Archive for January, 2016

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Sleight

Jacob Latimore stars as Bo, a street magician by day and drug dealer by night who gets in too deep with his criminal employer and has to rely on his illusions to get his family out of a jam.

Written and directed by J.D. Dillard, “Sleight” has a winning combination of playful charm and a dangerous edge. His protagonist is sympathetic and flawed, a balance capably handled by Latimore, whose career appears to be full of potential.

There are echoes to last year’s Sundance darling, “Dope,” albeit with a tone that plays like a superhero origin story. And while there’s plenty of familiar beat’s in Dillard’s script, the director carefully builds to well executed climax that stays just this side of fantasy.

Grade: B

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The Birth of a Nation

Writer-director-star Nate Parker blew the doors off Sundance with this historical epic, which netted a record $17.5 million pickup. The film tells the story of Nat Turner, who led a violent slave revolt in Virginia in 1831, and is filled to the brim with commentary on America’s past, present and future.

While limited by a independent budget, Parker’s camera captures plenty of stomach-churning horrors. Prior to his rebellion, Turner visits neighboring plantations as a preacher-for-hire, providing a window into the disparate treatment eked out by slaveowners reacting and adapting to economic downturn.

The film seems perfectly poised to drop into the current national conversation on race in America. Its rough edges could slow it down in the mainstream market, but it’s a meaningful, boldly-made film with plenty to say.

Grade: B+

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The Bad Kids

Set in an alternative high school in California, “The Bad Kids” is a fly-on-the-wall documentary about empathy in education.

The school at the heart of the film is the proverbial one where the bad kids go, only directors Keith Fulton and Lou Pepe are more interested in how a dedicated educator, in the case the school’s principal, can have a profound effect on an otherwise neglected child’s chances for success.

The stories in the film are intensely personal, and Fulton and Pepe handle them with care. But that same focus on a single school and its students has a myopic quality, making it unclear how the lessons learned would be applied elsewhere.

Grade: B

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How to Let Go of the World (and Love All the Things Climate Can’t Change)

The subject of climate change has been treated by many documentary filmmakers, to varying degrees of success. “How to Let Go of the World” is one of the more effective examples, showing the physical effects of a warming world, from families displaced by major storms to island nations vanishing under rising seas and air so polluted by fossil-fuel dependency that children can’t play outside.

Director Josh Fox (“Gasland”), banjo in tow, globe-trots while documenting the creeping environmental crisis and the steps both made and ignored as danger. The film runs unnecessarily long, buoyed by distracting insertions of Fox into the story, but the overall portrait is sufficiently alarming while also clinging to hope that mankind can save itself from the edge.

Grade: B+

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White Girl

After moving from Oklahoma to New York City for school, Leah (Homeland’s Morgan Saylor) embraces the freedom of adulthood through nonstop partying and drug use. That leads her into the arms of Blue, the friendly neighborhood drug dealer, who is promptly scooped up by the law, leaving a heartsick Leah with a bag of cocaine and the drive to rescue Blue from America’s arcane mandatory minimum laws.

“White Girl” is aggressively non-puritanical, but it’s still challenging to look past what amounts to Bad Decisions: The Movie. Leah’s quest to free Blue is dogged by a consistent stream of failures that are either the result of everyone in the world of the movie being a disgusting creep or the result of our heroin insisting on snorting one more line.

There’s a commentary here about our modern times, drug laws and racial privilege. But any nuance is buried under layers of exhaustion as an unsympathetic protagonist stumbles from one disaster to the next.

Grade: C

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Jacqueline (Argentine)

Imagine a documentary in which nothing happens, and what little does happen is made up. That’s Jacqueline (Argentine), the difficult-to-describe film directed by The Daily Show’s Bernardo Britto.

Ostensibly about a French government employee living in exile in Argentina because she unearthed a CIA assassination conspiracy, the film spends it’s first half unconvincingly pretending to be real before fully revealing itself as fiction in part two. The cracks begin to show as glaringly rehearsed embellishments give way to recognizable actors like Richard Kind playing “real” people. All of which is drowned under the incessant, monotonous and ham-fisted narration of Britto who waxes philosophical about benign details in an attempt to hide that there is nothing to see here.

