Monday, April 25, 2016

The Subtlety Guide to Shit You Should Have Seen in the Year of Our Lord, 2015! Part 3: Docs N' Drama!

Part III: The Best of the Rest: Documentary and Drama Category!

Confession time: there ended up being so damn many winners this year that I broke my usual year-in-review post into THREE parts: part one is here, with my top 14 of the year. You should check that out first, obviously, since it's the very cream of the crop. But I saw too many movies I loved to stop at 14, so what follows is everything else which I thought was undeniably great this year, in no particular order. Last week it was genre stuff with Action, Sci-Fi, Horror, Art, and Comedy! Today, In our last segment, we're covering Drama and Documentary.



This is a deeply affecting, expertly constructed, powerfully observed documentary which really disappointed me. It has the unfortunate handicap of being director Joshua Oppenheimer and Co-director Anonymous J. Pleasedontkillme’s follow-up to their 2012 masterpiece THE ACT OF KILLING. That film is perhaps the only movie of the new millennium which I would feel completely confident hailing as One Of The Greatest Films Ever Made (it lost Best Documentary to 50 FEET FROM STARDOM, a nice movie about singers who worked with famous people), and this is not just from the same directors, but also about the same subject. That subject, of course, is how modern Indonesians come to terms with the 1965-66 Indonesian genocides which killed well over a million people (by way of comparison, the disastrous Syrian civil war hasn’t yet reached half that number of dead in four years), and yet today remain largely a matter of public pride for the perpetrators and fearful silence for the victims. ACT OF KILLING brilliantly snuck past the defenses of several killers by encouraging their bragging, politely handing them the rope to hang themselves with. But LOOK OF SILENCE takes a somewhat more conventional approach: an ophthalmologist whose brother was killed during the purges now conducts eye tests for former killers, and while doing so indirectly challenges them about their responsibility by first bringing up the subject (eliciting nostalgia and pride) and then pointing out that his brother was one of their victims (which makes them uncomfortable and evasive). Give it this: our hero must have balls of brass to do this, and there’s a wrenching power to watching him sit silently, while the people who murdered his family sit smugly in front of him, whining that he’s being unfair to them. But unfortunately while ACT OF KILLING was startlingly elucidating in its examination of the killers, the confrontational nature of LOOK OF SILENCE results in exactly what you would imagine: the killers totally shut down, sometimes to the point of just walking away or sitting in stony silence. It’s more a companion piece to ACT OF KILLING in that it shows exactly how not to approach this topic if you want to get anything of substance from the actual perpetrators. Which may be the point; like last year’s Rumsfeldsploitation fiasco THE UNKNOWN KNOWN, this is essentially a study in frustration, a window into the impossibility of getting powerful people who committed grievous wrongs to own up to them, balanced against our overpowering need for them to do so in order to give us closure. If ACT OF KILLING was a window into the unchecked self-aggrandizing of villains, this is a window into the painful impotence of victims. The result makes for cinema as gripping and emotionally raw as documentaries come, but somewhat limited compared to its masterful predecessor. As a symbolic act of confrontation, it has plenty of power… but not a lot of insight. It feels like an aside to ACT OF KILLING, not the main show. Even so, this is unmistakably searing, deeply affecting stuff, and it will leave its mark.

Since he can’t safely go back to Indonesia anymore, I might humbly suggest that if Oppenheimer wants to make a third film in the trilogy, he might make it about the CIA programs here at home that encouraged the slaughter and provided material support to it. I appreciate that ACT and LOOK keep the focus on the Indonesians without needing to tie US history into the mix, but it might be time for an accounting about our role in this mess, too.

From a depressing documentary to a crowd-pleasing one: this is the story of the Russian ice hockey team that dominated the sport during the Cold War, and were eventually seduced over to the NHL. But more than that, it’s the story of the politics of the time, and the price paid by the ambitious sporty types who got roped into the huge, propaganda-churning spirit-crushing political machine when all they wanted to do was be good at hockey. This is not just anti-communist misery-porn, though; these guys really were great, and remain very proud about what they accomplished, and even --perhaps somewhat surprisingly-- their motherland, which by all accounts treated them rather harshly. They’re also fuckin’ hilarious, in their deadpan Russian sort of way, and so is the movie. As a simple, exciting, and funny way to explore the insane cold-war mindset from a safe distance, you could hardly do better, and this is coming from someone who literally could not possibly care less about hockey as a sport, or for that matter sports in general (it was executive produced by Werner Herzog, who I doubt spends a lot of time at the… I dunno, skating rink? What’s the name for the place you play hockey? They probably mention it in this doc but it’s been a few months). Trigger warning, though: This is a American-Russian co-production, so it ends with some unusually positive, eyebrow-raising words about how Vladimir Putin is making Russia great again. I think these guys honestly believe it, but I doubt it was an entirely unmotivated gesture of goodwill on their part. Some things never change, but at least now these guys are rich.


