By Michael Parsons
As I emerge from a fugue state after a slew of awards screenings, I’m reminded of why I love movies so much. Not because I’ve seen almost ever Oscar contender out there, but because the ever-expanding art of cinema never fails to churn out some surprises. As far as I’m concerned, every year is a great year in film, in one way or another. Which is precisely why I’ve decided to break down my favorites a little differently this year and skip the usual spiel about how tough it is to compile a Top 10. Enjoy, and good moviegoing!
Film of the Year:
“The Revenant” (5 Stars) Another tour de force from director Alejandro González Iñárritu, “The Revenant” (starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy) couldn’t be further from last year’s quizzical “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance”), even if Michael Keaton himself were to sashay onto the screen in his underpants. Returning DP Emmanuel Lubezki once again displays his mastery of the protracted sequence, but this time around he sets out to draw his audience into the grimy frontier life of fur trappers in the Western territories of the early 1800’s. Reportedly rendered using only natural light, and exposing the actors to the harsh environment to make things as authentic as possible, Iñárritu’s gorgeous but unsparing epic of survival and revenge is easily the most impressive piece of filmmaking this year. It is, perhaps, Iñárritu’s “Apocalypse Now”, in his uncompromising resolve to realistically recreate such an unfathomable situation. (Click Here For Full Review)
“Sicario” (4 1/2 Stars) This powerful Mexican drug-war epic bears shades of “True Detective”, “Zero Dark Thirty” and the Pablo Escobar chronicle “Narcos”, masterfully combined in a nightmarish tale of corruption and warfare by director Denis Villenueve (from a script by first-timer Taylor Sheridan), and emerging as hellish reality through the lens of legendary DP Roger Deakins with added intensity from Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson. Stars Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro and Josh Brolin. (Click here for full review).
“The Big Short” (4 1/2 Stars) Christian Bale, Steve Carrell, Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt are an ensemble worthy of any director’s Christmas wish list. They headline this entertaining econo-dramedy about the 2007-2008 economic meltdown. Director Adam McKay (the “Anchorman” movies), who adapted Michael Lewis’s book into an off-the-wall and informative stew with co-writer Charles Randolph, portrays the participating lenders in roughly the same light that Martin Scorsese chronicled the demise of stock-swindling millionaire Jordan Belfort in ‘”The Wolf of Wall Street”. (Click here for full review)
“99 Homes” (4 1/2 Stars) The “Training Day” of the real estate industry, this raw, intelligent and emotional thriller takes place in post-bubble burst Orlando, where a ruthless real estate broker (Michael Shannon) gets his hooks into the smart but desperate working stiff (Andrew Garfield) whose home he’s just foreclosed on. The excellent script from director Ramin Bahrani and Amir Naderi (from a story by Bahrani and Bahareh Azimi) is minimalist in composition but meaty in dialogue, resulted in two of the best performances of the year. (Click here for full review).
“Beasts of No Nation” (4 1/2 Stars) Typically irresistible Idris Elba plays an evil warlord who leads a child army in West Africa. Among them is the central character, a young boy named Agu (Abraham Attah, in an exceptional performance). Extremely difficult material from Cary Fukunaga, the director behind the first season of “True Detective”. This is a jarring, powerhouse of a film, and not for the squeamish. Available on Netflix.
“Youth” (4 1/2 Stars) One of the most beautiful and intriguing films of the year comes from Italian writer/director Paolo Sorrentino in his second English language feature “Youth”, which aside from showcasing the talents of Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel and Jane Fonda, features exquisite cinematography from DP Luca Bigazzi. Set in the Swiss Alps at a remote resort, the film recalls Ruben Östlund’s “Force Majeure” and even Wes Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel” in a spot or two, so vivid and elegant that it’s often hard to tell if what we’re looking at is real or imagined. (Click here for full review).
“I Smile Back” (4 1 /2 Stars) Sarah Silverman takes a dramatic turn in the best female lead performance of the year. Director Adam Salky’s story of Laney, a woman who is self-destructing in spiral of drug addiction and promiscuity behind her decaying soccer-mom guise, is completely gut wrenching. Chalk Silverman up for an Oscar (or at least a nom, if there’s any justice) for this role–a loving mom split between her kids and her chemical dependency. Josh Charles handles some heavy lifting as Silverman’s husband and emotional counterweight.
