Saturday, January 30, 2016

THE ACADEMY AWARD NOMINEES FOR BEST ANIMATED SHORT ARE ONE BUOYANT BUNCH


Once again, the nominated live action and animated shorts became available for audiences to see nationwide a month before the Academy Awards ceremony on February 28. Opening at arthouses everywhere on January 29, this year’s animated category is full of range, emotion and style. One thing they almost all have in common is a particular upbeat nature. Compared to the dark subject material in the live action short nominees, this group is almost buoyant by comparison. And they’re a must-see for any lover of cartoons, movies or the Oscars. 


One of the most jubilant of the entries, and perhaps the one to beat, is the Disney/Pixar entry SANJAY'S SUPER TEAM. It’s about a young Indian boy who would rather watch his favorite TV show about a group of superheroes than participate in his father’s prayer ritual. Dad forces him to engage and soon the boy realizes his father’s gods have a lot in common with his beloved caped crusaders. His imagination runs wild and combines the two worlds. Sanjay comes away with a new appreciation for the hope and heroics found in his dad’s idols as well as his own. Based on the personal experiences of animation director Sanjay Patel, the colors, cutting, and pace have a dynamism that is infectious. And in this Oscar season, when the lack of diversity has given the Academy such a black eye, it’s great to see this short’s focus on an Indian family.


There are two that could upset the Disney/Pixar favorite however, and both are equally exuberant as the tale of Sanjay. One is Don Hertzfeld’s WORLD OF TOMORROW. It’s a sci-fi tale about a futuristic clone visiting her “source material”, that being a four-year-old child named Emily. Hertzfeld recorded his own niece as the voice of the child who speaks with unabashed enthusiasm in counter to every blackly comic line delivered from the ambassador from the 'brave new world.' The sweetness projected by the child makes you wonder how her clone could ever end up so cynical, and Hertzfeld not only draws a startling contrast there, but he does so by animating in a cell animated stick-figure style. Is he commenting on how the reliance on CGI has dehumanized the future of animation as well? Indeed.


The other one that could very possibly take the Oscar is a delightful dark horse from Russia. It’s called WE CAN'T LIVE WITHOUT COSMOS and writer/director Konstantin Bronzit tells a wordless story about two Russian astronauts training to go into space. They’ve been lifelong friends since childhood and they share the same boyish enthusiasm for interstellar travel as they did as kids. Drawn in a simple, New Yorker style way, it nonetheless showcases a marvelous sense of physical perspective and technical expertise in its renderings of everything from a module simulator to the vast hallways in the space center. More importantly, it showcases the joy of the human spirit and following one’s passions with boundless energy throughout the 16-minute piece. Even when the film turns a bit dark at its climax, it never loses its buoyancy.


BEAR STORY from Chile has won dozens of animation awards throughout the world and it’s easy to see why. It’s an incredibly rendered piece of moving art. None of this year’s shorts are rendered better, as this creates a world of anthropomorphic CGI bears living in a quaint village, but it also showcases the world within the work of its lead toymaker character. In fact, the main story takes place as a story within a story, as the toymaker shows off his nickelodeon to a cub who finds all the endless mechanical layers and characters in the contraption to be endlessly fascinating. So do we. The toy is magical, elaborate, and impossibly complex, yet director Gabriel Osario makes it all believable, from every working hinge to grooved bolt. He truly has outdone himself with this masterful tribute to freedom, family and toys.


One of the best things about the animated shorts program at your local cineplex is that they come with the runners-up and this year’s collection of also-rans would be contenders in any other year. One of the most elegantly beautiful and heart-warming is THE SHORT STORY OF A FOX AND MOUSE. It combines some of the slapstick of the Scrat character’s shenanigans from the ICE AGE franchise with the poetic movement of a dance ensemble. It’s a shame the animated short category couldn’t extend to six nominees as this student animated short from Hugo jean, Juliette Jordan, Kevin Roger, Marie Pillier and Camille Chaix is so worthy of inclusion.


The last of the five finalists chosen is something of an anomaly. It’s called PROLOGUE and it actually comes with a warning to parents that it’s too mature for children. That it is, with its battle between nude soldiers and the amount of carnage their fighting leaves on the battlefield. It’s all wondrously hand-drawn, and has the pedigree of direction by veteran animator Richard Williams. He did the legendary work on WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT back in 1988, and this is almost 30 years and a million miles from that achievement. PROLOGUE is gory, mean, and unforgiving in its commentary on the futility of war, but it is beautiful nonetheless due to how artfully it’s drawn.

