't transformative narratively, but instead measured and thoughtful. It's more about the passion than it is about the consequences of their love. Unlike Brokeback, Carol doesn't feel the need to tell a gay love story and make it tragic. As the threads of love entangle the two women, Haynes and Nagy are careful to have taste, to show that there are some forms of love that are painful, and that there are some forms of pain that you simply cannot live without.

Directed by George Miller
Original Review

Thirty-six years after George Miller's first Mad Max film, the Australian filmmaker returned to make the most impactful studio film of the year. Tom Hardy arrives to play the title character, but his Mad Max is diminished to a number of deranged grunts and fast-twitch muscle fiber. When he crosses paths with a tanker truck transporting five women away from the clutches of a merciless dictator named Immotan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), the mercenary Max becomes entangled in a rescue mission. Driving the truck is Furiosa (Charlize Theron), one of Immortan Joe's best drivers, who has defected in an attempted to bring Joe's five wives to safety, away from a life of sex slavery and baby-making. Max and Furiosa push the truck through dangerous terrain, with Joe and and the rest of the calvary hot on their heels. We're left with a two-hour car chase, with only brief pauses in the action. A diesel-fueled thrill ride that only escalates in insanity and inventiveness. Miller's vision here is extraordinary, crafting something so visually spectacular, a wondrous mixture of astonishing beauty (cinematographer: John Searle) and grosteque horrors. The abuse of women is often an undercooked plot point in major films, but Fury Road takes this concept seriously, and instead of focusing on the victimhood of these characters, imbues its screenplay (by Miller, Brendan McCarthy & Nico Lathouris) with a feminist bent, allowing the female characters to take charge, make their own choices and judgments, surrounding the character of Max Rocketansky as figures with true agency. That Miller would make this obvious choice, to make this film about female empowerment, is a brave move, but it's even more impressive that he's able to pull it off so well, while also crafting the most exciting action film of the year.

6. 45 YEARS
Written and Directed by Andrew Haigh
Original Review

The memory of an old flame haunts the marriage at the center of 45 Years like a cumbersome, needy ghost. Andrew Haigh's film is one of the few that truly earns the adjective Bergman-esque with its frank portrayal of marriage, and its sparse, performance-led production. Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay play Cate and Geoff Mercer, a married couple a week away from their forty-fifth wedding anniversary. The occasion will be celebrated extravagantly with all their friends and family, but when Geoff learns that the missing body of a former lover has been found over fifty years later, the discovery comes as an utter shock to him and a grim awakening for her. 45 Years is an impressively intelligent film about matters of the heart, about how love is never safe even if happily ever after has managed to last for four and a half decades. It's piercing, adult view of marriage is somber without being cynical, dramatic without being maudlin, and overall a truly refreshing take on the domestic drama. The performances from Rampling and Courtenay are amongst the best you'll be able to see in the theater right now. Courtenay is wonderfully irritable, his altered mind having trouble adjusting to his quickly overacting heart. As Cate, Rampling is incredible. An actress known for her sharp, steely screen presence proceeds as this film's emotional center, translating such a varied slate of emotions, she and Haigh are so acute at keeping the audience off balance. Her true motives, her true thoughts, are never really revealed until the film's final shot which is one of the most heartbreaking conclusions I've seen in a movie in a very long time.