Grade: C-

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Christine

Rebecca Hall stars as Christine Chubbuck, the real-life Florida newswoman who, in 1974, committed suicide on live television. The film follows Chubbuck’s final months, as loneliness, social anxiety and mounting pressure from work pull at her fraying nerves.

Hall is excellent, convincingly playing the barely-contained eruptions behind her character’s fixed expressions. Her Christine is simultaneously off-putting and sympathetic, perpetually getting in the way of her own happiness, which seems just one good day away but always out of reach.

Beyond Hall, however, the film is thin. Aside from her infamous death, Christine Chubbuck was an otherwise uneventful person, a small-market television reporter who lived with her mother and focused on her work. Director Antonio Campos attempts to compensate with a pleasant ensemble of coworkers (played by Dexter’s Michael C. Hall, Veep’s Timothy Simons) but the end results feels undercooked.

Grade: B-

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Newtown

The community of Newtown, Connecticut, where 20 children and 6 adults were murdered in the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting in 2012, is ripe for documentary attention, and in “Newtown,” director Kim Snyder proves she is up to the task. A comprehensive examination of community grief, with dozens of subjects interviewed over the space of three years, the film paints a picture of collective tragedy, mourning, resilience and, ultimately, resolve to move forward.

Grade: B+

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Under The Gun

Stephanie Soechtig and Katie Couric, the team behind “Fed Up”, 2014 searing takedown of the sugar and soda industries, return to Sundance this year with “Under the Gun,” a searing takedown of the nation’s gun laws.

Some of those laws are (relatively) well known, like the loopholes that allow individuals to sell and purchase guns without background checks. Others, however, have flown under the national radar, like the prohibition against the ATF digitizing its innumerable amount of paper records or the restrictions on gun research by the CDC.

“Under the Gun” dissects those laws and their histories, as well as turning the camera on  the mass shootings that have overturned American communities and the ongoing and largely overlooked gun violence in cities like Chicago. But more than a simple crusade against guns, the film looks at the broad consensus (including majorities within NRA membership) for closing background check loopholes and excluding suspected terrorists from gun purchases.

America, according to “Under The Gun” is a nation ignored by its leaders while citizens are hurt and dying.

Grade: A-

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Southside With You

During the course of an extremely long first date, future president Barack Obama won over a disinterested Michelle Robinson, despite several biting arguments, by demonstrating his oratorial prowess and sneaking a kiss over some dessert. At least, that’s the version shown in “Southside With You,” the Before Sunrise-esque origin story of the First Couple.

Unfortunately, writer-director Richard Tanne’s script lacks the depth and subtlety of Richard Linklater’s classic. “Southside With You” is bogged down by the weight of its characters’ futures and so concerned with what is to be that it forgets that its actually telling a story set in the present tense. What should be a love story between two young and promising adults in Chicago is instead a pseudo-mythic Obamas: Origins story, as if at any moment a radioactive spider will jump out and transform them into their full potential.

Grade: B-

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Green Room

Director Jeremy Saulnier prefers no-frills violence, free of manicured choreography and unrealistic precision. In his films, like “Blue Ruin” and now “Green Room,” the characters are clumsy, prone to mistakes and victims to unpredictable chaos: like actual human beings.

In “Green Room,” an indie hardcore punk band is wrapping up a tour when they book a gig at a forested venue popular among the shaved-head-and-swastika-tattoo crowd. After their set, they witness an act of violence that triggers a chain of events that sees the band fighting for survival against a small army of aggressors led by a chilling calm and sinister Patrick Stewart.

After setting the chess board, every beat in Saulnier’s tight script feels natural and brutally real. But the film is also full of surprises, as Saulnier intentionally steers the action into seemingly predictable territory only to have a sly reversal tucked up his sleeve.

