Lists: Top 10 Films of 2015

Hope everyone’s 2016 is off to a great start.  Of all the films I wanted to see before compiling my top 10, there are two I just haven’t caught up with — sorry “45 Years” and “The Look of Silence.” But January’s nearing its end, so here we go!

Note: I haven’t labeled this my favorite or best films of the year.  That’s a deliberate choice, because I don’t really distinguish between the two.  I like the Filmspotting podcast approach – Imagine all but 10 movies from 2015 are going to be wiped from the face of the Earth.  Which 10 would you save?

Now without further ado…

10.) “What We Do In the Shadows”

There aren’t typically comedies in my top 10s, because, frankly, they don’t often tickle my fancy.  But “What We Do In the Shadows” is the funniest film of the year and probably in years.  It’s a mockumentary (think: “This is Spinal Tap”) from Jemaine Clement of “Flight of the Conchords” fame.  He’s joined by co-writer and co-director Taika Waititi.  Here a documentary crew follows a group of flatmates that happen to be vampires.  Sure they might be bloodsuckers, but they’re just like you and me.  Trouble getting up in the morning…erh at night.  Roomies not pulling their weight.  Baggage with the ex.  You know, the usual.

9.) “Steve Jobs”

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“Crackling” is a cliché when it comes to describing good writing, but damn it, that’s the best word for Aaron Sorkin’s work on “Steve Jobs.”  His knack for verbal ping pong is as strong as ever.  Sorkin and director Danny Boyle retool conventions of the biopic, and we’re all the better for it.  No standard cradle to the grave narrative here.  The film is structured around the launch of three Apple products.  Similar to Sorkin’s “The Social Network,” he depicts this tech giant as an asshole, but a passionate and creative asshole.  It’s a refreshing warts-and-all approach.  Michael Fassbender is great as Steve, but Kate Winslet steals the movie as his assistant.

8.) “Carol”

From “crackling” to “classy,” “Carol” is another sorta-throwback for director Todd Haynes.  (I’m thinking of you, “Far From Heave.”)  Adapted by Phyllis Nagy, it’s a romantic melodrama set in the 1950s between two women.  The lovers are played by Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara.  Blanchett is great, selling reservoirs of repressed emotion.  But Mara in particular is so strong in a quietly heartbreaking performance as a young woman navigating adulthood.  The film is lovingly put together — from Edward Lachman’s rich cinematography to Carter Burwell’s tender score.

7.) “Sicario”

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This and my next entry are the most likely to induce a panic attack.  First up, “Sicario.”  Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan presents a bleak worldview centered around an FBI agent (Emily Blunt) assigned to a task force to combat the escalating war on drugs.  Victories are few and far between.  Director Denis Villeneuve sculpts an atmosphere as oppressive as the arid desert sun.  Benicio del Toro is excellent as the titular sicario (hitman) — he’s a movie tough guy who intimidates with a whisper instead of a shout.  There are a number of great setpieces, but a Mexico-USA border crossing and a nighttime mission through an underground tunnel stand out.

6.) “It Follows”

Here’s the second in my panic attack twofer.  “It Follows” is about an evil specter that’s passed from one person to the next through sex.  Writer-director David Robert Mitchell delivers a model for tension-filled exposition when young Jay (Maika Monroe), tied to a wheelchair, learns that the evil specter is pursuing her.  It’s only visible to those who’ve been afflicted.  It can look like anyone — a stranger or a friend.  It’s always coming, and it’s coming to kill.  There are so many great sequences, such as the opening, which depicts a panic-stricken girl running through a quiet neighborhood.  Or Jay’s encounter with the entity during class.  (Disasterpiece’s nerve-jangling score contributes so much.)

Yes, the third act is a letdown but not enough to keep it off the list.

5.) “The Big Short”

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I’m not a huge fan of director and co-writer Adam McKay’s work, particularly for movies like “Anchorman,” so color me surprised that I responded as strongly as I did to “The Big Short.”  What a wild and wooly tapestry he weaves about the financial meltdown in 2008.  It’s a kitchen sink movie — sad, funny and infuriating with many techniques on display such as breaking the fourth wall and docudrama.  Though the aesthetic schizophrenia might give you whiplash, I found it exhilarating.  It boasts an all-star cast with the likes of Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt and Steve Carell.  Each is as good as you expect.  (Carell might be even better.)

4.) “Ex Machina”

Where most science fiction films are content to be dressed up action flicks, writer-director Alex Garland brings ideas back to the genre.  A young programmer (Domhnall Gleeson) is tasked with determining whether a robot named Ava has the ability to appear human.  (Also known as the Turing test.)  In addition to Gleeson, there are two key performances here — Oscar Isaac as the eccentric billionaire that develops the AI and Alicia Vikander as Ava.  Cool and calm yet wide-eyed, Vikander will keep you guessing.  I love the design of the film.  An illustrious estate built around and into a mountain, ceiling-high windows looking out over expanses of wilderness, concrete and windowless rooms covered with post-its, and the glass enclosures housing Ava.

