Archive for the ‘Honorable Mentions’ Category

I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I’ve been sitting on this post for no good reason since before 2018 ended. I had seen everything I needed to see (within a reasonable degree of certainty) but couldn’t settle on the final order until, literally, moments ago.

I’m still not certain I got it quite right, and every film in my top five at one point or another held the top spot. So before I doubt myself and reshuffle the deck, yet again, here’s my 10 favorite moves of 2018.

10. Vice

Adam McKay’s film about the modern Republican Party and the rise, and rise, and rise of Dick Cheney has its detractors, many of whom make very good points about the film’s overt distaste for its central subjects and over-reliance on gimmickry. But there’s no denying the power of Christian Bale’s chameleon performance, juxtaposed against the otherwise surrealist take on American political “history” (characters occasionally break the fourth wall or slip into Shakespearean prose to hammer home the narrative’s points about the hollow theatrics of government).

You’re mileage will definitely vary here, but I’m always prone to award points for bending the rules of convention, which “Vice” does from start to finish.

9. A Star is Born

Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut landed with a bang during the summer, and while its status as the “it” movie of 2018 has diminished somewhat against late-arriving contenders, it’s still likely to be one of the movies that people remember even after they stop confusing the dates on their checks (Is that still a thing? Do people still write out checks?).

That’s due in no small part to the raw and dynamic performances by Cooper and Lady Gaga, a killer soundtrack and a confident, observational directing style that feels as if the story on screen is something accidentally, and heartbreakingly, stumbled upon.

8. Hereditary

It’s easy to overlook the skill involved in a good horror film. Lesser entries over-rely on conventions: dark rooms, loud noises and ghastly manifestations that send a chill down the audience’s spine before sending them home with a smile on their face. Then there’s movies like “Hereditary,” which use those tools to burrow under your skin and sit with you for days.

“Hereditary” is packed with shocking, disturbing moment, but the movie doesn’t rely on stunts. There’s a mythology at play, and an examination of grief and familial bonds, all obscured under a deep and bewitching atmosphere of dread.

7. Annihilation

“Annihilation,” the novel by Jeff Vandermeer is, to put it mildly, ambiguous. It conveys mood — and particularly a deepening sense of unease — more than plot, with its characters barely attempting to describe the fantastic and terrifying things they encounter as they venture into…something.

It’s also a great read, and wonderfully adapted for the screen by Alex Garland, whose film combines beautiful and haunting imagery with a more concrete narrative about an expedition of women scientists exploring a phenomenon of likely alien origin located along a rural segment of the Florida coastline.

6. Paddington 2

I never got around to seeing the first Paddington, and I was somewhat confused when I started hearing reports that it’s sequel was the best-reviewed film in Rotten Tomatoes’ history (at the time).

So I took the bait, and I’m here to tell you the hype is real. Paddington 2 is infectiously joyful, a film that gushes sincerity and charm, and combines slapstick humor with thrilling chase sequences and, somehow, everything in between. As the film’s antagonist, Hugh Grant has simply never been better, and a stand-out scene utilizing pop-up book imagery took my breath away. See this movie, now.

5. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

It took a few years, but Netflix finally did it. With “Buster Scruggs” the streaming giant had its first must-see feature film, a collection of six western vignettes by the Coen Brothers.

Frequently funny, often tragic, occasionally disturbing and sometimes all of the above, the Coen’s ballad has a little bit of everything and will leave you wanting more.

4. First Man

I was born into a world where man had already walked the lunar surface, with the tragedies, national rivalries and scientific uncertainties of the space race long since past. As a result, the most compelling aspect of Damien Chazelle’s Neil Armstrong biopic was, for me, the anxiety it conveys as now-historic ambassadors of Planet Earth set off on unproven and spectacularly dangerous missions to test the boundaries of human accomplishment.

The film’s centerpiece is a coup de grâce, as Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) and his crew make their decent from Lunar orbit and, once landed, step out onto an otherwordly landscape. Chazelle takes it all in, giving the scenes room to breathe without needless interruption or embellishment.

3. BlacKkKlansman

From the “You can’t make this up” file comes “BlacKkKlansman” the mostly-true story of Ron Stallworth, a black Colorado police officer who infiltrated the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. Directed and co-written by Spike Lee, the film sizzles with a sharp, darkly-comic energy, aided by the pitch-perfect, odd-couple casting of John David Washington and Adam Driver, as well as a surprisingly effective Topher Grace as KKK grand wizard David Duke.

