Archive for the ‘Top 10’ Category

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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You know its a good year for cinema when we have not one, but *two* musicals in the Top 10. And not one, or even two, but *three* exclamation points in the Top 10 titles. But even if you don’t share my love for the powers of song of punctuation, there’s a depth and range to the roster of 2016 films that can not be denied, and that made for an excellent 12 months in front of screens big and small (but preferably big).

Without further ado, the Top 10 movies released this year were:

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10. Nocturnal Animals

There’s just something about a classic tale of revenge, and in “Nocturnal Animals” we get two, simultaneously. In the more traditional sense there is the story of Tony Hastings (Jake Gyllenhaal) who suffers an unspeakable tragedy and, with the help of a local lawman (the indispensable Michael Shannon), goes after those responsible. But Tony is actually is the main character in a novel by Edward Sheffield (also Jake Gyllenhaal) who has sent a manuscript of his work to his estranged ex-wife (Amy Adams).

“Animals” is easier to follow than that description suggests, but it is far from uncomplicated. Director Tom Ford is in no hurray to reveal the emotional manipulations at play, or to reveal explicitly the degree to which the two narratives should be viewed as connected. It’s a dark, violent and tragic story that leaves much to interpretation, with much to digest long after the credits roll.

 

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9. Hail, Caesar!

Whether it be “True Grit,” “No Country for Old Men” or “Raising Arizona,” you can always tell when you’re watching a Coen Brothers film, and it’s never *not* enjoyable.

Still, the brothers have made something special with “Hail, Caesar!” a winking tribute-slash-mockery of the golden age of Hollywood, when dames were dames and everyone was looking over their shoulders for the communists lurking among them.

It may not be the same high-drama awards bait of the directing duo’s filmography, but good luck stopping yourself from rewinding whole scenes to watch them again, be it Channing Tatum leading a  tap dancing send-up of “South Pacific” or the exquisite wordplay of the “Would that it were so simple” sequence between Alden Ehrenreich and Ralph Fiennes (whose character name is, brilliantly “Laurence Laurentz”).

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8. Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Part coming-of-age story and part Odd-couple comedy, Hunt for the Wilderpeople is the quirky and endearing New Zealand-set comedy adventure you had no idea you so desperately needed this year.

Foster child and misunderstood “bad egg” Ricky is taken in by warm-hearted Bella and her rough-around-the-edges husband Hec. And after a series of unfortunate events and misunderstandings, Ricky and Hec find themselves the target of a national manhunt as they take to living in “the bush” and working to evade discovery by the authorities.

The chemistry between Ricky (Julian Dennison) and a delightfully crotchety Sam Neil is what makes the film work, as the hunt for the two runaways swells to surprising surreal levels. Keep an eye on director Taika Waititi, whose next project is the upcoming  superhero flick “Thor: Ragnarok.”

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7. Weiner

“Weiner” is the best political documentary ever made. Period. And it owes its alchemy to a fortuitous union of skill and circumstance, as a capable team of storytellers are given unprecedented access to their subject, who in turn manages to torpedo his entire life in front of the camera’s staring gaze.

Anthony Weiner clearly expected a different outcome when he granted the documentarians access, and for the first third you see the story that might have been: a down-but-not-out politician licks his wounds, gets back in the ring and defies expectations to become mayor of New York. But then another shoe drops, and another, and of course the audience knows that there are more waiting even after Weiner is forced to concede defeat.

But what really makes “Weiner” (the movie) something almost Shakespearean is the presence of long-suffering (and now ex-) wife Huma Abedin. An infamous introvert, she hovers at the edge of frame, her jaw set, tense, watching. When the inevitable occurs, it’s Abadin that keeps “Weiner” from being a punch line about a serial screw-up,  and instead a stinging portrait of a political family destroyed by poor judgement.

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6. Everybody Wants Some!!

In 1993, Richard Linklater made “Dazed and Confused,” an American Graffiti-esque film set in 1976 and following a sprawling cast of students celebrating the first night of summer.

Two decades later, Linklater has made his so-called “spiritual sequel,” which is set in 1980 and follows a college basketball team over the last weekend before fall semester starts.

Fans of Dazed will get exactly what they’re looking for, while newcomers will find an endearing and optimistic slice-of-life story about young adults in 1980s America. Like Linklater’s “Boyhood,” EWS is filled with small moments that find the dramatic beauty in humanity and average, everyday lives.

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5. The Lobster

And now for something completely different…”The Lobster” posits a world in which adults are not allowed to be single, to the extent that after losing his wife, David (Colin Farrell) is compelled to reside at a hotel and given 45 days to find a new partner or be turned into an animal of his choosing – in David’s case, the titular crustacean.

