Has another twelve months seriously flown by? Is this real life? Looking back on the films I saw in 2015
, it is difficult to pin down any obvious trends. Superhero fare ("The Avengers: Age of Ultron
," and notorious dud "Fantastic Four
") wasn't as prevalent as in recent years, but sequels were out of control (from eagerly awaited successes "Jurassic World
," "Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens
" and "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2
" to lesser continuations "Pitch Perfect 2
," "Sinister 2
," "Insidious: Chapter 3
," "Taken 3
," "The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death
," "Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension
," "Terminator Genisys
," et al.).
Major Hollywood studios took creative chances, and their often high-priced gambles either paid off ("Mad Max: Fury Road
" and "Inside Out
"), crashed and burned ("In the Heart of the Sea
," "Jupiter Ascending
," "Seventh Son
"), or didn't meet expectations ("Tomorrowland
"). As is usually the case, independent, foreign and documentary cinema featured plenty to debate, admire, or fall head over heels in love for. Sadly, some of the very best films (discussed below) came and went so quickly, or had such a limited theatrical birth, they may have completely missed your radar. Just know that they are worth seeking out.
I reviewed 146 films from the 2015
calendar year (and saw many more than that, including late-year releases "The Big Short," "Brooklyn," "The Danish Girl," "The Hateful Eight," "Joy," "Spotlight," and even "Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip," none of which made it onto my Top or Bottom 10 lists). Of these, I recommended 94 and saw only 14 truly bad ones (rating one star or lower)pretty impressive odds, all things considered. Regardless of the year, there is always a bounty of great films to see and discover, including plenty, I'm sure, I still need to catch up with myself.
The format of this year-end essay remains the same. I will begin with highlighting the best performances I saw from January to December, followed by my choice for the most underrated picture of 2015 (this year's was easy to select). I have foregone choosing an overrated pick because there really weren't many releases that perfectly fit this category this year. There were a heaping of great movie moments, though, and I have pinpointed 10 of them in a list that could have easily stretched to 30 or 40. Finally, my personal lists for the 10 worst and best films I saw this year will be revealed. As 2015
draws to a close and we look toward 2016, the sheer amount of features made each year allows all of us (the most staunch cinephiles included) the chance to revisit our favorites while uncovering hidden gems and underseen beauties we may have missed along the way. A film lover's work is never done, and thank goodness for that.
(my pick for the absolute best is indicated in red)
Best Supporting Actor
Best Supporting Actress
written and directed by Cameron Crowe, was the year's most joyous, warm-hearted filmand its most misunderstood. A perfect storm of events and plain bad luck unfairly sullied the release before most had a chance to even see it.
First, there were release delays. Then there were the infamous November 2014 Sony email leaks, where former president Amy Pascal voiced concerns over how mainstream audiences would receive a movie with mystical, almost fairytale-like sensibilities and a script that doesn't spoon-feed its audience. Then there was the ridiculous, completely unfounded controversy over Caucasian actress Emma Stone being cast as a character who is one-quarter
Asian. In actuality, she was not only based on a real red-haired Hawaii local, but the fact that she did not look Chinese played a part in the story and informed her role's gung-ho, Hawaii-pride attitude. Resulting claims that Crowe had whitewashed the film are ignorant; the picture goes out of its way to pay respect to the culture and features plenty of island natives, including real-life head of state Dennis "Bumpy" Pu'uhonua Kanahele in a lovely supporting turn. Disregarding all of the above (and everyone would be wise to do so), this perceptive slice-of-life feels like vintage Crowe, at once free-floating and very specifically structured. Exquisitely shot by cinematographer Eric Gautier, lovingly scored by Jónsi & Alex, and complemented by another one of the filmmaker's indelible signature soundtracks, "Aloha
" is as easy, comforting and frequently transcendent as a sincere declaration of love. Anchored by the knockout romantic pairing of Emma Stone and Bradley Cooper, the filmand its characters, and the world they inhabitis difficult to say good-bye to because it's just so effortlessly endearing. Aloha, indeed.