2. Roma

The term “visionary” is thrown around a little too liberally in film criticism, but in the case of Alfonso Cuaron it applies. Consider the recent run by the director, from “Children of Men” in 2006 to “Gravity” in 2013 and now “Roma,” which was wisely snapped up by Netflix.

Known for his long takes and massive scale, Cuaron painstakingly recreates Mexico City circa 1970 for his meditative profile of an affluent family and their live-in housekeeper/nanny. It’s a movie brimming beyond the edges of the screen with life and detail, following one young woman’s path through a city, and nation, in a state of social and political flux.

1. The Favourite

Director Yorgos Lanthimos has a style all his own, simultaneously enticing and intentionally off-putting, as seen recently in “The Lobster” and “The Killing of a Sacred Deer.” His films are absurd, but with absurdities masked under a veneer of sterile banality that he carefully cracks to expose the bizarre machinations at play.

With “The Favourite,” working off a script by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, Lanthimos focuses his singular artistic eye on the court of England’s Queen Anne (a superb Olivia Coleman) and the schemes of two women (Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz) who battled for the monarch’s trust and affection.

In the world of “The Favourite,” the familiar pomp and circumstance of imperial English decorum are on full display, albeit ratcheted up to farcical heights that, while deliciously anachronistic, convey the petty jealousies and political scheming that carry through to modern society. The result is a period piece unbound by the trappings of history that, through caricature, captures something wholly real, grotesquely bizarre and hilariously relatable.

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It’s Christmas Eve. The shopping is finished, the stockings are hung, and not a creature is stirring, so you know what that means: time to get to work on my year-end best movies list.

I don’t know exactly what years constitute “the old ways,” but they’re definitely dead in 2018. All the good movies come out in November and December? Nope. “Summer” movies have to be stupid? Nope.

Netflix can’t make a good movie? Nope.

We’ll get to all of that over the next couple weeks. But for now, here’s some of the movies I loved watching this year that didn’t quite make the final cut of the Top 10.

Best swan song: The Old Man and the Gun

Who better than Robert Redford to play a criminal of a certain age who robs banks using little more than effortless charm? No one, that’s who.

In what will be (allegedly) his final onscreen performance, Redford plays real-life heist man Forrest Tucker in director David Lowry’s (A Ghost Story, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) delightful film that is part whodunit, part biopic and part golden-years romantic comedy.

It’s a great sendoff for the veteran actor who, like Tucker, has always made it look easy.

Best Box-office Flop: Bad Times at the El Royale

“El Royale,” made $31.5 million worldwide on a budget of $32 — so safe to say there won’t be a “Worse Times at the El Royale” any time soon. (<— Not that I’m actually advocating for a sequel, as that would be a horrible idea).

It’s a darned shame too. As El Royale is one of the best ensemble pieces of the year, with the likes of Jon Hamm, Dakota Johnson, Chris Hemsworth, Jeff Bridges and 2018 M.V.P. contender Cynthia Erivo (also in “Widows” this year) in a twisty Summer-of-love-era period thriller from writer-director Drew Goddard, whose “Cabin in the Woods” similarly goofed around with convention and failed to find the audience it deserved.

Best Superhero(es): Avengers: Infinity War

I absolutely understand why some are fatigued with superhero movies. I was getting close, but then “Infinity War” happened and pulled me back in.

Set aside, for a moment, the deluge of comic-book adaptations and consider what Marvel Studios was able to achieve with IW. The first Avengers, successfully merging three franchises (plus the Hulk), was itself a minor miracle. But Infinity War is on an entirely different and unprecedented scale, seamlessly weaving together narrative threads that spread out over 18 distinct films released over a period of 10 years.

It’s a feat of storytelling, put into corporeal form through a cinematic investment that spared no expense, all culminating in a surprising, genuinely affecting film that left anxious for the next chapter.

Best documentary: Three Identical Strangers

The initial set-up of “Three Identical Strangers” is, by itself, the kind of story that sounds stranger than fiction. A young man enrolls in college and finds himself an instant big man on campus courtesy of the identical twin he never knew existed who went to the same school one year earlier.

The already-bizarre tale gets its first twist early, as it turns out the twins are triplets. But that’s only the tip of an iceberg that is carefully and meticulously revealed regarding the brother’s separation at birth.

