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*NOTE: Some films are listed as 2013 but were not given a theatrical release until 2014.
*NOTE: Some films are listed as 2013 but were not given a theatrical release until 2014.
*Note: The Lobster was #1 of my favorite films of 2015. If I had included it on this list, it still would have been ranked #1.
The Invitation (2015)
The Sunshine of Psychological Thrillers
The Invitation is a slowly paced, carefully constructed psychological thriller. Will and his girlfriend are attending a dinner party at his old house, hosted by his ex-wife and her new husband. It's an understandably awkward situation for Will, whose eyes we, the audience, are watching the events through. As the film moves forward, the past is revealed and we come to understand why these characters are where they are. As this happens, questions about the present intentions of the characters become more predominant. As Will becomes more suspicious and paranoid, we do too. The subtle way in which this is done is absolutely brilliant.
There comes a point where The Invitation begins to elevate itself into a devastatingly effective and tragic character study. Instead, the filmmakers decided to give the film a more audience-friendly twist, lowering the final act to the level of a cliché horror show. It almost works, as in the moment it is very satisfying. However, what follows is so terribly executed, it undermines what had been such an intelligent, tense, thought-provoking, mysteriously eerie, paranoid-inducing thriller.
As disappointing as the final act is, the majority of The Invitation makes it worth watching. But, with a warning. The Invitation is to psychological thrillers what Danny Boyle's Sunshine is to science-fiction.
The Hallow (2015)
Best Creature Feature since The Descent
The Hallow begins with an all too familiar premise. A couple have moved into an old house in the middle of nowhere and they are receiving threatening warnings from other folks living in the area about dark forces at work in the forest that surrounds them.
Director Corin Hardy boldly takes this clichéd plot into new territory, blurring the lines between fantasy, body horror and a creature feature.
Story aside, there are quite a few moments during the first 45 minutes where the characters make infuriating decisions. This is quite typical of almost all horror films. Horror film writers need to understand that they can find more creative ways to put their characters in danger rather than have them make stupid decisions to try to heighten the tension. In fact, it doesn't heighten the tension at all. It only makes the characters look dumb, therefore, making it harder for us to relate to and to root for. For instance, how people drive in a panic when being chased. Is driving that fast off-road in a family sedan with a baby in the backseat ever a good idea? Probably not.
Despite these issues, The Hallow is actually an effective and scary film. There is a dreadful atmosphere captured right at the beginning. The director takes a big risk in choosing to show us the dark forces at work and they look truly terrifying. The creature designs and make-up effects artists deserve a lot of credit.
The Hallow may not have the most original plot and the characters make some questionable decisions but it goes beyond what most horror films dare to do. It's a dark, morbid fairy tale and it is actually frightening without having to rely on jump scares.
How to Ruin What Could Have Been A Masterpiece
The Witch was the film I was anticipating most out of all the films slated to be released in 2016. I can not think of a word that means beyond disappointed.
There are many possibilities in the first act that tease subjects the film could go on to explore in-depth. Instead they all lead to dead ends. In a way, the entire film is a tease of bigger ideas that are traded in for a cliché horror ending.
A film like The Witch can choose to be ambiguous or it can give the audience a sense of satisfaction. The Witch tries to do both and in doing this, the ending betrays everything that came before it. Casual audiences may be somewhat satisfied as the end credits begin to roll. However, those of us who love films that demand multiple viewings will feel cheated or, even worse, indifferent. The writer/director takes away any sense of lingering mystery, he takes away any want or need we may have had to watch the film again. It's like watching a painter dump a bucket of water all over a painting we just watched them meticulously paint for hours. It all seems like a complete waste. And it is.
The trailers for The Witch are more frightening than the film itself. However, The Witch's biggest sin is how forgettable it all is in the end. And that is unforgivable.
A Guide through the Dark Side of Entertainment
An exploration through the dark side of entertainment. A feverish introspective nightmare of a character who remains more mysterious by the end of the film than at the beginning. Entertainment drags us along on a slow road trip through the desert with a comedian who loses his self along the way. The line between reality and dreams become completely blurred. The whole film seems like an inside joke the filmmakers refuse to let us in on. Sure, there are funny moments, especially during the first half, but by the end you'll be left with more questions than answers.
