capsule reviews

2015 End-of-Year Cramfest Capsules, Part IV – The Final Chapter

indexBy Daniel Barnes

All hail, Awards Season!  Tyrant of all she surveys!  Oppressor of cinephiles!  Scourge of the pudgy and bespectacled!  Obvious Ben Whishaw fan!  Long may her tastefully bland mediocrities inexplicably occupy our otherwise intelligent thoughts!

Check out Part I HERE, Part II HERE and Part III HERE, and check out my full SFFCC ballot HERE.

SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 29

Victor Frankenstein (Dir.: Paul McGuigan; GRADE: C+)

Not really end-of-year prep, just an SN&R assignment, and reviewed in the 12/3 issue.  Still about a hundred thousand times better than Youth or Trumbo, though.

MONDAY, NOVEMBER 30

Amour Fou (Dir.: Jessica Hausner; GRADE: C+)

index2Decorative and cerebral, a stark costume drama about a 19th-century German poet obsessed with finding a partner in suicide, and the ailing married woman who becomes his surprise soulmate.  Dryly feminist, and well aware of the droll dark comedy inherent in the premise, but also stuffy and bloodless.

The Mend ***REWATCH*** (Dir.: John Magary; GRADE: A-)

No significant change from my original assessment, just confirming that I really saw that crazy thing I saw.  A razor wire treadmill of cutting dialogue (“Your voice…someone should bottle it up and throw it at terrorists.”) and anxious insight, balancing Robert Altman freedom with Coen brothers control.

TUESDAY, DECEMBER 1

The Revenant (Dir.: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu; GRADE: B-)

index3Do not open until 2016. Check out my updated Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu Power Rankings HERE.

WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 2

Suffragette (Dir.: Sarah Gavron; GRADE: C+)

All the elements are present and accounted for, but the visuals are murky and the storytelling is drab.  Meryl makes the poster and the FYC pool despite the fact that she’s basically making a Cannonball Run-like cameo here.  Carey Mulligan is getting the FYC push for this film over her much better performance in the much better Far from the Madding Crowd, which I would like to introduce as Exhibit MLXXVIII of the mass hypnosis of Awards Season.

Joy (Dir.: David O. Russell; GRADE: C-)

Do not open until Xmas. Check out my updated David O. Russell Power Rankings HERE.

Reviewed in the 12/24 issue of the SN&R.

THURSDAY, DECEMBER 3

images4Macbeth (Dir.: Justin Kurzel; GRADE: C+)

Reviewed in the 12/10 issue of the SN&R.

The Danish Girl (Dir.: Tom Hooper; GRADE: C)

Do not open until Xmas in Sacramento; now playing in San Francisco.  Dishwater drama, so flowery and inert that I’m having trouble staying awake through the end of this sentenzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

FRIDAY, DECEMBER 4

By the Sea (Dir.: Angelina Jolie Pitt; GRADE: D)

Holy shit.  Every bit the disaster you would fear and expect from a Pitt/Jolie Pitt vanity project.  Intermittently fascinating in its clumsy and facile attempts at naked honesty, but so vacuous and boring that it’s un-recommendable, even as a train wreck curiosity.

Carol (Dir.: Todd Haynes; GRADE: B+)

Reviewed in the 12/24 issue of the SN&R. Check out my updated Todd Haynes Power Rankings HERE.

Concussion (Dir.: ; GRADE: C+)images5

Reviewed in the 12/24 issue of the SN&R.

SATURDAY, DECEMBER 5

The Hateful Eight (Dir.: Quentin Tarantino; GRADE: A-)

Reviewed in the 12/24 issue of the SN&R. Check out my updated Quentin Tarantino Power Rankings HERE.

The Big Short (Dir.: Adam McKay; GRADE: C)

Reviewed in the 12/24 issue of the SN&R. Check out my updated Adam McKay Power Rankings HERE.

SUNDAY, DECEMBER 6

Bone Tomahawk (Dir.: S. Craig Zahler; GRADE: C+)

2015’s second best western featuring Kurt Russell in a bushy mustache.  The sort of stocky, mixed-bag genre picture that Hollywood used to chug out with regularity, now so nearly extinct that it gets inevitably exalted by overeager cinephiles.  Refreshing in its willingness to stretch its narrative legs, but also strangely ambivalent and cruel, and too willing to ignore the ugliness of its own premise.index6

Hard to Be a God (Dir.: Aleksey German; GRADE: B)

Insane.  Gorgeous ugliness from the deceased Russian director, a three-hour, quasi-sci-fi/quasi-historical anti-epic of snot-rocketing coprophilia.  Salo-like in its gross beauty, as well as in its endurance test single-mindedness, but never less than fascinating, with some truly remarkable camerawork and performances of cult-like conviction.

Breathe (Dir.: Melanie Laurent; GRADE: A-)

The revelation of my 2015 awards season, a devastating look at anguish and manipulation in a teenage friendship, bringing all the hellish truth of Welcome to the Dollhouse without any of the quirky sadism.  A major debut film from Laurent, light years away from the inspirational drippiness suggested by the poster, callous and empathetic all at once.