Best Horror: Suspiria

A close contender for the final award on this list, and one for which the “horror” label doesn’t fit quite right (the *actual* best horror movie of the year is part of the 2018 Top 10. Hint, hint) Luca Guadagnino’s remake of “Suspiria” is frequently unsettling, occasionally disturbing, and endlessly fascinating.

Centered around a dance schools/coven of witches in divided Berlin, “Suspiria” is a moody, atmospheric film that jumps from beautiful to grotesque and back again with a dark humor and unforgiving sense of dread. Bookended by two truly bonkers dance sequences (the first of which is back-dropped against a “how did they do that?” onscreen death) “Suspiria” is a movie that wonderfully defies description.

Best popcorn: Mission Impossible: Fallout

Until 2018, each of the five installments in the Mission Impossible franchise had been helmed by a new director and connected only by a loose mythology, a core cast of characters and the charge that Ethan Hunt, an agent within the Impossible Mission Force, save the world and nearly die in the process.

In Fallout, we have the first direct sequel, with director Christopher McQuarrie returning and continuing the story he launched in “Rogue Nation.” And it’s easy to see why the people behind all these impossible missions decided to break their own rules and ask McQuarrie on a second date.

Fallout is, simply, superb, the sort of extravanganza for which people say “this is why we go to the movies.” It’s nonstop plot barrels forward like a freight train, upping the ante with each new scene until a hold-your-breath climactic sequence that sees Tom Cruise in a helicopter chase/cliffside brawl while his team works to locate and dismantle a pair of nuclear weapons against a ticking clock.

For those nights when you need something big and loud and awesome, it doesn’t get much better than this.

Best indie: The Death of Stalin

Fans of HBO’s “Veep” know Armando Iannucci’s talent for mining government dysfunction for comedy. Now imagine “Veep” set in Soviet Russia and you have “The Death of Stalin,” a pitch-black comedy about the chaos and scheming that followed Stalin’s death as the members of his party jockeyed for position.

Steve Buscemi is the MVP as Nikita Khrushchev, but every member of the superb, expansive cast (including the always-interesting Jason Isaacs and a spectacularly dry performance by Andrea Riseborough ) gets plenty of moments to shine.

The 2018 Wood’s Stock Balls-to-the-Wall award: Sorry to Bother You

“Surreal” doesn’t even begin to describe “Sorry to Bother You,” writer-director Boots Riley’s film about a black telemarketer whose talent for sounding white on the phone catapults him to success selling what amounts to voluntary slave labor.

And that’s just the literal plot of “Sorry to Bother You,” an increasingly gonzo story that at one point takes a turn to [potential spoiler alert] include human-horse hybrid monsters. Riley’s meta commentary on race, class, art, popular culture and consumerism goes full-tilt for its central metaphor to increasingly bizarre and shocking results. It’s a movie with a lot on its mind, but at each point where there’s a risk of falling off the rails, Riley and his protagonist (the phenomenal Lakeith Stanfield) keep things just steady enough to keep the narrative going.

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With any luck, I’ll have the Top 10 completed by mid-January. “The Post” hits Salt Lake City on the 12th and, let’s be honest, I’m going to love it. How *much* I love it remains to be seen, but I can hardly put a list together without seeing the latest Spielberg film.

One thing I’ve already noticed from my shortlist is that 2017 did a great job of spreading the love throughout the year. Instead of the usual November-December cluster of quality, this year’s shortlist includes several early-summer releases and at least one that premiered back in February (hint, hint).

The popcorn fare was also better than usual. I already wrote in my honorable mentions how we got five legitimately great superhero flicks this year. Add to that a risky (read: polarizing) entry into the Star Wars franchise, another you’re-lying-if-you-say-you-didn’t-like-it Fast and Furious film, and a remake of “It” that, IMHO, outdoes the original.

But when looking back at the slate of mainstream, pair-it-with-a-coke, studio fare, there was one film that stood out for it’s thrills and chills. While not the best movie of the year, in an academic sense, it was definitely the most fun I had at the movies and that’s why this year’s Number 11 film is:

Baby Driver

Click on that embedded video, right now. Even if you’ve already seen the movie and especially if you haven’t, do yourself a favor and watch that clip, which is the 6-minute bank heist and car chase that cold opens Edgar Wright’s fantastic movie.

Wright, director of similar genre-blending pop culture staples like Shaun of The Dead and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World puts his signature editing style to its maximum effect in Baby Driver. The film stars Ansel Elgort as Baby, a getaway criminal with tinnitus who relies on a steady soundtrack of music to drown out the ringing in his ears and who is forced to take less-than-legal jobs to pay down a debt. He meets a girl near the end of his indentured servitude, setting up the kind of “one last job” scenario familiar to heist movies, but deployed in a way that marries sound, sight and action choreography in a way that only Wright can.

