2016 Cinema Review & Top 25

2016-movie-review-title-image

Come one. Come all. Okay, more likely one. It’s time for my semi-vain, self-indulgent Top 25 films list release. Year 11 of my new release film tracking proved to possibly be the best one yet on average. As I have over the past few years, the volume of flicks has held in that 75 to 95 range. This year clocked in at 80 total new releases viewed.

As always, this list represents my favorite movies of the previous year. It is not an intricate review of the filmmaking craft and who should carry home a sack of shiny industry trophies.

Before jumping in, let’s take a look at what I missed in 2016. From the Top 50 at the Box Office I missed Sing, Jason Bourne, Trolls, The Legend of Tarzan, The Angry Birds Movie, Independence Day: Resurgence, The Conjuring 2, The Magnificent Seven, Ride Along 2, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, The Accountant, TMNT: Out of the Shadows, Purge: The Election Year, Alice Through the Looking Glass, Boo! A Madea Halloween, Storks, Lights Out, Allegiant, Now You See Me 2, and Ice Age: Collision Course. Any of those make the top of your list? Doubt it.

Of the critical and award darlings… Loving, Elle, Nocturnal Animals, My Life as a Zucchini, Silence, I Am Not Your Negro, 13th, Toni Erdmann, The Handmaiden, Deepwater Horizon, I Daniel Blake, Julieta, Fire at Sea, Certain Women, A Monster Calls, Love & Friendship, Birth of a Nation, Midnight Special, and Cameraperson all eluded me this year. Some of those I really wish I had seen. Others… eh.

Here are a few special awards before I dive into my list.

special-awards

Award for Somehow Exceeding My Expectations of Awfulness

Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice

Jesse Eisenberg’s baffling (and grating) take on Lex Luthor. The homicidal Batman with zero context. The cartoony video game showdown with Doomsday. The hokey computer insert scene mid-action to tease Flash/Aquadrunk/Cybore. The DCU hallmark dark, brooding, and humorless slog. The murderous-enemy-to-best-buds turn mid-film over the name Martha. I thought it would be “eh” and it turned out to be offensively bad.

 

Award for Most Memorable Moments in CGI

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story / Central Intelligence (tie)

The first is obvious. Although we still aren’t quite to the point of completely fooling the eye, the incredible realism used to breathe life into Moff Tarkin and Leia was pretty amazing.

Almost as amazing… turning the brick house that is The Rock into a dancing, singing, and very plump Robbie Weirdicht.

 

Award for Being Pretty Darn Rad Until the Last Fifteen Minutes

10 Cloverfield Lane

I’ll avoid spoiler territory here, but John Goodman was creepily great for the majority of this film. Then we get… well… the last fifteen minutes.

 

Award for Excellence in Featuring Awkward Sexuality

Sausage Party / Deadpool / Bad Moms / Weiner / The Meddler (tie)

Food orgies. Check. Ryan Reynolds getting pegged. Check. Kathryn Hahn turning Kristen Bell into an uncircumcised penis. Check. Anything and everything having to do with Anthony Weiner. Check. But maybe the best and most awkward of all… Susan Sarandon nearly achieving orgasm from eating a fresh chicken egg.

 

Award for Missteps in Makeup and Practical Effects

Suicide Squad / X-Men Apocalypse / Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (tie)

Leto Joker is not only silly and far less interesting than Ledger Joker, but he looks ridiculous. I get it. You thought it was edgy. You were very wrong.

Apocalypse cannot be frightening or be taken seriously when he looks like a Power Rangers villain. What was the budget of this film?

Whether you liked the way Johnny Depp was used in Fantastic Beasts or not, you can just imagine him standing in the makeup room saying, “I need some weird contacts.” “No you don’t, Johnny.” “Yes I do! Yes I do! Yes I do! Give em to me! Now! It’ll be grrrreat!”

 

Award for Most Inspirational Flicks to Watch with Your Whole Family

Hidden Figures / Eddie the Eagle (tie)

Rarely are there films you feel good about screening for the whole family. From Little Timmy to Grandma Tammy. But both of these films fit the bill. Inspiring stories of hard work, determination, and spirit.

 

Award for Most Bizarre B-Roll in a Documentary

Tickled

There were many terrific documentaries this year and several included disturbing, hysterical or moving B-roll. But nothing touched that weird nerve that makes you uncomfortable more than the competitive tickling footage in Tickled.

 

Award for Most Terrible and Mentally Scarring Use of a Prop

Don’t Breathe

Turkey baster. Jesus lord almighty.

 

Award for Musical Moment in Cinema

The Jungle Book

Yes, La La Land is an incredible achievement. “City of Stars” follows you for days or weeks after viewing. Sing Street is a rocking good time. Moana has a bright and original soundtrack that will make you smile. Even Lonely Island’s Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping material is pretty funny. But it was the moment, no matter how out of tune, when Bill Murray starts belting out the “Bear Necessities” that takes the cake.

 

Award for Entertainers of the Year 2016

Mahershala Ali and Kate McKinnon

This is cheating a little bit. Both of their resumes include some incredible TV work in 2016. Mahershala not only gave an incredible performance in Moonlight and a memorable turn in Hidden Figures, but he dominated our small screens as Cottonmouth in Luke Cage and Remy Danton in House of Cards. Add to that his incredibly authentic and powerful acceptance speech at the SAG Awards as a cherry on top. Kate McKinnon found herself climbing higher and higher up the mountain. Her SNL work (Hillary Clinton, Kellyanne Conway, Olya Povlatsky, Angela Merkel, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Mrs. Rafferty, Debette Goldry, Shelia Sovage) continues to get better and better. On top of that she was the highlight of an otherwise pedestrian Ghostbusters effort, a scene stealer in the otherwise disappointing Masterminds, and the understated gem in the underrated (thought admittedly sophomoric) Office Christmas Party.

