Let’s just jump right in.
53. “Anomalisa” (Directors: Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson) – 0 stars – Who in the world liked this? A guy with an all-encompassing, metaphorical prosopagnosia (although his condition also extends to the voice, I don’t know what that’s called) gets off a plane, is driven in a cab and has Cincinnati chili hyped to the nines, checks into a hotel for a management seminar, takes the elevator up to his room with the bell boy, has his stuff carted into his room with said bell boy, sits around for a while thinking about past loves, calls one, meets her in the bar downstairs, is disappointed that she too is affected by said metaphorical prosopagnosia, walks through the hallway of his hotel and hears a sonorous voice wholly different from all the murk, buys the owner of the voice, Lisa, and her friend drinks downstairs, brings her back to his hotel, she sings some horrible song for him (the whole song, of course), they have sex and we witness the whole disgusting thing. He wakes up, gets called downstairs to the hotel manager’s office, the manager creepily professes his love for our hero (such as he is), our hero gets creeped out and runs upstairs, proposing to Lisa. But her voice and face begin to change, and he is crushed that once again, he can’t relate to a single solitary soul. He freaks out during his seminar presentation and returns home to a miserable household, while Lisa miserably fantasizes about him as her friend drives them home from the hotel. Everything aside from their post-coital slumber happens in real time, and nothing is funny or even mildly dramatically engaging. It’s one of the most excruciatingly painful experiences I’ve ever had at a movie. It made me never want to watch a movie again. I got over it, sure. But still, I would rather stab my eyes out razors than watch this piece of shit again. Did the projectionist switch the copy of the movie with something else? Why are critics creaming their jeans over this noise? This is the reason TV is winning, Charlie Kaufman. One of the shittiest movies I’ve ever seen. Of this, or any other year.
52. “Furious 7” (Director: James Wan) – * ½ stars – People always winkingly acknowledge that the “Fast and Furious” movies are “good-bad,” i.e. irrefutably dumb, but irrefutably fun. In “Furious 7,” as Justin Lin (director of “Fast” entries 3-6) handed the reigns over to James Wan (who had only directed horror flicks before this), the “irrefutably fun” component of that equation somehow didn’t make the transfer. But he got the “irrefutably dumb” part right. How is a head-on collision a clever tactical way of gaining the upper hand against your car-bound opposition (they do this twice — in real life, of course, they’d have died upon the first impact)? How is driving your car off the edge of a cliff (I think this also happens twice? Maybe three times?) a cool way of evading your pursuers? Why was this so humorless? I know Paul Walker’s the one who died (in a car accident, because his bro was driving Walker and his car way too fast and furious), but the guy who really goes missing from this movie is The Rock, who appears in it for 15-20 minutes, tops. THE ROCK IS THE BEST ACTOR AND HOBBES IS THE COOLEST CHARACTER IN THESE DAMN MOVIES. WHY YOU GOTTA PLAY ME LIKE THAT, WAN? There are so many other logistical issues I have with this, but I’m tired. Let’s just say, prior quality “Fast” entries had a significantly better handle on managing the whole suspension of disbelief thing.
51. “Mad Max: Fury Road” (Director: George Miller) – * ½ stars – What the hell did people see in this thing? Way too many critics and adulatory fanboys piled on the praise for this movie, one of the most overrated action movies I’ve ever seen (this side of the straight-up-awful “Inception,” which needlessly complicated its plot to the Nth degree, no doubt in an effort to disguise its dumbness). The best movie of the year? Seriously? One of the best action movies ever? Are you kidding me? Flat, boring characters with flat, boring dialogue – outside of the main baddie (Hugh Keays-Byrne, who’s woefully denied enough screen time in favor of Charlize Theron and serial mumbler Tom Hardy glaring a lot) and his disgusting progeny, that is. The movie, shot in Namibia, has a fantastic look, photographed by John Seale (“The English Patient,” “Rain Man”) and with production design from , but that does not save it from a lackluster script (basically, people drive cool armored tanks and kill each other for two hours) that leaves half its plot unspoken and up to its audience to decipher and thoroughly uninteresting lead characters. I feel like this must be an “Emperor’s New Clothes” kind of scenario, where, if it is said often enough, the whole figurative town of smart movie watchers is conned into enjoying a piece of indefensible junk. To say it was technically well done is just wrong. Were the shots in focus? Sure. Did it really commit to its wacky color correction and wide-angle lenses? Definitely. Does any of that elevate it from being a plotless, heartless, derivative bore? No fucking way. Those who claim it has the “best action of all time” must have an awfully short memory. Here’s a whole bunch of better action scenes, just to confirm that you’re wrong (in no particular order):
– The gunfight at the OK Corral, “Tombstone”
– The Cyberdyne assault and escape, “Terminator 2: Judgment Day”
– The “sitting duck” walkway shootout, “Die Hard 2”
– The storming of Fort Knox, “Goldfinger”
– The parkour chase, “Casino Royale”
– The Vegas chase, “Con Air”
– The Xenomorph viaduct shoot-out, “Aliens”
– “Get away from her, you bitch!,” “Aliens”
– The baby carriage in Union Station, “The Untouchables”
– Sean Connery vs. Frank Nitti, “The Untouchables”
– Hannibal Lecter’s escape, “The Silence of the Lambs”
– Rescuing Morpheus and the subsequent rooftop and subway showdowns, “The Matrix”
– Travis Bickle rescues Iris (who may not want rescuing), “Taxi Driver”
– James Bond vs. Alec Trevelyan on a huge satellite, “Goldeneye”
– Every single scene, “Die Hard”
– Ramon vs. The Man With No Name, “A Fistful of Dollars”
– The train fight, “From Russia With Love”
– The bank heist, “Heat”
– Marty does all kinds of stuff to avoid time folding in on itself and retrieve a sports almanac from the future from Biff, “Back To The Future Part II” (how’s that for original, George Miller?)