(In alphabetical order; please note this section contains plot-centric spoilers)
The self-contained magic of a night spent together soars with touchingly observant vulnerability when Michael (David Thewlis) coaxes the lovely, insecure Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to sing her favorite song a cappella, Cyndi Lauper's "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun," in Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson's aching stop-motion animated drama "Anomalisa."
In David Robert Mitchell's hair-raising horror-thriller "It Follows," 19-year-old Jay (Maika Monroe) has been infected with a potentially deadly sexually transmitted disease materializing as an ever-changing specter who ceaselessly follows her every move. As she attends class at her community college, she spots it through the window in the form of an elderly woman draped in a hospital gown, staggering in her direction. In that moment, Jay is certain she may never be safe again.
When a disastrous security breach puts her guests and visiting nephews Gray (Ty Simpkins) and Zach (Nick Robinson) in grave danger, all-business theme park operations manager Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) finds her soul while bravely and capably outrunning a rampaging Tyrannosaurus rex, in Colin Trevorrow's "Jurassic World." Yes, she's wearing heels while doing itone of 2015's most emphatic, stand-up-and-cheer, pro-feminist cinematic statements.
When Cadillac car dealer Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks) reaches her breaking point with mentally ill boyfriend Brian Wilson's (John Cusack) abusive, verbally assaultive psychiatrist Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), her riveting face-to-face confrontation instantly calls his cowardly bluff, in Bill Pohlad's poignant Beach Boys biopic "Love & Mercy."
In Alex Ross Perry's "Queen of Earth," a house party thrown by hooded friend Virginia (Katherine Waterston) gets the best of a panicked Catherine (Elisabeth Moss) as the revelers (some of them masked) seem to collapse upon her like a coven. Are they trying to help her or harm her? Is this a hallucinatory episode, or the result of more sinister designs?
Man and nature in their most harrowing, untamed forms collide when fur trapper Hugh Glass (Leonard DiCaprio) fights for survival while getting savagely mauled by a grizzly bear, in Alejandro G. Iñárritu's "The Revenant."
The seemingly unstoppable drug war depicted in Denis Villeneuve's mournfully intense "Sicario" threatens to claim its latest innocent victims when Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) crashes the outdoor family dinner of his wife and daughter's murderer.
In Antoine Fuqua's "Southpaw," a heated confrontation at a charity event leaves light heavyweight boxing champion Billy "The Great" Hope's (Jake Gyllenhaal) beloved wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams) mortally, tragically wounded. Her emotional recognition over what has happened, moving in a devastating rush from confusion, to fear, to sorrow, to acceptance as the light in her eyes fades, holds such an uncommonly raw power there is no chance of shaking it for the rest of the running time.
In J.J. Abrams' wholly satisfying "Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens," Han Solo (Harrison Ford) makes a fateful sacrifice for love, attempting to break through to his tortured son, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), before he is irrefutably swallowed up by the Dark Side.
Finally ready to accept the happiness she deserves, Amy Townsend (Amy Schumer) performs an elaborately choreographed dance alongside the Knicks City Dancers for boyfriend Aaron (Bill Hader), in Judd Apatow's sparkling romantic comedy "Trainwreck." It is an exuberant expression of love that earns the right to be silly and irresistibly sweet in equal measure.
|The Green Inferno|
A floundering college student (Lorenza Izzo) joins an activist group, but their team trip into the Amazon to stop land developers from bulldozing the indigenous tribespeople's home takes a grisly turn from the worst. Inspired by Ruggero Deodato's 1980 stomach-churner "Cannibal Holocaust," Eli Roth's "The Green Inferno" is a tonal nightmare. It tries to be absurdist and funny, but comes off as snidely juvenile instead. There is nothing to laugh about when characterseven despicable ones who cannot exit frame right soon enoughare gruesomely ripped apart in a flurry of horrified screams, spurting geysers of blood, and severed limbs. The appointed aboriginal villains of the piece are portrayed en masse as moaning lunatics without consciences, their one and only purpose to maim, torture and cheerfully cook the foreign interlopers. "The Green Inferno" poses as satire but falls on the side of smarmy, distasteful caricature. The only thing scary about it is its punishing cynicism.