Overrated In Drama:
“The End of the Tour” (3 Stars) A fine biopic directed by James Ponsoldt, based on Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky’s 5-day interview with “Infinite Jest” author David Foster Wallace. A convincingly awkward rapport develops between actors Jason Segel and Jesse Eisenberg that is interesting to watch…. for a while. Ultimately, the film is neither as compelling nor as engaging as advertised, but…. just good.
“Black Mass” (3 Stars) Sure, it’s a great opportunity for another extensive Johnny Depp transformation, who plays notorious Boston gangster Whitey Bulger, but I’d take his more engaging “Donnie Brasco” any day of the week. It’s entertaining to watch Depp being sinister, of course. But the film as a whole feels pretty by-the-numbers,paling in comparison to something like “The Departed”, which is said to have been inspired by Bulger. (Click Here For Full Review)
“Meru” (5 Stars) Forget “Everest”. This documentary follows three climbers including co-DP’s Renan Ozturk and Jimmy Chin (the latter co-directed with wife Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi), and the legendary Conrad Anker in their attempt to conquer the peak of Mount Meru’s coveted “Shark’s Fin” — the cherry on top of the climb to end all climbs. If the idea of making it up Meru seems insane, then the additional hurdles they face between attempts surely would make success impossible. A completely immersive, intense and inspirational doc with commentary from climber/journalist Jon Krakauer (author “Into Thin Air”).
“Cartel Land” (4 1/2 Stars) A fitting companion piece for “Sicario”, Matthew Heineman gets intimate with members of Mexican drug cartels and a small town doctor leading a resistance against them. The police aren’t’ doing him any favors either, and “Cartel Land” (some how) gets right to the center of it. A plot develops, too, as we see the degree of corruption that keeps the drug trade cooking south of the border. If truth is often less believable than fiction, Heineman’s documentary is quite the example.
“Where To Invade Next” (4 Stars) Michael Moore might be cherry-picking here, and I’d be inclined to call him out on it, only his new (and often very humorous) doc makes a lot of legitimate points. More put off by his deliberately slovenly demeanor than anything else, I’ve never been big on Moore himself, but I found his globe-trotting new film to be entertaining (and sometimes stupefying), as he “invades” our friends abroad to see how they have things like education, healthcare, etc. all figured out. Whether or not he also examines the downside of the countries from which he plucks these policies and cultural practices is another discussion altogether. Regardless, I found most of his jaunt overseas pretty intriguing.
“A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence” (4 1/2 Stars) Okay, you’re either going to love me for recommending this, or you’re never going to read another one of my reviews. “Pigeon” is a rewarding experience if you stick with it, something to be approached like an exhibit at a museum. It’s a gorgeous little curiosity that’s as bizarre–if not more–than its title suggests. An anthology of overlapping themes and time frames, the film showcases a rare ability in Swedish filmmaker Roy Andersson, as well as cinematographers István Borbás and Gergely Pálos, who tend to keep the lens idle for long stretches as some pretty mind-blowing things unfold in front of the camera.
“Son Of Saul” (4 Stars) A disorienting, claustrophobic film that’s as impressively photographed as it is difficult to watch, director László Nemes’ film follows Saul Auslaender (Géza Röhrig), a Jewish Hungarian Sonderkommando who is forced to escort his own people to their deaths on a daily basis. Discovering the body of his son after cleaning the gas chambers, Saul desperately seeks out a Rabbi to give the boy a proper Jewish burial, as an uprising develops among his fellow prisoners. Nemes captures the inconceivably sickening reality of places like Auschwitz but it’s the central character’s unwavering conviction that the film focuses on. DP Mátyás Erdély makes us feel like we’re swimming upstream through the gates of hell with blinders on.
“Goodnight Mommy” (4 Stars) This Austrian psychological horror/thriller is beyond creepy, finding twin boys (Lukas and Elias Schwarz) questioning the identity of their mother after she returns home from cosmetic surgery. Her face bandaged, mom’s increasingly uncharacteristic aggression raises apprehension from the brothers, who resort to gruesome measures to figure out what’s going on. Directors Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz (the latter of whom co-wrote with Severin Fiala) use the sterile environment of a country home to set the uneasy tone; the movie recalls in parts “Mommy Dearest” and “The Shining”, but ultimately charts its own path as horrific reality unfolds. Some shock, mostly atmosphere, all disturbing.