Grade: B+

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The Lure

“The Lure” is a musical from Poland about two mermaids, Silver and Golden, who wash up on shore and find a surrogate family in a trio of nightclub performers.  Their act is a smash hit, but Golden clings to her past as a violent sea creature while Silver longs for a fully-human life.

Thematically, there’s some interesting threads to pull on here — immigration, transphobia, exploitatio — and director Agnieszka Smoczynska ties it all together in a package with no shortage of delightful atmostphere and style. Problem is, “The Lure” is not one for subtlety. And just when you think you’re getting somewhere it halts for a full-production musical number, which suffer from diminishing returns and lyrical work that suffers in translation.

Unique, for certain, with plenty onscreen to keep you entertained, but more memorably for its bizarre qualities than its actual quality.

Grade: C

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Swiss Army Man

On paper, the story of “Swiss Army Man” is full of promise: like the deranged blend of “Weekend at Bernies” and “MacGyver”. A shipwrecked and desperate man (Paul Dano) is about to commit suicide when he spots a dead body washed up on shore. The body’s utility becomes essential for survival, and he strikes up a friendship with the corpse as he searches for a way home.

But it becomes apparent, very quickly, that directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert and only interested in using their film as a delivery mechanism for 90 minutes of juvenile body humor. This is a film where most of the critical plot developments hinge on flatulence and erections.

The Daniels seem to be actively fighting against letting their movie become inadvertently good, making sure to throw in some gross-out gags every few minutes to interrupt what could have otherwise be a beautifully-shot, musically-inventive, psychologically-ambiguous piece of surrealist pop.

What makes “Swiss Army Man” truly offensive is that there’s the bones of a very different, and very interesting film under the layers of asinine filth. Instead, a considerable amount of indie talent is squandered.

Grade: D

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Under The Shadow

Get ready to start hearing a lot of chatter about “Under The Shadow,” the early breakout from this year’s Midnight category at Sundance, a quirky clearinghouse for genre films where Aussie import “The Babadook” premiered last year. And like “The Babadook” before it, UTS centers on a mother trying to protect herself and her child from an unseen evil that doubles as the physical representation of the mother’s anxieties.

But unique, and particularly brilliant, to “Under the Shadow” is that the film is set in the middle of the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. Almost every night, the lights go out and sirens wail as bombs fall from the sky, and that’s only the start of the bumps in the night. And the demon in question is, presumably, a Djin, a malignant spirit that blends religion and Middle Eastern folklore.

The period setting and cultural notes are just two of the feathers in director Babak Anvari’s cap. His film is a crescendo of unease, deepened by the political subtext and punctuated by effective scares that sent literal chills down this reviewer’s spine. There’s plenty to unpack in this movie, with the protagonist dealing with the death of a parent, abandoned by her doctor husband who is drafted into the combat zone and her own stagnant medical education, from which she is barricaded by the attitudes of her time and place.

Anvari isn’t about to explain what it all means, but his film holds all those threads in a tight grip while also offering a fresh spin on the traditional Haunted House  tale.

Grade: A-

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Imagine “Up in the Air,” only written by the mind behind “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and “Being John Malkovich.” And instead of George Clooney, you have an animated figure voiced by David Thewlis. That film, would be “Anomalisa.”

From a plot perspective, the film focuses on Michael, a successful author and traveling speaker whose work focuses on that odd venn diagram of self-help and business. Michael is married, with a child, and he wears his ennui on his sleeve.

While on a business trip in Cincinnati, he meets Lisa, an insecure customer service professional who transfixes Michael with her individuality, injecting him with a rush of vibrancy.

It’s not quite that simple, it never is with a Charlie Kaufman film, but to reveal other details would be a disservice to the surrealist elements in film, which go far beyond the use of stop motion to tell a decidedly adult drama. This is a film that includes full frontal nudity and a sex scene that is surprisingly realistic  – physically and emotionally – considering that it involves two puppets.

