Sunday, February 7, 2016

Best of 2015 | Movies at Film Festivals

Everyone creates their end of year list of favorite films, and that is well and good. But year after year, the most exceptional movies I watch are at film festivals. Since these films have not, in most cases, yet received theatrical distribution they are often left out of the end of year discussions. Which is frankly unforgivable. And it is the reason I have been creating a separate list of favorite films watched at film festivals. 

Over at Moviewallas, our voices have gone sore from exhorting listeners to attend film festivals. Any film festival. If you can get yourself to one of the more prestigious ones, that is terrific; but we do not always have the time to make an out of town trip specifically for a film festival. So I say, start close. Start at home. Start with your local film festival. Besides, your hometown festivals need all the support they can get. It is not trivial to curate and program a film festival, get permissions to screen the films, and arrange the logistics. And the least we can do is to show up.

I make it sound like film festivals are bitter medicines to be swallowed for the greater good. Perish the thought. The film festival experience can truly be exalted; I recall my first festival experience as being akin to a religious awakening. There you are getting to see a film before anyone else. Bragging rights aside, what is better than annoying your friends about films they absolutely must watch upon commercial release. Second, movies shown at film festivals bring the filmmakers with them. Most film screenings are followed by a Q and A with the director and often the cast. Talk about annoying your friends now, with casually tossed references to that time Tom Hardy gave a really witty answer to an audience question. And then there is the matter of access, that you otherwise just would never be able to tap into. Foreign films, independent films, commercial films, documentaries, short film programs, retrospectives, they are all part of the festival experience. 

And finally, and most depressing of all, the film festival may be the only place to view some of these gems. And I am talking about high quality movies, which due to the terrible evil that is the american film distribution system, will never show up in a commercial theater in your hometown. 

I know that much of this sounds terribly preachy. But if you ever have the slightest curiosity about a film festival, I would urge you to give it a try. With that PSA out of the way, let me jump into the best films I saw at film festivals in 2015: 


  1. LAS MALAS LENGUAS (SWEET AND VICIOUS; Columbia) Tribeca Film Festival Have you ever felt like you are a bystander in your own life? This film, a scalpel sharp character study of a privileged girl in Columbia starts to reflect on the adolescence of nothing less than an entire nation. This is filmmaking of the highest order. 
  2. ECHOES OF WAR (USA) – San Diego Film Festival It is hard to believe this is the directorial debut of Kane Senes. A slow burn homage to frontier era American farm life, this film is so committed to the air and light and sound and breath of that time, that the rigor with which this has been recreated will leave you breathless. You will be left breathless still by the film's sudden gallop into Peckinpah territory. James Dale Badge and Ethan Embry are stellar here; to see them unrecognized during end of year acting accolades is a crime. I take hope however in knowing that the spirit of seventies cinema is alive and well still in the work of filmmakers such as Senes. 
  3. ANESTHESIA (USA)Tribeca Film Festival  This is a literate, proudly cerebral addition to the genre of films involving multiple intersecting stories. Writer/director/actor Tim Blake Nelson has gathered Sam Waterson, Glenn Close, Gretchen Moll, Corey Stoll, Gloria Rueben and Mickey Sumner to fill in the many stories, but it is Kristen Stewart who may be the MVP here, proving yet again her ability to effortlessly convey determined intelligence. 
  4. ELIZABETH EKADASHI (India) Los Angeles Indian Film Festival To watch this heartfelt film is to get lost in a story so vivid and peopled with characters so authentic as to make you grateful for being in your cinema seat. When their mother runs into a hard financial crunch, two kids in India must summon all their resources to prevent the sale of their beloved bicycle (named Elizabeth) that was gifted to them by their recently deceased dad. 
  5. ITS ALREADY TOMORROW IN HONG KONG (USA/Hong Kong) Los Angeles Film Festival  An American man stationed in Hong Kong for a few years meets a visiting Chinese-American girl. They walk and they talk. And they meet again a few years later. If this sounds a little like Linklater's BEFORE SUNRISE/SUNSET, then this film earns the right to stand in their company. Wistful, wise and stridently romantic, this film knows that often the most authentic connections in life have nowhere to go. 
  6. MOUNTAINS MAY DEPART (China) San Diego Asian Film Festival Is this the best Asian film to be released last year? It lulls you first into thinking that it is an inconsequential eighties-set love triangle, until the film opens up, in every possible way: thematically, in scope, in geography, and literally on the screen with a widening aspect ratio. Featuring a marvelous last act that is inspired and dangerous and yet oddly apt, this is the work of a master. 
  7. TAXI (Iran) San Diego Asian Film Festival Director and pied-piper Jafar Panahi, still under house-arrest by the Iranian government, manages to orchestrate a cast of several to create another sly, humorous and altogether humane film. It is a losing battle trying to deduce the parts that are documentary and those that are staged as Panahi drives a taxi around Tehran; at the end the film is inarguably simply a device to fill hearts. 
  8. AYENDA AND THE MECHANIC (South Africa)Los Angeles Film Festival This is an earthy, ambitious, messy, vibrantly alive epic about a multitude of characters teeming current-day Johannesburg. Director Sarah Blecher said after the screening, "It is time for South Africa to be telling stories about people. We are past telling stories about causes". Amen. 
  9. CARTEL LAND (Mexico)Tribeca Film Festival Having already grabbed a prestigious Oscar nomination for Best Documentary, this is the real thing, telling the hopeless, shape-shifting, inscrutable story of the influence of Mexican drug cartels. This is essential cinema. 
  10. APPROPRIATE BEHAVIOR (USA) - San Diego Asian Film Festival This is an acid-sweet confessional that declares writer/director/actor Desiree Akhavan as an undeniable talent. Achingly honest, conflicted, and an easy purveyor of comedy of the disquiet, the film is all those things because Akhavan refuses to turn the camera off on any aspect of her life. She stomps her way into cinema and we have to no choice but to listen.  
  11. ATOMIC HEARTS (Iran)Los Angeles Film Festival Above genre and gleefully anarchic, this film still practices rigid structure in its story-telling. Is this a vampire film? Is it social commentary on modern day Iran by way of intentionally deflected genre confusion? Is it stream of consciousness script-writing untethered by narrative? Whatever it is, it is unpredictable and giddy and more than a little mischievous.  
  12. HUNGRY HEARTS (Italy) Tribeca Film Festival  There is literally nothing in the annals of cinema quite like this film. Part love story, part litmus test for the audience, this film slowly reveals it colors to present itself as a war of ideologies. And in its punishingly uncompromising look at both sides of this divide, the film stridently refuses to take sides. Even as things spiral inevitably into insanity and darkness. Adam Driver may be more famous now playing a Star Wars villain, but this film should leave no doubt about his commitment to smaller films.  
  13. MY LOVE, DON’T CROSS THAT RIVER (South Korea) – Los Angeles Film Festival This is the most commercially profitable South Korean film to date, and it is easy to see why. The documentary follows a couple through the last years of a marriage that has spanned 75 years. All documentaries based on real life footage are inherently untrue because the known presence of a camera fundamentally changes the behavior of those in front of it. Even so, this film somehow manages to capture the insoluble, ineffable call-what-you-want bond between any couple that has prevailed over decades. In that, the film is universal, and the audience is at once invested in the fate of the central characters. 
  14. THE CROW’S EGG (India) – Los Angeles Indian Film Festival  Two kids in a slum go through a Quixotic quest to get a taste of the most unachievable of things: a slice of pizza from the swanky new fast food joint that has opened in the neighborhood. The film gets occasionally heavy-handed in its commentary on the establishment, but there is no denying the pleasures of a David versus Goliath archetype done with heart. 

