2015 Recap

Admittedly, I spend most of my movie-watching time checking out old bad movies and cult films. However, I do try to carve out some time each year to watch current features. Now that we are at the conclusion of awards season, I thought I’d share some thoughts on a non-exhaustive handful of notables that I managed to catch.

Features

Cop Car

Jon Watts popped onto a lot of radars this year when he was attached to the upcoming Marvel/Sony cooperative Spider-Man reboot. Prior to this news, I was only familiar with his work on the hilarious ensemble fan film tribute Our RoboCop Remake, which I have probably watched a few too many times. Cop Car, which he directed and co-wrote, is equal parts tense thriller and dark comedy, which isn’t the easiest line to ride. Kevin Bacon is a blast, and sports a memorably sleazy mustache for the film. The bulk of the dramatic onus is on the two child actor leads, who are both surprisingly serviceable. Their characters are unbelievable and got on my nerves pretty quickly, but once the pressure was on, their annoying minutiae drained away. The concept here was brilliant, the execution wasn’t too bad either. I came at it expecting something like The Hitcher, but found that this was surprisingly pretty humorous.  It is a unique little movie that deserves attention.

Ex Machina

I haven’t heard a bad word about this movie. It is imaginative, timely, well-designed, well-acted, well-shot, and absolutely should have been in consideration for best picture.  That said, it isn’t flawless –the last act felt like it deflated a bit to me–but it is more than worth the time to check out. I expect a lot of good things in the future from writer/director Alex Garland, as well as from Oscar Isaac and Alicia Vikander.

Bone Tomahawk

This is a movie that I didn’t hear very much about, but that I really enjoyed. While The Hateful Eight was the neo-western getting all of the attention with its throwback presentation and all-star cast, Bone Tomahawk sports its own team of notable character actors, and an original twist on the genre all its own. Kurt Russell  is of course great in it, but I thought the supporting players gave the movie its color: Patrick Wilson, Matthew Fox, Lili Simmons, David Arquette, and most of all Richard Jenkins absolutely nail their roles, and give the world of Bone Tomahawk a lot of vitality. The costuming and makeup work is also stellar, not just in regards to the western aesthetic, but in the creation of an unsettling quasi-human cannibal tribe at act as the film’s looming antagonists. If you are a fan of westerns, Kurt Russell, or just interesting independent movies in general, Bone Tomahawk is something that you don’t want to let slip by.

Beasts Of No Nation

This is a visceral, compelling movie that takes a chronological look at the development of a young boy into a child soldier, and then back again. Idris Elba might be the biggest reason why this movie got the attention it did, but it is fantastic beyond just his memorable performance in it. It is a heavy watch for sure, but I felt that the time seeing it was well spent. As far as the Academy Awards go, I think this film had its odds hurt by being both Black and in the Netflix camp, which is a negative double-whammy in the old, white face of the Academy. Luckily, that’s what the Independent Spirit Awards are for, and that’s where it got its just rewards.

Room

There was a time when everyone thought that this would be the runaway critical darling of the year. Instead, it is in the dead heat pack of Academy Awards Best Picture nominees. Personally, I thought this was one of the weaker Best Picture movies this year, though I do think Brie Larson will rightfully walk away with the lead actress award. Likewise, the concept behind the movie is beyond brilliant, and the first half of the film executes on it very well. However, the movie takes a turn halfway through, which leads the story into a bit of narrative chaos.

Not only does it lose its steam, but it loses its rhythm and logical sequence as well. Events in the story lose their sense of time in relation to each other, and the dots that make up the screenplay just stop connecting to each other in general. The last act feel like just a montage of “things that happened eventually,” and then the movie ends. Despite the movie dealing with interesting ideas and powerful emotions, the structure of the movie doesn’t help prop them up. Also, there are so many tight close ups with handhelds done throughout the film that I lost count. It felt really transparently manipulative for one, but also disappointingly unoriginal. There are other ways to elicit emotions than using that one kind of shot, and this never felt creative in how it tried to do so. To me, it felt like an exceptional IFC film: not a legitimate Best Picture contender.

The Revenant

It is kind of surprising to me that The Revenant has apparently risen to the top of the Best Picture nominee pack. It is certainly a good movie, though their is some contrarian critical backlash on that point, but it just doesn’t feel like a Best Picture to me. Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance is a solid physical portrayal, and will probably win him his statue. Likewise, Tom Hardy makes for a memorable villain, though his mumbling dramatic style is getting old quite quickly. I was genuinely shocked to see it nominated for Visual Effects, because I found that to be one of the movie’s few notable weak points, and I think those shots will degrade quickly with age. The cinematography is what initially made this movie stand out to me, but outside of a few notable sequences, it isn’t nearly as interesting as I expected it to be. All of the parts of this movie generally work, and the sum product is certainly a good movie, but I felt like it distinctly lacked some intangible qualities that make movies truly memorable. It’ll probably scoop up a lot of statues by the end of the night, but I fear that it will be remembered as a weaker Best Picture in the long run, assuming that is how The Academy goes.