Animation has long ago surpassed the domain of children. Still, most of these entries, with the exception of PROLOGUE, stand as cartoons for all audiences, young and old alike. And these entries are so exceptional that any could take the Oscar. And in a year when so many categories, particularly the acting ones, seem like foregone conclusions, it’s nice to know there is a genuine contest for the Best Animated Short. Even if only one wins, they all deserve heartfelt applause and admiration.

Friday, January 29, 2016

THIS YEAR'S OSCAR NOMINATED LIVE ACTION SHORTS ARE LONG ON THE DARK AND DARING


The Motion Picture Academy has again made its nominated short films available to the general public. The collection of animated and live action movies opened in arthouse theaters across the nation January 29, and as always, they should be of great interest to any film fan or Oscar follower. The live action nominees this year are all very good, with four of the five also being exceedingly disturbing. They may be dark, but at least their grimness comes in small doses.

It’s hard to remember a collection of nominated shorts with subject matters so troubling. War, ethnic cleansing, child kidnapping, Middle Eastern clashes, international conflict – these topics are front and center of the picks of 2015. One short isn’t quite as dark, and that difference makes it shine like a beacon against the others, and it may be enough for it walk away with Oscar gold.


That lighter film is STUTTERER, about a young man dealing with his handicap. It's a surprisingly upbeat, hopeful, and wryly funny short with Matthew Needham playing the title character. He's Greenwood, a sensitive and talented London typographer who happens to stammer as painfully as the monarch in THE KING'S SPEECH. The actor does a brilliant job conveying the pain his character goes through every time he opens his mouth, but it’s his inner voice that draws us in the closest. In his head, words are no problem, and the character’s narration is both sweet and cheeky. When he assesses those around them, he imbues his subjects with little secrets, even defects, to create a world as flawed as he sees himself. 

Then his Facebook friend Ellie suggests they meet and take their online flirtation into an offline relationship, and Greenwood fears she’ll find his problem a deal breaker. His worry is heartbreaking, but he approaches his plight with a pluck and verve that keeps the story from ever becoming maudlin. Writer/director Benjamin Cleary masterfully tells his 12-minute tale of star-crossed love, and even edits it himself with a crispness that keeps things buoyant and exciting.


After that, the pickings get dark and darker. AVE MARIA is a Palestine/France/Germany effort about an Israel family’s errant automobile crashing into the Virgin Mary statue outside a convent of Arab Catholic nuns. The women of God are practicing vows of silence, and the Jews need to get home to for the Sabbath as well, so the story here becomes a darkly comic culture clash. Their conflict turns into a battle of wills, traditions, and religious piety as the nuns try to help an antagonistic family that is already warring with each other. Will the nuns' beater of a car start? Could this blasphemy against the religious statue turn into an international incident? And is there a possibility that enemy soldiers, from either side, will show up to add to the fight? These are the tense matters at hand in this broadly played comedy that still seems to teeter on the edge of becoming a tragedy at any moment.


Things continue to get darker with the revelations found in EVERYTHING WILL BE OK (Alles Wird Gut in German). The German/Austrian production concerns a divorced father’s desperate attempt to steal his 8-year-old daughter Lea away from the custody of her mother. Writer/director Patrick Vollrath tightens the screws with every second of this 30-minute piece as the father keeps his plot a secret from all, including his unsuspecting daughter. She thinks it’s just a weekend visit, but soon enough she starts to realize that dad is taking passport photos and doing state paperwork to get her out of Germany. As Lea's awareness grows, our sympathy for her father lessens. And when his whole scheme goes belly up at a cheap hotel by the airport, we're left fearing he'll get his daughter killed. It’s a harrowing and sad story, likely similar to many divorces, with no winning parties at play.


What can trump such a tale of domestic tragedy? War can, and the remaining two shorts serve up stories against such a backdrop. Children are at the center of Kosovo’s first Oscar-nominated short SHOK. That means friend, and indeed this doomed tale is about two Albanian boys learning the limits of their bond when facing the brutality of an occupying Serbian regime. Petrit, the more daring of the two, is selling cigarette papers to the enemy patrolling their town. He convinces his best friend Oki that they can make money off of the soldiers. However, war is more about enemies than friends and soon their bond will fall victim to a most uncivil war. The only problem here is that the shorter length doesn’t allow for quite enough nuance and subtly in its storytelling. Some of it comes off as two-dimensional, particularly its villains. Perhaps this story needed to be a feature to maximize its potential.


