Sunday, February 26, 2017

Movies: The Best of 2016

Here are my picks for the films I liked the best from 2016. I've been wildly procrastinating doing this, but I figure that since the Oscars are tonight, I should use it as a deadline. I've seen quite a lot of 2016's releases, but these were the films that kept coming back to me - either thinking about them post-viewing, or in some cases choosing repeated viewing (which is always a sign that something about them is sticking). Opinions can change over time, but here's where I'm at with my 2016 choices movie-wise as of the publish date of this post.

This year as an experiment I decided to excerpt, with attribution, professional critics reviews of the films I chose, highlighting those areas I think their opinions and/or observations mirror my own, but with the added benefit of better writing than I can cook up on short notice. I've tried to keep spoilers out of the mix, but based on the writings I couldn't avoid them entirely, so be forewarned if you haven't seen a film that's covered here, you might want to hold off reading until you see it. You can see the 10 films in the header image above to know which ones I've referred with review quotes.

As always, reference materials are collected from various sites on the internet. An image is usually a link to a bigger version of said image, and any text in orange is a link to somewhere else.

My alphanumerically ordered list of 2016 releases that I saw is available at Letterboxd here.

P.S. Yes, I saw La La Land. No, I didn't like it. Yes, I like musicals! It's just not a very good one. Oh well!

20th Century Women

Writer Director Mike Mills
Starring Annette Bening, Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup, Lucas Jade Zumann

Black Flag or Talking Heads? The Me Decade or the Crisis of Confidence? Mills, who has said in interviews that 20th Century Women is directly based on his relationship with own mother, is forcefully determined about the period detail in a film in which the characters read Our Bodies, Ourselves and listen to Devo.


If the small domestic drama established in this rich period setting proves satisfyingly emotional, it is because the characters are acutely well observed, both by Mills’s script and by his excellent cast. The solid core of the film is Bening’s performance as Dorothea, an older, single mother. Confused by the task of raising a teenage son, she hands the job over to two younger women. One is Jamie’s best friend, the promiscuous teenager Julie (Elle Fanning), with whom he maintains a platonic if frustrated relationship. The other is Abbie (she who delivers the menstruation talk), a searching young photographer and Dorothea’s tenant in the rambling boarding house where she and Jamie live.

- Kate Taylor, The Globe and Mail


Director Denis Villeneuve
Director of Photography Bradford Young
Starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker


That is what happens in a third act which is perhaps an all-time great example of how to release the massive power that your considered pacing has been quietly accumulating the whole time, and one of the cleverest uses of non-chronological storytelling in memory. The slow build to the grand reveal is the most impressive aspect of “Arrival,” because most films that ask Big Questions flake out at supplying an answer. And that’s only to be expected: if you really knew the secrets of the universe would your first thought be to write them into a screenplay? But “Arrival” gets better as it goes on, pursues its logic to its furthest extreme and beyond. It doesn’t just theorize, it comes to a conclusion.

It’s ingrained so deeply in Western culture that science and art are oppositional disciplines, that math and physics belong to one branch of endeavor and creativity, expressiveness and philosophy to another. And that is why great science fiction cinema — and this is great science fiction cinema — can feel like such a pre-eminent genre. Here, using an art form that was itself born of technology, we get to venture out past those simplistic binaries to where there is poetry in mathematics and physics in philosophy — out into the frontiers of our universe and our power to comprehend where science and art are the very same thing. “Arrival” brings us there, and though the conclusions are earthbound and have so much to do with the nature of humanity and our relationship to mortality, my God, they’re full of stars.

- Jessica Kiang, The Playlist

Green Room

Writer Director Jeremy Saulnier
Starring Anton Yelchin, Joe Cole, Alia Shawkat, Callum Turner, Macon Blair, Imogen Poots, Patrick Stewart


Here's how good Jeremy Saulnier's new film is: it fooled me. I've seen so many of these films that I'm used to the way they work. And because of the way he starts his film, he pulled me in, and I forgot what I was watching. I got caught up in the story of a band on the road, the feeling of what it's like when you're young and full of this kind of artistic energy, and I forgot that I was watching a certain kind of movie. I bought into the story of the Ain't Rights, a punk band made up of Sam (Alia Shawkat), Pat (Anton Yelchin), Tiger (Callum Turner) and Reece (Joe Cole), and I love the way Saulnier captures all the various tiny details of life on the road for this band, and the way he depicts the sort of raw edges of the punk scene.


… and when things go south, they go south so fast, and so hard, and in such spectacular expertly calibrated fashion that it's kind of exhilarating. They fooled by lulling me into a sense of security, and then they start hurting you almost immediately. Saulnier is monstrously talented when it comes to staging gut-wrenching tension, and while I think “Blue Ruin” was a really solid small film, “Green Room” works on a whole different level. There's something tough about making a movie where characters keep making bad decisions, because you have to maintain a sense of audience empathy, and if those decisions are too bad, too unbelievable, then the audience turns on the characters. Here, there's a sense of momentum to things, so by the time the characters realize how bad things are, there was no way to avoid stepping in it.