A haphazard script can derail even the most promising of concepts, and so it goes with "The Drownsman," a low-budget, paranoia-fueled fantasy/slasher pic that collapses under the weight of innumerable plot holes and negligent story points. The general premise of a supernatural serial killer using water as a conduit to claiming his victims is interesting enough, but writer-director Chad Archibald and co-writer Cody Calahan are done in by their absurd, unperceptive, hair-brained imaginings. If the title boogeyman has been after Madison (Michelle Mylett) for a full twelve months and she, in turn, has had to avoid H2O like the plague, the story demands that certain questions be answered. Has she bathed in a year? If not, why does she look reasonably clean and hygienic? Has she used a washing machine? If not, does she just buy a new wardrobe every few weeks? Has she used the toilet? If not, does she just squat out back? Has she drank water? If not, how is she alive at all? These perplexing queries are just the tip of the iceberg with "The Drownsman," a film that aims to build dread over aqua but instead creates frustration over its own inexcusable senselessness.
|Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2|
It takes approximately thirty seconds for the Las Vegas-set, Andy Fickman-directed "Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2" to spit in the face of its dopey but earnest 2009 predecessor, destroying the original's romance between security guard Paul Blart (Kevin James) and sweet kiosk employee Amy (an MIA Jayma Mays) while brutally and callously murdering Paul's doting mother (Shirley Jones), who gets run over by a milk truck. Can we stop right here to ask who in their right mind would deem this to be a respectable or even remotely funny way to pick things back up? "Paul Blart: Mall Cop" isn't exactly a sacred classic for the ages, but to make a mockery of and demolish its most likable elements is one of the year's biggest cinematic head-scratchers. In an alternate universe, there was a film released in April 2015 starring the adorable Raini Rodriguezdelightful here as Maya, Paul's teenage daughter. In this skewed reality, Rodriguez would be headlining a studio-made coming-of-age picture about a recent high school graduate whose newfound adult independence coincides with her first exciting, eye-opening trip away from home. She has some fun, falls in love, gets her heart broken, figures out what she wants to do with her future, and comes out the other side a changed person who has learned a little something about the truths of growing up. This film would be funny, and poignant, and real, and in Rodriguez would be a star-making performance that does her justice. There wouldn't be a mall cop in sight.
The feature directorial debut of Dean Israelite, "Project Almanac" is a time-travel drama where the characters are savvy enough to be intimately familiar with "Looper," "Groundhog Dog" and "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure," but too stupid to realize that going back in time themselves is about to create a horrifying paradox. Even when things start going haywire and the lead character, 17-year-old science whiz David Raskin (Jonny Weston), keys into this fact, he continues to be so self-involved it takes him an irritatingly long time before he tries to do anything about it. Not holding up to a moment of scrutiny, the screenplay by Andrew Stark and David Pagan unravels while still playing out. It doesn't help that the film is told in the increasingly tired found-footage mold, the kind that is too slickly edited, too unnaturally written, and used in too convoluted a fashion to buy for a second. "Project Almanac" is irksome in too many ways to possibly count, and the amount of annoyances that build upabout its aesthetic style, its clunky writing, its grossly irresponsible characters, its rampant plot holes, its confused messages, and its sheer hypocrisyreach towering levels by the end of its overlong 106-minute duration. By the end, David has learned absolutely nothing from what he has gone through, and the last shot leaves things on a note that is supposed to be stirring and upbeat but instead is fraudulent and unsettling. It is the final slap in the face from a film that is as clumsy and duplicitous as it is thematically obtuse.