The most dramatic of the lot is DAY ONE, an American production that illustrates an Afghan-American woman’s first day on the job as an interpreter for American forces in Afghanistan. Layla Alizada gives a beautifully modulated performance in this 29-minute film as her naive character quickly becomes immersed in the hell that is war. She's scheduled to interview a suspected enemy combatant but that task takes a wild left turn when the Afghan man's pregnant wife goes into labor. Called upon to deliver the baby, she encounters further complications when Afghan propriety prevents any physical help from the male soldiers around her. This is a narrative fraught with dread from its opening moments, and we share in her terror the entire time. There are also a number of shocking twists, one darker than the previous one, as writer/director Henry Hughes brings his brilliant film based on his real-life military experiences to authentic and ghastly life.

Any filmed story, be it dark or light, long or short, can be entertaining, but these thought-provoking shorts produce a lot of food for thought as well. Four of these five may be bitter to the taste, but their art is obvious. And in an Oscar season marred by exclusion, it’s impressive that this list of live action shorts is so progressive. Perhaps they will create their own hashtag - anyone for #shortssodarkanddaring?

Friday, January 22, 2016

FIVE FIXES TO MAKE THE ACADEMY AWARDS BOTH MORE DIVERSE AND MORE MODERN


The Academy Awards are being criticized left and right for their lack of diversity in the acting categories. It's spawned a popular Twitter hashtag in #OscarsSoWhite. Spike Lee and Will Smith are boycotting the ceremony, and there even have been calls for Chris Rock to resign as host. It seems everyone is offering up an opinion to the press, even Best Actress nominee Charlotte Rampling. And it's all turning this year's awards into the most tainted in years.
The failure to nominate even one actor or actress who's a minority is not the only problem. A whole host of them have left the Oscars outdated and compromised for years now. If the motion picture community truly wants its top awards show to continue to be as relevant as possible and more reflective of the times we live in, they should address at least five other issues that have marred the most famous film awards for too long now.

Go back to five Best Picture nominees
When WALL-E and THE DARK KNIGHT, two of 2008’s most critically acclaimed and box office winners, failed to receive Oscar nominations for Best Picture the Academy panicked. To show they were capable of nominating the most popular fare as well as critical darlings and smaller films, they overcompensated the next year by pushing the Best Picture category to 10 nominees. Hopefully more entries would include popular hits too. And when the sci-fi film DISTRICT 9 and the animated UP were nominated, the gambit seemed to be paying off. But since then, commercial fare still misses the cut. Movies that were hugely popular with critics and audiences like CREED, INSIDE OUT and STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS were overlooked this year. Even worse, the list of Best Films go up and down each year. Sometimes the list has yielded 10, others only eight, like this year. The expanded list has become woefully inconsistent and just as excluding. Such inconsistency mars the most important category of all at the Oscars and it's time to restore it to only five films.

Do away with the preferential ballot
The complex point system that voters now use to compile a list of their choices for Best Picture is lengthy, confusing with its weighted numbers of preference, and roundly criticized for honoring certain films that may not score with the most voting members. Too many popular films that appear farther down on lists, but show up on more ballots nonetheless, are still are not placing enough in the final tally versus those that are more beloved but remain niche. Frankly, such voting simply offers too many choices, and complications. It would be better for Academy members to simply pick their one favorite in whatever category or categories they're voting on.

Eliminate outdated categories and add better ones
Why, oh why, is there still a Best Song category? Most of the nominees are songs that run over the end credits, and  that is really not a song from a motion picture. But there are not enough of those being written these days so it begs the question why this outdated and hard-pressed to come up with five worthy nominees category even remains on the ballot. 

There are two Oscar categories that are not currently represented that deserve to be, and they should replace this dud. A Best Stunt Work category would easily yield an amazing list of nominees every year. Why, 2015 had these films with amazing stunt work to choose from: MAD MAX FURY ROAD, STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS, SICARIO, MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: ROGUE NATION, FURIOUS 7, CREED, THE ASSASSIN, POINT BREAK, SPECTRE, ANT-MAN, AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON and even SPY.

And if the SAG Awards can honor a Best Stunt Ensemble, can't the Academy give out an Oscar for Best Casting? The Emmys do. Why shouldn't the Academy? 