- Drew McWeeny, Hitfix

Hell or High Water

Director David Mackenzie
Writer Taylor Sheridan
Starring Ben Foster, Chris Pine, Jeff Bridges, Gil Birmingham


It’s quite a feat, orchestrating a crime thriller that feels at once relaxed and urgent, that delivers an endless supply of comic banter without compromising its underlying tone of elegiac regret. The movie luxuriates in downtime, enjoying the company kept with its stars. Pine, as the sensible younger brother, and Foster, as the older, hotheaded ex-con, imply a novel’s worth of Tennessee Williams backstory in their contentious relationship. And in the jokey antagonism between the rangers—Marcus cracking constantly on the Comanche heritage of his partner—Bridges and Birmingham sketch a no less vivid portrait of brotherhood. Viewers may find, in that grand Fugitive tradition, that their sympathies are divided, especially once Hell Or High Water begins pulling its two plot strands together, clarifying its outlaws’ motives, and building to the fatalistic finale it absolutely earns. Never fear, there’s a villain to root against. And to paraphrase one of Sheridan’s best lines, it’s been robbing for 30 years.

- A.A. Dowd, A.V. Club


Writer Director Jim Jarmusch
Starring Adam Driver, Golshifteh Farahani, Barry Shabaka Henley, Chasten Harmon, William Jackson Harper


But if the movie were merely an exercise in Jarmusch’s fancy, it would be a pleasurable thing. It is a meticulously composed movie, shot beautifully by Frederick Elmes; every frame is a beauty. “Paterson” is ultimately more than a whim. It is a movie that actually grows more enigmatic on a second viewing. Asked at one point why he doesn’t carry a smart phone, Paterson responds that it would feel like a leash. And yet he hardly seems a person who would stray. At one point in the movie, Paterson, who maintains a stoic countenance in most circumstances, is forced to intervene before an act of violence is committed. His bearing in the aftermath is odd; he laughs, with a kind of horror. His calm surface disturbed, he reveals he’s fighting something within himself in order to maintain his equanimity. After that, we are shown a photograph of Paterson bearing military medals (the shot is a real picture of Driver during his time in the Marines). The film feels like one in which nothing is happening, but it’s not happening beautifully, and then there finally is a galvanic event that’s both heartbreaking and comical. And what happens after that is moving, and instructive. “I breathe poetry,” a character Paterson meets at the end of the film says to him as they both sit and look at the falls. That is ultimately the very real thing that the movie is about: the conviction that if you can live at least part of your life breathing poetry (and that poetry is not necessarily a verbal thing), you can make your life more worthwhile.

- Glenn Kenny,

Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping

Writer Directors Akiva Schaffer, Jorma Taccone
Starring Andy Samberg, Sarah Silverman, Tim Meadows, Maya Rudolph


Popstar follows dolt pop-rapper Conner Friel (Samberg) as he sets off to promote his second album on an overblown world tour, complete with holograms, under-rehearsed costume changes, and—in one of the movie’s most Spinal Tap-esque physical gags—a Deadmau5-style LED headpiece that’s bright enough to disrupt air traffic and occasionally blasts the deafening foghorn sound effect from Steven Spielberg’s War Of The Worlds. Having first found success with the bucket-hat-wearing ’90s boy band The Style Boyz, Conner is seeing his solo stardom flag in the face of vicious reviews, slow sales, and a series of media disasters that range from a deal to have his album automatically installed into wi-fi-enabled kitchen appliances—a send-up of the iTunes fiasco for U2’s Songs Of Innocence—to getting caught shitting on the floor of the Anne Frank House.


But it’s when Popstar lampoons the specifics of modern-day pop materialism (awkward social media endorsements, over-sharing, an obsession with branding and catchphrases) that it finds its most inspired gags. It’s also where it gets its darkest laughs, be in the throwaway shot of a depressed Conner crashing an ATV in his mansion, or the All About Eve subplot that involves his Tyler, The Creator-esque opening act, Hunter (Chris Redd), a skateboarding prankster whose hijinks are punctuated with the crazed stare of a supervillain.

- Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, A.V. Club

The Invitation

Director Karyn Kusama
Starring Logan Marshall-Green, Emayatzy Corinealdi, Tammy Blanchard, Michelle Krusiec, Lindsay Burdge, John Carroll Lynch

Genre buffs have attended countless dinner parties that wind up tilting into madness, and yet the shivers arrive early and often in “The Invitation,” a teasingly effective thriller that builds a remarkable level of tension over the course of its 99-minute running time. Set during a mysterious reunion among old friends where something is quite palpably not right, this well-acted, beautifully modulated exercise represents director Karyn Kusama’s strongest work in years, revealing an assurance of tone, craft and purpose that haven’t been in evidence since her Sundance prize-winning debut, “Girlfight” (2000).


