So after a few weeks of absence, one would expect me to have some deep philosophical diatribe or at least a review of some obscure TV series. No such luck. Instead, here are some films I watched that came out last year, arranged vaguely from favorite to least:
“Mad Max: Fury Road” – I shouldn’t have expected less from writer-director George Miller. Big, beautiful and brutal, “Fury Road” delivered just about everything it was supposed to: Striking visuals, weird atmosphere and smart performances, all bound to what is almost a two-and-a-half hour car chase. Was “Fury Road” the best Max film? I don’t think so. But was it the best film of the year? I do think so.
“The Hateful Eight” – …unless of course professional movie buff Quentin Tarantino’s “Hateful Eight” was the best film of the year. Gorgeously photographed and remarkably controlled–a third of the film takes place inside a stagecoach cabin–the film also sports both an excellent score by Ennio Morricone and a brilliant cast. “Eight” also uses its nearly three-hour length to better effect than some of Tarantino’s recent efforts. It is violent, to the point where it might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but you can’t ignore its style or deny its ambition.
“Anomalisa” – They may not be human–literally–but the puppet protagonists of “Anomalisa” have a lot to say about humanity. This darkly comic little film explores concepts of alienation, conformity and crippled expectations. Simply a smart film.
“The Revenant” – I’ll admit, I found it hard to crawl (heh) into the character of John Glass, which I blame less on Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance than on a chilly script. Regardless, Alejandro Inarritu’s film was an excellent spectacle, and far more like some films of Ridley Scott’s than another film I recently saw (more on that below): “Revenant” carries the mystical vision of “Gladiator” and the savage beauty (thanks in no small part to cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki) of “The Duellists.” Add in Tom Hardy doing another fantastic job, and I’m satisfied.
“Deus Ex” – Smart, but not as smart as it thinks it is, and stylish, but not as stylish as it could be, “Deus Ex” nevertheless raises some interesting questions about consciousness and living in the computer age. Too bad it falls apart in the last five minutes, but you can’t have it all.
“Sicario” – I’m always up for some border town noir, and “Sicario” supplies. Not as morally complex as it thinks it is, it is nonetheless ethically suspect. Emily Blunt is solid as our central character, but some of her motives as suspect too, and in a more head scratching than cinematically engaging way; she’s backed by an excellent supporting cast (sporting Josh Brolin and Benicio del Toro). The tension is palpable, particularly during the car ride from Juarez.
“Bone Tomahawk” – Long and sparse, “Tomahawk” is nonetheless well written (by first-time director S. Craig Zahler) and nicely performed, with Kurt Russell stoically preserving the Western art form and backed by a cast of thriller familiars. If you appreciate the 19th century look, you’ll forgive some of the unimaginative photography; and if you like your Westerns weird, you’ll appreciate the atypical tribe of cannibalistic Indians.
“Crimson Peak” – The age old question of how much do appearances matter rears its pretty head yet again. Writer-director Guillermo del Toro’s story leaves something to be desired–it is foggy at points and very familiar to anyone who’s familiar with Victorian literature–but the visuals are typically great and the 19th century atmosphere nicely captured. Performances by Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain and Tom Hiddleston are subtly good. In a way, even if this was far from my favorite film, I am glad it was made; that fact alone says something about movies.
“The Gift” – I hate to say something clichéd like: “For his first time in the director’s chair, actor-writer-director Joel Edgerton delivers a surprisingly decent gift with this thriller,” but, for his first time in the director’s chair… Edgerton is fine both in front of and behind the camera in this smart and well photographed thriller, and Bateman handles his against-type part quite well.
“Pawn Sacrifice” – A not-quite-there biopic about Bobby Fischer, “Sacrifice” is pleasantly, if unimaginatively, shot; although Peter Skarsgard is sensitive and Toby McGuire engagingly frantic in their portrayals (backed by the always solid Liev Schieber and Michael Stuhlbarg), the script seems unsure of what to do with its characters. Check, but not checkmate.