Directed by Brett Haley

This winning dramedy flew under the radar this spring, but those who saw it got a lucky treat. Hollywood mainstay Blythe Danner is given what is probably her greatest role as Carol Peterson, a retired schoolteacher and former professional singer. Since becoming a widow twenty years ago, Carol has stayed alone romantically, but when she makes friends with two very different men - a restless, thirtysomething pool cleaner named Lloyd (Martin Starr) and a cigar-chomping fellow retiree named Bill (Sam Elliot) - she learns that it's never too late for life to begin anew. I'll See You In My Dreams may seem like Nancy Meyers-type cotton candy at a glance, but its heart is closer to the emotionally-piercing female-led films of Nicole Holfcener. The film is directed by Brett Haley, and he co-wrote the script with Marc Basch. The men craft a strikingly bittersweet tale of heartbreak and heart mending, of love both passionate and platonic. That two men could find a way to tell a sweet, honest tale about women of a certain age is an unexpected thrill. A subplot including Carol's group of friends allows the film to employ June Squibb, Mary Kay Place and Rhea Pearlman, giving the movie a handful of great scenes in which these actresses talk about their lives, both romantic and not. How often do we get to see that? Especially in a film so wonderfully told? At its heart, I'll See You In My Dreams is a film about grief, about the death of a husband, but more directly a film about the death of one's dog. As Carol gets older, the reality of death creeps closer, but instead of falling victim to her existential crisis, she instead decides to enjoy her golden years with her friends, within her winning friendship with Lloyd, and by accepting the romantic advances of Bill. This indie hit was one of the year's most wonderful surprises.

Directed by Lenny Abrahamson
Original Review

Not since Quvenzhané Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild has a child performance been so completely captivating as Jacob Tremblay in Room. Working with Brie Larson, Tremblay is the center of the most emotionally overpowering film of the year. Larson plays a young mother being held captive by a lecherous, abusive man named Old Nick (Sean Bridgers). She has raised her son Jack (Tremblay) inside a small room for the first five years of his life. Room's first half is a wondrous display of film directing, with filmmaker Lenny Abrahamson effectively forming the narrative of these two characters within this desperate (and tiny) atmosphere. The film's second half, dealing with Ma and Jack's escape and further trouble adjusting back into normal life is a somber domestic drama. The film's halves are so different, and yet the performance from Tremblay - the film is told through his point-of-view - keeps the story grounded, seen through the eyes of innocence. The film is based on the best-selling novel by Emma Donoghue, and the author penned the screenplay. Like Gillian Flynn, who adapted her own best-seller with Gone Girl last year, Donoghue proves quite adept at the process and takes a novel that was already written in a difficult structure and modifies it softly, makes it cinematic. Larson had been building good will as an actress for several years, particularly in 2013's Short Term 12, but Room is obviously the young actress' biggest role to date. It's a wrenching performance, filled with heart and terror. The chemistry that Larson and Tremblay build throughout is the film's strongest asset, and Abrahamson allows it to take center stage while building around them a world that is filled with both wonder and fear. By the film's end, I'd been drained, cried out and left exhausted. Room is so emotional, it's actually physical, but it attains all of this without contrivance. It achieves it through strong direction, a stellar screenplay, and two lead performances that perfectly translate those emotions to the audience.

Directed by Deniz Gamze Erguven
Original Review

Parts wondrous, parts tragic, Deniz Gamze Erguven's autobiographical Mustang tracks five sisters growing up and growing against the conservative Turkish village that they call their home. Shot in an immediate cinema verité style, Erguven keeps a stern eye as the sisters try their best to live freely against the wishes of their helpless grandmother and their oppressive uncle. After being orphaned, five spirited sisters rub against the restrictions of their Muslim heritage when their uncle makes it clear that he wants them married off and out of his home. When he takes the girls out of school, bars them within his home and turns the house into a wife-making factory, it only makes the sisters that much more defiant, fighting his oppression by strengthening their bonds and their love. Gunes Sensoy, the young actress who plays Lale, the youngest and most rebellious of the five sisters, is a wonder. The film's script (by Erguven and Alice Winocour) tells the story through Lale's point-of-view, and adapts the young girls naiveté, while still maintaining a strong sense of self within all five of the girls. As the film proceeds, and the sisters begin to bend to the will of their family, a malais sits heavily upon the audience. Watching the spirit of these young women getting crushed is sobering in a number of ways, but mostly because Erguven's strong sense of the material (and her real-life connection to it) really makes the story feel honest. Mustang is not simply a tear-down of Muslim society, but a snapshot of life in the face of draconian rules. Starting like something similar to a sweet comedy, Mustang concludes as a suspenseful thriller, as the remaining sisters desperately find any way they can to escape. Despite this, Erguven's film stands as one of the most delightful experiences of the year.

