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2015: A Fantastic Year at the Movies

February 21, 2016


The 2016 Academy Awards arrive on Sunday February 28, and with them, the controversy of #OscarsSoWhite which has been discussed by people far more qualified than I.

(UPDATE 2/22/16: Listen to this NPR report about how “TV and film production is sorely deficient in gender, racial and ethnic diversity according to a study from the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism”.

The analysis shows that from in a recent one year period  only 1/3 of speaking characters on TV were women and mostly were sexualized characters. In 109 films studied, women directed only 3% of films. Only 1/5 of characters were people of color with speaking roles (regardless of what they said!) 10 media companies were studied and distributors and they all failed interns of having diversity within their ranks. People must see themselves represented on screen. The study will be used to develop specific strategies to diversify the industry.

Let’s hope that next year’s nominations will reflect more diversity because there are more women and people of color MAKING films, making the decisions around films, AND acting in them.

In the meantime…

“What a great year for women,” writes guest blogger Ron Wells. “Brie Larson may have been the best, but so many gave worthy performances. I discovered the wonderful Alicia Vikander in Ex Machina, and she outshone everyone in the Danish Girl. Cate Blanchett was great in Carol and Truth. And don’t forget Kate Winslet as Joanna Hoffman, Steve Jobs’ assistant and conscience. Also, I’ll see Jennifer Lawrence in anything. I’d even watch the so-so Joy again just to see her act.”

In advance of Sunday’s event when we will learn more about the winners and losers, here’s Ron Well’s list of the top 30 films he saw over the past year– but not including these films that he still intends to see: Amy, Straight Outta Compton, Creed, Mockingjay Part 2.  He has no plans however to see Hateful Eight; he’s done, he says, with Mr. Tarantino’s gleeful mix of graphic violence and humor. “I’ve seen violence in the real world,” writes Ron. “I didn’t find it humorous.”

Overall, Ron says, it was a fantastic year at the movies. Any of his first five films could have been his number one, and he’s sure he’ll see these many times in the future.

A few mini-reviews plus links to his full reviews as well as some Oscar nominations info below.

1. Spotlight (read Ron’s review here) BEST PICTURE Oscar nomination

2. Brooklyn ( read Ron’s review here) BEST PICTURE Oscar nomination, ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE

3. The Big Short (read Ron’s review here) BEST PICTURE Oscar nomination

4. Steve Jobs (read Ron’s review here) BEST PICTURE Oscar nomination

5. Inside Out (Animated) Best animated feature Oscar nomination

After Peter Docter and his Pixar crew walked away with the Academy Award for Up, one wondered where he would go next. Six years later we have our answer. Docter, Ronaldo del Carmen and team Pixar have audaciously gone where few films, and certainly few animated films, have dared to go. That is, they have ventured inside the human brain to study the emotions and thought processes that make people tick. And this is going to be for children?

Well, if you know Pixar, you know their films are seldom if ever that one-dimensional. Their best films have always assumed that children and adults are not unintelligent and if the stories are told well, then the audience, young and old, will follow. That is the definitely the case with Inside Out.

This is one of the most brilliant, creative, innovative animated films ever made. Docter takes us inside the brain to the “headquarters” where five core emotions: Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black) and Disgust (Mindy Kalin), all direct the thinking and actions of a 12 year old girl, Riley (Kaitlyn Dias).

Riley is a happy, hockey playing kid just rolling along with Joy and the others at the controls until Riley’s parents (Diane Lane & Kyle MacLachlan) move from Minnesota to San Francisco where her father takes on a new job. Suddenly, all five of the emotions are on high alert as Riley tries to adjust to her new home where everything including the pizza seems to set off Anger, Sadness, or Fear.

During some confusion with one of the many memory balls, Joy and Sadness are whisked away into Long Term Memory with seemingly no way to get back to Headquarters, leaving Anger, Fear and Disgust in charge. Thus, on one level the film begins to be a journey of trying to get home for the two wandering emotions and possibly even Riley. As all of this happens, the once stable Islands of Personality enclosed within the brain begin to show signs of severe problems.

And this is just the beginning. We also will meet the “inside voices” of mom, dad, and other kids (and even some animals near the end). These sections are hilarious beyond belief. Eventually, we learn more about such things as Train of Thought, Bing Bong (Richard Kind as an invisible friend), abstract thought (which may or may not be a short cut) Imagination Land, Dream Productions (near the place where nightmares are also created), and the Subconscious (“where they take all the trouble makers”). We’ll even see Deju Vu. We’ll even see Deju Vu.