Also put on your viewing list:
“The Dead Lands” (4 Stars) Maori tribes battle it out in Toa Fraser’s bloody primeval flick “The Dead Lands”, in which a young warrior (James Rolleston) seeks to avenge the death of his father with the help of a mythical man-eating creature (Lawrence Makoare) that dwells in the titular realm with the spirits of his ancestors. With the supernatural lingering at the fringes, Fraser’s unusual action/fantasy never lulls as his grunting, howling characters duke it out for honor and territory.
“Mad Max: Fury Road” (4 Stars) What else? A vivid topography of seemingly endless desert sets the stage for George Miller’s epic return to the series, in which warring factions fight for water and other dwindling natural resources in an insane, non-stop convoy/car chase. The film stars Tom Hardy as the titular hero, though a tough new character played by Charlize Theron steals the show. Thrilling to look at from beginning to end, though risking overload at a few points, “Fury Road” is most impressive because of its choreography and a smorgasbord of practical effects–visually resembling what it might look life if Terry Gilliam and Zack Snyder decided to collaborate on a post-apocalyptic action flick. (Click Here For Full Review)
“Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation” (4 Stars) Narrowly edged out by “Mad Max”, Christopher McQuarrie’s “M:I” franchise contribution has more than its share of clever ideas and death-defying stunts. A big summer blockbuster rooted in a truly classic espionage picture, “Rogue Nation” shows us that the series still has plenty of steam left in it, like Cruise, who’ll need to strap on a JATO rocket and fly to the moon for the next installment to top this film’s opening stunt. (Click Here For Full Review)
“Kingsman: The Secret Service” (4 Stars) What director/co-writer Matthew Vaughn did for superhero movies in “Kick-Ass”, he’s done twofold for the spy genre with this film. It strikes just the right chord: A tongue-in-cheek homage to old Bond flicks, replete with a looming global catastrophe, a snow-covered mountain lair, a plethora of gadgets, and at least one character tailored to resemble a ’60s George Lazenby. Pure escapist (and extremely violent) fun. (Click Here For Full Review)
For the Back Burner:
Furious 7 (3 1/2 Stars) Expect more explosions than in the last six “Fast & Furious” movies combined. At this point in the game, I think it’s safe to say that the series is fully exempt from the laws of physics, but the growing emotional undercurrent and a classy tribute to the late Paul Walker keep this installment (relatively) grounded. (Click Here For Full Review)
“Spectre” (3 Stars) Craig’s fourth outing and the second consecutive installment directed by Oscar-winner Sam Mendes isn’t nearly as good as it should be. My favorite bond actor has become a casualty of a predictable, intermittently silly screenplay (by John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and Jez Butterworth) as “Spectre” continues the expansion of a back story that exploits Bond’s weaknesses. That said, it has perhaps the most dazzling pre-credits sequence to date going for it. Not bad, but a step backward. (Click Here For Full Review)
“Creep” (4 1/2 Stars) This chill-inducing gem came out of nowhere, and once I saw that the multi-talented Mark Duplass was involved, my interest was piqued. Though I approach most found-footage flicks with a certain level of apprehension, “Creep” does not disappoint. Starring alongside his co-writer and debuting director Patrick Brice, Duplass pulls a truly terrifying character out of a hat of typically comedic roles. Brice plays Aaron, a freelance videographer who responds to an ad that simply requires him to film some guy’s day-to-day activities. The client is Josef, Duplass’s so-friendly-he’s creepy character, who lives in a remote cabin in the woods (of course). The meeting sets off a series of scenes that made my skin crawl. Seek this one out on Netflix immediately. (Click Here For Full Review).
“The Gift” (4 1/2 Stars) One of the most brilliant and unnerving thrillers to hit mainstream theaters in some time, “The Gift” marks the writing/directing feature debut of Joel Edgerton, who’s proven equally talented on both sides of the camera. He’s penned a memorably haunting role for himself as the awkward and potentially unstable Gordon Moseley, a guy who may (or may not) be seeking retribution for something that transpired decades earlier with an old classmate (Jason Bateman). Also stars Rebecca Hall. (Click Here For Full Review)
“Spring” (4 1/2 Stars) “Spring” (which was also a contender for the “WTF” category) finds an odd romance turning odder, after an American on a European vacation meets an Italian bombshell who turns out to be an ancient mythical succubus. But why should that get in the way of love? Impossible not to compare to Richard Linklater’s “Before” film series, directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s (“Resolution”) almost uncategorizable movie also reminds of Xan Cassavetes’ retro-chic vampire flick “Kiss of the Damned” with shades of Jonathan Glazer’s visually stunning “Under the Skin”. An intriguing, strange, sweet, charming–and at times, shocking–genre blend. (Click Here For Full Review)
Also put on your viewing list:
“The Final Girls” (4 Stars) The self-aware horror flick to end all self-aware horror flicks, this is an almost kid friendly (PG-13) mega-wink at the slasher sub-genre that one-ups the “Scream” franchise (Wes Craven would’ve been proud, may he rest in peace). A movie-within-a-movie in which a few audience members find themselves transported to the ’70s summer camp of their favorite horror flick, armed with the knowledge of genre do’s and don’ts–unlike the ditzy cast of “Camp Bloodbath” with whom they suddenly co-exist–“The Final Girls” is funny but not spoofy (no “Scary Movie” bullshit here), sometimes freaky and perhaps most surprisingly, it tugs on the heart-strings. It’s a tough balancing act to pull off, and in the few moments that it stumbles, the film quickly recovers.