“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” – What can I say? This is a film for fans, and when I was feeling like a fan, I was completely caught up in it. Of course, when I stepped back and started considering how much fan service was , but Star Wars is less a mythology and more an industry these days; for the people who want to like this, there’s nothing I can say that would change your mind at this point anyway.
“Love and Mercy” – This Brian Wilson biopic was an exercise in “why?” The scenes with young Brian were fun, but we’ve already seen this movie; the scenes with old Brian are interesting, featuring both an oddly cast John Cusack as the titular tenor and Paul Giamatti in a weird wig. The most engaging moment was the live performance that ran over the credits (the soundtrack is excellent, but that’s to be expected).
“Spectre” – That opening scene. Although the film tires of its own mythos long before it finishes its two-and-a-half hours, and Christoph Waltz is criminally underused as the criminal mastermind, just remember that first scene. Sam Mendes, a single shot, James Bond in Mexico City for Day of the Dead. Why didn’t anyone think of this before?
“The Peanuts Movie” – I’m trying to put this right in the middle because it’s exactly what it says on the label. Nice music. Funny in a family sorta way. Toys with depth without getting wet. Snoopy is the strongest character in the film, obviously.
“Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation” – Lacking any kind of depth–but do you really go to the Mission Impossible for depth?–“Rogue Nation” is quite fun. A clever script, razzle dazzle to spare, and proof that Tom Cruise can still act and climb the side of a plane.
“Jurassic World” – Bigger is not always better. The dinosaurs are bigger. The cast is bigger. But the thrills are not better, and neither particularly is the movie. A pleasantly prehistoric diversion? Perhaps. A promising start to a new franchise? Perhaps not.
“Slow West” – The disappointing “Slow West” is certainly pretty to look at, but although it’s less than 90 minutes, it plods along like a lame horse. John Maclean has some interesting ideas for the quirky characters that tried out the American dream, but somehow they don’t do anything other than stand around the screen and quirk. C’mon, man! You had Michael Fassbender! Maybe Westerns should be left to the Americans…and, uh, the Italians.
“The Martian” – Honesty time: I like Ridley Scott best when he goes big. I didn’t feel that going into “The Martian,” but there were so many people telling me it was great…I don’t know, my expectaions were cued up wrong. That said, I was essentially disappointed by what I got. “The Martian” is artfully photographed (on Mars at least) but lacking any sense of seriousness–and therefore tension. Lots of people raved about Matt Damon’s performance, but I felt he har-har-har’d his way through dialogue specially overwritten for the Reddit generation. Far more interesting to me was what was happening back on earth, where Jeff Daniels’ head of NASA was taking the lives of his astronauts more seriously than the film did.
“San Andreas” – “San Andreas” would have been so-bad-it’s-good if it had happened to be a few minutes shorter. As it stands, it was a little too long to watch Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson battle both a state-wide CGI earthquake and a monstrously bad script. Paul Giamatti, as a Cassandra-esque researcher, looks like he’d rather be on the east coast.
“Point Break” – Technically nice to look at, “Point Break” was about 89 percent less fun than the original. A muddled the-environment-meets-Ayn-Rand message does not help things out. And, look, if you have Ray Winstone in your film, you’d better point your camera at him for more than two minutes. Sadly, this loses out to the earthquake movie simply because it is not a camp classic waiting to be discovered.
“San Andreas Quake” – On the other hand, brilliantly bad production house The Asylum pumped out this turkey to compete with the above film, and I’ll be damned if it’s not the better of the two. I place it here for comedic purposes only. If you’re after a movie about an earthquake destroying my entire home state that is headfirst-out-of-a-window awful AND runs less than 90 minutes, I have your movie.
“Martian Land” – Well, why not? I do rate The Asylum’s “Martian Land” lower than 20th Century Fox’s “The Martian” if only because the production values are gleefully low, although, believe it or not, the film makes an honest effort at injecting both some humanity and an environmental message (that it promptly forgets at the end!) into its plot. Besides, how many other movies can you sum up as “lipstick lesbians on Mars”?
“The Runner” – How bad was this Nicolas Cage led tale of political corruption in the post-BP oil spill South? I completely forgot I watched it.