The Guy’s Guide to the Best Movies of 2015

Here’s my yearly roundup of all things watchable…

JM

The Top 5

The Big Short

the big short
It’s all about that wacky ’08 market crash — awash with unexpected moments of clever explanation and dialog that turn it into a smartass comedy that’s hugely entertaining.
The rapid-fire dialog, the New York rich asshole attitudes – you ain’t been put down until you’ve been dissed by a fast–talkin’ bond broker in a $5000 suit.
Christian Bale, Brad Pitt and Steve Carell star, but it’s writer/director Adam McKay (Talladega Nights, Anchorman) who deftly skips between can-opening the maniacal investment house attitudes and the unintentionally wacky behavior of their blood-thirsty players.

Mad Max: Fury Road

mad max
Gorgeously artistic rendition of a post-apocalyptic desert slum, filled with bizarre costuming and sets that seem to endlessly unfold, the first half hour is eye candy of the highest art.
That gives way to a relentless chase that’s both mesmerizing and exhausting, let alone what the cast must have endured. It’s mostly great and features a grand soundscape in Dolby Atmos, which is a new sound delivery system requiring dozens of speakers papering the theater walls and ceiling, resulting in washes that are a studio mixer’s wet dream.
Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron are sharply drawn and fiercely committed. And director George Miller delivers one impossible high-speed stunt after another, a hellofa ride towards the next mirage just ahead.

The Martian
[Previously reviewed] Talk about staying cool under pressure… it’s a fascinating parade of ingenious concepts, sure to inspire spirited science lab round-tables. A long, classy film and a relatively quiet one. The better to enjoy the fantasy of this believably portrayed in-a-future-near-you snapshot.

The Revenant

the revenant
There are film experiences that unexpectedly pull you into something new and disorienting, but do so with a sense of clarity that simply knocks you off balance as the experience is burned into your personal firmware.

Leonardo DiCaprio is a mountain man hired to guide a sizable contingent of pelt hunters in and out of the wilderness. It’s the early 19th century, winter has set in and with it, the very real danger of an unruly Mother Nature.

From the first frame, there’s a sense of personal involvement in this endeavor, punctuated with close-in challenges and a fanatically framed sense of earth and sky, seen as if for the first time from the viewpoint of those who are steeped in its churning beauty. Rarely have we been so immersed in the moment-by-moment experience of frantic survival and determination, staring down the inclination to acknowledge the utter overwhelm of an impossible situation that must surely lead to oblivion.

A barely recognizable DiCaprio disappears into his Oscar-bound, snow-covered resolve, a father travelling with his half-breed teen-aged son, powerfully connected in grieving over the violent death of his Pawnee wife. Tom Hardy, proving his mettle as one of the great newer actors of his generation (see also Legend and Mad Max) adds to the unforgiving and otherworldly zeitgeist of the era.

Director Alejandro González Iñárritu, who gave us last year’s Best Picture, Birdman, does it again, this time far more mysteriously, resulting in a movie that is full of impossible contrasts: violently beautiful, dreamily real, hugely intimate, impossibly possible. A masterfully restrained, yet powerfully overwhelming score by Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto cements vistas together with an invisible sheen of moodiness that seems to push each new scene right into your face.

The result is a true work of art that is both recognizable and utterly new, cemented with harrowing violence, incredible realism and a heartbeat that refuses to cease. With its powerful themes of historical violence, brutish morality and seemingly limitless capacity for survival against overwhelming odds, it’s the Best Guy’s Movie of the Year.

Oh, and Star Wars?
Simply terrific. By following a simple formula, it’s everything you hoped it would be. Politically correct, smashing new heroes, classic in scope and filled with special pleasures, it’s a box office juggernaut that’ll likely set a stratospheric benchmark for decades.


