My Top Movies of 2015

I love end-of-year list season. I don’t know why, but subjective rankings of fiction just works for me.

I love end-of-year list season. I don’t know why, but subjective rankings of fiction just works for me. In celebration of list season, here are my personal favourite movies of 2015. I haven’t seen nearly every movie this year, but I tried to see all of the major awards contenders. I’ll mention some of the notable absences, along with my pick for worst picture of the year, at the end. Out of the subset I did catch, the following were pretty fantastic!

The top movies of 2015.

16. Anomalisa (RT 92%, IMDb 7.5)

Charlie Kaufman is likely the most reliably original major screenwriter working, and Anomalisa certainly continues that trend. He’s in comfortable territory, once again crafting a wild cinematic experience through allusions to delusions. There’s room for debate on how sympathetic the main character is (I say he’s not at all, but that its still compelling), but Anomalisa is clearly an affecting and memorable piece of work. See it blind though; this is a movie worth avoiding spoilers for.

15. The Overnight (Rotten Tomatoes 81%, IMDb 6.2) (On Netflix)

The Overnight promotes itself as zany, and zany it is. A story about a dinner party that very quickly reveals itself as a potential swinger situation, it plays its first major gag far too strongly such that the remainder seems believable by comparison. It works, and the rest of the movie is hilarious even when quiet, and the great cast of four manage to sneak in some honest-to-goodness character work. It’s a funny and quick 90 minute excursion into bohemian quasi-cringe humour, and an admirable showcase for the prosthetic penis makers of Hollywood.

14. Sicario (RT 93%, IMDb 7.7)

As much as I’ve found things to like in the last two films by Denis Villeneuve (Enemy and Prisoners), Sicario is the first unqualified English-language success for the Quebec director. Sicario sees Emily Blunt slowly squeezed out of her own movie, making the viewer’s perspective on her marginalization all the more visceral. The movie ends incredibly strongly, and in a year where Supporting Actor is relatively empty, Benicio del Toro simply demands recognition. Most memorably, the border shootout is among the tensest film moment of the year.

13. Inside Out (RT 98%, IMDb 8.3) (On Netflix)

Pixar has been in a slight relative slump as of late (when Brave counts as a slump, that’s a good sign), but any doubts that they could still create movies that stand up to their classics were firmly quashed with Inside Out. It’s as conceptually original and earnestly emotionally devastating as any of us would expect from them, and deals with depression in an insightful way. The 2D sequence alone is enough to show the creative juices still flow, and the tragedy of Bing Bong beautifully affords a genuine and touching arc to a ridiculous character.

12. Star Wars Episode VII – The Force Awakens (RT 93%, IMDb 8.4)

There were many ways that The Force Awakens could have gone. With Abrams in the director’s chair, a polished product was a guarantee, but would it have the right voice? The first new Trek was enjoyable, but was distinctly not Star Trek. Thankfully, Abrams and co. pulled through, and The Force Awakens was not only a lot of fun, it just felt like Star Wars, with its lived-in and dirty universe and glorious puppets. The new trio of main characters are all compellingly written and wonderfully cast, Kylo Ren is a fantastically flawed villain as opposed to a Vadar rehash, and reconnecting with the old trio was every bit as uplifting as expected. It copies the beats of A New Hope a bit too closely (particularly with Death Star 3), but it sets up the sequels in a very important way: it let’s us know that Star Wars can still be Star Wars.

11. Brooklyn (RT 98%, IMDb 7.6)

On paper, Brooklyn looks like a traditionally weepy period romance. What doesn’t come across on paper is how much spark it has. Brooklyn’s period setting is not only window dressing, it truly builds its world into a quasi-fantasy setting that nonetheless feels very alive. Saorise Ronan is a fantastically compelling lead, and Emory Cohen’s New Yawk love interest borders on cliche but is saved by Cohen’s insane amount of charisma. The love triangle that eventually develops works because its not really about the romantic pairings; its about choosing whether to keep your roots or start anew. At its heart, its timeless.

10. The Hateful Eight (RT 75%, IMDb 8.0)

I’m a Tarantino apologist in a strong way, but The Hateful Eight is certainly patience-testing. It takes a long time to set up, and that setup is chock full of casual racism and misogyny. But when it gets going, it turns into an extended riff on the bar scene of Inglourious Basterds or the stage-play effect of Reservoir Dogs. This is a Tarantino whodunit in the guise of a Western, and it results in some of his most memorable moments. The cast is uniformly excellent, particularly Jennifer Jason Leigh, Samuel L. Jackson, and Demian Bichir (and Kurt Russel’s mustache). If you dislike Tarantino, The Hateful Eight likely won’t work for you,  but its an absolute treat for the faithful.

09. Son of Saul (Saul fia) (RT 95%, IMDb 7.9)

Holocaust dramas have a deserved reputation as bleak slogs that are designed to depress people into giving them Oscars (no matter how good Schindler’s List and The Pianist actually are). Son of Saul is certainly bleak, but it is far from a slog; its a lean 1h45, and through its story beats and camera techniques feels utterly distinct from its bretheren. Filmed entirely in close-up, Son of Saul blurs the horrors of Auschwitz by keeping you with Saul but also makes it impossible to look away. It also works very well as a character study (its Kaufmanesque in a sense), with Saul’s motivations never spelled out despite him being our sole viewpoint. It’s a trip through the depths of hell, and a very memorable one.