 

Award for Breakout Newbees

Julian Dennison (Hunt for the Wilderpeople)

Sunny Pawar (Lion)

Sasha Lane (American Honey)

Lucas Hedges (Manchester By The Sea)

Whether it was Ricky giving Hec that perfect stare or young Saroo running for his life or Star making every decision seem truly spontaneous or Patrick verbally battling his uncle, all of these newcomers gave stellar and memorable performances this year.

 

Award for Most Exciting 60 Seconds of the Year

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

If you haven’t seen this yet, stop reading now. When you-know-who starts storming through that ship and he’s swinging around his you-know-what and using his powers like the badass villain supreme that he is… that was everything. It was… pure joy.

 

=====================

top-25

And now we arrive at the meat and potatoes. Before I dive into the Top 25, here is a quick look at what nearly made the cut.

45.) Bad Moms  44.) Fantastic Beats and Where to Find Them  43.) Allied  42.) Café Society  41.) The Lobster  40.) Star Trek: Beyond  39.) Weiner  38.) Sausage Party  37.) Patriots Day  36.) Eddie the Eagle  35.) Everybody Wants Some  34.) Jackie  33.) The Founder  32.) Swiss Army Man  31.) Little Men  30.) American Honey  29.) Tickled  28.) Captain Fantastic  27.) The Meddler  26.) The Edge of Seventeen

Drumroll, please.

=====================

  1. Green Room

Brutal, unsettling and creatively thrilling. Anton Yelchin is pitch perfect in one of his final films. Patrick Stewart as a ruthless neo-Nazi leader is alone worth the price of admission. The cold, calculated movement through Saulnier’s tight and trippy script is punctuated by gasps throughout. Also, Alia Shawkat needs to be in more movies. She rocks. Literally and figuratively in this flick.

  1. Hacksaw Ridge

Setting aside commentary on the filmmaker, the film itself is an incredible achievement. A war story that is not about taking life but saving it. Andrew Garfield draws you in with a dose of the “aw shucks,” but gradually pulls you deeper into the mind and spirit of this incredibly principled character. The supporting cast is aces across the board including a rare dramatic role for Vince Vaughn.

  1. The Jungle Book

Disney’s quest to create live action adaptations from their deep animated library has been relatively successful in both quality and reception. However, this updated retelling of Mowgli’s adventures is a marvel. The visual effects are stunning. Young Neel Sethi bears the mantle of the boy cub with ease. Jon Favreau proves yet again that he’s a master at crafting a fun and frenetic adventure while hitting all the right comedic notes.

  1. Hunt for the Wilderpeople

I’m a huge fan of What We Do in the Shadows and Flight of the Conchords. Taika Waititi has an unmatched eye for the awkward and a truly unique sensibility. Sam Neil’s nuanced performance as Hec and the tumultuous but heartfelt relationship with Julian Dennison’s Ricky provides all kinds of laughs and “feels.” I can’t wait to see what Taika does with Thor.

  1. Fences

While the film sometimes feels like it has one foot on the stage and one on the screen, the sheer power of the performances in this August Wilson adaptation washes away any imperfections. Denzel and Viola are unstoppable. You come to viscerally know this family. The hopes. The dreams. The broken dreams. This acting master class is framed by a minimal, yet lived-in set design and vividly present but not overbearing camera work.

  1. Eye in the Sky

The moral and ethical questions raised by this film are all the more stirring in our current political climate. The deftly woven strands of tension will have you gripping your seat or drink or whatever is closest to you. Gavin Hood bounces back from X-Men Origins: Wolverine and Ender’s Game to tackle the challenging geo-political elephants in the room as he did in 2007 with Rendition. Aiding the effort this time around is a formidable cast that includes Helen Mirren at her best and the incomparable Alan Rickman in his last on screen role.

  1. OJ: Made in America

I faced a mental barrier before watching this film. As a kid I had lived through the hysteria. I can still remember watching the Bronco chase on TV and the seemingly endless coverage of the courtroom madness. But after hearing such positive reviews I figured it was worth a go. What’s a couple of hours? Little did I realize that it would end up being a nearly eight hour journey down the rabbit hole. And what a journey it is. This documentary is not just a re-telling of the OJ trial (see The People vs OJ Simpson). It’s not just a look at the birth of modern sensationalism in cable news. It’s a cultural dissection. A series of mirrors held up in all directions. A striking look under the hood at the history of Los Angeles, race relations, police policy, the judicial system, celebrity and scandal. It weaves the narrative from each chillingly relevant topic to the next while using OJ Simpson’s rise as a sports star, pitch man, actor, accused murderer, and “innocent” pariah as the through line. Gripping from beginning to end.

  1. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

The first 30 minutes and last 30 minutes of this movie were excellent. The freedom to carve out a completely original corner of the Star Wars universe allowed for an incredible level of creativity. The darker tone and more serious approach to the subject matter was a refreshing detour from the Saga. The visual effects are stunning. Watching setups from 1977 being paid off in 2016 were grin-inducing. The commitment to a bold, uncompromising ending is worth praise. And that last ten minutes… holy heck. So. Damn. Good. All that said, the middle sagged a good bit and lost its footing. The performances were all solid, though most of the characters portrayed were at best briefly entertaining. None had the lasting impression you walked out of the theater with in 2015 after meeting Rey, Finn, Poe and the others for the first time. All-in-all though a fun ride and a promising start to the “Star Wars Story” brand.

  1. 20th Century Women

“Slice of life” films are only elevated when you match unique characters with unforgettable performances. This glance back at a non-conventional family of outcasts and dreamers in 1970s Santa Barbara features just such a recipe. Top to bottom the cast is perfect. Billy Crudup’s helpful but hopeless handyman. Greta Gerwig’s scarred but passionate photographer. Elle Fanning’s blunt but vulnerable teen. Annette Bening’s brilliantly complex matriarch, Dorothea. She simultaneously projects confidence, progressiveness, and intellectualism while struggling just under the surface with heaps of regret, doubt, and isolation. Standing in the middle of that twister of heart and hysteria is Lucas Jade Zumann as Jamie. Just an adolescent trying to become a good man. His own man. Whatever that means. Some clever editing and voice over techniques add additional color. Production design is spot on and pulls you effortlessly into another time in America. Way to go, Waleed.