– Tim Roth vs. Liam Neeson, “Rob Roy”
– The boulder sequence, “Raiders of the Lost Ark”
– Any boxing scene, “Raging Bull”
– The bus crash, “The Fugitive”
– Rolling through Axis Chemicals, “Batman” ’89
– The car chase, “The French Connection”
– The waterfall scene, “Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid”
– Ash vs. Evil Ash’s in the windmill, “Army of Darkness”
– Kong vs. an Allosaurus, “King Kong” ’33
– The climactic fights at the top of the Pittsburgh Civic Arena, “Sudden Death”
– Steven Seagal vs. Tommy Lee Jones, “Under Seige”
– Robocop discovers ED-209’s design flaw, “Robocop”
– John Doe decides to let Brad Pitt live, “Se7en”
– The rematch, “Rocky II”
– The T-Rex busts out of his enclosure and Alan Grant tries to stay very still, “Jurassic Park”
– The gang’s escape from Sarlic Pitt and the clutches of Jabba The Hutt, “Return of the Jedi”
– The Strangers chase Rufus Sewell for the first time, “Dark City”
– Robin Hood and co. storm the castle, “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves”
– Cary Grant vs. the crop dusters, “North By Northwest” (I don’t love “North By Northwest,” but this is still one of the all-time greatest action scenes)
These moments all have a beginning, a middle, and an end. They all establish stakes, create tension, infuse their characters with recognizable human emotions and motivations that you can, you know, understand. Basic storytelling stuff. Sure, some of these movies are pretty dumb. But that shouldn’t deter from their fundamental quality. “Good cinema” should not be constricted by intelligence. “Mad Max,” by the way, is a stupid movie wrapped up in the pretenses of the smart one, which is even worse. Watch any one of these other scenes and try to convince yourself “Mad Max 4” is a decent action movie.
50. “In The Heart Of The Sea” (Director: Ron Howard) – * ½ stars – Who ever thought that a movie with cannibals and huge whales could’ve been so nap-inducing? A brutal snooze-fest.
49. “Star Wars: Episode 7 – The Force Awakens” (Director: JJ Abrams) – * ½ stars – This movie. “Star Wars” was another one that made me question why I even bother seeing movies or work in this industry. Almost makes you lose hope for the future of creativity. Actually, scratch that, it does make you lose hope for the future of creativity. And if you can’t see that, you should take a good hard look in the mirror — because you might already be gone. It’s so amazing to me that a virtual carbon copy of one of the all-time great entertainments, the original 1977 “Star Wars,” could be such a joyless, vapid, brain-dead, character-free mess of a movie. It’s infinitely more amazing, and infinitely more depressing, that this is the all-time domestic box office champion (unadjusted for inflation, but still). Name one character who had an actual personality in this thing? Finn (John Boyega), the intense stormtrooper who has been programmed since birth to a life of obedience and destruction but on his first mission defects? He’s basically sweaty and panting the whole time, and sometimes he holds the hand of Rey (Daisy Ridley), for no explicable reason, while they run away from something and sweat and pant and rehash the plot for us. Rey isn’t into the hand-holding, and shuns him several times. This, and an uncomfortably long hug from Finn, constitute comic flirting in this movie. Pet conspiracy theory: maybe JJ Abrams is secretly an 11 year-old girl? Let’s review Rey for a second, while we’re here. She is waiting on her home planet, as a friendless scavenger, for… someone. And she has been for maybe 15, 20 years?
The first time she discovers that Han Solo (Harrison Ford) is a real, live human being, she is awestruck. From the way Rey and Finn tell it, Han Solo is more or less Jesus, an impossibly heroic superhero, a mythic figure so grand that they didn’t even think he existed at all. Two scenes later, when Han asks a still-star-struck Ridley to work with him and trusty copilot Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) on an indefinite basis, she of course immediately… declines. Why? Because she’s… waiting for whoever that person was on that desolate desert planet where she lived in impoverished solitude for most of her life, I guess? Sure, that makes sense. The other new character, Han and Leia (Carrie Fisher)’s evil son, Ben, who calls himself Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), is basically a whimpering emo kid. Am I supposed to be intimidated by a sullen 20-something who hates his dad and styles his hair and body like mid-career Robert Smith? Why did the spawn of two people who were so good and so cool turn so evil? Apparently, Ben Solo’s uncle (that’d be Luke Skywalker) attempted to train him, but failed so miserably that Ben became evil. These are some of the flimsiest characters I’ve ever seen in a “Star Wars” movie. Say what you will about Jar Jar Binks, but at least he had actual, believable character motivation that kind of made sense and was consistent with his personality (after Ewan MacGregor and Liam Neeson save his life when his clumsiness gets him into trouble, he considers himself in their debt until he can return the favor). Do you really buy for one second that Rey would leave Jesus to go back to starving in misery? Do you actually think Han and Leia would raise a kid like Ben, or that Luke Skywalker (at least, the Luke in prior series entries) would botch the training so much and not notice until it was too late, after everything he learned about the botched training of his own father in the original “Star Wars” trilogy?
Also, that ending is so dumb. Finn doesn’t seem to know what The Force is, let alone how to lightsaber-fence, when she effectively employs both assets to combat Emo Solo, ostensibly one of the best Jedi’s in the galaxy, to a draw. I thought that the training took years, and had to be initiated when the trainee was about 5 (if the first six movies are to be believed)? All of a sudden, without training or even a basic knowledge of what she’s doing, she’s the best Jedi in the universe? Also, Han talks about believing in the Force the first time she meets him, but when Emo Solo applauds her raw skills in that arena, she repeats the word, “Force…,” as if hearing it for the first time.
IN CONCLUSION — I can’t believe Larry Kasdan took a credit for this script.
48. “The Martian” (Director: Ridley Scott) – * ½ stars – Another very popular, very bad movie that was nominated for Best Picture. BEST PICTURE. Amazing. I don’t know what happened to Matt Damon’s charisma (or Jessica Chastain’s, for that matter), but it was sorely lacking. Also, re: Chastain — her only personality trait was that she liked shitty disco music. That’s not a personality trait so much as it is a thing that you like. The only character that held my interest at all was Childish Gambino’s scatterbrained nocturnal physicist.