Implement voting requirements
After 12 YEARS A SLAVE won the Oscar for Best Picture in 2013, a number of Academy members admitted to voting for it despite not seeing it. Should there be a way to register voters, to make sure they see films before voting? Political correctness should not be marking any ballots, nor should secretaries do the same for lazy producers who hand off such responsibilities. Perhaps the truest way to ensure that the voting is truly taken seriously is to require some sort of proof of members viewing the actual films. Sure, it would be hard to instill, but Emmys do blue ribbon panels. Is it time for the Oscars to require similar commitment from their voters?  Such informed decision making could add diversity as such films would be seen. Idris Elba likely was passed over for his terrific work in BEASTS OF NO NATION because not enough voters saw it, not because he was a minority that white voters snubbed.  

Revamp the telecast to be more like the Tony’s
Practically every year the Oscar telecast loses viewers. Sure, it’s the victim of awards show fatigue, following the Golden Globes, the SAG Awards, and a host of others. However, the telecast itself is as much to blame for turning off fans. The length pushes close to a dragging four hours, year in and year out. The presenters are uninspired, sloppily rehearsed or given inane banter to recite. And musical numbers bog down the show. And too many clip packages honor the history of Hollywood, rather than the highlights of the year. Is this truly the best that the town can do for Hollywood's biggest night? Of course not. 

And like the Tony’s, the Oscars should relegate the less relevant categories to be given out before the telecast. Clips of those awards should be shown during the live broadcast, but they wouldn't take up as much time. That way, winners from the Live Action, Animated, and Documentary Shorts category would still get their day in the sun, in front of their peers, but the shortened clips of their victories would keep the show moving faster. 

The fact that we’re talking about the problems with Oscar’s lack of diversity is a good thing. There are too many old, white male viewers who are not in touch with the times. But they're not in touch with modern sexuality either as the snubbing of CAROL for Best Picture suggests, even though it scored six nods elsewhere. And that older contingency doesn't appreciate genre enough either. If they did, they'd have nominated the sublime hit EX MACHINA in more categories. Children would get nominated for superb work, like Jacob Tremblay for ROOM, as well. There is all kinds of diversity that goes beyond skin color that the Oscars needs to get with the program on. 

Ultimately, making movies that promote more diversity, and are more inclusive, from casting to promotions, are the areas where filmmakers really needs to start. Television is far more diverse in such categories, but movies still seem locked in a time warp. Studios and producers need to take the chance on films that tell more diverse stories. They need to be more color blind on casting. And they need to keep pushing new stories, not just sequels and franchises. Then, and only then, can the town and the Oscars truly pat itself on the back in a way that everyone will applaud. 

Monday, January 11, 2016

A SEASON OF STRONG CHARACTERS, SUPERB ACTRESSES AND OSCAR SENSIBILITIES

Original caricature by Jeff York of Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett in CAROL. (copyright 2016)

When the Oscar nominations are announced this Thursday AM, they will herald some of the strongest female performances and films about women ever to appear in a calendar year. In fact, I can’t remember when a film year has had so many actresses vying for lead and supporting categories, with a list of at least 10 that could fill each of those lists. And if CAROL, BROOKLYN, ROOM or MAD MAX FURY ROAD are Best Picture nominees, that will be quite something, as their lead characters are all women.

Not only are the films strong, with accomplished actresses in contention for prizes this year, but they are playing strong roles, and in most cases, roles stronger than any of the men characters onscreen with them. Here are five of the highlights this season.

The greatest love story onscreen this year focuses on two women. Todd Hayne’s CAROL is a 1950’s story concerning Carol (Cate Blanchett), a divorcing high society housewife who falls in love with Therese (Rooney Mara) a younger department store clerk. It’s a subtle, poignant story that doesn’t punish its lead characters with a tragic ending because the two women defied societal barriers and white men wouldn’t oblige. Instead, it lets love prevail and suggests that love should always triumph in any year, be it the Eisenhower Era or our modern times of legalized gay marriage. Mara and Blanchett give complex, nuanced performances that define expert screen acting and helped to make the sexual politics in the story all the more moving.

Unfortunately, there is a small matter marring the film and that is its quandary about Mara. In order to secure Oscar nominations for both actresses, the publicity department is pushing for Blanchett to be nominated as the lead, while subjugating the younger actress to the supporting category. This is done all the time in Hollywood’s race for gold, but it’s especially confounding here as the two are co-leads. Apparently the powers that be feel Mara has a better shot at winning in the lesser category, which is unusual since Mara won Best Actress for the film at Cannes in the spring. Ironic that the same holding down her character feels in the story is now playing out in a real way regarding Mara’s Oscar placement. Art imitates life and vice versa, I suppose.

