daniel barnes

THE BEST OF DANIEL BARNES 2016

imagesWhen you add up my weekly reviews in the Sacramento News & Review, my work here at E Street Film Society, and my contributions to other print and online publications, I penned nearly 200 published movie reviews in 2016.  Whatever the results, I worked hard on this stuff, so before it all gets swept into the dustbin of yesteryear, let’s take one last look back at the year in Barnesyard.  You can also revisit Best of Barnes 2014 HERE and Best of Barnes 2015 HERE.

10 BEST ESFS-ONLY REVIEWS (ordered by post date – click the title to read my full review)

*Safe in Hell/Three on a Match (posted on 2/28/16)
The mot juste: “Safe in Hell is one of the five films that William Wellman directed in 1931, along with The Public Enemy. Three on a Match is one of the six films that Mervyn LeRoy directed in 1932, along with I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. They worked on breakneck schedules for relatively small salaries. The cameras were heavy and difficult to wield; the lamps were blazing hot; the sound equipment restricted movements. Contract employees were borderline indentured servants, and could get loaned out to other studios at any time. But I’m sorry, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, I interrupted your story…you were telling us about the time that you got cold and had to put on an extra sweater?”

rsz_safe-in-hell-20120213-162318-large*Francofonia (posted on 4/28/16)
The mot juste: “A docu-narrative discombobulation of historic footage, new footage, reenactments, photographs, pixellated Skype sessions and drone shots, Francofonia is just too punishingly cerebral and preciously meta-textual to fully embrace, but there’s also too much going on in Sokurov’s head to ignore his tenuously connected ravings.”

*Office (posted on 5/4/16)
The mot juste: “The entire film is dominated by gigantic, geometrically intricate sets that feel like IKEA showrooms arranged by Jacques Tati, or a Busby Berkeley version of the stage play from Clouds of Sils Maria.  Offices, board rooms, apartments, dive bars, fancy restaurants, hotel rooms, gymnasiums and 24-hour convenience stores are all rendered as a series of vertical lines, Mondrian prisons that dwarf and mock the petty manipulations of the characters.”

*High-Rise (posted on 5/12/16)
rsz_office-01The mot juste: “High-Rise slices forward fearlessly, relentless in its narrative thrust and yet overflowing with show-stopping setpieces.  The effect is dazzling, although I should be noted that I’m a sucker for this sort of heavily stylized decadence and decay.”

*A Monster with a Thousand Heads (posted on 5/25/16)
The mot juste: “You won’t find a stronger proponent for unconventional running times than this critic – in the world where I rule you like a god, the multiplexes play 50-minute movies right along with 500-minute movies, and everyone eats a flavorless mush I call “root-marm.”  Mexican director Rodrigo Plá’s crusty anti-HMO screed A Monster with a Thousand Heads clocks in at 74 minutes, conspicuously short by today’s standards but longer than some of William Wellman and Charlie Chaplin’s best films, so fuck you, today’s standards.  Unfortunately, Plá’s iron-fisted approach to the thriller genre wrings out any possibility of tension or mystery, leaving only an over-baked and undernourished gimmick movie.”

*Chevalier (posted on 6/9/16)
rsz_high-rise2The mot juste: “Tsangari seems less interested in satire than in digressive dawdling, and while she probably achieved exactly the sterile tone that she wanted, a lot of Chevalier plays like Kubrick on horse tranquilizers, empty and benumbed.  God help me, but I was longing for a revved-up American remake starring Seth Rogen and Ed Helms by the end of this thing.”

*Three (posted on 6/30/16)
The mot juste: “With his constantly moving camera, square-jawed themes, propensity for action and seamless movement between genres, To recalls muscular old-school greats like Howard Hawks and William Wellman, but he also possesses the ability to gracefully juggle an infinite number of narrative balls, even in the center of a chaotic shootout.”

