Big Hero 6 (Directed by Don Hall & Chris Williams)
From my review: Every element of Big Hero 6 feels like a classic Marvel comic. The teenage hero struck by tragedy, using his own wits and intelligence to build what he needs to make things right. A powerful masked villain with personal ties to the hero. Like Brad Bird, the creators of this film understand those fundamental principles of what makes superhero media appealing to kids. One place where Marvel has been lacking was in the musical score of their movies. Big Hero 6 has a beautifully triumphant and classical superhero sound, big heroic themes to highlight Hiro & company swinging into action and sweeping notes to underscore the tragedy. There are genuinely touching moments in the story, and this is not an animated film where everything gets tied up nicely with everyone turning out safe. People die in this story, and the villain is more complicated than the audience will initially realize. Much like the comic books that inspired this movie, the creators respect the intelligence of children and know that, with a well-written script and strong creative choices, a “kids’ film” can be something powerful.
Force Majeure (Directed by Ruben Östlund)
From my review: Force Majeure is a sharp, dry comedy reminiscent of recent gem Toni Erdmann. Both movies are hilarious but require the audience to deeply engage before the humor begins to surface, often out of devastatingly awkward social exchanges. Director Ruben Östlund is out to dissect the disaffected nature of the bourgeoisie. We’ve all been in or seen those families that when a sudden truth is set out before them, an uncomfortable reality, they attempt to force themselves past the moment. There’s an unspoken belief that if we do not acknowledge this dissonance, then it will go away. The moments after Tomas dashes off and then returns to continue lunch with his family have no relevant dialogue to the characters’ inner emotions. The father attempts to belie the tension by diminishing the seriousness, but you can tell through both the mother and children’s body language in this scene and the next that the damage has been done.
Mommy (Directed by Xavier Dolan)
From my review: Not enough can be said about the performances of Anne Dorval and Suzanne Clément in this film. Both actresses have been with Dolan in four out of his now seven films. Each time they play a prominent role, they reveal a different facet of themselves. Dorval has played a mother in three films (I Killed My Mother, Heartbeats, and Mommy) and each portrayal is of an entirely different character. Clément is impressive to watch in light of her performance in Laurence Anyways. Kyla could not be a more different character, but the actress brings layers of depth and leaves ambiguity as to what has left Kyla with her speech impediment and why she has gone on sabbatical from teaching.
It Follows (Directed by David Robert Mitchell)
This A24 horror film managed to be both an indie arthouse and mainstream success, blending recognizable tropes from 1980s horror flicks. There’s a lot happening in this movie, while the story may be thin the themes and craft at work are fantastic. Jay, a 19-year-old woman, starts seeing a new guy and they end becoming intimate in his car after one date. He knocks her unconscious and when she comes to he apologetically delivers an explanation that he’s passed a curse onto her, that an entity only she can see and can take any form it chooses will be coming for until it kills her. Jay calls upon her friend group to help her avoid this monstrous presence, which creates a constant looming sense of dread. The atmosphere in It Follows is dripping in classic horror tension, and I love that the monster of this movie is never named or explained. The threat just is, and there’s no time to contemplate why this is happening. The ambiguity woven throughout It Follows elevates above the shlock Blumhouse is cranking out and allows the world to feel both grounded and like a strange hazy dream.
A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (Directed Ana Lily Amirpour)
From my review: Amirpour is not interested in making large statements about any of the cultures she is a part of, instead she wants to weave together images and tropes together to create a tableau of mood and aesthetics. If you’re going to compare her work to a contemporary, I would cite Panos Cosmatos (Beyond the Black Rainbow, Mandy) because both filmmakers are very influenced by formative cinema from their youth and have reused the iconography of those movies to create wholly original works. There’s an effort to paint in broad swathes and hint at a long trouble history for both Bad City, its citizens, and The Girl. Because we’re peering into a world that has existed long before the opening of the film we don’t get a tight resolution. This world and these characters will go on living whether we are present to watch them or not.