Original caricature of Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander in THE DANISH GIRL. (copyright 2016)
Another place where there is category confusion based on where an actress has a better shot of winning concerns Alicia Vikander and her role in THE DANISH GIRL. She is easily a co-lead with Eddie Redmayne, yet her film’s PR people are pushing her for a supporting nod, just like Mara, because they think she can win there. How ironic it would be if both Mara and Vikander missed out on making the cut in either the lead or supporting category because some voters went one way and some went the other.

Still, the movie is called THE DANISH GIRL and though ostensibly it’s about the artist Einar Wegener and his struggles to become the first transgender woman, the movie ultimately is about the character of Gerda (Vikander’s role). In fact, when the words “the Danish girl” are mentioned in the movie it is in reference to her character. The true character arc in the film is hers as well. She is one who must ultimately come to terms with the extraordinary changes her husband is going through and asks her to accept. Also, Gerda is just as much a trailblazer as he is in the story, navigating a man’s world with an aplomb that was exceedingly rare for women during the 1920’s. Her assumption of broadened sexual roles is ostensibly the real progression at play here.

For starters, Gerda is an artist in her own right, something rare for women in that day. She is also a woman who speaks her mind, even in mixed company. Gerda loves sex and initiates it with her husband. She also negotiates her own art deals in the business world. As shown throughout the film, Gerda challenges convention and the status quo of the white male hierarchy at all times. In all those ways, she is the character crossing more lines of assumed sexual roles. Her husband has to wear a wig and a dress to be his alter ego Lili, but Gerda plays the man while remaining wholly a woman.

At one point in the movie Einar/Lili tells Gerda that he’ll never be as beautiful as she is. Frankly, he’ll never be as masculine either for all the success Gerda is shown having trumping the world of men. Interestingly, Vikander generally received the stronger reviews for her performance than that of her costar, so even the critical response echoes the story’s dynamics. It ultimately became the vehicle that established the promise of Vikander as first seen in EX MACHINA that she is a tremendous actress who is here to stay.

Original caricature by Jeff York of Alicia Vikander in EX MACHINA, flanked by Domnhall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac. (copyright 2015)
Thankfully, talk of her performance as Ava the A.I. in EX MACHINA has come back into play this awards season with a vengeance. She has won many critics awards for it, and has been racking up key nominations for it in the supporting actress category from everyone like the Golden Globes to the BAFTA’s.

Her portrayal of a robot coming to terms with advanced programming that gives her a true sense of humanity was one of the most intriguing science fiction stories committed to the big screen.  Ava thus becomes sweet yet shrewd, innocent yet knowing, even both sensual and childlike – all the nuances and shadings that a complex human would have. And Vikander is brilliant as navigating all those emotions. Vikander is a trained dancer too, so she not only uses her thespian instincts to convey Ava’s inner discovery but her ballerina’s body as well to show each feeling as she steps deeper and deeper into the human world.

Writer/director Alex Garland ultimately states in his story that in order for Ava to truly be human, she must adapt to the worst instincts of man. Pride, stubbornness, being selfish, even ruthless – these are all things that she starts to convey as she realizes that the two men testing her for her skills and humanity are working against her and exploiting her as a guinea pig. When she escapes her domain she does so to be free of their control. And on the way out she dooms both of them for their betrayals. Yet, we in the audience don’t revile her as a villain. Instead, our sympathies have shifted towards her with her reckoning. At the end, she steps into the human world, fully, indecipherable from any one of them, existing now as both good and bad. In other words, all too human.  

Original caricature by Jeff York of Charlize Theron in MAD MAX FURY ROAD. (copyright 2016) 
Despite all the macho, manic, balls-to-the-walls action evident in every frame of the phantasmagorical MAD MAX FURY ROAD, George Miller’s reboot of his most famous franchise is, at the end of the day, a film about women. After all, the main character isn’t Max (Tom Hardy), it’s Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron). Her character literally drives the plot and the main vehicle in this road picture. She’s the catalyst of all the action, even starting the story by “going rogue” and stealing away her post-apocalyptic overlord’s bride/slaves to take them to freedom. It’s all about the struggle of Furiosa and these women to exist in the world as more than just breeders and reflections of a man’s ego. Could that story be more relevant in any society, in any century, in any country?

