film critic

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.”

2016 End-of-Year Cramfest Capsules, Part III

rsz_the-handmaiden-cannesA final awards season observation before we flush this turd of a year down the toilet:  Critics groups and other end-of-year awards-giving organizations don’t honor the best so much as they honor the most.  In other words, the award for best acting is really an award for the most acting (thus the sliding scale of difficulty that tends to reward physical transformations, physical hardships, accents, portrayals of diseases and public figures, etc.), the award for best writing awards the most writing, best picture the most picture, best editing the most editing, and so on.  Of course, there are also working critics who would argue that the best editing is the kind that you don’t even notice, to which I can only reply: What in the serious f?  Are you literally sleeping through these movies, you inveterate hacks?  Notice editing, goddammit!  Do it!  NOW!

And now on to the final chapter of my 2016 Cramfest. Check out Part I HERE and Part II HERE.

Saturday, November 26

The Handmaiden ***REWATCH*** (Dir.: Park Chan-Wook; GRADE: A-)

rsz_960No real change from my rapturous review of a couple months ago, although it was fun seeing how the plot pieces all clicked into place this time.  As I said back in October, the aesthetics here are flawless, but the important thing is that they all pour back into the story, characters and themes.  Nothing is wasted or gratuitous, not even the octopus.

American Honey ***REWATCH*** (Dir.: Andrea Arnold; GRADE: A-)

Another rewatch as my stack of screeners started thinning out, and once again no real change from my original review, just another affirmation that this film was designed to be compatible with my operating system.  Equal parts cultural anthropology, never-ending party, social critique and waking daydream.  The ensemble cast of the year.

Sunday, November 27

Toni Erdmann (Dir.: Maren Ade; GRADE: B+)

rsz_dontbreathetrio0Do not open until 2017.

Loving (Dir.: Jeff Nichols; GRADE: C)

Reviewed in the 12/1 issue of the SN&R.

Monday, November 28

Holy Hell (Dir.: Will Allen; GRADE: C+)

A documentary about a magnetically slimy cult leader made  by the person with perhaps the least critical distance – one of his most devoted followers. Fairly fascinating in a purely voyeuristic sense, but the utter lack of rational perspective is infuriating.

Wednesday, November 30

The BFG (Dir.: Steven Spielberg; GRADE: B)

A solid and unfairly dismissed children’s fantasy from Spielberg – it’s a messy and weird stargazer where most movies of its kind are blunt and safe, although even I could have done without the extended dinner sequence in the final stretch (we get it, we get it…the giant is comically large).rsz_1maxresdefault

Don’t Breathe (Dir.: Fede Alvarez; GRADE: B)

Effective and atmospheric horror, as a gang of callow Detroit thieves invade the house of the wrong sight-challenged sadist.  Keeps pushing forward and mutating when most films would nestle into their own unambitious concepts, although considering some of the second-half twists, you certainly wouldn’t call this a progressive portrayal of the blind.  Quite the opposite, in fact!

Thursday, December 1

Paterson (Dir.: Jim Jarmusch; GRADE: B)

Do not open until Xmas.  Check out my updated Jim Jarmusch Power Rankings HERE.

Friday, December 2

rsz_methode_2ftimes_2fprod_2fweb_2fbin_2f47b59b1a-7054-11e6-acba-85f5c900fc1aArrival (Dir.: Denis Villeneuve; GRADE: C+)

More sustained, thudding portent from Villeneuve, closer to the tongue-clucking, two-and-a-half hour skull contusion of Prisoners than the comparatively focused and electric Sicario, with an ending that roots the entire film in a Bill & Ted concept of space-time.  Note to makers of movies: please stop putting Jeremy Renner in things.  He is awful.

A Monster Calls (Dir.: J.A. Bayona; GRADE: C+)

Do not open until Xmas.

Saturday, December 3

La La Land (Dir.: Damien Chazelle; GRADE: C+)

rsz_3063128-poster-p-1-emma-stone-melts-our-heartsI get the feeling that Chazelle’s entire concept of classic cinema was gleaned from watching Chuck Workman montages, rather than the actual films.  This would-be throwback offers all the exuberance and bright colors of an Old Navy ad, without any of the substance.  Impossible to despise, and the leads have chemistry, but La La Land offers such a shallow, juvenile perspective on film musicals, on classic Hollywood, on Los Angeles, on artistic integrity, on dreams, on jazz, on love. I could go on, but why?  You’re either gonna eagerly mainline this human-emoji daftness into your bloodstream or you aren’t.

Hacksaw Ridge (Dir.: Mel Gibson; GRADE: C)

Fuck Mel Gibson.  That is all.

Sunday, December 4

Man Down (Dir.: Dito Montiel; GRADE: C+)

rsz_alwaysshine_web_2Reviewed in the 12/8 issue of the SN&R.

Monday, December 5

Hidden Figures (Dir.: Theodore Melfi; GRADE: B-)

Do not open until 2017.

Tuesday, December 6

Evolution (Dir.: Lucile Hadzihalilovic; GRADE: B-)

Reviewed for E Street Film Society on December 9.

Always Shine (Dir.: Sophia Takal; GRADE: B)

An uneven but extremely promising weird-out from Takal, a prolific indie actress directing only her second feature.  She also offers meaty roles to her lead actresses, although I was less enamored with Mackenzie Davis’ showy transformation than other critics.rsz_baden-baden

Baden Baden (Dir.: Rachel Lang; GRADE: B-)

An airless, nearly Sundance-ready story of a post-collegiate slacker (Salomé Richard) falling back into bad habits and bad relationships while doing piss-poor repair work on her grandmother’s bathroom.  Lang’s debut feature is the final chapter in a trilogy that started with two short films I haven’t seen, so it’s possible I’m missing some key context.  Either way, this is extremely minor, but Lang still shows an intriguing eye and ear.

Saturday, December 10

Fences (Dir.: Denzel Washington; GRADE: B)

Reviewed in the 12/22 issue of the SN&R.

rsz_389c0ddc00000578-3798362-image-a-2_1474378570794Moana (Dir.: Ron Clements, Don Hall, John Musker and Chris Williams; GRADE: B)

Utterly delightful, if you don’t mind the usual limp Disney spirituality and shameless cultural appropriations (not to mention Lin-Manuel Miranda’s shockingly insipid lyrics and melodies).  Funny and thrilling, not to mention self-aware in the mold of Hercules and The Emperor’s New Groove, and so much more satisfying than Disney’s more celebrated 2016 release Zootopia.

And that’s a wrap for the 2016 movie year!  As of December 21, I watched 354 movies in the calendar year of 2016, and 205 of them were list/ballot-eligible releases.  That’s a lot, but there were still many well-reviewed and/or intriguing films that I failed to watch before deadline, including:

Silence; (GRADE: A-) Allied; Miss Sloane; The Founder; Gold; Patriots Day; (GRADE: B) Rules Don’t Apply; (GRADE: B) Passengers; (GRADE: B-) The Light Between Oceans; (GRADE: C-) Newtown; Voyage of Time; The Age of Shadows; The Alchemist Cookbook; Closet Monster; Creepy; The Eyes of My Mother; The Innocents; Happy Hour; London Road; One More Time with Feeling; Operation Avalanche; (GRADE: C) Under the Shadow; and many more.

Still, I did as thorough a job as possible catching up with 2016 releases, and even though I felt like it was a down year at the movies overall, I’m happy with my top 10 list.  And yet it’s still quite 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 2017!

The Year in Barnesyard – 2016 Mid-Year Review

rsz_the-witch-movie-reviewTOP 10 FILMS OF 2016 SO FAR

1) Three

MY TAKE: “A genre-hopping blast, the anonymously named Three works as part solemn morality play and part gonzo white-knuckle thriller, part huge-hearted ensemble dramedy and part pitiless three-hander, with an almost unbearable escalation of tension that explodes into one of the most insane action sequences you’ll ever see.”

2) The Witch

MY TAKE: “Undeniably disturbing and strangely elegant, The Witch creates its horror with such care that the film may be over before you realize it’s a tour-de-force genre classic.”

3) 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

MY TAKE: “I always suspected that the Transformers movies might be kind of great if you just removed Shia LeBeouf and all of the sass-backing robots. Suspicions confirmed.”

4) Love & Friendship

rsz_11maxresdefaultMY TAKE: “There is an almost perfect overlap between the sensibilities of Stillman and Austen, to the point that all of Stillman’s previous New York-based films now feel like reverse-engineered Austen adaptations.”

5) April and the Extraordinary World

MY TAKE: “Pure enjoyment, but then I’ve always been in the bag for humanist sci-fi, lizards wearing robot armor, unusual and meticulous production design, and adventure stories where one of the heroes is a brainy woman and the other is a talking cat.”

6) High-Rise

MY TAKE: “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.”

7) Rams

MY TAKE: “Hákonarson’s last film was a documentary about an Icelandic country priest, and he brings the observational eye of a documentarian to Rams while exuding the quiet confidence of a natural storyteller.”

rsz_love-friendship-600x3738) My Golden Days

MY TAKE: “The details of the story aren’t particularly compelling, but Desplechin’s telling casts a spell that’s curiously thrilling, as the film seems to be constantly reinventing itself as it goes, mutating and evolving like an unpleasant memory.”

9) The Lobster

10) The Measure of a Man

MY TAKE: “Impotent resistance versus soul-sucking compliance in the bloody coliseum of capitalism; human dignity loses either way. ”

10 MORE GOOD ONES

Aferim!