It's emotionally heavy, bizarre, heart-breaking, surreal and even somewhat disturbing. What is truly masterful is how, without ever fully understanding who this character is, the film causes us to lose our sense of reality with him. He is explored, with great depth, inwardly without us ever sure of who he is on the outside. Rick Alverson has perfectly re-created the dream logic story telling techniques and beautifully strange cinematography of a David Lynch film. Yet, he does this using his own voice, which is strikingly original. Entertainment is somewhere between a broken character study, an absurdist comedy and modern tragedy.
Entertainment is not for everyone and if you try using your brain while watching it, you may give yourself a migraine. If you try to use your heart to feel your way through, you won't be sure where to put it and may feel depressed afterwards. This film is a trip that you have to allow to wash over you. Let yourself get lost in it's wonderful visuals and be sure to have friends to discuss it with afterwards.
Actually a decent addition to the Vacation series
Vacation is actually a sequel to National Lampoon's Vacation series and should not be considered a reboot. In fact, this actually makes a pretty worthy 4th installment as it's better than Vegas Vacation and anything that came after it.
Ed Helms and Christina Applegate are great leads and work really well together. It has some well-earned laugh-out-loud moments but what shines through what should have been a complete failure is the way in which Ed Helms plays Rusty Griswold.
It's far from a great film but it does a good job of mixing the old 80's absurd slapstick comedy and the modern adult shock humour, creating a unique mix that somehow stays grounded. It never succumbs to the cartoon antics of Dumb and Dumber To yet it doesn't take itself so serious that the drama overshadows the comedy. It's not so much that we are getting jokes we've never seen before, what we are getting is genuine characters reacting to ridiculous situations in a very human way.
It's dirty, vulgar, raunchy and completely inappropriate, which is exactly what we need comedy to be right now. Vacation is also surprisingly heart-warming at it's core. In a time when comedies are struggling to stay irrelevant and as politically incorrect as possible, an R-rated family vacation movie is refreshing even if it's far from original.
Deep, Dark and Tense
Sicario is gritty, dark and brutal. It is as intense as action-thrillers get. Like Emily Blunt's character, you just go along for this ride not knowing exactly what is going on or who to trust. All lines between right and wrong are blurred. The more that is revealed, the further we descend into this horrific world and the greater the tension grows. This is one of those rare films where you'll find yourself forgetting to breathe and blink.
Denis Villeneuve has just proved to be the most powerful director working in thrillers today. Incendies, Prisoners, Enemy and now Sicario. There is magic between Villeneuve, cinematographer Roger Deakins and composer Jóhann Jóhannsson.
Sicario grabs you from the opening scene, like an invisible hand that reaches inside your rib cage and squeezes. Just when you think it has let go to give you a little break, it suddenly squeezes harder than ever, forcing all the oxygen out of your lungs. It's not exactly a fun experience, it's a shockingly real thrill ride that takes you further than you expect these kinds of films to take you. The original tagline said it best, "The deeper you go, the darker it gets."
The Family Guy of Spy Movies
The Family Guy of Spy movies is here. A sneeze joke, a bat poop joke, awkward unrequited love jokes, a pink-eye joke and fart jokes all within the first 35 minutes. Also, like all of Paul Feig's films, you have Melissa McCarthy being humiliated for over 2 hours. What's new about this one? We get to see Jude Law play an infallible character while Jason Statham completely debases himself in his most embarrassing role to-date. Then there's Peter Serafinowicz as Aldo, a sexual deviant who spends every moment he has on-screen trying to molest McCarthy.
What about the action? There's isn't any shaky camera effects but it's filled with quick cuts and terrible special effects. Even worse, Feig randomly uses slow-motion during action stunts, which becomes annoyingly repetitive and is completely pointless. Unlike the The Wachowskis, Zack Snyder and Matthew Vaughn, who have mastered this effect, making it a part of their style, Paul Feig makes it clear he has no idea what he's doing. Truly, a terrible writer and director with bad taste and no style of his own.
Can Paul Feig degrade women on-screen any further? As bottom of the barrel as the jokes are through-out this atrocity, the only thing that isn't made fun of is McCarthy's weight. Yet, every other aspect about her appearance and personality is targeted for cheap laughs.
So, what can we learn from Spy? You can humiliate a woman in every way possible, even sexual assault, as long as you don't mention her weight. Also, we're all going to need to come together and boycott the new Ghostbusters because Paul Feig should never be allowed to make another film again. Ever.
7 Chinese Brothers (2015)
Another likable loser
Jason Schwartzman is Larry, a pill-popping alcoholic who lacks any ambition whatsoever. When Larry isn't getting fired or looking for a new job he can make a joke of, he spends his time visiting his grandmother in a nursing home and talking to his dog.
