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!

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Winner Predictions for the 87th Academy Awards

If you’re a film fan, you probably know that the 87th Academy Awards are this weekend (Sunday, February 22).  I’ve got a love-hate relationship with Oscar, but it’s always fun to take a stab at predicting the winners.  Below, you’ll find my picks for all the feature film categories.  I’ve gone in depth with some of the more prominent awards.

Best Picture Nominees:

“American Sniper”

“Birdman”

“Boyhood”

“The Grand Budapest Hotel”

“The Imitation Game”

“Selma”

“The Theory of Everything”

“Whiplash”

This is really a two-horse race between “Birdman” and “Boyhood,” though over the last few weeks, “Birdman” has pulled ahead.  The film is about a has-been movie star trying to revitalize his career on stage in New York.  Its idiosyncrasies and darkly comic tone, while uncharacteristic for a Best Picture winner, won’t be enough to overcome the sentiment that the Academy members have for, well, movies about themselves.  (See other recent winners about show business:  “Argo,” “The Artist,” and “Chicago.”)  Sorry “Boyhood,” but when’s the last time a movie about normal people in normal circumstances won top prize?

What will win: “Birdman”

What might win: “Boyhood”

What should win: “Boyhood”

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Best Director Nominees:

Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, “Birdman”

Richard Linklater, “Boyhood”

Bennett Miller, “Foxcatcher”

Wes Anderson, “The Grand Budapest Hotel”

Morten Tyldum, “The Imitation Game”

As goes Best Picture, so usually goes Best Director.  And I think that’ll be the case here.  It’s generally safe to predict the film that’s “most” directed (or most acted, scored, etc.).  “Birdman” was conceived as a series of longtakes seamlessly edited together to give the impression of one continuous shot, and I think the Academy will vote in favor of that over Richard Linklater’s less invisible technique in “Boyhood.”

Who will win: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, “Birdman”

Who might win: Richard Linklater, “Boyhood”

Who should win: Richard Linklater, “Boyhood”

Best Actress Nominees:

Rosamund Pike, “Gone Girl”

Julianne Moore, “Still Alice”

Felicity Jones, “The Theory of Everything”

Marion Cotillard, “Two Days, One Night”

Reese Witherspoon, “Wild”

Julianne Moore can already taste this one.  She’s a respected actress, and she’s been nominated four times already.  In “Still Alice,” she plays a professor with early-onset Alzheimer’s.  The role’s rife with heavy, dramatic Oscar bait-iness to seal the deal.

Who will win: Julianne Moore, “Still Alice”

Who might win: Seriously, take Moore to the bank

Who should win: Marion Cotillard, “Two Days, One Night”…though I haven’t seen “Still Alice” or “Wild”

Best Actor Nominees:

Bradley Cooper, “American Sniper”

Michael Keaton, “Birdman”

Steve Carell, “Foxcatcher”

Benedict Cumberbatch, “The Imitation Game”

Eddie Redmayne, “The Theory of Everything”

Again, it’s usually fruitful to predict the “most” acted.  In this case, that’s Eddie Redmayne.  That he’s playing a real-life figure with a disability is the cherry on top of the Oscar sundae.  These types of roles are catnip for voters.  I’m a little reluctant to go against Michael Keaton, an industry vet, but Redmayne has gotten too much support from critical precursors like the Screen Actors Guild and BAFTA.

Who will win: Eddie Redmayne, “The Theory of Everything”

Who might win: Michael Keaton, “Birdman”

Who should win: Michael Keaton, “Birdman”…though I haven’t seen “American Sniper”

Best Adapted Screenplay Nominees:

“American Sniper”

“The Imitation Game”

“Inherent Vice”

“The Theory of Everything”

“Whiplash”

This is a pretty weak field, but I’m going with “The Imitation Game.”  It’s got eight nominations, and while it could go home empty handed, that’s not likely.  The film is set during World War II, and it’s about real-life Alan Turing who cracked the Nazi code and was later prosecuted for his homosexuality.  I think the social and historical significance of the story will appeal to the Academy.

What will win: “The Imitation Game”

What might win: “Whiplash,” though any of the nominees, aside from “Inherent Vice,” could spoil

What should win: “Whiplash”  (Again, I haven’t seen “American Sniper”)

THE IMITATION GAME

Best Original Screenplay Nominees:

“Birdman”

“Boyhood”

“Foxcatcher”

“The Grand Budapest Hotel”

“Nightcrawler”

This race is much stronger than Adapted Screenplay.  I think the Academy will go with “The Grand Budapest Hotel” for its dense plot, list of characters and memorable dialog.  Besides, Wes Anderson’s been nominated in this category a handful of times, and he’s carved out a loveable niche for himself in the industry.  Voters will want to honor that.