08. Spotlight (RT 96%, IMDb 8.2)

The journalists-on-a-mission genre has a solid pedigree, but hasn’t shown up in a big way recently. Spotlight is an stupendously entertaining throwback to a classical kind of filmmaking: no tricks, no gimmicks, just great actors and a great story. The ensemble works together fantastically, with no one performer attempting to selfishly upstage the production (which may be why it doesn’t have a hope at the individual acting nominations). The story itself is well known, and they avoid over-sensationalizing an already sensational story. It’s brick-and-mortar, but its enticing stuff.

07. Creed (RT 94%, IMDb 7.9)

Like The Force Awakens, Creed sticks to its predecessors blueprint so strongly that you could argue it does nothing new. Also like The Force Awakens, it builds exceptionally on the story beats of the original to create something fresh and fantastic. In updating Rocky for the modern age, Creed throws in some new tracks (the long-take boxing match is absolutely stunning) while having a very classical feel and uplift. Michael B. Jordan continues his world takeover with a charismatic lead performance, and Sylvester Stallone is the best he’s been since, well, Rocky. The loveable lug had a decent swan song in Rocky Balboa, but Creed is a much better, emotionally affecting take on the later years of an athlete. I’m not sure if I want Creed 2 (lest it be like Rocky 2), but Coogler, Jordan, and Stallone have made a worthy and worthwhile capper to the Rocky franchise.

06. Clouds of Sils Maria (RT 89%, IMDb 6.8) (On Netflix)

Clouds of Sils Maria is easy to dismiss as pretentious, but its about pretentious actors, so maybe its not such an insult. Obviously, its a beautiful movie, taking place in the Swiss alps. But its also a weirdly enjoyable buddy drama, with Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart bouncing off of each other with incredible chemistry. It’s dense, and I need to see it again to fully unpack it, but even its surface-level discussion of aging in an industry based on youth is compelling. It presents itself as capital-f Film, but when the film is this engrossing, its forgivable.

05. Room (RT 95%, IMDb 8.3)

Out of the movies that should have a legitimate shot at Best Picture, Room is truly the best. It should be a festival of misery and discomfort based on its subject matter, and it manages to be watchable despite not necessarily flinching. Were it a story of survival, this wouldn’t be possible. Instead, its a story about parenting, and a fantastic one at that. Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay are both fantastic. Larson let’s us in on Ma’s strength while surrounded in hopelessness, and director Lenny Abrahamson does a fantastic job of keeping us in Tremblay’s point of view, even if some additional narration was necessary. Room provides a cathartic tearjerker to be sure, but it relates its extraordinary machinations to relatable experiences. More than a quick cry, Room has the thematic depth to give it real weight.

04. Ex-Machina (RT 92%, IMDb 7.7) (On Netflix)

Ex-Machina finds itself in the Moon position this year as the indie sci-fi phenomenon which dives into a single concept with aplomb. Even though the effects are impressive (and effective when diving into body horror), its a much more cerebral film and mostly an actor’s showcase. The three leads are all up to the challenge, with Oscar Isaac proving himself a chameleon and Alicia Vikander announcing her presence in a big way (how she’s up for an Oscar for The Danish Girl and not this astounds me). Some have problems with the ending, but it worked for me. Some have problems with the dance sequence, but that may be my favorite single scene of 2015. It’s an excellent slice of sci-fi, and director/writer Alex Garland is clearly someone to watch closely.

03. Cartel Land (RT 90%, IMDb 7.4) (On Netflix)

Cartel Land is shocking in not only its subject matter, but in just how it exists. Director Matthew Heineman somehow got his camera in live raids and operations of a group of Mexican citizens rebelling against the cartels. Live fire is exchanged, a hostage is questionably questioned. It’s compelling, tense, visceral, and grim. It’s main subject, Dr. Jose Manuel Mireles, is fascinatingly flawed. The American counterpart, Nailer Foley, isn’t nearly as compelling, but serves as an interesting counterpoint and the contrast is stark. Its ambiguities really sell it though; it avoids easy answers or editorializing, forcing the viewer to question everything they see. It’s maybe an unsolvable riddle, but one that needs to be considered.

02. It Follows (RT 97%, IMDb 6.9) (On Netflix)

Lately, it seems like the best horror movies either smirk their way through it (Cabin in the Woods) or are really dramas at heart (The Babadook). It Follows is a great movie in many ways, but its a great horror movie in the truest sense: its very very scary. Its central conceit, that the monster can look like anyone and will always walk towards you very slowly, is the kind of thing that could have been very jokey, but it quickly dispenses with that by showing just how brutal it really is. There is clearly subtext in how the haunting spreads (its sexually transmitted), but its not heavy handed. Maika Monroe continues her domination of the indie scene, and has a great take on the Final Girl trope. It’s terrifying to watch and exceptional to dissect, and an instant classic.

