cramfest

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 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.

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.