Weingrad rates the movies of 2016

Here we are. Amid the political chaos, we still all be able to sit around the fireplace, cozy up with a cat on our lap, enjoy some fine wine and watch the Oscars.

I have a very warped view of how people watch TV.

Last year, controversy surrounding the Oscars centered on the lack of diversity within the acting nominees. This year is one of the most diverse ever, and instead, the biggest fear is whether the Trump administration will even allow the Best Foreign Film category to exist anymore.

All jokes aside, let’s stick to movies here. I’ve studiously watched every noteworthy film that came this past year, and have carefully crafted my rankings — with one small exception. For the second consecutive year, I have not seen the Star Wars movie.

When I compiled my list last year, I said that when I did see it, I would insert it into the Top 12 if it belonged there. I finally saw it weeks later, enjoyed it, but decided it was not one of the best 12 movies of 2015. When I see Rogue One, I will apply the same rule. If it deserves to be included on this list retroactively, I will return and add it.

Before I begin, please feel free to check out my previous rankings for 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010 and 2009. As you can see, this is one of this blog’s most storied traditions.

One last note — the streak of my top-ranked film failing to win the Academy Award ended last year when Spotlight took home the top prize. Will it start a new trend? Probably not.

Let’s go!

 

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12. Nocturnal Animals

This year was probably the hardest yet to settle the Top 12 – too many films deserved to be here. But Nocturnal Animals evoked such a visceral reaction in me while I was watching it that I couldn’t leave it off. A tour de force of drama and suspense, led by stellar acting by Jake Gyllenhaal, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon and Aaron Taylor Johnson, while vividly imagined by director and fashion icon Tom Ford, Nocturnal Animals puts you in the middle of a situation that we all have nightmares about – being terrorized by young hooligans on a deserted road with no cell service. You can’t help but become personally invested into what happens to these characters, even though, deep down, you know it won’t end well. It probably won’t happen, but Michael Shannon is a dark horse to win Best Supporting Actor.

 

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11. Eye in the Sky

Another movie that takes you on a whirlwind, suspenseful ride. Eye in the Sky is an extremely relevant drama that takes you behind the scenes of 21st century warfare, where wars are no longer fought in the trenches, but in situation rooms and through computer screens and cell phones. It takes place in real time, with military officials making the life-or-death decision to order a drone strike on suspected terrorists in Africa. As the officials weigh the moral components and collateral damage of such an attack, we witness the bureaucratic protocols in which leaders from multiple countries must go continuously up the ladder to receive approval for the strike. All the while, we witness the varying mindset of the players as we get further away from the thick of the action, from the drone pilots with their fingers over the trigger, to defense secretaries who are in foreign countries engaging in a ping pong tournament. A powerful performance by Helen Mirren adds credibility to the action, while Alan Rickman, in what was tragically his final performance, is another scene-stealer, and delivers by far the most poignant line in the movie at the film’s close.

 

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10. Hidden Figures

This is just a heartwarming story wrapped in important American history. It depicts three black women in NASA who were instrumental in getting our country’s first astronaut, John Glenn, to orbit Earth. The film does not sugarcoat the hardships these women endured in the years immediately preceding the height of the Civil Rights movement. But the film does not serve to critique the obvious injustices of the time, but focuses on the incredible resolve displayed by its three heroines, portrayed wonderfully by Taraji P. Henson, Oscar nominee Octavia Spencer and the beautiful Janelle Monae.

 

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9. Hell or High Water

The story behind Hell or High Water is nothing too original: a local sheriff in a game of cat and mouse with two low-life, sibling bank robbers down south. But the film is as much a character study as it is a crime story. An engrossing script mixed with beautiful visuals and highly believable acting by Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine and Ben Foster makes this a highly entertaining and deeply fulfilling watch on many levels. Think of it as No Country for Old Men-lite.

 

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8. Captain Fantastic

Captain Fantastic definitely takes the crown for being the most original film of the year. It’s about a father who raises his six children in a small home in the Washington wilderness, far away from civilization. They live cell phone free, and the father (Viggo Mortensen) makes sure that his kids are well-read, physically fit, resourceful and intellectually independent. But when a death in the family forces them to travel into the “real world,” the consequences of their isolated lifestyle begin to show, as the kids start to experience all of the things that they’ve missed out on. Viggo Mortensen is the driving force of the film, and I’d have been incensed has he not been nominated for Best Leading Actor. It’s a family drama mixed with many laughs, though it does get a bit corny at the end.

 

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7. Hacksaw Ridge

Directed by the always controversial Mel Gibson, Hacksaw Ridge is definitely a bit heavy on the religious allegories. But if you let those slide, then you’ll enjoy a no-holds-barred, violent war drama (at least in the second half – the first half is basically just a love story, which has its endearing moments). If you’ve seen Apocalypto, then you’d know that Gibson holds little back in terms of physical brutality. And war offers plenty of room for brutality. We watch a single battle in Okinawa, where conscientious objector Desmond Doss (fantastically played by Andrew Garfield) becomes a combat medic. At first shamed and mocked by his peers for his pacifism, he proves heroic as he risks everything to save dozens of lives that had been left for dead in the battle’s aftermath. What makes it more stirring is that it’s based on Doss’s real-life achievements. It’s a definitely a story worth knowing.

 

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6. Silence

Silence got almost no love from the Academy Awards, possibly because it came out too late in the season, or because its subject matter is too esoteric for most moviegoers. But quite simply, it’s a work of art. It involves two priests (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) who travel to Japan to promote Catholicism and discover the whereabouts of their former teacher (Liam Neeson). But as you will learn, Catholicism was not welcome in Japan at the time. It’s slow-paced, but is full of elegant scenery and poses a relevant reminder of religious tolerance. Again, there’s no other words to describe it but as a work of art, and what else would you expect from Martin Scorsese? It may not have gotten a lot of love in the short term, but I think Silence will be fondly remembered in the future.

 

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5. Manchester by the Sea

Yes, we know. It’s sad, depressing and will probably leave a lot of viewers feeling unfulfilled. But the bottom line is that Manchester by the Sea is a beautifully crafted, intricate film about dealing with tragedy. Life isn’t always about happy endings or redemption. Sometimes it just goes on. And in a strange way, it tells us that dealing with everyday trivialities can be a healing remedy through this beautiful and horrible thing we call life. A lot of people will be pulling for Casey Affleck to take home Best Leading Actor, and he’s got a fighting chance, but I personally believe that the award will go to Denzel. Stay tuned.

 

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4. Arrival

This movie could not be more relevant, given the political and international landscape we’re living in now. Yes it involves aliens, but the entire movie is basically a commentary on how civilizations treat outsiders. It also shows us the deep problems that can arise from even the subtlest differences in language and mindsets. Most importantly, Arrival encourages us to try and look at things from a different perspective, and to be empathetic towards those who think differently than us. It’s a very thought-provoking movie, and driven by a deeply tense and suspenseful tone generated by director Denis Villenueve, and by a compelling, natural performance by Oscar snub Amy Adams.

 

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3. La La Land

The movie that was loved by all. La La Land is impossible not to like. First of all, you can’t take your eyes of the screen, as your dazzled by the allure of its attractive leads, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, the beautiful Los Angeles scenery and enjoyable music and choreography. It’s an ode to all those who dream of making it big in Hollywood. And it’s pretty evident that it sets the landmark for the 21st century musical. It tied the record for most Oscar nominations, and while director Damien Chazelle and Emma Stone may take home some trophies (though Natalie Portman or Isabelle Huppert might have a say in the latter), look for La La Land to take home a bunch of awards in the set design, costume and musical categories.

 

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2. Moonlight

I’ve heard this movie referred to as “Boyhood for black people,” but I think that comparison is a huge disservice to both films, as each are their own unique works of art. Moonlight depicts a young black boy during three stages of his life as he progresses into adulthood. There are three acts and the boy is played by a different actor in each. What makes Moonlight so extraordinary is that it depicts the everyday struggles of being black and poor in America, while not shoving race in your face. It’s a personal, intimate story that can apply to everyone. And that’s not to ignore the racial component. After all, it’s what gives the film its identity. But at the end of the day, it’s a story of life, well told by director Barry Jenkins. Look for Mahershala Ali to take Best Supporting Actor, and pay attention to his speech. In my eyes, it’s between Moonlight and La La Land for Best picture. I’m calling Moonlight.