And the rest, currently playing or available on DVD

in alphabetical order…

 

Anomalisa

anomalisa
This year’s bizarre stop-motion puppet tale comes from the wonderfully twisted Charlie Kaufman, who brought us Being John Malkovitch and Adaptation. Hellova pedigree. Originating on Kickstarter, it raised around $450,000 from thousands of hypnotized contributors and was then shot entirely in a large warehouse in Burbank, where the filmmakers routine goal was to shoot 48 frames – that’s two seconds of film – per day.
In this one, a melancholy customer service expert arrives at a convention where he’ll lecture, as he struggles with loneliness and disconnect on the tenth floor of a modern hotel. Which manifests itself via some memorable conceits, reflecting the mind-numbing crush of modern existence we barely acknowledge in our routines.
The stop-motion technique features realistic humans, save for their legs, which are all too short for their torsos and their faces, which have clear lines indicating where teach new mask is to be affixed. Acting out average, normal lives that are utterly strange when meticulously animated, there’s a one-night stand sex scene that is so pathetically inept in its portrayal, you want to hide your eyes and wish the wooden World Police marionettes were partying next door.
As twisted as it is, there are moments of insight that may hit you with crashing familiarity, as the irony of this confusing vehicle lumbers by.

Bridge of Spies

bridge of spies
Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks team up again to focus some classic movie-making on a prisoner exchange chronicling the notorious U2 spy plane incident at the height of the cold war in the early 60’s. Masterfully shot and executed, it’s a fine morality play, full of subtlety and grace, all the more fitting in our current xenophobic state. Their spies are bad but ours are good, right?

Brooklyn

A sweet, understated book of romance and a good date movie to show how attuned you are to sweet and understated romance. Irish girl comes to America, meets a nice plumber, succumbs and then things get complicated. Artistically shot set pieces contrasting New York in the 50’s with Northern Ireland. And the kid in the trailers almost steals the film.

Carol

Cate Blanchett portrays a classy East Coast lesbian in 1950’s masquerade. Subtle acting, masterful cinematography and direction, you can relate to the culture and the dilemma in this one. And the sex scene. Taking a female along? Watch, enjoy, learn.

Concussion

A game changer, literally: It’s the true story of the doctor who discovered the rampant symptoms and ravages of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in pro football players. And about his struggle to bring it to public awareness in spite of a concerted effort from the NFL to quash his irrefutable evidence.
Will Smith deftly portrays a Nigerian intellectual in concert with his role with subtly restrained direction from Peter Landesman and an emotionally controlled score from veteran composer James Newton Howard. What emerges is a sobering investigation into an overlooked aspect of America’s favorite sport that is only now dealing openly with a killer that should give every parent of football-loving boys pause.
Deserving of a wide audience, it may indeed help usher in a new level of safety and awareness in protecting the health of kids and pros alike.

Creed

creed
In which Rocky gets his groove back, for those who care. Michael B. Jordan (Fruitland Station and the later years of Friday Night Lights, a binge-worthy series for the whole family to watch, if you missed it) plays Apollo Creed’s son, Adonis. Angry, talented and fiercely determined, he looks up the long-retired Rocky, declaring him the only person capable of training him to become the champion fighter he longs to be.
Depending on your affection and affinity for the franchise, it’s either nostalgic and great or cloying and obvious. Very cool fight scenes and lots o’ heart.

The Danish Girl

It’s the 1920’s and Eddy Redmayne plays an artist in Denmark who decides he’s a woman and becomes maybe the first guy to undergo a sex-change operation. A brilliant testament for the LGBT community to rally ‘round. Otherwise, oh god, it’s just oh so precious and gooey and simperingly putrid.
There was a great mini-series on the same subject released in ’03 (then edited into an available feature film) starring Tom Wilkenson and Jessica Lange, called Normal. Courageous, mind-boggling and ahead of its time. Watch that one instead.

End of the Tour

Biopic about David Foster Wallace, the celebrated author of the much lauded Infinite Jest, who committed suicide at age 46. Jesse Eisenberg plays a Rolling Stone reporter who is dispatched to do a feature write-up, spending a week as Wallace’s (played by Jason Segal) house guest. Exceedingly gentle and talky, it takes patience to endure this realistic exploration of creativity, professional jealousy, loneliness and the riddle of clinical depression.