47. “Sicario” (Director: Dennis Villenueve) – ** stars – What the hell is going on with all these mega-stoic “adult” movies featuring characters devoid of even mildly-fleshed-out personalities? The only interesting guy is the shadowy operative thug played by Benicio Del Toro — but he only becomes interesting once we decipher what makes him tick in the movie’s final reel.
46. “Trainwreck” (Director: Judd Apatow) – ** stars – A missed creative opportunity for all parties involved, save LeBron James, who got a contract with Warner Bros. after this. Totally down for a cinematic LeBron-a-thon, even though as a Bulls fan I can’t say I’ve enjoyed watching him kill us in the playoffs four times in six seasons (we didn’t face LBJ teams the other two seasons).
45. “Brooklyn” (Director: John Crowley) – ** stars – Competent, cute, aimless, dry. Saoirse Ronan’s Academy Award-nominated performance is so subtle, you might miss her emoting if you blink too hard. The love story at the core of this thing never for a second feels believable — we can’t decipher what exactly the reserved, interest-less Irish transplant Ronan has in common with the baseball-fanatic Italian-American plumber (played by Emory Cohen, who, as you might suspect, is quite obviously not Italian).
44. “Pound of Flesh” (Director: Ernie Barbarash) – ** stars – It’s possible that I’m being generous with this star rating. BUT SO BE IT. JCVD, like Keaton, Joe Dante, and LeBron James elsewhere on this list, can elevate a movie an extra half-star just by being in it.
43. “Dope” (Director: Rick Famuyiwa) – ** stars – Main character was an emotionless drip, was just talked at – not talked WITH. No personality, lost our interest. Story was also meandering, plus it was basically just a monumentally specific tutorial on how to package and sell MDMA via Bitcoin. Very, very specific. Not sure why it got all that love at Sundance. That being said, it’s nice to see a movie about unique characters of color getting a pseudo-major release. Even if the results are mixed, it’s a nice break from the white-as-fuck Hollywood movies that otherwise populate the mediocre bottom and middle of this Listcore.
42. “Spotlight” (Director: Todd McCarthy) – ** stars – I was just thinking about how much better “All The President’s Men” was the entire time I was watching this. I think Filmcore’s Evan Twohy put it best when he noted that the biggest conflict in a movie about a newspaper uncovering a pederast priest epidemic was… Mark Ruffalo struggling to make time to use a copier. SO INTREPID. I can’t believe this thing won Best Picture at the Oscars a few weeks ago, Michael Keaton’s presence boosted my rating for “Spotlight” by at least half a star.
41. “Concussion” (Director: Peter Landesman) – ** stars – A remarkably interesting topic gets the Movie Of The Week treatment, while Will Smith lays it on pretty thick with his faux Nigerian accent. But THAT, friends, isn’t even te
40. “The Walk” (Director: Robert Zemeckis) – ** ½ stars – So here’s the thing about “The Walk:” objectively, it’s fairly bad. Hokey and contrived, even though it’s based on a true story; with distressing production value (as reflected in half-hearted attempts at period realism); way too focused on the set-up and not nearly invested enough in the titular tightrope ambulation. Here’s the caveat, though: this thing is JAM-PACKED with hilariously shitty accents. These are charismatic actors, but their voice performances… leave a lot to be desired. Just listen to that horrific JGL dialogue in the trailer. Ben Kingsley’s accent is equally shoddy, as is JGL’s love interest. I was belly-laughing throughout most of this thing and would watch it again several times. But, again, objectively speaking, it’s kinda bad.
39. “Mr. Holmes” (Director: Bill Condon) – ** ½ stars – Another movie with a rambling plot, but sporting three distinct characters that you grow to care about, even though they basically do nothing for two hours. I would actually have loved to see Ian McKellen (playing Sherlock Holmes here) let loose on a real mystery, just a simple case to be solved, a la Arthur Conan Doyle. Instead, the big crisis is a little boy’s bee allergy (which, admittedly, may or may not have induced some watery eyes).
38. “Everest” (Director: Elijah Drenner) – ** ½ stars – Seeing a badly frostbitten Josh Brolin reunited with his wife (Robin Wright) at the end of the movie did produce a little salty moisture at the corners of my eyes. BUT THAT’S IT. NO MOISTURE ESCAPED THEM. I saw this at Chicago’s Navy Pier’s IMAX theater, on a curving semicircular screen, and all its action was distressingly pedestrian. Not bad, mind you, just… kinda bland.
37. “Bridge of Spies” (Director: Steven Spielberg) – ** ½ stars – So I wanted to like this a lot more than I actually did. That ending where Tom Hanks come home and we see him walk towards and then upon the staircase, then pan into the living room as the anchorman confirms his heroism, is a perfect summary of the movie. Professionally handled, cleverly shot, ably performed – BUT NO SENSE OF PACING OR DIRECTING OF AUDIENCE INTEREST. The kid has a funny aside about Hanks’ cover story of “salmon fishing,” then we pan to the mom who… says nothing. Amy Ryan has maybe 20 lines in this whole movie, playing the World’s Most Boring Role – The Dutiful Wife Of A Good Man. Anyway, then we watch her look to the stairs that Hanks just ascended (like he’s an angel going to heaven? I dunno, but holy hell is it bright). Then we watch her WALK UP THE STAIRS. Then we watch her go into the room, see Hanks, passed face-down out on their bed. Okay, so maybe this is the focus of the scene?
She stares at him. Then she picks up his hat. Then she stares at him again. Then we cut to him sleeping from a different angle. Then we get a wide shot of her staring at him again. WHY IS THIS TAKING SO LONG? Just cut from the kid’s line, to Amy Ryan saying something clever, to her entering the bedroom, seeing Tom Hanks asleep, and her picking up the hat, then looking at him once. WE GET IT. THIS SHOULDN’T TAKE THAT LONG. It saps all the energy out of the sequence, and hurts both the family’s revelation of his achievement and her appreciation of his greatness. Spielberg milked the whole “quietly, very slowly observing a man’s greatness” moment all throughout “Lincoln,” and unfortunately that’s stuck with him in this one. I don’t think we need nearly this much coverage of people being in awe of Hanks’s Jim Donovan here or Daniel Day-Lewis’s Abe Lincoln there; a little can go a long way, when it comes to this kind of stuff. Spielberg used to know this. Not sure what’s going on here.