Marshall-Green is a dead ringer for Tom Hardy (a resemblance accentuated here by his long hair and scraggly beard), and like Hardy, he exudes a gruff charisma in a role that requires him to become increasingly surly and suspicious as the evening progresses. “The Invitation” excels at drawing us into deep identification with Will’s paranoia while simultaneously forcing us to continually question it: Does David keep locking the front door because he’s concerned about security, or because he wants to keep them from leaving? Is it a mere coincidence that no one can get good cell-phone reception in this neighborhood? And why exactly have David and Eden invited strangers like Sadie (Lindsay Burdge), an unhinged young woman who thinks nothing of casually throwing herself at two other party guests, and Pruitt (John Carroll Lynch, “American Horror Story”), a heavy-set man whose manner is as creepily menacing as it is unfailingly polite?

- Justin Chang, Variety

The Nice Guys

Writer Director Shane Black
Starring Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling, Angourie Rice, Keith David, Kim Basinger


Veteran Hollywood screenwriter Shane Black is clearly steeped in the conventions and traditions of the L.A. noir genre, which is one of the central factors that makes his diabolical 1970s buddy comedy “The Nice Guys” so entertaining. Look, I’m not going to claim that this showcase for Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling — who play a low-end enforcer and an incompetent private eye, respectively, in the memorably dingy Los Angeles of 1977 — isn’t juvenile, offensive, overly violent and frequently misanthropic. In the very first scene, a teenage boy has a spectacular encounter with a naked porn star, shortly before her violent death. Somewhat later, we get to hear a 13-year-old girl (Angourie Rice, playing the daughter of Gosling’s P.I. character) discussing anal sex with a different porn star, not the dead one. Are you sensing a theme?


But Black understands he can push the character only so far, and Gosling does too. This is one of his best and funniest performances, and as big of a scumbag as Holland may be, he still has that adorable 13-year-old daughter around to humanize him. Crowe’s performance as Jackson, meanwhile, is one of the movie’s unexpected delights. On one level he’s an archetypal mid-career Crowe character, a paunchy, hangdog piece of hired muscle plagued with self-doubt. But even as Jackson lumbers around L.A. wearing stubble, a Hawaiian shirt and a blue Pleather jacket, punching strangers in the face with brass knuckles, he remains mysteriously lovable. He forges a spirit-animal connection with Holly (Rice), Holland’s daughter, right after breaking her dad’s arm and leaving him howling on the floor.

- Andrew O'Hehir, Salon

The Red Turtle

Director Michael Dudok de Wit


On the most basic level, the premise of "The Red Turtle" would be best described as Robinson Crusoe meets "All is Lost," as it follows a nameless island castaway of dubious origins attempting to make do with his deserted new home. However, Dudok de Wit’s script — co-written by Pascale Ferran, whose otherworldly drama "Bird People" operates on a similar ethereal plane — builds this initial setup into a series of majestic, fantastical developments that press further and further into the allegorical realm.


The success of "The Red Turtle" marks a well-timed victory for Studio Ghibli at a transitional moment: It has reached completion not long after the concluding output of its two biggest names, Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata. While not aping the style of those long-established masters, "The Red Turtle" displays a similar attentiveness to making profound gestures without an iota of overstatement. With hardly more than a handful of shouts and grunts, "The Red Turtle" elicits powerful ideas about the struggle for contentment at every turn. Words are never enough, but "The Red Turtle" finds a way to rise above them.

- Eric Kohn, IndieWire

Train to Busan

Writer Director Sang-ho Yeon
Starring Yoo Gong, Soo-an Kim, Yu-mi Jung, Dong-seok Ma

This rip-roaring, record-breaking South Korean zombies-on-a-train romp barrels along like a runaway locomotive – The Railing Dead. Owing as much to Bong Joon-ho (director of creature-feature hit The Host) as to George A Romero, Yeon Sang-ho’s breathless cinematic bullet train boasts frantic physical action, sharp social satire and ripe sentimental melodrama designed to reach into your ribcage and rip out your bleeding heart. Faster on its feet than 2004’s Dawn of the Dead remake, wittier than Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and more thrillingly spectacular than World War Z, Train to Busan joins The Girl With All the Gifts in breathing new life into a genre that simply refuses to lie down and die.