The second film on the list to be directed by Chad Archibald (who also helmed "The Drownsman"), "Ejecta" is a flat-footed alien-invasion thriller harmed by its storytelling structure and ruined by its overbearing aesthetics. Not pausing long enough to properly connect with any of the haphazardly undernourished people on the screen, the film instantly throws the viewer into a sloppy, two-tier narrative and hopes that something sticks. None of it does. The incorporation of faux-documentary and night-vision segments add to the obnoxiously over-processed aesthetic. Artificially orchestrated camera flickers and flashes, freeze-frames, and static interference rear their ugly heads so often that it pulls the viewer out of the movie every time. Archibald and co-director Matt Wiele display no understanding of character, nuance, or emotional depth, even going so far as to introduce telekinesis and a body snatchers conspiracy in the home stretch. "Ejecta" is a wearisome, empty-headed mess, barely feeling as if it is a completed film at all. When it is over, its memoryjust like an otherworldly probeall but entirely vanishes in an instant.
Director B. Harrison Smith's nonsensically titled "Zombie Killers: Elephant's Graveyard" (there isn't an elephant's graveyard in sight) is one step away from plagiaristic, its carbon-copy premise and characters a direct result of the popularity of AMC series "The Walking Dead." Far too downbeat and serious to be taken as a spoof of the genre, yet so broad and ridiculous it never rises above being a joke, the film is a cavalcade of gloriously bad dialogue, computer-generated effects so unconvincing they look like a grade-school coloring project, and hacksaw editing that finds characters abruptly disappearing only to (sometimes) pop back up much later without rhyme or reason. The saving grace of "Zombie Killers: Elephant's Graveyard" is that it is so bad there is a certain sick appeal in witnessing its slide into inadvertent camp. Not remotely scary and only unintentionally funny, the film takes its moody secluded locations and uses them for strictly derivative purposes. The plot is not cohesively developed, the human figures are two-dimensional archetypes, and the general filmmaking smells of inexperience. The cast (including Billy Zane, Mischa Barton and Dee Wallace) deserve better, and, unless their intention is to make fun of it with friends over a fountain of booze, so do audiences.
|Hot Tub Time Machine 2|
2010's time-travel comedy "Hot Tub Time Machine" was a silly '80s-infused throwback, hit-or-miss to be sure, but charming on occasion and generally diverting. Whatever magic it held, however, has been entirely vanquished by the mind-numbingly desperate, unbearably chintzy time-travel-to-2025 farce "Hot Tub Time Machine 2." Any way one spins it, this is a bad movie. It's cheap-looking. It's asinine. It's dull. It's thoroughly unsatisfying. And, at 93 minutes, the proceedings earn a whopping two laughs tucked inside a tidal wave of misery. With the vast majority of scenes taking place on obvious studio backlots and in front of greenscreens, there is no semblance of scope or dignity to what Steve Pink has delivered, the director misplacing the earlier picture's goofy, sometimes raunchy good nature for a tone that is plain idiotic, mean-spirited, and casually misogynistic. If John Cusack (the one lead actor from the original who wisely does not return) ever happens to see "Hot Tub Time Machine 2," the relief he feels knowing that he stayed far, far away from this dud of a project shall be paramount.
|Army of Frankensteins|
Mary Shelley is not only turning in her grave over the dopey, insipid, loosely based time-traveling take on her novel "Frankenstein," but she's also likely doing cartwheels. "Army of Frankensteins" (which should technically be called "Army of Frankenstein's Monsters," but never mind) is done in by a shoestring budget, the film's writer-director Ryan Bellgardt inadvertently painting himself into a corner and ending up looking like a far worse filmmaker than he likely is. His time-jumping storyset primarily in 1865 during the Civil War and bookended by a present-day wraparoundcalls for lavish art direction, period-specific costumes, copious makeup work, and top-notch special effects. Lacking all of that, he turns to tacky fake mustaches from Party City and bargain-basement CGI reminding of graphics from a mid-'90s PC video game. The actors, bless them, perform as if they are reading from cue cards they are seeing for the first time. Toss in Frankenstein's monster locking arms and dancing around a campfire and a soldier getting beat with his own dismembered arm, and what we have is an inept, lead-footed, 109-minute slice of ridiculousness that only earns laughter when it's not supposed to. The film succeeds tenfold, however, at prompting audible groans and Liz Lemon-style eyerolls.