The Big Short

The Big Short is this year’s licorice picture: there seems to be almost as much disdain for it as there is effusive praise. Adam McKay’s intriguing portrait of the housing crisis is a bit of an oddity all around: structure, tone, editing, etc. However, I thought it all worked pretty well, and the movie certainly benefited from having a distinctive point and motivation behind it. I don’t expect it to win anything, unfortunately, but I think it is at the very least an ensemble worth checking out for its performances (Carrell and Bale specifically), if not for its humor and message.

Jupiter Ascending

Jupiter Ascending is a visually striking, imaginative, poorly-conceived, and ridiculously-executed movie. I think it will be remembered as the best bad movie of 2015 by a longshot, as I’m sure that Fantastic Four, Pixels, The Cobbler, etc. will all appropriately fade away into obscurity. The sheer size and scale of this movie makes it all the more baffling, in regards to both the effects and the cast. Channing Tatum, Mila Kunis, Sean Bean, Eddie Redmayne, and company all wind up looking utterly ridiculous in the bizarre world of the movie, which consistently stays just beyond arm’s length from sensibility or logic. This’ll deserve its own post eventually, but for now, I’ll just recommend checking it out.

The Hateful Eight

I am a little surprised that many are regarding The Hateful Eight as a lesser Tarantino movie. The Academy particularly didn’t seem to care for it, giving it only a handful of nominations (excluding original screenplay and Best Picture, most notably). That said, I have to believe that this is Ennio Morricone’s year for The Hateful Eight‘s score, and I think Robert Richardson and Jennifer Jason Leigh have shots in their respective competitive categories. I really enjoyed the movie, and particularly appreciated the claustrophobic setting, attention to detail, creative shooting, and memorable performances from the stacked cast. I think this movie might grow on people with age, not unlike Jackie Brown. I suspect that the Academy might be tiring of Tarantino and the Weinsteins’ respective antics, and that Tarantino’s unwillingness to break outside of his grindhouse comfort zone may now be hurting his chances in awards season.

Sicario

Sicario, much like Beasts of No Nation, has been mentioned a bit as a notably snubbed movie by the Academy. I think Sicario had four primary powerful elements: the score, the cinematography, Benicio Del Toro, and Emily Blunt. Of those four, the cinematography by Roger Deakins was the standout to me, and I think that is the best chance the movie has for any kind of awards glory, and I think that’ll be a tight race. In any case, the movie is a very tense and eerie portrait of the DEA, the Mexican drug cartels, and the border in general, and deserves to be seen by more people that I think actually caught it. As a side note, I think it pairs well with Cartel Land, one of the nominees for Best Documentary.

Documentaries

Winter on Fire

Winter on Fire is a fantastic portrait of a Ukrainian youth protest that boiled over into conflict and near-revolution thanks to the brutal actions of state police. The transformation that happens over the course of the movie is shocking: the people, the streets, and the tone all steadily decay, darken, and harden as time passes, and the ever-present camera catches the entire process as it happens. If it weren’t for a couple of biographical documentaries of celebrities, I think it would have a really good chance at winning Best Documentary.

Cartel Land

This is a clever and incisive documentary that draws a parallel between the renegade American border patrols and the civilian vigilante groups that rose within Mexico to battle the power of the cartels. This is one of those documentaries that leaves you feeling pretty hopeless at the end, so I’m not sure if it’ll be able to contend for Best Documentary, but it is still certainly worth watching.

Finders Keepers

Finders Keepers was my favorite documentary of the year by a good margin. The story, on the surface, is the bizarre and humorous tale of a lost limb and a curious legal scenario, but the film delves beyond the surface of the situation, and winds up revealing a lot about two intriguing, damaged men with a lot of dark and tragic history behind them.

The Wolfpack

I heard a lot of positive things about this movie before I saw it. The idea of a small army of children being raised isolated from society in a New York apartment, with only a film collection to connect them to their culture, is pretty fascinating. The fact that they thought to make re-creations of these stories with a video camera and rudimentary props is charming. However, the underlying story to it all, about a set of parents who were ok with completely shielding their children from the world, is primarily told between the lines in the documentary, and I suspect there was/is a whole lot more to the family dynamics than what was revealed here.

The Propaganda Game

The Propaganda Game is probably the most interesting documentary about North Korea that you will ever see, just on the basis of its perspective. Instead of taking an “objective” look at the country’s administration and policies, it goes in with the specific goal of being empathetic, and trying to paint the world from the North Korean perspective, which is rarely (if ever) seen by the west. It particularly focuses on a Spanish-born member of the North Korean government, who is himself a fascinating figure. It is not just a movie about North Korea, but also a rumination about the nature of propaganda itself, and the many forms that it can take.

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