Moving nimbly from the confrontational animation of The King of Pigs and The Fake to the more mainstream live action of Train to Busan, Yeon retains a sharp graphic sensibility that pays snappy dividends. A platform attack eerily glimpsed from the window of a departing train gives a shiversome taste of what’s to come, alongside a homeless man’s traumatised declaration that they’re “all dead, everyone’s dead” (“Hey kid,” Su-an is told, “if you don’t study hard, you’ll end up like him!”). Before you can say Snowpiercer meets 28 Days Later, a thundering tide of flesh-eaters is pouring through the aisles, over the seats and down the corridors, a necrotising, limb-cracking wave of contorting, gnarly nastiness.

- Mark Kermode, The Guardian

Recommended Runners-up

Here's a host of others that are also worth your time (clicking the posters will take you to their disc catalogues on Amazon or iTunes links if discs are not yet available):

Three female-led stories set in rural Montana. Good, with the third being the most affecting.

A charming dramedy about a baseball scholarship residence at an early-'80s Texas college.

Technically the best stop-motion film to date, with notably dark, adult themes.

The death of a famous photographer has enduring effects on the men in her life.

In a harsh reality, across three decades, a young man seeks love and acceptance.

A sweet 80's Dublin based tale about a boy forming a pop band to woo a girl. Great tunes.

Surfer gal versus great white shark in this pleasantly preposterous popcorn flick.

Immersive, unique horror: the seductions of evil in 1630's New England.

A mostly 2D animated doc about the 1966 University of Texas shootings.

A superior CG animated Disney film that tries metaphorically to tackle race issues.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Movies: The Best of 2015

As 2015 comes to a close, these are the films released in this calendar year that stick with me. I should note I've seen quite a few, somewhere in the area of 180, but there are always ones that I haven't yet got around to seeing that might've made the list, which include:

Diary of a Teenage Girl*
The Hateful Eight
The Revenant

Only so much time in a day (or a year). Onward! "Library" alphabetical order, so nothing is stacked up under "The". As always, orange text is a link to take you elsewhere, and spoiler-discussion sections are noted as such (seriously, don't click on them otherwise and ruin things for yourself). Screencaps and other images have been gathered from various sites around the 'net (DoBlu and Letterboxd among them).

The Big Short

An adaptation of the non-fiction book by Michael Lewis, covering the events leading up to the 2008 global financial crisis, The Big Short follows a myriad of characters, including trader Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), hedge fund manager Michael Burry (Christian Bale), money manager Mark Baum (Steve Carrell), and retired banker Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), as they work to exploit faults in the system to make themselves and their clients obscene amounts of cash. Some names were changed in the film to protect the embarrassed.

As directed and co-written by Adam McKay, currently best known for his comedy collaborations with Will Ferell, The Big Short has energy to spare, and is exhilarating rather than exhausting. When an early montage is set to the Ludacris song Money Maker, full of swagger and stupidity, there's a synergy there between music and character that is infectiously fun and funny. Some characters break the fourth wall, and there is a terrific recurring conceit of celebrities-as-themselves trotted out to explain the drier aspects of economics that drive the story. McKay wants to entertain as much as enlighten, and the film is hugely entertaining.

The End of the Tour

After hearing of the author's recent passing, Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) reflects back on his week long 1996 interview with acclaimed Infinite Jest novelist David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel), which took place during the final leg of Jest's promotional tour.

Directed by James Ponsoldt, the film may not render Wallace completely accurately (having never followed the author or read any of his works I have no frame of reference), but it does effectively convey smart, creative, lonely people making their way through the world, and how they're often drawn to each other only to grind each other's gears. Eisenberg hits a nice blend of admiration, competition, and jealousy in his portrayal of Lipsky, while Segel leaves behind his string of dopey-comedy roles to deliver his best performance to date with a character struggling to find balance (publicity versus privacy, high-culture versus pop-culture, artifice versus authenticity), and, just as important, connection.

Ex Machina

Caleb (Domhall Gleeson), an employee of the world-pervasive, multi-billion dollar internet search and social data company Bluebook (think of Google combined with Facebook, supplanting both), discovers one morning that he has won an internal contest to spend a week with its reclusive sole founder, programming genius Nathan (Oscar Issac). Arriving at Nathan's domicile after many hours traversing his massive, isolated estate, Caleb is told that the purpose of the meeting is not simply superficial -- in fact, the winner is there to help determine through personal evaluation if Nathan has successfully created the world's first true artifical intelligence. Caleb is introduced to Ava (Alicia Viklander), a "female" robot with the face of an angel and a body that is still clearly identifiable as "machine". By the end of the week, Caleb will have concluded by his interactions with Ava whether or not Nathan has achieved his goal.

The directorial debut by novelist and screenwriter Alex Garland, Ex Machina is superbly acted and beautifully lensed, using an informed and intelligent portrayal of AI research along with richly realized characters to discuss deeper themes of sexual dynamics, "toxic masculinity", and power. The visual effects involved in the realization of Ava are flawless. The film also contains one of the year's most pleasantly surprising and oddly disquieting scenes, which I'll call simply (and the link is a spoiler so don't click if you haven't yet seen it) "disco".

