Sunday, February 28, 2016

Last-minute Review of 2015 in Movies

I've actually seen six of the eight Oscar nominees for Best Picture this year, having missed Brooklyn and Room.  The Revenant is the favorite, according to whatever logic works is ruling the day in Hollywood.  IMO, both The Big Short and Spotlight are clearly better, as are The Martian and even Mad Max: Fury Road, a surprising entry into the category.  Other good films have been neglected, because apparently they are not in genres (comedy, horror) that can be considered.

So I've decided to review my movie-watching of the year, sorted according to various categories.

We'll start with Spy Movies, of which there were many:

Spy Movies

Kingsman:the Secret Service - a very enjoyable romp starring Colin Firth as a member of a British Spy Service fighting international terror in the form of Samuel L. Jackon's lisping villain.  Really good action sequences and a clever plot.  The Freebird/church fight is incredibly gruesome/hilarious.

Spy - Melissa McCarthy plays the lead in this spy comedy. Funny movie with decent plot to it - one of her better works.  Plot is actually pretty pretty well constructed.  

Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation - hey, Tom Cruise has done another Mission Impossible movie!  The basic plot hasn't changed over the course of the series.  But the action sequences here are pretty good.  

The Man from U.N.C.L.E.  - a spy movie set in the 1960s based on the concept of the old Robert Vaughn TV show.  Stars Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer as the American and the Russian, along with Alicia Vikander as a German woman who works with them.  Love the period fashion of 1960s Italy.  Probably the best plot of this bunch.

SPECTRE - the latest Daniel Craig 007 movie.  Acting is really good, but the plot is pretty much non-existent.  It's all about how Christoph Waltz is the new Blofeld, the man behind all of Bond's torments.  I guess the idea is that he just shows up and is the Bad Guy, because, you know, he's Blofeld.  And Christoph Waltz.  A bit of a disappointment.

What gets me most about this category is that the two established franchises pretty much mailed in their screenplays.

Superhero Movies

Avengers: Age of Ultron - a good movie, but a big overstacked with characters by now.  Didn't have the impact of the first Avengers movie.  

AntMan - pretty generic origin story.  Well done but these are formulaic by now.  

Deadpool is better than either.

Space Opera

I don't like the practice of calling movies like Star Wars and Guardians of the Galaxy "Sci-Fi" even when there's no science in them at all.  They are more properly understood as Space Opera - extended adventure stories that just happen to be set in space.  I'd say we had two this year:

Jupiter Ascending - I enjoyed this movie, though a lot of that is due to Mila Kunis.  Eddie Redmayne plays one of her homicidal family members and is great.  Sean Bean plays a solider who, bizarrely, doesn't die.  Chaning Tatum plays the love interest who has no chemistry with Mila.  Movie kind of bombed.

Star Wars: the Force Awakens - much better than the prequels.  Bringing back Lawrence Kasdan to write the screenplay instead of letting George Lucas do so was a great idea.  Harrison Ford is great.  The newcomes (Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Adam Driver, and Oscar Isaac) are great.  People have complained that the plot was a mirror image of Episode 4, but that's only true if you only watched the last fifteen minutes, and even then it's not true.  Yes, it has common themes and plot devices.  Duh.

True Stories

Spotlight - the story of the investigative reporting of the Boston Globe's Spotlight division on the pederasty scandal of the Catholic Chuch.  A well-crafted and well-written movie.  Acting is very good, esp. Mark Ruffalo.  

The Big Short - a compelling recounting of how a small number of investors decided the real estate market was bubbling in 2007-2008 and decided to sell them short.  Really devastating critique of the industry.  And nothing has changed on Wall Street.  So we've got that to enjoy.

Bridge of Spies - enjoyable period piece with Tom Hanks as the man negotiating the release of captured U2 pilot Francis Gary Powers.  Kind of the movie we expect these days from Spielberg and Hanks - enjoyable, doesn't really take any risks.  Mark Rylance is deservedly getting a lot of praise for his portrayal of the Russian spy Rudoph Abel who was traded.  Writing is good, as well as the acting, but as I said, the movie doesn't really take any risks.

Black Mass - Johnny Depp plays Whitey Bolger in this story about how he manipulated his police handlers to help him eliminate his competition in the organized crime business of 1970s Boston.
Between Black Mass and Spotlight I wonder how I ever got through Boston of the 1970s neither molested nor murdered. 

Everest - an IMAX feature (well, it was available on other screens, but really, what's the point?) about the tragic disaster in 1996 when a couple tourist groups got stuck in a storm on Mount Everest.  A gripping and sad story.  

Very strong year for this category.  I would not want to be required to pick between Spotlight and The Big Short.  Either would be a worthy Best Picture winner.