Almost certainly my favorite documentary of the year, this clever biopic details the remarkable life of James Randi, both as one of the US’s premier illusionists (a job he describes with the title -- he’s being paid to trick his audiences) and subsequently as one of its premier skeptics and debunkers. Randi (now 87) is a spirited, funny figure, and his life has been chock full of landmark feats in both his careers, though the movie leans towards his later years -- most notably, perhaps, in his epic takedowns of charlatan faith healer Peter Popoff and self-proclaimed psychic Uri Geller. But the movie (perhaps even unexpectedly to the filmmakers) picks up a more interesting thread as it goes along. It explores the contradictions inherent in a man who devoted the first half of his life to great trickery and the second half to exposing frauds, and finds that truth might be a slightly more slippery concept than Randi’s dogmatic skepticism easily allows. Using Randi’s own surprising and sometimes tragic life, they gently imply that maybe people want to be tricked, even need to be tricked, and explore a surprising ambivalence about whether or not this is a tragic flaw or a survival mechanism. How honest do we dare be, about anything other than the fact that we prefer a comforting lie a lot of the time (and that, only when we’re not busy lying ourselves)? Though the film (rightly) has a lot of admiration and love for the lively septuagenarian, it perhaps finds its most interesting insights in interrogating his worldview a little. Like 2012’s Ricky Jay doc DECEPTIVE PRACTICES, it is this lightly philosophical turn which subtly transmogrifies what was already a riotously entertaining journey through a colorful life into something a bit more substantial. AN HONEST LIAR is just as funny and delightful as its central character, but it’s also an unexpectedly moving, thoughtful film, especially for what is essentially a talking-heads clipshow until near the end. Worthwhile even for those who would not consider themselves fans of Randi, but especially essential for anyone who already loves him.


In Timbuktu, Mali, Jihadist invaders take control and impose a strict, fundamentalist Islamic law on the locals.* That sounds about as grim a scenario as one could imagine, but  Mali-born, Soviet-educated, and France-based director Abderrahmane Sissako (who, I would guess, is no stranger to cultural conflict) examines the scene with a more nuanced lens than one would expect. Rather than a misiberalist drama, it plays out as an darkly absurd parable, full of flawed but likeable characters and tragicomic slice-of-life sketches (boys play soccer with an imaginary ball after sports are banned, a young jihadist sneaks a cigarette when his boss is away). It has a few moments of gut-wrenching brutality (a couple deemed to be adulterous are buried up to their necks and stoned) but mostly avoids the obvious villainous jihadi cliches you are probably expecting to see, instead merely observing the dissonance between the complex, diverse local culture and the harsh new regime. Rich, closely-observed details provide much of the film’s power: sometimes, they’re mechanical (the newcomers don’t speak the local language, and translation can be a crucible of misperception) other times deeply human (a jihadi commander confesses to his translator how bad he feels about sentencing a man to death, but does it without changing his demeanor so the condemned man won’t realize it) and still others mysterious and surreal (a minor conflict between two characters inexplicably escalates into murder, silhouetted against a sunset-soaked river, in what might be the single most stunning image of the whole year). The film isn’t big on narrative or exposition, instead simply pointing a roving eye at the human side of the headlines. It’s not a film that feels like a righteous declamation, nor political rabble-rousing  --it cares far too much about these people to ever use them as props-- but nonetheless it makes for completely absorbing cinema. Even at a brisk 96 minutes, it feels expansive, unhurried, and completely confident in its unique blend of beauty, humanism, and bleakness, and frankly now that I’m writing this, it was a terrible mistake not to include this in my top 14. Only the somewhat truncated climax holds this one back from being a masterpiece of the highest order; and even at that, it’s an absolutely unmissable experience and a desperately needed perspective on the world that probably only Sissako could have provided.

*This happened in 2012, but I never heard about it. Looks like it’s over now. I always like it when I find out about a problem and then immediately learn it’s already been resolved. Feels like progress.

I would never have figured David Cronenberg for a “burn, Hollywood, burn!” type, but MAPS TO THE STARS is about as savage a condemnation of callow tinseltown vanity as, uh, tinseltown has yet been able to produce. Working with a fine cast and a nearly 20-year-old script (?!), Cronenberg trots out the usual assortment of delusional Hollywood phonies and pathological egomaniacs --most notably a 13-year-old Bieber-esque fame monster played by Evan Bird (CHAINED), his TV-shrink father (John Cusack), a desperate fading starlet (Julianne Moore), and her mysterious new assistant with the burn scars hidden beneath long gloves (Mia Wasikowska)-- and, at least initially, this seems like the conventional sort of vicious Hollywood satire, the kind they’ve been making since at least SUNSET BOULEVARD. Well, except for the satire part. That may have been how it was written (and certain parts are broad enough that I suspect it was), but it doesn’t play out like that at all. Instead of black comedy, the tone is one of icy, mysterious dread, perpetually circling but never quite becoming out-and-out horror. There’s a mystery at the heart of the plot, and as it unspools the characters get somewhat more complex --if no less broad-- sometimes with genuinely surprising results. Excellent performances abound (particularly Moore, who plays her deluded has-been character with a withering abandon) and combined with the tone and the strange asides to the 1942 French poem Liberté, the net result is that in spite of all the familiar digs at LA phoniness, the movie is more a rumination on ego and identity than yet another masturbatory Hollywood in-joke. It suffers from some structural problems, but like all of Cronenberg’s work, there’s something too perverse and compelling lurking here for you to dare lose interest. A strange, off-kilter, and subtly unnerving story, even by Cronenberg’s usual standards.