While the film could have been done with human actors, the choice to use animation is no gimmick. It informs Michael’s view of the world, and becomes increasingly effective as more of the plot is revealed. It also allows for no shortage of fascinating and sophisticated visual trickery.

But it’s also distracting, drawing attention away from the drama and instead to the subtle expressions of emotion and detailed sets. All combined it makes for an ambiguous and ethereal film, but one in which  too many layers of Kaufman’s open-endedness remain.

Grade: B

Anomalisa opens in Salt Lake City on Friday, Jan 22.

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For the second year in a row, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has nominated only white actors and actresses for its annual Oscar awards.

It’s difficult for me to write about diversity. As a Caucasian male, anything I would say inevitably comes across as the unholy union of white-splaining and man-splaining, or White Man-splaining, the Fox News of film criticism.

But this morning’s announcement of the 2016 Oscar nominations, as well as the ensuing and justified criticism that the awards, once again, are whitewashed, made me think thoughts. And despite my better judgement I’m inclined to share those thoughts, as succinctly as possible, in both defense and condemnation of The Academy.

Obviously, this entire post can be summarily dismissed by asking me to “Check my privilege;” I acknowledge that. But I’m also just a human being who 1) loves movies 2) thinks the industry should and must do better to be more inclusive of race and gender and 3) likes to see talent, in all its forms, recognized.

Here we go:

  1. The membership of the Academy is glaringly, inexcusably white and male. Steps have been made in recent years to address this, but considerably more needs to be done, and soon.
  2. BUT – and this is the main stick in my craw this morning – the Academy doesn’t *make* movies. Individual members of the Academy may write scripts, cast actors and hire directors, but the Academy, as a body, merely evaluates the films that have been made.
  3. For that reason, the *primary* blame for the lack of diversity in film lies with the studios, which produce the films that are then considered for awards by The Academy and other bodies.
  4. And I think most of us can agree that intentionally setting slots aside for diversity nominations, an Affirmative Action of sorts, or nominating films and actors solely to appease a hashtag, without regard to quality, would not be an appropriate solution to systemic under-representation in film.
  5. [Pause to Check My Privilege: I’m told I have a “shitlord” level of privilege with a score of 170]
  6. AS SUCH, the question we need to ask is what actors of color, who turned in awards-worthy performances this year,  were overlooked in favor of their white counterparts. But that is a highly subjective conversation, with many different opinions, and Academy nominations are based on a balloting system with the same weaknesses for majority rule as democratic politics. (#AmericaLovesCrap).
  7. Arguments have been made in favor or Idris Elba, for “Beasts of No Nation”, and Michael B. Jordan, for “Creed”. In my humble opinion, I would have liked to see Will Smith nominated for his turn in “Concussion” instead of Bryan Cranston for “Trumbo”.
  8. That said, it’s easy to see why an Academy of mostly 63-year-old men from the film industry would recognize “Trumbo”, a biopic about the Hollywood Blacklist of the late 1940s. Many Academy veterans entered their professions in the shadow of the Blacklist, and likely had personal relationships with the individuals targeted by the House Un-American Activities Committee.
  9. Alternatively, I thought “Carol” was mind-numbingly boring, and would have no issue removing Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara from the actress categories. But that too is problematic, because my first choices to replace them would be Emily Blunt and Charlize Theron.
  10. [Checking privilege once more: still a shitlord]
  11. Point being, even if the demographics of the Academy membership were reversed tomorrow, that would not necessarily change the actors cast, directors hired, and films produced by the studios.
  12. NOW you might say, as my girlfriend did this morning, that I’m presenting a circular argument. Studios want to make award-winning films, and if the institutions administering those awards were more diverse, the studios would tailor their slate to that reality.
  13. Agreed, absolutely, which is why considerably more needs to be done, and soon, to increase diversity among the membership of the Academy.
  14. BUT that line of thinking ignores the role that audiences play in shaping the films produced in Hollywood. All those shiny statuettes won’t keep the lights on if no one buys a ticket.
  15. Last year, when #OscarsSoWhite was launched, Selma was overlooked in the acting and directing categories. That snub was the linchpin in most arguments about the whitewashed voting by academy members.
  16. But let us consider: Selma made $51 million at the domestic box office, putting it at 61st place for the year, behind the indie-Christian “God’s Not Dead,” the laughably race-inapropriate “Exodus: Gods and Kings” and “The Fault In Our Stars,” about two white kids with health insurance who get cancer, fall in love, and die (more or less).
  17.  “Selma” made one-fifth the box office of “Maleficient,” which was a terrible movie.  A “Maleficient” sequel is already in the works.
  18. The point? Hollywood makes more of what makes money.
  19. None of this absolves studio executives, who seem hell-bent against acknowledging that films with a diverse cast can make obscene amounts of money. It doesn’t absolve the Academy, either, for its glacial attempts at modernization.
  20. That’s why its good to keep the pressure on, drawing attention to the excellent films and actors that deserve recognition for their work.
  21. But in criticizing (deservedly) the biases of the Academy voters, we also need to remember the limitations placed on them by the output of the studio system, and the role that filmgoers play by continuing to vote with their dollars for loud, useless, dreck.

