Sunday, April 3, 2016

Favorite Movies Seen in 2015

Here are my five-star films of 2015, in the order I saw them (IMDB's year of release in parentheses).

Boyhood (2014)
It's Such a Beautiful Day (2012)
U-Carmen eKhayelitsha (2005)
Barbara (2012)
The Loving Story (2011)
Photographic Memory (2011)
Nightcrawler (2014)
Whiplash (2014)
The Well-Digger's Daughter (2011)
The Boxtrolls (2014)
Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father (2008)
The Fitzgerald Family Christmas (2012)
The Professional (1994)
Inside Out (2015)
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015)
Two Days, One Night (2014)
The End of the Tour (2015)
Gloria (2013)
The Rabbi's Cat (2011)
The Martian (2015)
Experimenter (2015)

Ranking the 2016 Academy Award Best Picture Nominees

And now a more recent set of movies.

1. Mad Max: Fury Road

A spectacle of world-building.

2. The Martian

Sci-fi adventure, served light and droll.

3. Room

A really gripping tale that somehow makes a virtue of a severely limited environment. These top three films were just noses apart in my ranking of favorites.

4. Spotlight

Not quite All the President's Men, but we're always ready for another story of the virtuous press scoring a victory against a rotten institution.

5. Bridge of Spies

A very comfortable old sweater: A virtuous man continues to make right choices and does good.

6. Brooklyn

A modest little immigration romance, easy to underestimate.

7. The Big Short

Mostly entertaining, but it lost points for being self-consciously cute; and in the end it's hard to root for any of these hardcore capitalists.

8. The Revenant

Like the top film, a spectacle. Unlike the top film, kind of ridiculous. Still worth a look, though.

Ranking the 2015 Academy Award Best Picture Nominees

Remember these films? I do, vaguely. I ranked these a while ago but am only now getting around to adding a few notes. Starting at the top:


Brilliant psychological drama, great performances, boffo ending.

2. Boyhood

A monumental anti-epic, a gamble of a project that paid off handsomely.
3. Birdman

Showy, sharp take on performance. Loved the ending. Maybe a bit too much drumming.

4. The Grand Budapest Hotel

This time, the quirkiness is charming.

5. The Imitation Game

Cumberbatch is immensely watchable, and the interwoven tracks showing three different periods in Turing's life are a satisfying way of telling his story.

6. American Sniper

Good lead performance by Cooper, and the war zone sequences are tense; but the film has the feel of a whitewash.

7. Selma

The film suffered from trying to cover two subjects: Selma and MLK. The former was much more engrossing; ditching the Nobel Prize, LBJ, and even George Wallace would have made this a much better movie.

8. The Theory of Everything

This seemed like an even bigger whitewash than the sniper film, and much less interesting.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