The action becomes fast and furious at times, and contemplative at other times. Kids in the audience will be mesmerized. Adults will have to see the film more than once as there is just too much rich word play and imaginative animation to take in during one screening.

This is as good as animation gets, with nods to the great Hayo Miyazaki. Actually, it’s as good as any filmmaking gets. The story is as simple as a little girl alone in a strange city and as complex as the human mind and emotions which she experiences. It is as if Alice in Wonderland went into the brain instead of down the rabbit hole and ended up in a children’s surreal version of Psych 101.

In a sold out audience comprised of both children and adults, there was continuous laughter, moments of silence, some tears, and then loud sustained applause when the film ended. This is filmmaking as high art, and it is by far the best film to come out this year. Be prepared to go into the human consciousness as you have never experienced it before, and when you walk out you may wonder which emotion is controlling your actions and understand why all of those emotions, including Sadness, are necessary. Then remembering this film, feel free to spend some long, wonderful moments with your own Joy.

6. End of the Tour

Director Todd Haynes excellent portrait of two women living in early 1950’s America who eventually fall in love with each other. Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE), an upper class woman, is going through a divorce when she first spots Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara), a younger shop girl in the toy department of a large department store. Besides the moral climate and restrictions of the time, Carol must fight her husband—who does not want a divorce—for custody of her child, while Therese —a budding photographer—has not one, but perhaps two men pursuing her in hopes of marriage. The ensuing conflicts from these elements drive the story as Carol and Therese gently, daringly, seek to find a love that dares not speak its name. Haynes has captured the look and feel of the times perfectly, but it is Blanchett whose acting once again stands out in the film with her sideways glances and gentle touches on the shoulder saying as much as the tone in her voice and the words she speaks.

Kate (Charlotte Rampling BEST ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE) and Geoff (Tom Courtenay) are one week away from joyously celebrating their 45th wedding anniversary. A letter arrives about an event that happened 50 years ago and director Andrew Haigh slowly, methodically pulls back the curtain on Kate and Geoff’s marriage as it begins to take on a growing nuance that could not have been imagined previously. 45 years of knowing a person becomes almost like 45 years of not knowing. The change that occurs over the coming week before the celebration is difficult to watch because of Courtenay’s ability to show a man spiraling downward, but even more so for Rampling’s subtle and brilliant tour de force performance as a wife seeing the past and present as she has never seen it before. This may not be a film for young people, or for those who find it difficult to empathize with a mature married couple, as the movie moves slowly and cautiously around each person, but it most definitely is a film for people who know and understand the deeply held secrets that lie within the human heart but are seldom seen or shared. It is Rampling though who will break your heart as she comes to understand the true meaning of the Platters’ song, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” It is the performances that shine in this deeply moving adult film and will stay with you afterwards.

9. Room BEST ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE Oscar nomination

Bryan Cranston (BEST ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE) again soars as Dalton Trumbo, the writer (Johnny Got His Gun) and screenwriter (Roman Holiday; Spartacus) who was blacklisted by the HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee) beginning in the late 1940’s due to his once being a member of the Communist Party. The film movies quickly, almost as a standard bio-pic in order to cover the many years and battles that Trumbo, other screenwriters, and his family, fought to survive despite his once being the highest paid screenwriter in the world. A notable cast including Helen Mirren as the despicable Hedda Hopper, Louis C.K. as writer Arien Hird, and the bigger than life John Goodman as Frank King, the B movie king who provides Trumbo with some work, are wonderful to watch. Sides are drawn in America and especially in the studio world as John Wayne, Kirk Douglas, and Otto Preminger all eventually take sides for or against Trumbo. The film shows what happens when a society gripped in fear and paranoia looks for enemies around every corner and the terrible consequences that arise from that fear, not the least of which are the lost freedoms a country once championed.

