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!

Remember Your First Time?

Matt Zoller Seitz recently published an excellent article about watching “Aliens” with his 11-year old son and a handful of his fifth grade friends.  He wrote, “I realized…that while unfortunately you can’t see a great movie again for the first time, the next best thing is to show it to people who’ve never seen it.”  Which is a sentiment I’ve always found to be true.  Watch a comedy you enjoy with someone who’s never seen it, and you’ll find yourself laughing harder.  Watch one of your favorite horror films with someone who’s never seen it, and you you’ll find your palms sweating.  In honor of Seitz’s writeup, I thought I’d share my experience showing “Jaws” to my college roommate.

Indeed, my freshman year roommate — and we would remain roomies throughout college — had never seen “Jaws.”  I felt determined and obligated to remedy this as quickly as possible.  He was a good sport, but he went into the experience with notions of what he thought the film would be.  Though he didn’t say anything beforehand, I could read it on him.  “Oh yeah, ‘Jaws?’  I’ve heard about the robotic shark.”  Or “I’ve seen other movies from this period, and I didn’t like them very much.”  Or “Horror movies have changed so much since the 70s.  Scary?  Yeah, we’ll see.”

One early autumn evening, we had three or four friends over to watch the film.  The viewing circumstances were less than ideal.  We were all stuffed into a small dorm room.  It was stinkin’ hot in upstate New York, and our door was open for circulation.  I still remember intoxicated voices bouncing around the hall outside as students were enjoying their weekend.  The television set was in the neighborhood of 15 inches, and it was wedged between the ceiling and the top of some large cabinets.  (They’re called “closets” in some circles.)

There was idle chit-chat among our friends over the opening credits.  I grimaced, not wanting to be a killjoy but also trying to maintain some semblance of a proper presentation.  With that first tug on poor Chrissie Watkins’s leg, things started to quiet down.  As she was ripped through the water by an unseen menace, the chatter completely turned to silence.

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Cut to 15 minutes later, Chief Brody sits on the beach with his family.  He anxiously watches bathers enter and exit the water, believing a shark was responsible for the young woman’s death.  A couple townsfolk strike up a conversation with him, but his eyes are fixed on the expanse of ocean.  The Chief explodes out of his chair at the sound of a young woman’s screams, only to discover that her boyfriend has surfaced beneath her.  He leans forward as a shape approaches a woman floating on her back.  It’s just a swimmer.  Little Alex Kitner enters the water and paddles out on his raft.  I watched with anticipation as John Williams’s menacing score started to thump and Spielberg’s roving camera — the shark’s POV — approached the boy from below.  The raft is overturned, and there’s a geyser of blood as Alex is taken under.

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My roommate screamed:  “Oh God!  OH MY GOD!”

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Movie viewings are rarely this gratifying.

As the full gravity of the community’s situation sets in, marine biologist Matt Hooper investigates a boat that was struck by the shark.  A moody night-time scene: lights from Hooper’s vessel filter through the inky water.  Eerie music indicates that danger could strike at any moment.  And then, my phone went off.  I can’t for the life of me remember why I didn’t have it on vibrate.  As it rang out, one of our friends piped up, “Well, that ruined the mood!”  Without bringing the phone to my ear, I spoke into the receiver: “Hold on.”  As Hooper approaches a hole in the hull of the boat, the craft’s former owner, dead, floats into frame to greet him.  Screams erupted all around me as I walked to the hallway to take the call.

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Afterward, my roommate would admit that he thought the film would be a victim of its times.  The next day, he posted a picture of the “Jaws” DVD online and simply stated: Best.  Movie.  Ever.

Do you have a memory of sharing a favorite film with a friend?  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.

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.

Most Disappointing Films of 2014

Happy New Year, everyone!  I hate to start 2015 with a negative post, but since I recently wrote about my most anticipated films of the year, I thought I would share a few 2014 titles that didn’t live up to my expectations.  (I’ve excluded Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar,” since I already wrote about my disappointment with that film.)

“The Rover”

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This one may or may not have been on your radar.  It’s the second feature from David Michod.  His first, “Animal Kingdom,” was nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress (Jacki Weaver), and it was one of my favorite films of 2010.  It’s a masterclass in the slow burn.  “The Rover”…not so much.  It’s hard to imagine a film with so many graphic headshots could be so dull.  Set in a post-apocalyptic world, Guy Pearce plays Eric, a man bent on retrieving his car from a trio of thieves.  In an effort to find the three baddies, he kidnaps one of their brothers, Rey (Robert Pattinson).  There’s clear conflict, one man holding another against his will.  There’s a certain level of intrigue — we don’t know why, at least not right away, but Eric is fixated on getting this particular car back and there’ll be hell to pay if he doesn’t.  Yet it feels so tedious.  It’s the type of film that’s filled with silences and close-ups of weathered faces, which might speak volumes if we had any sense of what was driving these characters.  Instead, we’re subjected to one grisly encounter after another without any real sense of forward movement or stakes.  It just feels as though we’re perpetually circling the drain.  I really liked the final reveal, when the reason for Eric’s dogged determination becomes clear, but it comes way too late.  Instead of bringing the water to a boil, Michod leaves us with limp noodles.