Directed by Thomas Vinterberg
Original Review

The Dogme legend Thomas Vinterberg came back strong with The Hunt in 2013, a film that showed that he still had his fastball when it comes to grim, performance-led indie dramas. Earlier this year, he released a much different film: a lush adaptation of Thomas Hardy's beloved novel Far From The Madding Crowd. A period piece is probably the last thing you'd expect from the director of The Celebration, but Vinterberg shows here that he has evolved precipitously since the skimpy Dogme days, and showcases his ability to make a strong, emotional costume drama. The great Carey Mulligan gives the year's most unsung performance here as Bathsheba Everdene, the marriage-averse business woman convinced that a relationship with a man will only sully her free spirit. When she comes into business with moral sheep herder Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), he makes a dignified marriage proposal that is rejected. Despite this, Oak continues working for the business-shrewd Bathsheba, and their relationship evolves as she rejects a proposal from another wealthy man (Michael Sheen) and accepts the sexual advances of a troublesome soldier (Tom Sturridge). David Nicholls' screenplay is an expert adaptation, cutting through a years-long tale with a swiftness that still keeps the spirit of the narrative. It reminded me of Joe Wright's masterful Pride & Prejudice from 2005, which was another brilliant and charming period piece led by the strength of its lead performance. The burning chemistry between Mulligan and Schoenaerts is sparking and tense, and the will they/won't they aspect of their romance gives the film its main point of suspense, which is what Vinterberg does best. But this is not the Vinterberg obsessed with hard-to-watch tales of depravity, and he proves adept at literary adaptation, assuring himself as one of our most exciting filmmakers.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Honorable Mention: The Best Films of 2015, 25-11

I found myself wanting, cinematically at least, for most of 2015. The first half of the year presented very little of interest, and the few films that I did see with some expectation (Trainwreck or Mistress America) felt flat to me, without much of anything real to say. But the second half of the year has brought some real heat, giving us a wonderful, varied selection of terrific films by equally terrific filmmakers. It was a seemingly loaded year for female performances, with obvious standouts like Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara in Carol or Brie Larson in Room; but not to be forgotten are the incredible comedic performances we got from Melissa McCarthy in Spy or Kristen Wiig in Welcome To Me. Films like Mad Max: Fury Road and Mustang presented audiences with tales of women fighting tooth and nail against an oppressive patriarchy, while Tangerine gave us the most mannered, entertaining tale of trans women that has come our way for some time. Even the new Star Wars film chose a woman (Daisy Ridley's Rey) as its protagonist! Let's hope this isn't a anomaly. 2015 finished up strong, and here's a sample of some of the best films I've seen this year. The Top 10 goes up tomorrow!

25. While We're Young. Noah Baumbach's tale of childless fortysomethings (played by Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts) getting a much needed boost by becoming friends with a couple of seemingly aimless twentysomethings (played by Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried) is the great millennial satire that we've been waiting for. Baumbach is no longer as angry as he once was, but While We're Young has a healthy amount of bitterness about getting older, but not so much that the fresh humor is muted. The performances add to this Woody Allen-lite comedy and propel this up amongst the best of Baumbach's canon.

24. Son of Saul. László Nemes' debut feature is a fierce Holocaust drama about a Jewish Sonderkommando worker in 1944 Auschwitz. Géza Röhrig stars as the titular Saul, a regretful cog in the Auschwitz machine, who spots the body of a young boy and believes its his son. His search to find a rabbi to give the boy a proper burial amidst the chaos of the concentration camp encompasses the main conflict throughout this biting film. A stunning performance from Röhrig and some startling cinematography separates Son of Saul from the usual Holocaust film and gives us one of our most stirring tragedies of the year.