The chase scenes are, quite simply, unparalleled and matched with a dynamite soundtrack and joyful performances by a crew of A-list actors (including Jon Hamm, Jon Bernthal and Jamie Foxx) playing both into and against their stereotypes.

The one sour note, cosmic in nature, is the inclusion of Kevin Spacey as Baby’s puppet master. It’s a supporting role in the film’s goings-on, but nonetheless harder to stomach now that Spacey’s decades of predatory behavior off-screen has come to light. Perhaps future releases will swap Spacey out, George Lucas style, and I suppose some consolation can be found in that fact that [Spoiler Alert] Spacey’s character need not return for the sequel. I defer to everyone their own calculus on whether or not to watch films that feature terrible people, but for me, the talent and effort of the many other individuals involved in Baby Driver deserve to be celebrated.

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I’m still a few weeks out from completing the due diligence for this year’s list. Living in Salt Lake City doesn’t help things, as several of the big December titles won’t make it to Wasatch Front theaters until January (sigh).

But the end (of the year) is near, and inevitably there are more films warranting recognition than fit onto a Top 10 list. Sure, I could write a longer list, but ain’t nobody got time for that.

Here’s a few favorites from the year that you should check out if you haven’t already.

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Best January Surprise: “Split”

Welcome back M. Night Shyamalan. The pop culture world had rightfully written off the erstwhile-wunderkind behind The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable after a lengthy string of mediocre to downright awful films.

Wisely, Shyamalan gave up on trying to be blockbuster director (remember After Earth? Ugh) and went back to his smaller-scale roots, crafting a low-frills, eerie thriller about a man with multiple personalities, some of whom like to kidnap young girls as offerings to “The Beast.” James McAvoy anchors the film with his playful and committed performance, and the signature twist at the end is a whopper for fans of Shymalan’s filmography, setting up ever more exciting things to come.

Stream it on: HBO Now/Go

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Best Box-Office Flop: “Free Fire”

“Free Fire” to put it mildly, was not a successful film. It had a limited, art house run and while not an expensive film to produce (online reports say roughly $7 million) it made decidedly less than that in ticket sales.

And that’s a shame. It takes a fairly traditional set up — a gathering of criminals erupts in violence after a deal goes bad — and churns out a funny, exciting and entertaining-as-hell bottle episode of a movie as the various characters (played by Cillian Murphy, Armie Hammer, Brie Larson and Sharlto Copley  try to gun their way out of a bad spot, shifting alliances and betraying hidden motivations as they go.

Stream it on: Amazon Prime Video

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Best Binge: “Okja”

Netflix is inching closer and closer to having it first bonafide film smash. It’s original television shows have already broken through, but it’s original films have yet to cross that Rubicon. In 2015, Beast of No Nation was a critical success, but wasn’t exactly a water cooler conversation, and the streaming giant is putting a lot of weight behind next week’s “Bright,” starring Will Smith in a more traditional (and likely underwhelming) fantasy-adventure role.

But all of that makes Netflix’s acquisition of “Okja” all the more interesting, and commendable. In no world was a surreal drama about a South Korean girl trying to save her pet giant pig from the slaughterhouse, and directed by the guy behind “Snowpiercer,” going to achieve mass appeal.

Okja is like nothing else you’ll watch this year. It’s got both Jake Jake Gyllenhaal and Tilda Swinton in roles that almost seem to be competing to out-crazy the other and a legitimately hard-to-watch scene of forced animal reproduction, all in service of a larger allegory on the meat processing industry. It’s out there, like *way* out there, and it’s great.

Stream it on: Netflix

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Best Foreign: “Raw”

Written and directed by Julia Ducournau, “Raw” is a French film about a vegetarian woman at veterinary school who develops a compulsion for raw meat after a new-student hazing ritual. That compulsion becomes intense, to put it mildly, eventually leading to fatal results.

It’s a dressed-down approach to what could have been a campy, neo-Zombie/Vampire retread. If there is anything supernatural at play, Ducournau only hints at it, instead preferring to tell a human story of addiction, which just happens to involve the consumption of human flesh. The movie is also deft in its use of gore and practical effects, making quiet scenes hang in the air with apprehension — a particular sequence involving the main character’s sister, a botched bikini wax and a pair of scissors stands out.