 

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1. Lion

I grappled with #1 and #2 on this list, but at the end of the day, I gave it to the film that impacted me the most personally. Lion is a remarkable story about a Indian toddler named Saroo who gets separated from his brother one night, and accidentally ends up traveling thousands of miles away by train. And he has no idea where home is. Bear in mind this is in the 1980s, where you can’t simply look it up on Facebook or Google Maps. He is later adopted by an Australian family. But once he hits his 20s, Saroo, now a college student played by Dev Patel, returns home to find his family. And it’s all true. What the movie does so well is convey the inner conflict that is raging within Saroo, knowing his birth mother never knew his fate and the grief that his displacement must have caused her. The movie hits its sentimental peak at the end, and unless you’re a robot, it’s almost impossible not to be emotionally affected. It won’t win Best Picture, but it tugs on the heartstrings and, in my opinion, is the most moving film of the year.

On the outside looking in:

I, Daniel Blake: I really wanted to include this brilliant English film in the Top 12. It’s about an elderly man named Daniel Blake (an excellent Dave Johns), who just suffered a heart attack and is told by doctors he cannot work, though he needs to file for welfare to make ends meet. But the complex bureaucracy of the system fails him, and he struggles to get the help he needs. Along the way, he meets and befriends a poor single mother who endures the same struggles. The film is obviously sending a political message, but also provides you some insight into the lives of people who rely on welfare to survive.

Sing Street: Another movie that everyone should see. Right now. La La Land may have been the best musical of the year, but Sing Street is not far behind. It’s an ’80s Irish high school drama wrapped in a musical, starring a teenage outcast (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) who starts a band to win over a girl. It’s just a feel-good film with superb music and lots of laughs. It will be especially endearing to those who love ’80s music. Again, see it now.

Moana: It’s the first time in a while that I left an animated film off the Top 12, and that’s a little saddening, but it’s mostly a testament to the caliber of quality films that came out this year. Anyway, Moana has all the ingredients of a top-notch animated film: a fun and sunny setting, humor, a courageous heroine, animals and The Rock. OK, that last one perhaps isn’t compulsory, but you know what I mean. It also has a catchy Frozen-esque song in “How Far I’ll Go,” which might stun some people if it it beats La La Land for Best original song (it would also make Lin-Manuel Miranda an EGOT winner). More importantly, Moana sends a pivotal message to kids about preserving and protecting our island nations.

Loving: This is another film that portrays a piece of American history that everyone should know about. It’s about an interracial Virginia couple (stunningly portrayed by Joel Edgerton and Oscar nominee Ruth Negga) who break state law by getting married, and are subsequently kicked out from the state. Advocacy groups learn their story and sue on their behalf, and the case eventually becomes a landmark one before Supreme Court, which legalizes interracial marriage nationwide. But the story is mostly about the couple’s desire to simply live a normal, peaceful life with one another, which is what we all want, but sadly, history had not always allowed.

Fences: Two words: Denzel. Washington. And Viola Davis. And August Wilson. This fim is all about the acting and script. Some people may become frustrated by its play-like atmosphere (the whole film only takes place in like three different places), but you just have to go with it. It’s 1950s Pittsburgh, and Troy Maxson (Denzel) is raising his kids with the same tough love his father raised him. It doesn’t always work out well for them. In fact, more times than not, it doesn’t. It’s an important film about the African-American experience prior to the Civil Rights movement. Viola Davis is an Oscar shoe-in, and Denzel may very well follow. I’d bet on it.

Other solid features from 2016 you should see:

Jackie: Highlighting the days following John F. Kennedy’s assassination through the eyes of his widow, Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman), the film presents a grim and funereal mood as it takes us through a pivotal time in American history. Natalie Portman is the heart and soul of the film, as she becomes Jackie Kennedy, capturing her wispy, dreamlike voice with eerie authenticity. She probably deserves to win Best Lead Actress, but ultimately I think it’ll go to Emma Stone.

Paterson: This is a charming, simple movie about finding art and beauty in everyday life. It takes us through a week in the life of a New Jersey bus driver (an endearing Adam Driver) who is also an amateur poet. We see his routine of going to work, coming home to his girlfriend (the beautiful Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani) and sneaking off for a nightcap during his nightly dog walk. It’s a pleasant, voyeuristic glimpse into a life of an everyday man that encourages us to see the beauty in places where we’d never think to look.

The Birth of a Nation: This movie was essentially ostracized from Hollywood and the mainstream because of revelations of past rape allegations of the film’s actor and director, Nate Parker. Which is a shame, because Birth of a Nation depicts a little-known but integral piece of the history of the abolitionist movement, a slave revolt led by slave preacher Nat Turner in 1831, which was a key event leading up to the Civil War. Judging the film alone, it’s a powerful watch and I’d encourage everyone to see it.

The Edge of Seventeen: In case you didn’t know already, Hailee Steinfeld is a star. This coming-of-age, dark comedy focuses on the struggles and expectations of high school life through the eyes of a mostly unpopular female student. Steinfeld makes the film what it is, though a great supporting role by Woody Harrelson also gives it a boost.

20th Century Women: This is a brilliant film, and the sole reason it’s not higher on this list is because I’m simply not its target audience, and it really did not resonate with me. But it shows us the life and struggles of three women of varying ages in the late 1970s, and succeeds in delivering us well-rounded, independent female characters. Brilliant performances from Annette Bening, Greta Gerwig and the emerging Elle Fanning.

Kubo and the Two Strings: The second best animated film of the year. It’s fantasy-action-adventure film in ancient Japan starring Kubo, our guitar-strumming, papier-mache-wielding hero who is joined by two friends as they try to elude his evil grandfather. You’ll learn the backstory along the way. In the meantime, enjoy the magic.

Sully: Most people probably forgot that they saw this movie and enjoyed it. Tom Hanks is Chesley “Sully” Sullenburger, the hero pilot who carefully landed a doomed airplane in the Hudson River without a single casualty. But the film shows us the incredible aftermath of the incident that few knew about, where Sully was basically victimized by airline officials for what they believe was unnecessary actions on his part that resulted in the loss of an expensive plane, forcing him to appear at a hearing to justify his life-saving decision.

Passengers: This film got mostly lampooned by critics, and though it has serious flaws in regards to the scientific aspects of the film, the whole movie worked in my eyes as a futuristic love story. If you’re a fan of either Chris Pratt or Jennifer Lawrence, you will like this film. if you’re a fan of both, you’ll really like it. And I also must credit an enjoyable performance by Michael Sheen as a bartending cyborg.

Christine: One wonders why this film was even made, or why anyone would watch it, when you consider it’s about a troubled local television reporter who commits suicide on air. A great film to watch with the family! But seriously though, it’s a fascinating character study of Christine Chubbuck, and features an incredible performance by Rebecca Hall. If the film was more popular, she would have been nominated for an Oscar.

Patriots Day: This film takes us into the immediate manhunt to catch the perpetrators of the Boston Marathon bombings, which we all still remember like it was yesterday. It showcases the amazing job done by local, state and federal law enforcement in collaboration, and gives us a major emotional release at the film’s end by highlighting the real life victims and their inspiring stories.

Southside With You: The best movie of the year according to liberals, and the worst according to conservatives. But seriously, politics aside, this is just a charming movie that highlights the first date between an ambitious black couple in the south side of Chicago. Those two people just happen to be Barack and Michelle Obama. With great performances by Parker Sawyers and Tika Sumpters, the film does give some interesting insight into the life developments that lead a man to want to pursue the highest office in our nation.

Indignation: Based on the Phillip Roth novel, Indignation shows us the anxieties and fears that abounded in America during the Vietnam War era. Young Marcus Messner (Logan Lermer) is able to avoid enlistment by attending college, but his own sense of righteousness and indignation — as well as his love affair with a troubled girl (the beautiful Sarah Gadon) — puts him at odds with the university’s dean (Tracy Letts) and jeopardizes his academic career. A fascinating, multi-layered film.

The Lobster: I said earlier that Captain Fantastic was the most original film of the year, but the Lobster might have something to say about that. In a dystopian society, residents in a quasi-detention center are given a certain length of time to find a life partner, or they are transformed into an animal. Colin Farrell’s best performance since In Bruges.

There you go folks. We’ll do this all again in 2018. Just remember one word: Dunkirk (you’ll know why in about five months).