Monday, January 18, 2016

Martin Luther King Day Reflections


Thursday last week, I was a guest on a public radio discussion (KPBS Midday Edition) of the Oscar nominations which had been announced earlier that morning. Beth Accomando, the KPBS lead film critic kindly invited me. Maureen Cavanaugh, the host of the program asked us about racial diversity amongst the announced nominees.  All nominees in the four acting categories (Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor, Male and Female) are white. So which deserving actors of color should deservedly been nominated, Maureen inquired. And in the moment, the only name that came to mind was that of Michael B. Jordan in CREED. The challenges with being on live radio.

Since then, I have been thinking of other worthy actors of color who could have received nominations and there are many who  qualified: the earthy authenticity of Mya Taylor and Kikana Kiki Rodriguez in TANGERINE, the wily disquiet of Oscar Isaac in EX-MACHINA, the star-making turns from Jason Mitchell and O'Shea Jackson Jr in STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON, the altogether winning and sweet performance from Shameik Moore in DOPE, the goofy, lispy, bad-guy take by Samuel L. Jackson in KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE, or his guileless, contradictory, unforgiving central presence in THE HATEFUL EIGHT, the unconventional supportive ex-husband played by Edgar Ramirez in JOY, the glowing life-forces that were the five incredible Turkish actresses playing sisters in MUSTANG, the corruptor / corrupted pair of Idris Elba and Abraham Attah in BEASTS OF NO NATION. The list goes on and on.

To be clear, I do not suggest that nominations be preferentially handed out to actors of color just to appease liberal sensibilities; I do not believe anyone is suggesting that. But the key question is this: within the pool of worthy contenders, is there a systematic bias against picking those of color? This is hard to definitively answer because each voting member's pick, is by definition, subjective and driven by personal likes. But what we do know are three incontestable facts. First, the Academy voters are predominantly older, male and white. Second, there were several deserving candidates of color in most if not all four acting categories. Third, no actor of color received a nomination in the acting category in the last two years. Make what you will of this; there is a reason why #OscarsSoWhite is resonating so strongly.

There were more than a few eyebrows raised last year, including at this site, when Ava Duvernay was left out of the Best Director nominations last year for her rousing work on SELMA. It quickly escalated to open outrage. And there is zero evidence that any correction has occurred in the twelve months since then.

It is Martin Luther King Jr Day today, and like many I wonder how much has changed in the wake of his legacy. The past year has seen some of the most upsetting and achingly repetitive dialog surface again about race in the national spotlight. It seems we keep saying the same things year after year to no real shift. Things have been particularly troubling at the volatile juncture of race and police brutality.

When it comes to films. Idris Elba made an impassioned plea this morning to the UK Parliament today asking for parity in roles written for (and awarded to) actors of color. His words ring with an urgent call to action even as he sounds exhausted uttering them. This is after all the year when Hollywood hired Emma Stone to play an Asian American character in ALOHA.  When Viola Davis won the Emmy this year, her speech cut through to the gist of the matter: "You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there", she said. [Here is one more of our finest actors, pushed like so many into television because Hollywood just cannot seem to find the right material for her in films]. The total number of films that were offered to Lupito Nyongo in the first six months after winning the Best Supporting Actress prize last year: zero.

Spike Lee, who is scheduled to be given an HonoraryAcademy Award at this year's event, announced today that he will not be attending the Oscar ceremonies as a protest to the all-white acting nominations; his announcement on MLK Day is no co-incidence. And it is not too difficult to empathize with his stance. In the decades since Martin Luther King Jr, how many steps have we taken forward and how many back.


Sunday, January 3, 2016

Best of 2015 | Mainstream Films


I will always gravitate toward smaller, independent films. But every year there are a few blockbusters that are not evil. Some even surprise us. I have already posted my overall personal favorite films of 2015.  Here is a list of favorite mainstream films of the year, in alphabetical order. When top brass studio executives go to bed, the ones involved in greenlighting these films ought to sleep well.