A Netflix Film Festival

Contra the words of the Preacher, there is not a time for everything. Take movies, for instance. I keep track of movies that come out, and I take note of the ones I want to see; when Netflix makes them available for streaming, I add them to my My List. And there they sit until I watch them, or until Netflix bids them adieu.
Netflix is kind enough to post a seven-day warning when a movie is about to become unavailable. I check my My List every few days to see what's expiring; usually I get an all-clear, or maybe one or two titles are flagged as departing soon. That's when I must decide: Do I really want to watch this film? Do I really have time to watch this film? (Sorry, Turin Horse, I don't have 146 minutes to spare in the next few days; but I watched all of Sátántangó a few years ago, so I feel no guilt.)
And then there was Thursday, September 24, 2015: Sixteen items on my My List suddenly had the expiration date of doom. (I found out later this was part of an Epix decision to move a bunch of films from Netflix to Hulu.) Which ones would I watch? Time to pop the popcorn and hunker down.
You're Next. I decided to start with this wide-release horror film favored by the critics. I liked the interplay of the family members, and there was a bit of cleverness in the murder plot. But there was a lot of stupidity too, which ultimately put me off the film.
The Sun. This narrative film depicts Hirohito at the end of World War Two. Austere, but I liked it. I posted a few scribbles about the film on Second-Chance Cinema, my blog about movies that didn't get a commercial run in my town of Houston, Texas.
Jim Norton: Contextually Inadequate. An entertaining stand-up show, maybe leaning a little heavily on self-deprecating humor. (I criticize to prove I saw it.)
The Last Mogul and Great Directors. Two documentaries on moviemaking, both enjoyed. A few notes here.
A Most Wanted Man. Meh. Weighted down by the routine cynicism I've come to expect from a John le Carré adaptation.
Labor Day. This is a ridiculous story about a convict, a single mom, and her son. I did not expect to like it, but by the end of the film Josh Brolin and Kate Winslet had won me over, somehow.
Rapture-Palooza. My third-favorite of this run of movies; I slobber over Craig Robinson's brilliant performance here.
Gloria. My favorite: An over-40 Chilean woman hits the clubs and finds romance (for a while). The super-obvious, on-the-nose disco number at the end is totally earned.
The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete. That title wins points all by itself, and the film, about a couple of inner-city boys left to survive on their wits, doesn't disappoint.
Russell Brand: Messiah Complex. My second-favorite. Brand is brilliant, quick-witted, and very funny.
Hours. A modest thriller, which Paul Walker makes worth watching, as I note here.
Renoir. I watched the first half of this quiet, gorgeous film on Monday, then picked up the rest on Tuesday without much harm. Apparently there a number of people who hiss and cough up hairballs if they hear “Pierre-Auguste Renoir” and “artist” in the same sentence. They should not watch this movie. For the rest of us, it depends on how much patience we have with art-house film. I'm good.
Bella. This was a festival favorite several years ago. I disliked it, and I have erased most of it from my memory; all that's left is something along the lines of, Passive woman, I rescue you, because I am Noble Man Who Rescues, and this is Rescue Story That Makes Everyone Feel Good and Noble.
Going Places. I had read a Pauline Kael article about Bertrand Blier and this film in particular, and I think Kael helped me appreciate, helped me enjoy Gérard Depardieu and Patrick Dewaere's spree of larceny and thoroughly incorrect behavior toward women. This is a fun trip.
That left one expiring film Wednesday night, and … I gave it a pass. I've never seen Mommie Dearest, and I'll just have to catch it another time–maybe at camp camp.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Favorite Movies Seen in 2014

It will be several months before I rank all the 2015 Oscar nominees (if I get to the task at all); but for what it's worth, here's a list of my favorite viewing experiences of 2014: 20 movies that I gave five stars to, listed in the order I saw them (year of release in parentheses).

What Maisie Knew (2012)
Imitation of Life (1959)
A Hijacking (2012)
Thunder Soul (2010)
The Square (2013)
Monsieur Lazhar (2011)
American Hustle (2013)
Like Someone in Love (2012)
Sholay (1975)
The Selfish Giant (2013)
Zulu (1964)
Wake in Fright (1971)
The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926)
All Is Lost (2013)
Ilo Ilo (2013)
Midnight's Children (2012)
In the Fog (2012)
Snowpiercer (2013)
Nymphomaniac: Vol. I (2013)
Rosetta (1999)

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Ranking the 2014 Academy Award Nominees

Finally. I haven't been lapped by the Academy (the next year's nominees have not been announced yet), but it's getting close. Here's my just-for-fun ranking, top to bottom, of the Best Picture and Best Animated Feature nominees.

1. American Hustle.

Reviewers wanted to compare this to GoodFellas, but it's really more like The Big Lebowski: There's not a scene in the movie that isn't aimed toward entertainment–mostly laughs. And to those who say 129 minutes is too long, I say, Really? Because the first scene to be cut from that length would probably be the “Live and Let Die” scene, and I am not willing to let that one go.

2. Gravity.

I splurged on this one–saw it in 3D IMAX. Best amusement park ride ever, and quite a good movie. Ambitious filmmaking, simple story.

3. Dallas Buyers Club.

A heavy topic, covered with a light touch, loaded with audience-pleasing character arcs, and a key film of the McConnaisance. Someone should market a collection of True Texas Tales, which would include this film, Bernie, and I Love You Phillip Morris. Oh, and perhaps The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean.