36. “Jurassic World” (Director: Colin Trevorrow) – ** ½ stars – Perfectly serviceable. Chris Pratt does Chris Pratt things, employing his Overgrown Man-Child Imitating Indiana Jones shtick pretty well. There were some fun chases, there was a fun climactic triple-dino battle, I enjoyed the setup and some of the behind-the-scenes wrangling of the Jurassic World park staff. But shit, you can’t just lift the plot of every “Alien” movie without expounding on it — war hawk specialist interest groups want to weaponize a dumb lethal animal. Why would you use a velociraptor on the ground in Afghanistan exactly, Vincent D’Onofrio? Instead, of, I dunno, a drone you can control, or a human being you can give orders to? So dumb.
35. “Best Of Enemies” (Directors: Robert Gordon, Morgan Neville) – ** ½ stars – The trailer makes “Best Of Enemies” look so much tastier than it actually is. I wanted way more strategy in appraising the intricate chess moves of ABC’s first big political debaters, hardcore leftist Gore Vidal and conservative pundit William F. Buckley Jr.
34. “Spectre” (Director: Sam Mendes) – ** ½ stars – LEAH SEYDOUX. This minor Bond entry is still Daniel Craig’s 2nd-best Bond movie, which to be fair isn’t saying a ton, since there is a massive qualitative drop-off from “Casino Royale” to the other three). For more of my thoughts on “Spectre,” go here.
32. “Ex Machina” (Director: Alex Garland) – ** ½ stars: You know exactly where it’s going, but you still enjoy letting it take you there. It was fun and sleek. But I don’t get why people (including other Filmcore contributors) think it’s so great. It’s utterly predictable, our nominal hero is an ineffectual drip (Domnhall Gleeson), it tries so hard to maintain this sort of cool, removed attitude that it doesn’t let its two important human characters connect with the full breadth of their feelings here. The whole thing was simple and downbeat, outside of a great, totally random, neon-lit Oscar Isaac-plus-fembots dance scene.
31. “Inside Out” (Director: Pete Docter) – ** ½ stars: Cute. Always cool to see Kyle McClaughlan getting work. Lots of white people in San Francisco, apparently. That little girl is totally bipolar, you know.
30. “American Ultra” (Director: Nima Nourizadeh) – *** stars – I dig Max (and John) Landis, and his lighthearted genre mash-up approach to screenwriting, despite being a little gimmicky, can feel pretty fresh sometimes. I think “Chronicle” had a stronger hook than “American Ultra,” which is pretty much a stoner-comedy version of “The Bourne Identity” with shadings of “Universal Soldier” in its setup; points are lost by its taking place in a random middle-American flyover town instead of in a bunch of exotic European locales. Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart are fine, and I enjoyed Connie Britton, Tony Hale and John Leguizamo’s supporting turns (sorry, Topher Grace, your one-note nerd sociopath got pretty grating pretty quickly). It was wholly serviceable, but it was one of those movies where a little of the good ol’ ultra-violence goes a long way, and the fact that our heroes treated their total demolition of this town relatively flippantly seemed at odds with the suggested sweetness of their romance. These are not two innocents, these are two hardcore assassins. “Mr. And Mrs. Smith” is a good example of a love story baked in cartoon-y violence that had a much better balance of violence and romance. Maybe that’s because “American Ultra” is a hard-R gore-fest, but the gore doesn’t have consequences or pack any emotional heft the way it does in the best R-rated action movies (see: “Shoot the glass!” in “Die Hard,” Michael Biehn getting thoroughly messed up in any ’80s James Cameron movie).
29. “The Revenant” (Director: Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu) – ** ½ stars – I actually understood Tom Hardy’s mumbling most (some) of the time in this one! This was a polarizing movie for some, and it has a lot of passionate popular and critical supporters. It’s just a simple adventure film, well shot, but way too long. And for all its supposed “brutal realism,” it’s pretty over-the-top: there’s a scene where Leonardo DiCaprio basically flies on a horse to outrun some baddies, there’s the famous moment where Leo gets thrashed around so much by a CGI bear that in real life, the same contact would absolutely kill him.
28. “Terminator: Genysis” (Director: Alan Taylor) – ** ½ stars: Scope the Filmcore review here. I initially gave it *** stars, but looking back, I think my generosity was clouded by my surprise that it wasn’t horrible.
27. “Entourage”(Director: Doug Ellin) – *** stars – I kind of wish that director and show-runner Doug Ellin had called it “Entourage: The Movie.” But nobody’s perfect. At this point, we all kind of know what to expect from an “Entourage” feature film, which is presumably why audiences stayed away in droves. It really does play like two episodes of the show strung together– BUT it played like two episodes of the show in its heyday, the first three seasons. It was solid, unspectacular, workmanlike, and a lot of (somewhat un-PC) fun.
26. “Burying The Ex”(Director: Joe Dante) – *** stars – One of the late great Anton Yelchin’s final roles is as the put-upon boyfriend of a very demanding undead Ashley Greene, with Alexandra Daddario playing his way-too-cool-to-be-real love interest with a pulse. I’d be happy to take either young lady off his hands, let the record show. A fun lo-fi slice of LA genre filmmaking from the one and only Joe Dante (“Gremlins,” “The Howling,” “Matinee”).
25. “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation” (Director: Christopher McQuarrie) – *** stars – I’ve never been crazy about the “M:I” movies, or about Cruise doing them and other, similar action flicks. He’s pretty fun in basically all his movies, sure, but ideal Cruise is weird/overly confident Cruise, a la Frank T.J. Mackey in “Magnolia,” Dr. Bill Hartford in “Eyes Wide Shut,” cocky marine lawyer Lieutenant Dan Kaffee in “A Few Good Men” (probably his best character), cocky poker player Vincent Lauria in “The Color of Money,” shattered war vet Ron Kovic in “Born of the Fourth of July,” and sexually frustrated teen Joel Goodson in “Risky Business.” That being said, his “Mission: Impossible” flicks, like most of the movies he produces, are always well-constructed slices of action, with some really cool set pieces (highlights here are the motorcycle chase, the opera sniper shoot-out, and of course that plane scene). “Mission: Impossible,” like James Bond (and not much else), is one of those movie series whose entries actually could be churned out all the time and I’d still be down.