"Muck" ends with a "special thanks" credit to actress Lauren Francesca's ass, and that is arguably the film's high point. What precedes this is 98 minutes so head-shakingly moronic it can be counted as pure negligence that the picture doesn't come with a disclaimer cautioning viewers of whiplash at best and catatonia at worst. No matter which malady befalls the unfortunate souls who choose to watch this stalk-and-slash calamity, one thing is for certain: they will be entirely different people from the ones who naively decided to give it a whirl an hour and a half earlier. Debuting writer-director Steve Wolsh has an interesting speck of an idea in that his story begins after the survivors of a murderous rampage have escaped from the marsh where the rest of their friends have just been killed, but that's where its promise comes to an abrupt end. What follows plays like the work of an assholic frat boy hailing from a different planet. Moving far, far beyond the expected exploitation one typically finds in a low-budget slasher movie, "Muck" gleefully embraces a stench of misogyny, racial insensitivity and homophobia so strong the act of viewing it is enough to make one feel skeevy and unclean. The mind boggles over "Muck." Did Wolsh think he was sending up the genre, or did he want to make a legitimately scary movie with black humor sprinkled throughout? Whatever the case may be, he has fashioned one of the most obnoxious horror pictures in recent years, a low-rent cinematic charade that goes beyond spoofery and into a realm of distasteful, tacky, IQ-shrinking tedium.
|The Wedding Ringer|
If there is one thing worse than a hate-filled low-budget horror indie like "Muck," it is a major studio feature so ignorant it holds the same lowly characteristics. It may be a mystery for the ages not only how "The Wedding Ringer" got made, but how anyone even remotely connected to its making could have thought the project was anything other than deplorable. Ugly, rancid, vile and mean, the film wastes no time setting up its moronic plotJosh Gad plays a dishonest lug who has no relatives or friends and hires Kevin Hart's best-man-for-hire to fool his fiancée (Kaley Cuoco) and her bigoted familyand then sinks into the depths of pure cinematic despair with characters who are despicable across the board. If that weren't enough, this so-called comedy's line-up of pathetic jokes crash violently to the ground every single time, debuting writer-director Jeremy Garelick and co-writer Jay Lavender's preoccupation with cruelty, violence and stereotyping becoming supremely disturbing before the end of the first act. The story is implausible to a forehead-slapping degree, but is the movie at least funny? It is if you think an elderly lady being set ablaze and a rapid-fire barrage of homosexual caricatures, hate speech and relentless gay panic are veritable laugh riots. A depressing experience that continuously one-ups itself in sheer spiteful repugnance, the film holds not a solitary identifiable or sincere moment in all of its wretched 101 minutes. The level of contempt "The Wedding Ringer" shows its characters and audience is inconceivable. It is easily the worst film I had the displeasure of enduring in 2015.
|The Final Girls|
At an anniversary screening of "Friday the 13th"-esque 1980s horror flick "Camp Bloodbath," teenager Max (Taissa Farmiga) finds herself mysteriously transported into the movieand face-to-face with her late scream-queen mother Amanda Cartwright (Malin Akerman), who famously starred in the film. "The Final Girls" embraces an undeniable love for the slasher genre while innovatively subverting conventions. Similar to the approach of 1996's "Scream" while going in an entirely new direction, its meta-savvy approach blurs the line between fiction and reality while nonetheless confronting the truths of the characters with heartfelt affection. It's a daffy comedy, and a horror movie, but it's also more than that. The attention to detail and unexpected emotional resonance director Todd Strauss-Schulson and screenwriters Joshua John Miller and M.A. Fortin bless the film with are what sell it as so much more than a clever, lightweight ode to the glory days of stalking and slashing. This is one of the most giddily original, surprisingly imagined efforts of the year.