This Iranian film from Asghar Farhadi (A SEPERATION, THE PAST) actually came out in 2009, but it didn’t make it to America til 2015 (thanks, Obama!). But it’s just as well, because in 2009 I wouldn’t have known to take a chance on it, but after the masterful THE PAST in 2014, Farhadi has a much-coveted free pass with me, where I’ll see anything he does. And that’s working out great so far, because ABOUT ELLY is another terrific work. Just like THE PAST, it’s fundamentally a tense drama about the personal dynamics of a small group in an isolated place, but with an unassuming gilding of mystery thriller. A bunch of pretty, wealthy young people sharing a beach house are thrown into chaos when the titular Elly -- who none of them know very well -- mysteriously vanishes. In her absence, the group tries to figure out what to do, and what happened, and, for that matter, who Elly really was. What follows is a sharp examination of group dynamics in a stress situation, coupled with an intriguing and subtle examination of how we imagine identities for others. Tense and existential without losing its sense of intimate realism.

A Sumptuously filmed, vividly acted drama about a burgeoning lesbian affair in the spirit-crushing 1950’s. Just as weepy as you’d want it, but fortunately the movie offers characters a little more complex and interesting than your standard tearjerker melodrama, and Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara are more than up for the challenge. Unfortunately Mara’s repressed, mousey character has the more interesting arc (Blanchett’s story gradually devolves into a standard custody battle with her frustrated, vindictive husband) but the movie never quite comes around to letting it play out. It seems to want to push a true-love fairy tale which doesn’t seem to really make sense in the complicated, messy world it depicts. But whatever, the story’s as lugubrious as it needs to be, and the experience of watching it is sensuous and captivating.

This Jordanian film finds a young Bedouin boy unexpectedly plunged into the chaos of WWI when a British officer enlists the help of his family. What starts off a sweeping adventure tale (capturing the unassuming magnificence of the Jordanian desert with an unsentimental realism) quickly turns into violence and danger, but the movie resists easy genre classification. It has moments of blistering intensity, but mostly focuses on capturing the quiet moments in-between the action. It’s slow, contemplative, and doesn’t go at all where you expect, all while portraying both a time and place we almost never get to see on the big screen with precision and nuance. Maybe a little too shy about cheap thrills for its own good, but even so, it’s a fascinating, deeply engrossing little movie.

Ho-hum, another perfectly tailored, effortlessly gripping, and meticulously crafted crowdpleaser from Steven Spielberg. I’m really getting sick of him making such consistently technically masterful, irresistibly engaging movies. And it’s getting easy to take them for granted, especially when he tends towards such middlebrow, mainsream-prestige subjects so much nowadays. But if anyone but Spielberg had made BRIDGE OF SPIES, I feel like people would have been blown away by how pitch-perfect it is; it’s absolutely wall-to-wall packed with wonderfully endearing performances, witty, literate conversations, and gripping suspense sequences. But even more than that, it’s a movie which is surprisingly unafraid --in its middlebrow, mainstream-prestige sort of way-- to genuinely tackle some big issues about the Cold War mindset in specific and the legitimacy of American exceptionalism in general, without getting overtly sanctimonious about it, or ever letting up, even for a second, on its relentless desire to keep you entertained. The one sour note is Thomas Newman’s pushy score, which lays it on way thicker than is needed when the acting and filmmaking are this strong. If Spielberg has any weakness at this point in his career, it’s probably that his mastery of the artform is so complete that it probably benefits from restraint more than excess, and he doesn’t always quite have it in him to dial it back when he can overwhelm with sheer force. Even so, BRIDGE OF SPIES represents the very best in respectable, mature mainstream filmmaking and we’d be fools to take it for granted.

Ugh, Musician biopics. Here’s a good idea: let’s depict an artist who is recognized specifically for their unique voice and inimitable performance style, and then have someone else do it. I’m sure some actor can do just as good a job with that. And also, if we could get a side dish of one traumatic event from their childhood which totally explains everything else that happened in their life, that would be great, too. Oh, and if you could just string together a long series of recreations of times when they did stuff and dramatize every major event of their whole life, I also think that would really help us understand them so much better. So LOVE AND MERCY was a tough sell for me, but it turns out it avoids most of the usual biopic cliches by a) using the original music, not trying to recreate it, and b) focusing exclusively on two points in troubled Beach Boys singer/composer Brian Wilson’s life: first, the creatively rich but psychologically destructive experience of creating Pet Sounds in 1966, and second, his efforts to escape the control of tyrannical, exploitive “therapist” Eugene Landy in 1986. The two stories are loosely interwoven, but as much as I like John Cusack and Elizabeth Banks in the ‘86 segments, Paul Dano as the younger Wilson in his Pet Sounds days is absolutely marvelous, funny and frustrating and eccentric and loveable, making Wilson’s essential strangeness into a fully realized character, not just a symptom or suite of actorly tics. Director Bill Pohlad (mostly a producer up til now) instill the experience with just enough sun-soaked stylization to allow a little subjectivity to peek through, but really it’s Dano’s show here, everyone else is just along for the ride. What emerges is not so much a biopic as two snapshots of a tortured genius at two very distinct moments in his life, and they’re both so rich with Wilson’s strange, tragicomic charm that you could completely forget that all this is supposed to be some silly prestige picture at all.