24. “The Hateful Eight” (Director: Quentin Tarantino) – *** stars – I actually dug this a bit more than Filmcore’s own Emily Schick, but I agree with all of her points. My biggest gripe with “Hateful Eight,” which most of us can agree is minor Tarantino, would be with its padding: this should have been a lean and mean 90-minute whodunnit, not a nearly-three hour opus. The set-up preceding that mostly-superfluous flashback is pretty great, with fantastic Robert Richardson 70 mm cinematography and a wonderfully sinister Ennio Morricone’s Academy Award-winning score (comprised mainly of outtakes from his music for the John Carpenter remake of “The Thing”). This is the kind of movie that’s perfectly suited for home viewing, because you can skip over the unnecessary bits (the two flashbacks, basically) to get to the good stuff. Tarantino falls a bit too in love with his own dialogue, to the detriment of his storytelling, but there are still some glorious moments here, and he’s got another crackerjack cast (Jack Burton is especially good here, as usual).
23. “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” (Director: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon) – *** stars – The ending is very cheap – a wonderful human being dies, and the takeaway is that she was the key motivator in our apathetic hero to start engaging in his life and.. go to college? I hate that he makes this entire experience about him. It’s an ugly, selfish way to wrap up an otherwise fun, film-nerd-friendly little coming-of-age movie.
22. “Iris” (Director: Albert Maysles) – *** stars – A sweet, small portrait of the irrepressible New York City stylist tastemaker Iris Apfel (who was 93 at the time of filming), “Iris” doubles as one of two 2015 swan songs for the late great Albert Maysles (the maestro behind the trailblazing “Salesman” and “Grey Gardens,” among many others), who was 87 during the production and passed a month before the movie’s release. I wanted to love this movie more than I did, I loved Iris Apfel and her husband, Carl, both incredibly sharp and funny and warm. But Maysles was too committed to his signature fly-on-the-wall inclinations here; there is too much observational stillness, there are too many measured close-ups of the Apfels pondering their own mortality. I get that Maysles wants to convey their remarkable resilience against the indignities of old age, but I wanted more banter, I wanted wall-to-wall anecdotes, I wanted more warmth. I think a little of the fly-on-the-wall lingering can go a long way, but I think when you have someone who’s as charismatic a talker and thinker as Iris Apfel, you should maximize that charisma.
21. “I Am Chris Farley” (Directors: Brent Hodge and Derik Murray) – *** stars – They omitted all the juicy stuff so they could interview his family. I appreciate that people didn’t want to drudge that up, and obviously they sort of generally addressed his “demons” and his various addictive vices, but only in the broadest, most sweeping way possible. The interviewees don’t talk about the cause, they don’t talk about how Farley’s drug and alcohol addictions continued to fester until they had their hooks in him good and deep. Why are all the great artists always so tortured? I wanted something here. You can gloss over it as much as you want, but the fact is Farley died from a speedball overdose after a wild few days that included partying with a prostitute. Everyone’s best friend on the show, Farley the perpetual frat boy, passed with nary a friend in sight.
20. “Chi-Raq” (Director: Spike Lee) – *** stars – A (literally) operatic take on Chicago’s recently escalating gun violence, “Chi-Raq” is a cool, bold attempt to really say something, which gives it brownie points with this viewer. Writer/director Mars Blackmon grafts the old Greek myth of “Lysistrata” to shine an off-center light onto one of the city’s biggest problems, proposing (somewhat in satiric jest) that South Side women deny their men, um, access, until they stop the killing. It’s a big, sweet, optimistic appeal, wholly unrealistic, but wholly, uniquely cinematic, too. Love saves the day, love conquers all, all that good stuff. Well, sex does, anyway. It’s all a broad allegory, everyone was a heightened caricature, not a character. But that stylistic choice was fairly consistent (Wesley Snipes’s diamond-eye-patched gang leader Cyclops and D.B. Sweeney’s oafish Mayor McCloud are painted with the broadest strokes). I felt that John Cusack was a bit of an odd fit, but as a Chicagoland native I loved to see my fellow Evanstonian taking up for the cause with an important director. Relative unknown Teyonah Parris, playing our heroine Lysistrata, has to carry a lot of the movie with charisma and punch, and does so in spades. Much of the dialogue is spoken in verse, a la the original “Lysistrata,” albeit with very different lyrics. This lends things a surreality that I think gently mutes just how depressing all the movie’s violence is, I dug that choice. The weird contrast of humor and drama can be a bit off-putting at times, but it was very in-keeping with Spike Lee’s usual MO. He strikes a better balance in other bipolar work, stuff like “She’s Gotta Have It” and “Do The Right Thing” — even “Malcolm X” has some suites that are clearly designed to be lighter (i.e. the pre-jail stuff) before things get intense, but there the shift is definitive, whereas in “She’s Gotta Have It” and “Do The Right Thing,” the tone is consistently inconsistent on purpose, balancing the humor and the anger. I actually enjoyed the spoken verse stuff, BUT I didn’t understand some of it, in terms of the actual verses. Which is generally the case when I listen to music, and with a fairly-constant score, the lyrical conversations more or less qualified as such.
ARE YOU GONE?
K, great. Anyway, a really nice touch was the ending, where Nick Cannon’s rapper, Chi-Raq, confesses to accidentally killing Jennifer Hudson’s son in a drive-by (which was the moment that had kicked off Lysistrata’s sex strike plan). It served as a nice payoff reveal, and it retroactively motivated his reticence to not lay down arms. I also genuinely did not see that coming.
19. “That Guy Dick Miller” (Director: Elijah Drenner) – *** stars – Dick Miller has been a bit player in all kinds of movies for 61 years now. And he’s still kicking! It’s a lot of fun to follow Miller finding his niche in mid-century B (and Z)-pictures; especially fun is tracking his best moments one of Roger Corman’s company mainstays (his homicidal sculptor Walter Paisley in “Bucket of Blood” is of course the standout amongst his contributions to the Corman cannon), and watching intimate moments with his wife. Also, I had no idea he was an occasional screenwriter and a solid illustrator! My big umbrage: outside of some issues with his father, “That Guy” doesn’t go too deep, and it feels like modern-day Miller doesn’t talk nearly as much as I’d have liked him to — his wife and a doting throng of brothers, directors and co-stars pick up the slack on his behalf.