01. Mad Max: Fury Road (RT 97%, IMDb 8.2)

How could anything else hope to top Mad Max? A genre film this bonkers usually is received as divisive, but Mad Max is unquestionably a great work. It’s something of an update of The Road Warrior, but much more consistent and with a much bigger budget. Rather than using that budget to get lazy with CGI, Mad Max is a beautifully practical film with an insane aesthetic. On top of how great it looks, its also wonderfully quotable and populates its world with memorable characters. Obviously Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa is the centrepiece, but populating the fringes really makes the movie: characters like Rictus Erectus, the Bullet Farmer (from the bullet farm, naturally), and the Doof Warrior leave impressions just through sheer presence. On top of all this, its the most thrilling movie of the year by a huge margin. Its essentially one very long action sequence, which only hits the brakes sporadically and yet somehow has enough narrative thrust to be consistently engaging. The first chase is a masterclass in building a scene, and the final is insanely packed without every being unclear. There were a lot of great movies in 2015, but Mad Max’s grip on my #1 spot has never been in doubt.

Stray Picks and Outliers

  • Shorts don’t count I guess, but go find a way to stream Don Hertzfeld’s World of Tomorrow. It’s twenty minutes well spent, and maybe exactly what you’d expect from the creator of Rejected with fifteen years of maturity added. It’s bonkers and incredibly touching.
  • Slow West and Tangerine were both too messy to really stick, but were among the most distinctive films of the year. They didn’t entirely work as a whole, but individual moments within make them must-sees.
  • Speaking of westerns, it was a good year for them. In addition to The Hateful Eight and Slow West, Bone Tomahawk barely missed the list, I’m in the minority for being lukewarm on The Revenant, and I’ve heard great things about Jauga.
  • Alongside Kingsman and San Andreas, Unfriended stands out as one of the most pleasant surprises of the year. A short, sweet, and stupid horror movie that executes its flimsy premise to the fullest extent.
  • Meanwhile, although far from terrible, Guillermo Del Toro’s Crimson Peak was one of the year’s biggest disappointments for me. The actual biggest disappointment crown, though, goes to the Wachowski’s Jupiter Ascending, which has plenty of good ideas mixed with even more bad ones.
  • With the major exception of Mad Max, it was not a great year for the summer blockbuster. Avengers 2 was exceptionally mediocre, and Jurassic World, Terminator Genisys and Spectre were straight-up awful. There were some solid options outside the sequels though: Kingsman: The Secret Service and San Andreas were both far more fun than expected, and The Martian (which narrowly missed the list) was one hell of a crowdpleaser.
  • As for the notables from this year missing from the list, Beasts of No NationCarol, Bridge of Spies, and Straight Outta Compton were all solid enough, but I didn’t connect strongly with any of them. The Revenant was beautiful, but a slog, and The Big Short was certainly fun edutainment but rather poor as a drama or comedy.
  • If I had to round out  top 20, throw in Kingsman, The Martian, Bone Tomahawk, and the compelling documentary Approaching the Elephant, which examines a Lord of the Flies scenario developing in an experimental school system.
  • Hollywood VIP of the year: Domhnall Gleeson’s agent. Gleeson is a nice presence, but how did he end up in so many big films this year? The Revenant, Brooklyn, Ex-Machina, and even Star Wars! When will Gleesonmania end!?

Still To See

  • On the foreign film front, I still very much need to see at least PhoenixThe Assassin, and Mustang.
  • On the documentary front, The Look of Silence and Amy are high on my to-see list.
  • The premise of Kumiko: The Treasure Hunter, based on a real-life story about someone looking for the buried treasure of Fargo, is so batshit that I’m ashamed I haven’t found the movie yet.
  • Chi-Raq looks bonkers enough to be either brilliant or awful.
  • While for some reason the franchise hasn’t worked for me since the first, I can’t ignore how much good press Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation has. Well, I’ve ignored it so far, but I should cave eventually.
  • I still haven’t seen the previous three, so a marathon is in order before I can get on board with the rest of modern society on Furious 7.

Worst Movie of 2015

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The Water Diviner (RT 63%, IMDb 7.1 somehow)

Dear fuck I hated this movie. Russell Crowe has psychic powers or something and flirts with Olga Kurylenko for some reason and cries a lot because he wants an award again I think. For a movie as batshit crazy as it is, it doesn’t even have the decency to be interesting.

Runners-up: SpectreTerminator: Genisys

Anomalisa’s puppets reinforce its fascinating humanity

The main character is possible to identify with, but he’s the worst many of us see in ourselves

Everyone is the centre of their own universe. Empathy isn’t dead by any means, but existential selfishness is surely the default mode of thinking. Living in that feeling, though, is a soul-breaking form of loneliness, and one that Anomalisa explores in interesting and memorable ways. Anomalisa is not a movie above criticism, but its treats come very much from its surprises (like all Kaufman films), so I recommend not reading about it before seeing it for yourself. Having one of the central conceits spoiled ahead of time definitely affected my experience, but I really want to write more words about it, so consider yourself cautioned.

Anomalisa has marketed itself through its soft-focus stop-motion animation, but that turns out to be a secondary aesthetic choice. Now is a good time to stop reading and watch the movie, by the way, so I’ll hide this particular sentence as there for those who don’t care about spoilers (highlight to read). The primary conceit is that every character outside of protagonist Michael Stone is voiced by Tom Noonan. Not just bellhops and cabbies, but the actors and actresses on TV, the singers on the radio, and Michael’s wife and (hilariously) son as well. Michael, as such, finds himself unable to connect with people, and moreso uninterested in doing so, until he meets a woman named Lisa who has her own voice (Jennifer Jason Leigh’s) and finds himself enraptured.