Johnny Depp is every bit as good as you’ve heard here, playing the ice-cold gangster James “Whitey” Bulger with a truly devilish intensity unlike anything you’ve seen him do before. But you know Depp is good; he’s always gonna be good, it’s just that sometimes he’s good in the wrong way for a movie, or just in the wrong movie, period. What makes BLACK MASS work isn’t just that Depp is great, it’s that director Scott Cooper (CRAZY HEART) and writers Jez Butterworth (EDGE OF TOMORROW, GET ON UP) and Mark Mallouk (nothing) actually craft a movie around him which is good enough to deserve it. Depp gets the showiest role, but the filmmakers do a fine job of crafting a long and multi-year crime story into an actual workable narrative, putting the conflicted FBI agent John Connelly (Joel Edgerton) at its center as a means of examining the worrying overlapping worlds of law enforcement and organized crime. Edgerton is great too, though in a less flashy sort of way, and a strong cast of seasoned character actors make sure the somewhat tired crime epic procedural side has plenty of vitality. The script’s ability to hew a functional narrative film out of so much sprawling historical material is quite impressive, and with Depp’s menacing presence dominating the film even when he’s not on-screen (which is surprisingly often) it zips along through 122 minutes with a commendable urgency. The only thing which holds it back from true genre greatness is it’s somewhat disappointing lack of style; Cooper and cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi cultivate a very naturalistic look for the film, which worked nicely for the other Takayanagi-shot, Boston-set multi-year crime ensemble this year (SPOTLIGHT) but feels a bit flat here, considering the somewhat more intense, exaggerated characters and the greek tragedy Connelly’s character arc eventually takes him through. Still, I fucking love gangster epics, and this is one of the best in years, maybe since the MEREINE films.  

In postwar Berlin, a Holocaust survivor with a new face must pretend to be a stranger in order to get close enough to her grifter ex-husband to find out if he was the one who betrayed her to the Nazis. That’s a classic noir plot if I ever heard one, but in the hands of German director Christian Petzold (2012’s BARBARA) it doesn’t quite play out that way -- it’s more repressed drama than white-knuckled thriller, perhaps not entirely to its benefit. But then again, I can’t argue that it doesn’t work; Petzold is comfortable enough with the inherent and inescapable tension of the premise that he doesn’t need to push the point and can just linger on the complex emotions at play here. And complex they are -- Nina Hoss (A MOST WANTED MAN) gets a role about as nuanced as any actor could ever hope for, playing many layers of hidden meaning with each subtle change of expression, and it is through her that we try to interpret her husband’s ambiguous motives and character. I’d probably have preferred a more stylized, classic noir take on this somewhat outrageous premise, but there’s not denying the power of the film as it is. And the ending, when it comes, is a thing of such absolute perfection that I cannot find it in my heart to offer any equivocating criticism of the film as a whole. Petzold obviously knew where he was going, and while I may have had my doubts here and there about his methods, I can’t argue with his results. That last scene is as spellbinding a bit of cinema as you could ever hope to see.

Also mildly worth watching, but not good enough to warrant a whole review, except for the ones I already reviewed:
The Hallow (actually this is pretty good, I don't know why I didn't put it in my Horror Best Of. But too late now. Just read the full review, I liked it).
Straight Outta Compton
I dunno, I guess Trainwreck? I like Basketball cameos.

AND THAT'S IT! That's all she wrote, folks! Back to your regularly scheduled horror programming next, and thanks for playing The Subtlety Guide to Shit You Should Have Seen in the Year of Our Lord, 2015!

Monday, April 11, 2016

The Subtlety Guide to Shit You Should Have Seen in the Year of Our Lord, 2015! Part 2: Genre Stuff, Art, and Comedy!

Part II: The Best of the Rest: Horror, Action, Sci-Fi, Art, and Comedy categories!
Confession time: there ended up being so damn many winners this year that I broke my usual year-in-review post into THREE parts: part one is here, with my top 14 of the year. You should check that out first, obviously, since it's the very cream of the crop. But I saw too many movies I loved to stop at 14, so what follows is everything else which I thought was undeniably great this year, in no particular order. Today, we cover Action, Sci-Fi, Horror, Art, and Comedy! Tomorrow we return with Part III, covering Drama and Documentary. Enjoy!

