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).

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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!

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.