*Little Men (posted on 8/12/16)
rsz_three-2The mot juste: “With this wistful number and 2014’s autumnal Love is Strange, the films of Ira Sachs are becoming the cinematic equivalent of rustling leaves.  I’m fairly sure that I don’t mean that as a compliment, and while Little Men is a delicately constructed and achingly restrained tour-de-force of emotional repression set in a rapidly changing New York, the filmmaking is probably just too tranquil and sedate to get a rise out of me.”

*Lo and Behold… (posted on 8/18/16)
The mot juste: “It’s hard not to get a little incredulous when Herzog waxes all end-of-days about soccer-playing trash cans, or when he lingers with horror on an extremely frail robot unscrewing an empty jar (“Soon it vill be unscrewing youuuuu,” he seems to whisper).”

*The Handmaiden (posted on 10/27/16)
The mot juste: “It would be a shame to spoil any of the silky curves of the story, or reveal any of the bizarre obsessions and talismans at the heart of the tale, but sufficed to say that silver bells aren’t just for Christmas time in the city anymore.  I haven’t been so mystified and tantalized by a film, so curious to understand the spell it cast over me, since Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice.”rsz_maxresdefault

10 BEST IN PRINT (ordered by publication date)

*The Revenant (published on 1/7/16)
The mot juste: “The film works as a visceral experience, yet on the whole The Revenant is a frustrating mess. There is a change jar of messages regarding the pitiless beauty of nature and the savagery of man, but Iñárritu only knows how to lay it on thick, so it amounts to a lot of puffed-up finger-wagging. More than anything, Iñárritu excels at hectoring and exhausting his audience, and The Revenant is no exception—he’s good at grinding you to a nub, and not much else.”

*Anomalisa (published on 1/21/16)
The mot juste: “From its gorgeous opening shot of a commercial airplane gliding through a birth-canal sky, the camera pulling back to reveal the inside of a different plane, the film captures the fluidity between the real and the surreal, and between insides and outsides.”

rsz_thumbnail_23485*I Saw the Light (published on 3/31/16)
The mot juste: “And here we go again, unfolding and assembling the timeworn critical arguments against bad biopics as though they formed some sort of ghastly memorial quilt. At this point, is there anything more tiresome than critics bemoaning the hoary conventions of musical biopics? Believe me, I return to this dry well without any enthusiasm, but as long as studios insist on recycling this inane movie mold like editions in some Godforsaken Franklin Mint collection, I will continue to meet their perfunctory with perfunctory.”

*A Hologram for the King (published on 4/28/16)
The mot juste: “Cracks in his facade begin to show almost immediately, but the entire film is obviously traveling on a monorail toward messages about embracing the real and letting go of your shit, so just relax.”

*The Man Who Knew Infinity (published on 5/12/16)
rsz_rev-247-embedThe mot juste: “Instead of focusing entirely on Ramanujan and his life and work, the narrative is inexplicably framed as a flashback-memoir of Jeremy Irons’ twinkly-eyed professor G.H. Hardy, effectively turning Ramanujan’s story into one of those simpering, pseudo-inspirational, I-tried-to-tame-the-savage-beast-but-really-I-was-the-beast-and-he-tamed-me-whaaaaa cinematic aspirin tablets. Brown clearly identifies with Hardy the rogue imperialist rather than with the meager and rigorous Ramanujan, which is a problem.”

*Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (published on 6/9/16)
The mot juste: “At this point, it’s hard to imagine a subject less deserving of affectionate satire than the egos and excesses of the entertainment industry. It takes a knife as serrated and vulgar as David Cronenberg’s underrated Maps to the Stars to slice through that bubble of absurd privilege. Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone’s likeable but limp music mockumentary, on the other hand, still has its comedic baby teeth, nibbling on subjects it should be ripping to shreds.”

rsz_1maxresdefault*Maggie’s Plan (published on 6/16/16)
The mot juste: “There are no real laughs in Maggie’s Plan, only chuckles of recognition at the rough cadence of comedy, acknowledgments of the empty spaces where we expect humor to reside. The twinkly acoustic guitar score from Michael Rohatyn feels programmed to accompany an open-air luxury mall stroll, just right for a film without any unexpected notes.”