17. “The End of the Tour” (Director: James Ponsoldt) – *** stars – A dour, minor-key winter movie released in the heart of summer and understandably buried. Jason Seagal adeptly plays the tormented David Foster Wallace, widely hailed as the greatest scribe of his generation; he is seen through the lens of adoring journalist Rolling Stone journalist David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg), who himself was beginning his career as a long-form writer at the time of the interview, centered around a small series of promotional readings and signings of Foster Wallace’s breakout, “Infinite Jest,” in 1996. It’s good, but flat where there needs to be tension. All the conflict bubbles and simmers a bit beneath the service, and though there are times when you could say their relationship gets heated, I was never particularly concerned. There are no real arcs, and there is no true, serious conflict; for a movie that professes the story of such a deeply conflicted guy, that’s a bit of problem. Also, “Infinite Jest” is hawked ad nauseum here, which begs the question… WHY DOESN’T DFW READ A PASSAGE FROM THIS BRILLIANT BOOK? ARE WE ALL EXPECTED TO HAVE READ IT?
16. “Room” (Director: Lenny Abrahamson) – The very depressing tale of a kidnapped woman, kept in captivity in a middle-aged creeper’s woodshed for seven years, and their son, whose only reality has been the confines of the titular locale. No need for an Explosions in the Sky song to punctuate the most intense emotional moment of a movie in 2015. Do they expect us not to have seen the “Friday Night Lights” movie or subsequent television series? ‘CAUSE WE HAVE. It’s liKE Bob Zemeckis putting “Gimme Shelter” in flight — THAT’S SCORSESE’S SONG, BOB. DON’T ACT LIKE YOU DON’T KNOW. “Room” is another totally capable, solid movie. As Greg Brecher pointed out in our Oscar podcast, the first half handily outclasses the second half, when the movie loses considerable steam. Another good point he made was the dramatic opportunities lost by framing most of the piece from the kid’s perspective. cute device, but didn’t necessarily need it. maybe splitting it btwn kid’s pov and the mom’s would have been better
15. “Kingsman: The Secret Service” (Director: Matthew Vaughn) – *** stars – The end sting feels entirely out of place. But it’s also a more-than-welcome, decidedly R-rated surprise. The rest of “Kingsman” is just a cute James Bond-lite type of deal (but at least they had the decency to cast Harry Palmer in it). Fluff, but fun fluff. Cool action moments, cool Ian Fleming tropes (Sam Jackson’s lair is the most Ken Adam thing Ken Adam never designed — also, RIP Ken Adam), fun banter. In movies like this, the spy’s ascent always seems to be more entertaining than his initiation and subsequent mission. That is very much the case here, as our hero, Eggsy (Taron Egerton), is put through his paces in a series of elimination-style training exercises, pitted against a more posh rank of wannabe spies. The coolest set piece: when the trainees’ communal bedroom is flooded without warning, and our heroes need to do some crafty brainstorming. An aside: Egerton’s real name actually makes more sense for his “Eggsy” nickname than his character’s full name, Gary Unwin. I can see where one would get “Eggsy” out of “Egerton,” but I’m having a harder time figuring out the rationale behind extracting it from “Unwin.”
14. “Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon” (Director: Douglas Tirola) – *** stars – A pretty comprehensive doc focusing on the National Lampoon’s glorious rise and fall as a great pop cultural tastemaker in the ’60s, ’70s, and early ’80s before the wheels fell off (they don’t really talk about the immortal “National Lampoon Presents Dorm Daze 2: College @ Sea” era). My favorite element was Tirola’s clever incorporation of the Lampoon magazine’s layout design, including some Errol Morris-esque movement and some animation elements. John Landis is always a clutch interviewee.
13. “Shaun The Sheep: The Movie” (Directors: Mark Burton, Richard Starzak) – *** stars – See, HERE is a basically dialogue-free movie with an ACTUAL PLOT. “Mad Max,” please take copious notes. Thanks. Aardman Animation’s stop-motion maestros continue to make under-the-radar gems, with the mute adventures of several sheep and strange-looking dogs as they head to the big city in a courageous attempt to rescue the amnesiac owner of their farm from his new life as a chic hair stylist.
12. “Trumbo” (Director: Jay Roach) – *** stars – “Trumbo” is the kind movie that, were it a multi-part mini-series on, say, AMC (home to star Bryan Cranston’s career-redefining character Walter White), would have been a big deal for a few weeks. Sadly, because it’s a period movie about real human relationships and politics, with some nuance and personality, nobody saw it in theaters. Communist ideologue Dalton Trumbo, the biggest screenwriter of the 1940’s and 1950’s, falls victim to anti-McCarthyist blacklisting in Hollywood. After a year behind bars, Trumbo has to get creative, and goes into overdrive penning schlock round-the-clock under a series of aliases. The Trumbo character is a great one, a unique, irascible, uncompromising force who, to paraphrase the immortal Dominic Toretto (a character that Trumbo would probably be too smart to create), must write or die.
11. “Straight Outta Compton” (Director: F. Gary Gray) – *** stars – “OUR ART IS A REFLECTION OF OUR REALITY.” I think I liked this a smidge too much too upon first seeing it, my judgment clouded by some great marketing and my love for NWA. My current opinion of “Compton” is probably colored by the fact that its ending is treacly, its length impedes its effectiveness, and it glosses over executive producer Dr. Dre’s history of violence against women. Scope my full-length review here. And, hey, well you’re at it, Dan Carson and I recorded Filmcore’s first podcast on the subject of this very movie and NWA’s legacy.