  1. Arrival

I know many friends who were blown away upon watching this modern science fiction tale. Some even gushed on social media that it was life-changing. Or was it life-affirming? I can’t quite remember. I did not have such an extreme reaction. That said, it was one of the stronger, more original outings in the genre in the last decade or so. The often bizarre tropes of the extraterrestrial story are softened and smoothed out by an incredibly authentic drama about family and loss. The film is simultaneously stark and stylish. Thrilling and uplifting. Amy Adams does some of her best, most subtle work as Louise Banks the linguist and mother. If it wasn’t for the inevitable logical traps and snags that come along with time travel, this film would be even higher on my list.

  1. Moana

Vibrant, inventive and exciting. Turning the traditional princess tale on its head, Disney Animation notches yet another victory on their belt. Moana’s call to adventure and determined struggle to protect her island and her people is built from the word go on strength, smarts and faith. Looking for a role model for your daughter or niece or goddaughter? Look no further. Auli’I Cravalho is excellent. Meanwhile, The Rock continues his domination of every genre by bringing Maui to life and showing off his surprisingly strong vocal skills. The animation is rich and textured. The music is addictive. I have a feeling kids will be joyfully going along on this journey for years to come.

  1. The Nice Guys

While Ryan Gosling may be getting heaped in praise for his work in that little musical picture, I personally think he was at his best in this absurd, action-packed, hysterical buddy cop picture. His wily and unpredictable PI is the perfect counterpunch to Crowe’s gruff and matter-of-fact enforcer. Shane Black’s evolution from iconic writer of 80s/90s comedic action to damn good writer AND director of the genre is in full bloom here. Building on Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Iron Man 3, Black has all the parts humming. It’s cleverly plotted. The action feels fresh. The comedy is biting and unexpected. Two thumbs up.

  1. Zootopia

Following in the footsteps of Wreck-it-Ralph and Big Hero 6, Disney Animation delivers yet another colorful and imaginative world to sit back, breathe in, and enjoy. Hopps and Wilde are that classic scoundrel / straight-and-narrow team-up that provides not only big laughs and heart-warming character arcs, but the perfect dual lens through which to explore this rich and detailed universe. The bootleg dvds of Wrangled and Floatzen 2. The hamster tubing transportation system. The detailed map that includes lands like Outback Island and The Meadowlands that we don’t even have time to see in the movie. There’s even someone playing a “CAT-SIO” keyboard (Casio… get it?). The layers of detail that Disney’s animators weave throughout is astounding. And who doesn’t love a good underdog story? And sloths. Who doesn’t love DMV sloths?

  1. Doctor Strange

It’s no secret that I’m a pretty big fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. For all of the talk of a Disney/Marvel formula, I’ve been more than encouraged by the unique spin they’ve managed to give many of their recent films. Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant-Man, and Captain America: Winter Soldier all felt like they were staking claim to a different corner of the vast superhero landscape. Doctor Strange may have accomplished this better than any of the others. The indulgence in the visually weird and psychedelic made this a wild ride from start to finish. The trademark MCU humor was on display, holding at bay a darkness that could have snuffed out the fun. Benedict Cumberbatch quickly made me forget about all those years of alternative casting rumors. He is Doctor Strange. The unconventional ending avoided the big blowout battles that some feel are repetitious in these save-the-world flicks. Connections to the wider MCU were present enough to satisfy but not forced to the point of distraction.   

  1. Hidden Figures

Unfortunately it is rare these days to find a clean, heartfelt, inspiring movie that doesn’t rely on melodrama or heavy-handed faith tones to connect to a wide audience. That’s why this film is all the more welcome. A smart and sincere script is brought to life by stellar performances from Taraji P Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monae (a revelation). The supporting cast pulls their weight in understated, yet powerful ways. It always amazes me when a story like this is finally told in such a wide-reaching forum. How on earth did I not know about the contributions of Katherine, Dorothy and Mary? It’s a reminder to all writers, directors, actors, novelists, and artists of every variety that we should be elevating these stories to the public consciousness through our work. Buy a copy when it’s available so your kids or grandkids or nieces and nephews can watch for years to come.

  1. Lion

Lion is essentially two films reflecting back on one another. The first half is a beautifully composed portrait of a five-year-old boy lost in a great city. If I didn’t know any better I would have believed they just dropped Sunny Pawar off alone in Calcutta and secretly followed him around. That’s how incredibly authentic I found his portrayal despite his young age. You can’t help but to become instantly invested in the harrowing and heart-breaking journey. You cringe. You chew on your lip. You want to yell out to him. And then suddenly you find yourself in the second chapter. Thankfully safe from the many dangers he faced, Saroo’s life becomes not dissimilar to yours or mine. Dev Patel continues to demonstrate his growing chops. His one-on-one scenes with Nicole Kidman are quite brilliant. You won’t find a better story about hope, determination and the many forms love can take.

  1. Kubo and the Two Strings

The latest offering from Laika is the most beautiful and wondrous yet. The meticulous attention to visual detail is stunning. Whether to differentiate from the standard 3D flicks or simply an organic byproduct of the stop-motion medium, the creative flare brought to each sequence is pure candy for the eyes. It’s quite frankly intoxicating. But rest assured, it isn’t superfluous. Kubo invites you on an epic journey of self-discovery and identity. In the tradition of The Wizard of Oz, this tale avoids most common fantasy tropes in favor of something more original. A giant samurai beetle. A wooden monkey. An origami warrior. All of them brought to life in a dream-like visual feast. The addictive score accentuates everything that unfolds on screen so that your ears can get in on the action. Ultimately, the honest, and quite frankly brave, way in which the film addresses loss is refreshing in a genre where 3rd acts are almost categorically saccharine.