Weingrad rates the movies of 2015

Ladies and gents, it’s that time of the year again. The Academy Awards are on Sunday, and don’t worry if you haven’t seen everything because I’ve got you covered.

I’ve done this every year since I started this blog — in 2009, ’10, ’11, ’12, ’13 and ’14, and for the seventh time, I will force my film commentary on you all, ranking my favorite movies of the year from 1 to 12. As always, no movie description will contain spoilers.

I must add one single disclaimer to this year’s rankings. I have not seen Star Wars.

*ducks in preparation for something to be thrown at me, then realizes I’m typing at my computer. I relax and sit back up and somehow a tomato comes through the screen and hits me in the face*

I know that’s a pretty big omission. It was one of the most well-received movies of the year. So here’s what I’ll do: once I see it, I will add it to this list where it fits. If it’s worthy of being in the top 12, I’ll slip it in where applicable, and it’ll become a top 13.

One more note before I begin — in the years I’ve done this, my #1 choice has never won Best Picture at the Oscars. Rather, the Best Picture winners have been ranked on my lists, respectively, at 4, 3, 2, 5, 8 and 2.

Will that change this year? We’ll find out Sunday. Let’s get into it.

 

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12. Sicario

A film about a joint U.S. task force charged with containing a deadly Cartel that smuggles drugs across the Mexican-American border, and seen through the perspective of a young, ambitious FBI agent (Emily Blunt), is probably the most suspenseful movie of the year. It’s artistically violent and unabashedly cynical about our government’s handling of the war on drug trafficking. The drama builds at a fluid pace from the beginning, and ends with a flourish. A reliable performance from Josh Brolin and a masterful one by Benicio Del Toro rounds out this well executed film. Probably the biggest sleeper film of the year.

 

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11. Steve Jobs

A worthy biopic about one of the most interesting men of our generation. You know what you’re getting in a film written by Aaron Sorkin: strong-headed characters with giant egos; tenaciously sharp and biting dialogue; and feelings of sentiment at just the right moments. Which is what made him the perfect scribe for a Steve Jobs biopic. That being said, the success of this film lies just as much on the brilliant performance by Michael Fassbender (probably the biggest challenger to Leo for Best Actor on Sunday), and a heart-racing score that matches the intensity of the dialogue. The whole movie takes place in just three elongated scenes, each taking place before the launch of a significant product, embedded with the occasional flashback. And somehow, it all works.

 

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10. Ex Machina

The year’s best sci-fi really captures the serious mood that conveys the risk of developing artificial intelligence. Ex Machina is an entertaining and thought-provoking cautionary tale that takes place in the not-too-distant-future, involving a young, up-and-coming software developer (Domhnall Gleeson) winning a contest to meet his company’s CEO, (Oscar Isaac) who’s also one of the world’s most brilliant scientific minds. He gets a firsthand experience of exactly what his boss is working on, and becomes involved in the experiment in ways that he never would have expected. A captivating, eccentric performance by Isaac, and an impressive showing by Alicia Vikander as a cyborg helps carry this gripping film.

 

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9. The Hateful Eight

I’m not going to lie; I went into this movie so weary of Quentin Tarantino clichés that I was expecting to hate it. And about two hours in, I felt like my belief was validated. And then, suddenly, the entire movie changed course and became a whole lot more interesting and dynamic. I ended up enjoying it immensely. The performances from a large cast (Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh to name a few) were fine, but it was really the changeup in the film’s final act that won me over, which featured a surprise cameo. Otherwise, Tarantino’s trademark qualities of quirky personalities, unforgiving violence and austere, anachronistic settings are aplenty.

 

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8. The Danish Girl

This film is an example of how two extraordinary performances can really escalate a film to the next level. On the surface, this movie about a transgender painter Einar Wegener in 1920s Denmark seems like pure Oscar bait. But Eddie Redmayne is so hauntingly convincing of his character’s inner struggle that it’s emotionally gut-wrenching for the viewer. Wegener is the first person to ever have gender reassignment surgery, and is the real pioneer for the transgender community (and not some Kardashian family member). Alicia Vikander (get used to that name) excels in playing his wife, a fellow painter named Gerda Wegener, invoking a woman of tremendous inner strength while guiding her husband throughout his ordeal. If she doesn’t win Best Supporting Oscar on Sunday, something is seriously wrong.

 

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7. Inside Out

If there is not one beloved animated film in any given year, it means America has failed. Thankfully, we had Inside Out. It’s a brilliantly simple idea: a story that revolves around personifying human emotion. All feelings — happiness, sadness, anger, etc. — are alive within each person, and arevoiced wonderfully by Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith and Bill Hader, among others. But their existence is rattled when the young Riley, the girl that they dwell within, is uprooted and distraught by her family’s relocation from Minnesota to San Francisco. It puts our internal characters to the ultimate test to restore her sense of childlike wonder, and sets off a fun and sentimental adventure that will warm your heart and awaken the child inside of you.

 

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6. Straight Outta Compton

Sometimes a story is too good to not be told. Straight Outta Compton depicts the true tale of the emergence of N.W.A, five young black rappers who hailed from the crime-ridden, decrepit streets of Compton, where police brutality and overt discrimination run rampant. The protagonists, most notably Ice Cube, Dr. Dre and Eazy E (O’Shea Jackson Jr., Corey Hawkins and Jason Mitchell, respectively) were among the first to gain nationwide popularity (and notoriety) for rapping about social injustice and race, as well as the highs and lows that came with their unexpected fame. The movie will present a sense of nostalgia for all those who recall late ‘80s and early ‘90s hip-hop, and is surprisingly sentimental. It should appeal to anybody who enjoys a good story, whether you like rap or not.

 

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5. Brooklyn

For all the guys reading this, here’s a word of advice: take your girlfriends to see this movie. Brooklyn is an endearing romance about a young Irish girl (Saiorse Ronan) who emigrates to Brooklyn in the 1950s in search of greater opportunity and independence. What she finds, rather, is an Italian man (Emory Cohen) with a thick New York accent who sweeps her off her feet. Everything seems to be going perfectly until tragedy calls her back to Ireland, and her life suddenly becomes completely upended, leaving her with a choice of which of her two lives she wishes to continue. Ronan and Cohen shine as our leading love interests, sharing a fantastic chemistry that will leave you gushing in spite of yourself.

 

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4. Room

No movie may have been more emotionally taxing this year than Room, which largely takes place in a small, dilapidated room inhabited by a young mother (Brie Larson) and her very young son (Jacob Tremblay). Why they’re there is a mystery, but eventually comes to light in a shocking manner. Larson, the likely (and deserving) Oscar winner for Best Lead Actor, is simply fantastic as she portrays a young woman who must protect her son even when her life is in the most impossible of circumstances. It’s not an easy watch, but Room is as engrossing of a film as it gets.

 

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3. The Big Short

The appeal behind the Big Short, a dramedy revolving around the few bankers who actually foresaw — and capitalized on — the mortgage crisis that eventually led to the Great Recession, is very counter-intuitive. People will want to see it because of its big cast (Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt), but then will be slightly turned off when you see they’re playing money-grubbing, big-headed sleazy bankers who basically laughed at the prospect of hundreds of thousands of families losing their savings. Additionally, all the jokes are embedded with so much esoteric financial terminology that they likely will go over most people’s heads. However, one does not need to pick up on every piece of technical information to appreciate the movie. And, in truth, it’s actually a very solid primer on the laissez-faire mentality and reckless behavior that crippled the financial industry and essentially caused the crisis that affected us all. It’s a very smart and intellectually stimulating film, even if some people may feel like the characters are speaking a different language at times. But give it a try and don’t feel too intimidated.

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2. The Revenant

“It’s too long, but well done.” “Leo doesn’t even say anything most of the movie!” “Who the <bleep> is Hugh Glass and why should I care?” Those are the most common critiques I’ve heard of the Revenant. But all I know is that his film is a major cinematic achievement. Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, fresh off his directing Oscar from Birdman last year (and who may very well repeat this year), uses his signature long-takes and wide angle shots to capture the amazing landscape that reimagines the early 1800s American frontier. It especially pays off during an epic battle scene early on, which was a massive achievement in organization among dozens of actors, which puts the viewer dead center in the middle of the action, all in one take. The story is simple: High Glass ( Leonardo Dicaprio) gets attacked by a bear, is left for dead by his fellow trapper (Tom Hardy) and embarks on an epic journey, while half-dead, to exact revenge. It’s true that Leo doesn’t say much, but the toll that this film must have taken on him, in the freezing cold wilderness day in and day out, is unimaginable. He will get the Oscar for Best Lead Actor and he deserves it. Maybe you won’t care too much for the story, but the amazing visuals of The Revenant are undeniable.