|Star Wars: Episode VII|
The Force Awakens
In the reverent hands of writer-director J.J. Abrams and co-scribes Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt, "Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens" is everything fans could want in a 32-years-in-the-making sequel to 1983's "Return of the Jedi"and maybe, for that matter, a little more. If the original "Star Wars" trilogy of 1977-'83 had imagination to spare but could not always flawlessly pull off its every fantastical setting and special effect, and the extravagant prequels of 1999-'05 were so reliant on era-specific CGI and greenscreen they often felt labored and artificial, this new trilogy opener has been made at precisely the right time when advancements in technology have finally caught up to the series' full conceptual ambitions. Using visual effects as a coherent aid rather than a gaudy crutch, Abrams has made a movie as joyous and warm as it is startling and edgy, seamlessly joining together the tried-and-true original characters with instantly ingratiating new protagonists (played by Daisy Ridley, John Boyega and Oscar Isaac) destined to carry on the franchise's legacy. Understanding it is the humanity of the charactersnot just the heroes, but also the troubled, fearful villains, the good-hearted androids, and a trusty Wookiee named Chewbaccawhich gives this operatic sci-fi saga its lasting appeal and unsuspecting poignancy, "Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens" is a special kind of blockbuster, wondrous and thrilling and not in the least hampered by cynicism. Don't be surprised, adults, if watching it makes you feel like a kid again.
|The End of the Tour|
The five-day interview which took place between Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky and acclaimed author David Foster Wallace at the tail-end of his 1996 book tour for "Infinite Jest"the subject of Lipsky's best-selling 2010 memoir "Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace"comes to sublime cinematic life in "The End of the Tour." Provocatively adapted for the screen by writer Donald Margulies and director James Ponsoldt, this predominate two-hander casts Jesse Eisenberg as the opportunistic, vaguely envious Lipsky and a revelatory Jason Segel as the modest, messily complicated, sharply intelligent Wallace. Their working relationship, brief though it lasted, blossoms, shifts and escalates in complexity, a microcosm of human connection, journalistic integrity, and the potentially impossible pursuit of accurately capturing the true essence of a person through words both spoken and scribed. Choosing the low-key over grand gestures and melodramatic histrionics, the picture plays like a tête-à-tête symphony, finding profundity in the minutiae of human interaction. "The End of the Tour" will leave viewers enraptured and with plenty to discuss. Uncompromising and largely true, the film's portrayal of David Foster Wallace (who committed suicide in 2008) should only fan the flames of interest in a man who was never able to overcome his demons but whose immeasurably impactful body of work continues to live on.
Every time Charlie Kaufman writes and/or directs a new picture, it is cause for celebration. "Anomalisa" may be his most technically auspicious yet, an aching, dreamy, R-rated stop-motion animated drama defying easy description. Co-directed by Duke Johnson, the film imagines a world nearly identical to our own, but populated by marionettes free of strings. The animation, reportedly given further dimensionality via 3D printers, perplexes in how it was achieved while verging on photorealistic. If the picture is a remarkable visual anomaly, the sensitive, character-driven storythink 1991's "Dogfight" meets 2003's "Lost in Translation" meets 2009's "Love Happens"goes a long way in providing it a restless, authentic soul. The enthralling narrative unspools solely from the point of view of Michael (David Thewlis), a middle-aged author and public speaker whose surroundings are overcome with a terminal sameness. Each person in his life, from family to acquaintances to strangers on the street, sound the same (all are voiced by Tom Noonan). Lisa is different; when he meets her at the hotel where he is staying she stands out to him immediately, even if he is not quite sure why. As the introverted, less confident Lisa, Jennifer Jason Leigh gives a performance as expressive and moving as Scarlett Johansson's transcendent vocal turn in 2013's "Her." Feeling less than half of its 90-minute running time, "Anomalisa" floats by in a transfixing gush.