Schwartzman seems to be the go-to actor for insightful, comical and somewhat dark character studies. Though he is quite charming in this quirky role, 7 Chinese Brothers isn't really insightful at all. There are a few funny moments here and there but when the film takes a more serious, dramatic turn towards the end, the most unpredictable thing is how inconsequential everything turns out to be.
It's a sad story about a likable loser, like many of the characters Schwartzman plays. When it's revealed why this character is the way he is, it makes sense but it's hard to feel anything for him due to his unwillingness to admit his true feelings and embrace the opportunities given to him.
Listen Up Philip (2014)
Listen Up Philip is a messy character-driven piece in which, oddly enough, the narration is the best part of the film. This is not a film for everyone. The two male leads are pretentious fools that, despite all of their knowledge, lack any true wisdom and consistently make terrible choices. By the end, it's difficult to even feel any pity for them. The female characters, on the other hand, are the saving grace of the story and the actresses are terrific in their roles.
It's far from a typical storyline. Even with the narration, it's hard to say what the plot is, if there is one at all. The film has us enter and exit these characters lives at their most sad, desperate and difficult. Some will find it to be an insightful dark comedy while others will find it to be a pointless, drab drama that is frustrating to watch. The most bothersome aspect is the unsteady hand-held camera work, which comes and goes needlessly.
Listen Up Philip is like only reading the middle chapters of a novel. Fans of Noah Baumbach, Wes Anderson and Woody Allen's films may find a lot to enjoy here but if you're not a fan of character studies, this won't be for you.
People Places Things (2015)
Disconnected and Passionless
Jemaine Clement plays a soft-spoken, passive, naive graphic novelist, university teacher and newly single father of two young girls. People, Places, Things is about the struggles of learning to let go and move forward after having your heart broken. That's pretty much it. Jemaine Clement plays his role somewhat passionless. It's hard to tell if it was a lack of dedication on his part or how writer/director James C. Strouse chose to make the character. The heart of the film is the character as a fun father but it doesn't seem like he is comfortable showing his daughters much affection. There is a very clear disconnection between him and the other characters in the film, which kind of leaves us feeling indifferent to him and his situation.
Though the film follows Clement's character, all the female characters act circles around him and steal the show. Regina Hall, Jessica Williams, Stephanie Allynne, Aundrea Gadsby and Gia Gadsby all have much more interesting characters and are outstanding in their roles. It's a shame we didn't get to spend more time with them.
This is suppose to be a heart-felt dramatic comedy but it's not funny and the heart is on auto-pilot, just slowly going through the motions, not fully present. The most insight we get from the main character is through his art, which was clever and needed, as through-out most of the film he seems bored and stale.
Fresh, unique, original
Coherence is one of the most original stories ever put to film. The cinematography is terrible but that can easily be forgiven due to the low budget. There's some questionable actions from some of the characters in the first half but these actions serve their purpose in the second. The performances have a certain realism to them and the story is so unique, the cheap look and amateur camera work become easier to bare as the film moves forward. There's a hint of Lars von Trier's Melancholia but this film goes in a completely different direction.
The less you know the better the experience will be. This is one of the best dramatic thrillers of the last decade and one of the best indie science-fiction films to-date. What the film lacks in it's look it more than makes up for in story.
Jurassic World (2015)
Dumb but exciting and fun
Jurassic Park is smart, funny, awe-inspiring and includes some of the most thrilling scenes in film history. It's legendary. Though it was followed by two lackluster sequels, The Lost World and Jurassic Park III, they did not take away the magic of the original film. Now, after 14 years, we have a fourth installment.
Jurassic World begins by giving us something the other films never did, a fully functioning park filled with visitors from all over the world. Also, unlike the first two sequels, our expectations are brought to an all-new low within the first act thanks to concepts that threaten to spoil what made the first film so iconic. Jurassic Park did for velociraptors what Jaws did for sharks. Both are forces of nature that should never be tamed or trained. Chris Pratt plays a rugged raptor trainer. Bryce Dallas Howard plays the woman in-charge of running the park. Her two nephews, Ty Simpkins and Nick Robinson, are two of many visitors on the day the events of the film unfold. We are also introduced to two villains, Vincent D'Onofrio, who wants to train velociraptors to be soldiers, and a hybrid dinosaur called the Indominus Rex.