 

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1. Spotlight

As a former journalist, this movie hit all of the bases for me. Not only is it a deeply interesting and intricate story, but one that details the plight of a group of investigative journalists as they slowly uncovered the sexual abuse scandal endemic within the Catholic Church in the late ’90s and early 2000s. This movie is just a solid effort all around, from its dialogue to its direction. But the real joy is watching all of the fine actors (namely Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Michael Keaton) interact with one another. Ruffalo and McAdams were rewarded with Oscar nods, and I’m glad to see McAdams rewarded, as she has seriously honed her acting skills over the years (while not aging a day). As a complete package, Spotlight excels in too many aspects not to be #1. Will the Academy Awards feel the same way? We shall see.

On the outside looking in:

It Follows: Those who have been craving a legitimately scary, indie horror film need look no further then It Follows. The premise itself — a demonic, haunting presence transferred from person to person via sex — sounds almost like a joke, but when put to film, with an eerie score and sufficient actors, it’s borderline genius. This is a film that will scare the living shit out of you and will probably give you nightmares from thinking about it so much afterwards. It was so close to cracking my top 12, mainly because of how much it exceeded expectations.

Creed: Probably one of the mainstream favorites of the year, Creed does fall into your typical boxing clichés, but does so with a sense of familiarity as it brings us back to the Rocky franchise. Sylvester Stallone is wonderful, Michael B. Jordan is pretty good, and the story itself is substantive enough to make for a fulfilling watch.

Trumbo: Label this as another movie that educates as well as entertains. Extreme anti-Soviet sentiment fed by McCarthyism during the Cold War essentially led to a witch hunt of alleged Communists in America, and the movie industry was not exempt. Renowned screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, brilliantly depicted by Bryan Cranston, was blacklisted for about a decade, yet still managed to exert his influence into Hollywood in a big way.

The Martian: It doesn’t quite match up to the book, but The Martin still definitely entertains. Led by a charismatic performance by Matt Damon, the tale of an astronaut who gets left behind on Mars is loaded with scientific vernacular but dumbed down enough to remain accessible to viewers. Just a fun movie all around. Though I’d still recommend reading the book first.

Dope: A very timely and unexpectedly poignant film about a black teenager growing up in an urban neighborhood where his peers feel a sense of detachment and inequality from the rest of the world. But yet, Dope doesn’t preach — rather, it’s main character, Dom (an excellent Rakim Mayers) breaks that mold; he dons an early ’90s Fresh Prince-like haircut, plays in an indie rock band and has his sights set on getting into Harvard University. Wildly entertaining and extremely satisfying, Dope is one of the best surprises of 2015.

Other solid features from 2015 you should see:

Beasts of No Nation: One of the more prominent movies to be released exclusively on Netflix, Beasts of No Nation is about an adolescent child who is recruited to join a rebel army in an unnamed African nation. The savagery and barbarism contained within will likely offer an eye-opening experience for many privileged Americans. Indeed, the average moviegoer will be shocked and awed, and will return to their life afterwards. But in many parts of Africa, it’s horrible to know that the events in Beasts of No Nation are a sad reality. Exceptional performances abound by Idris Elba (Oscar snub) and the young Abraham Attah.

The End of the Tour: Depicting an extended interview between Infinite Jest author David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel) and Rolling Stone writer David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg), The End of the Tour is dialogue heavy, philosophical, funny and will appeal to book lovers and writers everywhere. Very strong chemistry between Segel and Eisenberg makes it work.

Carol: It’s a well-told story beautifully imagined in 1950s New York, but most people will want to watch it to see Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett make out. And they do (plus more). The superb acting was expected; but Carol will mostly appeal more to people who enjoy a good drama/romance.

Mad Max: Fury Road: This movie is an adrenaline-rush from start to finish, highlighted by outstanding visuals and cinematography. It’s a post-apocalyptic road movie that’s loud and boisterous, at times disturbing, but certainly unique. A badass performance by Charlize Theron steals the show.

Bridge of Spies: It’s a Steven Spielberg movie, so you know to expect a likable protagonist and a fulfilling story. And Bridge of Spies delivers. Tom Hanks is reliable in his portrayal of an attorney who somehow gets thrust into the role of hostage negotiator between the U.S. and Soviet-controlled eastern Germany. The film is also boosted by a strong performance by Mark Rylance as a Soviet spy, the front-runner for Best Supporting Actor.

Concussion: If anything, it’s nice to finally see the harmful long-term effects that football has on the human brain brought to the mainstream, after the NFL for so many years denied any such correlation. A committed performance by Will Smith as the doctor who made this discovery draws us in, but in the end the film may be a little too bleak and a little too real to fully enjoy.

Anomalisa: Easily one of the more unique films of the year, Anomalisa uses puppets and stop-motion to tell the story of a lonely, depressed customer service representative (voiced nicely by David Thewlis) who travels to Cincinnati to speak at a convention. The attention to detail in the animation is astounding, but the movie is just so darn depressing to really appeal to the mainstream.

Joy: Jennifer Lawrence’s strong leading performance can’t prop up Joy, a part fictional retelling, part biopic of Joy Mangano, which has a dazed, lethargic mood throughout. Bradley Cooper, who appears midway through, just seems like he was bored throughout the film. It’s a nice rags-to-riches story of a woman fighting through adversity to become a successful entrepreneur, but overall falls short of achieving any real substance.

Infinitely Polar Bear: Mark Ruffalo gives a charged, energetic performance of a bipolar father who, while separated from his wife (Zoe Saldaa), remains on good terms with her and their two biracial children. But it’s particularly refreshing to see a movie about mental illness that strikes a positive cord. One of the better indie films of the year.

Everest: A film about the 1996 Mount Everest disaster that left 12 climbers dead, Everest does a convincing job conveying the unimaginable struggles trying to scale the world’s highest summit. It’s a nice watch but probably won’t resonate much further afterwards. If anything, it may motivate you to read Jon Krakauer’s excellent book, “Into thin Air,” which describes the excursion from his own perspective.

Trainwreck: The year’s “it” raunchy comedy, and the breakthrough of Amy Schumer. The narrative is unoriginal, and it loses its charming effect by movie’s end, but there are definitely some genuinely hilarious jokes throughout. Also, it’s Lebron James’s film debut. If that means anything.

Cinderella: It says something that the filmmakers of Cinderella did not give in to our contemporary fixation of rewriting (and ruining) old classics, but rather, stuck to the pure, original story using dazzling CGI to reimagine the original fairy tale’s setting. But the real takeaway is Lily James, who is stunningly gorgeous and heavily compelling as Cinderella, and a real star in the making. Just watch any interview on YouTube that she’s ever given and you will fall in love.

And there you go folks. I’m spent. Enjoy the Academy Awards!

Weingrad rates the movies of 2014

The 87th Academy Awards are tomorrow, which means it’s time for me to evaluate the best films of 2014. As a major cinephile, I make a point to watch nearly every significant movie that comes out each year. Five years ago I decided to make a list of my personal year-end top films, and have continued it ever since. You can view the older lists here: 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010 and 2009.

It was definitely a quality year for movies, and especially for lead male performances. Nothing is set in stone as far as which movie will take home Best Picture in tomorrow’s ceremony, but there were quite a few films that are worthy of the prize.

To date, of my five previous lists, none of my top selections has ended up winning Best Picture. Could this be the year? Only one way to find out. As usual, none of my film descriptions and analysis will contain any spoilers.

Let’s go.

 

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12. Selma

What most people know about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was his ability to inspire and empower through words. He was a masterful speaker and a great leader who advanced the African-American civil rights movements. But Selma showed us King’s abilities not behind a podium, but in his behind the scenes advocacy, working with various officials of all skin color to facilitate legislation to grant equal rights to African Americans. It may come off as tedious as times, and though there has been some debate of the historical accuracy regarding some aspects of Selma, there is no doubt it is an important film about American history that shows us a side of King we don’t see in historical footage. It’s helmed by an incredible performance by David Oyelewo, who, without a doubt, was the biggest snub among this year’s Academy Award nominations.