23. The Martian. Ridley Scott takes Andy Weir's wonderful wise-cracking, fact-heavy science-fiction novel and takes it to the big screen. One of our best movie stars, Matt Damon, gives one of his very best performances as a man stranded on Mars who must find ways to stay alive while a handful of people on Earth (and in space) conspire to come up with a rescue plan. Despite the dire plot, The Martian is one of the year's best comedies, a snarky action film that boasts a killer supporting cast including (but not limited to) Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jessica Chastain, Michael Peña, Jeff Daniels and Sean Bean. One of the best studio films of the year.

22. Spy. Melissa McCarthy finally got a starring vehicle that deserves her, with Paul Feig's hilarious action comedy which lets McCarthy's freak flag fly with wonderful gross-out humor and a surprisingly sophisticated espionage plot. With Jude Law, Rose Byrne and Miranda Hart co-starring, Spy boasts one of the best comedy ensembles of the year.

21. Wild Tales. This Argentinian film got itself an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film in January, but didn't arrive in American theaters until the Spring. Director Damián Szifrón gives us six hysterical, baroque vignettes, each showcasing the distressing, sometimes violent circumstances of the human condition. Giving us glimpses into humanity that are both unique and bloody (in equal measure), Wild Tales was the year's best anthology film.

20. Creed. Director Ryan Coogler followed his breakout indie, Fruitvale Station, with a new addition to the Rocky films. Fruitvale star Michael B. Jordan joins Coogler here, as Adonis Johnson, the son of Rocky rival Apollo Creed. Movie legend Sylvester Stallone returns as his most beloved character, Rocky Balboa, uprooting what has become a stale life of mourning and restaurant management to be Adonis' trainer. Jordan and Stallone show incredible chemistry in a film that does a striking job of measuring franchise homage and individuality.

19. Labyrinth of Lies. Fictionalized versions of true stories can often spell trouble for movies, but Giulio Ricciarelli's film is a masterly told tale of a young German lawyer trying to expose the Nazis hiding in plain sight after the end of World War II. In showing the internal struggle of a nation trying to outrun its very recent misdeeds, Labyrinth's air-tight script crafts a spellbinding thriller ripe with tension throughout, and the film contains a collection of performances that rivals most of the year's best ensembles.

18-17. The End of the Tour & Mississippi Grind. Two buddy road films, both equipped with terrific dual performances, both with wonderfully spellbinding views into the nature of male companionship. In The End of the Tour, reporter David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) must follow around famed writer David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel) at the tail end of his book tour for Infinite Jest. In Mississippi Grind, a compulsive gambler  (Ben Mendelsohn) convinces a handsome drifter (Ryan Reynolds) to accompany him on a gambling trip down the Mississippi. Both films go beyond the common bromance of Hollywood comedies and delves into the nature of what makes men attracted to one another. Tour's script (by playwright Donald Margulies) is a smart, dialogue-driven dramedy, while Grind is a somber meditation. But both films have a tender understanding of platonic male infatuation.

16. Brooklyn. Nick Hornby penned the script to this sweet, nostalgic tale of a young Irish girl (an incredible Saoirse Ronan) who moves to Brooklyn and builds a life, only to return to her home country to face some dire questions. She falls for two men, one a Brooklyn plumber (Emory Cohen) and the other an Irish aristocrat (Domhnall Gleeson), which complicates her choices. Ronan gives one of the year's best performances as a girl who learns that part of growing up is learning to define what your home is. The great ensemble also includes Jim Broadbent, Julie Walters and Jane Brennan.

15. Legend. Tom Hardy is one of our most brilliant actors, and he showed that early in 2015 while spear-heading Mad Max: Fury Road. While Legend may not have been anywhere near as close of a hit, it's no less of an example of just how talented and exciting the British actor is. He plays both of the infamous Kray twins, Ronnie and Reggie, notorious killers and criminals who ruled England's East End in the 50's and 60's. Brian Helgeland's script and direction recalls Goodfellas in the best way, and he proves adept at using Hardy in one of the best roles the actor has ever gotten. It's perhaps the performance of the year.