ANTMAN Talk about a challenge. Taking on a lesser Marvel character - someone able to shrink to the size of an ant - seems a surefire recipe for a disaster of a film. But somehow it all stuck together in ANTMAN. I want to shake hands with the person who cast Paul Rudd in the lead. And I want to pat the back of these filmmakers for not destroying entire cities in the climax, but have it instead be something that is the definition of inspired. 

KINGSMAN, THE SECRET SERVICE. You want goofy and smart? You want a film that makes you smile as its cleverness holds strong, scene after inspired scene? What do you know, KINGSMAN gave us all that. By the time the finale rode along, it will feel good to submit with pleasure to the winking absurdity of it all. 

THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. Guy Ritchie brings an inspired, cheeky, impossibly stylish action movie that could actually have been made in the sixties. Forget the double and triple-crosses from the femme fatales, the real chemistry here is between the male leads (Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer).

THE MARTIAN Hardcore fans of the novel (I raise my hand) have found the science substantially dumbed down, and much of the despair of the lead character curiously whittled down, in the movie adaptation. But there is no denying Ridley Scott's wizardry with conjuring worlds masterfully (on Mars and Earth alike) to tell an inarguably entertaining story, peopled with tens of major characters. And the last fifteen minutes are crystallized adrenaline.

MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: ROGUE NATION. It is difficult putting out a quality product when you are in round five of a franchise already two decades old. But Christopher McQuarrie (EDGE OF TOMORROW) delivered a solid film, sharp, confident and relevant. Top marks too to the script-writers for a female character (Rebecca Ferguson) that is neither smitten nor needs rescuing.

SPY Melissa McCarthy should only ever work with Paul Feig. Because Lord knows everyone else in the business is bent on having her play some shrill, hateful caricature of an off-the-rails shrew. McCarthy is tremendous here in a deft little thriller, never more so than in scenes with Rose Byrne's arch Bulgarian villain.

STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS. Impossibly high expectations! The revival of dusty characters last seen decades ago! The need to self-correct course after Lucas' three subpar prequels! But J. J. Abrams' team somehow come through with an uncluttered but tight new chapter in the space saga that introduces shockingly well-realized new characters even while gently emulating the original film (A NEW HOPE). Thank you, truly, for not dashing our collective hopes.



Best of 2015 | Movies | Personal Favorites



Earlier this month, about halfway through THE REVENANT, I became conscious of my self floating about seven feet above my body. I live for such transcendent moments at the movies. This was already about the fourth occurrence in the past twelve months. I wondered to myself then, if in the future, 2015 will be looked at as a golden hour in the history of film. Like we do now say 1976, when TAXI DRIVER, NETWORK, ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, ROCKY, IN THE REALM OF THE SENSES, 1900 and THE ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 were all released.

Anyone who claims that this was an unremarkable year at the movies is itching for a fight; bring on the gloves. If you were left unmoved in your cinema seat this year, you haven’t bothered to seek out the right films, my friend.


No matter what genre your inner cinephile resonates with, there were incredible offerings this year which restructured the genre. If I do not sound objective and impartial while introducing my best films list, it is intentional. I would posit that objectivity has no room in film writing. If you do not have the capacity to fall madly, irrationally, violently in love with a movie, then you shouldn’t write about film. When we sit down in that cinema seat, we bring with us a lifetime of biases. We bring with us what happened to us that morning, and who we broke up with earlier in the year, and whose loss we are mourning for longer than we would care to admit. The archeology of our mental and emotional state, both the immediate and the calcified, influences our individual reactions to a film. And it should. Because this is what grants diversity in film opinion. If all of us liked the same films, we would be a boring, hopeless lot. Intense, forehead-vein popping debates about films are what fuel my engine. And my favorite film reviewers, the ones I read religiously, are not necessarily those whose tastes in film align with my own; they just happen to write like a dream about why a specific film meant so much to them, based on their junction in life at the time they watched it.

So herewith is the list; they represent my personal favorites. As in previous years, the main criterion for inclusion of a film was that, in some small way or large, it altered my emotionally circuitry, often irreversibly. Hence, many films that I respect a lot but which didn’t necessarily shake me up (e.g., CAROL, THE BIG SHORT, SPOTLIGHT) are not on this list. 

Since I have had a longtime (and happy) affliction of listomania, there will be two other lists: Best Mainstream Films and Best FilmsSeen At Film Festivals. This year I will be posting two additional lists: Most Disappointing Films of the year, and Most Overlooked Films.  So there will be plenty of cinematic muck to roll around in, you little piglets.

1. ROOM: How often do we hear news stories about events so far flung from norms of human behavior as to make us wonder how they could even have transpired.  And yet they happen. Based on the novel by Emma Donaghue, ROOM presents us with a five year old; the only world he has seen is a shed in which he has been living with his mother, both imprisoned by a captor. Isn’t it so that evil in the real world is matter of fact, often standing unremarkably in plain sight until it is recognized? ROOM takes this premise and considers it without prurience, or the slightest concession to sensationalism. And like the best films, ROOM transcends its setup, as its theme comes more visibly into focus in the second half: this is a movie about recovery. Are we not, each one of us, in some manner, recovering in life. And what is it that heals us. It is the routine, banal constancy of little things. A dog. The unconditional affection from a grandparent. A kind person’s presence. By quietly commenting on the human capacity for resilience, ROOM demonstrates more emotional honesty than other film this year. Featuring performances by Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay that are minor miracles, ROOM is the best film of the year.

2. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD  George Miller's MAD MAX: FURY ROAD is stark raving mad. But then don't you have to be a little bit insane to get into history books. And this film unapologetically claims its place in cinema as the superior action film made to date. In this fourth installment set in the post-apocalyptic world of previous Mad Max films, a woman revolts against her feudal master and escapes with other young girls enslaved for the specific purpose of breeding. Along the way Max becomes a reluctant accomplice, as the film’s architecture gets defined by a single chase across the desert. If you want to watch something agreeable and neatly contained and with a traditional storytelling arc, then maybe this film is not for you. But otherwise, watch this film as a masterclass on three-dimensional storyboarding. On the project management of physics in action sequences.  On how to reinvent a franchise. Watch how effortlessly it makes the audience a participant; you will forget to breathe. FURY ROAD is a challenge to the whole new generation of action filmmakers working today, urging them to follow its audacious path into the genre's future.