3.) “Spotlight”

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It’s always a pleasure to watch professionals do their thing on the big screen.  Director and co-writer Tom McCarthy crafts an ensemble drama in the procedural vein of “All the President’s Men.”  A group of Boston Globe journalists (played by Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams and Mark Ruffalo, among others) seek to uncover a child molestation scandal in the Catholic Church.  Like the 70s Watergate drama, this film doesn’t spoon-feed you information.  There are a lot of names, a lot of places, and you’re going to have to keep up.  Though the film is pretty packed, it does make time for characterization and mini side dramas, such as a new editor, who happens to be Jewish, under pressure to drop the story on the Catholic Church.

2.) “Mad Max: Fury Road”

I can’t believe George Miller got away with making a $150 million summer blockbuster this uninhibited and distinctly his.  But here we have “Mad Max: Fury Road!”  A nefarious ruler keeps a collection of young woman captive as breeders until they’re freed by Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron).  And the ruler gives chase.  Enter: Max (Tom Hardy)…a sidelined character thrust into the action.  The worldbuilding is economical.  The film isn’t big on plot, but there are clear character arcs and some clever bits of setup and payoff. The visuals are lush and vibrant — a nice change of pace from the desaturated look of many summer blockbusters (and certainly films that are post-apocalyptic).  The action is kinetic yet fluid.  Though the film has a reputation for being unrelenting, it finds those little nuggets of quiet.  What a lovely day, indeed!

1.) “Inside Out”

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And finally, my #1 movie of the year…”Inside Out.”  About the anthropomorphized emotions that govern a young girl’s mind, the film has an ingenious premise.  Co-directors Pete Docter and Ronnie Del Carmen introduce us to wacky rules and concepts (i.e. the personality islands, core memories), and then play with them.  The voice cast is superb.  A lot of studios market their animated movies with big celebrity names.  How many people go see an animated film because John Q. Actor voices a role?  At Pixar the character and performance come first.  “Inside Out” takes some dark turns.  I love how Joy’s (Amy Poehler) catharsis is learning about catharsis.  Like light and darkness, joy can really only be measured against sadness.  The moment of this film that really gets me is when she’s in the memory dump, clutching the girl’s memories.  She starts to cry, she wants so badly for her kid to be happy.  Don’t we all want that for ourselves and others!  There isn’t a bad guy here, but Joy’s really the one making things difficult.  And that’s okay, because her desires are so relatable.

Also there’s some REALLY great cat and boyfriend humor.

So there we have it!  My honorable mentions include:  “Bridge of Spies,” “The Diary of a Teenage Girl,” “The End of the Tour,” “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation,” “Room” and “Tangerine.”

What films resonated with you most last year?  Let me know in the comments!

Lists: Top 10 Films of 2014 (Part 2 of 2)

Welcome back, everyone!  If you didn’t see the first half of my top 10 films of 2014, be sure to click here.  Just a reminder: I don’t distinguish between best and favorite.  This list represents a mixture of the two.  Now, let’s get on with it!

5.) “Birdman”

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With films like “Amores Perros,” “21 Grams,” and “Babel,” Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu is something of a master of misery.  I never thought I would describe one of his films as breezy and entertaining, but…”Birdman” is breezy and entertaining.  He and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki — everything this guy touches is visually golden — devise a series of long takes that are expertly stitched together to give the impression of one continuous shot for the duration of the film.  Their camera weaves in and out of darkly comic fantasies, as Michael Keaton’s Riggan, a has-been movie star, attempts to revitalize his career by doing a play in New York.  Keaton is joined by Edward Norton, Emma Stone and Naomi Watts in the best ensemble of the year.  Norton is particularly strong, playing a talented yet egotistical performer.  He flexes some comedic muscles in one of my favorite acting moments of the year.  He suggests an alteration to one of Riggan’s scenes, and after the two enact the change, Norton gives a shrug as if to say, “Pretty good, huh?”  Yeah, pretty damn good.

4.) “Snowpiercer”

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Director Bong Joon-ho’s films are marked by dynamic tonal shifts.  “Snowpiercer” is about the remnants of the world’s population on a train that circles the globe.  The planet has become inhospitable after an attempt to curb global warming goes wrong.  The train is broken up into the haves (at the front) and the have-nots (at the back).  Tilda Swinton embodies the film’s more outrageous fixtures in a whacko performance as Mason, the spokesperson for the creator of the engine.   “Keep your place.  Be a shoe,” she tells Chris Evans’s Curtis as he and his fellow passengers attempt a revolution.  Balancing such comedic elements are some of the most visceral action sequences of the year.  One of the principle tenants of directing action is to use the setting, making the sequence possible only in its particular location.  Here, we get a tense battle that’s complicated by the train speeding through a tunnel.  The haves are equipped with night vision goggles while the have-nots are not.  In another great sequence, two characters, cars apart, fire at each across an open expanse as the train rounds a wide turn in the track.  Some might find Joon-ho’s work mood swing-y, but I think his mixture of tones is exhilarating.