  1. Moonlight

The world that Little is born into is not one you would ever wish upon a child. It’s the sort of place where the trials and tribulations of coming-of-age are compounded by dangers big and small. It’s a community and a time where stigmas ran deeper than perhaps we remember. Whether it’s the struggle of a mother incapable of providing the care a young boy needs because of her addiction or the internal struggles over the meaning of friendship and one’s sexuality. Watching Little become Chiron and then Black is heart-breaking. We watch as he’s forced to live life in a corner; either cowering or lashing out in order to find room to breathe. Mahershala Ali, Janelle Monae and Naomie Harris have all been praised for their incredible performances. Deservedly so. But it is the earnest (Alex Hibbert), transformative (Ashton Sanders), and nuanced (Trevante Rhodes) performances that truly bring this boy’s story to life.

  1. Finding Dory

It may be sacrilegious to say it, but there’s a chance Finding Dory is better than Finding Nemo. It’s another near perfect offering from Pixar that makes you wonder why it took so long to be made. That means stunning imagery, clever comedy, and an oceanful of heart. The touch pool “Hands!” sequence illustrates their knack for bringing all three together. The explosions as the pudgy little hands plow into the water. The scrambling of the various creatures to take cover. Dory’s insistence to leave no man behind as she drags Hank to safety. It’s a brilliant action set piece that is so much more than just an action set piece. And the folks at Pixar know how to find nuggets of comedy in every supporting character. Whether it’s Marlin and Nemo or newcomers like Destiny, Fluke or Rudder, they all have a meaningful part to play in making you grin. But more than the comedic chops, it’s the heartstrings where they get you. I won’t spoil it here if you haven’t seen the movie, but I’m quite certain there weren’t many dry eyes in the theater.

  1. Captain America: Civil War

Back to Marvel we go. I’ve explained several times in the past why I find these movies to be such fun rides so I won’t revisit here. What I will say is why specifically I had such a damn good time watching the third installment of Captain America. First – New characters shined. The introduction of Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther was excellent. Tom Holland’s Spider-man surpasses Toby and Andrew in less than 15 minutes of screen time. Daniel Bruhl’s Zemo was a refreshing change of pace as a villain. His personal vendetta, and not world domination/destruction, felt more grounded and interesting. Sure there were a few logical leaps in the plotting, but sometimes you just need to spackle over that sort of thing. Second – the airport sequence. Outside of the greatest 60 seconds of cinema this year that I mentioned earlier in this post, the airport sequence in Civil War was the highlight of my year. It wasn’t non-descript buildings exploding. It wasn’t nameless city blocks being leveled. It wasn’t nameless aliens or robots invading. It was our favorite heroes in an elaborate and most excellent battle dance. If you didn’t find joy in that, you must’ve snuffed out your inner child long ago.

  1. Sing Street

Another home run from director John Carney (Once and Begin Again). Let’s cut to the chase and start with the heartbeat of this film. The music. The original music composed for the film fits seamlessly with the actual 80s rock tracks throughout. It’s that unflappable passion for music… for meaningful music… that saves Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) from the unpleasantness of his daily life. The wicked headmaster at his new school. The unrelenting bullies that populate the schoolyard. A mother and father whose dysfunctional marriage is seeping out and causing chaos. All of this is drowned out by the music. But let’s not fool ourselves… the music arrives because of the girl. It’s always a girl. The film doesn’t shy away from challenging material, but there is a joy to the whole endeavor. The young love. The formation of the band. The visual flare of their music videos. All is wrapped together with heart and a lot of Irish wit.

  1. La La Land

To say that creating an original movie musical about folks in Hollywood is a gamble would be an understatement. Rarely do films about this town resonate outside its borders. Musicals in general? Lukewarm track record. Musicals not based on a Broadway hit or a series of very familiar pop songs? Ha. So the commitment of the studio (Lionsgate) and director (Damien Chazelle of Whiplash fame) is impressive. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone rekindle that seemingly effortless chemistry they previously showcased in Crazy Stupid Love. Try if you want, but the music sticks to you like maple syrup. Sweet and dreamy. While the Mia and Sebastian may live in Hollywood and be in search of success in acting and jazz, their story is universal. The dreams. The loves. The what if’s. We can all relate. We just don’t have the soundtrack or the dancing.

  1. Deadpool

Within a few years we will have been bombarded with a slew of knock offs and rated-R wannabes. Most of them will be pretty awful. That’s because they will have missed the point. Deadpool wasn’t a smash hit because it was rated-R or was crude. It was a hit because it was fresh, fun and loose with the rules. Ryan Reynolds clawed and scratched and chewed his way into making this picture and I’m sure glad he did. I saw Deadpool on three continents; among very different crowds. The reactions were universal. The action isn’t just violent or brutal – it’s creative. The language isn’t just foul – it’s funny. Your favorite superhero clichés are here both to be made fun of AND to be relished in. I have no idea if the meta comments and breaking the fourth wall will feel as fun and fresh in the sequel, but I’m sure glad they’re keeping it a tight budget and avoiding Part 2 bloat. Here’s to Captain Dead Pool!

  1. Manchester by the Sea

Think back to most of the non-genre dramas you’ve seen over the last ten or fifteen years. Cross off the period films. Now cross off those that indulge in melodrama. Finally, scribble over top of the ones that are “quirky.” From where I’m sitting there aren’t many left. A contemporary drama that embraces the real, raw emotions of the story and refuses to sensationalize or lean on eccentricities. That’s Manchester by the Sea. Kenneth Lonergan crafted a painful, affecting, and redemptive story. Jody Lee Lipes’ eye made the ordinary cinematic. Editor Jennifer Lame guided movement through time and space when the story called for it and without a phony device shoehorned in. And the performances were rich and authentic. Kyle Chandler, CJ Wilson, Michelle Williams, and Lucas Hedges were outstanding. Casey Affleck, setting aside any evaluations of the man, put together the performance of his career without the need to be bombastic or showy. It’s not an easy watch. The pain is contagious. But it’s well worth the journey.