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Oh, what a year, what a lovely year.

Looking back on the last 12 months, it seems like there was a noticeable democratization of quality.

Instead of the traditional creative cluster at the end of the year, when the studios roll out their best and brightest in pursuit of awards attention and holiday box office dollars, each month seemed to coincide with the release of exceptional films, spread across genres, themes and styles.

Here are my selections for the Top 10 films of the year, beginning with a tie for number 10. I admit that it’s cheating, especially since I already named an 11th-best film, but 10 is an arbitrary number, and I make the rules around here.

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10. Love & Mercy (Tie)

Brian Wilson, the heart and soul of The Beach Boys, is a musical genius. And like many great minds, his personal story is a tragedy. He led the Beach Boys through years of critical and commercial success, only to suffer a collapse of his mental health, a reclusive period during which he was taken advantage of by his doctors (one in particular) and finally, a resurgence as a solo artist after years of treatment and recovery.

For Love & Mercy, his story is split in half, with Paul Dano playing the young and declining Wilson while John Cusack (in his best role in years) plays the mature Wilson struggling to put his life back together. It’s a musical, paying tribute to some of the most iconic songs of America’s cultural history, and a thriller, showing the threat of deteriorating mental health and the efforts of Wilson’s second wife to free him from what amounts to a psychiatric captor.

While juxtaposed, the Dano and Cusack segments work in harmony, showing two interpretations of the same man and deviating from the traditional biopic mold of a single actor in various stages of awkward period makeup (looking at you, J. Edgar). It’s an effective choice, anchoring the story in its major time periods for a stronger whole.

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10. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (Tie)

Olivia Cooke has made a career out of playing doomed characters, first with cystic fibrosis as Emma Decody in Bates Motel and now with leukemia as the titular dying girl in this off-beat dramedy from director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon.

But she’s not the center of the film. That role belongs to Greg (Thomas Mann), a lanky, ambivalent, high school senior jolted out of stasis after his mother insists he start spending time with Rachel (Cooke). That marks the beginning of a beautiful friendship, albeit one with an expiration date as her condition worsens.

The script, by Jesse Andrews, is populated by a village of supporting roles (Jon Bernthal, Connie Britton, Nick Offerman) that each take a moment to shine and add dimension to the vibrant world that Greg, Earl and Rachel exist in. Despite the cloud of death hanging over every minute, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is bursts with life.

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9. Room

Another film in two parts, Room tells the story of a woman and her son, abducted and trapped for years in a shed, who escape and must build a life in the outside world.

Newcomer Jacob Tremblay is excellent, but the film rests on the very capable shoulders of Brie Larson, whose performance is simultaneous caged animal and numb reserve. While her character smiles sweetly at her son, the audience feels fear, rage, and desperation.