3.) “The Grand Budapest Hotel”

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Wes Anderson’s films have been described as pocket watches, and the comparison is apt. Every piece of art direction, every camera move, every performance flourish plays an integral role in the experience.  Well, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is a pocket watch wrapped up in a series of Russian dolls.  Beginning with a girl at the gravesite of an author, transitioning to the author relaying a story about going to the titular hotel, jumping back to the same author talking to Zero, the hotel’s owner, and finally arriving in 1932 where we meet young Zero and the concierge, Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes).  Fiennes is an actor I usually associate with drama…heavy drama.  “Schindler’s List” anyone?  But here he shows his comedic chops.  Gustave H. is a fun contradiction, refined and crass in equal measure.  With this and “Moonrise Kingdom,” Anderson is on a hot streak.  “Grand Budapest” plastered a huge smile on my face, it’s so inventive and fully realized.  The film isn’t all fun and games; as with any of Anderson’s work, there’s a twinge of melancholy.  It can be sad to look back…and then look back…and look back some more.

2.) “The Lego Movie”

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Dear Michael Bay,

Have you seen “The Lego Movie?”  Well you should, because it’s great!  I know, I’m as surprised as you are.  It’s based on tiny plastic bricks for goodness sake!  But it proves that a good film can come from anywhere.  This one’s from Phil Lord and Chris Miller.  (Do you know them? And do you think you could get me a job on their next film?)  Let me tell you what the movie’s about.  A construction worker named Emmet (voiced by Chris Pratt) learns that he might be The Special, a hero prophesized to defeat the evil Lord Business (Will Ferrell).  There wasn’t a funnier movie in 2014, but a lot of the comedy comes from names you might not expect, like Liam Neeson as Good Cop/Bad Cop and Morgan Freeman as Vitruvius.  (He’s kind of the Obi-Wan to Emmet’s Luke Skywalker.)  It’s great to see a children’s film — did I mention it’s based on a toy? – that’s fun and engaging and even has something to say about consumer culture and individuality.

Your pal,

Gar

P.S. “The Lego Movie” ALSO has lots of explosions! I know how much you like those.

1.) “Boyhood”

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I know, I know, it’s a boring choice for #1.  But what can I say?  Sometimes there’s a good reason a particular film is mentioned over and over again at the end of the year.  Everyone knows the story behind the production of “Boyhood” — Richard Linklater filmed the movie off and on for 12 years with the same core group of performers.  We follow six-year-old Mason (Ellar Coltrane) as he and his older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) bounce between parents (Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette), fall into and out of love, and ultimately leave home.  Some have criticized “Boyhood” for being nothing more than a gimmick.  “No one would be talking about this movie if they cast actors of different ages!”  To that, I say the method of filming is inseparable from the film itself.  “Boyhood” is about the fleetingness of time.  Different scenes are going to resonate differently with different people.  For me, the moment that hit hardest was actually a two-part sequence.  It begins with Mason and his girlfriend, Sheena, sharing some late night food at a diner.  They talk about their hopes and fears, and it’s a wonderfully harmonious scene.  They seem right for each other.  Cut to a year later — no title cards in this film, which creates some striking transitions — and Mason and Sheena have had a bitter break up.  No screaming, no shouting.  We don’t even see the break-up on screen.  The film largely eschews those standard coming-of-age scenes that involve a lot of fireworks.  Instead, the emotional impact comes from the gradual culmination of smaller moments, like the sun imperceptibly creeping across the sky…before it sets.

Thanks for reading!  Here’s the complete list:

  1. “Boyhood”
  2. “The Lego Movie”
  3. “The Grand Budapest Hotel”
  4. “Snowpiercer”
  5. “Birdman”
  6. “Ida”
  7. “Gone Girl”
  8. “Godzilla”
  9. “Selma”
  10. “Nightcrawler”

And some honorable mentions: “The Babadook,” “Blue Ruin,” “Calvary,” “Guardians of the Galaxy,” “Two Days, One Night”

So, do you agree or disagree with my list?  What were some of your favorite films of 2014?  Comment below.

Lists: Top 10 Films of 2014 (Part 1 of 2)

Okay, I’ve held off long enough (read: finally caught up with some films I needed to see).  Before I get to my top 10 of 2014, a few thoughts…I saw more than 40 movies, and it was a pretty solid year overall.  Not extraordinary, though the big summer releases resonated in a way that they haven’t for a while.  For the purposes of year-end lists, I generally don’t distinguish between best and favorite.  This top 10 really represents a mixture of the two.  Okay, here’s my #6-10…

10.) “Nightcrawler”

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One of the keys to unlocking “Nightcrawler” is James Newton Howard’s music.  The film is about an amateur videographer, Louis Bloom, prowling city streets to find footage — home invasions, auto accidents — that he can sell to the local news.  While it has the trappings of a character study and a thriller, Dan Gilroy’s film is a rag-to-riches story.  Rather than offer a traditional moody score, Howard’s music has a hopeful quality.  It pines for our character’s success, as though it’s the music he might hear inside his head.  That his actions are morally murky at best and downright psychotic at worst is, well, beside the point.  Jake Gyllenhaal plays the wannabe newsman, and it’s easily the best performance of his career.  He talks with reporters and supervisors as though human interaction was something he learned from a book or website.  With each encounter, I grew more and more anxious, waiting for Louis’s psychosis to finally boil over.  Surely someone is going to get this guy help…or have him arrested.  Right!?  In an insidious bit of commentary on our media, help never comes.  “If it bleeds, it leads.”