The Hateful Eight

the hateful 8
Great-lookin’ trailer, ain’t it, along with all them thar Golden Globe nominations? Lisa and I found ourselves at the glittery Cinerama Dome premier for this flick and Harvey Weinstein himself took the podium to introduce the director, telling the story of QT’s impassioned pitch to them, which included his insistence on filming this old western in 70mm Panavision. Which meant tasking the Bros Weinstein with finding, refurbishing and re-installing a hundred old 70mm Panavision projectors in theaters across the country, to properly screen and appreciate this watershed event!

They then introduced QT, who bounded up and gave the evening’s most spirited performance, screaming profanity-laden WWF-style introductions of all Eight as they made their way to the stage. Crazy, uninhibited fun… and then the movie started.

Tarantino’s vision included recreating the experience of the old 50’s and 60’s road shows, so the film starts with a static slide of a stage coach, while the Ennio Morricone (sic: authentic) score plays for three minutes under half house lights, which dimmed 30 seconds before the fade-in. As the super-sized reels roll, we find our stars in and around a stagecoach, racing towards a rest outpost, barely in front of a ferocious winter blizzard chasing them from behind. And we stay with that stagecoach and its passengers for the next hour or so, as Mr. Tarantino treats us to a litany of repetitive, banal, misogyny-tinged pabulum that finally lands at the lodge where the rest of the movie will take place. If you can manage to stay awake that long. Clocking in at three hrs and two minutes plus a 12-minute intermission, you may find yourself wishing you’d stayed home and done your taxes early for once.

OK, I’m not big on horrifying violence, but QT’s the guy who gave us comic-book style shoot-outs and outrageously entertaining behavior. Pulp Fiction, Inglourious Basterds, Django in Chains. Loved ‘em! Unfortunately, the only semblance here is in the repeated use of his cast members, Samuel L Jackson, Tim Roth, Demian Bichar, all playing the same characters with different stage names. A lost-his-mojo Kurt Russell joins them and Jennifer Jason Lee may get a makeup award for gore.

During the intermission, I saw Harvey leaning against the concession stand alone, while a few hundred whispering insiders milled quietly around, trying to figure out how not to say anything negative to anyone possibly important. The story plays out in the lodge for the rest of the movie and yes, for those who crave it, the gore that finally ensues is plentiful. But it’s far too late, as if Tarantino wrote it the whole thing in a drug haze, improving out loud to a dozen sycophants, who then got someone to transcribe his iPhone-recorded rave and delivered it to welcoming arms the next day. How could it not be magic, right?

So what was once shockingly entertaining is now old retread. And the Panavision thing? For a movie that’s 90% inside a stagecoach and a log cabin? Even Morricone’s score, all five minutes of it, is tired and utterly dated, as if he was half-Nelsoned into doing it because he really needed the money.
Ugh, what a night. We left out the side door and ducked the after-party. What do you say to the makers and the stars after a three-hr dirge? Marketing-wise, it’ll be interesting to see how well this one does in virtual simultaneous release against Mr. Lucas’ new offering. Will Star Wars lift the box office or overwhelm it (and this just in: The Cinerama Dome booted its H8 booking in favor of using it as another Star Wars screen)?
While Tarantino may have defined his own genre, this particular chapter’s bloody awful.

Joy

From the folks who brought you Silver Lining Playbook, we get Woven Cotten Mop Story, an overly worked family grope about a mom who invents a self-wringing mop, brings it to the marketplace and then has to deal with her idiot family member investors as well as bad guys who try to do her wrong.

Well. Fortunately, she wakes up in time and spins a yarn that would normally require a cleanup in Aisle 7, save for the likes of Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro and Bradley Cooper, who just barely wring out a keeper.

Legend

legend
An arresting period piece chronicling the notorious gangster twin brothers, the Krays, in 1960’s London, both played by the amazing Tom Hardy. Replete with East London accents so thick, it’s comical – to the point of needing sub-titles, in lieu of which, you just go with the twisted story of their head-breaking, their aching loves and insane luck, inadvertently backing themselves into an arrest-free ride after getting so twisted up in parliamentary scandals that no one dares prosecute them.
Moments of intense across-the-pond violence, pasteurized with go-go dancers, duck-tailed stage crooners and snazzy period cars. Based on the true story, it’s a kind of Sopranos meets Dumb and Dumber mash-up that will leave you joking around in unintelligible slang-rot for days after.