It’s an exceptional concept, and one that fits very well with the rest of Kaufman’s work. However, while the loneliness is highlighted many times over, the selfishness is left open to interpretation. Michael’s viewpoint of the entire non-Lisa world is not necessarily a reflection on his mindset but rather on his narcissism. He’s a famous writer and speaker in the field of customer service (an odd touch whose significance I don’t fully grasp), which leads to many (including Lisa) idolizing him and feeding his ego. It becomes clearer and clearer throughout that Michael is by no means sympathetic. He’s possible to identify with, but he’s the worst many of us see in ourselves. There’s a possible sympathetic interpretation by ascribing mental illness to the conceit (backed up by naming the hotel after the Fregoli delusion), but at the end of the day, it’s sociopathy. By contrast, Lisa is designed as the most fundamentally decent person to have ever lived; her singling out is as much of a mystery to Michael as ourselves.

A sympathetic main character is far from important for an interesting movie, and Anomalisa certainly is interesting. One sequence late in the film threatens a very Kaufman-esque direction, ringing back strongly to Being John Malkovich. Other hit-and-miss elements seem to be taking inspiration from Rick & Morty (Dino Stamatopoulos and Dan Harmon both have production credits), in an odd case of the inspirational snake eating its own tail. The puppets are very anatomically correct, and a sex scene is more graphic than would be possible with human actors without ever being crude. Instead, its human, realistically awkward and intimate. Really, the entire movie is more human than it would have been with live actors. And being human is every bit as fascinating as it is off-putting.

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A-

Anomalisa (2015)
Dir. Charlie Kaufman
Voiced by David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Tom Noonan
Rotten Tomatoes (90%)
IMDb (7.5)

Even though the entire review was spoilery, so very specific SPOILERS below that I wanted to talk about (highlight to read).

The movie gives away its ending early on in retrospect, with Michael’s ex Bella being voiced by Noonan as well. Michael is a serial romantic, who fell for Bella, Lisa, and presumably his wife before eventually growing bored and disconnected. It’s an oddity that his idolization of Lisa falls so quickly, but the fact that it happens when she mentions going to the zoo (I hear its zoo-sized) really hammers home that its Michael’s sense of self-superiority that makes him distant. Hell, even the hotel manager in his dream is a big fan. Things like this skew my interpretation to Anomalisa being an examination of a toxic ego rather than depression, although it can definitely be both.

Cartel Land is a bleak and morally amorphous examination of vigilantism

Cartel Land is a harrowing, engrossing, and important film on the perils and potential necessity of vigilantism.

Cartel Land splits its focus between two stories, one on each side of the border. In Arizona, Tim “Nailer” Foley organizes ragtag group of patriots to protect the border from the spillover of cartel violence. In the Michoacan region of Mexico, Dr. Jose Manuel Mireles forms a ragtag group of citizens to take arms and fight the cartels bringing violence into their towns. One of these problems is visceral; the other, paranoid. It’s no surprise that the Mexican portions of Cartel Land are the real selling point, containing the most interesting personalities and also the most interesting and unsettling events along with the most room for interpretation and questioning. While the American side matters less at the end of the day (and appropriately gets much less screen time), it puts into focus the theme. Cartel Land, despite its title, is not about cartels. Cartel Land is a harrowing, engrossing, and dare-I-say important film on the perils and potential necessity of vigilantism.

The film opens with a brief interview at portable meth lab in Mexico, which is the one divergence it takes into something portrayed unambiguously as a crime. It doesn’t glamorize or vilify it though; the cooks speak coherently, give justifications for what they do, and admit their contribution to greater societal wrongs. Admitting wrong does not forgive wrong, but it sets an interesting tone for the remainder. At many points, different viewers will likely disagree about when a line was crossed, or what people are “good” vs. “evil”. Indeed, on many a stump speech, the cartel is called out as “evil”, and their actions surely reflect that characterization. But not a soul fits the definition of “good”.

The best example is Dr. Mireles, surgeon turned freedom fighter general. Mireles is educated, inspiring, and (by all evidence presented) well-intentioned. The group he is instrumental in starting, the Autodefensas, seems to do good and finds unexpected success driving out cartel influence (the degree of success is truly shocking). It only makes it all the more heartbreaking when corruption does set in slowly but surely. Does it make Dr. Mireles and the others bad people? Or does moreso comment on how grassroots efforts are unsustainable without rigid and earnest oversight? The situation is fascinating and deeply upsetting, and Mireles himself is an absolutely fascinating personality.

But perhaps this is burying the lede. The camerawork in Cartel Land is extraordinary. On multiple occasions, the camera is present during live firefights. When a suspected cartel member is apprehended late in the film, the subsequent standoff is more tense than any staged confrontation in years. The access to Mireles himself seems nearly unlimited, with almost no need to cut to news broadcasts or any external sources. It all feels very real, very organic, and very dangerous.

Cartel Land works on nearly all levels. The camera work provides visceral entertainment. The journalism inside is open-ended and intriguing. The “characters” are simultaneously despicable, aspirational, and heartbreaking. Even Nailer Foley, who repeats himself far too often, is granted an even-handed portrayal. Cartel Land wants you to make up your own mind, which is its most admirable trait and also its most demanding.