*Snowden (published on 9/22/16)
The mot juste: “Stone, who co-wrote the film along with The Homesman screenwriter Kieran Fitzgerald, has had a lot of success in his career twisting and perverting the biopic form for his firebrand objectives. But if you had any hope that the hot-button recentness of the subject matter would rouse Stone out of a two-decade stupor, forget it—Snowden is one of Stone’s most numbingly prosaic films.”

*Jack Reacher: Never Go Back (published on 10/27/16)
rsz_jake-nocturnal-animalsThe mot juste: “On the one hand, Cruise deserves a lot of credit for staying in his lane and allowing these powerful women to take over his films, letting them flash the charisma and panache while he commits to steely-eyed terseness. But on the other hand, it only makes you wonder why these actresses aren’t headlining their own big-budget genre pictures instead of Cruise. I’m a lot more excited to see what Smulders does next than I am to see Cruise do the same thing again and again.”

*Nocturnal Animals (published on 11/24/16)
The mot juste: “Seven years later, Ford delivers his follow-up film, and it finally feels like he means business. The storytelling is both more refined and more brutishly personal, and the film strikes a balance between inscrutability and accessibility, between David Lynch-ian art horror and Deliverance or Death Wish-like exploitation. A Single Man was the work of a talented tourist; this is the work of a true filmmaker.”

THE BEST OF DANIEL BARNES 2015

imagesWhen you add up my weekly reviews in the Sacramento News & Review, my work here at E Street Film Society, and my contributions to other print and online publications, I penned over 250 published movie reviews in 2015.  At an average of 300 words a pop, that’s about 75,000 words, or roughly the length of Catcher in the Rye (but where’s my National Book Award?).  Whatever the results, I worked hard on this stuff, so before it all gets dumped into the dustbin of yesteryear, let’s take one last look back at the year in Barnesyard.

10 BEST ESFS-ONLY REVIEWS (ordered by post date – click the title to read my full review)

The Duke of Burgundy (posted on 1/23)
The mot juste: “It’s tempting to label the all-female Burgundy as Strickland’s sex-movie-without-sex  B-side to his violent-movie-without-violence Berberian, especially since both films seem to encode their protagonists’ third-act psychological breakdowns into the DNA of their images.  But Strickland penetrates much deeper into the psyches of his characters here, finding the erotic in the banal, the banal in the erotic, and infinity and insanity between a lover’s knees.”index2

Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (posted on 2/3)
The mot juste: “It’s fascinating to see a young Scorsese as a sort of James Mangold-ian director-for-hire, and you can feel him struggling against the limitations of studio filmmaking like a trapped bird, just as Alice frantically and helplessly flaps her arms against the sliding glass door of her suburban prison.  Scorsese takes an intensely personal approach to his films – if he can’t find himself in the material, he can’t envision the movie – and I love that this project forced him to forge an intense personal identification with a complex female character.”

Danny Collins (posted on 3/27)
index11The mot juste: “A teeming mass of quirks, tics, and inexplicable behavior, Danny’s family could have been assembled by a Sundance Film Festival selection committee.  There is the dewy-eyed but inwardly tough pregnant mother, the resentful but sensitive father hiding a Big Secret, and an adorably sass-mouthed moppet named Hope.  They come straight out of Juno’s Buyers Club of Little Miss Station Agents, and the contrivances stack up whenever they’re around.”

Albert Maysles films about Christo/Jeanne-Claude (posted on 5/8)
The mot juste: “Valley Curtain is a perfectly lean concept film, contrasting the safety and tranquility of the studio where Christo meticulously prepares his models and sketches against the unpredictability of the outside world where the final product is constructed. Working in windy conditions, a simple snag in the curtain endangers the lives of the wire workers, but the end result is a remarkable feat of engineering and blue-collar labor in the service of pure whimsy and wonder.”

images3
Paris, Texas (posted on 5/18)
The mot juste: “Wenders doesn’t have a particularly ostentatious style, but there is something dreamy and unreal about the way he lingers over the cinderblock hotel rooms, the stripped orange plastic of truck stop restaurant booths, the neon clutter of roadside signage, and the incessant hum of the freeway. He finds desolation not just in the desert, but in the new-growth trees of the L.A. suburbs, and in the cold, grey metropolis of Houston.”