Best of the Rest By Category!
There were so goddam many great movies this year that I thought I’d try and break the honorable mention list up by categories, so it’s a little easier to browse. So today, we're looking at Horror, Action, Sci-Fi, Art, and Comedy!

Genre: Horror

A deliciously twisted and carefully constructed riff on the hoary old haunted house genre, with first-time director and world’s-greatest-twitter-user Ted Geoghegan expertly defying time and space to tease out the best tendencies of modern, moody indie horror, patient 70’s horror, and gleefully gory 80’s bloodbaths, all while deftly avoiding the pitfalls of each. Fun, spooky, surprising, and enormously satisfying, this is about as good as indie horror gets. See the full review here!

PENANCE (Shokuzai)
To my knowledge this five-part mini-series from the great Japanese horror auteur Kiyoshi “No, no, we just have the same last name,” Kurosawa never actually played stateside, making this technically a direct-to-video effort. But what kind of asshole would I be if I didn’t give it its due just because of the sorry state of American-Asian genre imports? PENANCE is the story of four young girls who witness a friend’s murder, but say they can’t remember anything about the killer. This incites the deep hatred of the dead girl’s mom, who follows them into adulthood demanding… well, penance. Each of the five episodes deals with a different character, and explore, sometimes in very nebulous ways, how the events of the past have informed their adult lives. Some become heroes, others villains, but the mysteriously obsessed mother is always hovering around, sometimes explicitly antagonistic, other times inexplicably protective. Kurosawa uses the mini-series format as a good excuse to get even further away from traditional narrative than he usually does, giving each segment a starkly different tone and subtly distinct style, and tying them together only in loose, subterranean thematic ways. But he definitely delivers on his usual promise, which is to provide an icy, inexplicable dread, meted out with patient, distinctly classical filmmaking. Even at PENANCE’s most conventional moments (mostly in the final episode, which provides more resolution --at least in some regards-- than he’s usually inclined to offer) there’s no doubt you’re in the hands of an auteur who is absolutely confident of his abilities and absolutely unwavering in his vision. Methodical, mysterious, offbeat, and compelling, and maybe the best thing Kurosawa has done since BRIGHT FUTURE.

Another triumph of micro-budget indie horror, IT FOLLOWS sets itself up a straightforward, elegant original premise and then lets it play out, trusting the overwhelmingly ominous, paranoid atmosphere and understated imagery to get under our skin. It’s simple, but it’s spectacularly effective; director David Robert Mitchell and cinematographer Mike Gioulakis turn the Detroit suburbs into a brooding, twitchy nightmare with such ease that I can’t imagine anyone living in the area who saw this movie will ever again be completely comfortable in their neighborhood. The pace is patient but relentless --just like the mysterious IT of the title-- the acting is nuanced and believable, and the tone is spot-on for a dreamy, sweat-soaked descent into fear. The movie does itself no favors by setting up a premise which just begs to be overanalyzed, but don’t make that mistake -- the premise is a perfect cocktail to play off our vulnerabilities and anxieties about sex, guilt, and responsibility, not to be a stand-in for some kind of petty moralizing. IT FOLLOWS is too good for that bullshit. Give yourself over to this one and enjoy a pitch-perfect fever dream, the kind that lingers with you even though when you describe it to your friends you can never quite explain it right.

The phrase “From the director of TRICK R TREAT” --which is very possibly the best horror anthology of all time, and the third-best holiday film of all time, after HALLOWEEN and GROUNDHOG DAY-- was a guaranteed ticket sold to me, and director Mike Dougherty (who turns out not to be Soul Coughing frontman Mike Doughty, bummer) does not disappoint. KRAMPUS moves the holiday-themed action from Halloween to Christmas, but keeps the tone of its predecessor, which is to say an intoxicating mix of ingenious scares, dark comedy, and well-honed character moments. The monsters herein are without question the best designs of the year, and Dougherty utilizes them to tremendously fun and spooky effect, but don’t overlook the surprisingly earnest human story. An excellent cast --led by an amazingly committed Adam Scott and, especially, Toni Collette -- actually get to experience some real character arcs, which heightens the suspense without detracting in the slightest from the delightful menagerie of monsters that Dougherty visits upon them. Simply terrific fun, and a great reminder that horror movies needn’t be so damned serious all the time to still deliver the goods.

Henry Rollins is a mysterious, supernatural, uncomfortably intense old badass, who just wants to be left alone… until mysterious gangsters start to fuck with his routine. That’s all you need to know, but it’s not half of what makes this weird, low-budget action/horror/comedy gem tick. Like Rollins himself, the movie can be a little awkward and off-putting at times, but its intensity, ambition, and --crucially-- rich vein of deadpan comedy make for the kind of movie which will just have you smiling bigger and bigger as it goes along. It kinda peters out at the end, I grant, but it’s rich with charm, violence, and surprisingly bold ideas. See the full review here!