9.) “Selma”

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I’m always a little resistant to award season biopics.  They’re often more “history lesson” than “film.”  Not the case with Ava DuVernay’s “Selma,” which is about the voting right marches of 1965.  I love the opening, when Martin Luther King Jr. (played wonderfully by David Oyelowo) is rehearsing a speech.  “It’s not right,” he sighs.  We assume he’s talking about the language, but it’s nothing so lofty.  He just doesn’t like his tie.  There’s flesh and blood in this monument.  A horrific and racially motivated act follows.  The film plays like a thriller, keeping the pressure on and never letting us forget what’s at stake.  And it moves like gangbusters, swiftly covering a lot of characters and events.  I loved the backdoor dealings.  As much as this movie’s about a man, it’s also about politicking and enacting change.  Some have criticized “Selma” for its depiction of President Lyndon B. Johnson, who wasn’t a roadblock to the civil rights movement as dramatized in the film.  While I can appreciate those complaints, it frankly doesn’t bother me.  This isn’t a documentary, it’s not bound to factual constraints.  Rather, it’s a stirring account of fighting systematic oppression.

8.) “Godzilla”

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A couple of questionable plot turns and a wooden performance from Aaron Taylor-Johnson aren’t enough to kill this gargantuan summer blockbuster.  Not by a long shot.  Director Gareth Edwards delivers spectacle of the highest order.  Sure, a number of mega-budget productions attempt the same thing, but few remember that there’s nothing less spectacular than non-stop spectacle.  Edwards is judicious in dolling out his setpieces, offering a wink and a nudge (see: a wry cutaway from a brawl in Hawaii) while making us wait for the hugely satisfying final showdown.  Another word for spectacle, at least as far as “Godzilla” is concerned, is scale.  Duh, it’s a movie about the grandaddy of giant monsters!  Everything about this film is intended to give us that sense of awe — from the structure to the evocative sound design to the camerawork that keeps us on the ground level.  Despite our best (and not-so-best) efforts, all we can do is stare up and appreciate the titans overhead.  “History shows again and again how nature points out the folly of man.”

For more of my thoughts on “Godzilla,” click here.

7.) “Gone Girl”

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Gloomy serial killer movies like “Seven” and “Zodiac” make it easy to forget what a lacerating sense of humor director David Fincher has.  But “Gone Girl” puts it on full bloody display.  The film, written by Gillian Flynn and based on her novel, is about a man, Nick (Ben Affleck) under investigation when his wife, Amy (Rosamund Pike) goes missing.  Much of the humor is derived from the media circus that surrounds her disappearance.  During a painfully funny press conference, Nick makes a brief statement that doesn’t sound particularly heartfelt.  He’ll later point out that that doesn’t make him a murderer, though it might as well in the court of public opinion.  A great ballet of looks between Nick and his sister (Carrie Coon) ensues as Amy’s parents make long, prepared statements.  Top to bottom, the performances here are excellent.  So many of the casting decisions seemed odd on paper — Tyler Perry as a New York lawyer, Neil Patrick Harris as, well, a creeper — but they pay off big time!  And of course there’s Rosamund Pike, bringing so many shades to Amy.

For more of my thoughts on “Gone Girl,” click here.

6.) “Ida”

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In Paweł Pawlikowski’s “Ida,” a young nun (Agata Trzebuchowska) visits her worldly aunt (Agata Kulesza) before taking her vows.  The aunt reveals that the nun’s parents were Jewish, and both were killed during World War II.  After finding their resting place, the aunt urges her niece to experience more of life before committing to the church.  In one of my favorite images of the year, the nun, slightly intoxicated, twirls within a curtain.  Sunlight streams through the window and illuminates the fabric producing a warm cocoon.  It’s such a wonderfully evocative depiction of a young woman coming of age.  This film is filled with striking compositions.  Łukasz Żal and Ryszard Lenczewski’s black and white cinematography emphasizes institutions, often placing characters in the lower part of the frame so that these structures — the church, for example — tower over them.  Trzebuchowska and Kulesza are terrific, the latter saying anything that pops into her head and the former speaking hardly at all.

Stay tuned next week for my #1-5 picks!  What were some of your favorites of 2014?  Comment below.

Lists: Top 10 Most Anticipated Films of 2015 (Part 2 of 2)

If you missed the first half of my list, be sure to check it out. Now, my five most anticipated films of 2015!

5.) “Inside Out”

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Release Date: June 19th

The last few years have been a bumpy road for Pixar.  We got “Cars 2” and “Monsters University,” which both felt like cash grabs.  But “Inside Out” will be Pete Docter’s first time in the director’s chair since “Up,” and I’m holding out for the studio’s return to form.  The film has an intriguing premise, centered around small creatures who live in our bodies, each representing and governing a particular emotion.  It’s an original production — only the second out of Pixar’s last four films — by screenwriter Michael Arndt, who previously wrote “Toy Story 3.”  I’m hopeful that he and Docter will bring the balance of humor and pathos that made “Up” and the third Toy Story so remarkable.