  1. Hell or High Water

As I reflected on cinema in 2016, I had a few films at the top of my list that I knew would be there, but I wasn’t entirely sure of the order. Upon careful thought, my mind rested on one scene in one film. A conversation between a hunter and the hunted. It’s thick with subtext and tension. It’s carefully framed. The performances are steady, with heat simmering just under the surface. Reflecting on that scene solidified the film as my top choice for the year. The scene’s ending is ambiguous. Not in the frustrating way. It’s a satisfying ambiguity. That’s what you’d expect from a story of outlaws and lawmen. A story where you find yourself rooting for both. That credit goes to director David Mackenzie and writer Taylor Sheridan (who also penned Sicario – #14 film on my 2015 list). A film like this only works if you create a balance between the light and the dark. These folks managed to pull forward the gritty, morally ambiguous energy of the Old West and breathe 21st century life into it. The story is tightly and cleverly plotted; keeping both characters and audience members guessing. Kudos to Ben Foster, Gil Birmingham, Chris Pine and Jeff Bridges. They all gave stellar performances and made it seem like their cowboy boots were mighty worn in.

======================

And with that the books are closed on 2016. As always, if you don’t see your favorite on here feel free to call me out. If you think my choices are nuts, you know where to find me. Here’s hoping 2017 holds a whole crop of amazing new films. Until next January…

Matt

Advertisements
Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

2015 Cinema Review & Top 25

Untitled

For the six or seven of you that have any interest in my opinions on film, it’s that time again. My tenth annual Top 25 list. Way back in 2006 I started keeping track of every new release I saw each year (either in the theater or via home entertainment). This year I saw a total of 95 new releases. That’s actually the highest total since 2011.

My annual disclaimer – these are my favorite movies this year. The movies that entertained or affected me the most. If I made an “academy” style list it would likely look very different.

Since I don’t have endless free time or money, there were plenty of films I missed this year. Those in the top 50 highest grossing at the domestic box office that I missed included Home, Hotel Transylvania 2, Fifty Shades of Grey, Spongebob, Taken 3, Maze Runner: Scorch Trials, Goosebumps, Alvin and the Chipmunks 4, Paddington, The Intern, Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2, War Room, Magic Mike XXL, The Visit, and The Perfect Guy. I’ll admit, there aren’t many on that list I’m sad that I missed.

From a critical perspective I also didn’t get a chance to see several well-liked films such as Mistress America, Anomalisa, The Walk, Grandma, Youth, MacBeth, Diary of a Teenage Girl, I Smile Back, Truth, Southpaw, Son of Saul, 45 Years, Woman in Gold, Infinitely Polar Bear, Tangerine, Mustang, and others. So if you are looking for them in my Top 25 their absence is easy to explain.

This year, before I get to my Top 25, I thought I’d give out some special awards.

—-

Award for Crushing Childhood Memories of Wonder

Jurassic World and Terminator: Genisys (tie)

For anyone who witnessed the power and awe of Jurassic Park back in 1993, the box office monstrosity that was Jurassic World represented a complete purging of all heart, magic and majesty. The fact the masses seemed to like it (based on $1.6 billion dollars in box office), is a twist of the knife.

Although holding a less lofty place in my heart, the latest depressing entry in the Terminator franchise made me want to reach for a pillow to put it out of its misery.

—-

Award for Being a Surprisingly Very Good Film When It Easily Could Have Been Crap

Spy

This could have been a twisted, soulless hybrid of Identity Thief and Johnny English. Instead, we got a very funny, fresh movie with solid supporting performances all around an equally in-form Melissa McCarthy. It had surprisingly entertaining action sequences to boot. A real surprise gem.

—-

Award for Most Head-Shaking in Disbelief

Finders Keepers

There’s very little I can mention about this documentary without unintentionally twisting expectations. All I will say is that it epitomizes that old Mark Twain quote, “Truth is stranger than fiction.” And as ludicrous as the premise may seem, the film ultimately digs down to a place of deep human emotional understanding. Watch it. But don’t eat any jerky while you do.

—-

Award for Longest Scene During Which I Had to Hold My Breath

Room – The pickup truck scene

I won’t say anything here for fear of spoiling it. But you’ll know what I mean once you’ve watched.

—-

Award for Best Genre Refresher

It Follows

I am not generally a fan of modern horror. It’s either incredibly generic, overly disgusting, or completely soulless. I prefer the campy 80s fare of Jason and Freddy. My favorite horror film in recent years was Drag Me to Hell, a throwback to those romps. It Follows isn’t campy, but I enjoyed it regardless. It felt fresh. It felt inventive. Unsettling, yet entertaining.

—-

Award for Dangerously Overhyped That May Have Lessened the Experience of Watching

Mad Max: Fury Road

It’s a good movie. It is. But the level of hype and hyperbole that I was hit with before finally seeing it made sure that any viewing experience was compromised long before the opening credits.

—-

Award for Most Unfairly Damned by Critics

Pan, Pixels, and Victor Frankenstein (tie)

Stop! I am not saying that any of these movies were great or even good. But they also weren’t terrible. Pan clocked a 26% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Yes, the modern music infusions fell flat. Yes, Jackman’s wigs looked ridiculous. But there were some very inventive reimagined elements of the Peter Pan legend in here. Dare I say some of the sequences were even fun?

Pixels clawed itself up to a mere 17% fresh and received a slew of Razzie nominations just the other day. Could this have been waaaay better? Absolutely. Is it the worst thing Sandler has released in recent years? Hell no. Some of it is downright stupid. But I chuckled here and there and the visual approach to giant invading video games was intriguing.

Victor Frankenstein only brought 26% of critics to life. This obviously wasn’t the Robert Downey Jr Sherlock Holmes emulation it intended to be, but it wasn’t as ghastly as many critics made it out to be. It suffered more from bad timing. After it lost its prime pre-Halloween date to The Martian, it was relegated to go up against The Hunger Games over Thanksgiving. And then no one saw it. But still not as terrible as some would have you believe.