“Begin Again”

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Here’s another follow-up to a promising debut: John Carney’s 2007 musical, “Once,” was the little indie that could, earning an Academy Award for Best Original Song.  Based on the strength of his first film, I was really looking forward to Carney’s next, “Begin Again.”  Positive buzz out of the Toronto Film Festival did nothing to diminish my excitement.  But sadly, this film is the antiseptic cousin to “Once.”  Gretta (Keira Knightley) is a singer-songwriter who recently left her cheating rockstar boyfriend.  Dan (Mark Ruffalo) is a music executive separated from his wife and struggling to adapt to the changing industry.  Like “Once,” both are artists aspiring to be more, informed by their relationship baggage.  The film is frontloaded with drama…tired and stock drama, but drama none-the-less, but the second half is marked by an almost complete lack of it.  Once the two commit to an artistic partnership and decide to record their album in locations throughout New York City, everything is sunshine and roses.  For example, Dan visits one of his old clients, a superstar now.  He pitches his idea, and tells the client that he needs drummers.  “I’ll find drummers for ya.”  But Dan can’t afford to pay them.  “Shoot, I’ll pay for them out of my own pocket.”  This scene takes all of 30 seconds.  “Once” had genuine struggle and melancholy, which made the ending so gratifying.  I really liked the music in “Begin Again,” but it forgets that you need darkness to appreciate the light.  The film feels like 100 minutes of characters playing in a nice, safe sandbox.

“Inherent Vice”

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During an interview for “Insomnia,” a film about a detective suffering from sleep deprivation, which might just be the least of his problems, director Christopher Nolan talked about the importance of communicating sleepiness without making the audience tired.  Now, I think Paul Thomas Anderson, the writer and director of “Inherent Vice,” is one of the most talented filmmakers working today.  Much too talented to make a meandering and directionless film just because it’s about a meandering and directionless character…but that’s what we got.  Joaquin Phoenix plays Doc, a Private Eye searching for his ex-girlfriend’s boyfriend.  It would take way too much real estate to go into the rest of the plot, though that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  From “The Big Sleep” to “The Big Lebowski,” I’ve enjoyed a number of gumshoe detective movies with convoluted plots that I could scarcely recount.  The performances here are all very strong, particularly Phoenix, Katherin Waterston as his ex, Josh Brolin as a policeman with a twinkle in his eyes that “says civil rights violation,” and Martin Short (!) as a dentist, but at two-and-a-half hours, this film is such a slog.  It’s intermittently funny, but most of the humor is pretty sophomoric. In an early scene, Brolin’s “Bigfoot” Bjornsen slowly eats a banana on a stick.  It looks like this macho officer of the law is performing felatio!  Get it?  Get it?!  It’s not particularly funny the first time, and then we return to the joke, not once, but twice.  I’ve seen a number of people defend the film, “Just go for the ride,” but does the ride need to be so damn long and aimless?

What were your most disappointing films of 2014? Comment below!

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

Steven-Spielberg

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!

Rest in Peace, Summer 2014. You Deserved Better, Box Office-wise.

Personally, I had a great time at the movies this summer.  Gareth Edwards’ “Godzilla” bucked the trend of prematurely blowing its action/monster/explosion load.  I enjoyed “Edge of Tomorrow’s” original concept and snappy script.  And it was great to see Marvel inject its cookie-cutter formula with a little personality for “Guardians of the Galaxy.”  Nothing disappointed me on the scale of last year’s “Man of Steel” or “Stark Trek Into Darkness.”

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And I’m not alone.  According to Entertainment Weekly, critics preferred this summer’s crop, and audiences only marginally preferred last summer’s.  Sure, 2014 didn’t have any Dark Knights or Avengers, but that didn’t stop last year’s record number of moviegoers.

Still, the summer box office suffered tremendously.  Why, after a summer of good movies, did The LA Times report that domestic ticket sales were down 15%?  Actually, 2014 was the worst summer since 2006…1997 if you consider inflation.

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So what gives?

At a quick glance, the season was pretty overcrowded.  Between the beginning of May and the end of August, theaters saw ten major releases plus five high-profile projects with comparatively modest budgets*.

That’s a lot of movies…particularly in May and June.  Of those ten major releases, seven were out by July.  Not the greatest scheduling.  But the good news is that 2014 marked a shift in the release dates for tentpole productions.  Outside “Guardians,” the year’s biggest hits — “The Lego Movie” and “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” — came out in February and April, which isn’t typically when films of that size hit theaters.

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Studios are learning from this summer’s shellacking.  Rather than go up against the third Captain America in May 2016, Warner Brothers recently announced “Batman v Superman” would move to March.  Legendary also declared plans to release a sequel to “Pacific Rim” in April 2017.

While overcrowding might be responsible for lower box office receipts, I don’t think it accounts for such a steep decline.  Something should have been sucking up the dollars.  What say you, loyal readers?  Did you find yourself going to the movies more or less often this summer?  Why or why not?  Comment below.

*Here are the ten big-budget (i.e. comfortably north of $100 million) releases with five additional high-profile projects that had comparatively modest price tags:

May
The Amazing Spider-Man 2
Godzilla
X-Men: Days of Future Past
Maleficent
Neighbors
A Million Ways to Die in the West

June
Edge of Tomorrow
How to Train Your Dragon 2
Transformers: Age of Extinction
The Fault in our Stars
22 Jump Street

July
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Lucy

August
Guardians of the Galaxy
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles