Monday, July 27, 2015

Movies Spotlight – The Best Films of 2015 (So Far) – July 2015

These are the films I like the most so far in 2015. But first, two side notes: 1) I am only going to focus on narrative films (saying that, I thought the documentaries Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief and Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck were really good) and 2) There are quite a few films that have come out in theaters that I have not yet seen that I imagine would likely make this list (they include: ’71, Far from the Maddening Crowd, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Dope, Testament of Youth, and Love & Mercy). I list my favorites in alphabetical order below:

I think many expected Ant-Man to be Marvel’s first complete failure in their Cinematic Universe. They were wrong. The film is highly entertaining, blending (as Marvel does so well) engaging action and funny comedy. The heroes too are well-drawn, likable and characters we want to see again (Marvel’s casting of their heroes so far has been spectacular; Paul Rudd is another inspired choice as Scott Lang). The villain, on the other hand, is essentially terrible (only existing to be an obstacle and drive our heroes to action). Marvel has a big problem developing great villains in their films (Loki is probably the only truly strong villain so far, though I did enjoy Ultron, Nebula and Ronan the Accuser as well – the latter purely due to Lee Pace’s performance). Hats off to Peyton Reed coming in with a limited schedule and making such a fun film. Trailer.

I absolutely loved Avengers: Age of Ultron; it very well might be my favorite MCU film so far. It has a few narrative issues (with all the narrative threads it has to tie together, it is a wonder it works at all really), but the stuff that does work is fantastic. Joss Whedon’s dialog and character moments shine throughout the film, and the action sequences are top-notch as well. I really enjoy all these heroes being forced into the same space, having to co-exist when the odds are against them. More so than other Marvel films, Age of Ultron has real tension and palpable stakes (it is not just an orgy of explosions). I am very interested to see how the Russo Brothers handle all the characters that will popular Captain America: Civil War, which seems even more crowded than this. Trailer.

Michael Mann’s latest thriller was blasted by critics and almost universally unseen by filmgoers. The film is not for everyone, but the critics and moviegoers got it wrong. Blackhat is excellent, both as a narrative thriller about whitehats trying to stop blackhats and their evil plans and as a piece of brilliant aesthetic filmmaking. Mann’s camera and mise en scene create a vital and textured world that feels visceral and abstract at the same time. I think it is a must-see for all fans of Mann’s work. Trailer.

It is not often that serious dramas are designed as pieces of meta-filmmaking, but that is exactly what Clouds of Sils Maria is – a multilayered drama that, as it progresses, finds its characters transcending themselves. Their conversations could be about their own interpersonal relationships, their relationships with the characters they play, their interpersonal relationships between the characters they play, and even their own real identities as celebrities, actresses. The film succeeds completely on its writing (also provided by director Olivier Assayas) and the performances of its three stars (Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart and Chloe Grace Moretz) who are all wonderful. Trailer.

As technology progresses, it almost feels inevitable that we will achieve artificial superintelligence (or the singularity). Ex Machina addresses this in a very human and resonating manner, by disguising it as a love story. Alex Garland has been writing great sci-fi films for years, but this might be his best and most interesting. The performances by the three leads (Alicia Vikander, Domnhall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac) are splendid – Vikander especially showcases her talent (for many, new to her work, a star is born). The film is smart yet accessible. Best of all, it is not afraid of realistically addressing its subject matter (the debate of whether ASI will benefit or destroy humanity). Trailer.

Pixar has the best reputation of current animation studios working in Hollywood (even if their films seem to be trending towards being more revenue-driven sequels than great original ideas lately). Inside Out reaffirms their position atop the animation world. It is funny, emotionally resonant and beautiful. It is about family, growing up and love – themes that Pete Docter beautifully excels at portraying (often finding his audience experiencing a full range of emotions). Inside Out is also my favorite film of the year so far. Trailer.

Horror films today seem to be about gore and jump-scares; their purpose is to entertain, not to creep in on an emotional level and create within their viewer a real tension and fear. It Follows is part of the wonderful indie horror revolution, fully embracing the style and aesthetics of classic horror. It is a very simple story and premise. Out of context, nothing is particularly scary; but through the great slow building suspense that David Robert Mitchell uses, the film grabs you and finds you anxious and afraid. Trailer.

What can I say about Mad Max: Fury Road? It is absolutely bananas, aesthetically thrilling and grandiose in all the best ways. George Miller not only delivers a great feminist action film (something moviegoers have been craving for a long time) he also gives us what is likely to be 2015’s most enjoyable cinematic experience – this is a film that must be seen in theaters (it is insanely massive in its ambition). I went into it with little expectation and came out completely elated. Trailer.

I love westerns. Slow West is a good western, capturing the right aesthetic and garnering appropriate performances; however, John Maclean’s film is also quite strange. Everything feels a bit off (given the genre). I wrote in my review that it goes down the rabbit hole, because it has a bizarre tone and playfulness to it, which gives it a very modern feel (even though it looks and is structured like a classic western). It is a must for the genre’s fans. Trailer.

Like Blackhat, Tomorrowland was not met with commercial or critical acclaim. Yet, also like Blackhat, I think it was deserving of both and will hopefully find its audience in time. Brad Bird’s film is above all incredibly hopeful for what humanity can accomplish if it dares to dream, imagine and reach for the impossible. We look back at the 1960s, pledging to go to the moon within the decade (a seemingly impossible task) and achieving it. Today, it feels like that ambition is gone. We look at the world and for the first time tomorrow does not look as bright as today. Tomorrowland wants to reignite our imaginations and ambitions – while also entertaining us with great action and good characters. It also features fantastic leading female characters. Trailer.

Amy Schumer is very funny. Judd Apatow makes very funny and engaging films. Together, they have made what is likely 2015’s funniest film (it is downright hysterically hilarious). And not only that, but they have also made something that feels modern (while still classically structured) in the romantic comedy genre – a genre that has become incredibly stale and boring. It is not afraid to be crude and honest, soaring on the strength of its characters, performances and especially its jokes. Trailer.

Mockumentaries are difficult to get right. What We Do in the Shadows gets everything right. It is funny, full of hilarious and cool references, and features well-developed characters. My one complaint is that there was not more (I wish it were a sitcom-style series, simply about these flatmates living their everyday lives – something along the lines of The Young Ones). Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi have made a splendid vampire film, when it would seem that cinema has been greatly oversaturated by vampire films, proving again the creativity and quality win out. Trailer.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Movies Spotlight – Upcoming 2015 Films (Fall & Winter) – July 2015

Now that summer is winding down, let’s look at all the great films scheduled to be released this fall and winter – and there are a lot. I think 2015 will be remembered for its prestige films, looking back, even though, so far, it has been a year of blockbusters like Avengers: Age of Ultron, Jurassic World and Inside Out.


Starting with September, Gavin O’Connor’s new western is finally coming to theaters (after a very troubled production, including losing directors and multiple actors). The film stars Natalie Portman and Ewan McGregor and is about a woman who asks her ex-lover to help her save her outlaw husband from a lethal gang out to kill him. I’m looking forward to the film for a few reasons: I love westerns, it will be nice to see Portman is films again, and O’Connor’s last film was the excellent sports-drama Warrior.

Director Scott Cooper is known for his character driven dramas (Crazy Heart and Out of the Furnace). His new film, Black Mass, takes on the notorious South Boston criminal Whitey Bulger (an infamously violent man who became an FBI informant to stop the mob from infiltrating his territory). Cooper has assembled a fantastic cast, including: Johnny Depp (as Whitey Bulger), Dakota Johnson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Joel Edgerton, and Corey Stoll. Here is the trailer.

The film I’m most looking forward to in September is Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario, a mystery crime-drama starring Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro and Josh Brolin. It debuted at Cannes to critical acclaim and lots of positive buzz. Sicario looks like a brilliant, exciting and raw thriller. Here is the trailer.

A potentially fun comedy in September is Nancy Meyers’s The Intern. It is about a 70-year-old widower who is bored in retirement and looks to get back to work, joining an online fashion site as an intern. The film stars Robert De Niro as the Intern and Anne Hathaway as his boss (and founder of the company). Here is the trailer.

Closing out the month is Baltasar Kormakur’s action thriller Everest. The film looks intense and Kormakur has put together a strong cast, including: Jason Clarke, Jake Gyllenhaal, KeiraKnightley, Robin Wright, and John Hawkes. While Kormakur is known for making action films (like Contraband and 2 Guns), the great cast should bring a dramatic, character-driven dynamic to this thriller. Here is the trailer.


September features some potentially very good films, October has even better films, starting with Ridley Scott’s The Martian. Scott excels at creating epic and visually astounding space-set narratives and sci-fi imagery. The Martian tells the story of astronaut Mark Watney, who is abandoned on Mars after his crew believes him killed in a massive storm that pushed them off the planet. Now, Mark has to use his intellect and practical know-how to survive, while his crew races back to save him. The film sounds a little like Interstellar, and Matt Damon again plays the man left for dead alone on an alien planet, but thematically the films are completely different. In addition to Damon, Jessica Chastain, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jeff Daniels, and Kate Mara also star. It’s among the five films I’m most looking forward to seeing. Here is the trailer.

Another film I cannot wait to see is Justin Kurzel’s William Shakespeare adaptation Macbeth, especially after playing well at Cannes. Kurzel’s film looks aesthetically phenomenal and boasts a super cast, including: Michael Fassbender (as Macbeth), Marion Cotilard (as Lady Macbeth), David Thewlis, Elizabeth Debicki, and Sean Harris. The play (and film) are about Macbeth, a duke of Scotland, who receives a prophecy that he will one day be King. Consumed by this ambition, he murders the King and takes the throne for himself. Here is the trailer.

I really like the work of British director Joe Wright. He helms a new version of the Peter Pan story, a prequel of sorts called Pan. On one hand, it looks great with astounding aesthetics and a strong cast, but on the other hand I'm a little worried that it might be too much of a kid's movie (something that has plagued many past Peter Pan films). I'm willing to give it a chance. Here is the trailer.

A film that I cannot quite pin down is Robert Zemeckis’s The Walk, which tells the story of Philippe Petit’s high-wire walk from the roof of one World Trade Center Twin Tower to the other. It is an incredible story, but it is already told wonderfully in James Marsh’s documentary Man on Wire. Zemeckis is a great filmmaker (Back to the Future, Cast Away, and recently Flight), but his film does not feel right thematically and how can he top Man on Wire? His film stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ben Kingsley, and Charlotte Le Bon. Here is the trailer.

Yet another highly anticipated film to be released in October is Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs. The film went through directors and lead actors on the road to settling on Boyle and Michael Fassbender (although, I still would have liked to have seen the DavidFincher-Christian Bale iteration). The film is written by Aaron Sorkin and also stars Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen, and Katherine Waterston. It looks like an interesting biopic of one of the great innovators of our time. Here is the trailer.

Netflix made a play to get into the filmmaking business when it acquired the rights to Beasts of No Nation, which it will debut October 16th. The film is written and directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga (who also directed the first season of True Detective) and stars Idris Elba. It’s about child soldiers fighting in an unnamed African nation’s civil war. As a big fan of Fukunaga’s work and Elba, I’m very much looking forward to this. Could Nexflix get an Oscar nomination?

Horror has always been a passion of writer-director Guillermo del Toro. His new film, Crimson Peak, looks like his version of the classic haunted house horror narrative. Aesthetically, it looks wonderfully gothic. It also features a top cast, including: Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston, Jessica Chastain, and Charlie Hunnam. Here is the trailer.

Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks have had one of the most fruitful partnerships in Hollywood, from films to producing excellent television (I’m specifically thinking of Band of Brothers). Their latest endeavor with Spielberg behind the camera and Hanks starring is the cold-war thriller Bridge of Spies. It’s about the man who negotiated an exchange of prisoners under extreme political pressures (with all-out nuclear war always looming). Here is the trailer.


Daniel Craig has enjoined his time as James Bond, starring in some of the best films of the series. Returning once again, along with director Sam Mendes, Craig next 007 adventure is called Spectre, where he will seek out the criminal organization behind the events that Bond faced in Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace. Most of Skyfall’s cast is returning (M, Q and Moneypenny) and joining the cast are Christoph Waltz, Lea Seydoux, Dave Bautista, Monica Bellucci, and Andrew Scott. It looks like another great Bond film. Here is the trailer.

Brooklyn was one of the Sundance Film Festival’s most buzzed about films, coming out of the festival as a potential Oscar favorite. The film is directed by John Crowley, written by Nick Hornby, and stars Saoirse Ronan, Emory Cohen and Domhnall Gleeson. It’s about a young Irish woman who leaves Ireland in the 1950s to come to New York, but she finds herself torn between the two places and two men, the man she has fallen for in Brooklyn and the man she loves when she returns to Ireland. Here is the trailer.

For many, November’s most anticipated film is The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2, the closing chapter of the saga. I’m particularly looking forward to the film because it will be interesting to finally see Katniss make tough decisions (presumably) and actually be involved in the action, as District 13 engages in all-out revolution against the Capital. Jennifer Lawrence is excellent as Katniss; Francis Lawrence returns behind the camera. Here is the trailer.

I really liked the Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, and Jonathan Levine collaboration 50/50. There are back with a new film called X-Mas. It’s about three friends who annually travel to New York City on Christmas Eve to get drunk and otherwise have fun. This year their tradition might be coming to an end, so they embark on a mission to find the biggest and best party. Joining Gordon-Levitt and Rogen in the cast are Lizzy Caplan and Anthony Mackie.

Pixar and Disney released one of their better recent films this summer with Inside Out. They have another film coming in November called The Good Dinosaur that sounds just as good. The logline of the film asks: What if the meteor that killed-off the Dinosaurs never hit the Earth, leading to a world in which humans and dinosaurs co-exist? Peter Sohn is heading up the creative team (directing his first feature, though he did make the great short Partly Cloudy which played in front of Up). Here is the trailer.

A film that sounds awesome but has so far flown under the radar is the new sci-fi drama from writer-director Jeff Nicholas called Midnight Special. It’s about a father and son who go on the run after the dad learns that his son has developed special powers. It stars Michael Shannon, Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver, Joel Edgerton, and Sam Shepard. Nicholas also made the very good dramas Take Shelter and Mud.

Eddie Redmayne, who won the 2015 Best Actor Oscar for The Theory of Everything, is back again with what sounds like another Oscar-worthy performance. This time in Tom Hooper’s new film The Danish Girl, where he plays Einar Wegener, the husband of famous Danish artist Gerda Wegener who painted him as a woman. As the painting gained popularity, Einar began to change his appearance, dressing and associating more as a lady, which he named Lili Elbe. With the support of his wife, he attempted the first ever male to female sex reassignment surgery. The film also stars Alicia Vikander (who’s blowing up this year) and Matthias Schoenaerts. The film is likely an Oscar favorite.


And finally we get to December. To kick us off, here’s In the Heart of the Sea, a film scheduled to be released in the Spring but scored such outstanding reviews in its test screenings that Warner Bros. pushed it all the back to awards season to compete for Oscars. It’s directed by Ron Howard and stars Chris Hemsworth, Cillian Murphy, Brendan Gleeson, Benjamin Walker, and (your new Spider-Man) Tom Holland. The film’s about Thomas Nickerson, the ship captain that encountered the famous white whale Moby Dick, inspiring Herman Melville’s novel. Here is the trailer.

One of the best reviewed films at this year’s Cannes Film Festival was Carol, a romantic drama set during the 1950s in America. It’s about two women who fall in love and dream of a different world in which they could be together. It’s directed by dramatic filmmaking master Todd Haynes and stars Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara (who won Best Actress at Cannes).

The biggest and hopefully greatest blockbuster of the winter season is Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens. I cannot wait to see it. J.J. Abrams seems like a god choice to take over the creative reigns for the franchise. The film will mix characters we know (Luke, Leia, and Han Solo) with new characters, continuing the saga. The cast sees many of the original actors returning (Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford) and a mix of great new actors, including: Oscar Issac, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Adam Driver, and Gwendoline Christie. Here is the trailer.

It sure seems like Olive Stone’s best films are behind him. That said, he is back with a new politically charged biopic Snowden. It’s about Edward Snowden, the man who basically destroyed his own life to inform the American people what the government was doing (i.e. spying on them). The film stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Zachary Quinto, Melissa Leo, and Tom Wilkinson. Let’s hope Stone finds his form again, as this is an important story that people need to hear/see. Here is the trailer.

Another very fruitful partnership between director and actor has been between David O. Russell and Jennifer Lawrence (and Bradley Cooper), they have made Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle together. Their new film is Joy. It’s about inventor and entrepreneur Joy Mangano, creator of the Miracle Mop and many other products.  The film seems like an Oscar favorite, with a great cast (in addition to Lawrence), including: Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro.

The film that I predicted would be the 2016 Academy Awards frontrunner for Best Picture is The Revenant. It’s the new adventure/western/drama from Alejandro G. Inarritu (who directed Birdman, last year’s winner). It stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson, and Will Poulter. It’s about Hugh Glass, a frontiersman who is left for dead after he is severely injured in the wilderness by compatriot John Fitzgerald. Somehow he survives, regaining his strength, and sets out on a mission of vengeance against Fitzgerald.

2015 might be the year we finally see the resurgence of the western (with Slow West, Jane Got a Gun, and The Revenant); its most high profile entry is Quentin Tarantino’s new film The Hateful Eight, a post-Civil War narrative that sees a group of bounty hunters who find shelter from a blizzard only to get pulled into a plot of betrayal and deception. Tarantino has a great mix of actors with Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Walton Goggins, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Bruce Dern (among others).

Other Potential Releases

These two films don’t have firm release dates yet, but could very likely come out in 2015 and compete for awards. First is Derek Cianfrance’s new drama The Light Between Oceans, which stars Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander and Rachel Weisz. It’s about husband and wife lighthouse keepers who find a baby the washes ashore in Western Australia. The second is Lenny Abrahamson’s new drama Room about a boy who is raised exclusively with the small confines of a small shed. It stars Brie Larson, William H. Macy and Joan Allen.