Now, let's talk about some things privately:

It Follows

Written and directed by David Robert Mitchell, It Follows concerns Jay (Maika Monroe), a college freshman, who after hooking up with a seemingly nice young man finds herself cursed with a supernatural entity that wants her dead, unless she can pass on the curse in the same way.

Jay's experience is a waking nightmare in that it starts off innocuously enough, gets a little odd, and then quickly becomes a ever-escalating horror show. Like a dream it seems to exist in a place familiar yet somewhat out of time: there's a flip cellphone at the beginning, however later there only seem to be corded landline phones, not to mention every TV we see is a now-defunct CRT playing a random black-and-white creature feature, and that clam-shell e-reader that one character carries doesn't even exist yet. Parents inhabit the periphery of events, impotent, and eventually disappear completely from the narrative. It Follows echoes the classic horror films of the late 70's/early 80's, but like any great work it ultimately is its own thing.

The cinematography by DP Mike Gioulakis is exquisite, referencing the work of photographer Gregory Crewdson.

Icing on the cake: a wonderful, freaky electronic soundtrack by composer Rich 'Disasterpeace' Vreeland.

It's close, but for matching up with my idiosyncratic tastes, this is probably my favourite of the year.

Now, let's talk about one thing privately:

Kumiko the Treasure Hunter

Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi) is a late-twenties "Office Girl" in present day Tokyo, working for a boss she despises in a thankless job, pressured by her peers, her family, and society to behave a certain way (be pleasant, get married, have children). In her own mind she is a "conquistador", seeking foreign, fabled riches, and the source for her desired adventure is a well-worn VHS copy of the 1996 film Fargo. In it, a briefcase full of cash is buried in the snowy Minnesota landscape, and of course that film (and this film) begins with a title card: This is a true story.

I'm accustomed to, and a fan of, the idea of a "slow burn", as usually applied to horror films to ratchet up the tension. What's new to me, and works well here, is the same notion of a slow burn, but applied to comedy. There's a rhythm of scenes that go on for a while, but just long enough to set up and deliver terrific visual punchlines. Kumiko mostly does things, rather than talking about things, so we see the comic results of her actions, though none of it is broad or slapstick.

Most impressive though is the delicate blend of comedy and melancholy. Kumiko does funny things (of course not intentionally from her character's perspective), and we root for her, but she is broken and sad, which the David and Nathan Zellner film, especially Kikuchi's performance in it, doesn't shy away from.


The Lobster

The Lobster starts with David (Colin Farrell), having recently been divorced from his wife who left him for another man, at The Hotel, seemingly a spa/retreat for singles, where he is being interviewed with a set of questions both expected and puzzling. Curiously, he reacts to all of the questions as though they are normal. The quest begins: will he find love with one of the other single spa residents within his allotted spa timeframe?

Wait, scratch that: The Lobster really starts slightly earlier with a wordless sequence of a woman driving through the daytime countryside, only to park at the side of a road near a field, after which she gets a revolver out of the glove compartment, climbs over a fence containing a number of donkeys, and quite specifically shoots one of the donkeys to death.

Directed and co-written by Yorgos Lanthimos, The Lobster is a refreshing, uniquely told story that uses the kind of world building usually reserved for science-fiction or fantasy tales, instead applied to a contemporary scenario. The film lets you get acclimated to this world and the rules under which it abides gradually, and once you're halfway though it, all of the crazy, surreal things that have occurred (and will continue to occur) make sense to you in context as they do to the characters initiating and experiencing them. I'd advise against reading any other more explicit synopses you may come across prior to seeing it, since out of context they'll make it sound daft. In reality, it's surprising, funny, dark, sexy, sly, sad and terrific in a way that you wish more movies would be. It won't be to everyone's taste, granted, but it certainly works for me.

Mad Max: Fury Road

Revisiting the character and the automobile-DIY-grunge aesthetic established in a trio of post-societal-collapse films from the 1980's, Fury Road catches up again with a more-literally, mentally "Mad" Max (now played by Tom Hardy), who while continuing his quest to survive the wastelands finds himself swept up in an escape attempt by turncoat Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) rescuing a bevy of concubine-slaves from the malevolent dictator Immortan Joe and his army of War Boys, which includes eager-to-shine Nux (Nicholas Hoult). Where the earlier decade's trilogy saw fuel as the driving force (pun somewhat intended), here it's a more basic resource than that: water.

Like Martin Scorcese, Director and co-writer George Miller proves that even as a septuagenarian, you can still make features that are more vital and alive than those from many of your much younger peers. Sometimes viewers confuse a lack of dialogue for a lack of plot, or of weak writing, but Miller deftly reminds us that films are as much about imagery and sound to convey a story -- broad strokes about the functioning of Immortan Joe's society were constantly, unobtrusively introduced through character action here and subtle background cues there that work better than exposition-dumps commonly heard in countless other films ever do. The action is almost relentless, but it's always coherent, and never gratuitous as it all serves story (you can find out from DP John Seale how they managed to visually maintain that coherence here or here).