4.) “Crimson Peak”

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Release Date: October 16th

I’ve written before about what a valuable and distinctive voice Guillermo del Toro is in pop cinema. After delivering big-budget science fiction films like “Pacific Rim” and “Hellboy II,” del Toro returns to the genre where he cut his teeth as a director. “Crimson Peak” is a horror film with a bang up cast, including Mia Wasikowska and Tom Hiddleston (as husband and wife) as well as Jessica Chastain. It was reported out of Comic Con 2014 that del Toro’s gothic story called for a particularly extravagant chandelier, but the studio wouldn’t approve the expense…so naturally he bought one out of pocket. Del Toro’s passion and willingness to put his skin in the game is one of the things I find most endearing about him. I can’t wait to see what’s in store for his latest.

3.) “Spectre”

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Release Date: November 6th

Even after the excellent “Casino Royale,” Sam Mendes took the Bond franchise to a whole new level with “Skyfall.” He returns to the director’s chair for 2015’s “Spectre,” and Daniel Craig is back as 007. Having established Moneypenny and the new M (played by Naomie Harris and Ralph Fiennes respectively) in the last outing, this new entry reboots another familiar Bond element: the terrorist organization known as SPECTRE. It’s still unclear who’s playing the juicy part of Blofeld, the organization’s leader, but surely it’ll be newcomer Christoph Waltz or Andrew Scott. Either would be a fantastic choice! Audiences are probably familiar with Waltz’s Oscar winning turn in Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds.” Scott is a bit more of an unknown, though if you’ve seen BBC’s “Sherlock,” you know he can play The Evil Mastermind like nobody’s business!

2.) “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”

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Release Date: December 18th

Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!

I’ll never not be a Star Wars fan, but after the utter disappointment of the prequels, it was hard not to approach this project with a bit of skepticism. Then they announced J.J. Abrams as the director, a very solid if unsurprising choice. Cast announcements were made: John Boyega, Adam Driver, Max von Sydow, Lupita Nyong’o, Oscar Isaac, Andy Serkis, and…the cast from the original trilogy! And then they released that teaser — filled with wonderful tactile details and scratching all the right nostalgic itches while still leaving a lot of mystery. Instead of doubts, now I have questions: What’s happened in the years since the events of “Return of the Jedi?” How will the original cast be integrated into this new trilogy? What causes the Force to awaken?

God damn it, I’m excited!

1.) “The Hateful Eight”

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Release Date: Fall 2015

What’s the only thing that could topple Star Wars? Why Quentin Tarantino, of course! A force in his own right, his films are like a full course meal. You get your comedy, drama, action, indelible characters, great music selections, and incredible dialog. You also get fantastic actors, and “The Hateful Eight” is full of them: Samuel L. Jackson, Bruce Dern, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Kurt Russell and many more. Set just after the Civil War, it’s about a group of bounty hunters that get entangled in a dangerous plot…but are there any other kind in the world of Tarantino? Of all his films, “Death Proof” is the only one I could take or leave, and the rest I adore. Simply put, he excites me more than any other filmmaker working today.

Here’s the complete list:

1.) “The Hateful Eight”
2.) “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”
3.) “Spectre”
4.) “Crimson Peak”
5.) “Inside Out”
6.) “That’s What I’m Talking About”
7.) “Avengers: Age of Ultron”
8.) Steven Spielberg’s Untitled Cold War Thriller
9.) “Silence”
10.) “Tomorrowland”

And here are some honorable mentions:

“Macbeth” — Screen adaptations of Shakespeare tend to be hit or miss, but this one stars Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard. Yes please!

“The Sea of Trees” — Matthew McConaughey and Ken Watanabe star as two men lost in a forest near Mt. Fuji. Gus Van Sant directs.

“Midnight Special” — The latest from Jeff Nichols, the director of “Take Shelter” and “Mud.” Stars Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver and Michael Shannon.

Thanks for reading! What films are you looking forward to in 2015?

Lists: Top 10 Most Anticipated Films of 2015 (Part 1 of 2)

I’m a few prestige titles short of an informed perspective on this past year in cinema, so I thought I’d jump ahead!  Here are the titles I’m most looking forward to in 2015…

10.) “Tomorrowland”

Disney's TOMORROWLAND..Casey (Britt Robertson) ..Ph: Film Frame..?Disney 2015

Release Date: May 22nd

What governs my interest in a project are the people involved.  A two-minute trailer can make anything look good, and a plot synopsis can’t encapsulate the creative decisions that bring a story to the screen.  With that in mind, my #10 is a mixed bag.  “Tomorrowland” is an original, big-budget science fiction film directed by Brad Bird.  From “The Iron Giant” to “The Incredibles” to “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocal,” this guy is one of the best pop filmmakers working today.  Sadly, screenwriter Damon Lindelof is not.  Influenced by frequent collaborator, JJ Abrams, Lindelof is a fan of the mystery box.  His “boxes,” while interestingly packaged, are often empty.  The disappointment of “Prometheus” and the final season of “Lost” still stings.  Given Bird’s track record and the intriguing teaser — No, I don’t ignore advertising altogether — I’m holding out for a good time at the movies!