10. “Krampus” (Director: Michael Dougherty) – *** stars – After this got an all-out rave from Red Letter Media, I went into it with outsize expectations. That could have set me up for the marginal disappointment I registered upon leaving Chicago’s City North 14 one balmy winter night. “Krampus,” starring Adam Scott and Dave Koechner, is clearly rooted in ’80s family creature feature fare, with seasonings of “Gremlins,” “A Christmas Story,” “The Gate,” and a little ’90s Christmas movie flavor — the critters in the piece owe a lot to some of Jack Skellington’s more deranged beasts in Henry Selick and Tim Burton’s stop-motion masterpiece “The Nightmare Before Christmas;” and the framing in the movie’s opening slow-motion montage feels a bit “Jingle All The Way”-core to me. We get a lot of effects that look practical, though I’m sure many (all?) of them were digitally enhanced, they boast a tactility and a resonance that the too-smooth CGI never quite masters. My big quibble with this one? The damn creatures are too under-lit, and the ending is too ambiguous and abrupt for such an otherwise-literal movie with so many slow-build Krampus subplot reveals! I really dug the design of the features that I could make out from Krampus and his assorted beasties. Well, I guess the evil carnivorous little Gingerbread Men were the well-lit exception that proves the rule. Still, it’s always nice to see a good subversive Christmas monster movie, especially one with tasteful special effects and a nice stop-motion short story interlude.
9. “A Christmas Horror Story” (Directors: Grant Harvey, Steven Hoban, Brett Sullivan) – *** stars – So I really would have liked this movie a LOT more had one key character not been so horrifically flimsy. Oluniké Adeliyi’s Kim character barely reacts when her son, told he’s eating too fast by his pops, STABS HIS DAD IN THE HAND WITH A FORK. The father, Scott (Adrian Holmes), rises to chastise his son, Kim scolds him, says she’ll handle it, and stares at him quietly, trying to extract an explanation from him. He stays silent (as he has ever since mysteriously disappearing for a spell in a neighbor’s forest earlier that day), she sends him to his room, then looks down at the table in mild confusion. How is that a realistic response to her son uncharacteristically skewering her husband’s hand? Shouldn’t that attack and the fact that the kid hasn’t said a word since he disappeared in the forest combine for one major red flag? At the very least, have a conversation with the little guy! Had she maybe interceded sooner and perhaps figured out that her son had been replaced by a demonic, man-eating forest changeling, her husband would still be alive by the end of their anthology segment. That storyline, by the way, is otherwise pretty cool, because everyone knows demon children are absolutely terrifying. This little guy (Orion John) was no exception. Filmcore’s Emily Schick and I were watching this very late one winter night (well, technically morning, but that’s neither here nor there), and the whole thing was surprisingly effective in its creepiness. It’s a cheap movie, as evidenced by a very flat sound design, but it’s well-cast, terrifically cut, and very well-paced, which can go a long way to cover up Adeliyi’s erratic character behavior in her segment. They’ve got a lot going for them beyond this still-good segment: a drunken Canadian DJ played by a somewhat restrained William Shatner (who looks about 25 years younger than he actually is, somehow); kids stupidly investigating an abandoned, forbidden wing of their high school featuring terrifying abortive ghost-nuns and a surprisingly erotic ghost possession; Santa Claus battling zombified some of his elves, a zombified Mrs. Claus and Krampus; and a broken family battling an aunt so judgmental that, yes, she turns into Krampus.
8. “It Follows” (Director: David Robert Mitchell) – *** stars – Another one where my expectations may have been set a bit too high. I loved the disturbing, ’80s-ified atmosphere of “It Follows” (you’re probably sensing a trend in the style of movies I’m predisposed to enjoy), I think Maika Monroe has been really great in these small, violent throwback movies over the last two years (this and “The Guest”), and this is yet another movie with a very strong first act set-up. Helmer David Robert Mitchell delights in unspooling the initial premise: spectral demonic forces function as STD stand-ins for virginal (yeah right) high school grad Monroe (basically, the only way she can pass on the murderous demons is by sleeping with someone), and this infuses the remainder of the movie with a palpable sense of dread. The big caveat, outside of a questionable plot point (the guy that Monroe hooks up with, who traumatizes the shit out of her, lived in a trap house in town and gave her a fake name, is… living in a neighboring town, and is happy to chat with Monroe and her friends, in a little drum circle in his mom’s backyard, about what he did to her? Really?), was the spectral forces’ development. We never really learn what the “it” following Monroe — and some of the brave male friends who tap that — truly is. Or how to stop it. Or why sex triggers it. Or why it is manifested in creepy looking people who can’t walk particularly fast. Or much of anything, really. Why does Maika Monroe think that electrocuting “it” in a swimming pool will kill the thing? What evidence was ever supplied to suggest that? The characters are all a bit flat, too. But the atmosphere carries it far.
6. “Creed” (Director: Ryan Coogler) – *** 1/2 stars – I addressed “Creed” in-depth for my “Rocky” Movie Power Rankings Listcore, but to sum up: “Fruitvale Station” director Ryan Coogler and star Michael B. Jordan take a side-door to Hollywood recent, and apparently unceasing, franchise-movie fever, resuscitating a movie series that even MGM wasn’t interested in resuscitating.
6. “The Big Short” (Director: Adam McKay) – *** 1/2 stars – “The Big Short” ranks as favorite among the 2015 Best Picture nominees, a smart and depressing and adult business movie, green-lit immediately after the success of “The Wolf of Wall Street” in 2013, an adaptation of Michael Lewis’s book of the same name, highlighting the 2008 recession from the perspective of the Wall Street power players who noticed the financial trends that predicted doom for the stock market (and, by extension, the American economy) and… told very few people, opting instead to bet against the banks to make money off of it. Really, this shaky morality issue was one of my biggest qualms, because the movie operates on one level with it — where all the “smart guys” are designed to be the “good guys,” but they’re ALL assholes and crooks. Albeit somewhat self-aware assholes and crooks, I guess? But ultimately, they’ve discovered something that they themselves say is highly illegal, and then they do nothing but profit off of said discovery. There are two upstart guys who go to the Wall Street Journal to report it, but the reporter laughs them out of the room, and they promptly give up on having any sort of moral high ground. Also, a metalhead aside: isn’t it kind of wild that Darkest Hour are featured in a big-time Oscar nominee? Mastodon and Pantera are a bit surprising too, but they’re a bit more mainstream. And Metallica, of course, has been in movies aplenty.