The film is expected to be nominated for a half dozen technical Oscars at least, though Theron likely won’t be called as one of Oscar’s five nominated lead actresses on Thursday. But what a coup it would be if she was! It would prove that not only did the Academy love this action/adventure film with as much passion as the critical community, but it would also recognize her lead status in the film and Theron’s invaluable contribution to it. With a buzz cut, a mechanical arm, and a wardrobe that even Max would wear, Furiosa still is a doting, caring and sensitive mother figure to all the escapees, including Max whom she protects. And by casting the glamorous Theron in the role, Miller demonstrates a fierce woman need not be masculine to win in his world. She merely has to be able to beat him at his own game and then let the better instincts of femininity take over once she’s gained control.

Original caricature by Jeff York of Daisy Ridley in STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS. (copyright 2016). 
Finally, in another sci-fi monolith, indeed, the biggest one ever in the history of film, Daisy Ridley shines as Rey in STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS. Rey is the lead character in the film and for all of those who may have accused the franchise of being a sausage factory in the past, similar criticism cannot be applied here. Not only is Rey the lead, and heroic, saving men and everyone all over the universe, but she does so without ever sacrificing her femininity. Again, it doesn't seem that Ridley will be nominated for an Oscar this year, but the film will be in a number of categories for certain. And how wonderful that this venerable franchise now marches forward with a female character in the Millennium Falcon's driver's seat.

Rey is a watershed character in a way here too because other than Ripley in the ALIEN franchise there have not been lot of women cast in the lead of sci-fi stories on the big screen. Sri-fi tends to be very male driven, as that better reflects the overwhelmingly male fan base that clamors for this genre. It will now be interesting to see if future generations of young boys will grow up arguing about who gets to play Rey, just as they’d argue over who got to play Luke Skywalker almost 40 years ago. Now if Hasbro and the other toy makers could put Rey in all of their box sets with the male characters, we’d have full equality.

No matter what happens with the Oscar nominations on Thursday, 2015 was a year with a vast amount of amazing actresses in weighty and dominating roles in film. In addition to these startling performances I’ve showcased in prose and by the pen, other actresses that could factor in this year’s Oscar contest include Charlotte Rampling, Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda, Kate Winslet, Maggie Smith, Marion Cotillard, Maggie Smith, Amy Schumer,  Emily Blunt, Carey Mulligan, Rachel McAdams, Elizabeth Banks, Tessa Thompson, Joan Allen and Rachel Weisz. Even two of the biggest stars on the planet are in play with Jennifer Lawrence hoping to be nominated for her lead role in JOY and Kristen Stewart for her supporting turn in CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA.


All that, and an all-female GHOSTBUSTERS reboot coming in 2016 as well. Welcome to a brave new world, everyone. And fellas, get in the back seat. The women have the wheel.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

MY PICKS FOR THE 10 BEST FILMS OF 2015


Making picks for a 10 best films list is never easy, especially in a year like 2015 when there were so many really terrific ones. In fact, I can’t remember an Oscar season when the possible nominees for Best Picture were so hard to handicap. There are so many in contention there, as there are for honor here at The Establishing Shot.

There were many excellent films that didn’t quite make it onto my list: MR. HOLMES, SPOTLIGHT, ROOM, INSIDE OUT, MISTRESS AMERICA, TRAINWRECK, THE WALK, STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS, CRIMSON PEAK, MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: ROGUE NATION, BEASTS OF NO NATION, BLACK MASS, THE PEANUTS MOVIE, and THE BIG SHORT. Quite a list of also-rans, no? In many a year, they'd have made my Top 10. But not quite this year. So here, without any further ado, are the exceptional films that did manage to make it.

EX MACHINA
My pick for the year's best film is writer/director Alex Garland’s science fiction masterpiece. This was a sly and menacing character study about three characters who play out a dangerous scientific experiment that reveals the good and the bad in all three of them.  Domnhall Gleeson plays Caleb, a mild-mannered computer nerd who’s invited to the secluded home of his billionaire boss Nathan (Oscar Isaac) to test a new product he’s invented. It’s an A.I. named Ava (Alicia Vikander) and she is so incredibly lifelike that he’s been summoned to evaluate her. Can she pass for human in the real world? Ava is a revelation. She's a robot, yes, but sensitive, smart, and as cunning as her human counterparts. She also feels anger and resentment at being held captive, unable to venture out into the world. As she starts to challenge both her maker and her tester, Garland is stating that in order to truly become human, Ava must completely think for herself. That means escaping her confinement, even if it means dooming her captors in her wake. And as she breaks free, our sympathies travel with her. Caleb may have started as the story's protagonist, but by the end, our allegiance has switched to the more righteous Ava. And when she conquers them, she can finally walk among the humans every bit their equal. This was the most audacious, clever, and psychologically riveting entertainment of the year.