4. Captain Phillips.

This very solid story has fine performances from Tom Hanks and first-time actor Barkhad Abdi. The American captain's resourcefulness is heroic but he is always human; the Somalis are not so much villains as tragic figures.

5. The Croods.

Perhaps the title of this movie lowered my expectations, but I had a lot of fun with this. The animation is lively, the vocal performances (by Nicolas Cage, Emma Stone, Ryan Reynolds, and others) are pleasing, and the story stays fresh most of the time.

6. The Wolf of Wall Street.

This tribute to the American genius for larceny gets caught in a repetitive rut–I'll raise the Too Long penalty flag on this one–but it features a very funny, relaxed performance by Leonardo DiCaprio.

7. The Wind Rises.

Even though we're taken inside the dreams of Jiro Horikoshi, the engineer who designed the Japanese Zero, the character is still a bit opaque; perhaps there's not much there there. It's a beautiful, imaginative film, though.

8. 12 Years a Slave.

You! Must! Witness! The Horror! Of Slavery! High-class Brussels sprouts for everyone.

9. Frozen.

This feels like an incomplete draft of a musical; songs will surely be added to the second half when the story is staged on Broadway. Luckily it does include the obligatory award-grabbing tune. Overall, professional. Entertaining. Not enthralling.

10. Philomena.

This film is all right, but what on earth is it doing with a Best Picture nomination?

11. Despicable Me 2.

Very heavy on Minions (and we are promised a Minions movie next summer). Yes, the Minions are cute and funny. But moderation, people.

12. Ernest & Celestine.

This is a beautifully animated story of mice and bears, pitched to young people. Very young people. It's sweet, and your five-year-old will love it.

13. Nebraska.

I took a dislike to the script–there was an early bit of dialogue that was way too expository–and I could never shake the bad feeling. It all felt arbitrary and unreal, and by the time we got to June Squibb at the gravesite, I was: Oh, yuck.

14. Her.

Sterile idealism. Didn't feel the least bit real. Or rather, the entire movie seemed to fit into one person's mind, with enough room left over for table tennis.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Ranking the 2014 Academy Award Nominees (Documentary)

OK, I still have a ways to go before I've seen all the narrative and animated feature nominees. But I did manage to catch all the documentary features (they're all streaming on Netflix). I recommend all five. Here's how I rank them, starting at the top.
1. The Square
This account of public protest in Egypt is both inspirational and cautionary. Mass protests bring down the dictatorial regime of Hosni Mubarak. It takes another round of protests to convince the military to give up power and conduct elections. One of the groups oppressed by Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood, comes to power, and seeks to impose its own tyranny on the people. (I can hardly believe this, but at one point the Brotherhood's leader proclaimed himself Pharaoh.) This led to yet another set of protests. Mind you, at times the rallies were met with deadly force; these people showed a lot of courage. I scratched out a few notes about the film here.
2. Cutie and the Boxer
By the time the film was over, I was charmed by this portrait of a quirky artistic couple in New York. Vivid, interesting people who sometimes made your heart ache.
3. Twenty Feet from Stardom
This film about unheralded backup singers is comfort cinema. The viewer feels ennobled by proxy as the talented people (mostly black women) who sing behind the stars get some deserved recognition.
4. Dirty Wars
America has done some bad, bad things. Remember the heroes who got Osama bin Laden? They were part of the Joint Special Operations Command, which had been conducting secret raids in various countries for years. Sometimes those raids involved the killing of innocent civilians. There is a logic that justifies such killing, but it is reasoning from a very dark place. This documentary follows a reporter as he learns about the activities of the JSOC. The film doesn't provide any simple answers, but boy does it ask some troubling questions.
5. The Act of Killing

This is the most astonishing film of the lot. Nearly fifty years ago, agents of the Indonesian government murdered many people they didn't like–in particular, people they suspected of being Communists. The killers have remained in power and have never been called to account for their murders. In the film, a documentarian offers to help them stage Hollywood-style reenactments of their misdeeds. They respond with enthusiasm, bullying modern-day villagers into participating in the project. After a while, this perverse form of LARPing becomes repetitive. Still, the mind is boggled.