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!

images5SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 14

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.

SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 15

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

MONDAY, NOVEMBER 16

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

TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 17

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

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

WEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 18

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

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

THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 19

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.

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