MONDAY, DECEMBER 7

Anomalisa (Dir.: Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson; GRADE: A-)

indexxxDo not open until 2016.

TUESDAY, DECEMBER 8

Spotlight (Dir.: Tom McCarthy; GRADE: B-)

Like Bone Tomahawk, another presentable genre film getting ridiculously overpraised for its mere competence.  Unassailable and inoffensive and indistinct on every front, which in the tunnel-vision mentality of awards season somehow equates with a laudable dignity. Check out my updated Tom McCarthy Power Rankings HERE.

Tokyo Tribe (Dir.: Sion Sono; GRADE: B+)

As I wrote on Letterboxd, this is the best all-rapping, cannibalistic karate gang musical of 2015, and it’s not that close (sorry, Effie Gray).  Sono follows up the gleeful schizophrenia of Why Don’t You Play in Hell with this non-stop assault of neon braggadocio, a throbbing, two-hour Whip-It high of stupid boasts, sadistic comic book violence and bravura camera moves.

Blind (Dir.: Eskil Vogt; GRADE: B-)

images9A wispy and mopey high-concept morality play from Norway, sort of a Sundance-style hand-wringer without the Jason Reitman callowness, focused on a newly blind woman and her suspicions about her husband. Some fun narrative head fakes and swerves, but a gimmick movie at heart, and a fairly passionless one at that.

Mississippi Grind (Dir.: Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck; GRADE: C+)

Feckless but atmospheric gambling picture about a shaggy loser (Ben Mendelsohn, always good) who latches on to a slick wanderer (Ryan Reynolds, better than usual) headed towards a high-stakes poker game in New Orleans. There’s some interesting local color along the road from Kansas to Louisiana, but there’s no engine to the story or the characters, just an empty and useless chassis.

And that’s a wrap for the 2015 movie year!  As of December 9, I had watched 378 movies in the calendar year of 2015, and 242 of them were list/ballot-eligible NYC/LA theatrical releases.  That’s a huge increase over last year, an average of nearly 5 “2015 releases” per week, but there were still a lot of well-reviewed and/or intriguing films that I failed to watch before my deadline, including:index111

Chi-Raq (C+); Star Wars: The Force Awakens (B); L’il Quinqin; Of Men and War; the Arabian Nights trilogy; Gangs of Wasseypur; Western; Dreamcatcher; Democrats; Horse Money; Spectre (B-); Office (B); Prophet’s Prey; Gueros; Victoria; Charlie’s Country; Time Out of Mind; Eastern Boys; 1971; 52 Tuesdays; Wild Canaries; The Connection; The Taking of Tiger Mountain; In the Heart of the Sea (C); (T)error; Digging for Fire; Queen and Country; and many more.

And that’s not even a complete list.  While I feel that I did a thorough job catching up with 2015 releases and I’m happy with my top 10 list, it’s possible that an even better top 10 could have been pulled just from that above list of unseen titles.  It’s really quite humbling, and an important reminder that no matter how much we think we know, there is always so much left to learn.  Onward to 2016!

2015 End-of-Year Cramfest Capsules, Part III

indexBy Daniel Barnes

More coffee-fueled palaver about meaningless awards and reductive categorizations?  No problemo! Click HERE for Part I and HERE for Part II of the Cramfest, and strap yourself in for a jam-packed Part III.

WEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 25

Love & Mercy ***REWATCH*** (Dir.: Bill Pohlad; GRADE: B+)

The only real change from my original assessment of this Brian Wilson biopic is that I severely underrated Paul Giamatti’s performance, probably because he’s playing the same sort of splenetic sociopath we’ve seen him do dozens of times. After this film and Straight Outta Compton, though, can any young, aspiring musician ever trust Paul Giamatti again?  If I could nominate ten actors per category, Giamatti, Paul Dano, John Cusack and Elizabeth Banks would all make the cut; but limited to five, they’ll probably all get left off my ballots.

Janis: Little Girl Blue (Dir.: Amy Berg; GRADE: B)

Pretty square in its construct, but light-footed in the execution, and very sincere in its attempt to clear away the bullshit legends and find the real Janis.  Through a careful selection of interview subjects and a goldmine of Joplin photographs, clips and personal effects, the film shows us not just Janis the heedless white-soul belter, but Janis the daughter, sister, girlfriend and friend, the thoughtful and introspective woman who was mercilessly bullied as a child, saved by rock and roll as a teenager, and killed by heroin at the age of 27.  A solid emotional and musical experience.index2

The Duke of Burgundy ***REWATCH*** (Dir.: Peter Strickland; GRADE: A-)

No real changes from my original assessment, although a second viewing may have nudged supporting player Chiara D’Anna into my top 5.  One of the top 10 films of 2015.

THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 26

Jurassic World ***REWATCH*** (Dir.: Colin Trevorrow; GRADE: B+)

My original assessment of Colin Trevorrow’s franchise-reviver was un-enthusiastically favorable, but I had even more ridiculous, regressive fun with a belly full of Thanksgiving turkey and barrel-aged beer.  I’ve been complaining for years that not enough movies feature a Tyrannosaurus Rex as the hero, and the film’s insane ending sequences set the table for the Jurassic movies to move in a Planet of the Apes-like direction.

The Second Mother (Dir.: Anna Muylaert; GRADE: B+)

Mike Dub covered the film well in his ESFS review, although I enjoyed it slightly more than him. The film plays like a decaffeinated Almodovar, wisely insidious and restrained where Almodovar is often wild and impetuous. Regina Case gives a stunning and utterly convincing performance as a domestic servant who has spent her life raising another couple’s child instead of her own, although she’ll probably fail to make my ballots in a crowded year for Best Actress candidates.

index.3jpgFRIDAY, NOVEMBER 27

Far from Men (Dir.: David Oelhoffen; GRADE: B-)

After Jauja, the second best 2015 movie in which Viggo Mortensen wanders a barren landscape speaking a foreign tongue. A bone-dry “adventure” with revisionist western overtones, as an Algerian-born white man (Mortensen) is tasked with delivering a prisoner to a faraway fort, all while dodging increasingly violent rebels and an unforgiving environment.  Decent but fairly unmemorable.

The Wonders (Dir.: Alba Rohrwacher; GRADE: B)

The moody, low-fi flipside to the brash rebel yell of Mustang, another story of womanhood flowering in patriarchal soil.  While the adolescent daughter of a fiercely independent beekeeper slob dreams of a world beyond the dilapidated family farm, the discomforting realities of her life conspire to frustrate her petty ambitions.  Quietly engrossing in the early scenes, with a third-act narrative wrench that I never saw coming.

The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution (Dir.: Stanley Nelson; GRADE: B-)

A solidly constructed but determinedly unspectacular history lesson about the Black Panthers, told with great enthusiasm by the surviving members (and in a few cases, by the cops, politicians and spooks who violently opposed them).  Inspiring and timely, but also stuffy and vain in the by-now familiar Boomer doc style, to the point that it might as well be called The Black Panthers: We Were the Coolest People to Ever Save the World, Just Don’t Get Me Started on These Kids Today.index4

Bridge of Spies (Dir.: Steven Spielberg; GRADE: B+)

Impeccable craft and vision from top to bottom, and consistently riveting even when Spielberg predictably indulges in his Franklin Mint-worthy views on American history.  Sturdy work by lead actor Tom Hanks, brilliant work by supporting actor Mark Rylance, and unlike in last year’s awful Unbroken, you can actually hear the voices of co-screenwriters Joel and Ethan Coen in the finished product.  Check out my updated Steven Spielberg Power Rankings HERE.

SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 28

Legend (Dir.: Brian Helgeland; GRADE: B-)

Tom Hardy might be the only actor alive who could make a movie this slapdash and predictable into required viewing.  He plays twin brothers Reginald and Ronald Kray, ruthless gangsters who ruled London during the swinging sixties, and delivers two distinct but rhyming performances.  Just try to imagine a Colin Firth or Eddie Redmayne type (or perhaps even worse, a Jason Statham or Vinnie Jones type) in the role and you’ll understand how essential Hardy is here.  The rest of the film is problematic as fuck.

In Jackson Heights (Dir.: Frederick Wiseman; GRADE: A-)

index7In an era dominated by documentaries that begin with a conclusion and then structure the rest of the film around reaching it, the let-the-camera-roll patience and empathetic discovery of Frederick Wiseman feels more and more like a luxurious throwback.  A great chronicler of institutions, Wiseman plants us in the Queens neighborhood of Jackson Heights, a community that proudly boasts of its unprecedented diversity, and fights hard to maintain its local character.  Over the course of three quietly riveting hours, Wiseman shows us the best that democracy has to offer, and the best that documentaries have to offer as well.

Eden (Dir.: Mia Hansen-Love; GRADE: B-)

A low-pulse, strangely disaffected alternate history of the French EDM movement, following the lives and loves a handsomely expressionless suburban DJ who comes of age right across from Daft Punk.  It’s a pretty classic rise/fall music industry parable, but it’s all trappings and no drama, curiously watchable as window dressing and yet never more than superficially involving.

Listen to Me Marlon ***REWATCH*** (Dir.: Stevan Riley; GRADE: A-)index

A second viewing only confirmed my original assessment: mesmerizing; enlightening; disturbing; deeply personal. The best documentary of 2015.

Check out my updated rankings of every 2015 NYC theatrical release HERE, and come back later this week for the fourth and final edition of the 2015 End-of-Year Cramfest!

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.

FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 20

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.

SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 21

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

SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 22

Writing day, no movies.

MONDAY, NOVEMBER 23

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.

index8TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 24

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.