A hybrid dinosaur and training raptors to be used as weapons for war - it all sounds pretty dumb and it is. As all of this ridiculousness plays out, the original theme music that would play to help build up the most wondrous parts of the first film is over-used and in all the wrong places. Even worse, after the film moves into it's second act and the action has begun, we are forced back to ride along with the boys, who the screenwriters seem desperate to make us care about with an out-of-place conversation about their parents getting a divorce. It's almost as if Jurassic World sets itself up to disappoint, putting the bar so low in it's first hour that it can only be raised in it's second. If this is the trick Colin Trevorrow is trying to pull on us, he is very successful at it.
Jurassic World is a complete failure at being smart and frightening. With all the advanced technology and far-fetched concepts, it's hard to feel any sense of reality or familiarity, two essential ingredients in making us feel as if we are in the character's shoes. There are moments where the filmmakers try to startle us but these attempts at jump-scares are so obvious and poorly executed, they fail. What Jurassic World succeeds at is destroying it's own creations. It's only when the character's lives are in danger that they finally come alive and prove their worth. In the end, Bryce Dallas Howard becomes as bad ass as Chris Pratt.
Everything new Jurassic World introduces us to twists back on itself and lets us know that we were right all along, they were all bad ideas. A big part of what made us love that first film so much is brought back in the most exciting of ways. The climax is what we've always wanted out of a Jurassic Park sequel. It's dumb but it's also as exciting and fun as blockbusters get these days. It has the potential to make you feel like a kid again, even if just for a few minutes. But, you have to be willing to let it.
Insidious: Chapter 3 (2015)
Another predictable, boring, pointless prequel
Insidious was a surprise. It began as just another cliché haunted house horror film. But, in it's 2nd act, it broke through the haunted house story tropes and went further than any film of it's type had gone before. As with all horror films, the more it tries to explain itself, the less frightening it is. The red-faced demon is a force of evil without any known origin. Also, horror films with happy endings contradict the genre and always seem out-of-place. Insidious had a perfect ending in that it didn't really have one. Then along came Insidious Chapter 2. Chapter 2 started strong. It had one of the most original and exciting crossovers into the first film ever dared to be done by a sequel of any genre. Unfortunately, the ending seemed rushed and the conclusion betrayed everything that came before it.
Insidious Chapter 3 is a prequel to the first film. It's predictable, boring and pointless. The over-use of jump scares becomes as annoying as any other PG-13 sad excuse for a supernatural horror movie. The film offers nothing new in story or visuals. The only good thing about this entire production is the acting.
Just like Saw, Leigh Whannell has made the first two films have less of an impact thanks to a terrible and lazy third chapter. If you liked the first two Insidious films, you'll want to avoid this one. Those who were disappointed by the second chapter will already know better.
Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
An Unbalanced Tease
The Avengers was well-balanced and fun. It was a well-written superhero buddy comedy. The action was over-the-top but worked to enhance the laughs. It didn't take itself too seriously, which was welcomed at the time. Since, we have had a 3rd Iron Man film that sucked all the fun out of the Tony Stark character. A 2nd Thor film that was actually quite exciting and full of surprises, especially compared to the first, which was like a romantic TV sitcom. And we've had not only one of the greatest sequels of all time, but also one of the best action films in over a decade, Captain America: The Winter Solider. So to write there was a lot of hype for Avengers 2 would be an obvious understatement.
Age of Ultron is so unbalanced in so many ways, it's hard to know where to begin. The film is successful in a few areas. It does a great job of making us fear what Ultron is capable of. While Loki was charming and mischievous, Ultron is frightening. What's disappointing is that in a film called Age of Ultron, Ultron is not given enough screen time. The best scene has the Avengers taking turns trying to pick up Thor's hammer. Unfortunately, this scene was already revealed in the trailers and the actual film doesn't offer anything better. The most interesting aspect of the film, visually, are haunting visions given to the characters thanks to Scarlet Witch. This causes Thor to go off on a side quest, which is much more mysterious and interesting than what we are left watching. It also causes the much anticipated Hulk vs. Hulkbuster scene, which is played for laughs and is over much too quickly. It's all downhill from there.
Age of Ultron is at it's best when it's being horrific and when it's revealing it's heart, which in the film's biggest surprise, lies with Hawkeye. We are introduced to some new characters that we are never given much reason to care about. Other than Scarlet Witch giving the Avengers their visions, both her and Quicksilver seem like pointless, lazy additions that take up screen time that could have been better spent with the characters we paid to see. What's worse is the time wasted on an out-of-place and unfitting love story that develops between Black Widow and Bruce Banner. It's so forced and unnecessary, it actually causes us to loose interest in their characters. Hulk no longer has the impact he once made. Tony Stark has long lost what made him such an exciting character and this film doesn't do anything to make us excited to see him again. Hawkeye is the only one we are given reason to care whether he lives or dies. In the final act, we are introduced to yet another new character that is so poorly executed, it makes us glad this is the last Marvel film Joss Whedon will be directing.