The Martian - I hope I don't have to explain why this is science fiction and Jupiter Ascending isn't.  The science of The Martian is exceptionally good, at least in how it treats the problems of how to survive on a foreign planet with no atmosphere and not enough food when the nearest transport is speeding off in the wrong direction.  Not only the best sci-fi of the year, but one of the best sci-fi pictures of many years.

Ex Machina - also a really, really good movie.  I only saw this on video because the marketing did not really capture how good this movie is.  It's another "genesis of a soul in AI" story.  Oscar Isaac is brilliant, again, this time as the high tech software genius, as is Alicia Vikander as the budding AI/robot.  BTW, Vikander is the breakout star of the year, and I only saw two of her three movies, when the third (The Danish Girl) is the one she just won an Oscar for.


Mockingjay: Part two.  Not really anybody's fault here, but Mockingjay just isn't enough of a story to make a great movie, esp. not when compared to The Hunger Games and Catching Fire.  The story is realistic, but it's just too anti-climactic.  But of course J-Law rocks.  I mean, duh.

Far from the Madding Crowd - Carey Mulligan makes a credible Bathsheba Everdeen in the first major movie version of this story since Julie Christie played the role in a classic performance.  The '60s version had a more bombastic cast compared to last year's understated version.  I think I prefer the newer version.  

Period Stories

The Revenant - this is supposedly based on a "true story" but I think the key there is "story" as my research of the tale of Hugh Glass is that it's a great fronteir story but it's authenticity has been called into doubt.  Those fronteirsmen were known to exaggerate a bit.  Certainly the real Hugh Glass could not have survived everything that happened to him in the movie.  Anyway, the acting here is great, though I find the themes a bit heavy-handed and the plotting a bit silly at points.  Worth watching for the landscapes.

The Hateful Eight - Tarantino's latest film.  And as was said, you can only compare Hitori Hanso swords to other Hitori Hanso swords, and you can really only compare Tarantino films to his other films.  The Hateful Eight is very enjoyable in a closed-room mystery kind of way.  The scope isn't as large as his prior two movies (Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchanged) but it's still a good movie worth seeing.  

Serena - a story about an industrialist woman played by J-Law.  One of her weaker films, though of course not her fault.  She needs to stop doing movies with Bradley Cooper.  I'm going to have to talk to her about this.

Mr. Holmes - Ian McKellan plays a 90-something retired Sherlock Holmes in this enjoyable mini-myestery.  A good story.

Animated Movies

Shaun the Sheep - an animated feature from Aardman studio that gave us Wallace and Gromit as well as Chicken Run.  Really great animated film  as we've come to expect from Aardman.  No dialogue! But the story doesn't suffer from the absence.

Inside Out - Pixar's offering this year, about how each of us is controlled by a quartet of personified emotions inside a bridge-like control room in our brains.  Pixar keeps putting out great movies, and this is as good as we've come to expect.  A movie about growing up and how we have to leave childish things behind.  And how we need not only joy, anger, and disgust, but how even sadness plays an important role.  

Minions - not much to say here, except that it was a great idea to give the Minions of Despicable Me their own movie.  

Saw three animated movies last year and they were all great.


Mad Max: Fury Road - really much better than I had hoped it would be.  Definitely the action movie of the year and it was great to watch on a big screen.  Tom  Hardy got top billing as Max but Charlize Theron really stole the movie as Furiosa.  BTW, it's winning a lot of secondary awards so far tonight.


It Follows - a low budget movie based on a very simple idea.  The risks of teenage sex include not only disease and emotional turmoil, but real existential danger in a monster that tracks down whoever the latest person on its victim list is.  Apparently its target list works like a computer science "stack" - when the person at the top of the stack has sex with a new person, the new person moves to the front of the line for the stalking monster's target list.  And if that person is killed, the stack moves up.  Great horror movies often have this kind of simple plot device - I was reminded of The Ring and The Grudge here.  When it comes to making horror movies, often having a small budget is a benefit.  With a cast of unknowns, the movie isn't constrained by star-centered plot expectations (you cannot kill off Janet Leigh less than halfway through the movie!  OK, bad example.  Certainly you're not going to kill off Drew Barrymore before the opening credits!  Another bad example.  But Psycho and Scream are the exceptions that prove the rule.)

Police/Action Dramas

Furious 7 - lots of stunts with cars.  RIP Paul Walker

Sicario - a really good police drama starring Emily Blunt as a DEA office, Josh Brolin as an enforcement "cowboy" and Benicio Del Toro as the guy who does "what is necessary" to fight the Drug War.  Really a though-provoking movie.  

With this category division in mind, my Best Film nomineees would be

It Follows
Mad Max - Fury Road
The Big Short
The Martian 

maybe The Revenant