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11. Fury

This World War II epic details a five-man American tank crew during the end of the war, as the Allies pushed further into German territory. Rather than giving a history lesson, the movie illustrates the devastation and horrors caused by the war using action-packed battle scenes as well as poignant, quieter moments in between the fighting. The mix of action and drama complement each other really well. The war scenes don’t hold anything back as far as showing us violence and gore. The film is well-acted by its ensemble cast that includes Brad Pitt, Shia LeBeouf and Logan Lerman, and builds up to an extremely dramatic and heart stopping final battle scene that will leave you aghast once the credits start to roll.

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10. The LEGO Movie

A lot of people probably expected a corny, rather unintelligent film when they heard a movie was being made about Legos. What they got was exactly the opposite. The film is smart, laugh-out-loud funny, incredibly imaginative and has very stylish animation. It also shows us that voice acting really is an art, and Chris Pratt deserves a lot of credit voicing the film’s protagonist, a generic builder Lego who is tasked with saving the entire Lego universe. But the real accolades lie in the film’s writers and animators. It’s important to note that the LEGO Movie, while certainly appropriate for kids, is not really a kid’s movie. There’s a lot of adult humor in it that will greatly appeal to viewers of all ages. It’s a great effort all around, and a head scratching snub from the Best Animated Picture nominees.

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9. American Sniper

Any movies involving the Iraq War can obviously rouse many different emotions in people, but there’s no doubting the heroism of Chris Kyle, a Marine sniper who has registered more kills than any other servicemen in American history. The Clint Eastwood film details his life leading up to his enlistment, his four tours in Iraq, and the emotional impact the war had on both his psyche and his family. His wife Taya is played nicely by the gorgeous Sienna Miller, but the film’s all-star performance belongs to Bradley Cooper, who earned his third straight Academy Award nomination. It’s a very emotionally power film about a war the American people are still coming to grips with.

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8. The Theory of Everything

A film about Stephen Hawking’s studies and relationship with his wife Jane starts before he was ridden with a neurological disease we’ve come to know as ALS. It begins with him as a student at Cambridge University, where he met Jane, and delves into his later life as he continued his studies in physics while slowly deteriorating from his disease. Eddie Redmayne’s performance is simply breathtaking, and will make you believe he truly has ALS rather than just pretending to be a man who has it. He may be the favorite tomorrow to win Best Actor in a Leading Role, and if he does, it’s well deserved. Felicity Jones also is spectacular as his wife. The movie does focus strongly on the romance element, and sometimes strays from the physics and Hawking’s studies, which might bother some. But the result is still a beautiful film.

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7. The Grand Budapest Hotel

Wes Anderson may finally be getting the recognition he deserves after a long career of making interesting, artistic films that people love. Unlike most of the Academy Award nominated films, this one was released early in 2014, and really had strong sustaining power and a huge fan base that kept it relevant throughout the remainder of the year. As usual for Anderson’s films, it has a large ensemble cast, led by a brilliant Ralph Fiennes, and is as quirky and artsy as one could hope. It’s just a highly endearing film. The story is also engaging, detailing the life of a concierge in a fictional foreign hotel in the early 20th century. I think it’s the dark horse in this year’s Best Picture field, and though it probably won’t win, it wouldn’t shock me if it did.

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6. Gone Girl

After reading Gone Girl a couple of years ago, I had no idea how it would translate to film. Without spoiling anything, the story contains a couple of different narratives that while were easy to put forth in words, seemed like a difficult task in live action. But Gillian Flynn, who wrote the book as the well the film’s screenplay, did it brilliantly. David Fincher took it from there, turning it into an absolutely thrilling and intoxicating film that does not have a single dull moment. The acting is top notch, between Ben Affleck, Neil Patrick Harris and even Tyler Perry. But the real star is Rosamund Pike, who excels in this breakthrough role, showing us she’s as talented as she is gorgeous. For the few people who still haven’t seen it, the story is about a kidnapping that appears standard on the surface, but then takes a million different twists and turns, turning into an extremely perverse and gripping tale that likely left most of its audience members breathless.

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5. The Imitation Game

If there was ever a piece of history that needed to be told, it’s this. The Imitation Game is about a brilliant mathematician and cryptographer named Alan Turning, who helped crack Germany’s enigma code, greatly helping the Allies win World War II while pioneering the development of computer science. But since it was a top secret mission, Turing’s efforts were not really known until many years later. Another secret is that he was a homosexual, and participating in homosexual acts were a crime in the United Kingdom at the time. Benedict Cumberbatch delivers a sensational, emotionally wrenching performance as Turing, and the role should help him become a household name, if he wasn’t already. Keira Knightley is enjoyable as a fellow cryptographer on Turing’s team, earning her an Academy Award nomination. The movie is a story about overcoming great odds, and the resiliency of the human spirit, set in World War II. It’s well told, and in another year, the Imitation Game and Cumberbatch might have been heavily rewarded, but they may miss out this year due to heavy competition.

Whiplash

4. Whiplash

I don’t think anybody really expected just how much they were going to love Whiplash. It’s an intense film about a young drummer at an elite music university who comes under the tutelage of an extremely strict and demanding professor. The drummer, an excellent Miles Teller, wants to be the best, and his teacher, played by JK Simmons, wants to bring the best out of him, but tries to do it in extremely unconventional ways. The movie will fly by, and you’ll find yourself absolutely captivated by its story. And never before has there been a more surefire Academy Award nominee than JK Simmons, who steals the show, and should easily win tomorrow even though he’s in a pretty strong field of candidates. We’ve all had that one tough teacher in life, but they’re nothing compared to the villain that Simmons brings to life in Whiplash.

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3. Interstellar

What I love most about Christopher Nolan is his inclination to always push the envelope. There’s a point in Interstellar, with about an hour remaining, where you think you know exactly where it’s going. And then, it goes the complete opposite direction to places you never saw coming. It takes place in the future where Earth is becoming uninhabitable due to a failing ecosystem. A father, played by Matthew McConaughey, must leave his children behind to embark on a mission to discover an alternative planet for humans. The film is long, and at times may get a bit complicated with the science rhetoric, but its story is one that will make science fiction geeks celebrate. And count me among them. If you love traditional sci-fi elements like time travel, space voyages, robots and alternate dimensions, then you will love Interstellar. And even if you don’t like those things, you can still appreciate the innovation and complexity Nolan brings to the table.

Birdman

2. Birdman

There’s no other way to describe Birdman other than calling it a cinematic achievement. The basis for the story is quite simple: a washed-up actor tries to revive his career by producing and starring in a Broadway play, and must deal with the varying personalities of actors and his family members on set. But it’s the way Birdman is filmed that will make it a film that’s analyzed in film schools for years to come. Each scene is an extremely long take, and director Alejandro Innaritu made it so the entire movie looks like one continuous take, with no cuts. The result was astonishing. The ensemble cast headed by Academy Award-nominated Michael Keaton, Edward Norton and Emma Stone are phenomenal. Keaton is easily the biggest challenger to Redmayne for Best Lead Actor, and he very well could win. I really think it could go either way. But Birdman is my prediction to take home the Best Picture award, and it would be well deserved.

Boyhood

1. Boyhood

If Birdman is a cinematic achievement, than Boyhood is an achievement in humanity. While the film has been universally praised by critics and audiences, there are some who label it as “boring.” The film, as most people know by now, was shot over the course of 12 years, and depicts the growth of a 5-year-old boy and his family, up until when he goes off to college. We literally watch his boyhood take place before our eyes. What some people are failing to realize, though, is that Boyhood breaks away from basic film logic in that there is no overarching conflict or mystery that propels the story. The movie is rooted in reality, not in melodrama, or action, or special effects, and I think that’s why so many people related so strongly with it and are calling it one of the best movies they’ve ever seen. It speaks to life’s simplicity, the time that exists between significant moments. Patricia Arquette, who plays the boy’s mother, will likely win Best Supporting Actress tomorrow, a nice recognition for her long career. Ethan Hawke was also recognized with a well-deserved nomination. Boyhood could very well win Best Picture, but even if it doesn’t, it succeeded in its goal of affecting its viewers on an emotional level, while beautifully capturing the mundanity of life and the essence of childhood.

On the outside looking in:

Snowpiercer: This science fiction probably should have gotten more love. It takes place in a futuristic, dystopian society where the remainder of humanity lives in a train. The train’s compartments are divided by the social class of its patrons, starting with the poor people in the back, the wealthy leaders in the front. The poor people, led by actor Chris Evans, decide to do something about it and stage a violent uprising. It’s exciting, artistic, and a surprisingly solid metaphor for current societel class hierarchies.