14-13. Dope & Chi-Raq. The two best racial satires of the year. Dope is a high school comedy about a young nerd (Shameik Moore) who ends up in possession of a large package of MDMA and must find a way to sell it all while still managing college applications and getting the attention of the local girl he likes. Chi-Raq is Spike Lee's cheeky adaptation of Aristophanes' Lysistrata, moving the locale to gangland Chicago. Both films rank amongst the year's best comedies, but also have a great time skewering the troubled dynamics of American racial politics. Dope boasts a wonderful young cast including Moore, Kiersey Clemons and Grand Budapest Hotel's Tony Revolori; Chi-Raq has one of the year's best scripts (written by Lee and Kevin Willmott) and the characters even speak in verse! But both films manage to be funny and entertaining without undermining the very important discussion they hope to spark. They're both important films that everyone should see.

12. Inside Out. Pixar's first truly great film since 2009's Up, Inside Out is a beautifully emotional film about emotions. As the young Riley grows into adolescence, a major move and burgeoning hormones send her into an unforeseen melancholia. Inside her, five emotions battle, led by Joy (Amy Poehler) and including Anger (Lewis Black), Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and the turtle-necked Sadness (Phyllis Smith). As the emotions struggle to keep up with an ever-changing Riley, the emotions themselves begin to learn about what growing up is about. The script (by director Pete Doctor, as well as Meg LeFauve and Josh Cooley) is one of the best of the year, and includes a supporting character named Bing Bong (voice by Richard Kind), that is the base of one of the most heartbreaking moments in any film this year.

11. Steve Jobs. Aaron Sorkin's second trip to Silicon Valley sees him adapting Walter Isaacson's epic tome of a biography, and shaving it down into a spry, three-act sprint into the mind of one of the Twentieth's Century's most mercurial icons. Michael Fassbender plays Jobs as an all-ego, all-adrenaline line-o-rama, and the actor is boosted by an incredible ensemble including Michael Stuhlbarg, Seth Rogen, Jeff Daniels and Kate Winslet. Directed by Danny Boyle, who's probably one of the few directors as skilled at timing as Sorkin is, Steve Jobs is a fun twist on biopics, refusing to be dragged into a another Great American Man tale. It instead morphs into a funny, tense narrative that both loathes its protagonist while also standing in awe of him.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Anomalisa (**)

Directed by Duke Johnson & Charlie Kaufman


Charlie Kaufman's view of the human experience can be so despairing, so bankrupt of cheer and spontaneity, that one must thank their lucky stars that he is incredibly funny, and also that he is an absolute genius. His latest effort is a collaboration with animator Duke Johnson, an adaptation of what he called a "sound play" that he performed the actors David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Tom Noonan over a decade ago. The concept allowed the audience to create the real drama in their minds, as the stage only presented actors reading a script and a foley man creating the sound effects. So how fitting, with the film adaptation, that Kaufman decides to go the route of stop motion animation, a medium that is not limited by the possible. The imagination that the audience provides can have its more proper representation in the animated world, where the possibilities are endless as to what you can visualize. The same actors return; Thewlis playing the protagonist, Michael Stone, Leigh playing Lisa, Stone's infatuation, and Noonan voicing literally everyone else. The result is a dour but sweet experience, a resolutely Kaufman-esque story that treats the banalities of existence as the real tragedy of humanity. This is the first feature from Kaufman since his directorial debut, Synecdoche, New York, a truly grim film that was so exhaustively challenging to the audience, that only a transcendent performance from Philip Seymour Hoffman could save it from complete impenetrability. Anomalisa is a lot gentler and easier to process. Its bite is much less fierce. Is it possible that the gloomy Kaufman is warming to the brighter side of life?