Live from New York! (posted on 6/12)
The mot juste: “Superficial and self-serving insights abound (“The 70s was great! People used to go to New York to make it!”), anti-establishment hepcats like Bill O’Reilly and Brian Williams and Al Gore attest to the show’s enduring satirical relevance, and every hard-hitting question about the institutionalized racism and sexism at SNL comes with its own readymade apologia and perfectly cherry-picked clip.  Also: 9/11, 9/11, the Twin Towers, 9/11, Rudy Giuliani, 9/11, and 9/11, and did we mention 9/11?”images5

Rosetta (posted on 6/26)
The mot juste: “Rosetta is a study in contrasts – she has the angelic face of a young girl but the broken posture and heavy gait of an old washerwoman; she’s fiercely independent, but in a way that seems more resentful than proud; she wants the unemployment benefits for which she’s ineligible but refuses to collect her rightful welfare; basically, she’s internalized the cruelty and caprice of capitalism.”

Testament of Youth (posted on 7/9)
The mot juste: “It’s an embalmed and humorless slog, an interior design spread masquerading as biography, nothing but a decorative pose of noble suffering. I’m tempted to compare the act of watching Testament of Youth to trudging through a wax museum of war movie clichés, but that makes it seem as though the film might be mildly entertaining. It’s more akin to becoming a wax figure for 129 of the most interminable minutes of your moviegoing life. My experience watching Testament of Youth was exactly how it must have felt like for Han Solo inside of the carbon freeze – a cold, numb, endless waking coma.”index6

The Mend (posted on 9/18)
The mot juste: “Where in the wide world of fucks did this crazy thing come from? First-time writer-director John Magary makes an exhilarating debut with The Mend, an NYC-based comedy of ill manners that exudes a weird, nervous energy from the opening seconds and never relents. I couldn’t shake this film – it persisted in my mind like an stubborn houseguest. It recalls the Coen brothers in its singularity of voice and tone, offering not a new cinematic language but rather a new dialect, simultaneously tense and liberated, gleaming the edge between fussy and shambling, and by the end you feel as though the film has chewed its nails down to the nub.”

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (posted on 9/24)index6
The mot juste: “A series of mordant, magnificently composed blackout sketches shot entirely in a studio, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch feels like Schizopolis directed by Jacques Tati, or a less manic and navel gaze-y Holy Motors, or Stanley Kubrick’s lost Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker comedy, or Monty Python punching up a Peter Greenaway script, or Wes Anderson and Ingmar Bergman flushing their meds for three months and collaborating on an art installation. I’m trying to say that it’s great.”

10 BEST PRINT REVIEWS (ordered by publication date – click the title to read my full review)

American Sniper (published in Sacramento News & Review on 1/15)
indexThe mot juste: “American Sniper possesses the sweep and scope of Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter, but very little of that movie’s romantic grandeur. Eastwood is after something smaller and more personal—while Cimino turned the Vietnam War experience into myth, Eastwood undermines the legend of a contemporary American warrior even as he is creating it.”

Focus (published in Sacramento News & Review on 2/26)
The mot juste: “In the moment, it’s an entertaining enough hustle, but scratch the paint and a lot of formulaic chintz starts to show. All of the cinematic “glamour”—the lounge-pop soundtrack and the subdued sky bar lighting and the Out of Sight jump cuts—look as phony as a three-dollar bill, just osmosis of style from dozens of better films. The whole thing unravels the second you step away.”images7

Wild Tales (published in San Antonio Current on 3/25)
The mot juste: “Wild Tales is the revenge film to end all revenge films, a glorious and bonkers blast of visual creativity and storytelling energy, and one of the most purely entertaining films of the year. If the naughty-boy, early-1990s ouevres of Pedro Almodovar and Quentin Tarantino were somehow able to copulate, then Wild Tales would be their sick and beautiful sextuplet offspring.”