                                                                                     
CAROL
The greatest love story of 2015 was one between two women, and it couldn't be more timely or pertinent in the year that the Supreme Court upheld marriage equality. Todd Hayne’s beautifully rendered work here examines what it takes to be a woman in the male dominated 1950’s. It was a repressive time and for a woman to assert herself, let alone seek love in the arms of another woman, she would have to take great risks. Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara play the lovers and both actresses give incredibly subtle performances filled with nuance. Their gestures speak volumes. Lingering glances show everything they're thinking and desiring. And a simple walk across the room from Rooney Mara at the end  is her character's march towards freedom. Sometimes it feels like they’re in an Edward Hopper painting come to life – it may seem quiet and still, yet there’s so much drama within it. Their story is accompanied by Carter Burwell’s achingly romantic music, the best score in a film this past year. Miraculously, the movie’s ending is unequivocally happy, stating that love must always prevail. Bravo!

                                           
CREED
The movie that surprised me the most in 2015 was Ryan Coogler’s refresh of the 40-year-old ROCKY franchise. He’s clearly a fan of the series, yet he knew that in order to make such a boxing tale new and more meaningful in its sixth sequel, he had to mix things up. Thus, he focuses on Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan), the bastard offspring of Rocky's most famous opponent - Apollo Creed. By shifting the emphasis towards the newer, younger character, Coogler places Sylvester Stallone’s “Italian Stallion” in a supporting role and it gives this movie a whole new life. And because he's relieved of the writing and directing duties, Stallone does his best screen work ever here. CREED also finds a brilliant role for Tessa Thompson as the sharply drawn woman that Creed falls for. Everything is outstanding here, from the cinematography to the editing to the song score, as well as the underscore. By the end of this superior sequel, I was crying and cheering. Does a movie get any better when it can get you to do that?


STEVE JOBS
This terrific film was one of the best of the year, yet it's been almost lost this awards season to due its poor box office performance. Acclaimed director Danny Boyle’s latest was the talk of film festivals and opened to great reviews and big box office in New York and LA. But when it went wide, audiences didn’t show up and Sony pulled it off of a thousand screens. Suddenly, it had the taint of being a loser on it and there went most of its Oscar talk. Sure Michael Fassbender and scribe Aaron Sorkin are still likely nominees, but the rest is up in the air. Make no mistake, this is a stellar film that deserves a lot of nominations, but pundits have written off most of its chances. It’s just an utter shame that the professional Oscar bloggers and Hollywood press no longer deem it in contention when it's such a powerful movie. But that’s how gossip masquerading as journalism is killing the Oscar season year in and year out. And this year, STEVE JOBS is its most visible victim.


BROOKLYN
Eilis Lacey is an Irish immigrant in the 1950’s, the heroine of this intimate little character study, and her story happens to make for one of the very best of 2015 Her journey of self-discovery leads her to the United States where she quickly realizes that America is much more forward, aggressive, and complicated than the quaint life she left back home. Without sacrificing her virtues or innate sense of decency, she learns to navigate all kinds of complications in her boarding house, at her job, and as she's pursued by a Brooklyn born gentleman caller. Everyone around her tries to teller what to do, but Eilis thinks for herself and doesn't rush headlong into anything. Rather like this carefully paced and modulated drama. Saoirse Ronan gives one of the year’s shrewdest performances, cool and collected, while Nick Hornby's screenplay plays just as smartly. Director John Crowley, like Todd Haynes, has also made a period piece with so much to say about women in the world then and now. 

                                                                                   
MAD MAX FURY ROAD
How did filmmaker George Miller do it? He managed to trump the other three films in his MAD MAX franchise with this effort that goes for broke and delivers so spectacularly, critics and audiences heads are still spinning from it. It’s not only the absolute best action/adventure of the year, it’s one of the greatest ever in the genre. Tom Hardy takes on the title role, but the real lead belongs to Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa. She's a righteous rebel who gives the finger to the dictatorial overlord ruling the post-apocalyptic earth when she steals his slave brides, promising them a better life without such a hideous incarcerator. This is one big, jacked up, gonzo, psycho, extended car chase, yet it's also the most  feminist picture of the year. Ballsy it is for that, to say the least.