3. THE REVENANT  Relentless and breathtaking, THE REVENANT is why I go to the movies. It is reason we all should. A man in frontier era America is left for dead and has to claw his way back to exact some small piece of retribution [‘revenant’ means one that has returned from the dead].  And his journey becomes our journey: horrifying and crushing, but also majestic and ultimately, sublime. Critics of the film have found the protagonist’s Job-like trials unrealistic, comical even. But the unrelentingly dire isn’t mutually exclusive with reality; the film is based on the real life story of American Frontiersman Hugh Glass.  After helming a series of films that were multitych confluences of several stories, Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu made a leviathan leap last year with BIRDMAN, filmed to seem like a single uninterrupted take.  And here with THE REVENANT, Inarritu is working on an exalted plane, better for having shaken off his innate affinity for intertwined stories in favor of a singular uncluttered tale of survival. Composed entirely of long takes, and shot using only naturally available light, you will see things that just haven’t been previously projected on a cinema screen; this is work of exceptional craft. And in the last page of the story, the film makes an understated case that it is the casual, unthought acts of goodness that will ultimately save us. And there is grace in this karmic assertion.

4. BROOKLYN There’s a scene late in BROOKLYN, in which the simple act of a girl placing an unopened letter into a drawer drew a loud gasp from the theater audience, both times I saw the film. This speaks to how invested the audience was in a story told right. Scripted by Nick Hornby from the novel of the same name by Colm Toibin, this is the story of a young Irish girl who emigrates to America in the fifties. If you watch this film and it doesn’t fill you up, you can be no friend of mine. There has been a tendency for decades now to see sentimentality as a vice, a crutch for lesser filmmakers. But when done right and with authenticity, it can be the most powerful thing in the movies. Case in point, BROOKLYN, which like SHORT TERM 12 last year, demonstrates that what we feel will always trump what we see in the movies. BROOKLYN is about growing up and making peace with where you came from. Anyone who has written letters across the oceans and felt achingly homesick will empathize. And the film is lusciously romantic, unapologetically so. It is also blessed with Saoirse Ronan playing the lead in the sort of role that becomes defining for an actor. I want to hug this movie, and hug it, and hug it.



5. EX-MACHINA A canny examination of what it means to be human, this is a sly, sexy, sci-fi head-trip. Where films like AI: ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE and even 2001, A SPACE ODYSSEY have struggled to crystallize the inherent irony with artificial intelligence - that the more successful we get with imparting intelligence to a machine, the more that machine will want to refuse orders from humans - EX-MACHINA drives home this concept with admirable simplicity. Much of the film is a cat and mouse game between a female robot just starting to bloom under the first stirrings of consciousness, and two humans who only seem to be playing the roles of Creator and Emancipator. Willfully intellectual and magnificently violent, with some of the best production design this year, this film is a gift that any self-respecting cinephile ought to unwrap in a hurry.

6. MISTRESS AMERICA   It’s a shame that in all the awards season clatter, this film is not being celebrated more.  A girl new to New York is taken under the wings of a seasoned, know-it-all played by Greta Gerwig. One of the joys of this film, which has the best script of any movie released this year as far as I am concerned, is to see how it translocates our allegiance between the two characters at different times during the movie. MISTRESS AMERICA also has the single funniest sequence this year, an almost slapstick Noel Cowardesque piece set at a suburban home where a multitude of characters interact with precision timing. Gerwig’s character has a deliberate artifice (and an off-kilter cadence to her speech) but we eventually come to realize a sly, back-handed authenticity to her. As luminous an actor as she is, Gerwig’s greater contribution may be as that stealth writer that Hollywood will be all too late in recognizing. Inspired by Woody Allen and Robert Altman alike, and a familiar cousin to FRANCES HA (the previous film co-written by Gerwig and Noah Baumbach) this is an urbane, smart, and ultimately wise comedy of manners.

7.  DOPE  Every minute of this film is thrillingly alive. A loving send-off to urban eighties films such as FRIDAY and BOYS IN THE HOOD, this movie manages to transcend genre. The coming of age story of an intelligent young black man trying to break free from his surroundings with help from his two just as poorly adjusted friends, is giddy and inspired and sexy. I believed these characters and rooted for them. A film can achieve this level of specificity only when it is allowed to be a singular vision, in this case, coming from the mind of Rick Fumuyiwa, who wrote and directed this film. Thank goodness for smaller films that still get made without studio meddling. On the list of this film's achievements is also the altogether winning breakout performance from its lead actor, Shameik Moore. What a sweet, sweet film this is.

8. KINGSMAN, THE SECRET SERVICE When was the last time a movie actually thrilled you, made you giddy with what was unfolding on screen. At one point, I found myself yelling (thankfully in my internal voice) at the screen: "Run, run, they are right behind you". And I am for the most part a dour, unexcitable moviegoer. Like GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY last year, THE KINGSMAN knows about joy.  Not exactly a spoof yet also tipping its hat at Bond and Bourne films alike, THE KINGSMAN knows that the one thing most scarce in spy thrillers these days is good old-fashioned fun. And so it demonstrates how being goofy is not mutually exclusive with being clever. Maintaining a balance of polished urbanity and preposterous cheekiness on a minute-by-minute basis, the film also occasionally crosses lines of propriety with glee.

9. FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD  This is the most romantic film of the year. A woman in 1890s Victorian England must decide between three men who individually represent ardor, stability and lust. Thomas Hardy knew a thing or two about women navigating a man’s world while circumventing the roles thrust upon them. And the surprise of this film is to realize how much is unchanged in the century and a half since Hardy wrote the novel on which the film is based. At one point, the lead played luminously by Carey Mulligan, says, "It is difficult for a woman to express feelings in a language made by men to express theirs". Instead of a literate Merchant Ivory-like adaptation, or a feminist injunction, this big-screen treatment goes by a different ideal: swoon. It understands that true love is about the flicker of glances, the unsaid things between locking eyes. And Carey Mulligan and Mathias Schoenaerts glower like the best of cinematic foils. This is a film that is far more interested in images than in words.

10. BRIDGE OF SPIES Spielberg has always been a filmmaker of grand actions. THE BRIDGE OF SPIES is his first film that is measured deliberately in small gestures; what we have here is the first anti-Spielberg film. And it a fine turn for him to make in his career. Initially reluctant to watch yet another Cold War thriller, I settled down with relish after the first half hour, surprised to find this a work of understated precision; there is a gleaming burnish to the craft and rigor with which the film has been created. More important are the questions asked. Does the vicious treatment of an American spy captured in Russia give Americans the licence to treat a Russian spy with matched cruelty? The human instinct has long been to abandon liberal values in pursuit of retaliation after the occurrence of something heinous. The blood-thirst for justice has trampled on decency repeatedly in history. BRIDGE OF SPIES, which is foremost an exceptional thriller, quietly makes a plea to be watchful about not losing our humanistic higher ground in times of conflict. This film will hold up well for Spielberg’s legacy.

11. THE END OF THE TOUR  This film recounts the 5 days spent by Rolling Stones reporter David Lipsky interviewing David Foster Wallace who had just published his masterpiece, ‘Infinite Jest’. But don’t let that description fool you. The meeting of two literary minds, one noticeably envious of the critical success of the other, and the second grappling with sudden fame as much as his own demons, forms the basis for the most literate and probing film to get a theatrical release this year. Without being reductive or pandering, the film asks questions about celebrity, ethics, fame, and selling out. The writing here never tries to simplify the two men; they are both complex, conflicted, contrary individuals. Jason Segal, playing Foster Wallace, evokes a person who has never swum mainstream and is caught unprepared when his book is suddenly declared a masterpiece, pushing him into limelight. How does one hold on to one’s true self, warts and all, whilst being demanded to be a commodity that can be marketed for easy consumption? Foster Wallace may come off as sometimes insecure, and petulant, and jealous, but he is also achingly, resolutely human. Jesse Eisenberg, playing Lipsky, delicately conveys the arc of a journalist who goes from respectful bystander to politely inquisitive questioner to crossing-the-line provocateur. You make two intensely intelligent strangers spend time together for days, and they are bound to combust. And yet, when Lipsky leaves at the end of the interview, the ache of loneliness in Foster Wallace’s eyes is one of the saddest things to be seen at the cinema screen this year. 

12. MR HOLMES   This film is, note for note, gloriously right. It takes one of the world’s most famous fictional characters (Sherlock Holmes) and makes something wistful, and wise and smart and complex and very mortal out of it. It works at many levels. At one level it is a Sherlock Holmes mystery. But it is also a rumination on Holmes as a ninety-three year old battling dementia. The terrific script and these fine actors (the chief amongst them, the incomparable Ian McKellan) tap into the futility of fully understanding human behavior. About the challenges, and yes the joy, of loneliness. About the necessity of exorcising guilt in the sunset of one’s life before it is too late. And it is about unlikely connections – in this case, between a once famous man now in exile in the ninth decade of his life and a ten year old boy. Like STILL ALICE last year, this film too holds a mirror to the horror of a formerly brilliant individual fighting to retain wisps of memory too quick to slip away. And yet, for all this existential inquiry, the structure of this film, and its plot, is neat, ordered, gleaming. 

13. SPY / THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. / MISSION IMPOSSIBLE:ROGUE NATION 
So singed is our skin from repeat burns from typical studio blockbusters, that when a big Hollywood film comes along and does something with poise, it takes our breath away. Such was the case with this triptych of stellar studio films released in 2015, all of which did the spy/action-film genre proud.


Comedy is the hardest thing to do in cinema, and to do it well within genre conventions harder still. Melissa McCarthy finally gets lead material worthy of her, and one of the great joys of SPY is to watch how the movie is quietly, stealthily feminist. Look hard, look well, you will not find a single fat joke here. And McCarthy’s character may be caught off-guard when her fervent wish to be an on-the-ground spy is finally granted, but she is never inept; the filmmakers have no desire in watching their lead fumble. So many things are not right with the media we consume these days; we have substandard horror films tailored to teens playing in multiplexes every weekend and the Kardashians dominate television ratings. SPY somehow restores my faith in big-budget Hollywood films.


THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.  This is like a lost Bond film from the sixties. Stylish and sexy and tongue-in-cheek to a fault, this film harkens to a golden age of spy films that has gone obsolete because of our relentless need to re-imagine everything as dour and dark and brooding; I call it the Nolanization of the cinematic universe. This film doesn’t just have the surfaces of a sixties flick, it has the gait of one. Characters talk like they did in Howard Hawks films, rapid-fire and too smart by half. Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer play dueling spies from US and Russia, forced to work together, while Alicia Vikander and Elizabeth Debicki hold their own as femme fatale to be reckoned with. What higher compliment than to say that this film reminded me of THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY in its sensibility.


Let’s count the ways that MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: ROGUE NATION gets things right. Instead of the skinny teenage supermodel that Hollywood likes to routinely dole out as the female interest for such ventures, lets praise those who picked Rebecca Ferguson and gave her a meaty role: as a character who not only stands shoulder to shoulder with Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt, but bails him out repeatedly (it is surely no coincidence that Ferguson has more than a passing resemblance to Ingrid Bergman, also a Hollywood import from Sweden). She takes her heels off before launching into action, thank you very much! (Bryce Dallas Howard, take note!). When James Bond is bent over under the weight of the world these days (see Nolanization of the cinematic universe above), it is refreshing to see Ethan Hunt take over duties from Bond as the exuberant and yes, sometimes outlandish spy; the release of SPECTRE later this year didn’t help dispel these concerns. The scene in the Vienna Opera House, adroitly and patiently layered, and implemented with crisp precision, is alone worth the price of admission. And finally let us give thanks to the script writers for avoiding any overtly romantic ties between the Cruise and Ferguson characters.