Of all the films I saw this year, Fury Road was the one that demanded to be seen in a theatre (Which I did. Twice. White-knuckling it most of the way through). Muscular, propulsive film-making at its finest. And how can you ever knock a film which includes an insane, flame-throwing electric guitar player?


Jake (Jacob Tremblay) was brought to Ma (Brie Larson) by angels from Heaven, and together they live in Room. There's Old Nick, who brings them supplies by magic (Ma stows Jake in the closet whenever Old Nick shows up), and there's TV. Outside of Room is Outer Space, and maybe aliens. This is Jake's life as he's always known it, but shortly after his fifth birthday, Ma, at her breaking point, tells Jake the truth about their history and current situation. She hatches a plan to escape from Room and Old Nick, and enlists Jake to try to pull it off.

Directed by Lenny Abrahamson from a screenplay by Emma Donoghue (based upon her novel of the same name), Room is equal parts thriller and emotional roller coaster. The onscreen relationship between Larson and Tremblay is superbly acted, which for one half of the duo is astonishing considering that Tremblay was all of seven years old during production (Larson's always been an exceptional talent, and continues that positive trend here). Given the confined nature of the story, the direction and cinematography are quite creative, but never cartoonish. I'm not at all embarrassed to say that I teared up several times during the course of the film -- in every case it's earned. The characters and their actions are believable, as are their circumstances (sadly).

It's no surprise to me that Room won the Grolsch People's Choice Award at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival.

Now, let's talk about some things privately:

While We're Young and Mistress America

While We're Young concerns a Generation X creative married couple -- Josh (Ben Stiller), a documentary filmmaker, and Cornelia (Naomi Watts), a film producer -- who find their lives initially invigorated, then later discombobulated, by a Millennial creative married couple, Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried).

Mistress America deals with new-to-New-York college freshman Tracy (Lola Kirke), a bright but unfocused young woman who seeks out her early-thirties, long-time-New-Yorker, soon-to-be-sister-in-law Brooke (Greta Gerwig, who is also the film's co-writer) to add some spice to her extracurricular life.

While I've liked previous works of Writer/Director Noah Baumbach well enough, these two films released in 2015 were the first time I felt like I "get it" in regards to his stuff. While (...) hits the mark mainly because it's addressing middle-age issues that, while I may not fret about personally, I can relate to nonetheless. It has some interesting things to say about certain philosophies of filmmaking, and assumed (mis)conceptions about generations (those listed previously and Boomers as well). It also sold me on Driver's acting talents. Mistress... benefits from the charming and frustrating dynamic between the leading ladies, and though it takes on a bit of a farcical structure towards the end, the voices of each character seem true and real, which is a feat.

Both films speak about self-perception, self-delusion, and the notion that idealizing other people makes them terrible role-models to help in overcoming your own faults and insecurities. Both are funny to boot.

Recommended Runners-up

Here's a host of others that are also worth your time (clicking the posters will take you to their disc catalogues on Amazon or iTunes links if discs are not yet available):

Concerns the U.S. mortgage crisis, with a killer Michael Shannon driven opening.

A refreshingly intelligent and deeply moving post-human science-fiction story.

A poignant documentary of singer Amy Winehouse's short life.

After the death of a mentor, a middle aged actress reflects back on her career.

A stylized biopic of musician Brian Wilson, told in two alternating parts.

The fifth and, surprisingly, best film of the ongoing action franchise. Car-fu!

An adult character study set in the gambling world. Best thing Reynolds has ever done.

About the fragility of friendship, and sanity. Moss and Waterston shine.

Odd, truthful rom-com, with lotsa chemistry between Smulders and Pierce.

A slick, depressing look at a slice of the failing U.S. drug war. Villeneuve! Deakins!

A raunchy, realistic and touching rom-com that doesn't quite stick the landing.

The gap between expectations and reality, examined via a Western tale.

A solid, engaging procedural covering the 2001 Boston Catholic Church investigations.

The vampire mockumentary, as delivered by the Flight of the Conchords folks.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Movies: The Best of 2014

These are the films I've seen in 2014 that still stick with me and that I would recommend without reservation. I've seen a lot of what's been released to date, but there are films I haven't seen yet that I'm pretty certain would end up on this list, so I've decided I will be doing updates to this post once I see them and if I decide they merit inclusion (I'm thinking Citizenfour, Dear White People, Foxcatcher, Song of the Sea, and Whiplash might eventually show up here, for example).