Dheepan

Embrace of the Serpentrsz_johnnie-to-three-2016-zhao-wei-louis-koo

Fireworks Wednesday

The Jungle Book

Mountains May Depart

Neon Bull

Swiss Army Man

10 Cloverfield Lane

Tickled

TOP 10 2016 RELEASES THAT I STILL NEED TO SEE

rsz_960Cemetery of Splendor (GRADE: B+)

De Palma (GRADE: B)

Everybody Wants Some!! (GRADE: B)

Finding Dory

Knight of Cups (GRADE: B-)

Krisha (GRADE: A-)

O.J.: Made in America (GRADE: A-)

Only Yesterday (GRADE: A)

Right Now, Wrong Then

Weiner (GRADE: B+)

rsz_hiddleston-xlarge_trans--3hvejul2wvjxejb3jwusshndml-fnbpvlkwcwvkdhwuAWARD-WORTHY PERFORMANCES

Teodor Corban, Aferim!

Ralph Fiennes and Tilda Swinton, A Bigger Splash

Sacha Baron Cohen, The Brothers Grimsby

Antonythasan Jesuthasan, Dheepan

Lea Seydoux, Diary of a Chambermaid

Antonio Bolívar, Embrace of the Serpent

Hedye Tehrani and Hami Farokhnezhad, Fireworks Wednesday

Geoffrey Rush, Gods of Egypt

Channing Tatum and Alden Ehrenreich, Hail, Caesar!

Sally Field, Hello, My Name is Doris

rsz_rams-cannes-film-festival-2Tom Hiddleston and Luke Evans, High-Rise

Tom Hanks, A Hologram for the King

Noah Emmerich, Jane Got a Gun

Ross Partridge and Oona Laurence, Lamb

Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, Lea Seydoux, Ben Whishaw, Angeliki Papoulia and John C. Reilly, The Lobster

Kate Beckinsale and Tom Bennett, Love & Friendship

Greta Gerwig, Maggie’s Plan

Kalki Koechlin, Margarita, with a Straw

Catherine Frot, Marguerite

rsz_the-lobsterVincent Lindon, The Measure of a Man

Susan Sarandon and J.K. Simmons, The Meddler

Michael Shannon and Kirsten Dunst, Midnight Special

Zhao Tao and Sylvia Chang, Mountains May Depart

Juliano Cazarré, Neon Bull

Keanu Reeves, The Neon Demon

Sigurður Sigurjónsson, Rams

Christopher Plummer, Remember

Agyness Deyn and Peter Mullan, Sunset Song

Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe, Swiss Army Man

Salma Hayek, Tale of Tales

John Goodman and Mary Elizabeth Winstead, 10 Cloverfield Lanersz_my-golden-years-cannes-film-festival-4

James Badge Dale and John Krasinski, 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

Wallace Chung, Wei Zhao and Louis Koo, Three

Woody Harrelson, Triple 9

Pilou Asbaek, A War

Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie and Harvey Scrimshaw, The Witch

RELATED LETTERBOXD LISTS AND LINKS

Top 10 of 2016 Power Rankings

2016 Unranked

2016 Catchup

The Barnesyard’s 2015 Mid-Year Review

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.”

index9
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.”

The Barnesyard’s Now Playing Power Rankings (January 1-7, 2016)

index* = SF Bay Area only

OFFICIALLY BUMPED

*1) Jafar Panahi’s Taxi
*2) The Look of Silence
3) The Hateful Eight
*4) James White
*5) Approaching the Elephant (pictured)
6) Carol
*7) Bridge of Spies
*8) Mustang
*9) Janis: Little Girl Blue
*10) Room
11) The Good Dinosaur
*12) Heaven Knows What
*13) Call Me Lucky
14) Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakensindex
15) Brooklyn
*16) Hitchcock/Truffaut

MIXED-POSITIVE

17) Creed
*18) I Believe in Unicorns
*19) Steve Jobs
20) Spotlight
*21) Queen of Earth (pictured)
*22) Heart of a Dog

MIXED-NEGATIVE

*23) Macbeth
*24) Suffragette
25) Concussionindex

OFFICIALLY DUMPED

26) The Martian
27) The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2
28) The Danish Girl
29) The Big Short
30) In the Heart of the Sea
31) Joy (pictured)
*32) Trumbo
33) Youth

HAVEN’T SEEN

indexAlvin and the Chipmunks 3
*Chi-raq (pictured)
Daddy’s Home
Goosebumps
Hotel Transylvania 2
Krampustu
Love the Coopers
Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials
*Meet the Patels
The Peanuts Movie
*Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict
Point Break
Sisters
Spectre

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 catchup list.

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!