A

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Cartel Land (2015)
Dir. Matthew Heineman
Main Subjects Dr. Jose Manuel Mireles and Time “Nailer” Foley
Rotten Tomatoes (90%)

Trainwreck doesn’t have the teeth it promises, but is enjoyable nonetheless

It’s a bit traitorous, but very enjoyable.

Trainwreck promises in its trailer a raunchy time that eschews traditional views of monogamy. As it turns out, the final product lands incredibly strongly on the pro-traditional-relationship spectrum of things, including hinting that kids are an essential part of any long-term relationship and essentially demanding that one character change entirely while letting the other be perfect as-is. It’s a bit traitorous, but thankfully the movie is enjoyable enough, the leads have enough charisma, and it maintains enough of Schumer’s voice to still be worthwhile.

Really, the cast sells the movie. Schumer has screen presence and a complete and total lack of fear, and Hader is immensely likable. But the fringes are what counts here: off to a good start with a very funny John Cena, LeBron James turns out to be the MVP of extended celebrity cameos. He steals every scene he’s in, and his first big moment defending the beauty of Cleveland, Ohio is one of the funniest things I’ve seen all year. Maybe the most important, though, is Brie Larson, who injects humanity into a normally annoying type of side character that allows its third-act turn to feel natural as opposed to overly calculated. I was expecting much more of a montage of one-night-stands kind of thing going in, but considering that a later scene involving a wacky hookup is perhaps the turning point for the worse for the film, maybe it was a good thing to avoid.The actual finale is godawful, its a bit too long, and many of the beats are very familiar to the Apatow canon, but its a fun and believable ride to get there.

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B-

Trainwreck (2015)
Dir. Judd Apatow
Starring Amy Schumer, Bill Hader, Brie Larson, Colin Quinn, and LeBron James
Rotten Tomatoes (85%)

Review Roundup: Three very different and worthwhile LA movies, and stupid dinosaurs

Sometimes five sentences works. Here are four such cases.

The Overnight (2015)

The Overnight is brisk, thoughtful, and most important, very funny. It borders on cringe a fair bit, but generally hits, has its share of interesting visual flourishes, and the mystery of the host’s true intentions is played out well. At 80 minutes, it goes by fast, but its enjoyable and surprisingly packed ride. It also finally takes the crown of “Funniest Prosthetic Penis” from Boogie Nights, so that’s something.

Grade: A-

Tangerine (2015)

Like its entire cast of characters, Tangerine is a bit of a mess. It’s a bit aimless, and though it ends very well, a lot of what it took to get there seems pointless. One of the three main characters seems entirely excisable. At 90 minutes, it feels a bit long. And while the iPhone aesthetic works in spades occasionally, its often painfully oversaturated. However, it deftly builds an interesting world, and the scenery-chewing whirlwinds of Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor are incredible. It’s patience-testing for sure, but Tangerine is a very memorable experience.

Grade: B-

San Andreas (2015)

Big-ticket natural disaster movies have had a tendency to fall far too deep into science fiction in recent years. San Andreas is admirably not-too-stupid, with buildings being a bit more toppleable and chasms being a bit more chasmy than I imagine real life would allow, but never straying so far outside the realm of believability to break the illusion (give or take something about magnetic pulses). Instead of focusing on a large, disparate group, San Andreas homes in on how the disaster affects one family, with a relatively small number of wide shots (but enough to get the effects buzz) and allowing more of a fly-on-the-wall feel. While plenty of stuff breaks and falls down, the movie admirably avoids dehumanizing the whole experience; when one heel meets their demise, we are immediately reminded of the immense toll the disaster has on those unfortunate enough to not have The Rock as our daddy. San Andreas is ultimately a bit disposable and by-the-numbers, but its enjoyable and much more involving than I expected.

Grade: B-

Jurassic World (2015)

Jurassic World is a movie that’s afraid to play dirty, despite being more than a touch sociopathic. Despite having ostensibly the biggest catastrophe potential of the series (give or take the end of The Lost World), there is never a hint of the tension that fuels the most memorable moments of the original films, and only a couple adrenaline-running moments that hold up on the small screen (admittedly, it may have played better in theaters). The human characters might as well have been cardboard cut-outs, whom are required by-plot to be glaringly stupid and ill-prepared. Still, there are odd moments of beauty when the dinosaurs own centre stage (except for, unfortunately and surprisingly, the raptors), and its certainly not much worse than Jurassic Park 3. It would need a heck of a lot more character to hold a candle to the first two though.

Grade: D+

 

Kingsman is another highly enjoyable genre romp from Matthew Vaughn

The opening and ending are engaging, original, and memorable entertainment

At one point in Kingsman, a covered dish is brought out for a meal where so far the two participants have solely exchanged pleasantries on the vintage of the wine present. Instead of a classy osso bucco, or a shocking severed head, the platter instead contains a bunch of McDonald’s burgers and fries. Product placement aside, this moment more-or-less ties into the appeal of Kingsman; it was made by people who clearly enjoy gentleman spy movie, but what they’ve done is make a tasty and cheap burger. Thankfully, its really tasty.