Best to watch it on an empty stomach.

Stream it on: Netflix

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Best Superhero: “Logan”

As far as superhero films go, 2017 was an embarrassment of riches. Warner Brothers, which has little to show for its DC efforts so far, scored a major victory with Wonder Woman, the long-overdue superheroine movie we’ve all been waiting for. Marvel had two successes by embracing the weird in Guardians 2 and Thor: Ragnarok. And even Sony got into the game with it’s Spider-man: Homecoming, which put Peter Parker back in high school where he belongs.

(The less said about 2017 *other* big superhero movie, the better).

But the biggest risk, and subsequently greatest reward, was Fox letting writer-director James Mangold go out on a limb with the studio’s marquee character, Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine. In “Logan,” Wolverine is nearing the end of his long life, his healing powers of near-immortality waning, and is living off the grid as a limousine driver in a post-mutant world while caring for an ailing Professor Charles Xavier.

For long stretches of the movie, you might forget you’re watching a superhero film. It has little of the computer-generated phantasmagoria that have come to define the genre, instead putting its characters in actual dirt, covered in blood and sweat. It also does what most of these mega-franchises are too afraid to do: it ends.

Stream it on: HBO Now/Go

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Best Documentary: “Chasing Coral”

Climate change is no longer something that can be safely ignored (in fact, it never was) and yet the nonsensically controversial and unnecessarily partisan “debate” drags on. Meanwhile, the Earth’s oceans get hotter and hotter, literally cooking the plant and animal life that make up a largely-unseen but crucially important ecosystem beneath the waves.

That effect, happening in real time, is what “Chasing Coral” captures, by sending a team of divers with underwater cameras to document the bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef. The footage is striking, showing the decimation of once-vibrant areas over a matter of weeks, and making it abundantly and undeniably clear that our oceans are burning we all fiddle with the politics.

Stream it on: Netflix

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Best Horror: “It”

The horror genre took a decidedly indie-dominated turn a few years back, with films like “The Babadook,” “The Witch,” and “It Follows” generating buzz while mainstream fare puttered along with diminishing returns.

But there’s no denying the particular alchemy of “It,” which managed to take one of the biggest titles in horror history and update it. With all deference to the great work by Tim Curry, the old “It” doesn’t hold up very well, and it was high time somebody take another stab at adapting Stephen King’s signature work for the big screen.

Enter director Andy Muschiett, working off great writing by multiple screenwriters and equipped with a cast of capable child actors (including Stranger Things’ Finn Wolfhard). The script moves the action up a couple decades to capitalize on peak-80s nostalgia and wisely trims some of King’s more problematic impulses. And deserved credit to Bill Skarsgård, who is faced with the task of filling Curry’s shoes while making the character of Pennywise his own. He succeeds.

Stream it on: N/A

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Best Indie: “It Comes At Night”

Few films stuck with me after I left the theater the way “It Comes at Night” did. Set in a thinly-defined post apocalyptic world, ICAN is focused on a family who live in solitary isolation in a boarded-up cabin, barricaded to keep out the unspoken menaces of a communicable ailment and the people who might bring it with them. After a man invades their home, ostensibly in search of supplies, the family is forced to weigh their safety over the risk of exposing themselves to other people.

It’s a quiet, dark and moody film with an omnipresent air of menace. So much is left abstract, with blurred lines between nocturnal dream sequences and diurnal reality, and only whispers on the wind and the fear on the characters faces communicating the stakes. The conclusion is haunting and begging for interpretation and it left me shook like few films can.

Stream it on: Amazon Prime Video

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The 2017 Wood’s Stock Balls-To-The-Wall Award: “Mother!”

The saying is “Nothing ventured, nothing gained,” and by God, did “Mother!” venture. A challenging and provocative film by Darren Aronofsky, operating as an allegory on religion and the creation story (I guess?) “Mother!” would likely have been best served as a limited art house release, but distributor Paramount decided instead to go all-in on a nationwide roll-out.

That meant a lot of surprised and frustrated audiences, earning a rare “F” grade from CinemaScore (akin to exit polling, but for theaters) and a lot of “What were they thinking?” from the entertainment press.

But all of that noise distracts from the actual movie, which is bonkers and beautiful and dangerous and confusing and incredible. A synopsis would be pointless, suffice it to say that an artist and his wife find their country home increasingly invaded by strangers who adore the man’s work, culminating in a hypnotically gonzo sequence that follows Jennifer Lawrence through an escalating hellscape of violence and destruction. It’s a boldly executed, jarring film, the sheer ambition of which left my jaw on the floor.