Friday, December 25, 2015

45 Years (****)

Written and Directed by Andrew Haigh


Domestic dramas are a dime a dozen, and while many can be histrionic amd verbose like Revolutionary Road (a good film in its own right) , there are times when you get something as subtly beautiful and stunning as 45 Years. Andrew Haigh's new film stars Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay, two titans of the screen and two of the most celebrated actors of England. They play Kate and Geoff Mercer, a married couple one week away from their forty-fifth anniversary. To celebrate, they'll be having a major party, inviting hundreds of family and friends, renting out an event hall, and organizing catering and music. This party comes after Geoff's bypass surgery postponed the original event they'd planned for their fortieth. It's not the first time that Cate has had to rearrange plans on Geoff's behalf, but poor health is hardly a reason to get upset. All things in marriage take compromise, you're constantly having to make major choices based on the other person - you're no longer just living for yourself, solely. 45 Years is a somber, expertly-told example of what happens when that compromise feels all for naught, when your concept of love and commitment is challenged in a way that you cannot move past. None of its emotion feels cheap, none of its lines of dialogue feel misused, and most importantly, neither of its main stars waste any time in delivering two of the best performances of the year. 45 Years is a performance-led film, but its narrative sinks to the bone, giving us a story of heartbreak unlike any I'd seen in a long while.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (***)

Directed by J.J. Abrams


In our latest podcast (shameless plug!), I had outed myself as a Star Wars agnostic. My appreciation for the films' effect on the culture far outweighs any appreciation I have for the films themselves. Any childhood enthusiasm I'd cultivated for the original trilogy was shattered by the putrid prequels which did everything in their power to undermine what made George Lucas' films so wonderful to begin with (in the story of Star Wars, Lucas is certainly a very greedy, tragic, Charles Foster Kane-like figure). When Lucas sold the rights of Star Wars to Disney in the Fall of 2012, I saw it with very cynical eyes; a monolithic media enterprise grabs control of one of the most profitable (if not the most profitable) film franchises in the history of Hollywood. Plans were immediately announced not only for another trilogy, but spin-offs and adjacent story arcs. It was so obvious to me that Star Wars was sullied by having too many films, so how could they think even more films would make it better? The idea is all very capitalistic, and the sobering truth is that a Star Wars film no longer has to be good, it just has to exist, in order to be profitable for Disney. So, we get to The Force Awakens, Disney's first film in the franchise, in which they pegged J.J. Abrams - the man who boosted the Star Trek franchise in 2009, and who has been a very public fan of Star Wars for a very long time. Abrams wrote the screenplay with Star Wars legend Lawrence Kasdan, and it was then punched up by Oscar-winning writer Michael Arndt. What they bring forward is a fascinating achievement in fan service, which like Jurassic World and Creed from earlier this year, finds a way to both pay homage while maintaining its own individuality. It's not as easy as it seems.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Son of Saul (***)

Directed by László Nemes


The glut of Holocaust films can lead some to wonder whether filmmakers have ever heard of a single other human tragedy. The evil behind it is so calculated, so diabolical, it still seems like humans could not have actually committed the crime. And so, many Holocaust films act accordingly, portraying Nazis as subhuman, mis-wired cretins. Its easier for us to dismiss them as evil, and much harder to reconcile them as people, like you and me. Son of Saul is the first feature from Hungarian filmmaker László Nemes, and in his debut he makes a daunting attempt to tell a Holocaust story that is unique, that understands that it isn't despair itself that makes this awful period of history so unsettling, but the many levels in which despair was able to arise - the senselessness of it all. The film is a gritty, handheld-heavy bull that charges nonstop from its first frame, and forms an incredibly claustrophobic aesthetic within the walls of Auschwitz. Actor Géza Röhrig plays the eponymous Saul, a Jew working as a Sonderkommando (a special unit of Jews forced to work for German soldiers) at the notorious concentration camp. Most of his work consists of disrobing imports of new Jews, throwing them into the gas chamber and then raiding their belongings for valuables to be collected by the Nazis. Son of Saul opens very strongly, with two long takes in which we can see very immediately just how much Saul's soul has been crushed. His movements are mechanical muscle memory, his thoughts are within, his actions motivated only by what one would guess are the most elaborate rationalizations. Son of Saul is about the amount to which we will bury ourselves in our own self-hatred in order to survive, and gives new definition to the word 'survival' itself.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Podcast: Is 'Star Wars' Better Than Jurassic Park?