16. THE GOOD DINOSAUR  The other Pixar film released in 2015 has taken up a lot of ink, and rightly so; INSIDE OUT is a grand act, working at multiple levels and taking on nothing less than an exploration of how our brains react, often irrationally. But INSIDE OUT has been celebrated enough; just because THE GOOD DINOSAUR is more traditional, and more simple-minded in its storytelling, does not make it any lesser an accomplishment. In another year, DINOSAUR would have been lauded for a return to form for Pixar to the sort of clean, open-hearted and emotionally resonant storytelling that the studio has built its reputation upon. But somehow critical opinion about the film has been bogged down by accusations that the story is too dark. But that isn’t fair; didn’t BAMBI or DUMBO or even Pixar’s own UP deal with darker themes of death and abandonment. THE GOOD DINOSAUR is a lovely, straight-up entertaining, coming of age tale.

17. McFARLAND, USA  When a good sports film works, it really works. This one is based on a true story. A fallen from grace football coach (Kevin Costner) gets assigned to a school in the titular small town in Central California and realizing that the predominantly Hispanic kids in school are uncommonly good at running, he decides to coach them for a cross country track team instead. This film by Niki Caro (WHALE RIDER) has a terrific sense for place. Of farming towns populated by migrant families that pick produce. Of cultures that assimilate. Of people living simple lives. And that is enough. Even as the film proceeds exactly as expected, by refusing to insult its characters and by regarding them without judgment, its observations ring with truth. This film will not be on many best-of-year lists, but it merits wider recognition.

18. THE CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA  This is unashamedly an ouroboros of ideas that eat themselves. This latest work from Olivier Assayas is an experiment, a puzzle. It is unrepentantly intellectual.  But it is also gloriously meta about all things cinema. Inspired by everything from ALL ABOUT EVE to SUNSET BOULEVARD to Chekov’s THE SEAGULL, this film has much to say about celebrity, its waning with time, and the price it takes to stay in the public's consciousness. A famous actress of a certain age (Juliette Binoche) agrees to play the older character in a revival of the two-hander play that first made her famous in the role of the younger ingĂ©nue. Her smart, strong willed personal assistant (Kristen Stewart) tries to handle things, both prosaic and emotional, swirling in her orbit. And Chloe Grace Moretz plays the Hollywood starlet who will be taking on the younger role, even as she is trying to keep an affair with a married man under wraps. If the characters in the film are aware of their similarities to those in the play they are rehearsing, they do not let on. The relationships in the film are amorphous, resisting classification. Look closer; is some of this a reflection on Kristen Stewart's own real life, having been the Hollywood It Girl and having survived a media storm related to her relationship with a married director? It is all part of the clumped ball of yarn given to you to try to untangle.  If you love and breathe cinema, then you need to watch this film. It doesn’t give easy answers, and yet the film has a fully satisfying ending. It is a conclusion based on words, not flashy plot contrivances.

In another year, I would have pridefully defended any of the top five as the best film of the year. In fact, if you ask me another week, the order of those top five films will change. This is a good problem to have when faced with an embarrassment of riches, such as we did in 2015. Other worthy films that could not make it on the list include INSIDE OUT, BLACK SEA, CARTEL LAND, WHILE WE'RE YOUNG, AMY and TANGERINE. What a year this has been. 


Saturday, December 12, 2015

San Diego Film Critics Society | 2015 Nominations announced




 
The San DiegoFilm Critics Society, of which Moviewallas (and yours truly) is a proud member, just announced its nominations in all categories. This represents our take on the best in film this year. And in keeping with a particularly rich and diverse year for cinema that 2015 has turned out to be, the picks are wonderfully varied.  The blockbusters are represented (THE MARTIAN, MAD MAX:FURY ROAD) as are smaller gems of movies that need a wider audience (EX-MACHINA, ROOM, BROOKLYN). Soon to be released major releases (THE REVENANT, THE HATEFUL EIGHT) figure on our nominations as do  films that swim away from the mainstream (ANOMALISA, WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS, TANGERINE). All deserve your attention.
The films to receive BEST PICTURE nominations were EX-MACHINA, a sly, sexy-cool examination of the meaning of artificial intelligence, BROOKLYN, a warmly nostalgic film about an Irish immigrant in the fifties, MAD-MAX: FURY ROAD the high-octane fourth entry in the franchise in which the veteran director George Miller showed an entire new generation of action filmmakers how it is done, ROOM, a searing and heartfelt meditation on the need for recovery, and  SPOTLIGHT, based on the rigorously painstaking Boston Globe investigations of priest-related sexual abuse cases in the area. We couldn't have picked a more different group of films had we tried. We even have a brand new category this year in the form of BEST NEW BREAKOUT ARTIST. Our group will be doing the final voting on Monday, and winners will be posted here.