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8. Sicario

In Sicario, the latest film by director Denis Villeneuve (Enemy, Prisoners) the world is a dark and dangerous place. Opening with an FBI raid in the Arizona desert, the film quickly hops to the U.S./Mexico border where a cat-and-mouse game between government officials and cartel criminals begins with an idealistic (or naive?) agent played by Emily Blunt at the center.

Blunt is fantastic, and surrounded by a nebulous alliance of characters who seem capable at any second of stabbing a knife in her back. It’s a movie of sustained tension, that occasionally vents in small eruptions before a final crescendo that sees the government team storming a network of underground smuggling tunnels.

There’s a lot of politics under the surface of Villeneuve’s film but he keeps them there, always in the subtext but never addressed head on. It’s as though the director has a story to tell, and is too busy or disinterested for big-picture detours, so the audience is left to sort out how they feel after the credits roll.

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7. It Follows

The horror genre has long used its ghosts and killers as a metaphor for sex and morality, punishing its teenage characters for their dalliance and promiscuity.

It Follows shakes up that trope by extending it to its logical extreme, creating a walking (literally) STD that relentlessly pursues its target and, after eliminating them, moves backward up the sexual chain. Add in a retro-neon pulse by director David Robert Mitchell, and you get a film that exists as a singular creation, eerie and disturbing with a self-aware wisdom and seductive visual style.

From its unnerving cold open, to its ambiguous final frame, It Follows is an impeccably paced, minimalist scarer that trades loud and effective shocks with chilling silence.

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6. The Revenant

Last year, director Alejandro González Iñárritu claimed the top spot on my Top 10 with Birdman, the frenzied, sleight-of-hand masterpiece starring Michael Keaton. For 2016, the director is back with his same penchant for visual trickery, albeit in a tonally opposite film compared to last year’s Broadway romp.

Shot using only natural light in the brutal elements of the Canadian wilderness, The Revenant is both a stunningly beautiful and a shockingly brutal tale about resilience and revenge. After being mauled by a grizzly bear, Hugh Glass (a committed, to say the least, Leonardo DiCaprio) crawls, scrapes and fights his way back to society in search of the half-scalped trapper (Tom Hardy) who murdered his son and left Glass to die.

Not enough can be said about the visuals of this film. The camera gazes heavenward to capture ever beam of twilight, and in the process makes every inch traveled by Glass seem daunting. And where most films shoot their action from the outside looking in, Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera is centered, spinning and sliding impossibly like the eye of God.

By ambition alone, The Revenant is one of the most memorable films of the year. But combined with a well-paced tale and the humane intensity of its lead (a lock for an Oscar nomination, if not the trophy itself) Revenant is also one of the year’s best.

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5. Sleeping With Other People

Simply put: Romantic comedies aren’t supposed to be this good.

The genre has become so mired in recycled blueprints that when a film like Sleeping With Other People comes along, blending laugh-out-loud comedy with pathos-drenched emotional depth, it’s jarring to the senses.

Years after a one-night fling in college, Lainey (Allison Brie) and Jake (Jason Sudeikis) reconnect in New York City as damaged, emotionally-stunted adults. The result is a Harry and Sally-esque platonic friendship that pulls each character out of their respective ruts as they mature.

It sounds simpler than it is, because writer-director Leslye Headland successfully captures lightning in a bottle. Sudeikis is perfect, showing the dramatic range buried beneath his typical shtick, and the chemistry between him and Brie is electric.

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4. The Big Short

A very bad thing happened a few years back; you may have heard of it. In a nutshell, lenders offered increasingly ill-advised mortgages to people with no ability to pay them back, and those junk mortgages where then bundled up together into a big pile of rotting garbage that sunk the U.S. economy.

A few shrewd traders saw the crisis coming and bet against the market. They are the real-life individuals dramatized by The Big Short, which tracks the initial disbelief and later outrage of the small group watching Wall Street fiddle while the economy burns.

It’s heady stuff, made palatable by comedy director Adam McKay, who uses a series of fourth-wall-shattering techniques to add a spoonful of sugar to the economic medicine he’s feeding you. Margot Robbie explains subprime lending from a bubble bath, and a smarmy Ryan Gosling narrates the goings-on, occasionally stopping and addressing the camera to make sure you’re following along at home.