In 2013 I did a separate post for each film, but as a result I lost the motivation after a number of posts and ended up not including every film I would've liked to. This year I've opted for the dreaded "listicle" (list + article hybrid), so I can get through it all in one go. It seemed to work for last year's Cinematic Disappointments post (which I may also revise as I've reversed my opinion on one of those four during the interim - for now I'll leave you to guess which one). Additionally, there are thumbnails and blurbs of recommended runners-up at the end of this post.

I'm also experimenting with show-able/hide-able "Spoiler" sections, so that I can discuss aspects of certain movies and not ruin their surprises. Otherwise, I'll try to keep the synopses as cryptic yet intelligible as possible.

As always, words in orange text are links, and the pictures can be clicked to display them at their true size. Special thanks to the folks at the website DoBlu, which is where I got many of the high resolution screenshots you see below.

So, here's my entirely subjective, alphabetically ordered run-down of the best films of the year.

Blue Ruin

One morning, a homeless man (played by Macon Blair) receives information from the local police related to his past, which sends him down a potentially murderous path. The mood swings between melancholy and raging, and when violence occurs, it is brutally realistic.

Written and directed by Jeremy Saulnier, and shot on a budget of around $500,000 USD with Canon EOS C300 cameras, it's a gorgeous looking picture, with a tight script, fine performances and an overall sense of verisimilitude and humanity. It moves like a shark: there's not an ounce of fat on it. This is the kind of low-budget film-making that I find inspiring.

Edge of Tomorrow

In the near-future, an alien invasion from forces seemingly able to predict our military's moves before they're made have brought humanity to the brink. That is, until a soldier named Rita Vrataski (the unstoppable Emily Blunt, my hero), through some inexplicable effort later mistakenly credited to technology, is able to single-handedly defeat hundreds of enemy troops in a key battle, earning her the nickname "The Angel of Verdun", or alternatively, "Full Metal Bitch". Bolstered, our forces plan one last massive mission which is to be promoted through the media by Major William Cage (played by Tom Cruise), who soon finds himself, through some fault of his own, on the front lines, albeit completely unprepared for combat. He goes, he quickly dies (the aliens are like fast, tentacled, multi-bladed living chainsaws).

He jolts awake 24 hours previous to his death, remembering everything that happened while those around him are living it for the first time, "again". As the tagline goes: Live. Die. Repeat.

Big events, but driven by characters that are fully drawn and with full arcs, male and female; with action but also with emotion and beats of quiet reflection; often intentionally very funny and charming: this what big summer blockbusters should be, but mostly aren't. It's depressing that despite having all this in its favour, Edge hasn't really been seen by very many - hopefully if you're reading this you can remedy that.

Now, let's talk about some things privately:

Gone Girl

Did husband Nick Dunne (played by Ben Affleck) murder wife Amy Dunne (played by Rosamund Pike)? If he didn't, who did?

Masterfully directed by David Fincher, from the wonderfully adapted screenplay by Gillian Flynn (from her own novel - which I've never read), what seems at first to be a simple "whodunit" quickly becomes a much more impressive commentary on marriage, and power, and to a lesser extent, the media. This being Fincher, there's a good deal of misanthropy infused throughout the proceedings. It's human ugliness wrapped in a beautiful visual veneer, and it's also intentionally pretty damned funny.

Pike deserves all of the awards - she delivers my favourite performance of the year.

Now, let's talk about some things privately:


Directed by Christopher Nolan and co-written with his brother Jonathan, Interstellar is an ambitious space adventure that packs an emotional punch and a rousing display of film-making's state of the art. Sometimes its reach exceeds its grasp, but boy, what a reach. A seemingly simple scene of main character Cooper watching a video transmission is a standout (Matthew McConaughey and the rest of the principle cast are excellent). Also exceptional, a consequent docking sequence. Even the pipe-organ laden soundtrack, by frequent Nolan collaborator Hans Zimmer, hit all the right notes for me.

Best experienced in the biggest theatre you can find (I saw it in its "author-intended" 70mm-film IMAX presentation on the first day of its run and was blown away).

Did I mention the awesome robot? (Best related tweet I read: "Who is your favourite character in Interstellar, and why is it the robot?").


On the eve of bringing his biggest professional project to fruition, a man makes a decision that could jeopardize that project, his career, and every personal relationship in his life.

It is incredible that a film about a single on-screen character, in a car driving throughout the night, talking only to other characters on the phone (and a couple of times, himself), is such a gripping story. Tom Hardy, as the eponymous Ivan Locke, is exemplary, especially when the circumstances have him simultaneously expressing certain emotions verbally, to present a necessary front to those on the receiving end of phone calls that can't see him, and his true emotions visually (for the audience).

I can't recall seeing a film where such a seemingly innocuous phrase as "you have an incoming call" has created such tension and dread in the main character and in me.