In The Winter Solider, the intensity of the action scenes was taken to a whole new level. The comedy stayed in the interactions between the characters while the plot and action seemed like a very serious threat for once, keeping us on the edge of our seats. Avengers: Age of Ultron takes place shortly after the events of The Winter Solider, yet it's a step back into light, silly cartoon action where there's no real feeling of danger. As threatening as Ultron is, we never worry that one of the Avengers might actually die. And even if they did, we know they won't stay dead.
Between what James Gunn did with Guardians of the Galaxy and the Russo brothers with Winter Solider, the stakes were raised too high for the over-confident, under-talented Joss Whedon. Age of Ultron gets too close to a Michael Bay film with so many failed attempt at humor, tension and surprise.
Unsatisfying & Deceiving
Some filmmakers are so masterful they don't need a coherent plot or much of anything to happen on-screen. They hypnotize and memorize us with the basics of film as art, the marriage of moving pictures and sound. Then comes along a little foreign film called A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night.
The opening looks like a spaghetti Western yet sounds like a French art film. We immediately like the protagonist. He is patient, determined, likes cats and works hard to get what he wants. Though he is a decent man, he is weak and far from perfect. His trouble starts due to his father's heroin addiction. After the first 30 minutes, his trouble seems to be over. As the film begins to loose our initial interest, it moves slower and slower until it becomes almost painful to watch.
The story takes place in Bad City, which is like where the world of David Lynch's Eraserhead meets Sin City. As exciting as that sounds in concept, the lackluster screenplay spoils any hope of excitement. About half way through, the film reveals itself as a love story. However, this lacks the tender magic of Let the Right One In. The characters are interesting enough but the suspense is wondering what this is all building up to. The film hints at a grand finale. A revenge-fueled blood bath of an ending. Unfortunately, it seems writer/director Ana Lily Amirpour wanted to make a Robert Rodriquez/Quentin Tarantino inspired film without any violence.
For a horror film, it isn't scary. For a romance, it lacks passion. For a thriller, it is void of any thrills. In the end, it comes off as a piece of pretentious art-house cinema only suited for international film festival audiences. As good as the film looks and as slow as the story moves, it lacks the hypnotic quality of a master like Jim Jarmusch. It literally feels as if the filmmakers ran out of money before they could shoot the finale.
This is one of the most unsatisfying and deceiving films ever made. It's like going to a boxing match or UFC fight and the announcer comes out saying, "Sorry folks, the fighters came to a diplomatic solution and decided violence wasn't the answer. They're off riding bikes under a rainbow now."
Ex Machina (2014)
Ex Machina has a very fitting sense of false intimacy. This is done visually as many of the close-ups are seen through glass. No matter how close we get to the subject on-screen, there always seems to be at least one wall of glass between us and it or them. The film also makes a very distinct contrast between it's interior and exterior shots. Outside of the facility is breathtaking landscapes. It is big, beautiful, refreshing and vibrant. Inside seems like an endless futuristic maze of glass, mirrors, plastic, chrome and dim lights. It is clean, cold and claustrophobic. A perfect setting for the subject that is explored in this tight, tense sci-fi thriller.
Ex Machina is the best science fiction film on artificial intelligence since Blade Runner. While Blade Runner is an action thriller that relies more on it's epic visuals to tell it's story, Ex Machina is a dialogue-driven psychological thriller that slowly works it's way under your skin. Thought-provoking and terrifyingly suspenseful, an induced state of paranoia may linger long after the end credits begin to roll.
The less you know going into a film like this, the better your experience will be. Alex Garland has given us a modern science-fiction masterpiece. Performances from all three leads are flawless and every other aspect of the production, from the cinematography to the soundtrack, is perfectly suited for the story. Not only is Ex Machina an amazing achievement for a directorial debut, it's Alex Garland's best written work to-date.
As Terrible As the Title Sounds
Critics have been split on this film. Some say it is actually scary and praise it for being original while others claim it's just another teen slasher. The trailer makes the film look like a below average found-footage ghost story. So what is it?
