Wednesday, February 3, 2016

The Top Ten Films of 2015

Here it is boys and girls.  For the 7th!?!?! consecutive year I give you the definitive list of the 10 best films of the past year.  I managed to make it to a pretty healthy 42 movies this past year. Another step up from my total each of the past two years.  I imagine that with MoviePass I will blow this total out of the water next year.  Note: Those of you who missed my post yesterday of my final reviews of 2015 and some of 2016, check it out here.

As always, these are my personal picks and I welcome any debates or nitpicks about my selections.  Based on the quality of my #10 choice this year vs last year (Noah) I think 2015 was a better year in film overall than 2014. I gave 5 perfect 5 JR ratings this year and all the rest on this list scored a 4.5 rating.  Just like last year, only 3 of these films made the Best Picture nomination cut at this year's Oscars.  More on that on the THIRD ANNUAL ARCADEMY AWARDS (coming soon to a podcast device near you).

#10 - Straight Outta Compton

I just wrote about this film in my last post and it's inclusion on this list is a testament to a musical biography done right.  Director F. Gary Gray got the most out of his cast of relatively unknown actors mixed in with the omnipresent Paul Giamatti.  The music alone powers the narrative of this film and those of us (me! me!) who grew up listening to Gangsta Rap will feel right at home watching these musical legends rise to prominence.

#9 - The Hateful Eight

QT can do no wrong in my opinion.  He's the rare director who remains true to himself and has consistently made engrossing and interesting films over the past few decades.  Eight is beautifully shot (I wish I had seen the Roadshow version of the film) and features all of the usual Tarantino quick-fire dialogue.  The real highlight here though is Samuel L. Jackson who is so at home with spouting off QT's words that he really should only act in Tarantino films.  The bulk of this movie is confined in a single setting that could have been staged as a play.  But Tarantino makes the most of the close quarters and lets his words and his actors shine.

#8 - Inside Out

Just like my #8 selection of last year (Lego Movie), the best Animated Feature of the year falls in at this spot in the list.  Pixar once again produced an incredibly intricate and thought provoking film about what's going on in each of our heads.  I thought Pete Docter and company did a remarkable job of coming up with a way to explain why some our memories are so foggy at times and why we choose to remember certain key events over other ones.  The animation in this film simply serves as a method to present some very big concepts and ideas to people of all generations. Kudos to Amy Poehler who brings the right amount of "Joy" to one of Pixar's most complete films.

#7- Creed

After Rocky Balboa in 2006 I thought for sure the Rocky franchise was finally done.  Thankfully director Ryan Coogler had other thoughts and I'm equally thankful that he brought the talented young Michael B. Jordan along for the ride.  Creed brings the Rocky story back to its roots, ingrained in the streets of Philadelphia and in the eager eyes of Apollo Creed's son Adonis.  Coogler takes his Fruitvale Station muse and turns him into a physical force of nature that commands the screen with a presence of a much more mature actor.  Since his stint as Vince on Friday Night Lights, Jordan has excelled at playing authentic characters that draw you in and Adonis is no exception. Jordan plays brilliantly off of his mentor Sylvester Stalone (who is very good but probably not Oscar-good in his return to the Rocky role) and their chemistry helps bind together the impeccably crafted boxing scenes. Both Coogler and Jordan are rising stars and the sky really is the limit for them in Hollywood at this point.  If only the Academy agreed.....

#6 - Sicario

This is the most gritty and grounded film I saw last year and it's no surprise that it is directed by Denis Villeneuve, the emerging master of dark thrillers (Prisoners).  Emily Blunt gives a powerful raw performance as a fish out of water in an FBI agent caught up in a DEA drug ring investigation. Villeneuve is able to pull back the curtain on the ugly face of drug wars in Mexico and with the help of amazing cinematography from Roger Deakins showcases the desert landscape of the region with long beautiful vista shots.  Benicio Del Toro is haunting and effective as an agent looking for personal revenge.  The climatic sequence in which he confronts a drug kingpin is 10 of the most gripping minutes you'll see in the theater all year long.  The tension is ramped up throughout thanks to a pounding perfect score by Johann Johannsson.