Ex Machina (Directed by Alex Garland)
From my review: Ex Machina is one of those films that have been touted as a triumph for A24, and it is. Earlier this year I reviewed Annihilation, his follow up film, and it just isn’t as tightly written and executed as Ex Machina. The key with this film is that the cast is limited to three characters, with a few supporting faces popping up but never taking away from the story. There’s also some smart play on audience expectations with the assumption that Caleb is our protagonist. While he may be the character through whose Point of View the story is told, I would argue that Ava is the main character. She is the one who goes through a very defined character arc, not to say the other characters don’t. Her arc is the one the movie is about.
Gone Girl (Directed by David Fincher)
Fincher is a directed that had to grow on me over time, originally a fan of Fight Club only to sour on that film as my movie education developed. Gone Girl was one of the movies to bring me back into the fold with Fincher. Nick Dunne contacts the police to tell them it appears his wife has been abducted, possibly killed, at least that’s what the bloody tableau laid out in his living room points out. The story keeps focused on Nick as a man more complicated than he first lets on. The novel is based on the disappearance and eventual revelation of murder that came out of the tragic Laci Peterson case in California. The film leans into the same thematic territory and it’s a picture that in retrospect of Ben Affleck’s revealed womanizing and sexual harassment adds a whole other layer of analysis to the story. Fincher is the master of mood, building a saturated palette on the screen which highlights the bleak and nihilistic message Gone Girl ultimately tells. The slow reveal of the wife, Amy’s true nature during her relationship with Nick is chilling and she is one of the best film antagonists/protagonists we’ve ever had.
Phoenix (Directed by Christian Petzold)
From my review: Phoenix is an implausible story but the sort of thing, that when handled by the right writer, director, and actors everything will feel grounded and the audience will be able to buy into some of the wildest twists. The emotional weight of this film rests on the shoulders of Nina Hoss and Ronald Zehrfeld, who play Nelly and Johnny, respectively. The majority of scenes take place between the two of them, and they do such a fantastic job wordlessly and effortlessly evoking the tension that exists in their relationship. Nelly is the only one of the two fully aware of their connection, but as time goes on, Johnny begins to have suspicions. He notices her resemblance to the wife and enlists her role in a conspiracy to pose as Nelly, whom he received word was killed in the camps. Johnny is also aware of the inheritance coming Nelly’s way and wants this stranger, who calls herself Esther, to help him, and he’ll split half with her.
Mr. Turner (Directed by Mike Leigh)
From my review: At many times Mr. Turner veers into comedic territory a space I can’t say I’ve seen any biopics ever take on. Yes, there’s always moments of comedic relief, but this film has sequences that are pure comedy. Actor Timothy Spall creates such a strange and fascinating character in Turner, playing into his non-traditional movie looks. Leigh casts the film like a Coen Brothers movie with some of the most eccentric and bizarre-looking faces, using the fashion of the time to emphasize the absurdity of Victorian England. While this is a true story I couldn’t help but feel, like a Coen Brothers film, this was a world wholly realized by Leigh. You won’t see a portrait of Victorian England like this in any other movie.
Heaven Knows What (Directed by Josh & Bennie Safdie)
From my review: Heaven Knows What is a character piece, not a film concerned with plot beats or character arcs. It conveys the quicksand tone that life takes when drugs overtake your functions. For all the episodes that occur over the course of the hour and a half, Harley ends up right back where she started with very little changing because of her actions. We don’t have a definite conclusion, but we can infer about what the morning after will look like and what she’ll do to get more drugs. She lives in a chaotic routine, and we can surmise the pattern of her madness.