Kingsman plays very much like a sister piece to Matthew Vaughn’s previous Mark Millar adaptation, Kick-Ass (and thankfully not its dire sequel), violent and aloof but only rarely grim. Instead of superhero movies, the inspiration here is the cheeziest of the ’70s Bond films, and this take on it pays more dividends than Spectre did. Superhero Colin Firth is a delight, and Samuel L Jackson harkens back to the somewhat-underrated The Spirit as a laid-back megalomaniac. Taron Egerton’s main character Eggsy never quite works as a thug, but blossoms in the final act of the movie. In fact, the middle third is really the weak point, where Firth is off on mission and Egerton is in training. The mission is great, but the need for an origin story slows it down a fair amount. Thankfully its relatively minor, and the opening and ending are engaging, original, and memorable entertainment.

B+

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Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015)
Dir. Matthew Vaughn
Starring Taron Egerton, Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Sophie Cookson, and Samuel L. Jackson
Rotten Tomatoes (75%)

There’s a lot to like in The Revenant. There’s also a lot to not.

The Revenant is a beautiful, simple film that wants to be more and falls a bit flat.

The Revenant is a beautiful, simple film that wants to be more and falls a bit flat. Leo gives an intensely physical performance in near total silence, but doesn’t portray a character so much as a force of nature. Without any shred of personality outside of iron resolve and despair (which sounds like enough, but really isn’t), his Hugh Glass is entirely uninteresting despite being in one hell of an interesting scenario. Most of his characterizations come from flashbacks and dream sequences, which are all ridiculously pretentious (a broken church! hair falling up!) and serve to break the spell the movie might have cast at every turn.

Seemingly untrusting of its audience to pay attention, the movie inserts side characters to pan to during Glass’s trip that don’t add anything to the main story, except for the odd flash of energy from Tom Hardy’s cowardly Fitzgerald. In fact, there’s probably a great movie out for the taking that focuses more on Fitzgerald being chased by Glass rather than Glass chasing Fitzgerald, as this is a weasel who embodies the selfishness and animal instincts of the frontier. Its a shame he’s relegated to a sideshow and performs a (completely fictional) act that renders morality black-and-white. In fact, the whole movie is afraid of moral grayness, serving up evil Frenchmen and noble Pawnee on a platter.

At the end of the day, the movie is still beautiful enough to be worth at least a glance. I’ve never seen more lovingly shot pictures of the winter woods, and it captures the unspoiled sparseness of the frontier (a point it hammers on the head with some CGI bison, just in case we missed it). The violence is portrayed unflinchingly, most notably in the much-touted bear sequence and the finale, although it’s not above using body horror as a shortcut (very effective body horror though). There’s a lot to like in here; its just surrounded in a lot to not.

C

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The Revenant (2015)
Dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Will Poulter, and Domhnall Gleeson
Rotten Tomatoes (82%)

Movie Review Roundup: 2016 Feb 11

An existentialist Hollywood yarn, an Wall Street movie as obnoxious as its subjects, and a Western as wonderfully strange as it is infuriatingly meandering.

I’ve been posting review on Rotten Tomatoes for a while, and quite recently. For the more recent films, I’ll dump them into these roundups on occasion for the record. On this roundup: An existentialist Hollywood yarn, an Wall Street movie as obnoxious as its subjects, and a Western as wonderfully strange as it is infuriatingly meandering.

Clouds of Sils Maria (2015)

Clouds of Sils Maria is seemingly packed with themes layered upon themes, and I’d need to see it again to truly dismantle the piece. It’s ostensibly a movie about aging, and while it hits the obvious notes of the treatment women receive with age in the film industry, its not limited to that aspect; this film can be seen as about how people grow and change, not specifically actors. It seems like it was edited with a sledgehammer, and the fiction-within-the-fiction doesn’t justify the in-film praise it receives, but Clouds is an incredibly clever movie which builds exceptional characters for Binoche and Stewart, whose chemistry is so remarkable that it almost works as a buddy film disregarding the big heavy metaphors. While there are certain things whose relevance I haven’t placed yet (notably toward the end), this is a movie of such confidence that I am sure there is more to be revealed on repeat viewings.

Grade: A-

Knock Knock (2015)

Knock Knock has an absolutely fantastic first act that only works because we know what’s likely to come next. But even that runs on rails, and once the second act kicks in, it spins its wheels for a full hour, ending up on the wrong side of stupid. Keanu is a bit miscast, but after a certain point, does his all to save it; the fact that its not a complete trainwreck by the end is by the pure virtue of screaming Keanu.

Essentially, its style isn’t as campy as its plot, and that’s bad, but it has a yuk or two.

Grade: D+

Slow West (2015)

Slow West is a flawed but interesting neo-Western, with a distinctly modern quirkiness elevating its less-solid characters. Kodi Smit-McPhee’s naif Jay is interesting but infuriating as a lead, where Michael Fassbender’s Silas is enigma who never quite comes into focus (some narration on his part doesn’t help). But even if some of the dialogue is a bit stilted, the film builds to a brutally funny second act. It’s only 85 minutes, and while it doesn’t quite scratch the Western itch, its interesting and entertaining in its own way.