Visually stunning, especially considering the seeming limitation of one-actor/one-"location", writer-director Steven Knight has created a work that's ultimately quite moving.


Looking for a career path, an autodidactic and highly motivated young man named Louis Bloom finds opportunities in the exciting arena of local television news! Did I mention he's a sociopath? Hilarity ensues! The gross, dark kind of hilarity. An American Psycho kind of hilarity.

Written and directed by Dan Gilroy, the dialogue is terrific, and Bloom's lectures, seemingly synthesized from ubiquitous online entrepreneurial types, soar in a "performance-of-the-year" by Jake Gyllenhaal. This is one quotable character.

My main critique of the film is that it could be somewhat sleazier in execution, as occasionally it's a little too clean when it needs to be truly grisly (compared to the aforementioned Blue Ruin or Gone Girl, for example).

Slick, smart, swift, and highly entertaining.


Based on a French graphic novel, the story of Snowpiercer is simple, like a fable or a storybook: the world has become deathly frozen, and all the survivors live on an impossibly long, perpetually moving train. The poor and downtrodden live at the back end, while the rich, who control the system, live at the front. After continuously enduring mistreatment and terrible living conditions for as long as they've lived aboard the train, Curtis (played by Chris Evans) and the other tail-enders decide to make a run for the engine car: viva la revolución.

Directed by Joon-ho Bong, the film has lots of surprises, a terrific self-aware performance by Tilda Swinton, and the production design throughout is clever and often beautiful. In certain ways it reminded me of the films of Terry Gilliam, though not so comical.

Now, let's talk about some things privately:

The Grand Budapest Hotel

A writer who routinely visits the now-fading Grand Budapest learns the history of the hotel and the legend of concierge Gustave (played by Ralph Fiennes), as told by the now-aged Zero (the younger version of the character with the most screen time played by Tony Revolori), Gustave's co-adventurer and the hotel's new lobby boy.

Written and directed by Wes Anderson, Grand continues his trademark use of vibrant colours and formal staging, but extends that to a "pop-up book" illustration style for some scenes, notably establishing shots of certain locales, or action sequences (a foot chase in the mountains comes to mind). It's charming, good-natured, and contains a very sweet romance, between Zero and Agatha (played by Saoirse Ronan). The adventure is detailed and the characters are engaging such that Grand can be enjoyed repeatedly.

The Lego Movie

In what is quite possibly the best animated movie of the year and the best comedy of the year, everyday construction worker Emmet Brickowski (voiced by Chris Pratt) has his world turned upside-down when he learns he may be the prophesied saviour of the world -- in this case, a world made entirely from Lego. Visual and verbal jokes come fast and furious throughout picture, which is to be expected from co-writer-directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller. They have both a predilection and a knack for this kind of comedy.

On top of that, the film is an artistic and technical marvel of computer animation, eye candy of the highest order. If you want to peak behind the curtain on how it was created, you can watch this excellent making-of produced by the folks at fxguide.

Now, let's talk about some things privately:

Under the Skin

A strange young woman drives around Scotland in a white van, seducing single young men to come back to her abode, where stranger, sinister things occur. As time goes on she begins to question who she is, and the façade she's presenting to the world changes her in ways she could never have imagined.

This film sticks with me in part due to a sequence I'll call simply "At the Beach", which I found completely unsettling on first watch, and even bothers me to a degree all these months later whenever I recall it.

Directed and co-written by Jonathan Glazer, the film is like a long, vivid nightmare, and I'd even suggest it's the best horror film of the year. There's almost no dialogue, and some of the imagery is equally beautiful and perplexing. The subtext (mostly) has some pretty grim things to say about the relationships between men and women. It would be amazing and well deserved if Scarlett Johansson were to be nominated for acting awards based on this nuanced lead performance. Also, that eerie soundtrack!

That said, it's creepy as all get out, and not for everyone. I like that it rattled my cage.

Now, let's talk about some things privately:

Recommended Runners-up

Here's a host of others that are not quite at the same level as the aforementioned, but are still worth recommending (clicking the posters will take you to their disc catalogues on Amazon):

A small-town drama of broken systems in modern Ireland, focussing on the Church.

Light and fun, where cooking is a battleground for art versus commerce, artist versus critic.

Compellingly weird doppelgänger story in Toronto, with a disturbing final shot.

Music, and the myth of the fine line between genius and madness. Funny and sad.

Documentary about the highly influential sci-fi epic that was never made.

A solid debut by writer-director Jennifer Kent, with a killer pop-up book.

A slow-witted Brooklyn bartender is caught up in the criminal underworld.

A clever tribute to '80s horror movies that escalates to pure bonkers mayhem.

Couples therapy meets the Twilight Zone. Elisabeth Moss is terrific.

It's like the Godfather II of martial arts movies, with more hammers and baseballs.

That's it for now. See you next year!