11. Bridge of Spies BEST PICTURE Oscar nomination

12. The Martian BEST PICTURE Oscar nomination

13. A War (Foreign/Subtitled)

14. The Wrecking Crew (Documentary)

15. Love and Mercy
It’s a miracle Brian Wilson, the musical genius behind the Beach Boys, is even alive today. In Love and Mercy, director Bill Pohlad along with screenwriters Oren Moverman and Michael A. Lerner, delve into Brian’s life in a most unusual way. Like the Dylan film, I’m Not There, they have chosen to use one actor to play Brian before his nervous breakdown (Paul Dano), and one to play Brian after his breakdown (John Cusack) when he is being controlled by Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti). This comes with mixed results. The forces at work on Brian which include his abusive father, Murry, the fights with his bandmates—especially Mike Love—, Landy’s Svengali-like control, and Brian’s own destructive use of drugs, all work to destroy one of the most profoundly creative songwriters of this or any time. Dano is fantastic, for he captures Brian’s speech and mannerisms down to the slightest of glances. Cusack is not bad in his role, it’s just that in the constant cutting from one to the other, Dano seems to have immersed himself deeper into Brian’s body, mind and soul. Brian’s second wife, Melinda (Elizabeth Banks), comes off as strong and determined to wrestle Brian from Landy’s control in an important role that may be a bit overplayed here. Melinda certainly is a central part of Brian’s story, but she seems to hold as much, if not more, screen time than Brian (Cusack) himself. The movie hits all the important aspects of Brian’s life (the death of Dennis Wilson for example and Murry’s selling of the Beach Boys catalogue), and yet it is Brian in the studio working on the Pet Sounds album that resonates the deepest. His scenes with the Wrecking Crew, the back-up players who performed on so many songs behind musicians in Los Angeles, are powerful and enthralling. The film captures much of Brian’s tumultuous life, and yet because the film can only delve so deep, it seems there’s so much more that is left unsaid. If this is a very good film and not a great film, that is because a biographical movie can only let the audience see snippets of an artist whose life is exceptionally complicated. That is to say, watch the end credits and marvel at the songs which Brian Wilson created. Those songs will forever speak louder than any film that attempts to cover the pain and magic from which they came. To truly understand Brian Wilson, one must understand the love and mercy which defined his life. This thoroughly engaging film attempts to do just that and is mostly successful. Then go listen to the songs once again and be overwhelmed by the power and beauty of Brian Wilson’s creations.


17. Ex Machina
A science fiction peek into the future of artificial intelligence that has elements of Blade Runner and Her, as well as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein novel. A program coder, Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) wins a contest to spend a week with his boss, Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac), a super wealthy, internet search engine inventor. Isaack wants Gleeson to test his new AI creature, Ava, (played brilliantly by Alicia Vikander) in a Turing Test (named after the British inventor and math wizard Alan Turing of the Imitation Game) to see if Ava is experiencing real emotions. The acting by all three principals is exceptional (Isaac is building a varied and amazing body of work) and the modern cool sets of Isaac’s hideaway speak to a future that may not be that far off, at least for the extremely wealthy, or the laboratory of a modern self-absorbed inventor. Director Alex Garland (28 Days later) hits all the right beats in this provocative and entertaining sci-fi “what if.” Though it moves slowly at times, the viewer can’t be helped but be drawn in by the alluring Ava, her hip/arrogant and manipulative creator, Caleb, and the smart but somewhat innocent Caleb who is trying to figure out the truth about Ava and her inventor.

18. He Named Me Malala (Documentary)

19. Star Wars: The Force Awakens

20. Cartel Land (Documentary)

21. Revenant: BEST PICTURE Oscar nomination
I am be the only person who feels like this, but give it all the awards it deserves for its technical aspects and Mr. DiCaprio’s gutsy and worthy performance, but the film badly needed to be edited down from 2 hrs and 36 minutes. Plus, the “based on a real story,” is actually “historical fiction.” This character escaped death or rose from the dead more times than all of the people in the Bible combined. For this type of film, give me Robert Redford in Jeremiah Johnson any day.

22. The Danish Girl
This is the true story of artist/painter Einar Wegener and his artist wife Gerda, as they go through a difficult time in the 1930’s as Einar begins to transform himself into Lili, a transgender woman. The European locations are beautiful, but the story, though told with compassion, is slow. What holds your attention is not Redmayne’s transformation, but the amazing work done here by Alicia Vikander as his supportive wife. Vikander has had some kind of year with her earlier performance in Ex Machina which was indeed noteworthy. She is an actress to pay attention to and also mentioned during awards season.

23. Anomalisa (Animated)
I really like Charlie Kaufman’s writing, but this animated story is nothing more than a man on a business trip who’s about to have a nervous breakdown. And an affair. If this hadn’t been stop-motion animation, would any one have really cared?