Love & Mercy

You need to feel connected to the Beach Boys for this biopic to resonate. Brian Wilson drives the group to stardom via increasingly meticulous and original explorations of the creative recording process in the mid-60’s, consciously competing with the Beatles to matter the most on this side of the pond.
A product of serial parental abuse, he finds solace in the studio, where the famous Wrecking Crew, a group of top-echelon studio musicians, work to fashion the sound that will expand the group’s achievements, even as his demons push him ever closer to a breaking point.
Paul Dano and John Cusack play first the younger, then the older Brian, as he gropes his way towards a new life. Resuscitated by his full-time psychologist savior/nemesis, played by Paul Giamotti and the fetching Elizabeth Banks playing a Cadillac saleswoman who’s trying to shine a light, it’s a puzzle game for audience and protagonist alike.

Sisters

Tina Fey and Amy Poehler play sisters – no stretch there – and bring their raucous humor to a former male bastion: the dumb guy frat comedy, featuring a clown car’s worth of Saturday Night Live alumni, all thrilled to be cussin’ grown-up style. Way too blue for mom and the kids, replete with wacky bits, wholesale destruction and an unforgettable moment: a repeat playing of the tune Fur Elise.

Spotlight

spotlight
The story of child molestation within the Catholic Church, told from the eyes of the crack investigative Boston Globe team that broke it in 2002. I don’t imagine many folks would think of that as popcorn entertainment, but it’s a riveting production with a veteran ensemble: Mark Ruffolo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Stanley Tucci, Live Schrieber, and John Slattery.
The realistic portrayal of the culture at the Globe, the measured professionalism and the step-by-step peeling back of layers of protection the city elite put up to protect the church from scrutiny makes for a measured drumbeat of progress, and emotional involvement, as they inch toward publishing a story that would rock the world.

Spectre

[Previously reviewed.] In which James gets shaken AND stirred, this time by a girl. Always enjoyable.

 

Steve Jobs

steve jobs
OK, here’s the recipe: Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslett, Seth Rogan, Jeff Daniels, heading the cast, Aaron Sorkin writes the script, Danny Boyle directs — a Dream Team. Together, they’ve created a dialog-driven rabbit hole that’ll blow your head off.

Based on the Walter Isaacson bio, it’s a brilliant film about a brilliant man and the inevitable controversy all that candlepower brings. This Jobs as a callous and unflinchingly cold fish and both the Jobs family and Apple protested its making. The better to ram one high concept after another through, living on the edge of cruelty without remorse for the entire journey. Much has been written about the veracity of his character and Sorkin did extensive interviews with both Jobs’ daughter, Lisa, and The Woz, in crafting the sophisticated, fictional dialog. Woz is said to have given his blessing in the end and there is electrifying dissent between them throughout.

So you’ve read the book, celebrated the gear, seen the doc, dished on his bad boy behavior and if you were lucky, cashed in on some canny stock buying. What’s left? This deftly handled 3-act play focuses on three key product launches: the Macintosh, the Next and the imac. And virtually the entire film takes place back stage in the moments counting down to the boss’s walk-ons. That’s it, you say? The tension, conflict, dialog and ticking clock timing is riveting. As for technique, Fassbender plays a serenely driven, demanding and damaged individual who excels at antagonizing and exasperating his closest circle of confidants with bombastic expectations.

It’s a tour de force, deftly capturing the best of each of its components, resulting in a work of art that pushes the form to a stunning level of graceful impact and depth. Jobs is both the saint and blasphemer, the visionary and the dick.

When he died in 2011, the satirical online newspaper, The Onion, published a headline that read “Last guy in America who Knew What the Hell He was Doing Dies.” This film reeks of that Metal Man intellectualism and drive. Don’t miss it.