9.) “Silence”

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Release Date:  Fall

Exhibit B in the case for directors generating excitement.  “Silence” has been a long-time passion project for Martin Scorsese.  It’s about two Jesuit priests persecuted in 17th century Japan.  Conceptually, I’m not particularly interested.  It sounds like a standard dreary prestige film, but Scorsese seals the deal.  Andrew Garfield and Liam Neeson are attached, and though I would prefer the original pairing of Daniel Day-Lewis and Benicio del Toro, Scorsese continues to adapt and produce great work.  I was a big fan of his last two movies, “Hugo, which was uncharacteristically family friendly, and “The Wolf of Wall Street” (definitely not for children).  I’m excited for him to finally bring his vision of this story to the screen.

8.) Untitled Cold War Thriller

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Release Date:  October 16th

Here’s another great collection of talent!  This untitled Cold War thriller is directed by Steven Spielberg, stars Tom Hanks and is written by Joel and Ethan Coen.  Based on a true story, it’s about an attorney sent to negotiate the release of an American pilot captured by the Soviet Union.  I’m especially intrigued to see what comes of the collaboration between Spielberg and the Coens.  The former wears his heart on his sleeve, while the latter tend to be cold and aloof.  It’ll be interesting to see how that shakes out.  Hanks’s involvement with Spielberg is always a plus – well almost always…”The Terminal” doesn’t do anything for me.  But let’s be honest, when Spielberg is in thriller mode, hold onto your butts!

7.) “Avengers: Age of Ultron”

Ultron

Release Date: May 1st

I’m getting a little weary of super hero movies, especially Marvel’s.  Still, there’s no denying the event-ness that surrounds “Avengers: Age of Ultron.”  As a fan of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” I was excited by Joss Whedon’s involvement with the first Avengers movie, and he didn’t let me down.  As far as the sequel, if the trailer is any indication, he’s taking the “Empire Strikes Back” approach.  This will be the darker and moodier chapter, which is fine by me.  Dark Whedon is my favorite Whedon.  (Buffy’s “The Body,” anyone?)  I’m confident he’ll be able to take these characters in new directions and bring a more personal dimension to their struggle.  Let’s face it, you can only endanger the world so often before that stops being exciting.  Maybe the film’s sentient robot antagonist, Ultron, will bring the Marvel-verse what it sorely needs: a strong villain.

6.) “That’s What I’m Talking About”

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Release Date: TBD

With 2013’s “Before Midnight” and this year’s “Boyhood,” writer-director Richard Linklater is on a god damn hot streak.  (Spoiler alert:  “Boyhood” is a serious contender for my film of the year.)  “That’s What I’m Talking About” promises to be a spiritual sequel to Linklater’s “Dazed and Confused.”  Set in the 1980’s, it follows several college baseball players.  I’m a sucker for a good coming-of-age story.  Though they might be a dime a dozen, I really feel that few get them quite like Linklater.  Whether he’s working with a limited cast (“Before Sunrise”) or a large ensemble (“Dazed and Confused”), he’s so respectful of his characters. They come across as real flesh and blood human beings…full of happiness and sadness, drama and comedy.

Stay tuned next week for my top five most anticipated movies of 2015!

Lists: Top 10 Horror Movies (Part 2 of 2)

It’s easy to forget how good some horror films are given the junk that populates the genre.  I would count most of these titles among my all-time favorite films, but especially the top 5.  (And “Jaws,” of course.  A reminder that the film is exempt.)  If you haven’t seen the first installment of the list, click here.  Now, let’s get on with it.

The peculiar fella at the old gas station warns you against going any further if you’re frightened by spoilers.

5.) “Rosemary’s Baby”

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It’s probably clear by now that I’m a bigger fan of psychological horror than that of the splatter variety.  I just see gore as an easy means to get a rise out of an audience.  Few films manage psychological terror as well as “Rosemary’s Baby.”  Roman Polanski’s film is about a young woman (Mia Farrow) and her husband, who’ve just moved into a new apartment with plans to have a baby.  Her next door neighbors may…or may not…be interested in using her unborn child in a satanic ritual.  The film is a masterclass in compositions.  When we meet the husband next door, he’s staged on the left side of the frame in a wide shot.  The right side is empty.  Why the unbalance?  Why are we being kept at a distance from him?  Also check out a scene where Ruth Gordon’s Minnie, the next door wife, calls a doctor for Rosemary.  As Minnie makes the call, the camera is positioned outside the room such that her face is cut off by the door frame.  What are Minnie’s intentions?  What’s being said on the other end of the phone?  What does all this mean for Rosemary?  Polanski’s choices make you nervous, ratcheting up the paranoia.

4.) “The Shining”

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While its characterizations might be a little thin, “The Shining” works remarkably well on an atmospheric level.  From the opening credits, director Stanley Kubrick has me on edge.  A helicopter shot follows Jack Torrance’s car as it drives through a mountain range, just a speck in this rugged landscape.  The droning score and use of a wide-angle lens to ever-so-slightly distort the image never fails to put a knot in my stomach.  This adaptation of Stephen King’s novel, about a family overseeing a vacant hotel, is pretty unconventional for a horror film.  Yes, we’re stuck with characters in a confined (and haunted) space, but consider how the film is shot and lit.  Kubrick doesn’t use the darkness as a crutch.  Even night scenes — I’m thinking of Jack Nicholson chasing poor Danny Lloyd through a snowy hedge maze — are made clear with diffused lighting.  So many of the hotel’s interiors are brightly lit and fully in focus.  We watch young Danny play in the hallways, as series of doors stretch in either direction.  Danger could come from any one of them.