Grade: B-

Brooklyn (2015)

Brooklyn is a solid romance drama whose strengths are not at all apparent from that statement. If viewed entirely as being about a romance or a love triangle, the two males are weirdly perfect creatures who, while charming, don’t feel like real people. That it works at all is a testament to how fantastic Saoirse Ronan is at playing a competent, but flawed and most importantly growing, character, and at how damn charming Emory Cohen really is. But what elevates Brooklyn to something approaching greatness is how well it builds it world of boarding houses and department stores in New York, and grocers and stone homes in Ireland. The love triangle is less important on its own than as a stand-in for the classic decision young people have to make about staying home and growing old with the known or striking out to make your own world, and having such a lived-in and tactile world on the screen brings that point home. It also helps that it avoids stoicism, with fantastically entertaining supporting characters (particularly Julie Walter’s boarding house matron). Fans of romance films will clearly eat this up, and while it plays into the trappings of the genre, it does so earnestly and with style, which maybe is even better than subversion.

Grade: A-

The Big Short (2015)

Adam McKay clearly wanted to make a documentary, as his The Big Short ends up feeling much more Michael Moore than Margin Call. The movie pauses many times to helpfully provide exposition on Wall Street mumbo-jumbo, which is entirely necessary for the movie to work simply because there are absolutely no dramatic stakes outside of whether the audience member leaves knowing what a CDO is. By choosing to follow three separate major groups of players, the movie is left without focus, and with the exception of Steve Carrell, none of the cast is able to find any reason to really be on camera. McKay tries to separate the vibe from his Will Ferrell films with annoying and unnecessary freeze frame as well as obnoxious musical cues. At the end of the day, the movie succeeds as a form of education (I think, I’m no expert), but fails as a work of film and as a comedy. For comparison, Margin Call worked without being necessarily understandable; The Big Short focuses so much on being intelligible that it forgets to work at all.

Grade: C-

Beasts of No Nation is a beautiful, impersonal horror story

The fantastic cinematography hides an otherwise numb experience

Netflix scored two huge wins in Beasts of No Nation: Cary Joji Fukunaga and Idris Elba. Fukunaga brings the striking images that made the first season of True Detective to the film, and Idris Elba infuses an utterly unsympathetic character with a very real humanity. Fukunaga approaches the subject matter not with the care one might expect, rather taking an Apocalypse Now route and going for gonzo shots and rapidly changing color palettes. Its fantastic to look at, but any emotional effectiveness it has is the bare minimum that comes with the subject matter.

The film has essentially two characters given a chance at having a personality: Elba’s commandant and Abraham Attah’s child rebel soldier Agu. The film does excellent work at setting the political stage without ever approaching specificity; as it is filtered through the eyes of a child, the big-picture politics are rendered moot (as they may well be in reality anyhow). The chaos that allows a monster like the commandant to thrive is well motivated though, painting a world where anything approaching militaristic is by default evil. It’s sickeningly believable that young men and boys would be sold on the idea of rebellion, and Elba’s charisma and screen presence give it the perfect salesman. But its when commandant’s veneer of control is peeled away to reveal a pathetic creature that the movie becomes truly intriguing.

However, no other characters fulfill the same potential. Agu is stoic, which is fine, but his friend and confidant is a character named Strika whose sole character trait is that he’s even more stoic. This leaves much of the development to heavy-handed voiceovers, which approach some form of profundity occasionally but repeat themselves too often. Its a shame, because visually the battalion is a wonder, a version of the Lost Boys whose moral compass has been ripped away. Their clothing gives hints at their more comfortable past, is colourful in ways that suggest a child lives somewhere inside, and only makes it more terrifying when they do the awful things they do.

There’s a lot to really like about Beasts of No Nation, but there likely could have been a lot more. Ironically, the selling point of the fantastic cinematography would have been much better served by a cinema treatment rather than from your couch on Netflix. On a smaller screen, Beasts is too easy to distance yourself from.

B

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Beasts of No Nation (2015)
Dir. Cary Joji Fukunaga
Starring Abraham Attah and Idris Elba
Rotten Tomatoes (91%)

On the narrative nihilism of Fallout 4’s ending

No speech. No recognition. No catharsis. Just guilt.

SPOILERS for the ending of the main questlines in Fallout 4 and mild spoilers for Fallout New Vegas follow. But its the main quest, so its probably fine.

I put around 175 hours into Fallout 4 before finally putting it down a couple of weeks ago. Bruce G. McKibbits was the type of adventurer who left no stone unturned, built Sanctuary Hills and Hangman’s Alley into thriving metropolises, and earned the friendship and respect (and perks) of all willing to travel with him. Bruce G. McKibbits cares about his son, cares about the people of the Commonwealth, and cares about the future of humanity as a whole. Unfortunately, that’s not one of the four speech options, so Bruce G. McKibbits killed his son and destroyed humanity’s best hope at a future in a desperate attempt to save his soul.

Let’s back up.

Fallout 4, in the vein of New Vegas, puts your character in between four factions:  the facist Brotherhood of Steel, the insidious Institute, the tunnel-visioned Railroad, and the milquetoast Minutemen. While its possible to just ignore the Minutemen completely, in order to finish the game with any of the other three factions, the remaining two must be annihilated. None of the three factions are perfect; there’s a good rationale to the leaders of each being seen as the villain. But considering how high you can ascend the leadership of each organization before plot-demanded betrayal, some form of diplomatic solution seems within reach. But neutralization is not an option; its annihilation or bust.