Stream it on: N/A

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The top 10 is finished. I have the films selected, ranked and ready to go. In fact, I was about to skip the Number 11 post entirely and go straight to the business when I was struck by the sentimentality of tradition and the memory that my finacêe made me insist that I acknowledge *her* favorite movie of the 2016 at some point during my year-end posting.

Luckilly for her (and me, let’s be honest) is that her favorite movie also happened to be the 11th best movie of 2016. And that movie is…

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Arrival

Director Denis Villeneuve is on a pretty impressive streak, with this year’s “Arrival” coming after last year’s “Sicario,” and both “Enemy” and “Prisoners” in 2013. I haven’t seen his earlier work, but if what I hear about “Incendies” is true, then the streak continues.

His film are difficult to categorize, and none more so than Arrival, which is ostensibly a science-fiction film about aliens visiting Earth but doubles as an examination of hope and the binding power of communication.

It’s also a showcase for actress Amy Adams, whose linguist and interpreter Louise Banks is the heart and soul of the plot. After a number of disk-shaped, hovering craft appear, Banks is scooped up by the U.S. government — along with Jeremy Renner’s mathematician Ian Donnelly — and given the task with communicating with the beings inside, a pair of tentacled forms that employ a written language of circular ink blots.

Beautifully shot and scored, Arrival is heavy on atmosphere, which hums in harmony with the largely abstract themes on screen. And in a year as divisive and rhetorically toxic as this one has been, it’s poetic — maybe fated? — and cathartic to watch a film that champions a rejection of competition and isolation in service of a greater good.

Optimistic and movingly heart-breaking, with an arthouse-quality production and craftsmanship, “Arrival” is the 11th-best movie of the year.

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2016 was bad. Just ugly, toxic, divisive, terrible, horrible, no good, very bad.

Except for film. In that one category, 2016 was *awesome*! It was a year when filmmakers took risks, writers bucked convention, directors toyed with genre and even the stiffest franchise fare from the major studios flexed their creative muscles — for good or ill.

The annual Top 10 is coming soon. But as always, and in particular this year, there was an abundance of quality film that demands recognition.

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Best Box Office Flop: The Nice Guys

It is a crime, an honest-to-God, should-be-prosecuted crime that The Nice Guys failed to find an audience. It’s a neo-noir action comedy, pairing Ryan Gosling and Russel Crowe as wise-cracking private detectives in late-70s Los Angeles, and is writer-director Shane Black’s follow-up to Iron Man 3. (Black, by the way, also wrote and directed Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which if you haven’t seen yet WHY ARE YOU STILL READING THIS PARAGRAPH AND NOT RECTIFYING YOUR WASTED LIFE?)

Black has a talent for structured chaos, in which everyman characters save the day through a combination of ingenuity and dumb luck as dominoes fall around them. His action scenes are like Rube Goldberg contraptions, which burst outward in unexpected ways without every sacrificing credibility. And his scripts, meanwhile, are filled to the brim with smart, winking dialogue that  sizzles with energy. It’s a delightful recipe that in Nice Guys puts a modern spin on the old gum-shoe tale with jazzy, retro setting.

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Best Superhero: Doctor Strange

In a year of strong competition (Deadpool, Civil War) and weak competition (Batman v Superman) it’s Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sorcerer Supreme that turns in the most memorable comic-book tale of the year. As satisfying as the other entries are (or aren’t), they still amount to “Who Punches Hardest?” while Dr. Strange culminates around a kaleidoscopic phantasmagoria and the manipulation of time and space. And while the Marvel movies are routinely lacking by way of compelling antagonists, Strange scores by revealing its big bad to be an amorphous mass while setting up more personal threats down the road. The line for DS-2 starts here.

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Best Documentary: Tickled

Welcome to the wonderful of competitive endurance tickling, where teams of young, male athletes take turns tying each other down and tickling the stuffing out of each other. If that sounds like some weird kinky fetish, well…it kind of is.

What starts as a passing curiosity for journalist David Farrier quickly turns increasingly bizarre and sinister as Farrier falls further down the rabbit whole of internet tickling videos. There’s not much more to say without spoiling the films myriad twists, suffice to say that Tickled tells the kind of true story that gives meaning to the phrase “stranger than fiction.”