Sold with the eyebrow-raising high-concept come-on of a western / cannibal horror movie hybrid, BONE TOMAHAWK turns out to only occasionally be either of those. I mean, it is a Western, and it does, eventually, take a turn into cannibal horror, but mostly it’s something even more unexpected: a long, talky hangout movie starring Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson, Matthew Fox, and Richard Jenkins. Sure, sure, they got a Sid Haig cameo at the beginning so they know their way around horror, but what the movie really wants to do is put those four guys on horseback, and have them wander around and talk about life and philosophy and right and wrong, while they gradually make their way to a bloody HILLS-HAVE-EYES finale. That this is a stranger decision even than a cannibal Western is not in dispute, but then again, neither are the results: it’s fucking great. Russell and his mustache from HATEFUL EIGHT are in fine form, Wilson is likeable, and someone finally realized that there actually is a good use for Matthew Fox, if you cast him as a pompous, mustachio’d asshole. But it’s Jenkins who walks off with the movie, playing an earnest, well-meaning eccentric given to whimsical aphorisms like, “You know, I know the world's supposed to be round, but I'm not so sure about this part.” The horror, when it arrives in the last 20 minutes, is plenty brutal, but a bit short on style and atmosphere to really get the skin crawling. But by that point, you like the characters so much that it doesn’t matter, so it works out OK. Surprisingly unassuming considering its unusual pedigree, but also not quite like anything else you’ve ever seen.

Genre: Sci-Fi (or, "SyFy")

The Spierig Brother’s surprisingly faithful adaptation of Robert Heinlein's short story All You Zombies ingeniously expands on its central premise while still keeping its ballsy twist as a centerpiece. It’s a gripping slippery sci-fi romp, well-appointed and consistently surprising, but it’s even better as a complicated personal drama, thanks to a terrific performance from Ethan Hawke, and an absolutely mind-blowing performance from newcomer Sarah Snook, who turns in the hands-down best performance of the year, either gender, bar none. I know the Academy doesn’t give out Oscars to films which premier in January, and at this point it’s pretty trite to point out that they always overlook great performances like this in genre movies, but even so I just feel that honor demands I say jeez this is an egregious oversight. Having now proved herself to be one of the most ambitious and gifted actresses around, I look forward to a long career of seeing Snook appear as wives and girlfriends without anything interesting to do. Even so, I suspect this movie will gradually build a cult following as one of those very rare things, a sci-fi movie which is more focused on mind-bending ideas than explosions (although it does have a few of those, too). 

Genre: Action 

While it lacks the grandeur and wildly imaginative setpieces of its Brad-Bird-directed 2011 predecessor, the latest M:I sequel makes up for it with a better villain (an icy, genuinely scary Sean Harris, also seen in this year’s excellent ‘71) and a more elegant plot, plus all the clever tech antics and overwrought spectacle you would expect. Delightful action sequences abound, there’s a charming cast, and for a modern obscene-budget action movie it’s assembled with surprising deftness (though that’s somewhat of a backhanded compliment). If it has a flaw, it’s that it’s maybe a little too slick and disposable. I saw it only three months ago, and I’m already struggling to remember any specifics about it. And actually I had to go back and figure out how long ago I actually watched it, too. But as far as cinematic cotton candy goes, this is pretty durn tasty.

Offbeat and self-aware enough to distinguish itself from Marvel’s increasingly homogenized lockstep, and much more charming than any movie which was finished by some other director after the only person who actually wanted to make it in the first place walked away over artistic differences with the studio has any right to be. It’s much better as the scrappy caper comedy the Paul-Rudd/Michael Pena team-up suggests it should be than it is as the inevitable superhero origin story it must become, but I suppose both parts have their merits. I like the suit, anyway, and they come up with enough ridiculous reasons to turn tiny that it kept me amused. Even an actor as naturally charismatic as Corey Stoll still can’t seem to break Marvel’s curse of dull villains, though. I was ready to write it off as a competent, mostly appealing time-waster until the film had the balls to go full-on psychedelic at its finale. OK, it lamely cheats its way out of it, but the fact that it was willing to go there puts it ahead of a lot of the competition.
Oooh, controversy. Nobody liked this surreal and extremely odd Ryan Gosling-directed ode to David Lynch by way of THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES, as directed by Nicolas Winding Refn. It was greeted with boo’s and jeers at its Cannes premiere. It’s sitting at 30% on rotten tomatoes, in the company of DUMB AND DUMBER TO and Paul W. S. Anderson's POMPEII, and ISHTAR.* Even the few critics who recommend it agree it’s a total mess. And it’s not hard to figure out why; Gosling seems to have found everything which is annoying and frustrating about Lynch, Cianfrance and Refn, and very few of their strengths. Well, except one: the cinematography, by Benoît Debie (IRREVERSIBLE, ENTER THE VOID, SPRING BREAKERS) is a lugubrious, filthy marvel, and the score by Johnny Jewel (DRIVE, BRONSON) is a perfect compliment, full of fuzzy menace and broken-down yearning. The tone is right. And it is a thing of beauty to get the tone this right. If you can ignore Gosling’s embarrassing script (full of phony redneck patois and charmless forced offbeat oddness) and just soak in the atmosphere, possibly while really, really stoned, there’s the core of a terrific, sinister and mournful art movie here. That’s a big ask, and Gosling sure doesn’t give you a lot of reasons you should overlook his painful failings as a writer, but on the other hand there’s an ambition here which is undeniable. Had he pulled this off, it would have been an all-time favorite. He didn’t, but still, getting halfway there is really something when you’re aiming this high. There’s a lot of shittiness to be found here, but also a consistent thread of genuine greatness; as a story --even a fragmented, arty story-- it’s regrettably amateurish, but as a hallucinogenic, mostly-visual tone poem/horror fantasy meditation on economic and spiritual decay in the despairing Rust Belt, it has moments of sublime perfection. Plus Ben Mendelsohn gets to go full-on campy as the sleazy villain, and fuck, you got Barbara Steele in there as a creepy mute. Barbara fucking Steele. Remind me again how anyone hated this? I don’t know. You probably won’t like it, but I may have just convinced myself that I loved it.