Unfriended is about a girl, Laura Barns, who gets too drunk at a high school party and goes beyond just making a fool out of herself. After a video of her drunken, embarrassing behavior surfaces online and she becomes a victim of cyber bullying, she commits suicide. The film begins by showing footage of Laura shooting herself in the face. It's actually a decent opening and a great backstory for a horror film. Unfortunately, it's all downhill from there.
The entire film plays out on the computer screen of Laura's friend, Blaire, exactly one year later. Blaire and her boyfriend, Mitch, are interrupted during an intimate Skype chat by three of their friends and an unidentified person. They all disconnect and try to restart their group chat but the unidentified Skype user is somehow still connected as part of their group. When Blaire looks at the mysterious user's profile, she is startled to find out the name on the profile is Laura Barns.
How annoying would it be to have to listen in on a group of American teenagers over Skype? Imagine how bad it would be if they were even more trashy, two-faced, self-righteous, backstabbing, egocentric narcissists than the majority of American teenagers. That's about as irritating as it is having to watch these characters on-screen.
As the film continues, what may or may not be the ghost of Laura Barns begins to force these friends to play games that reveal just how awful and despicable they truly are. It's all pointless since we already know they are going to die as they are cliché slasher film characters. We don't need anymore reasons to hate them, yet the filmmakers feel the need to over-justify killing them. Perhaps they don't know we've already seen through these vein, selfish stereotypes and are just waiting to see them die in the most horrible ways possible. Yet, the filmmakers don't even indulge us in the guilty pleasure of watching them die. The deaths are either off-screen or we only see short clips through glitched video. As a slasher, Unfriended is a tease.
What keeps this teen horror flick from being a complete disaster is Shelley Hennig performance as Blaire and the mysterious unseen force. Whether it's a killer exacting revenge, a manifestation of these character's guilt that causes them to kill themselves or the ghost of Laura Barns, in the end, the line between protagonist and antagonist is blurred. It's the only real hint of originality Unfriended has.
Does it do anything new for found-footage horror? Not really. Does the story benefit by playing out on social networking sites and services? Not at all. Is it scary? Not even in the slightest. In fact, without the backstory, it doesn't do anything that Paranormal Activity 4 tried and failed at. What should be a cautionary tale about cyber bullying is wasted, which is a real shame. It's a miss of a great opportunity.
Don't let the critics fool you, Unfriended is as terrible as the title sounds.
An Entertaining Challenge
Predestination is one of the most thought-provoking science-fiction films to-date. This is not only because of the paradoxes that stories involving time travel challenge us with, but also due to some unsavory, possibility even taboo, subject matter.
The first half of the film is a conversation between a bartender and a customer. The customer bets the bartender their life story will be the strangest thing the bartender has ever heard. The bartender, played by Ethan Hawke, is highly doubtful and takes the bet. At this point, we've already come to understand Ethan Hawke's character is not just a bartender, he is a time-traveler. Therefore, we too doubt this customer's story will be anymore shocking or strange as time travel. Where the film goes from here is a mind-bending challenge. Yet, as deep as the story goes in this first half, we are constantly being brought back to a relatable reality, that this is all just a story being told to a bartender.
The last half of the film is where the main story gets back on-track. The bartender is really a time-traveling temporal agent who's mission is to stop a terrorist known as The Fizzle Bomber. Things continue to get more mysterious and complex, possibly a little convoluted. Though the relatable aspect of the story is completely lost, what keeps us connected is it's heart, which is both Sarah Snook's performance and character.
At it's surface, Predestination is a small, independent science-fiction film about a time-traveler. What you'll soon find, once the film passes it's opening credit, is that you are about to be sucked down a rabbit hole. The story has great depth and is emotionally rich. It's a dialogue-driven character study, while also being a suspenseful thriller. The plot twists do not take away, they add more of a connection between the audience and the characters in the story. The Spierig Brothers have raised the bar on everything a science-fiction film can achieve. And while not everything presented is pleasant, it's an entertaining challenge.
The Theory of Everything (2014)
An inconsistent painful bore
The Theory of Everything is a misleading title. However, that's not the most misleading thing about this film. The cinematography and score give the impression you are about to watch a heart-felt, inspirational tale where love conquers all. If we didn't already know we were about to watch a film based on the life of Stephen Hawking, we might think we were watching a romantic comedy set in a fantasy world.
When it's revealed the main character has motor neurone disease, also known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), the look and tone of the film stay bright and uplifting, despite the dark and depressing things we are watching unfold on-screen. Scenes shift between painfully heart-wrenching to light, fluffy melodrama better suited for a daytime soap. The Oscar bait clichés are at an all-time high here, you start to wonder if during the credits they will resort to bloopers. At this point, the whole idea of the film seems in bad taste.