Birdman (Directed Alejandro González Iñárritu)
An Alejandro Iñárritu is a movie experience, more than just a script and actors, the camera is an active participant in what unfolds on screen. Birdman’s first stark reality is the meta-connection between its actor Michael Keaton and the role he is playing, an aging actor haunted by the superhero he played decades earlier. There’s a central relationship between the actor, Riggan and his daughter Sam, a recovering drug addict. He brings her onto the production of a stage play he’s taking part in, an adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story. But Riggan has so much baggage he hasn’t dealt with that he’s in no shape to be a guiding light for Sam and falls down a self-destructive path of his own. Iñárritu isn’t interested in a grounded real-world story and puts us right in the head of Riggan through a series of long takes where reality melts around the character and recomposes itself. Birdman is a movie that feels like it’s straining against the expectations of audiences and willingly shattered them seeking bigger, grander things.
The Grand Budapest Hotel (Directed by Wes Anderson)
Wes Anderson is a reliable filmmaker who always delivers certain things, a sort of arthouse Michael Bay. When you watch Anderson you expect intricately decorated settings and an baroque storytelling style. But since making The Fantastic Mr. Fox there has been a subtle and marked change in Anderson’s filmmaking. He’s found a wry sense of humor, slightly more pronounced than his previous work. Visual comedy and slapstick are welcome in his pictures, even using stop-motion techniques to enhance this. The Grand Budapest Hotel also brings some serious historical meditation to the forefront that Anderson has never really touched upon. You might get caught up in the man on the run plot or the mystery elements but the picture brings everything to a very real conclusion when the forces of evil of the time intrude on our happy ending. This is arguably Anderson’s best work to date and I hope he follows some of these threads in future work to explore other important historical events.
Leviathan (Directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev)
From my review: Zvyagintsev presents us with the modern-day Russia Job in Kolya, a man who will be so thoroughly ground into the dirt by the end of the picture but with no redemption that the character found in the Bible. This is an atheist world where God is neither responsible for Kolya’s suffering yet also not going to be there to save him in the third act. Kolya and everyone around him is on a slow march into oblivion. His wife, Lilya, seems the most aware and sensitive to the brokenness of their life. After her affair with Dima and subsequent revelation, Kolya tries to be very forgiving. However, Lilya knows there is a world with more hope beyond the boundaries of their small city. We see the Leviathan of the title, a blue whale, breaching the waters as Lilya looks longingly out across them. Later, we see another whale, this one a skeleton stripped down to the bone and beached in an inlet. Lilya knows she will be that once free creature left lifeless.
Whiplash (Directed by Damian Chazelle)
From my review: Thematically Whiplash is exploring the nature of student/teacher relationships and the idea of Greatness. This isn’t the sort of safe, inspirational type of movie that sanctifies teachers a la The Dead Poets Society. Whiplash presents a teacher who you legitimately believe will kill his students. Even in the film’s finale, Fletcher clenching his jaw leans in and whispers to Nieman, “I will gouge your fucking eyes out.” Nieman is not protected or praised, and his triumph comes in spite of Fletcher. The one area the film leaves up to the audience to examine is whether Fletcher’s methods are valid or not. The teacher gives a monologue on what made Charlie Parker the best in the world, and it is rather convincing. Then moments later Fletcher unleashes his rancor on Nieman, and we’re left a little less sure.
Nightcrawler (Directed by Dan Gilroy)
Never before has a single director’s work declined in quality like Dan Gilroy’s. His most recent film Velvet Buzzsaw is near-unwatchable, like an episode of Goosebumps for adults. It’s astonishing that his directorial debut, Nightcrawler showcases subtly and a light touch so well. Louis Bloom is a cipher, a man with no beginning aside from the start of the film. He’s a thief and it’s implied a murderer in the movie’s opening. While searching for a job to get steady income he learns about the freelance crime journalist scene, where opportunistic cameramen troll the police scanner and try to show up before the police to get all the gory details of a heinous crime scene. Lou’s work ends up capturing all the salacious details Nina Romina at WKLA in Los Angeles is looking for. Lou begins a dark ascent becoming drunk on his own power, erasing the humanity of the people he films and eventually crosses a horrific line to secure what he needs. Nightcrawler is a nightmarish exploration of America’s relationship with violence, crime, and media. This is a film work that I’m worried Mr. Gilroy just isn’t capable of matching.
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