—-

Award for Most Groan-Worthy Oscar Baiting

The Danish Girl

I know this may be one of those films that I’m not supposed to say was drivel, but it was. It felt like every moment was scripted intently with one goal… give me an Oscar. I couldn’t stop looking at my phone to see how much longer was left as the overly melodramatic tale went on and on and on. I won’t deny that the performance by Eddie Redmayne is bold and nuanced. Good for him. But truly Alicia Vikander is the one bright spot in this otherwise “contrived for award season” dreck.

—-

Award for Busiest Star of the Year

Domnhall Gleeson

Did you notice that red-head that was in everything this year? He looks vaguely familiar but you don’t know his name. Or if you do know his name you don’t know how to pronounce it? That’s Domhnall Gleeson. This son of Brendan kicked off 2015 in the excellent sci fi thriller Ex Machina. He then went on to play one of two love interests in Brooklyn. Finally, he wrapped up the year by starring in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (biggest film ever in the US) and The Revenant (12 Oscar nominations just yesterday – the most of any film). Not a bad year.

—-

Award for Great Performances in Underwhelming Movies

Johnny Depp in Black Mass

Alicia Vikander in The Danish Girl

Will Smith in Concussion

Isabella Rossellini in Joy

None of these films had that spark. In fact, most felt like they were meandering through their run time rudderless. But just because the sum didn’t equal excellence, that doesn’t mean some of the parts weren’t great. Johnny Depp perfectly embodied the rage and unpredictability of Whitey Bulger. As mentioned before, Vikander was the only refreshing element of The Danish Girl, building on her other top notch performance in Ex Machina. Will Smith returned to form in Concussion, but the film itself lacked an internal engine and fell flat. And despite David O Russell’s latest outing Joy being a bit of a schizophrenic mess without a proper third act, Isabella Rossellini entertained every moment she appeared on screen.

—-

Award for Franchise Getting Better With Age

Mission Impossible 5: Rogue Nation

There was a misstep with Mission: Impossible 2 way back in 2000. It could have left the franchise sputtering. Instead, the third film clawed back some of the fun of the first and then they didn’t look back. Ghost Protocol was excellent a few years ago and Rogue Nation delivered the goods yet again in 2015. I don’t know how long Tom Cruise will continue hanging off of the sides of airplanes, but hopefully he’s got another one or two left in the tank.

—-

Award for Blockbuster with Most Successful Tug at the Heartstrings

Furious 7

My first memory of this franchise involves everyone heading out to the parking lot after the credits and revving the engines of their underpowered sedans and oversized SUVs. We’ve come a long way. Sure, this series is still ultimately about thrills and stunts. I don’t go in expecting great insight or loads of emotional depth. These are broad-appealing popcorn films at their finest. However, the latest installment managed to hit me right between the ribs. It was partially the tragedy of Paul Walker’s death and a hint of nostalgia realizing how far away we’ve come from that day in the Laurel Mall parking lot. It got me. And it is criminal that “See You Again” wasn’t nominated for Best Song by the Academy.

—-

The Thank God It’s Over Award

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2

Has a franchise ever started with such promise and vigor only to end with a big, dull thud? The first two films, setting aside the whole “children killing each other” debate, were stylish and exciting. Then there was Mockingjay. It is incredibly clear to anyone with eyes and ears that Lionsgate’s money grab by splitting the final film in two was a horrible idea. Even so, had they smashed them together and edited down to an appropriate length, I still think this would have been a depressing, soulless end for all involved. In 2016 you have one thing to be thankful for at Thanksgiving… no more of these films.

—-

Award for Holy Shit Scene of the Year

Kingsman: The Secret Service – Church Service Gone Awry

If you abhor violence… you probably weren’t watching Kingsman to begin with. However, if someone tricked you, it was this point where you promptly lost your lunch. Wicked choreography. Brutal stylization. Hilarity. This whole sequence was nuts. In a good way (depending on your perspective).

—-

Award for Most Exciting 6 Seconds of the Year

Star Wars: The Force Awakens – First appearance of Han Solo and Chewbacca

This was cheapened a bit by the reveal in the trailer, but even so. The moment you first see that smuggler’s mug and his hairy pal… over the moon. That feeling multiplied as the film went on, as Harrison Ford was the highlight of the latest space opera installment.

—-

I’ll Admit It I Almost Cried… Maybe Kinda Cried… You’ll Never Know Award

Inside Out, Amy, and Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (tie)

Pixar was back in form with Inside Out. It’s been 5 years since they used my tear ducts as punching bags with Toy Story 3. We muddled through Cars 2, Brave, and Monsters University. Then came this film. Cue the Kleenex.

Likewise, watching the tragic story of Amy Winehouse unfold in the impeccably crafted documentary Amy made my heart break. It was hard to watch those early personal videos as she set out on a journey to make music, only to have fame and neglect and poisonous relationships drive her to an early grave.

Finally there was Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. The personal experiences I carried into this film made it crushing. Even without that, I think you’d have to be pretty cold inside to not fall to pieces in the last ten minutes.

—-

Award for Favorite Musical Experience

Hateful Eight, Ant-Man, Dope, and Love & Mercy (tie)

If there was one thing that kept Tarantino’s epic western from coming unraveled it was the score. Morricone’s approach was simultaneously nostalgic, explosive, nuanced, catchy, and poignant. It helped compress the longer, more self-indulgent sequences. It sticks with you long after the last 70mm reel.

Then there was the Ant-Man score. To this point, you would be hard-pressed to remember a musical theme from any of the Marvel Cinematic Universe flicks. I believe that changed with this score. It’s sneaky. Fun. Catchy. Most importantly… memorable.

“Hip Hop Hooray,” “The Humpty Dance,” and “Rebel Without a Pause” are just a few of the entries in Dope’s soundtrack. It’s a perfect cocktail of 90s hip hop throwbacks and new music curated by the talented Pharrell Williams.

Love & Mercy is a musical homerun by merely existing. The Beach Boys tunes that populate the film are as excellent and engaging as when they were first released. Watching that music get built from the ground up was an added bonus.