While The Theory of Everything has some great performances, the look and execution are more suited for an A&E movie of the week. It's more interested in romanticizing a failed marriage rather than celebrating the work of a man with a brilliant mind. The result is an inconsistent, uninspired, painful bore.
The Imitation Game (2014)
Bland, ineffective, an offense to it's story
A tragic true story told as generic, mundane and formulaic as possible. Alan Turing is known as a hero to some, yet here he is portrayed like a robot wearing a Benedict Cumberbatch costume that can shed tears when the screenplay allows for it. A screenplay that follows an out-dated guide on how to make an Academy Award winning film.
For such an amazing story filled with inspiration and sadness, the filmmakers didn't bother to make any other aspect of the film daring, inventive or even slightly original. Almost every part of this production could have passed as a movie-of-the-week on some major television network. Even the soundtrack is bland, it's as black and white as the over-used stock war footage.
A film portraying a story like this, especially it being a true story, should rip the heart out of it's audience, having them leaving the theater disgusted, heart-broken and angry. Instead, what we get here, is a film that rushes through everything, while watering it down, all to fit a family-friendly rating and a run-time of no longer than 2 hours. This leaves the film absolutely ineffective and it's audience indifferent. And that's the worse possible out-come of a film telling such an important, meaningful and provocative true story.
The Double (2013)
An Unpretentious Art Film?
The Double is one of those rare films that masters multiple genres within a single film. It pays homage to some of the greatest and most unique films of all time while still being it's own, original work.
Simon is an insecure, shy and quiet introvert completely out-of-touch with the cold, dark, out-of-date, information-based world which he inhabits. Wherever Simon goes he seems out-of-place, even though he has been following the same routine and going to the same places for 7 years now. Simon becomes desperate to make a name for himself in this world in order to get closer to Hannah, the woman he adores. However, everything is suddenly altered with the arrival of a new co-worker, James, a man with the same face as Simon. James is everything Simon isn't. Confident, friendly, demanding and popular. What James lacks, Simon has. Simon is sincere, caring, thoughtful, dedicated and a hard-worker with knowledge of the business. James decides to help Simon win over Hannah, using his charisma, so long as Simon helps him with all the things he lacks.
While Jesse Eisenberg and Mia Wasikowska aren't going anywhere we haven't seen them go before, performance wise, director Richard Ayoade places them in a world they've never been and may never be given the opportunity to go again. It's like Terry Gilliam's Brazil, with a dash of Fight Club and a light sprinkle of David Lynch's Eraserhead. The comedy is darker than dark, making it a near-perfect black comedy. The sound design is as unique as the visuals and story. The story itself alters which each new act, transitioning between genres. It's an absurdly funny art film that becomes a buddy comedy which twists into a psychological thriller. It's a study of man vs. technology, man vs. man and man vs. himself.
What is key to The Double is that the strange, dark world we see never becomes too uncomfortable to bare. The humor is dry and quick witted yet never tries to go over the heads of mainstream audiences. If there was ever an unpretentious art film, this is it.
Let's Be Cops (2014)
A stoner-comedy without any weed
An ex-football playing sociopath and an insecure video game designer decide to go to a party dressed in police uniforms. The party turns out to be a masquerade, not a costume party and the two leave humiliated. End of sketch? No. This joke is dragged on for over 100 minutes.
While Let's Be Cops doesn't have a single, genuinely funny moment, it does offer some suspense as far as whether or not they will get caught impersonating police officers. However the suspense wears off within the first hour. It's like a comedy-stoner without enough weed. It relies more on trying to gain laughs from gross-out humor and fails at that.
While Jake Johnson's character is more frightening than funny or likable, Damon Wayans Jr. does well as a pusher-over in desperate need of confidence. His character is likable, realistic and actually develops through-out the film. It isn't anything new or original but it is well done, unlike most other things in this film.
After the first hour the film starts taking the story in a direction of a serious action buddy cop movie. Though buddy cop movies have long since been a dead horse, the action works better than any comedy this film tries to offer.
The little action there is in Let's Be Cops works but, in the end, it's a comedy without any laughs.
The Babadook (2014)
Hope for the horror genre
Thanks to the Paranormal Activity and Saw sequels, the horror genre has been left in an embarrassing state. We've been over-dosed on PG-13 ghost stories, that desperately rely on jump-scares, and torture-porn, filled with some of the most horrible acting to ever be put on-screen. Both so formulaic, they're predictable to the point of being boring. Then along comes a little indie film from Australia called The Babadook.
