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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Review: “Inside Out”

With 2015 half over, I thought I’d review my favorite film of the year so far, “Inside Out.”  It’s in wide release and making a killing, so if you’re one of the few who hasn’t seen it, there’s still a chance.

Oh, how I love Pixar!  From 1995 to 2010, the studio produced an almost unimpeachable run of animated features.  In the intervening years, their output has been a little rocky with sequels and prequels such as “Cars 2” and “Monsters University,” but “Inside Out” is an absolute return to form.

First thing’s first, it’s got a fantastic premise.  We follow young Riley (voiced by Kaitlyn Dias) and the emotions that govern her life:  Joy (Amy Poehler, who should probably be in every Pixar film), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and Fear (Bill Hader).  Lead by Joy, these anthropomorphized figures reside in Riley’s head and work together to balance her emotional existence.

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The film chronicles an important time in Riley’s life, as she struggles with her family’s move from Minnesota to California.  It’s not an altogether original story idea, but that’s hardly a liability for the film.  The internal workings of her mind, as rendered by director and co-screenwriter Pete Docter, are bursting with creativity.  There are core memories, the Train of Thought, islands that represent the tenants of Riley’s personality, Dream Productions, and one of my favorites…Abstract Thought.  After being separated from Headquarters, Joy and Sadness travel though the latter, where they’re reduced to flat geometric shapes and finally simple lines.

INSIDE OUT

Though the humor is on point throughout — including a hilarious end credit sequence that delves into inner emotional workings of some other characters — “Inside Out” sees Pixar return to its darker storytelling impulses.  Not since the harrowing third act of “Toy Story 3” have I felt as emotionally invested in the fate of our characters.  As Joy and Sadness travel through the recesses of Riley’s mind, they watch her personality islands crumble and fall.  Joy’s plight, just wanting to see Riley happy, is genuinely heartrending.  So too is the end of the film.

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Lately, it seems the studio has kept its stakes low and manageable, but “Inside Out” sees Pixar pushing them to their brink. And it’s a welcome relief. Too often, animated and family films are content to play it safe. Pixar ventured out of the sandbox, and the trip was worth the risk – they reminded characters and audiences alike what it means to grow up.

Have you seen “Inside Out?” 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?