24. Lambert and Stamp (Documentary)
The engaging and fascinatingly true story of Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp two budding filmmakers who in the mid 60’s wanted to make a film about a rock band as a way to enter the cinematic world. Instead, they discovered the band the High Notes which would eventually become The Who. Lambert and Stamp would soon become the managers and guiding forces behind the band. Interviews with Stamp (Lambert died in 1981), Pete Townsend, Roger Daltry and others who were a part of that long ago time and place make for an intriguing film about one of the world’s greatest rock bands. There is so much film footage from this time that the words overlaying the visuals make it feel as if you were there. The story behind how they managed to get Townshend to write songs, and the unfortunate disagreements over the Tommy project are only two of the stories that will draw you into this film. A must see for anyone interested in The Who, music from this time period, or just any music fans in general.

25. Concussion
Will Smith expertly slips into the persona of Dr. Bennet Omalu, the Nigerian doctor who helped discover the brain trauma, CTE, in football players. The film is a dramatization of PBS Frontline’s “League of Denial: The NFL Concussion Crisis.” The movie highlights the plight of Steeler’s center Mike Webster, but also shows how the NFL hid the truth about concussions from its players. (One wishes that Dr. Anne McKee would have been given more credit in this film, for she did as much as Dr. Omalu, but the focus is solely on Omalu.)

This is NOT a great film—the relationship with Omalu and his wife didn’t seem all that necessary, nor was it well done— but the film IS still an important one.

A major point made in the movie is that the brain is encased in fluid and not prepared for the kind of repeated hitting done to the head in the pros, or any level of youth football. Also mentioned is the fact that if just 10% of adults do not allow their children to play football, the assembly line of talent needed for football could dry up very, very quickly. Last year alone 11 high school players died football related deaths. Or to put it in a professional context: Mike Webster died of suicide. Andre Waters died of suicide. Dave Duerson died of suicide. And the beat goes on. But Americans will enjoy this year’s Super Bowl as always because it won’t be until 10-20 years down the road before one of today’s players dies a CTE related death. Only the families care, but they won’t be allowed to speak at any Hall of Fame induction ceremony.

26. Truth

27. Son of Saul (Foreign/Subtitled)
Extremely difficult to watch. First, this holocaust film is the most difficult film I’ve ever sat through. It really gives you the feeling of being in an earthly hell. Secondly, the director chose to use a hand held camera through much of the film and use extreme close ups of Saul’s face. The viewer is left with a claustrophobic look at this horror. Tough film all the way around. I only know one person who thought its spiritual component was its salvation.

28. Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine (Documentary)

29. Going Clear: Scientology… (Documentary)

30. The Hunting Ground (Documentary)

31. Shaun the Sheep (Animated)

32. Aloha

33. Youth
Michael Caine plays a retired orchestra conductor; Harvey Keitel is an old movie director seeking funding; Paul Dano is a Johnny Depp type actor; and Jane Fonda is a movie star who may or may not be in Keitel’s new film. All of them come to an exclusive European Hotel and Spa to get away and plan for the future. The film is beautifully photographed, and Michael Caine is especially good, but the film often comes across as self indulgent and pretentious, with each line of director/screenwriter Paolo Sorrentino’s dialogue meant to shine a philosophical light on old age, youth, life and love. Some of this works. Most of it just seems heavy handed. I almost left early, but stayed on primarily to see Michael Caine. Having said all that, the audience I saw it with applauded when the film was over. They liked it. Whatever they saw, I evidently missed.

34. Phoenix (Foreign)

35. ’71

More Notes:

Salt of the Earth (2014 Documentary): The Academy Award nominated documentary from Wim Wenders and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado about renowned photographer Sebastiao Salgado is one in which pictures speak much more than the proverbial 1,000 words. a has photographed both the hell that mankind creates on earth, as well as the beauty and hope that somehow saved his own soul from destruction. The images will linger in your mind forever, as will the words that he uses to describe what he was seeing at the time. This is not easy viewing, but it is necessary to understand that which humans often turn a blind eye towards, as well as the power of art to bring hard truths, reality, beauty and transcendence to a world that often defies explanation.

Brooklyn, Carol: I’m guess I’m a sucker for period piece love stories that go against all odds.

The Martian, Star Wars: I don’t usually like blockbusters, but I really enjoyed these.

Truth, Aloha, Shaun the SheepNear the bottom, but worth seeing.

“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near Tannhauser gate. All those moments will be lost in time….like tears in rain.”  Blade Runner

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