#5 - The Danish Girl

Some critics (including ARC's Omar Latiri) have complained that this film is simply a stunt casting and an attempt at grabbing acclaim by capitalizing the emergence and notoriety of the trans-gender community.  I completely disagree and was blown away by Tom Hooper's film.  Eddie Redmayne gives another amazing performance in a nuanced role as a Danish painter that undergoes one of the first successful gender reassignment surgeries. I don't feel he was trying to be showy at all and his chemistry with his wife Gerta (Alicia Vickander) in the film is what makes this movie tick.  This is not a showcase for trans-genders but simply one of the best love stories in recent memory.  Watching Gerta stick with her husband during his journey to become a woman and support him wholeheartedly was a moving piece of cinema and I ended up surprising myself by giving this film 5 JRs.  Vickander is a revelation and will hopefully take home the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.

#4 - Room

This film snuck up on everyone but still sticks with me to this day months after seeing it in the theater.  Based on an Irish-Canadian novel and starring relative unknowns in Brie Larson and 8-year-old Jacob Tremblay, Lenny Abrahamson's Room plays out in a riveting three act drama. Larson's Joy (what IS it with all these characters named Joy this year???) is kidnapped at a young age and has a child (Tremblay) with her captor.  Confined to a small shed in the backyard of the perpetrator's Ohio home, Joyraisies Jack on her own without having him ever see the light of day or breathe in fresh air.  The duo eventually escape in the second act and the third act focuses on the family dynamics of re-entering the real world and facing the scrutiny of the media.  Larson is so believable and will deserve her Best Actress win in a few weeks.  Abrahamson (earning a well-deserved Oscar nomination) does a great job of keeping us confined for half the film and then letting us explore the real world through the eyes of Tremblay who delivers one of the best child performances I've ever seen.  It's a real crime that he did not get an Academy nomination for this role.  Do yourself a favor and go see this somber and finely crafted drama.

#3 - Star Wars: The Force Awakens

J.J. Abrams can do no wrong by me. My SECOND favorite director working today (c'mon Chris Nolan gets the top spot thanks to two JR Best Pictures over the past 5 years) took on the giant responsibility of breathing life into a franchise that George Lucas almost destroyed with his prequels.  Not only did Abrams succeed in reviving the lore of lightsabers and the Jedi, but he set the stage for what should be an epic two-movie run in Episodes 8 and 9.  The real genius aside from Abrams' vision and direction is the casting coup performed by Kathleen Kennedy and company.  John Boyega, Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver all shine in their debut roles as part of the Star Wars saga.  They all play likable characters (yes, even Kylo Ren is likable from a Dark Side perspective) and come off as eager to tell new stories within this cinematic universe.  Harrison Ford's Han Solo fits perfectly into the narrative as he's able to play off of his younger cast mates.  And SPOILER ALERT (I mean really... who HASN'T seen this movie yet) .....  it seems that Mark Hamill is poised to channel Alec Guiness as Luke "Jedi Sage" Skywalker in the next film.  I'm all-in with this new trilogy and can't wait to see what Rian Johnson (2012 JR Best Picture director) has in store for all of us.  The force is indeed strong once again and hope has been restored to the galaxy.  As with Star Trek before him, Abrams should feel accomplished of what he put on screen with Episode VII making it one of the most entertaining experiences I've had in the movie theater all year.  Despite some of the criticism that plot elements of The Force Awakens borrow from A New Hope, I was able to look past those faults and simply enjoy a Star Wars film in a way I hadn't since The Empire Strikes Back.