5. “Uncle John” (Director: Steven Piet) – *** 1/2 stars – A note: this is my hombre Mike Bove’s first feature film credit as director of photography (we interviewed Mike for our second Filmcore podcast), it looks great, and damn it I am not just saying that. Shout-out to Bove, excited to see more stellar cinematography from him on the big screen. A taut, compact micro-budget indie that turns into a covert genre mash-up, tactfully blending two interweaving types of movies, a Chicago/Wisconsin romance and a Wisconsin thriller, into one narrative. Both storylines twist in surprising directions, and you find yourself occasionally for people with less-than-noble intentions, such is the strength of director Steven Piet and producer Erik Crary’s screenplay. Co-starring the great Don Forston as a member of our title character (John Ashton)’s Wisconsin diner chorus, “Uncle John” is one of those flicks that really benefits from a second viewing, as you can really appreciate the way Piet and Crary texture both worlds. I think my #6-#2 movies are handily the most re-watchable features of 2015.
4. “Pawn Sacrifice” (Director: Edward Zwick) – *** ½ stars – Did you know Peter Sarsgaard is a ranked chess player? I wonder if he lobbied to be Bobby Fischer’s real-life practice partner (i.e. the only American player Fischer respected enough to play against), Father William Lombardy. Sarsgaard has secretly been making one heck of a character-actor comeback in some very good movies (to wit: the #7 movie on this list; last fall he also starred in “Experimenter,” an historical drama on the Milgram experiments, unseen by me). “Pawn Sacrifice” tells the tale of schizophrenic chess wunderkind Bobby Fischer, the Brooklyn prodigy whose childhood celebrity made him relentlessly paranoid and asocial as he entered adulthood. “Glory” director Zwick operates with a steady hand as he details Fischer (played with fantastic pinpoint accuracy by Tobey Maguire) and his camp struggling to keep Bobby focused, as he wages a series of battles against Russian champ Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber, speaking mostly in Russian) and, by extension, the entire Soviet Union. Their 1972 World Chess Championship bouts were real political and cultural happenings; Fischer wasn’t just playing for himself or his own glory, but with the weight of a nation on his already shaky shoulders. Needless to say, his collapse almost feels inevitable — we as an audience just want to see him flying too close to the sun before the wax begins to melt.
3. “Love And Mercy” (Director: Bill Pohlad) – *** ½ stars – This big-hearted Brian Wilson biopic flew under the radar when it dropped in June, and I wasn’t expecting nearly as much as I got from it when I scoped it at the Logan Theater later that month. Director Bill Pohlad and writers Michael Alan Lerner and Oren Moverman handle have elected to go a less-than-traditional route in structuring the story, honing in on two specific periods in the Beach Boy mastermind’s life: the recording of “Pet Sounds” and the botched recording of “Smile” in the mid-1960’s, with Paul Danno playing Wilson, as Brian struggles against his tyrannical father and his developing issues with mental illness; and Brian’s late-1980’s comeback, where John Cusack takes over from Danno, as Brian is helped to overcome his mental issues and then hindered by invasive therapist Eugene Landy (Paul Giammati, in his first hilarious wig of the year — his second rocked the #11 movie on this list). It is Wilson’s second wife, Melinda (played by a patient Elizabeth Banks in the movie), who ultimately draws him out from under Landy’s vice grip. “Love and Mercy” handles mental illness with honesty and sympathy, and draws some depressing conclusions about the way that relates to great art.
2. “Black Mass” (Director: Scott Cooper) – *** 1/2 stars – WELCOME BACK JOHNNY DEPP. We’ve all missed you. A lot. Let’s just put the last ten years behind us and start fresh, huh? All is forgiven. Check out the Filmcore web series video episode on this very topic, featuring yours truly and Charles Perry, for more thoughts. I think I was a shade too generous to this one too, so happy was I that Johnny Depp actually committed to a performance behind the weird make-up this time.
1. “Tangerine” (Director: Sean Baker) – *** ½ stars – A very good movie that will be hard to watch again (although I’m sure I’ll do that). A painful look at the decent people trapped in Los Angeles’s seedy underbelly, sex workers – and their clients – who have no way out, and are desperate for affection, even if it’s shaded by betrayal. Fun fact: my office is on a lot that is right in the heart of this district. Did not even realize that until I saw the flick. It’s strange how much you go through life, and even if certain kinds of people are right in front of your face, they remain almost wholly unseen, as you move through your own parallel orbits. Filmcore’s Emily Schick has a great piece on it, worth investigating here.
And now for something completely different, my friends. Siskel and Ebert used to have a great segment called “If We Picked The Winners,” detailing what their selections for the big Oscar categories would be. In the time-honored tradition of that process, here’s my If I Picked The Winners (based not on the actual Academy Award nominees, but on any 2015 movie that I deem worthy).
Best Picture: “Tangerine”
Best Director: Sean Baker, “Tangerine”
Best Actor: Johnny Depp, “Black Mass”
Best Actress: Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, “Tangerine”
Best Supporting Actor: Paul Dano, “Love and Mercy”
Best Supporting Actress: Mya Taylor, “Tangerine”
Best Original Screenplay: “Tangerine”
Best Adapted Screenplay: “Love And Mercy”
Best Make-Up & Hairstyling: “A Christmas Horror Story”
BONUS CATEGORY – Worst Make-Up & Hairstyling: “The Big Short” (what the fuck were those wigs?)
Best Cinematography: Mike Bove, “Uncle John”
Best Editing: “Pawn Sacrifice”
Best Production Design: “Love and Mercy”
Best Animated Feature: “Shaun The Sheep”
BONUS CATEGORY – Worst Animated Feature: “Anomalisa” (also Worst Picture)
Best Visual Effects: “Krampus” (they were a bit under-lit, but that certainly abetted their realism)
Best Costume Design: “Love and Mercy”
Best Documentary Feature: “Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon”
Best Sound Editing: “It Follows”
Best Sound Mixing: “Krampus” (their mixer built some very on-point critter noises)