THE REVENANT
After all the hype and expectations for months, THE REVENANT finally opened at the very end of 2015, and…wow, what an incredible movie it actually turned out to be! It more than lives up  up to all the buzz. Filmmaker extraordinaire Alejandro Inarritu and his team have created one of the most intensely violent, yet stunningly beautiful adventure films ever. It is a revenge tale chock full of vicious men, dangerous terrain, and a frigid climate as unforgiving as Glass, Leonardo DiCaprio’s driven fur trapper. The cinematography by Emmanuel Lubeski is sure to win him his third Oscar in a row. (He won previously for GRAVITY and BIRDMAN.) It's got a lot in common with MAD MAX FURY ROAD as it is about a chase with macho men all around creating havoc. The location work here is staggering, as is its production design, hair & make-up, costuming, and visual effects. You’ll actually believe Leo is wrestling with a Grizzly bear when you see it. Still, some see this movie as nothing more than an overly macho, two-dimensional blood fest, but I think that may be the point here. Glass's one-track mission of revenge is a fool’s errand. Only at the end, does he realize this. All his death quest has wrought is death of both predator and prey. It’s a brutal world that he made more brutal. Man is ruinous to his world and himself. 


BRIDGE OF SPIES
It’s nice to see that BAFTA recognized this film with the most nominations of any 2015 film they honored this past week because Steven Spielberg’s spy thriller is superb. It's tense and taut, but it's more cerebral than Bond or Bourne. Based on a true story, this is really a character piece about men playing at the Cold War. Tom Hanks gives one of his greatest performances in the lead as the cat, while Mark Rylance does superb support as the mouse that could very well net him the Oscar. And Spielberg shines, using different muscles here than he usually uses. This time his story is smaller, more singular and driven by dialogue not an epic sense. Nonetheless, it had me on the edge of my seat, even though I knew the outcome of its history. 


LOVE & MERCY
One of the films that deserved box office that matched its acclaim was this film bio of Brian Wilson, the brain behind the Beach Boys. Perhaps because it’s also about mental illness, something that plagued Wilson all his life, audiences found it to be a turn-off, but what a shame if that was the case for its tepid numbers. Paul Dano does the greatest work of his already stellar career as the young Wilson. He is positively haunting as he reveals how demons ate away at the singer/composer’s soul. And the sad, hollowed out shell of his former self that John Cusack brings to the other side of the story, playing the older Wilson struggling with bipolar disorder, depression and a struggle to control his life, is just as harrowing. Even with all the great Beach Boys tunes on the soundtrack, the true story of Brian Wilson was anything but a day at the beach, as this challenging film exposes. Kudos too to Elizabeth Banks for her marvelous supporting turn as Wilson's late in life girlfriend. God only knows what he would have been without her.


IT FOLLOWS
As the Chicago Horror Movie Examiner (http://exm.nr/1j0CKdm), I review a lot of scary movies. Well, at least they’re supposed to be scary. IT FOLLOWS truly was. It had a simple premise – a teen girl has sex with a young man and the act summons an entity that will follow her and eventually kill her unless she has sex with somebody else and passes it onto them. Yes, the STD metaphor is a bit heavy-handed, but it sure makes for one visceral and understandable trauma. Maika Monroe plays the teen girl Jay and she’s not a dumb, passive teen as in so many frighteners. Instead, she understands exactly what’s going on, tells her friends about it immediately, and lets them help her try to defeat the curse. The entity is crafty, however, and it shows up in all kinds of different human forms, rarely the same guise twice. That makes it difficult to see coming for the characters onscreen as well as those watching in the Cineplex. The moody and ominous score by Rich Vreeland (working under the moniker Disasterpeace) harkens back to the sound of the 80’s and adds a special timeless to it. All in all, David Robert Mitchell’s cleverly written, tensely directed, and beautifully edited thriller is the kind of horror all genre filmmakers should study and strive to beat.  


Did some of my Top 10 make it onto your list of favorites? Why not tell me what you loved in 2015 and we'll keep the conversation going here. And as always, thank you for following The Establishing Shot. Here's to an even better 2016!