Most Overrated in Horror:
“It Follows” (3 Stars) I might get excommunicated from my horror circles for this (yes, I have horror circles), but David Robert Mitchell’s “It Follows” isn’t quite all that it’s cooked up to be. Don’t misinterpret this to mean that it’s a bad film; Mitchell has mood to spare, his movie taking place in an odd, non-specific (though vaguely ’80s) time period. He is certainly innovative in his approach to dedicating a movie entirely to one of the major horror tropes (sex will get you killed!) However, it’s not frightening as often as it is hypnotic, with editing that is ostensibly meant to keep us on our toes with an off-kilter rhythm, but instead feeling awkward and sleepy. Not to mention, it features perhaps the slowest-moving ghoul of all time, an apparition that appears willy-nilly in various forms (visible only to the protagonist, played by a terrific Maika Monroe), a walking STD far less aggressive than herpes. That said, if it does find you, you could end up looking like a human pretzel. “It Follows” is certainly better than your average horror flick, and a great synth score by Disasterpeace evokes some of the best genre flicks of the ’70-’80s. Respect to Mitchell, but it’s not Carpenter re-invented.
“The Gallows” (1 1/2 Stars) A poorly executed horror flick and further evidence that the rising popularity of the found footage sub-genre has nothing to do with quality. If “Creep” is an example of how to do it right, then “The Gallows” is the polar opposite. (Click Here For Full Review).
“While We’re Young” (4 1/2 Stars) While I was one of the few critics in the world that didn’t seem to get the appeal of his 2012 film “Frances Ha”, and I wasn’t particularly fond of this year’s “Mistress America”, I found Noah Baumbach’s “While We’re Young” the best comedy of 2015. Quick-witted but not as pretentious as Baumbach’s usual stuff, the film finds a forty-something couple (Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts) befriending young hipster lovebirds (Adam Driver, Amanda Seyfried) who have a mutual interest in documentary filmmaking. Stuck between their “baby cult” friends and their young new BFFs, the couple tries to be spontaneous while also maintaining their long-term friendships, a juggling act that has hilarious results.
“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” (4 1/2 Stars) The premise of this film is anything but funny: Olivia Cooke plays a high school senior who’s just been diagnosed with leukemia, and develops a friendship with the anti-cliquish Greg (Thomas Mann) and his no-nonsense film buff buddy Earl (RJ Cyler) when Greg’s mom (Connie Britton) forces him to spend time with her. She’s not keen on the pity-visit, as the two are only acquaintances, and so begins Day 1 of their “Doomed Friendship”. Somewhere in there is a hilarious, charming and creative little movie that harks back to the films of John Cusack’s early comedy career. Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, who’s shifted genres a bit from his last movie, the also excellent reboot of “The Town That Dreaded Sundown”.