Edge of Tomorrow: This movie is just plain fun. It’s another science fiction where humans are battling aliens for control of Earth, and one man, played by Tom Cruise, finds himself in a position where he’s gained the ability to relive a day all over again even after he dies in battle. He works with another soldier, played by Emily Blunt, to use this phenomenon to their advantage and defeat the aliens. There may be plot holes all over the place, but it’s such a fun, exciting movie that we can forgive that.

Foxcatcher: A sports drama about an Olympic wrestler who lives and trains at the estate of a wealthy but mentally unstable millionaire, a relationship that leads to tragic events. But the acting is tremendous, led by Channing Tatum and Academy Award nominated Steve Carell and Mark Ruffalo. I just think there is a natural, real life feel to the movie that makes it engaging.

A Most Violent Year: A man tries to run his heating oil company in New York City in 1981, statistically the most violent year in the city’s history. The city is decrepit, dirty and his trucks keep being hi-jacked, which could ruin his entire business. This film is also carried by superb acting from its leads, Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain, and shows that a movie can be tense and dramatic without needing contrived action sequences.

St. Vincent: Everyone loves Bill Murray, and everyone also loves a story about a bitter old man who turns into a sympathetic heroic figure. They get that in St. Vincent. Murray’s character becomes the caretaker of a child whose single mom must work during the day. He teaches him life lessons in unconventional ways, and the result is a sentimental, touching and enjoyable film.

Other solid features from 2014 you should see:

Nightcrawler: People were upset Jake Gyllenhaal didn’t get nominated for an Academy Award, but even though I thought it was one of his better performances, I didn’t see it as Academy Award-worthy. Still, it’s an extremely enjoyable and fast paced, intense film, about a guy who begins a career as a night crawler, or some one who rushes to film crime scenes to sell the footage to news networks. In time, the boundaries between observer and the crimes he’s filming begin to come together.

Wild: A great performance by Academy Award nominated Reese Witherspoon carries this movie, about a woman who walks the entire Pacific Coast in the U.S. to escape life’s troubles. It’s a very freeing movie for any one who also wants to experience their own cathartic, life-changing endeavor.

Mr. Turner: In another year, Timothy Spall would have received an Academy Award nomination for playing artist J.M.W Turner in this wonderful biopic, which is a colorfully rich period piece. But the competition was too much, and Spall never stood a chance. it shouldn’t stop you from seeing the movie.

Inherent Vice: it doesn’t compare with Paul Thomas Anderson’s other work, but I thought it was an enjoyable film noir with an interesting enough story to maintain interest. It involves a private detective (Joaquin Phoenix) chasing lead after lead to solve a mystery in drug-ridden 1970s Los Angeles. It does get a bit convoluted at times, but contains a lot of fun moments.

Cake: Jennifer Aniston gives the dramatic performance of a lifetime none of us knew she was capable of, and was an unfortunate snub from this year’s Academy Awards nominees. She plays a woman who is in chronic pain who is still coming to terms with her tragic past.

The Book of Life: After the LEGO Movie, this is the next best animated picture of the year. It has stunning animation, great music, and an extremely creative story that is just very pleasurable all around.

A Most Wanted Man: The sadness involved with this film is that it’s Philip Seymour Hoffman’s last, but it’s an appropriate one to cement his legacy with, because he’s brilliant in it. He plays a German intelligence agent who investigates a Chechen Muslim amid the international war on terror. It’s a clever, engaging political thriller, and also contains a surprisingly good performance by Rachel McAdams.

Camp X-Ray: Ladies and gentlemen, Kristen Stewart is actually a good actress. She just needed the right role. Her natural invulnerability that pissed people off in Twilight made her perfect to play a Guantanamo Bay prison guard, who befriends an alleged terrorist being held there, making for an extremely inconvenient situation.

Big Hero 6: I was expecting it to be a bit better and a little more emotionally poignant, but it does the job, albeit on a much more simpler level. It’s about a boy who befriends an inflatable robot invented by his brother, and they start a high tech super hero team to take on a bad guy. It’s no Frozen, but it’ll do.

Still Alice: Another foregone conclusion in tomorrow’s Academy Awards is that Julianne Moore will win Best Actress in a Leading Role for playing a woman who has early onset Alzheimer’s. She’s brilliant in the film. It’s a fairly simple movie plotwise, but emotionally moving and coveys a very real life story.

The Homesman: This western is about a woman and outlaw who escort three deranged women across the country. The scenery is vivid and austere, making it an authentic period piece. The acting by Tommy Lee Jones and Hilary Swank is — as was expected — top notch.

Into the Woods: People will see this because it has Meryl Streep, Anna Kendrick and Emily Blunt in it, but I didn’t like it at all. I found the music, scenery and story to be shockingly unimaginative, and it was really disappointing to me because it had so much potential. But as it’s a movie that is a musical retelling of classic fairy tales, it’ll still appeal to many.

…and now you are fully prepped. Enjoy the Academy Awards.

The perplexing, topsy-turvy career arcs of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck

Based on what decade you’re in, asking somebody to evaluate the careers of actors Matt Damon and Ben Affleck would elicit very different responses.

Their co-written late ’90s hit, Good Will Hunting, which put them on the fast track to stardom, guaranteed that the two will always go hand-in-hand. Plus they’re besties in real life.

Good Will HuntingBut what’s strange is that the perception behind each of them, at any given time, has always been different. When one flounders, one excels. When one has a breakthrough, the other falls into monotony. It’s bizarre.

I thought of this topic because I was watching last night’s People’s Choice Awards for like 10 minutes (and I’m not just saying 10 minutes to make myself seem more cool — it was because I was watching American Idol instead), and Affleck was honored with some humanitarian award.

He gave his speech, which contained some fairly moving remarks about how small acts of kindness can go a long way in the world, blah blah blah, but most of all, it got me thinking: this guy is everywhere now. And we haven’t even seen him as Batman yet.

And where the hell is Matt Damon?

It’s amazing it’s come to this when you consider the not-too-distant past.

But let’s start from the beginning. It was 1997 when the duo, in their mid-20s, won Academy Awards for writing Good Will Hunting. Their acceptance speech reflected their youthful exuberance, complete with a high-pitched squeak in Affleck’s voice. But it was endearing and together they captured the hearts of America.

If you asked anyone at this time, no one would have denied that they’d both be stars. It’s just that no one would have guessed the paths they took to get there. Saving Pvt Ryan

Flash forward five years later. Matt Damon already had classics like Saving Private Ryan and Ocean’s Eleven under his belt, and was just getting started on the Jason Bourne trilogy. His peak saw no limits.

Affleck, meanwhile, in addition to a few unsuccessful romantic comedies, sunk with Michael Bay to the bottom — with style over substance disaster thrillers Armageddon and Pearl Harbor. If he was wasn’t the butt of jokes yet, he would be very soon.

In the next two years, Affleck’s career was all but dead. Gigli was an unmitigated disaster. Daredevil and Surviving Christmas didn’t do him any favors, either.

Damon, meanwhile, continued his role in the Bourne and Ocean films, and starred in another collosal hit, The Departed. He was as A-list as it gets.

At this point, the script had been written. Damon won. Not that it was a competition, but it was general consensus Invictusthat since Good Will Hunting, one career went straight to the top, the other flatlined. No one saw any reason for that to change.

By the end of the decade, Damon secured his third Oscar nomination for his supporting role in Invictus. Affleck, meanwhile — whether by choice or by Hollywood shunning — was not in a major blockbuster. Instead, he had a leading role in the underrated political-thriller State of Play, and quietly started his filmmaking career, directing the critically acclaimed Gone Baby Gone, which starred his brother.

Things were starting to look up for Ben.

Nobody saw what would happen next.

Damon opened the next decade with a supporting rule in the acclaimed Coen Brothers’ 2010 film, True Grit, but since then, it’s been flop after flop: We Bought a Zoo, Promised Land, Elysium and Monuments Men came and went with a whimper.

Affleck, meanwhile, continued to establish himself as an elite director, while also using the platform to resurrect his acting career, with The Town, and Academy Award-winning Best Picture, Argo. Another poignant acceptance speech,movies-ben-affleck-argo-award 15 years after his last, won back America’s hearts.