The Babadook is a children's book a young boy with an over-active imagination finds, mysteriously, on his bookshelf one night for his widowed, over-worked and sleep deprived mother to read to him. What is found in the book not only traumatizes the boy but also scares the mother. Soon the mother and son are being haunted by The Babadook, a monster that feeds off denial. Is the boy mentally disturbed and intentionally trying to drive his mother crazy or is the mother trying to give herself a reason to murder her son? Is The Babadook real or is the real monster a suppressed part of one of the characters?
The film begins and builds with excellence, masterfully directed by Jennifer Kent. It has a dash of influence from David Lynch and is somewhat reminiscent of Guillermo del Toro's earlier work. The first 75 minutes make for a truly intense and terrifying ride filled with spectacular visuals. Unfortunately, The Babadook suffers from too many missed opportunities within the story and the conclusion is more ridiculous than frightening. It makes it seem as if the filmmakers were uncertain as to whether they wanted to create a haunted house story, a monster movie or a psychological thriller. This causes more confusion than necessary, as the monster movie aspect undermines the reality and depth of the psychological thriller.
While it doesn't break any new ground, The Babadook is genuinely scary and unpredictable. Despite the ending, Jennifer Kent proves to be a powerful director we should keep an eye on.
Excellent, original start with horribly cliché final 30 minutes
Alexandre Aja is one of the only filmmakers who has directed remakes that surpassed the originals. Aja took the horror genre to new extremes with High Tension, The Hills Have Eyes and Mirrors. He showed great potential in being one of the few directors who could balance edge-of-your-seat suspense and laugh-out-loud comedy with Piranha (aka Piranha 3D) in 2010. The one thing that has held the director back from gaining the critical success he deserves is that he had yet to direct a film that was truly original in story. If it wasn't a remake, his films were accused of ripping off other films' ideas and twists. Yet, this still did not take away from the fact that when watching one of his films, there was a great feeling of dread and uncertainty. As if Aja was one director that we could not predict how far he would take things. That we couldn't trust him. That in his films, anything goes, he is in-control and we are just helpless viewers along for the ride, which was always thrilling.
Horns is based on a novel of the same name and the film suffers the same issues the novel had. The novel had great ideas and shocking comedic moments but it was a poorly written, drawn out, overly generic, tragic love story wrapped in a predictable mystery that would have made for a better short story. While the film does a better job at selling the tragic love story with it's visuals and performances, what we all really want to see more of is the darker than dark humorous side. Instead of focusing in more on this original part of the story, the film stays too faithful to the book's flaws. The conclusion to the mystery is so predictable and cliché, the ending seems anticlimactic compared to how great and original the film began.
Aja can not be blamed for the ending as he did not write the screenplay and no one would want to anger the fans of the book by changing it. However, Horns greatly lacks the intensity that the director brought to his first few films. There is a feeling of safety, as if we don't have to worry about this film going too far. Even at it's strangest moments, we know everything is going to work out in the end. That over-whelming sense of dread that gave Aja the power that he once had over us, as an audience, is missing.
Yet, despite all the things working against it, Horns does offer some original twisted fun and is a hell of a lot better than anything else the horror genre has had to offer in the last couple years. Even an ending that's suited for teenage girls can't take away from the twisted, sick and hilarious places the first 90 minutes go.
Short Term 12 (2013)
Authentic, chaotic and yet tender
It's Nate's first day working at a foster-care facility for at-risk teenagers. His boss, Grace, is a young counselor that manages the place, which isn't too far off being a psych-ward for children. After a long day on the emotional roller-coaster that is her job, Grace finds out she is pregnant. This news causes her to begin to unravel, pushing her boyfriend away and showing a darker side when she relates too closely with a new patient.
Though the film opens with a story told through dialogue that is reminiscent of Kevin Smith, there is not anything else in this film that is immature. As Grace, Brie Larson gives one of the best performances by an actress seen in 2013. John Gallagher Jr. as her boyfriend, Mason, is impossible not to like. Even great performances by all the children.
Writer/director Destin Cretton shows deep insight into this world. The interactions and bonds between Grace and the kids are all too real. A very powerful feature film debut. There's some unnecessary shaky camera work in places but this is easily looked past due to how authentic the story is.
Short Term 12 is chaotic at times, and rises to an intense climax. Yet, it is also tender and heart-warming, making it one of the best films of the year.