The obvious decision for me was to kill the Brotherhood of Steel. Sure, there were some good people there, but they were uninvited interventionists with no regard for the people of the Commonwealth. I teamed up with the Railroad and invaded the first place I met them, the Cambridge Police Station. I expected to face an army of faceless goons here, and that any named characters would give some form of recognition, some form of a “please don’t do this.” Instead, Scribe Haylen, whom I saved an ally with against the orders of the Brotherhood but days ago, was just another body on the pile. No speech. No recognition. No catharsis. Just guilt.

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In a sense, that guilt is deserved. You betrayed a flawed institution, but one with angels among its members. But this guilt was better emphasized in the proceeding section. On my attack of the Prydwen, the Brotherhood’s floating fortress in the sky, I opted for the loud and noisy route. After the majority of the leadership had been felled, I was walking among the carnage when a child Brotherhood scout approached me and mistook my power armor for that of a friend. He asked whether I had heard about what happened at the police station. He was a glitch, a remnant of a subtler route I had opted out of for this portion. But he embodied the collateral damage that must be accepted in the endgame; no matter what, innocents are lost en masse. When I sunk the Prydwen, I was complicit in a triumphant massacre. And big bad Maxson didn’t attempt to use words; he just fell.

Which left me with the choice between the Institute and the Railroad. The Railroad’s pursuit of synth freedom at all costs was admirable, and up until this point their state of relative disconcern in the fate of the Commonwealth as a whole was a nonissue, in the same line of reasoning that renders #AllLivesMatter infuriating. The Institute, on the other hand, was too secretive and cold, but had recently appointed me director. The Institute was truly a heaven, and the technology they had could help the lives of the many. With Bruce G. McKibbits as director, surely they would move away from the enslavement of the synths and toward a more open relationship with the outside, right? So I’d bide some time and work on uniting the Institute and the Railroad, as they didn’t have conflicting ethos in the same way both had with the xenophobic and technophobic Brotherhood.

That was not to be however. Either the Railroad had to be eliminated and synths doomed, or the Institute had to become a smoking ruin and humanity left in stasis. I did both in separate save files, and neither was satisfying. Perhaps that emptiness is part of the point, that war never changes and etc etc. But even narratively speaking, the lack of an option to attempt (and maybe fail!) a diplomatic solution is frustrating. Having my own hand force my own hand when waiting seemed an option wasn’t agency; it was forcing action in the name of getting gameplay rather than satisfaction. Maybe David Thier at Forbes was correct, and the only way to win is to not play. Siding with the Railroad once again meant a massacre, with innocents among the ruins in addition to abandonment of hope. Siding with the Institute meant living with the implication of continuing a history of murder, elitism, and slavery. And the most hope you’d get is a hint of optimism.

There’s an argument that Fallout is non-cinematic, and having it play out in a more dialogue-heavy fashion goes against the style of the games. But compare the fantastic ending of Fallout: New Vegas, which is similarly untidy and forces you to compromise at least one of your ideals, but never forces outright sociopathic behaviour. Once again, there are three main factions which are mutually incompatible; the secretive and effective dictator Mr. House, the well-meaning but incompetent NCR, and the captial-E Evil Caesar’s Legion. It’s an easy choice to throw the Legion under the bus if you’re remotely moralistic, but it is possible to support Mr. House without decimating the NCR (although that certainly is an option). You just tell them to leave, and show them your army of killer robots. Similarly, you can side with the NCR and neutralize Mr. House without destroying New Vegas. Finally, you can tell them both off and run stuff yourself (although with the implication that you’d suck at the job). There is nothing perfect, but a loyal paragon ending is possible, where your soul is intact even if your goals aren’t met in their entirety. That isn’t enough for Fallout 4; it wants your soul and accepts nothing less.

While we’re talking about Fallout….

Stray Observations:

  • Overall, I really liked Fallout 4, and will jump right back in when the DLC comes out. Faults with the ending left a worse taste in my mouth than New Vegas, which I love, but it left a much stronger impression than Fallout 3, which had something to do with water I think. I would have liked to see more main-quest ancilliary side quests that didn’t just repeat themselves, as well as sidequests with every companion, but the content on hand was bountiful. Let’s say B+.
  • It just really seems like murdering the Railroad is terribly inelegant. The attack on the Prydwen or the Institute makes sense from a gameplay perspective, since its a Big Action Ending. But killing the Railroad is morose and cowardly.
  • That bug where the beds disappear when you build a TV is just the worst thing.
  • That sidequest on the USS Constitution is just the best thing.
  • What Fallout games really need to take from their Elder Scrolls sister series is the guild sidequests, which don’t tie directly into the main quest and function as five substantial games within the main one. The sidequests were great, but often a bit isolated (I really wanted the Cabot house questline to open up into this, but it ended as quickly as it began).
  • Having only played the 3D Fallout games, the different representations of the Brotherhood in each are fascinating. Compare the Nazi-esque Fallout 4 Brotherhood with the militaristic but benevolent group in Fallout 3 and the paranoid and impotent Brotherhood of New Vegas. Each version has the same creed, and shows just how much status and leadership matter over simple intention.
  • While the companions were a huge step up from Fallout 3, they were a letdown after New Vegas, especially considering that the Mass Effect influences they took would add with NV to the perfect companion system. They never seemed involved in missions, did not converse much about progress in the story, and only rarely offered interesting questlines outside of picking them up. However, Nick Valentine, Curie, and Codsworth were great, and there was a legitimate sense of teamwork.