Far from the Madding Crowd (published in Sacramento News & Review on 5/14)
The mot juste: “If there’s a quibble with the film, it’s that you can occasionally feel it catch its breath, the sprawling narrative cinched too tight to accommodate an exactly 120-minute running time. It’s a testament to Vinterberg and editor Claire Simpson (Platoon) that the film moves with such relentlessness and precision, without a wasted frame or gratuitous flourish.”images8

Saint Laurent (published in San Antonio Current on 5/28)
The mot juste: “An exposed and soul-sapped Saint Laurent retreats into the narcotic comfort of prescription medication and the lifeless company of ennui-drenched, hard-partying sycophants. While the world outside goes through the wringer of social unrest, Saint Laurent remains sealed in a disco fishbowl ribboned with neon rainbow skies, a blaring temple to “bodies without souls”.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (published in Sacramento News & Review on 6/25)
The mot juste: “This is just about the Sundance-iest Sundance movie that Sundance ever Sundanced, so aggressively quirky and needy and contrived that it makes The Spitfire Grill look like A Woman Under the Influence. Every line, gesture, story beat and camera move might as well have air quotes around it, and yet Gomez-Rejon also insists on plying us with insipid life lessons. It’s like Juno on crystal meth.”index9

Magic Mike XXL (published in Colorado Springs Independent on 7/1)
The mot juste: “While Magic Mike elevated a trashy script by giving it the American Gigolo spiritual ennui treatment, Magic Mike XXL revels in trash, eschewing complex themes and character arcs in favor of low humor and a genial, let’s-put-on-a-show vibe.  Unfortunately, McConaughey didn’t make the return journey, and Magic Mike XXL desperately misses his mystical conviction, or any conviction at all for that matter.”

The End of the Tour (published in Sacramento News & Review on 8/20)
The mot juste: “Unsurprisingly, Jason Segel is getting awards buzz for his performance, but Jesse Eisenberg is even more impressive as Lipsky, the smirking Salieri to Segel’s awkward Amadeus, all needy, nervous laughter and simmering resentment. Their crackling chemistry is essential for a film that finds all of its action in conversation.”

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Creed (published in Sacramento News & Review on 11/26)
The mot juste: “Ryan Coogler’s alternately thrilling and deflating Creed marks Sylvester Stallone’s seventh go-round as Philly palooka turned heavyweight champ and Red scourge Rocky Balboa, and it’s easy to see why Stallone can’t quit this character. Despite his checkered background and violent vocation, Rocky stands as the one essentially decent character in Stallone’s entire filmography, all alone on a shelf in a gallery of smug jerks and grim authoritarians.”

Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens (published in Sacramento News and Review on 12/24)
images11The mot juste: “There’s a cozy familiarity to The Force Awakens—Abrams doesn’t set out to make or break myths, but rather to keep the old myths in circulation. He takes the same irreverently respectful approach to Star Wars that he took to his Star Trek pictures, recycling everything people loved about the originals and adding a half-twist. Abrams isn’t what you would call an “idea machine”—he takes an existing invention and puts a clock in it, and the contents of his magic boxes are never as interesting as the design of the latches.”

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!

Daniel Barnes @ the SN&R – 12/3 and 12/10 issues

index*In this one-note adaptation of Macbeth, director Justin Kurzel and cinematographer Adam Arkapaw strive to balance heavily stylized visuals with a heavily intimate tone. Mostly, it’s just heavy. There’s a lot to like on a conceptual level, but the execution is monotonous, like Zack Snyder without the comic book zeal.

*A clever but clunky riff on the Mary Shelley classic, Victor Frankenstein possesses an ambition far beyond its range.

*After an excellent first half and an astonishing centerpiece fight sequence, Ryan Coogler’s Creed plummets into tired convention, proving just good enough to be disappointing.

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.