3.) “The Silence of the Lambs”

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In its two hour running time, “The Silence of the Lambs” accomplishes so much.  It’s a procedural, as the FBI hunts a serial killer named Buffalo Bill.  It’s a human drama, as trainee Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) attempts to silence her demons by finding Bill’s kidnap victim before it’s too late.  It’s a feminist film, as Clarice navigates the politics of male-dominated law enforcement.  And yes, it’s a horror film, as evidenced not just by Buffalo Bill but Dr. Hannibal “the Cannibal” Lecter (Anthony Hopkins).  The first 10 minutes build anticipation and then undercut expectation.  We learn about Hannibal from Clarice’s superior and from his doctor at the asylum.  “Don’t let him inside your head,” “He’s a monster,” etc.  The doctor shows Clarice a picture of a nurse disfigured by Hannibal.  In a great bit of restraint, director Jonathan Demme refrains from showing us the photo.  Instead, we get the doctor’s description and Foster’s great reaction.  “His pulse never got above 85, even when he ate her tongue.”  As Clarice approaches Hannibal’s cell, we’re waiting for a gibbering madman.  What we get is the cool and calm cordiality of Anthony Hopkins.  This is a killer you might invite into your home.  The scene still gives me shivers.

2.) “Alien”

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I could watch “Alien” any time.  There’s a great economy of storytelling, with the screenwriters offering brief character sketches.  He’s the laid back Captain, he’s the alpha-male, she’s high strung.  There’s enough personality for us to care about these people.  Miners in space, they wake up from hyper sleep to a distress signal from a nearby planet.  Or maybe that signal is a warning?  I love the slow burn of the film, nothing horrific happens for about 40 minutes.  The strategy pays off thanks to director Ridley Scott and designer H.R. Giger.  Star Sigourney Weaver has said that she initially assumed she’d signed on to a B-movie, but Scott and Giger bring A-level craft.  The sets are all practical, the gloomy hallways of the mining vessel and the gooey corridors of the alien craft have often been imitated.  And then there’s the creature itself — brilliant in concept and execution.  It “impregnates” an individual and a critter comes bursting from the host’s chest.  The adult form is menacing as hell (and slightly phallic).  Contrary to many horror films, our characters make smart decisions to try to best this baddie, but they’re just inherently ill equipped to deal with the problem.

1.) “Psycho”

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I excluded “Jaws” to resist the obvious, and then #1 comes along and I make the next most predictable choice.  But what are ya gonna do?  Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” was a watershed moment in movies.  So much has been written about the film that I’m at a bit of a loss…so I’ll focus on two elements.  First, Bernard Hermann’s iconic score.  It’s excellent.  And I’m not just talking about the shower scene.  Consider how long it takes Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) to meet the business end of a knife.  We spend 50-ish minutes with her — she steals money from her bank, hightails it out of town, and meets a nice hotel clerk named Norman (Anthony Perkins).  This doesn’t look like the movie we signed up for, but it sure as hell sounds like it!  From the opening credits, Herrmann’s driving score leaves little doubt about the type of film we’re watching.  And then there’s that final twist, the one that reveals the nice hotel clerk occasionally masquerades in his mother’s clothes and knifes young women.  It’s tricky to follow one massive twist – Marion’s murder — with another.  Your audience is primed, looking in every nook and cranny (literally and narratively) for something to jump out.  But Hitchcock pulls the rug out from under us twice.  We watch as Norman dutifully cleans up his…uh…mother’s mess, placing Marion’s corpse in her own car and wiping down the bathroom.  It’s a great, dialog-less sequence that puts us in his corner.  Reportedly, audiences in 1960 gasped when it looked as though Marion’s car wouldn’t sink in the swamp.  “We’ve just seen this terrible murder.  Surely, this guy’s safe.  Right?  Right!?”  Admittedly, I suspect “Psycho” was instrumental in making audiences suspicious of their narratives.  Everything since has had to contend with that.

Thanks for reading! Here’s my complete “Jaws” Memorial List:

1.) “Psycho”

2.) “Alien”

3.) “The Silence of the Lambs”

4.) “The Shining”

5.) “Rosemary’s Baby”

6.) “The Thing”

7.) “Shaun of the Dead”

8.) “The Exorcist”

9.) “The Sixth Sense”

10.) “The Orphanage”

Honorable mentions include: “The Blair Witch Project,” “The Devil’s Backbone,” “The Innocents,” and “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (the version from 1956 and ’78).

Do you have a favorite horror film? Comment below.