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Best Indie (tie): The Witch, Love & Friendship

Two Sundance Festival breakouts share the distinction of 2016’s best indie. Both period pieces, albeit on opposite ends of the genre spectrum, one is a minimalist thriller about a frontier family battling a malicious entity and the other is a Regency-era comedy about a master of manipulation. They’re also among the eeriest and funniest, respectively, cinema produced this year. In either case the filmmakers show an impeccable attention to detail and atmosphere, giving the scenes a lived-in quality in which the actors can disappear, serving spine tingles and belly-laughs in spades.

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Best Western: The Magnificent Seven

In today’s landscape of sequels, prequels, sidequels and all other -quels, its refreshing to see a movie with a healthy budget and recognizable actors commit to telling a single story rather than twisting itself into a narrative pretzel for future installments. And movies are meant to entertain, and sometimes an old fashioned shoot-em-up is exactly what the doctor ordered.

Such are the strengths of The Magnificent Seven, a saddles and spurs yarn about a motley crew of assorted scoundrels teaming up to take out a mustache-twirling villain, with no larger ambitions then to tell its tale of camaraderie and derring-do. It’s a pleasure watching the pieces come together, and it builds to a bombastic climax this is remarkably satisfying for its ability to avoid the pratfalls of lesser efforts while honoring expectations.

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Best Head Trip: The Invitation

When Will arrives at his former home, to attend a dinner party hosted by his ex-wife, something is just a little…off. Thus begins one of the most effective thrillers in years, that takes “slow burn” to a new level, incrementally dialing up Will’s paranoia and building up to a climax that is both inevitable and shocking when it arrives. Director Karyn Kusama is almost too effective at making the audience sense the unease, aided by stellar work by Game of Throne’s Michiel Huisman and jack-of-all-trades John Carroll Lynch, and the final moments of the film’s kicker ending are expertly composed to haunting results.

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Best Setup: 10 Cloverfield Lane

10 Cloverfield Lane, the second film in the barely-defined anthology universe of Cloverfield, has third act problems. Your mileage may vary on the ending, but whether you like or loath the climax, there is no denying that what comes before it is Grade-A mystery box storytelling. For two-thirds of the movie, the audience is kept at arms length about what is or is not going on in an underground bunker and the world above it. At the center is John Goodman, who makes poetry of his doomsday prepper who is either a reluctant savior or an unhinged predator, or both, or neither.

Things go a little sideways, to say the least, when the Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s heroine makes it outside. But even if you turned off the film at that point it would be time well spent.

And finally, the 2016 Wood’s Stock Balls-To-The-Wall Award goes to:

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Green Room

Writer-director Jeremy Saulnier made a splash in the indie scene with his film Blue Ruin, a revenge tale that took a nuts-and-bolts approach to on-camera violence. In his follow-up, Green Room, Saulnier flexes those same muscles but with a greater degree of confidence as a storyteller.

The film, which features one of the final performances by the extremely talented and tragically gone-too-soon Anton Yelchin, revolves around a punk rock band fighting for survival after a gig at a skinhead bar goes south. It’s a story of colliding motivations, and told in a way that feels raw and human, within the realm of possibility and prone to the errors of casual mistakes.

Oh, and did I mention that Patrick Stewart plays a neo-Nazi?

Not for the faint of heart, the walls of Green Room are painted red with blood. But Saulnier’s style is not one of torture-porn exploitation. It focuses instead on the lengths people can and do go when backed into a corner, and it makes for a wild ride.

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The clock is winding down on 2015, which means the Internet is once again awash with “Best of” lists for everything from books to music to political gaffes.

Here at Wood’s Stock, we love movies (and as always, “we” = “I”) and the year was particularly rewarding. We’re hard at work sculpting away at our 10 Best Films of the Year list, but once again there remain great films and performances that can’t and don’t make the cut.

And so, here are but a few praiseworthy films that deserve recognition as 2015 draws to a close.

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Best Indie: The Stanford Prison Experiment

Dramatizing one of the most infamous studies in American academic history, The Stanford Prison Experiment chronicles the faux-prison created by Philip Zimbardo at Stanford University in 1971.

Intended to run for two weeks, the experiment was shuttered after 6 days due to the psychological torture forced upon the student-prisoners by their authoritarian guards, who were their classmates, separated in their roles by little more than a coin toss.

The claustrophobic film, largely occupying a single hallway, is almost suffocating as the experiment continues and the conditions worsen. And of course it’s all true, creating a lingering sense of unease by showing humanity’s capacity for cruelty.