#2 - Mad Max: Fury Road

This is without a doubt the best "I don't give a fuck" film of 2015.  Director and Mad Max creator George Miller had a vision for a dystopian Cannonball Run type of film with no-holds-barred action and he put EXACTLY that vision on screen for all of us to ingest.  Tom Hardy plays the title character in Fury Road and we cling to him throughout all the fast-paced car-flying bad-ass action sequences, but this movie really belongs to Charlize Theron's Imperator Furiosa who becomes one of the most ruthless and determined female characters of 2015.  Hardy, Theron and creepy Nicholas Hault are crucial to the story but fade in the background during all of the over-the-top beautifully crafted action showpieces.  In the great words of Saturday Night Live's Stefon, "Hollywood's Best New Action Film has it all..... chained-up Tom Hardy in a Bane mask, a crazy white-haired Rick Flair looking villain with a funky breathing apparatus, pole-vaulting spear-throwing assassins, a mobile stage on wheels with a guy shredding a guitar that spits fire, five model wives, MTV's Dan Cortese...."  wait.. So yeah, this movie is one of a kind and experiencing it in the theater was a full onslaught of audio and visual stimulation.  Despite being my second favorite film of the year it ended up being the one yearly movie I bought on Bluray.  George Miller let loose on Hollywood with his original frenzied vision of the wild open road and I'm hoping the Academy rewards his efforts on Oscar night.

#1 - Spotlight

The JR Best Picture award for 2015 goes to a film that plays against type for my usual favorite movie of the year.  With the exception of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo in 2011, all of my top films from 2009-on have been in the Sci-Fi genre.  Spotlight is a film with ZERO effects and NO action sequences.  It takes place on the planet Earth and mostly within the confines of offices and conference rooms.  What makes Tom McCarthy's brilliant investigative journalism drama so good is the perfect combination of acting and story.  McCarthy weaves the tale of exposing the dark underbelly of the Catholic church with an effortless script that pops off the screen with no pacing issues at all.  His dialogue is straight-forward and spoken with conviction by Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams and the rest of the uber-talented cast.  I may have a bit of bias here as I have a degree in Newspaper Journalism (Go Orange!), but it seems that most critics agree with me in viewing this film as a celebration of the freedom of the press and a showcase for the power of real gumshoe investigation tactics.  As the audience we are all along for the ride in tracking down the key players in this larger than life story of horrific neglected abuse.  I felt engrossed through the whole film and hanging on each twist and turn of the investigation.  Ruffalo shines above all but the talent of the ensemble cast is what makes Spotlight work so well. In what would be a first for me since 2003 with Return of the King, it looks like Oscar could finally reward the best film of the year with the Best Picture award.

That's it... that's the LIST.  There were a lot of quality films that JUST MISSED the cut (shouts to Jurassic World, Concussion, Bridge of Spies, Ex Machina and The Visit).  Do yourself a favor and go track down all of the films on this list and let me know what I missed here.  Thanks for reading and I'm looking forward to writing about a lot more films in 2016.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

End of Year Mega Reviews

It's about time to release my yearly top 10 film post (coming VERY soon), but first I wanted to get out a quick rundown of the past batch of films I've seen to close out 2015 and open 2016.

Let's start with the final few films released in 2015 that I saw over the past few weeks.

The Revenant

Overall I was a bit disappointed in this film by 2015 Oscar winner Alejandro Innaritu and his all-star duo of Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy.  This film chronicles a predictable revenge narrative that ends up feeling way too long.  Innaritu could have turned this into a 90 minute movie rather easily, but you can't really blame him for showing off the mega-talented Chivo Lubezki.  Once again, Chivo knocks it out of the park by filming the beautiful raw landscapes of Alaska with such unfiltered brilliance.  DiCaprio is excellent (not his best career turn, but close and one which will win him Oscar easily) and Tom Hardy is just awesome in anything he does.  This is one of the best looking films I've ever seen and the visual splendor alone raises a rather forgettable film to a decent 3.5 out of 5 JRs. You MUST see this on the big screen though to take in all that Lubezki has to offer.  He will take home his THIRD STRAIGHT Oscar later this month.


Writer/Director Charlie Kaufman once again goes a bit bananas in concept with a film that's done totally in stop motion (think Team America puppets that are much more fleshed out) with only three voice actors (including Jennifer Jason Leigh).  The plot revolves around a lonely motivational speaker taking a business trip to Cincinnati and becoming infatuated with a hotel guest. The execution is not that bad (despite all the stop-motion wiener shots) but the movie is just dull and boring overall. I slept through the final fifth and was glad I used MoviePass to pay for my ticket.  Don't bother.  Inside Out has nothing to worry about in the animated category. 2 out of 5 JRs.