While Damon had a small role in Interstellar this year, Affleck was the lead in the fall’s biggest hit, Gone Girl. His next projects involve playing Bruce Wayne in the Batman/Superman crossover, which promises to be huge, while directing (and starring in) his fourth feature film.

Seriously, who saw this coming 10 years ago?

People say Matthew McConaughey’s career underwent a huge rebirth last year. But his never died like Affleck’s did. And what’s most shocking is his meteoric rise is coinciding with Damon’s fall from grace.

How about dem apples?

Wednesday movie catchup

I’ve seen 10 more 2014 films since I last posted any reviews. Allow me to just scroll through them quickly right now.

This is Where I leave You: A solid cast can’t overcome an overused story arch that’s been done too many times before. It’s about four siblings who return to their small town home to join their mother in mourning their late father. Of course, each sibling has their own personal problems they are dealing with. It tries way too hard to be overly emotional, and gets lost in an overload of subplots. But Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Rose Byrne and Jane Fonda do present a likable cast, and that’s really the one good thing you can say.

Wish I Was Here: I was pretty disappointed with this film, only because I expect better from Zach Braff. His script contains a surprisingly cliché narrative, and, for the most part, pretty unlikeable characters. There are a few quirky Zach Braff touches in there, however, that made us love Garden State so much, like rabbis on segways and people dressed up in space suits. But this tale of self-discovery just didn’t hit the mark for me.

How to Train Your Dragon 2: White not quite as good as its predecessor, it still possesses the magic that’s made the franchise so popular to begin with. Couple that with outstanding animation and a compelling enough story, and you’ve got yourself another hit.

Obvious Child: Two words: Jenny. Slate. The former SNL cast member absolutely shines in this coming-of-age dramedy. There’s a serious amount of laughs in this one. It’s a female-driven comedy about womanhood that isn’t afraid to be raunchy, which is usually reserved for male comedies. So it’s a nice refresher. You wonder how successful the film would have been with any other actress besides Slate, but, it doesn’t matter. A star is born.

Camp X-Ray: Easily Kristen Stewart’s best performance to date. She plays a member of the armed forces who is assigned to oversee detainees in Guantano Bay. While she’s there, she forms a precarious friendship with one of them. It was actually a perfect role to her, because she portrays  just that right combination of fearlessness and vulnerability that fits her character. Terrific performance by her co-star, Peyman Mooadi, as well. The movie also delicately portrays a very controversial subject without placing judgment.

Young Ones: I honestly have no idea what this movie is about. It’s a futuristic, dystopian world with a plot that really didn’t need to be set in a futuristic, dystopian world. Anyway, it takes place in a time where water is extremely hard to come by. No major dilemma is really established that makes you care about the characters, and it’s a shame because it’s a waste of both solid cinematography and Michael Shannon.

White Bird in a Blizzard: Shailene Woodley gets naked. Sorry, I couldn’t really hold that one in. And I guess it’s a commentary on the film that the prevailing memory is nude scenes rather than the actual story. It was an interesting role for her, because she’s really at a point where she could be in any movie she wants without needing to resort to nude scenes. But anyway, the story is somewhat compelling, and it’s supported by a solid supporting cast in Christopher Meloni and Eva Green. There’s a bit of mystery too that will keep the viewer interested. Also, did I mention Shailene Woodley gets naked?

Maps to the Stars: I don’t think a movie will ever be made that has more unlikable characters than Maps to the Stars. But that was the point. Director David Cronenberg creates a satirical drama about the lives of those who get caught up in the Hollywood glamour. It’s a cautionary tale of losing sight of life’s priorities. But you also get an exceptional performance from Julianne Moore. Other than her, the characters are pretty blah. This movie is definitely not for everyone. In fact, it’s probably not for most people.

Enemy: Director Denis Villanueve (Prisoners) has proven that he can make anything dark and suspenseful. Enemy isn’t even that dark of a movie, and yet, haunting music and voyeuristic cinematography gives the viewer an uneasy feeling. It’s about a man who sees his exact lookalike in a movie, and sets out to find him. But it’s a psychological thriller, and you soon discover there’s a lot more than meets the eye.

The One I Love: Mark Duplass has become the king of independent, quirky comedies, and in The One I Love, he’s found his queen in Elizabeth Moss. The pair are fantastic together and share tremendous chemistry, which is ironic, when you consider that they portray a couple in the midst of a strained relationship. Their therapist sends them off to a secluded home for the weekend to resolve their troubles, and they end up finding themselves in an extremely peculiar – supernatural  — situation. It’s a totally original movie with a great script.

2014 Movie reviews: Calvary, 22 Jump Street, Million Dollar Arm, Cold in July and Lucy

Calvary

Filmmaker John Michael McDonough is the younger brother of Martin McDonough, who wrote and directed the amazing In Bruges in 2008. John Michael teamed up with Brendan Gleeson for the crime comedy The Guard in 2011, and this year, the two are back at it with Calvary, a very different piece of work from that of three years earlier.

CalvaryIt’s a pure drama, about an honest, good-natured priest, who, in the beginning of the film, receives a death threat. He’s told during a confessional that he will be shot and killed at the end of the week. But the priest, Father James, played by Gleeson, doesn’t fret. In fact, he goes about his life as normal, interacting with the various people in his hometown in Ireland. The characters he interacts with are all unscrupulous, and each have their own vices, which they have no problem pouring onto their resident priest. But they’re not seeking redemption.

The exception being James’s daughter, a lovely redhead named Fiona, played by Kelly Reilly, who, besides her father, seems be the only one with a moral compass.

I found the movie to be very cynical. It’s as if it was created simply to point out that humans are extremely flawed people. Which … we probably are, but I didn’t need it expounded on me for the better part of two hours.

But Gleeson is terrific in the film. He is in practically every scene, injecting stability and calmness into the film amid the revolving door that is the surrounding cast. And of course, hanging over the film is the looming anticipation as to whether the death threat will come to fruition.

I’d recommend this film if you are looking for a solid lead performance with some appealing cinematography of the Irish countryside, but not so much if you are seeking a thrilling story.

22 Jump Street

21 Jump Street taught us that Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum are an unbelievable comic duo. The new Will Ferrell and Vince Vaughn. Or Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson. So we just had to see them again.
22 Jump Street
That’s pretty much what 22 Jump Street is all about: the comedic exchanges between the two. As long as the funny dialogue continued, along with the running joke of them returning to an educational institution they’re obviously way too old for, then the story itself really doesn’t matter.

In that regard, it delivers. It’s funny. There’s great lines and a humorous supporting cast as well, aided by Jillian Bell, of Workaholics fame. The story is definitely a bit dumber than its predecessor, which may matter to some, but in the grand theme of things, it’s superfluous.

In 21 Jump Street, it was Jonah Hill’s character that found himself highly enjoying the high school life, losing focus of their task at hand. This time, its Tatum’s character that becomes immersed in the college life, even joining the school’s football team.

Otherwise, the plot basically follows the same formula — they’re trying to catch the supplier of a new, dangerous drug that has hit campus, called WHYPHY — Work Hard Yes Play Hard Yes. While they do it, humor ensues.

There probably won’t be a funnier movie that comes out this year.

Million Dollar Arm

As a huge baseball fan, I’m surprised I hadn’t previously known about this story that Disney transferred to the big screen, about a sports agent who created a competition in India to recruit cricket players to play professional baseball.

Million Dollar ArmThe result was the first two India natives to sign with a professional baseball team. It’s a great premise for a movie, and Disney jumped on it.

Jon Hamm plays the agent, J.B. Bernstein, who pretty much plays a character that we all envision Jon Hamm to be like in real life: a wealthy, womanizing career-driven bachelor with impeccably sleek hair, who, out of desperation, conceives the competition to resurrect his floundering sports agency.

He finds a wealthy backer to fund the contest, called “Million Dollar Arm,” and then he’s off to India, where Disney surely takes liberties with the story to add cliché elements of overcoming adversity, heroism, yada yada yada. But Disney does that better than any one else, so it’s no big deal.

Half of the film is Bernstein in India running his competition, and the second half is the two winners adapting to life in America, while trying to convince Major League Baseball scouts they can pitch in the Major Leagues. There’s also a love interest for Hamm (Lake Bell), because … it’s a movie.

But it’s a nice, heartwarming story that stems from actual events, and should resonate to both baseball and non-sports fans alike. You can look up on Wikipedia to discover whether the Indian players succeeded, or you can just remember that it’s a Disney movie and assume what happened.