Lists: Top 10 Horror Movies (Part 1 of 2)

With Halloween around the corner, I thought I would count down my top 10 favorite horror movies.  I’ve chosen to exclude “Jaws”, since it would just be too obvious a choice.  Truth be told, you’re gonna see a lot of horror’s usual suspects here, but hopefully there’ll be some surprises as well.  I should stress that these aren’t necessarily the scariest movies I’ve seen, just my favorites from the genre.

Fair warning: spoilers are known to haunt this post.

10.) “The Orphanage”

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“The Orphanage” doesn’t exactly re-invent the wheel.  It’s about a mother who returns to the facility that cared for her in her youth.  She and her husband plan to reopen it to help disabled children.  A ghostly wrench is thrown in their plans when their ill son goes missing.  There are a lot of familiar elements: a large and gloomy estate, imaginary friends that are so much more, and creepy, unsettling kids.  It functions just fine as a family drama — Belen Rueda is really strong as the mother who will stop at nothing — but it makes this list because it’s frankly one of the most frightening films I’ve seen.  Director J.A. Bayona constructs sequences that are all-timers.  It has two of the best jump scares: one involving a woman crossing the street and another the immediate aftermath.  Later, a medium wanders the orphanage at night, her committed performance is bolstered by glowing green eyes (thanks to infrared cameras) and eerie sound design.  Finally, a game of one-two-three-knock-on-the-wall is distressingly suspenseful as the camera leisurely shows us what we want (or don’t want) to see.

9.) “The Sixth Sense”

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With movies like “The Happening” and “The Last Airbender,” it’s easy to forget how strong a filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan once was.  I like “Unbreakable” and “Signs,” but it’s hardly controversial to say “The Sixth Sense” remains his masterpiece.  Everyone remembers the ending — and it’s wonderfully constructed — but this is so much more than a twist film.  We’ve got two compelling central characters: a young boy who sees ghosts and a child psychologist looking to make good after a traumatic event.  Shyamalan finds ways to visually tell the story, such as a series of P.O.V. shots as the boy moves to and from his psychologist during a game.  Then there’s that ending — turns out Bruce Willis’s traumatic event was fatal. The twist works on a number of levels.  First and foremost, it holds together.  The ending adheres to the rules that the movie laid out (convenient though they may be).  As opposed to other films with similarly slippery endings (“I’ve been dead the whole time,” “I made all these people up,” “It was all a dream”), our protagonist’s actions have real-world consequences.  Finally, it concludes his arc.  Having helped a child in need, he can peacefully depart.

8.) “The Exorcist”

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Everyone knows the story of “The Exorcist” — a young girl is possessed by the devil.  But actually I don’t find William Friedkin’s film to be that scary.  Sure, there are some chilling moments.  A priest’s vision of his deceased mother on the girl’s bed still gives me goosebumps, but the film succeeds as a character-based drama.  We learn early on that Father Karras, the priest charged with performing the exorcism, is suffering a crisis of faith.  And when he’s confronted with the devil…well, that’s the stuff of drama.  Actor Jason Miller is the heart of the movie, wearing Karras’s anger, sadness, and confusion in the lines on his face.  It’s a testament to the film that its third act is so compelling.  At face value, there’s nothing particularly spectacular about it:  one set, three actors, lots of yelling.  But thanks to the great character work, we’re completely invested.

7.) “Shaun of the Dead”

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The first feature-length collaboration between Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, and Nick Frost is still the best.  Though I enjoy the hell out of “Hot Fuzz” and “The World’s End,” neither of those films manage as stunning a blend of comedy, drama and genre.  In “Shaun of the Dead,” the titular character is a young man stuck between adolescence and adulthood — the former embodied by his endearing yet childish roommate, Ed.  Amidst turmoil with his girlfriend, who would like Shaun to do something with his life, a zombie outbreak erupts.  The film is stunning in the way it has you laughing one minute and on the edge of your seat the next.  Check out a scene where Shaun’s stepfather turns into a zombie.  Shaun tells his mother, voice brimming with emotion, “There’s nothing left of the man you loved!”  His stepfather then promptly mutes a loud car stereo.  While the writing is tight and the performances are excellent, Wright has carefully crafted his story for the silver screen.  There’s an amusing cut of sorts where a drunk Shaun scribbles on his refrigerator then falls asleep in the kitchen.  The camera remains stationary, but through a quick lighting change — Boom! — it’s the next morning and Shaun hasn’t moved.

6.) “The Thing”

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John Carpenter’s masterpiece — sorry “Halloween” fans — was not viewed particularly favorably upon its release.  Audiences in 1982 were looking for a close encounter of a warmer and fuzzier kind.  Paging “E.T.”  “The Thing” tells the story of a group of researchers in the Antarctic who stumble upon a shape-shifting alien with a penchant for assimilation.  There’s plenty of splatter here, thanks to Rob Bottin’s still stunning practical effects, but the real draw is the dread and paranoia that ensues from the creature’s arrival.  One great bit of tension comes from our protagonist, played by Kurt Russell, implementing a blood test to identify the creature.  Appropriately, the novella the film is based on is called “Who Goes There?”  So many of the film’s thrills come from our characters not knowing who to trust, and this may never be more potent than the film’s haunting final moments.

Stay tuned this Friday, Halloween, for my top 5 horror movies.  Comment below with some of your favorites!