Month: November 2015

2015 End-of-Year Cramfest Capsules, Part II

indexBy Daniel Barnes

I’m dedicating the month leading up to the SF Film Critics Circle awards on 12/13 to my End-of-Year Cramfest.  It’s my own personal War on Xmas – I’ll be screening the awards contenders, catching up on overlooked movies, and rewatching some of my favorites from 2015.  Click HERE to read Part I, and check back later this week for Part III.


Shaun the Sheep Movie (Dir.: Mark Burton and Richard Starzack; GRADE: B+)

Energetic and playful and droll, with the rolling invention of a silent comedy, this blessedly anarchic and endlessly clever stop-motion animation is one of the best animated features of the year.  It comes from Aardman, based on a TV show I’ve never seen, but with a look and spirit that are kindred to Aardman keystones Wallace and Gromit.  There’s no dialogue, only grunts and growls and nonsense, so this is essentially a silent film with sound effects and music.  Cinephile parents – this could be your kids’ gateway drug to the Criterion Collection!

index2The Stanford Prison Experiment (Dir.: Kyle Patrick Alvarez; GRADE: B)

A sturdily crafted disturber based on the real-life experiments conducted at Stanford University in 1971.  The experimenters hired students and randomly assigned them a role as either prisoner or guard, turning the basement of a faculty office building into a makeshift “prison.” But the experiment got out of hand almost immediately, as the guards inflicted unnecessary physical and psychological punishments, and the prisoners begged for release.  Billy Crudup leads the study team, and a cast of familiar young faces (including Tye Sheridan, Ezra Miller and Thomas Mann) play the guards and prisoners.  Smarter and more penetrating than the strangely overpraised Experimenter, spare but effective, with a solid, lunch box ensemble.


indexJames White (Dir.: Josh Mond; GRADE: B+)

Do not open until mid-December.

Of Horses and Men (Dir.: Benedikt Erlingsson; GRADE: B-)

Less an Icelandic Wild Tales than an Icelandic Amores Perros that fancies itself an Icelandic Au Hasard Balthazar, this bold but uneven anthology centers on the nosy citizens of a remote valley village, showing the emotional horrors they inflict on each other, and the physical horrors they inflict on their horses.  More bodily fluids than any other 2015 film I can recall, with some inspired moments counterbalanced by some truly horrific ones, all executed in the deadest of Nordic deadpans.  Hard to recommend, or shake.

The Creeping Garden (Dir.Tim Grabham and Jasper Sharp: GRADE: B)

Mike Dub did an excellent job summarizing this sci-fi documentary in his review, so I’ll just add that it feels like an episode of Nova directed by Errol Morris, pitting human obsession against primordial instinct.  Slime mold wins, because slime mold always wins.images6


Writing day, no movies.


Tom at the Farm (Dir.: Xavier Dolan; GRADE: B)

This homoerotic Hitchcock from French Canadian wunderkind Xavier Dolan was made a year before Mommy, but released several months afterward.  Dolan plays the lead role, a young gay man who travels to the country to mourn his closeted lover, only to find that the dead man’s dangerously homophobic brother would prefer to keep their relationship a secret. An interesting checked box for the young filmmaker, taut and kinky, easily his least exuberant effort, but I’m not ready to dub him a master of suspense just yet. Check out my updated Xavier Dolan Power Rankings HERE.

Entertainment (Dir.: Rick Alverson; GRADE: C)

images7Self-satisfied grotesqueness from the director of The Comedy – part Neil Hamburger concert movie, part savagely deadpan dark comedy, part on-the-nose portrayal of the spiritual bankruptcy of life on the road, and all empty, nihilistic, fuck-you-for-giving-a-shit posturing.  God bless John C. Reilly, though.

The Good Dinosaur (Dir.: Peter Sohn; GRADE: B)

A minor effort from Pixar, a weird, alternate-universe story jumble about a family of dinosaur farmers who come into contact with a wild scavenger that looks a lot like a human boy.  Visually splendid and teeming with ideas, many of them half-cooked, like the mixture of broadly cartoon-ish character designs and photo-realist landscapes.  Still, I found the individual elements extremely compelling, even if the center doesn’t always hold.  Check out my updated Pixar Power Rankings HERE.


Where to Invade Next (Dir.: Michael Moore; GRADE: B)

It’s so easy to blame Michael Moore for everything annoying about contemporary documentaries that we often overlook his skill as an entertainer.  One good laugh from Moore is worth a million of Alex Gibney’s paranoid whispers.  Where to Invade Next puts Moore back in high-concept territory, as he “invades” foreign countries to steal their ideas for social change, such as Finnish school reforms and Portuguese drug policies.  It won’t change the world, but neither will The Good Dinosaur.  Check out my updated Michael Moore Power Rankings HERE.