What will win: “The Grand Budapest Hotel”

What might win: “Birdman”

What should win: “The Grand Budapest Hotel”

Best Supporting Actress:

Emma Stone, “Birdman”

Patricia Arquette, “Boyhood”

Keira Knightley, “The Imitation Game”

Meryl Streep, “Into the Woods”

Laura Dern, “Wild”

This one pretty safely belongs to Patricia Arquette.  “Boyhood” ain’t going home empty-handed, and hers is a great performance.  She closes strong as well, her final scene a stirring monolog about expectation and how quickly time flies.

Who will win: Patricia Arquette, “Boyhood”

Who might win: No really, take Arquette to the bank as well.

Who should win: Patricia Arquette, “Boyhood”

Best Supporting Actor Nominees:

Edward Norton, “Birdman”

Ethan Hawke, “Boyhood”

Mark Ruffalo, “Foxcatcher”

Robert Duvall, “The Judge”

J.K. Simmons, “Whiplash”

J.K. Simmons is a beloved character actor, he played a juicy role, he’s won every precursor under the sun, and he’s in a Best Picture nominee. Let’s just say the Academy will be playing to his tempo.

Who will win: J. K. Simmons, “Whiplash”

Who might win: If it’s anyone else, they risk having a cymbal thrown at their head.

Who should win: Edward Norton, “Birdman”

Best Foreign Language Film:

“Ida”

“Leviathan”

“Tangerines”

“Timbuktu”

“Wild Tales”

What will win: “Ida”

What might win: “Wild Tales”

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Best Animated Feature:

“Big Hero 6”

“The Boxtrolls”

“How to Train Your Dragon 2”

“Song of the Sea”

“The Tale of the Princess Kaguya”

What will win: “How to Train Your Dragon 2”

What might win: “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya”

Best Documentary Feature:

“Citizenfour”

“Finding Vivian Maier”

“Last Days in Vietnam”

“The Salt of the Earth”

“Virunga”

What will win: “Citizenfour”

What might win: “Finding Vivian Maier”

Best Cinematography Nominees:

“Birdman”

“The Grand Budapest Hotel”

“Ida”

“Mr. Turner”

“Unbroken”

What will win: “Birdman”

What might win: “The Grand Budapest Hotel”

Best Editing Nominees:

“American Sniper”

“Boyhood”

“The Grand Budapest Hotel”

“The Imitation Game”

“Whiplash”

What will win: “Boyhood”

What might win: “Whiplash”

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Best Production Design Nominees:

“The Grand Budapest Hotel”

“The Imitation Game”

“Interstellar”

“Into the Woods”

“Mr. Turner”

What will win: “The Grand Budapest Hotel”

What might win: “Into the Woods”

Best Costume Design Nominees:

“The Grand Budapest Hotel”

“Inherent Vice”

“Into the Woods”

“Maleficent”

“Mr. Turner”

What will win: “The Grand Budapest Hotel”

What might win: “Into the Woods”

Best Original Score Nominees:

“The Grand Budapest Hotel”

“The Imitation Game”

“Interstellar”

“Mr. Turner”

“The Theory of Everything”

What will win: “The Theory of Everything”

What might win: “The Grand Budapest Hotel”

Best Original Song Nominees:

“Lost Stars” from “Begin Again”

“Grateful” from “Beyond the Lights”

“I’m Not Gonna Miss You” from “Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me”

“Everything is Awesome” from “The Lego Movie”

“Glory” from “Selma”

What will win: “Glory” from “Selma”

What might win: “Everything is Awesome” from “The Lego Movie”

selma

Best Sound Mixing Nominees:

“American Sniper”

“Birdman”

“Interstellar”

“Unbroken”

“Whiplash”

What will win: “Whiplash”

What might win: “American Sniper”

Best Sound Editing Nominees:

“American Sniper”

“Birdman”

“The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies”

“Interstellar”

“Unbroken”

What will win: “American Sniper”

What might win: “Birdman”

Best Makeup and Hairstyling Nominees:

“Foxcatcher”

“The Grand Budapest Hotel”

“Guardians of the Galaxy”

What will win: “The Grand Budapest Hotel”

What might win: “Guardians of the Galaxy”

Best Visual Effects Nominees:

“Captain America: The Winter Soldier”

“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”

“Guardians of the Galaxy”

“Interstellar”

“X-Men: Days of Future Past”

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What will win: “Interstellar”

What might win: “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”

What do you think is going to win at this year’s Academy Awards?  Comment below!

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.