*For a double-header, pair TSPE with Experimenter, starring Peter Sarsgaard.

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Best Box Office Flop: The Walk

For the best movie about Philippe Petit’s walk between the Twin Towers, watch the 2008 documentary Man On Wire.

But for the *next* best movie about Philippe Petit, watch The Walk, which stars an almost too-charming Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the high wire artist in a film that is one part heist film, one part biopic and one part love letter to New York City.

The walk only made $10 million in the domestic box office. Global sales put that figure up over it’s reported $35 million budget, but not by enough to be considered a success. That’s a shame, as its dizzying effects and playful tone made for  one of the most enjoyable trips to the theater this year.

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Best Cartoon: Inside Out

If I were a less-cynical critic, Inside Out may have cracked the Top 10. But being the jaded curmudgeon that I am, the delightful Pixar creation about the inner emotions of an 11-year-old child gets an Honorable Mention.

On paper, the concept behind Inside Out sounds impossible to capture on screen. But the magicians at Pixar did what they do and created some of the liveliest and most memorable characters of the year in Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, Disgust AND BING BONG!, while also telling a meta-narrative story about how and why we feel the feels.

*Bonus: if you don’t love the volcano short paired with Inside Out then you have no soul.

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Best Rom-Com: Brooklyn

I’m cheating here, since Brooklyn is decidedly *not* a romantic comedy, but it’s the best* love story of the year (*that’s not in my Top 10).

Brooklyn is an immigrant’s tale, following an Irish import who meets an Italian and is forced to choose between her new life and her old. Primarily dramatic, Brooklyn has excellent levity, particularly in a dinner scene that pits Eilis (Saoirse Ronan) against the mouthy younger brother of her new boyfriend.

Where other Coming-To-America stories can be heaped in despair and sadness, Brooklyn makes a case for the seemingly-defunct American Dream. Sometimes it’s just nice to come out of a theater feeling good.

cdn.indiewire.comBest Documentary: The Wolfpack

In a small New York Apartment, five brothers and their sister have lived their lives effectively sealed away from the outside world. Their primary connection to society comes in the form of the movies they watch and exhaustively recreate using homemade costuming.

The Wolfpack is incredibly personal, zooming in on the experiences of a single family as their barriers begin to come down and The Wolfpack take tentative steps into the community. It’s profoundly bizarre, but the film refuses to pass judgement, instead treating its subjects as just another American family with its quirks.

*Other must-see docs: The Hunting Ground, Going Clear.

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Best reminder that an actor can act: Johnny Depp in Black Mass

Since 2010, Johnny Depp’s starring roles have included The Tourist, the 4th Pirates movie, The Rum Diary, Dark Shadows, The Lone Ranger, Transcendence and Mortdecai.

That’s a bad list. That’s a *very* bad list. He’s had a few supporting roles in decent films (Into the Woods) but as far as top billing, it’s a bad list.

But then he made the brilliant decision to star in Black Mass, playing true-life gangster James “Whitey” Bulger.

And How! Depp has done plenty of disappearing acts in his career but his transformation into Bulger, complete with wispy white hair and dead grey eyes, is haunting and unsettling and full of the kind of onscreen magnetism that Depp hasn’t shown in years.

It’s a great performance in a film full of great performances that never quite synergises on the sum of its parts. That’s a shame, but Depp’s decision to take the role isn’t.

*Also in Black Mass, up-and-comer Jesse Plemons (Breaking Bad) whose career I am watching with great interest.

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The 2015 Wood’s Stock Balls-To-The-Wall Award: Kingsman: The Secret Service

Released in February, director Matthew Vaughn released a movie about elite British spies that was violent, irreverent and completely insane. That film was Kingsman: The Secret Service, and this year’s winner of the Balls-T0-The-Wall award.

Both celebrating and skewering the James Bond spy-genre, Kingsman follows a young man recruited to a secret agency tasked with saving the world from a tech titan (Samuel L. Jackson with a list) who plans on hitting the reset button on planet Earth.

This is a movie in which our hero fights a woman whose legs are swords and is rewarded for his derring-do with a final frame sex joke involving a European princess. It also contains the most memorable scene of on-screen violence in 2015, involving Colin Firth in a bespoke suit, a church full of parishioners, and a frenetic camera that captures every geyser of blood and broken bone.

It’s juvenile and clever, shocking and absurd, unapologetically manic and an absolute blast to watch.

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