Youth (Dir.: Paolo Sorrentino; GRADE: D)

Do not open until Xmas.

imagesSon of Saul (Dir.: Laszlo Nemes; GRADE: B+)

Do not open until 2016.

Ricki and the Flash (Dir.: Jonathan Demme; GRADE: B-)

How do you get a band to stop taking encores?  The first hour of this Diablo Cody-scripted drama about a washed-up “rock star” (Meryl Streep) forced into responsibility by her estranged family has a loose, humane vibe and a number of interesting character swerves (e.g., Ricki’s square family are the liberals, while she’s an Obama-baiting right-winger).  But the story is effectively resolved by the end of the second act, so Streep and her band run out the clock by performing uninspired karaoke cover songs for a solid half hour. Check out my updated Jonathan Demme Power Rankings HERE.

LATER THIS WEEK: End-of-Year Cramfest Capsules, Part III, with mini-reviews of Bridge of Spies, Legend, Eden and more.

Daniel Barnes @ the SN&R, 11/26 issue

creed-large*After a shockingly good first half that bursts with energy and invention, Ryan Coogler’s Rocky rehash Creed proves just good enough to be disappointing.

*An alternately grim and goo goo-eyed wrap-up to the Hunger Games film franchise, Mockingjay—Part 2 reaps the mistakes sown by the previous entries.

*Long-winded, dreadfully noble and blithely slanderous, Jay Roach’s Trumbo is the sort of film that gives liberal pap a bad name.

2015 End-of-Year Cramfest Capsules, Part I

indexBy Daniel Barnes

It’s that time of year again…awards season, baby!  Let those silly naysayers focus on the dark side of the process: the wastefulness of awards campaigns, the annual sanctification of the middlebrow and the bland, the shameless celebrity gladhanding, the bloated self-importance of mediocre critics, the petty and insipid arguments and controversies, the fact that you’re inevitably choosing from a preselected group of “contenders”, the utter folly of declaring an objectively “Best” anything…

Wait, what was I talking about?  Oh yeah: awards season, baby!  The best time of the year!   Hollywood’s season of quality, love it or leave it, Jack!  Once again, I am devoting late November/early December towards cramming for my best of 2015 lists and SFFCC awards ballot – catching up on the movies I missed, screening as-yet-unreleased awards hopefuls, and re-watching some of my favorites from earlier in the year. You can check out my frequently updated 2015 Ranked list HERE, and follow my 2015 Catchup list HERE.  I’ll be posting these Cramfest updates every few days for the next three weeks, and I’ll culminate the series by publishing my full SFFCC ballot.

And now…on to the Cramfest!


Brooklyn (Dir.: John Crowley; GRADE: B)

As I wrote on Letterboxd, Old New York has never looked more maple-glazed than it does here.  Telling the story of an Irish immigrant (Saoirse Ronan, simultaneously sickly and luminous) divided between continents, obligations, ambitions, emotions and men, Brooklyn lays it on thick, from cinematographer Yves Belanger’s bronzed images to Michael Brooks’ honeyed score, but somehow it works.  There’s a warmth and sincerity that blasts through the fossilized nostalgia like a sunbeam, and the supporting cast is very strong, especially a scene-stealing Julie Walters.  On the other hand, I’m turning 40 next year, and it kind of freaks me out that I like both this movie and Bill Condon’s Mr. Holmes so much.  How long before I’m clamoring for The Eleventh Best Exotic Marigold Hotel?

Southpaw (Dir.: Antoine Fuqua; GRADE: C+)

index22015’s other Rocky knockoff, the tragic downfall and inspiring rebirth of a self-destructive champ, as though the Rocky franchise got rebooted with Rocky II as the origin story.  Pretty pudgy and flavorless, with only Jake Gyllenhaal’s committed mumble peaking out beneath the genre cliches, but Fuqua brings just enough energy to avert the disaster of Kurt Sutter’s watery script.

Hungry Hearts (Dir.: Saverio Costanzo; GRADE: B+)

An uncanny nailbiter, this one plays like a non-supernatural version of Rosemary’s Baby where Rosemary turns out to be the Devil, as a baby gets caught in the blades of its helicopter parents (Alba Rohrwacher and Adam Driver, both excellent).  Disturbingly unbalanced, constantly in danger of pulling apart at the seams, frequently edging into exploitation and parody, but united by a skin-crawling dread.

Manglehorn (Dir.: David Gordon Green; GRADE: B-)

index3A mangy old cat of a movie, barely pasted together by soulful performances from Al Pacino and Holly Hunter.  Yet another funky and inscrutable deep sigh from David Gordon Green to go with Prince Avalanche and Joe, as Pacino’s lonely locksmith writes letters to a lost love who may have never existed, while wooing Hunter’s sweet bank teller.  Forgettable but oddly charming.