It seems that David O. Russell will not do any more movies without his muse (Jennifer Lawrence) and that's probably not a terrible thing because J Law is just so damn good at most everything she does. This movie chronicles the story of Joy Mangano, a real-life self-made entrepreneur who turned The Miracle Mop into a inventing and investing powerhouse. Lawrence plays Joy and gives it everything she has.  She comes across determined, likable and just "real" like most of J Law's characters.  Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro and a slew of other supporting actors including Virginia Madsen help flesh out the story.  Things get a bit muddled here and there and the story is not overly interesting, but Lawrence makes everything that Russell does with the camera and script worthwhile.  I enjoyed this a little more than American Hustle but not nearly as much as Silver Linings Playbook.  A solid 3.5 out of 5 JRs for this one.

Straight Outta Compton

I was late to the party with this one (seeing it just last weekend), but boy am I glad I watched it.  F. Gary Gray does a wonderful job of capturing the essence and birth of Gangsta Rap in an entertaining 2+ hours of film.  All of the actors are believable including an excellent turn by Ice Cube's son Oshea Jackson Jr.  I personally related to a lot of events in the film including the birth of Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg (two of my favorite rappers ever).  Even witnessing (a spot-on portrayal of) Tupac in the studio vibing with Dre was a joy to watch.  I had a lot of fun with this film and it although it ends on a somber note it's remarkable to see what a small group of kids in Compton were able to do with their professional careers. This is one of the best music biopics I've seen and earns a solid 4.5 out of 5 JRs and an outside shot at making my Top Ten List.

And now on to 2016 (and some awful dredge from January)!!!!! *Happy (late) New Year*

The Fifth Wave

I like Chloe Grace Moretz.  I've liked her since she played Hit Girl when she was just 14 and now that she's all grown-up I can only hope that she gets to act in better films than The Fifth Wave.  Based on a (hopefully better) book by Rick Yancey, this movie chronicles an alien invasion that happens in many phases (or waves) and one in which the "aliens" look like humans (probably because the other visual effects were so bad, nobody wanted to dare try and design actual aliens).  It's basically a mash up of all of the recent young adult films we've seen over the past decade.  There's a bit of Twilight (including a TOTALLY FORCED love triangle), a bit of Hunger Games (the "US Army" trains children to "battle the aliens") and a little bit of The Day After Tomorrow (actual running from water and floods with TERRIBLE visual effects) mixed in.  I don't know how Liev Schrieber got mixed up in this nonsense but it really way painful to watch him try to play along.  The brother of Moretz in the film looks eerily similar to my stepson, but I bet my stepson could act better than him. If you don't think a good kid actor can make or break a movie, compare this garbage to Room or The Visit.  0.5 out of 5 JRs for one of the WORST movies I've seen in quite some time.  The film ends abruptly and there is a follow-on book.  I just hope it doesn't get a movie adaptation or I will pour a little out for Chloe Grace-Moretz (who isn't that bad in this).

The Forest

This is another stinker I saw in the theater. Natalie Dormer (whom I really liked in Game of Thrones, Rush and some other films) plays a twin who sets out to Japan to locate her missing sister whom she fears has gone to a famous forest outside of Mount Fuji to kill herself (apparently a real-life trend associated with this forest).  She meets Lady Gaga's real-life boyfriend along the way and they set out together spending a night or two in the woods looking for the lost twin.  Nothing really exciting happens here and the director seems to think that lost Japanese schoolgirls are really scary for some reason.  This is just a tame and not terrible innovative film.  1.5 out of 5 JRs for a forgettable horror film that really didn't scare me that much.

Thankfully January is over and we can put those terrible films behind us.  Keep your eyes opened for my 2015 in review post.  Make sure to stay tuned to Facebook and this blog for the Third Annual Arcademy Awards Podcast I do with my friend Omar Latiri in which we'll break down everything Oscar.