Split into two parts, The Lobster first looks at life within the hotel, with its bizarre customs, restrictions and pressures to find a soulmate at any cost. Then, after David flees, we see the other half of Lobster’s world, as our hero joins up with a nomadic gang of woods-dwelling fugitives who have one iron-clad rule: no coupling.

It’s bizarre, to say the least, and wonderful. With a cast of completely game actors (including Rachel Weisz and John C. Reilly)  fully committed to the absurdities of the premise and its execution, Lobster builds on its dry, often dark, humor to an ending that is perfect and disturbingly outlandish.

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4. Moonlight

*The* Roger Ebert often described film as an “empathy machine,” and of all of this year’s movies that role of the cinema is best captured in “Moonlight,” which uses three actors in three time periods to tell the story of a man’s life.  As a child, Little is a soft-spoken boy neglected and demeaned by his substance-addicted mother and taken under the wing of the neighborhood dealer. As a teenager, Chiron is bullied and beaten by his peers and strains to find his place. And finally as a man, Black has adopted the career of his childhood mentor, but seeks out an old friend from his younger years.

It’s a moving, and at times haunting, portrait, and a showcase of diversity. But it’s also understated, and confident. It doesn’t shout “look at me!”  but still results in a film that is impossible to look away from.

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3. Hell or High Water

Too few films are set outside of America’s coastal cities, and fewer still depict the people who reside in America’s heartland as actual people and not flat caricatures.

In Hell or High Water, brothers Tanner and Toby are pressured into desperate measures by desperate times. Their family’s ranch, despite sitting atop an ocean of oil, has fallen into the clutches of predatory banking. To save it, they launch a scheme to rob the money to pay the mortgage from the same banking institutions that have left them in dire straits. On their heels is Marcus Hamilton, a beyond his years law enforcement man circling the drain before he’s shown the door.

The relationship between the brothers is rich, owing no small feat to the capabilities of Chris Pine and Ben Foster (one of the most underrated actors of his generation). They wear their reluctance on their tired faces, and brace themselves against a gathering storm closing in around them.

And while there’s an element of cat-and-mouse as they get closer to their goal, the story never dips into fantasy. It feels real at every turn: real people, pressured into real decisions by the all-too-familiar realities of American economics.

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2. Manchester by the Sea

“Manchester by the Sea” is a heartbreaking, profoundly sad story about loss and grief. It’s also beautiful and inspiring. After his brother dies, Lee (a phenomenal Casey Affleck) is called back to his childhood home and tasked with looking after his nephew Patrick (an also phenomenal Lucas Hedges). But returning home means confronting old demons, and Lee struggles to reconcile his loyalty to his family and his own compulsion to put distance between himself and his past.

Manchester is a master-class of “show don’t tell,” with Affleck in particular conveying more with his gestures and expression than even the lengthiest monologue could manage. Many sequences are practically wordless, and the mood hangs heavy, despite being punctuated by frequent instances of warming humor.

Directed by Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester is the type of film where the seams of movie-making disappear, and you forget for a moment that you’re watching fiction.

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1. La La Land

Through three films together, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone have crafted a level of creative chemistry unparalleled in modern Hollywood. It helps that both actors are independently charming, but their combined effect is something akin to fireworks.

Take that element, and add it to the showmanship of a well-made musical production and what you have is cinematic magic.

Stone plays Mia, an aspiring but as-yet-unsuccessful actress whose day job is serving coffee on a studio backlot. Gosling plays Sebastian, or “Seb” for short, a jazz pianist and musical idealist who rejects the dilution of pop. They meet, over and over again under circumstances that are delightful,  before a romance eventually blossoms, and in each other they find creative inspirations and motivations that position them at the precipice of either realizing their dreams or falling in defeat.

All of which is set against a backdrop of song and dance numbers that  embrace the old-Hollywood legacy of “Singing in the Rain” and “West Side Story” albeit with a concertedly modern setting and style. But this is not simply a light and breezy affair, concerned only with vibrant colors and Joie de Vivre (both of which, it has in spades). “La La Land” climaxes on a forceful musical number by Stone, singing a tribute to “the ones who dream” and then, in its final moments, the film presents one last pièce de résistance sequence that dazzles you before punching you in the stomach, leaving you wide-eyed, out of breath, and looking to find where your jaw landed on the floor.

Written and directed by Damien Chazelle, the 31-year-old (!!!) phenom behind 2014’s “Whiplash,” “La La Land” exudes the confidence of a veteran filmmaker. But think on this, Chazelle has directly exactly 2 feature films, and it’s all-but-assured that both will have been nominated for Best Picture Oscars when this year’s list is announced (and it’s looking entirely likely that La La Land will score the statuette come ceremony night). If I were to have a complaint about the otherwise perfect film, it would be the nagging knowledge that its director is two years older than myself, which has the unfortunately side effect of making you feel inferior before greatness.

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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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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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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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