“Grandma” (4 Stars) There’s something magical about Lily Tomlin, whether she’s playing adorably dizzy or callous and cynical (but somehow still adorable). Tomlin’s on-screen presence is so strong that co-star/sidekick Garner, who plays her pregnant granddaughter, spends much of her time simply reacting to hilariously profane bits of wisdom and one-liners. The humor is sardonic but rarely mean-spirited, outrageous but never silly. (Click Here For Full Review)
Overrated in Comedy:
“Trainwreck” (3 Stars) There’s some great writing in the new Judd Apatow film “Trainwreck” courtesy of Amy Schumer, who also plays the promiscuous, over-imbibing gal to which the title refers, but there’s also a lot of what I can only describe as “run-on” comedy — that is, when a scene just doesn’t know when to quit. This is a two-plus hour film that would have been a hell of a lot better at 100 minutes, but again it feels like a product that somehow missed its stop at the editing room. (Click Here For Full Review)
“Vacation” (1 Star) More like “Desperation”, this bomb is so devoid of original ideas and so dismayingly ugly and interchangeable that I felt like I was watching a ripoff of 2013’s raunchy road comedy “We’re the Millers”. And that was pretty bad. (Click Here For Full Review)
“Predestination” (4 1/2 Stars) Based on the Heinlein short “All You Zombies”, this near masterpiece from the Spierig Brothers stars Ethan Hawke as a time-traveling cop. If you think that premise sounds stale, then it will make the film’s twists all the more mind-blowing. A slick film with an incredible performance from Sarah Snook.
“The Martian” (4 Stars) Ridley Scott’s Matt Damon vehicle about an astronaut stranded on Mars (for a year and a half) is smart, intense, and a surprisingly convincing (and very funny) movie. More science than science-fiction, this is definitely Damon’s best film as a guy stuck on a another planet (see last year’s ”Interstellar). Fun and refreshingly upbeat. An amazing ensemble includes Jessica Chastain, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Jeff Daniels.
“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” (3 1/2 Stars) This is such a daunting and emotionally confusing analysis for any child of the original trilogy to make, and it will unquestionably require additional viewings for me to hopefully get my head around some of my issues with it (*UPDATE: I’ve since seen it for a second time, and my rating stands*). In short, go see it, because most of the film is pretty incredible: Incoming auteur J.J. Abrams does right by George Lucas’s brainchild as he continues the “Star Wars” saga. (Click Here For Full Review).
“Ex Machina” (3 1/2 Stars) This understated A.I. fantasy/thriller (incidentally featuring “Star Wars” co-stars Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleeson) is definitely intriguing, but this reviewer didn’t find it quite as satisfying as most (not to diminish an incredible performance from “The Danish Girl” star Alicia Vikander).
“Jurassic World” (3 Stars) As big on visuals as one might hope–but everything unfolds in such an incredibly convenient and predictable order that its poorly conceived plot becomes nothing more than a series of clichés. Neat dinosaurs, though, and Chris Pratt once again proves he can headline a blockbuster. (Full Review Here)
“Terminator: Genisys” (2 Stars) If you thought that James Cameron’s iconic 1984 creation couldn’t regress any further, director Alan Taylor proves that it can. Save yourself the frustration. (Full Review Here)
“Bone Tomahawk” (4 Stars) Is it “Unforgiven” or “The Green Inferno”? The second coming of Kurt Russell’s Wyatt Earp (with Matthew Fox as his dead-shot partner Doc Holliday), or an existential art house exploration of self-discovery and redemption? “Bone Tomahawk” is a risk-taking, shudder-inducing low-budget oddity that shows little compromise in writer/director S. Craig Zahler nasty, genre-blending vision. This initially heady, quip-filled Western doesn’t bare its teeth until late in the game, where it suddenly turns into a hardcore splatterfest at the hands of hill-dwelling cannibals. This could’ve easily ended up in the horror category if judged just by its last half-hour. Not for everyone, particularly the faint of heart or just those who prefer their Westerns to end in a duel rather than an evisceration. (Click Here For Full Review).
Also Keep On Your Radar:
Spotlight, Southpaw, Trumbo, Room, Brooklyn, Bridge of Spies, Steve Jobs, Straight Outta Compton, Slow West, Mississippi Grind (plus the two best animated features of the year, Pixar’s “The Good Dinosaur” and “Inside Out”).
2015 — M. Parsons
99 Homes, A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting on Existence, Beasts of No Nation, Best of 2015, Black Mass, Bone Tomohawk, Bridge of Spies, Brooklyn, Cartel Land, Creep, Ex Machina, Goodnight Mommy, Grandma, I Smile Back, It Follows, Jurassic World, Mad Max: Fury Road, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Meru, Mission:Impossible-Rogue Nation, Mississippi Grind, Room, Sicario, Slow West, Son of Saul, Southpaw, Spectre, Spring, Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, Steve Jobs, Straight Outta Compton, Terminator Genisys, The Big Short, The Dead Lands, The End of the Tour, The Final Girls, The Gallows, The Gift, Trainwreck, Trumbo, Vacation, Where To Invade Next, While We're Young, Youth