Straight Outta Compton

In an unflinching portrait, follows the spectacular 1980’s rise of N.W.A. and their unapologetic performing-while-black personas. Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Easy E – this was their birth and convergence, their coming of age and ultimate taking of separate pathways, as they shook the system and found fame, riches, drugs and rip-offs as they dealt with the violent DNA of their trailing culture.
Director F Gary Gray presents a flawed but fascinating focus on their take-no-prisoners performances, both in-studio and on stage, then chronicles the fallout of their behavior, as they rage against the system that inspired their powerful artistry.

Trumbo

trumbo
Bryan Cranston stars as Dalton Trumbo, a witty Hollywood screenwriter at the top of his game, in this engaging biopic about America during the Hollywood Blacklist following World War II. Finding himself on the wrong side of the Red Scare, he matches wits with John Wayne, Otto Preminger, the House Un-American hearings and a hate-mongering Hedda Hopper, played by Helen Mirren, whose hugely popular newspaper and radio reporting of the era made her the most powerful influencer in town.
It’s an entertaining recreation and some classic filmmaking, especially enjoyable for the TCM set.

Truth

How Dan Rather lost his groove and his network news gig. Sounds boring but it’s actually pretty involving. CBS reporters try first to disprove a suspicious note that shows up just before the ’04 election that seems to prove George Bush skipped out on the National Guard with the help of insider cronies, then begin to authenticate it, leading to its being broadcast by Rather live on the network news. Robert Redford plays a credible Rather and Cate (she’s everywhere) Blanchette is the smart and driven senior investigator who puts her job on the line.

Youth

Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel try to puzzle out the meaning of life in a gorgeously shot Fellini-esque rest hotel and spa. Stalwartly Caine’s character has given up and let his former success go, while Keitel, playing a wise old film producer, tries to get one more production together before it’s too late. Which is ironic, because Pulp Fiction aside, he really can’t act his way out of a wet paper sack. An utterly The-End-depressing slog if you’re over 50, and honestly, I couldn’t make it that far.


 

A few selected Docs available for download

 

Amy

amy
Most of my exposure to Amy Winehouse was via Brian from the Family Guy “They tried to make me go to rehab and I said, no, no, no.” That and her gossip rag stories and lurid posts. What I didn’t realize is that she was one of the most original and engaging bluesy songwriters and singers since Billie Holiday and to experience this film-like bio was a revelation.
Presenting a timeline assembled from a trove of videos beginning in early childhood, it’s exploration of the sheer poetic and musical talent. Heartbreaking from a parental standpoint, as we watch this rare and utterly original talent self-destruct.

The Wolfpack

Bizarre footage of five boys and a girl, the young children of a gently disturbed South American immigrant and his passive wife, being raised in a ratty three-bedroom apartment in Queens, New York, where they are virtual prisoners for about 15 years. Brainwashed by their loving father, who declares the world is simply too dangerous to venture in to, they cope with their happy imprisonment by acting out their favorite violent movies, making elaborate costumes from cardboard and duct tape, memorizing scenes and taping fights and shootouts in the hallway.
With home-schooling from their credentialed mom, they are bafflingly intelligent and thoughtful, aware of their predicament and appear to finally step out in a meaningful way as a product of having been shot and scrutinized by the documentary filmmakers who have ultimately liberated them.

What Happened, Miss Simone?

The turbulent life of Nina Simone, who found herself vaulted into prominence at the height of the civil rights movement. Groomed to be a concert pianist, she was discriminated out of advanced conservatory study, turning to singing and songwriting of necessity, then finding a pathway to stardom that made her the toast of the hipster set.
Prone to depression and spousal abuse, she suffered through much of her life, constantly struggling to craft a meaningful existence while retreating further from the people who loved her most.

Where to Invade Next

where to invade next
Michael Moore’s super left-wing commie pinko hippie-dippy uniquely entertaining take on how half a dozen European and African countries have successfully risen to the challenges of workplace satisfaction, education, drugs, banking, crime and punishment, human rights… phew. In this kinder, gentler, funnier rev, he travels to each country, spotlights their solutions, throws in amusing B-roll and then claims them for America. Gourmet school lunches, 8-week worker vacations, townhouse prisons, drug legalization — it’s pretty outrageous stuff, and it’s workin’! In Portugal…