—-

Award for Surprisingly Awesome Comedic Performance

Jason Statham in Spy

I already mentioned what a pleasant surprise Spy turned out to be. If you’ve seen it, you know that a large chunk of credit goes to the comedic turn of perennial badass Jason Statham. Sure, he’s always brought a gruff, sarcastic sense of humor to his roles (see Snatch, The Italian Job, Crank, The Expendables, etc), but here he breaks out his all-in, go big or go home comedy chops.

—-

Award for Personal Disappointment

A Walk in the Woods

This wasn’t a bad movie. It was a blah movie. Which wouldn’t bother me if it wasn’t based on one of my absolute favorite books of all time. Bill Bryson’s autobiographical tale was full of wit and discovery and emotion. This adaptation, featuring albeit incredible actors, lacked all of that. Instead of a tale of a man in his mid-forties reconnecting with his home country, nature, an old friend, and who he is as a person, we got aged up 70-year-old characters who in essence learn they aren’t quite ready to die yet. Everything plays false in this tightly contrived plot. And legendary performers seem uncomfortable in their characters’ skins. It wasn’t a disaster. Just a huge personal letdown.

—-

Still with me? Did you abandon your efforts back when I argued for you to give Victor Frankenstein a chance? I figured.

Here’s a quick look at what didn’t make my Top 25, but could easily have done so. It was a struggle wrangling the list this year. Left just beyond the cut line (in no particular order) were Spotlight, The End of the Tour, Trainwreck, Hateful Eight, Stanford Prison Experiment, Beasts of No Nation, Spy, Love & Mercy, Straight Outta Compton, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Furious 7, MI 5, Spectre, The Wolfpack, Digging for Fire, The Overnight, Finders Keepers, The Gift, Welcome to Me, and several others.

Nowhere near the cut line (meaning waaaay at the bottom) were Self/Less, Jupiter Ascending, Chappie, Jurassic World, Seventh Son, Entourage, Fantastic Four, Paranormal Activity: Ghost Dimension, Unfinished Business, and this year’s bottom dweller… Hot Tub Time Machine 2.

For the three of you left reading at this point… my Top 25 of 2015.

 

25.) 99 Homes

Another wickedly intense performance from Michael Shannon is nearly overshadowed by an equally intense turn from Andrew Garfield. With Spider-man in his rearview mirror, Garfield tackles a heavy subject with the kind of nuance we haven’t seen to this point in his career. The film itself is a look at the economic crisis America faced nearly a decade ago, but through a unique and personal prism.

 

24.) Ant-Man

With a ridiculous name and a less than prime position following The Avengers: Age of Ultron, many were writing this flick off as Marvel’s first potential stumble. They ended up being wrong on many levels. A global box office success, Ant-Man provided fans with a unique standalone tale in the fashion of a heist film. All in, it was funny and it was fun – thanks to Paul Rudd, Michael Peña, and a Thomas the Train Engine.

 

23.) Mad Max: Fury Road

George Miller returns to the franchise he launched over thirty years ago and brings with him a shit ton of explosive action and jaw-dropping stunts. Rusty hues, surging flames, and a healthy slathering of white paint set the stage for a tense, adrenaline-fueled chase picture through what is left of human civilization. It’s a helluva ride, for sure. Hardy is great in an understated role, but Charlize Theron and Nicholas Hoult own the show.

 

22.) Amy

 As I mentioned previously, this one hit me hard. I knew very little about Amy Winehouse before watching this doc outside of the chorus of “Rehab” and a vague memory of mascara and big hair. This incredibly personal look into the making of an international superstar and her tragic fall from grace uses home videos to pull you uncomfortably close. The film is immensely effective at making you feel directly connected to the bright-eyed, sixteen-year-old girl who liked to scribble lyrics in her notebook and enjoyed Tony Bennett records. That made her untimely death all the more affecting.

 

21.) Mississippi Grind

You may have missed this one. Which is a shame. Ryan Reynolds’ Curtis showcases the actor at his charming best, but it is the down-on-his-luck Gerry, played to perfection by Ben Mendelsohn, that makes this a must see. A story of the luck we make and the choices that derail us, this flick is an excellent portrait of raw, desperate humanity.

 

20.) It Follows

Director David Robert Mitchell achieved something with his second feature that many directors never do in their careers… he created a fresh take on a cliché-heavy genre film. It Follows has an intensity and sense of claustrophobia that will keep your hair at attention for the entire 100-minute runtime. It’s visceral without being gruesome. No quiet moment is safe from the unrelenting suspense.

 

19.) Steve Jobs

 There was a time when the first trailer dropped for this film that I was certain it would be a top five film. The dialogue is as snappy as anything Sorkin has written. The cast from top to bottom delivers electric performances. Even Danny Boyle’s familiar kinetic pacing and visual flare is utilized as effectively as possible. However, the anticipated gravitas that would push it further up this list was in shorter supply than expected. Yet still it remains a bold portrait of one of the most important personalities of the last half-century.

 

18.) Mr. Holmes

Has there ever been more perfect casting? Sir Ian McKellen disappears into the role of a 90-year-old, retired Sherlock Holmes. The fading icon’s desire to tie up his one incomplete case before his mind leaves him is powerful and somber. The picturesque English countryside provides a beautiful, portrait-like backdrop for a tale of mystery, humanity, and friendship.

 

17.) Me and Earl and the Dying Girl 

There are many movies that deal with tragedy of illness and its affect on loved ones. What makes this film stand out is perspective. Unlike many films of this sub-genre, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl doesn’t sugarcoat or infuse melodrama. It’s told from the perspective of a teenage guy making his way through the world that isn’t asking for a friend with cancer. He resists it altogether. The honesty present in that slowly developing friendship sucks you in for the good and the painful.

 

16.) Ex Machina

Who doesn’t love a fresh psychological sci fi flick? Stylish and cool, Ex Machina gives us a look at the filmmaker’s version of the not-too-distant future. That future includes incredibly complex human-like robots. No Robbie the Robots here. This line-blurring vision of advanced machines comes in the stunning form of Alicia Vikander. Oscaar Isaacs and Domnhall Gleeson are both excellent and only get better as each mind-bending curtain is drawn back.