*Then again, RED LIGHTS and TWIXT both have 29%, so what do critics know?

Billed as a wuxia art film from Taiwanese arthouse darling Hou Hsiao-Hsien (CITY OF SADNESS, FLIGHT OF THE RED BALLOON), it’s certainly nothing of the kind, at least as the genre has typically been defined. While there are a few martial arts scuffles, they’re few and far between, and over quickly. So it’s a wuxia film which has most of the martial arts taken out. It’s also a martial arts film which has had almost everything taken out -- protagonist, motivation, resolution, context. What’s left are context-free dialogue scenes, exposition for things which are never explained or elaborated on. There is clearly some sort of plot that happens here; I mean, it’s clear who most of the characters are in a general way, and we see some altercations between them which would seem completely normal in a movie which gave them any context. But just when I thought maybe I was piecing things together, a crazy wizard guy showed up, and how he fits into the whole thing I certainly do not know, leaving this probably the only Hou Hsiao-Hsien movie which shares a plot device with Steven Seagal’s BELLY OF THE BEAST. So it’s a martial arts movie with very few martial arts, a political intrigue thriller with no comprehensible plot, and a character piece about characters we never understand. And this is clearly done intentionally -- I think Hou could easily describe the movie’s plot and motivations if he so wished (it’s “loosely based on the late 9th century martial arts story "Nie Yinniang" by Pei Xing,” says wikipedia), but for reasons of his own, he deliberately omits key pieces of the puzzle, leaving just enough connective tissue to prevent it from feeling utterly random but carefully obstructing any kind of real understanding. What does that leave, then? Just one thing: overwhelming aesthetic beauty. And it is indeed overwhelming. Shooting in a confoundingly constrictive 1.37:1 aspect ratio, Hou and cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bing conjure images of alien, breathtaking beauty which are just so utterly gorgeous that it frankly doesn’t matter in the least what, specifically, they mean. The plot is lightly sketched enough that you can simply enter this world and get lost in it, which is exactly what I recommend you do, and as soon as possible.
This is one of those irritating ones which technically premiered in 2014, but of course no one outside a few festival-goers actually got to see it ‘til early 2015, myself included. But this revenge-fixated anthology is such an energetic and gleefully malicious little fantasy that I am certainly compelled to acknowledge it here. For what we would, I suppose, generally term an “arthouse film,” I don’t know that this has a lot of substance to it, but as a misanthropic ode to the sweet, sweet taste of revenge (served hot or cold), it’s absolutely intoxicating. Pacing, acting, and blackly comic tone are all pitch-perfect, and if the film has one problem, it’s only that it never tops its opening segment, a slow reveal which is about as perfect an exercise in setup and payoff as you will ever hope to see in a motion picture. But what a problem to have!

It honestly took me a while to parse out the vibe of this lightly surreal, offbeat western-comedy from New Zealand-based first-time director John McLean (DIE HARD). It has a very strange, somewhat episodic structure, full of odd vignettes and incessant banter and peppered with both images of violent, gritty Western revisionism and mythic abstraction. But about 20 minutes in, something clicked, I got it, and from there on I was completely entranced by the delicate balance between melancholy romanticism, goofball humor, lyrical beauty and startling violence. Michael Fassbender is, of course, terrific, and his somewhat-fatherly, somewhat-antagonistic relationship with young idealist Kodi McPhee-Smith (THE ROAD, LET ME IN) is the movie’s emotional core. But give credit to another pitch-perfect weirdo role for Ben Mendelsohn, inexplicably looking just like “Desire”-era Bob Dylan, and a bevy of lesser-known character actors, all of whom contribute to this oddball romp through a dreamy, funny, violent Old West which never was, but obviously should have been.