A lustrous, deeply felt love story set against the backdrop of societal oppression in the early 1950s, "Carol" is the stirring unofficial companion piece of 2002's dreamily autumnal, Technicolor-rich "Far from Heaven," both films from director Todd Haynes delving into the intolerant, prejudicial landscapes of the era in which they are set. So adept at capturing this period and milieu it is as if he has transported his cast back in time, Haynes and first-time feature screenwriter Phyllis Nagy's adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's 1952 novel "The Price of Salt" is cinema for the senses, touching one synchronously on visual, auditory, textural and emotional planes. At the center: two spectacularly nuanced performances from Cate Blanchett and an arguably never-better Rooney Mara, magnetic screen partners in what is one of the most indelible romances of the year. "Carol" escapes the trap of becoming an obvious "issues" movie even as it touches upon the uneducated, narrow-minded stigma of homosexuality people encountered decades agoand, regrettably, continue to face in the twenty-first century. First and foremost, Haynes has made a love letter intimate in scope and sweeping in feeling, one that shoves pessimism to the sidelines in exchange for optimism and tough, earnest sentiment. "Carol," then, is not about repression at all, but about the exact opposite: the blooming of something beautiful and genuine between two star-crossed souls ready to live their lives on their own terms. The rest of the world should be so lucky.
|The Last Five Years|
An irresistible cinematic adaptation of Jason Robert Brown's exceptional 2002 Off-Broadway musical, "The Last Five Years" deconstructs the intricacies of romantic relationships in a way that is creative, breathtaking and vital. The storytelling structurea back-and-forth duet, with writer Jamie's (Jeremy Jordan) scenes marking the sequential path of their relationship from his point of view, and struggling actress Cathy's (Anna Kendrick) scenes traveling in reverse order from her perspectiveultimately crisscrosses for Jamie's marriage proposal, and what occurs on both sides of this momentous event paints a moving, seamlessly melodic portrait of two people who, for a fleeting handful of years, were better for having known and loved each other. Broadway-veterans-turned-film-actors Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan are a faultless match, their dreamy chemistry so dynamic it makes their highs feel rhapsodic and special and their lows sting like a slap to the soul. Jason Robert Brown's songs, meanwhile, are stars on their own, each one a catchy, touching, sometimes droll triumph of music and lyrics. Small in size yet vast in profundity, "The Last Five Years" is a sincere, understated miracle of a musical.
|I Smile Back|
"I Smile Back" is very nearly as raw and unsparing as a film not ending in a bloodbath can get. Like its lead character, it feels everything just a little too deeply, the sweet intermittent highs suffocated by an anguish from which escape seems to be unreachable. Cinematic depictions of suburban dysfunction are almost as old as the medium itself, but this particular story, stunningly directed by Adam Salky and written by Paige Dylan & Amy Koppelman (based on Koppelman's 2008 novel), is treated with such uncompromising vitality it might as well be the first of its kind. Anchoring the story is comedienne Sarah Silverman, her transformative dramatic work as stay-at-home wife and mother Laney of a monumental caliber few actors could even dream of reaching, so emotionally piercing and yet so bereft of vanity and artifice it has the power to haunt the viewer for days. A showcase for Silverman's breathtaking range as an artist but also so very much more than that, the brutally candid "I Smile Back" holds a disquieting profundity seeping from each successive frame. In concept, Laney has it allwell, almost all, as her own professional aspirations have been tabled as her family has taken shapebut none of it can mend the abyss of despair and addiction eating at her soul. To witness her journey in all its simultaneous empathy and ugliness is to stare into a darkness where the illuminated exit signs have nearly flickered out. She's neither good nor bad, selfish nor cruel, apathetic nor deserving of an unfortunate fate. Yes, she smiles back, but what is hidden behind this socially expected nicety is masterfully, joltingly, harrowingly portrayed.