The 33 (Dir.: Patricia Riggen; GRADE: C)

Reviewed in 11/19 issue of Sacramento News & Review.

Song of Lahore (Dir.: Andy Schocken and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy; GRADE: B)

Like Junun, a documentary about traditional musicians working in popular genres and collaborating with famous westerners, and like The Wrecking Crew, a deeply personal story of an under-appreciated supergroup.  Song of Lahore tells the story of Pakistani musicians persecuted by the Taliban, rejuvenated by a new generation, and embraced worldwide for their covers of American jazz standards.  Stylistically slick and skimpy on details of musical culture and Taliban occupation, but the music is great and the vibe is warm.index6


Trumbo (Dir.: Jay Roach; GRADE: D)

Reviewed in 11/26 issue of the Sacramento News & Review.

Heart of a Dog (Dir.: Laurie Anderson; GRADE: B-)

The dictionary definition of a mixed bag, as pieces of a galvanizing memoir/political screed swim in a pool of self-indulgence and half-formed ideas.  Artist/musician/filmmaker/iconoclast Laurie Anderson (Home of the Brave) offers her first feature film in three decades, using the life and death of her beloved rat terrier as a launching pad for excursions into post-9/11 paranoia, the slippery nature of creativity, and Tibetan concepts of death and ghosts.  It’s exciting and annoying and surprising, kind of like finding out that your strange neighbor with all the dogs is actually Laurie Anderson. When I wasn’t shaking my head and sighing loudly, I was enthralled.indexmeow


The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 (Dir.: Francis Lawrence; GRADE: C+)

Reviewed in 11/26 issue of the Sacramento News & Review.


Creed (Dir.: Ryan Coogler; GRADE: B-)

Reviewed in 11/26 issue of the Sacramento News & Review.


images4Tomorrowland (Dir.: Brad Bird; GRADE: B)

A solid rule of thumb: if mainstream critics feel comfortable piling onto a nine-figure, major studio blockbuster, there’s a better than average chance that the film is at least interesting.  All too often, broad critical consensus tilts toward a film’s real or presumed box office viability.  Brad Bird’s gleaming, awe-obsessed vision has some definite structural issues (the antagonist doesn’t materialize until the third act, and even worse, it’s exactly the sort of Ayn Rand-ian social critic villain we’ve come to expect from Bird), but it’s also scruffy and weird in a Joe Dante/Robert Zemeckis fashion, with two complex young female characters at its core.

The Barnesyard’s Now Playing Power Rankings (Nov. 20-26, 2015)

index* = SF Bay Area only


*1) Jafar Panahi’s Taxi
2) Inside Out
3) Sicario
4) Room
5) Labyrinth of Lies
6) Jurassic World
7) Brooklyn


*8) Tab Hunter Confidential
9) Steve Jobs
*10) 99 Homes
*11) Heart of a Dog


*12) He Named Me Malala
13) Crimson Peak
14) The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2
*15) Theeb


16) Ant-Man
17) The Martian
*18) Truth
*19) Grandma
20) The 33
*21) Trumbo


index*The Black Panthers: Vanguard…
Bridge of Spies
*By the Sea
*East Side Sushi
Hotel Transylvania 2
The Intern
The Last Witch Hunter
Love the Coopers
Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials
*Meet the Patels
Miss You Already
My All American
The Night Before
The Peanuts Movie
*Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict
Secret in Their Eyes
*Very Semi-Serious
*What Our Fathers Did

These rankings are updated every Thursday, and they reflect the opinion of Daniel Barnes only. All films playing in Sacramento area theaters are listed, as well as most films playing exclusively in the S.F. Bay Area. Underlined films are on my 2015 catchup list.

Daniel Barnes @ the SN&R, 11/19 issue

index*I interviewed Sacramento-born actress Brie Larson about her new film Room, her approach to playing troubled characters, and her Criterion Collection cinephilia.

*Director Lenny Abrahamson brought a hazy commingling of whimsy and psychosis to last year’s Frank that never worked for me, yet that same approach proves essential to the success of Abrahamson’s Room.

*Based on the 2010 story of trapped Chilean miners, The 33 is the rare film that combines the narrative thrust and suspense of an Anderson Cooper 360 episode with the shameless schmaltz and racially dicey casting choices of a Hollywood biopic.

*Labyrinth of Lies exudes a childlike confidence akin to a Rousseau painting, and whatever it lacks in nuance and good taste it makes up for in its mix of heart-on-sleeve moralism, pulp drama and classic film form.