In our fourth episode of 'Is It Better Than Jurassic Park' (click the link!), Scott and I discuss Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope or as it was called in a much simpler time, Star Wars. For any heading out to see The Force Awakens, have a listen if you want to hear some spirited discussion about the original trilogy. We're joined by Caroline A. (who was the guest in our first podcast) and Olivia Z.

Son of Saul
Star Wars, Episode VII: The Force Awakens
45 Years
The Revenant

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Chi-Raq (***1/2)

Directed by Spike Lee


What we see here with Chi-Raq is the Spike Lee of Bamboozled. That 2000 film was an extraordinarily bleak satire that seemed to epitomize Lee's ultimate frustration with the use of black culture within the greater pop culture. Bamboozled is a troubled film, and handles highly delicate material with the care of a spoiled toddler, but it is one of the filmmaker's best films and is still undervalued today. Chi-Raq is the first film that he's made since that has anywhere near that kind of bite and attitude, and it's easily the best film he's made since 2002's 25th Hour. Chi-Raq is sloppy, energetic, problematic, but also brilliantly cheeky. Lee has never been one to take somber tales and tell them with gloom - though he tried that with The Miracle at St. Anna and it produced his most sanctimonious film and no one went to see it - while we know Lee will always have a unique viewpoint on contemporary issues, who would have guessed that he would turn to the ancient Athenian playwright Aristophanes for inspiration? Using the Greek playwright's famed Lysistrata as a template, Lee crafts cinema's most biting take on the gangland violence that has plagued areas of Chicago for the entirety of this short century. In classic Lee fashion, Chi-Raq opens brazenly, we hear a song bemoaning the state of gangland Chicago with nothing on the screen but the song's pleading lyrics. The lyrics are bold, straightforward and threatening, and Lee follows that with statistics showing that more lives have been lost to the gun violence in Chicago since 2001 than the two American military tours through the Middle East in that same time. Lee doesn't care if you need the context, he's going to make sure you get the appropriate info and then some.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Mustang (****)

Directed by Deniz Gamze Erguven


Before any of the action in Mustang starts, we see at least a dozen different international companies attached to its production, which is how a film by a Turkish filmmaker which takes place in Turkey and cast with all Turkish actors ends up being France's 2015 Oscar submission for Best Foreign Language Film. But thank God these arbiters of cinema put their collective heads together to give Deniz Gamze Erguven a chance to tell this beautiful story. This mostly autobiographical film shows us five orphaned sisters who seem abnormally close, their bond fused together by the constrictions set forth by a temperamental uncle and a helpless grandmother. Their obligation to raise these girls is rarely mixed with compassion or understanding, but a bafflement of the girls' personalities and disobedience. The sisters seem from a different time, a different place, and the time-honored traditions of their Muslim heritage is simply something foreign to them, they cannot comprehend it. 2015 has been a great year for tales of women fighting against the patriarchy, whether it be the trans women of Tangerine stomping through Los Angeles looking for a heartbreaking pimp, or the feisty wives of Immortan Joe in Mad Max: Fury Road who risk life and limb to escape the oppressive grip of their tyrannical ruler/husband. Mustang's universe is more grounded in realism, obviously, and Erguven gives these sisters the cinema verité service their story deserves. The result is a spirited examination of strident passion flying in the face of conservative ideology, and five girls who realize that their bond with each other is much more important than the rules of an archaic society.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Youth (**1/2)