In recent years, Denis Villeneuve (2013's "Prisoners" and 2014's "Enemy") has distinguished himself as one of modern cinema's most vital filmmakers. No singular feature of his is like the others, and yet they collectively form a unified, visionary, ever-growing body of work as electrifying as it is momentous. "Sicario" is a searing portrait of an unwinnable war against violence and drugs taking place on the U.S.-Mexico border, as seen from the perspective of a skilled but sheltered FBI agent (Emily Blunt, in an eye-opening performance) who will soon be readily aware of the corruption permeating both sides of the fight. Taylor Sheridan's debut screenplay casts a taut, thematically abundant shadow over its characters and the unsparing chain of brutality knocking forcefully at their doors. Running 121 minutes but feeling like the wink of an eye, the film epitomizes what happens when every last creative and technical element is operating together at the highest level possible. Villeneuve's blistering directorial command, awash in uncompromised portent and the usurping presence of jeopardy, is an audiovisual experience to behold. Backed by Roger Deakins' towering cinematography and composer Jóhann Jóhannsson's bestial, droning musical cacophony, each image and sound carries with it a clinching sense of foreboding. "Sicario" is not merely a transfixing thriller, but a pivotal one, immersing the viewer so entirely into its stark web of underground drug-trading and lawfully muddied federal maneuvering that one forgets a movie is being watched at all.
|Queen of Earth|
The weight of the whole, bitter world claims two lost souls (and possibly, chillingly, more) in chamber-piece showstopper "Queen of Earth," writer-director Alex Ross Perry's haunting paean to female relationships, psychological decay, and the birth of something altogether more suggestively hair-raising. Joining the esteemed company of Roman Polanski's "Repulsion," Ingmar Begman's "Persona," Robert Altman's "3 Women," and David Lynch's "Mulholland Drive" as the latest artistic watermark delving into potentially shifting identities and ultimate madness, the film mesmerizes on an unshakable level from its volatile opening sob to its diabolical closing cackle. Nestled in between these bookends are two remarkable performances from Elisabeth Moss and Katherine Waterston, their miraculous work burrowing without so much as a flinch into emotionally tenebrous territory. Venomous yet far from unfeeling, "Queen of Earth" has in spades the eerie foreboding of a horror film, the tasty ambiguity of a narrative and thematic puzzle-box mystery, and the barbed tongue of a raven-toned satire. As the story unfolds and Moss' Catherine gradually unravels, the picture's harrowing juxtaposition of pastoral tranquility and dismaying portent emulates the same feeling one gets waiting for a killer to strike. Is "Queen of Earth" a penetrating study in mental illness, a passionate discourse into the uglier side of human relationships, or the kaleidoscopic origin story of a wicked witch claiming her first victims? Perry's note-perfect cinematic conjuring suggests all of these intentions as Catherine gets caught in a swirling maelstrom threatening to destroy, empower and possess her in equal measure.
A ferocious odyssey of survival and vengeance, "The Revenant" is a virtuoso display of pure, awe-inspiring cinema from writer-director Alejandro G. Iñárritu and co-writer Mark L. Smith. Inspired by true events and based in part on Michael Punke's 2002 book "The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge," this untamed epic of harrowing sights, haunting sounds and breathlessly taut storytelling revises the heretofore thought-possible boundaries of the western genre in a fashion similar but transcendent still to what Terrence Malick achieved with 2005's "The New World." Leonardo DiCaprio's wrenching, mostly silent performance as 1820s frontiersman Hugh Glass, left for dead following a vicious bear mauling and on the hunt for the fur trapper (Tom Hardy) who killed his son, is another staggering tour de force for one of Hollywood's all-time great actors. Magnificently shot by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki under challenging, sometimes bitterly cold conditions in Canada and Argentina using all natural lighting and undetectable visual effects assistance, "The Revenant" holds a dauntless, unparalleled authenticity. The beauty of the setting is mesmerizing to behold, its seemingly unblemished serenity standing in restless contrast to not only Hugh's ordeal but also that of the outraged, victimized native tribes who cannot simply stand back and watch as everything is stolen from them. Grisly in content, sublimely poetic in form, the film finds ultimate catharsis in the sneaking humanity flowing through its anguished veins. Unthinkable acts of evil and defiance dotting the wooded vistas collide with moments of desperation, clarity and selflessness as the Americana known all too well by modern Westerners kisses the just-out-of-reach horizon. Precariously balancing on both sides of the fight is Hugh Glass, every pace he takes leading him toward his own manifest destiny. An extraordinary vision of rugged brutality and rarified eminence, "The Revenant" is one for the ages.
|© 2015 by Dustin Putman|