Here then are the formal nominations:

Best Picture
EX MACHINA
BROOKLYN
MAD MAX: FURY ROAD
ROOM
SPOTLIGHT

Best Director
George Miller, MAD MAX: FURY ROAD
John Crowley, BROOKLYN
Lenny Abrahamson, ROOM
Tom McCarthy, SPOTLIGHT
Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, THE REVENANT

Best Actor, Male
Leonardo DiCaprio, THE REVENANT
Jason Segel, THE END OF THE TOUR
Matt Damon, THE MARTIAN
Bryan Cranston, TRUMBO
Jacob Tremblay, ROOM

Best Actor, Female
Saoirse Ronan, BROOKLYN
Brie Larson, ROOM
Charlotte Rampling, 45 YEARS
Charlize Theron, MAD MAX: FURY ROAD
Alicia Vikander, EX MACHINA

Best Supporting Actor, Male
Mark Rylance, BRIDGE OF SPIES
Tom Noonan, ANOMALISA
Oscar Isaac, EX MACHINA
Paul Dano, LOVE & MERCY
RJ Cyler, ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL

Best Supporting Actor, Female
Alicia Vikander, THE DANISH GIRL
Jennifer Jason Lee, THE HATEFUL EIGHT
Helen Mirren, TRUMBO
Kristen Stewart, CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA
Olivia Cooke, ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL

Best Original Screenplay
Noah Baumbach, Greta Gerwig, MISTRESS AMERICA
Alex Garland, EX MACHINA
Jemaine Clement, Taika Waititi, WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS
Quentin Tarantino, THE HATEFUL EIGHT
Tom McCarthy, Josh Singer, SPOTLIGHT

Best Adapted Screenplay
Nick Hornby, BROOKLYN
Emma Donoghue, ROOM
Charlie Kaufman, ANOMALISA
Donald Margulies, THE END OF THE TOUR
Drew Goddard, Andy Weir THE MARTIAN

Best Documentary
AMY
HE NAMED ME MALALA
CARTEL LAND
MERU
THE WRECKING CREW

Best Animated Film
INSIDE OUT
ANOMALISA
SHAUN THE SHEEP MOVIE
THE GOOD DINOSAUR
THE PEANUTS MOVIE

Best Foreign Language Film
PHOENIX
TAXI
WHITE GOD
A PIGEON SAT ON A BRANCH REFLECTING ON EXISTENCE
GOODNIGHT MOMMY

Best Editing
Margaret Sixel, Jason Ballantine MAD MAX: FURY ROAD
Joe Walker, SICARIO
Pietro Scalia, THE MARTIAN
Michael Kahn, BRIDGE OF SPIES
Nathan Nugent, ROOM
Stephen Mirrione, THE REVENANT

Best Cinematography
Roger Deakins, SICARIO
Yves Belanger, BROOKLYN
Dariuz Wolski, THE MARTIAN
John Seale, MAD MAX: FURY ROAD
Emmanuel Lubezki, THE REVENANT

Best Production Design
Colin Gibson, MAD MAX: FURY ROAD
Mark Digby, EX MACHINA
Arthur Max, THE MARTIAN
Francois Seguin, BROOKLYN
Adam Stockhausen, BRIDGE OF SPIES

Best Sound Design
THE MARTIAN
MAD MAX: FURY ROAD
EX MACHINA
SICARIO
LOVE & MERCY

Best Visual Effects
THE MARTIAN
EX MACHINA
MAD MAX: FURY ROAD
THE WALK
JURASSIC WORLD

Best Use Of Music In A Film
THE HATEFUL EIGHT
LOVE & MERCY
MAD MAX: FURY ROAD
SICARIO
STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON

Breakthrough Artist
Alicia Vikander, THE DANISH GIRL, EX MACHINA
Jacob Tremblay, ROOM
Emory Cohen, BROOKLYN
Abraham Attah, BEASTS OF NO NATION
Sean S. Baker, TANGERINE

Best Ensemble 
SPOTLIGHT
THE HATEFUL EIGHT
STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON
INSIDE OUT
THE BIG SHORT
WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Movie Quote | Bergman


"No form of art goes beyond ordinary consciousness as film does, straight to our emotions, deep into the twilight room of the soul"

- Ingmar Bergman


Saturday, September 12, 2015

First Half of 2015 | Best of Movies | Part II



In this second part, we continue our trek up to the top of the list of the best films from the first half of this year. And we are aptly at the halfway point, having previously covered earlier selections.


5. DOPE: Every minute of this film is alive. A loving send-off to urban eighties films such as FRIDAY and BOYS IN THE HOOD, this movie manages to transcend genre. The coming of age story of an intelligent young black man trying to break free from his surroundings with help from his two just as poorly adjusted friends, is giddy and inspired and sexy. I believed these characters and rooted for them. A film can achieve this level of specificity only when it is allowed to be a singular vision, in this case, coming from the mind of Rick Fumuyiwa, who wrote and directed this film. Thank goodness for smaller films that still get made without studio meddling. On the list of this film's achievements is also the altogether winning breakout performance from its lead actor, Shameik Moore. What a sweet, sweet film this is.


4. FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD:  A woman in 1890s Victorian England must decide between three men who individually represent authenticity, stability and lust. Thomas Hardy knew a thing or two about women navigating a man’s world while circumventing the roles thrust upon them. And the surprise of this film is to realize how much is unchanged in the century and a half since Hardy wrote the novel on which the film is based. At one point, the lead (played luminously by Carey Mulligan), says, "It is difficult for a woman to express feelings in a language made by men to express theirs". Instead of a literate Merchant Ivory adaptation or a feminist injunction, this big-screen adaptation goes by a different ideal: swoon. It understands that true love is about the flicker of glances, the unsaid things between locking eyes. And Carey Mulligan and Mathias Schoenaerts glower like the best of cinematic foils. This is a film that is far more interested in images than in words. 

3. KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE: What a fun little spy thriller this is. When was the last time a movie actually thrilled you, made you giddy with what was unfolding on screen. I found myself yelling (thankfully in my internal voice) at the screen: "Run, run, they are right behind you". And I am for the most part a dour, unexcitable moviegoer. Like GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY last year, THE KINGSMAN knows about joy.  Not exactly a spoof yet also tipping its hat at Bond and Bourne films alike, THE KINGSMAN knows that the one thing most scarce in spy thrillers these days is good old-fashioned fun. And so it demonstrates how being silly and preposterous is not mutually exclusive with being clever. Maintaining a balance of polished urbanity and preposterous cheekiness on a minute by minute basis, the film also occasionally crosses lines of propriety with glee. Why haven't you seen this film yet? 