Cold in July

Original stories are becoming harder to come by in mainstream Hollywood, and that is what makes Cold in July so refreshing.

Yes, it’s adapted from a book, but not a book that is widely known, at all.

The dark tone of the film reminded me of Blue Ruin, a suspense thriller that used creative cinematic techniques and mystery to build its story.Cold in July

The beginning plays out like Cape Fear. Michael C. Hall plays a father, Richard Dane, who shoots and kills an intruder in his home in the middle of the night. It’s labeled as self-defense by local police, and the case is closed. But … Dane’s family soon becomes terrorized by the intruder’s father, played by Sam Shepard, who was just recently released from jail himself.

It seems likes it’s heading to be your typical stalker-thriller from there, but then the plot starts taking twists and turns. So much so, that it almost becomes a bit schizophrenic. Plot points that were important early become lost, and characters’ specific motivations become unclear.

A private investigator shows up midway through the film, played by Don Johnson, whose existence is extremely crucial to the plot.

But the film’s excitement and creative storytelling makes up for it, and in the end, you have a solid movie with fine camerawork and splendid acting by its three leads.

I was particularly impressed with Michael C. Hall, who I thought would never be able to shake the Dexter stigma. But he plays a very different character than Dexter in this one. He’s a blue-collared, mullet wearing, timid family man whose life is devoid of adventure, unlike the serial-killing detached lone her played on TV.

It won’t get much love from the masses, mostly because very few will see it, but this film was a good one.

Lucy

Like 2012’s Limitless, this Luc Besson film plays with the idea of exploring the amazing potential of the human brain. Except Lucy takes that idea to the next level. There’s a common myth that humans only 10 percent of their brain. Scientists have dispelled that theory, but Lucy runs with it anyway.

Scarlett Johansson plays a blonde American bimbo named Lucy who’s studying abroad in Taiwan. By a stroke of bad luck, she gets pulled into a plot Lucywhere she’s taken hostage and unwillingly becomes a mule for an experimental drug. That drug is placed in a bag inside her stomach, and then, when she’s physically abused by her captors, it breaks, spilling the bag’s entire contents into her blood stream,  and exposing her to the drug’s full capabilities.

Its effects allow her to utilize the depths of her brain that no human could. Numbers flash across the screen every few minutes to indicate to the viewer just how much her brain she is using — 15 percent, then 25, then  40, and so forth.

Lucy goes from gaining superhuman strength, to being able to absorb a textbook of information in a matter of moments, to being able to control time and space.

It’s a pretty ambitious film, and quite entertaining, but is a lot less intelligent than it sounds. I don’t think enough is conveyed in the movie to indicate exactly what Lucy is experiencing from a mental standpoint. And since that’s the film’s basis, I think more time should have spent on it. Instead, too much time is spent on action sequences, and it basically just becomes a subpar superhero film.

The more “aware” Lucy becomes, the more detached she also becomes as an actual person. Therefore, Scarlett Johansson intentionally plays the role very blank and emotionless, which is kind of a waste of her acting abilities.

I never thought I’d say this, but Lucy should have devoted less time to action scenes, and amped up the science. *Cue Jesse Pinkman, “Yea science!” Breaking Bad. gif*

 

Oscar season: the movies to be excited about

If there weren’t already enough reasons to love this time of year, then I’ll give you another.

Oscar season.

No, it’s not the time of year when the Oscars happens, but when Oscar bait films are all released. Traditionally, between October and early January is when these high-profile, dramatic films come out, so that they’re fresh in critics minds when they vote ahead of the Oscars in March.

As an amateur cinephile, and someone who reads a lot of movie blogs, we’ve seemed to narrow down the field of upcoming movies that should Birdmancapture critics’ — and America’s — hearts.

I’ve already expressed my view on Boyhood, which I thought was masterpiece. It came out in August, and as such a unique entity, it’ll be interesting to see how the movie is rewarded come Oscar season. But for now, let’s just focus on the ones coming out in the near future, in no particular order.

Bear in mind is that all I really know about these films is pretty much the synopsis listed on IMDB, and what I’ve read on a few blogs. I’ve barely even watched any trailers. So let’s go.

Foxcatcher: Nov. 14, starring Mark Ruffalo, Steve Carrell and Channing Tatum. It’s a sports drama, and Ruffalo and Carrell are receiving huge accolades for their performances. Especially Ruffalo. It feels to me that this is one that’s really going to tug at the heartstrings, and play on the old sports motif of never backing down from adversity. Usually there’s some actor playing a washed up coach that will be the performance of a lifetime. Not sure if that’s Carrell or Ruffalo. Or both. Either way, America will eat it up. Trailer.

The Imitation Game: Nov. 21, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley. Benedict Cumberbatch has become a household name in the past year, but his only real signature role in his career is playing Sherlock Holmes in a British TV series. I’m not counting the second Star Trek movie. In all honestly, I think his popularity has been elevated by his awesome name. Either way, this promises to be a role that cements him as a premiere actor. It’s a period piece about about an English mathematician during World War II. Basically A Beautiful Mind, part two. Trailer.

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance): Oct. 17, starring Michael Keaton, Edward Norton and Emma Stone. From what I’ve heard, this apparently is going to be the greatest movie of all time. It could not be receiving bigger buzz. It’s a comeback role for Keaton, who right now is the heavy favorite for the Oscar. It’s about a washed up actor who stars in a Broadway play to reclaim his glory. Norton and Stone (that sounds like a law firm) are getting a lot of love, too. It’s both a drama and a comedy, whatever the hell that means. Trailer.

Interstellar: Nov. 7, starring Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway and Jessica Chastain. It’s a Christopher Nolan film. It’s Matthew McConaughey. It involves outer space. Need I say more? Trailer.

Inherent Vice: Jan. 9, starring Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon. Just like Interstellar, the anticipation surrounding this movie is a direct result of its writer and director, Paul Thomas Anderson, who is only capable of making phenomenal movies. I actually did watch the trailer for this one. It takes place in the 70s and involves seemingly corrupt cops. It’s tone reminded me a bit of American Hustle, except I have Interstellarto believe it’s going to be a lot better than that. Trailer.

Gone Girl: Oct. 3, starring Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike. I have too much trust in David Fincher to believe this won’t be good. It’s a dark, suspenseful, crime drama. It’s based on a book. That’s Fincher’s M.O. The make-or-break aspect of the film, in my eyes, lies in Pike’s performance. I’m really glad they cast a relative unknown to play Amy, who is the central character of the book. So far, I’ve heard good things. It comes out this weekend, and I expect it to be received pretty well. Trailer.

Unbroken: Dec. 25, starring Jack O’Connell and Domhnall Neeson. I read the book this movie is based off, which is a biography of an Olympian runner who gets stranded on a life boat in World War II, who then becomes a Japanese prisoner of war. It’s an absolutely extraordinary story, and will be hard to screw up. It’s been well-documented that Angelina Jolie is directing, so we’ll see how that goes. Like with Gone Girl, I’m really glad they cast relative unknowns. O’Connell got rave reviews for Starred Up, a low budget film he was in last year, so I think this is going to play out pretty well. Trailer.

The Theory of Everything: Nov. 7, starring Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones. This one’s a biopic about Stephen Hawking. I’m always fascinated with biopics about brilliant people (see: Imitation Game), because it’s really interesting to get in their heads and know what really goes on up there. Redmayne and Jones are being critically acclaimed, and are near guarantees for Oscar nominations. It probably won’t be a huge mainstream hit, though. Biopics rarely are. Trailer.

Fury: Oct. 17, starring Brad Pitt and Shia LaBeouf. Of all the movies I’ve listed here, I feel that Fury stands the biggest chance of being a “bust.” Don’t ask me why. But it’s Brad Pitt and it’s World War II. So it’s going to be a huge. It’s also the first real major World War II drama since Saving Private Ryan, so it’ll be interesting to see how it compares. It comes out in two weeks so we’ll know soon enough. Trailer.

I’ll leave it at that. There’s plenty more getting some buzz, like Tim Burton’s Big Eyes, Selma, Whiplash and A Most Violent Year, but the nine I listed above seem to really be the top tier films. As you can see, most are coming out in November, so we are only a month away.

I, for one, cannot wait to illegally downlo — err, I mean … pay $15 to see all of these in theaters.

Cheers.