It’s an unconventional choice that works like gangbusters, taking a story about a rag-tag group of investors and turning it into a moral crusade against the as-yet-unpunished people who broke the country.

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3. Ex Machina

Ex Machina, written and directed by Alex Garland, is a chess game between three characters: an eccentric inventor, a nebbish programmer, and a seemingly sentient robot.

After winning what he thinks is a vacation at his employer’s isolated laboratory, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) discovers he’s been selected to participate in an experiment to validate the artificial intelligence of Eva (Alicia Vikander), a charismatic and beautiful machine created by Nathan (Oscar Isaac).

It’s a film of nonstop mind-games as allegiances shift, motivations become murky, and every word eschews a hidden meaning. The male characters trade monologues on life and identity while Eva, sultry and suspicious, toys with the idea of gender and personality to get what she wants, whatever that may be.

Few films are able to achieve so much with as little as Ex Machina. From the acting to the story to the aesthetic – a blend of cold, metallic minimalism contrasted against the landscape of Nathan’s rural estate – every ingredient contributes to a feeling of unease and mystery, building to a flawless and unexpected conclusion.

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2. Spotlight

Few institutions are as seemingly invincible as The Catholic Church, but in 2002 a team of Boston journalists made the church bleed. After a year of investigations, the Boston Globe published a series of reports chronicling sexual abuse by Catholic priests and the implied cover-up by church leaders.

That team was Spotlight, one of the oldest-surviving newspaper investigative teams in the country and, in the film version, played by Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo and Brian d’Arcy James.

What’s striking about director Tom McCarthy’s film is the drama and tension he’s able to squeeze out of an otherwise pedestrian tale of watchdoggery. The Spotlight team doesn’t have late-night meetings in dark parking garages with sources, chased down alleys by men with guns. Instead they knock doors, dig through archives and make the connections that the world around them was either unable, or unwilling to make.

The film makes a compelling case for the importance of investigative journalism, but it also recognizes the real-life toll that major stories like the sexual abuse scandal take on individuals. While focused on the Boston Globe, Spotlight never forgets that the names and dates refer to real people, damaged by an institution that was intended to be a source of comfort and trust.

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1. Mad Max: Fury Road

WITNESS ME!

What separates the cinema from other media is its capacity for eye-popping spectacle. A good book and a good play will give you three-dimensional characters with compelling arcs, but only the movies can provide that AND the sensory thrill of seeing the storytelling magic writ large on the silver screen.

That is the singular beauty of Mad Max: Fury Road, the fourth installment in George Miller’s dystopian saga about a drifter highwayman perpetually besought by roving bands of warring marauders. It is two hours of sustained chaos, rendered in physics-defying choreography and eschewing computer trickery for the tactile thrill of burning metal and beading sweat.

In Fury Road, the Maxian torch is passed to Tom Hardy, who is abducted and held captive by the War Boys, zealot offspring of the despotic Immortan Joe, who rules from a fortress called The Citadel. When Joe’s slave brides attempt an escape, the War Boys make chase with Max in tow, kicking of a diesel-fueled hunt across the scorched desert wasteland.

Much has been written about how Max takes a secondary role in the film, frequently deferring to the leadership of Charlise Theron’s one-armed Imperator Furiosa. In large part, the success of the film lies with Furiosa, who supplies the desire for freedom and the despair of a dead world next to the stoic and monosyllabic Max.

It’s a brilliant choice, enriching and expanding the world created by Miller in 1979 by moving beyond, without supplanting, the scope of protagonist’s view. Like something out of mythology, Max is a nomad pulled into the struggles of strangers out of a shared need for survival.

It’s larger-than-life, and frequently over the top, but handled deftly with an unflinching eye for production and entertainment value. While other movies may do better at the box office (Star Wars) and at the awards shows (Spotlight), no other film provided as good a reminder for why we go to the movies in 2015 as Mad Max.

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