2. EX-MACHINA.      This is the other true find of this year. A canny examination of what it means to be human, the film is a sly, sexy, sci-fi head-trip. Where films like AI: ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE and even 2001 A SPACE ODYSSEY have struggled to crystallize the inherent irony with artificial intelligence - that the more successful we get with imparting intelligence to machines, the closer the machines will get to refusing to take orders from humans - EX-MACHINA drives home this concept with admirable simplicity. Much of the film is a cat-and-mouse game between a female robot just starting to bloom under the first stirrings of consciousness, and two humans who only seem to be playing the roles of Creator and Emancipator. Willfully intellectual and magnifcently violent, with some of the best production design this year, this film is a gift that any self-respecting cinephile ought to unwrap in a hurry. 


1.  MAD MAX: FURY ROAD.  You are told to avoid the superlative when writing about film, but the heck with that. If you have lost the ability to completely, obsessively, unapologetically fall in love with a movie, then maybe you shouldn't write about films at all. George Miller's MAD MAX:FURY ROAD is stark raving mad, but then don't you have to be a little bit insane to get into the history books. In this fourth installment set in the post-apocalyptic world of Mad Max films, a woman revolts against her master and escapes with other young girls enslaved for the specific purpose of bearing children. Along the way Max becomes a reluctant accomplice as a chase across the desert makes up the majority of the film. If you want to watch something agreeable and neatly contained and with a traditional storytelling arc, then may be this film is not for you. But watch this film to understand how to make every frame matter. Watch it as a masterclass on three-dimensional story-boarding, on the project management of physics in an action sequence. Watch how effortlessly it makes the audience a participant; you will forget to breathe. FURY ROAD is a challenge to the whole new generation of action filmmakers working today, urging them to follow its audacious path into the genre's future. 

And so, MAD MAX: FURY ROAD takes the undeniable, unshakeable number one position amongst films that made their way to the big screen in the first half of the year. Odds are that it may retain its perch at the top when the end of 2015 rolls in.

First Half of 2015 | Best of movies | Part I


And just like that, half the year is gone.

But it has also left behind the afterglow of noteworthy films. Films that transcended form or genre. Or those that did a stellar job while fully ensconced within their genre. I have never strained to come up with films to put on best-of lists, and do not frankly understand those who complain that such and such was a bad year for cinema. If you are not finding anything worthwhile to watch, perhaps you have not been looking in the right places. 
Here are films released between January and June that represent for me the best of the year so far. We start from the back and make our way to the top.


10. PADDINGTON: Any film that stands up for the true definition of family is fine by me. A film with this plot ought to get weighted by treacle. But not this adaptation that somehow manages to invest rationality to a talking teddy bear who gets adopted by a human family. I am frankly surprised that more hasn’t been made about the look of this film. The film needs to be watched for its visual flair alone which at times easily crosses over into the magical. Nicole Kidman has a great time vamping up a storm and it is no secret that Sally Hawkins makes every movie better. But it is the title character, wistfully voiced by Ben Whishaw who makes this film stick in your mind as a credible piece of whimsy.


9  WILD TALES: One reviewer called this film a tinder-box of delights, and I can do no better than that. There is something almost primordial about this Argentinian film. Six unrelated tales round up an anthology of stories all dealing with that point when a person snaps, unable to finally stay grounded in rationality, unable to take it anymore. And what brilliant flameouts these are. You the viewer will watch the film with jaw dropped, sometimes raising your fist in solidarity with the oppressed and sometimes in horror at things going too far. Witty, unpredictable, over the top, and gleefully violent, this is one great time at the movies. WILD TALES was rightfully nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar; it was released commercially in the US in 2015.


8. SPY: Comedy is the hardest thing to do in cinema, and to do it well within genre conventions harder still. Melissa McCarthy finally gets lead material worthy of her skills, and one of the great joys of SPY is to watch how the movie is quietly, stealthily feminist. Look hard, look well, you will not find a single fat joke here. And McCarthy’s character may be caught off-guard when her fervent wish to be an on-the-ground spy is finally granted, but she is never inept; these filmmakers have no desire in watching their lead fumble. And the secondary characters, in justifiably career-best performances from Rose Byrne to Jason Stratham to Bobby Canavale all gamely work together at equal pitch. So many things are not right with the media we consume these days; we have substandard teenage films playing in multiplexes and the Kardashians dominate television. SPY somehow restores my faith in big-budget Hollywood films. 


7. McFARLAND, USA: When a good sports film works, it really works. A fallen from grace football coach (Kevin Costner) gets assigned to a school in the titular small town in Central California and realizing that the predominantly Hispanic kids in the school are uncommonly good at running, he decides to coach them for a cross country track team instead. This film has a good sense for place. Of farming towns populated by migrant families that pick produce. Of cultures that assimilate. Of people living simple lives. And that is enough. Even as the film proceeds exactly as expected, by refusing to insult its characters and regarding them without judgment, its observations ring with truth. This film will not be on many best-of-year lists, but it merits wider recognition.


6.  INSIDE OUT: It may seem a phenomenally glib concept: to have the emotions in a person's mind take actual talking forms of Joy, Fear, Sadness, Anger, Disgust and so forth. But believe the hype. I did not, thinking this film would be yet another Hollywood effort to dumb down the complexity of human intellect. But I was wrong. It turns out that by breaking down human behavior into simpler motifs, it is possible to give agency to so much of what we normally shrug off as the unexplainable.  I understood myself a little better after seeing this film. And how often can you say that about a movie. A teenage girl's difficulty with adjusting to a new life in Northern California after being uprooted from her Minnesota upbringing is given beautiful and shockingly authentic life as the emotions in her head go on a grand, Homeresque journey. After a troubling period of subpar quality fare, Pixar returns to exalted form with this film

We will climb our way to the top of the list in Part Two.