Written and Directed by Paolo Sorrentino


Consider the opening shot of Youth. It's not incredibly complicated. It consists of a young woman singing into a microphone, in the middle of a circular stage. A band surrounds her, but we don't get a very good look at them. The background spins slowly, but the singer's face stays stationary, performing with the gusto of a veteran professional. It's very captivating. It helps that the song is great ear candy - "You Got The Love", originally performed by Candi Staton in 1986 - and it helps that the singer is beautiful. It tells you everything you need to know about the film's director, Paolo Sorrentino, how he values beauty and aesthetic. Hell, his last film was actually called The Great Beauty. That film won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, and borrowed liberally from Federico Fellini's 8 1/2. Like Youth, The Great Beauty focused on a white-haired man in advanced age, who's resounding success and life of excess has left him feeling empty as death creeps closer. I remembered loving The Great Beauty when I saw it in 2013, but I must admit to not remembering much of the plot. I remember the beautifully constructed shots, the brilliant use of music and the strong performances, all wrapped within a very frivolous narrative. Youth is more of the same. It contains performances from two film legends (Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel) that are perhaps the best things they've done in decades, while sustaining such a high level of filmmaking throughout. But what does it all mean? Youth will make you ponder that question more often than not.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

The Danish Girl (*1/2)

Directed by Tom Hooper


If you want to watch a prime example of how poor editing can really dismantle a film, I'd suggest watching Tom Hooper's The Danish Girl, which spends two hours with a story that it can't seem to find any interest in. Is it the story of a troubled marriage? Well, of course that relationship is what takes up most of the film, and Alicia Vikander, who plays the wife, easily has the most dynamic, entertaining performance throughout. Of course, what The Danish Girl is really about is the husband, played by Eddie Redmayne, who claims to be a woman trapped in a man's body - this certainly isn't too uncommon these days but in Denmark in the 1920s, it was certainly not something to be too open about. The sex change seems to be the post on which Danish Girl hopes to hang its hat, but it spends so little time actually investing the audience with this subject. And what's to make of the husband's childhood friend, played by Matthias Schoenaerts, who's presence in the movie seems to only be justified by giving the wife a lover to hold once the husband becomes a woman? Or the homosexual, played by Ben Whishaw, who seduces the cross-dressing husband knowing there's a penis underneath it all? The Danish Girl is a very moribund, interminable film, and its scenes are so choppy and haphazard, it suggests that there was a time when the film was even longer. I haven't even gotten to the Parisian surgeon who looks like Ernest Hemingway!

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Creed (***)

Directed by Ryan Coogler


The Rocky series is one of the few film franchises that I truly love. The original film is one of the great American classics, mostly because its screenplay (written by its star, Sylvester Stallone) is a masterpiece in commercial cinematic storytelling. The thought of a spin-off within a movie climate already over-saturated with reboots and unwanted sequels was a bit unnerving to me. How much more story can be sapped from this character? Six films stretched Stallone thin, and the sequels succeeded mostly when they became something between shameless self-parody and outright camp (see: Rocky IV). Upon its announcement, Creed had the scent of self-importance, an attempt to start anew with a rough, grittier style - like they've done with Batman and James Bond and I'm sure plenty of other franchises in the future. But much like the original Rocky, Creed has the benefit of a strong screenplay. It's a real story, not a centerpiece for staged boxing nor a cheap attempt to capitalize on the great films of the past. It helps that Creed was actually the brainchild of its director, Fruitvale Station's Ryan Coogler, who used the goodwill he built up with Fruitvale's success and graduated to this major studio film. Creed's concept and story was created by Coogler, and he wrote the screenplay with Aaron Covington. That personal touch is evident in the film's emotional style. Reuniting with Fruitvale's star, Michael B. Jordan, both director and actor prove that their place in Hollywood is legitimate, but with the help of a Hollywood relic, Rocky himself Sylvester Stallone, they deliver a crowd-pleasing dynamo that would do the rest of the franchise proud.