This newest offering from Pixar -- the formerly undisputed king of American animation, in whom I had recently started to really lose faith after years of shameless sequelizing and demeaning money grabs-- handedly redeems their tentative last few years with one of their most enjoyable and ambitious films ever. INSIDE OUT is a fun, visually inventive adventure through the literalized subconscious of an adolescent, ingeniously touring the current understanding of neuropsychology along the way. That’s right: this is a lively, adventurous movie for kids, which consists of a literal journey through the most abstract theories of mind, all made concrete and personified. I literally cannot think of another movie which sets a more ambitious task for itself, let alone one which executes it with such apparent ease. Honestly this came within a hair of my top 14, and the only thing that holds me back is the vague, somewhat implacable sense that perhaps the film is too clever for its own good, soaring to remarkable heights in frenetic, imaginative storytelling and ingenious visual metaphor, but perhaps winding up slightly too abstract to hit as hard on an emotional level as the very best Pixar films do. Then again, maybe I was just too busy being impressed on the first viewing to even register anything else. Because it is, if absolutely nothing else, a tremendously impressive effort, and proof that Pixar, when it sets its mind to it, is practically untouchable.

We, as a nation, have been rescuing Matt Damon for quite awhile, but seldom has it been such fun. And seldom has it been so far; the premise here, of course, is that Damon is an astronaut marooned on no less forbidding a surface than Mars, who must get creative if he’s going to survive and get home (at great taxpayer expense). Despite hearing it was good, I just couldn’t get excited about this one while it was in theaters, I guess because director Ridley Scott has such an uneven track record that I sort of assumed it would be another great-looking but ponderous bore, like PROMETHEUS or, god help us, EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS (a movie whose very title is a wearying death march of unearned pretensions). But I had not counted on writer Drew Goddard, who deftly transforms exactly the kind of movie you would assume Scott would make into a turgid slog, into a lively, charming adventure tale. Even Scott’s tendency towards grand, epic visuals can’t manage to take the fun out of Goddard’s cheerful gallows humor. A terrific, highly diverse cast (packed with great actors in small roles that maybe don’t require them, but shit, I’m never sorry to see Chiwetel Ejiofor, even if he doesn’t have a lot to do) goes a lot further than the expensive effects, but that’s not to say the journey isn’t exciting in itself, as Goddard cleverly throws one obstacle after another at our hapless Matt Damon. Considering the talent and money deployed here, the results are a bit slighter than maybe they ought to be, but the film is a scintillatingly pleasurable journey from start to finish.

No less an authority on cinema than my Mom and Dad (who saw this before I did, a good sign for the universe) hailed DOPE as “the FERRIS BUELLER'S DAY OFF of this generation,” which is an assessment I could not possibly hope to top. And that means exactly what it sounds like -- this is a energetic, slightly farcical romp full of good will and winning characters. The only difference is that while Ferris Bueller hailed from the affluent, insulated world of the John Hughes suburbs, DOPE places our good-natured hero with a magic touch solidly in the poverty-and-violence-ridden streets of Inglewood, California. This gives a very mildly gritter touch to the whole adventure and heightens the stakes a little, but the breezy tone is unmistakable and infectious. Though the characters insist they play in a “punk” band (a debatable point, but whatever) the soundtrack is rife with top-quality early 90’s hip-hop (and some healthy nostalgia) and a sense of madcap fun pervades everything -- right up until the last minute, when the movie becomes a bit insistent about its moral, which was probably better made just by virtue of telling a story than by last-minute sermonizing. Still, DOPE knows that it’s the movie America needs right now, and I can’t argue with that.

Rebounding off his oddly restrained (for him, anyway) vampire art movie DA SWEET BLOOD OF JESUS, CHI-RAQ (a name, of course, evoking the pernicious violence with plagues Chicago’s South Side) finds Spike Lee up to his old tricks, which is to say, crafting overstuffed, crazy, messy, angry, loving, compassionate, contradictory, offensive and transcendent works of passion. Plus, this time it’s an ultra-stylized musical. About gang violence. As Vern put it,  Lee must’ve woke up one morning and said fuck it, I’m gonna make a movie that’s so Spike Lee it turns into Baz Luhrmann. The result is a movie which is absolutely all over the place in terms of tone, style, message, (and, to some extent, quality), and features everyone from Nick Cannon to David Patrick Kelly to Dave Chappelle (his first film role in 13 years!). As we’ve come to expect from Lee, sometimes the wild tonal shifts turn a bit discordant, but when it works, it’s a thing of surreal, sublime beauty, funny and angry and passionate. Maybe the most powerful part is the most unexpected, though: halfway through this stylized, sex-soaked musical, everything pauses for a heartfelt, prose sermon about the state of race relations in America, delivered by John Cusack of all people. Sometimes the direct approach is the best approach, and it’s sometimes frustrating to watch Lee chase good ideas with bad, or even run two good ideas into each other head-on. But with an artist as vigorous and original as Lee is, trying to reign things in would defeat the whole purpose of watching a great American auteur chase his own dreams. Plus, Wesley Snipes wears a sequin eye-patch, what other movie would dare offer such heady pleasures?

Continued Tomorrow, with THE BEST OF THE REST! -- A brief examination of a another 15 or so films that didn't quite make the cut but are just too damn great to be forgotten -- Documentary and Drama categories!