 

15.) Legend

 Another picture you may have missed, Legend tells the “true” tale of the notorious Kray brothers as they build their criminal empire in London in the 1960s. Tom Hardy breathes life into two very different brothers – the smooth operating Reggie and the hotheaded Ronnie. What was surely a complicated shoot is invisible to the audience as you almost instantly forget that you’re watching the same actor in two roles. The production design is top notch. Supporting cast is impeccable. An entertaining and fascinating ride.

 

14.) Sicario

It’s gritty. It’s dark. It’s intense. And hell, it may be more representative of reality than any of us would like to admit. Emily Blunt continues to show her range, while Benicio Del Toro slips into his quiet, terrifying role like a confident hand into a well-worn glove. Visually blunt (no pun intended), it draws you in and drags you through the rocky tunnels, gang-riddled streets, and dark bureaucratic corners with no reprieve.

 

13.) What We Do In the Shadows

Even I’m mildly surprised this film made its way this high on my list. But I can’t deny it. The team behind Flight of the Conchords brings us the vampire tale we’ve been missing. I think I needed to apply Icy Hot to my ribs after I was done watching this one. Four vampires, each turned at a different point in history, live together as roommates. It’s that simple. And its simplicity is what leads to its brilliance. Jermaine Clement kills it from start to finish. Watch this.

 

12.) Inside Out

There is little more that needs to be said than this is Pixar back in true form. The animation is colorful and inventive. The characters are lively and layered. The emotion is authentic and earned. The laughs are legitimate. The voice cast is on point. Its unfortunate The Good Dinosaur couldn’t keep the bar at this level.

 

11.) Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Let’s start at the basics. This movie is fun. It’s exciting. It’s familiar – in the best possible way. I’ve described this to folks as a palate cleanser. The original Star Wars films were all incredibly simple when it came to plot. Then along came the prequels and with them the convolution of trade agreements and midi-chlorians and clones. The Force Awakens resets the world. It brings us back to those simple, yet epic space sagas that generations have fallen in love with. Sure it shares plot similarities with its predecessors. Sure it leaves a lot of questions unanswered. But it was a blast watching it the first… and the second time. I now care about the new principal characters and look forward to the next chapter of their journeys.

 

10.) Bridge of Spies

 I believe whole-heartedly that this film is Spielberg’s most complete picture since 1998’s Saving Private Ryan. Every category of production was excellent, of course. And Tom Hanks put together a performance that shows how age continues to reveal even greater depth to what he can do. Perhaps even more impressive though is how outrageously good Mark Rylance is as the captured KGB spy, Rudolf Abel. There’s magic to Spielberg’s films when he’s at his best and there’s plenty on display here.

 

9.) Trumbo 

Can a picture about the horrors of the House Un-American Activities Committee be fun? If the incomparable Bryan Cranston plays your lead and you have a supporting cast including Helen Mirren and Louis CK, you sure can. It’s a dark period in American history that frighteningly feels all too familiar. An incredibly smart script, delivered via smart actors, results in a most complete and satisfying film.

 

8.) The Big Short

Adam McKay stepped out from behind the zany Anchorman/Talladega Nights/Step Brothers curtain to put together a poignant, shocking, and oddly funny portrait of the events preceding the 2008 economic collapse. Strange bedfellows. But it works. He takes an incredibly complicated subject regarding sub prime mortgages and the gradual destabilization of our banking system, filters it through a talented cast and clever exposition mechanisms to make a film you enjoy watching. Yes, you enjoy watching the demise of our economy. You’ll be pissed, no doubt. But entertained on your way there. It’s a strange experience, but one I’d happily go through again.

 

7.) Brooklyn 

You can’t help but sense something timeless about Brooklyn. It feels like a picture the studios would have made in the 40s or 50s. Epic and romantic and sweeping. Its pace will be too slow for some modern audiences, but they’re missing out on a special film. The writing is honest, the design vivid, and the performances spot on. I highly recommend this classic story that spans the Atlantic and serves up charm by the bucketful.

 

6.) Dope

I’m a sucker for a movie that makes use of Los Angeles as a character. In Search of a Midnight Kiss, LA Story, Swingers, The Player, and so on. Dope manages to deftly capture the essence of a particular part of this strange and diverse city. It’s overflowing with an assortment of unique characters, explores stylistic boundaries, thumps with an excellent soundtrack, and has a helluva lot of heart. Malcom, Jib, and Diggy are perfect conduits for a classic, yet fresh farcical romp through the City of Angels.

 

5.) Room 

There is a myriad of reasons I loved Room. Paramount among them was this bizarre sense of world building we witness in this 10 x 10 space. Faced with horrific circumstances, a young mother uses imagination to give her son a strangely sweet and fulfilled life. The psychology of it is striking. Then comes the suspense. Setup, threaded and paced with the skill of a surgeon, you find it gripping every nerve in your body. It moves beyond an emotional response. It becomes deeply physical. The weight of the task would be too much for most actors. However, Brie Larson puts on a master class and the young Jacob Tremblay sweeps through the story with subtlety and skill far beyond his age.

 

4.) Creed 

This could have easily been put into that “disaster waiting to happen” category. Really? We’re going to keep the Rocky franchise alive? Even Stallone thought it was a bad idea initially. After the middling swan song that was Rocky Balboa, there seemed to be no gas left in this tank. Thank god Ryan Coogler convinced everyone otherwise. Creed was sharply plotted, pumping with energy, stylish, and fun. It had those emotional peaks and valleys that the best sports movies earn through authenticity and character. Michael B Jordan shook off the sludge that was Fantastic Four to give a vulnerable, yet powerful performance. Sly dug deep and found a way to bring new dimensions to a nearly 40-year-old character. Beyond all that… the fight choreography was something to behold. Best Rocky movie since the original.

 

3.) The Martian

Someone originally described this movie to me as Cast Away on Mars. It’s not inaccurate entirely, but it fails to acknowledge the many differences that make this film a stunning achievement. Yes, the fear, anger, frustration, elation, and paranoia of being isolated in a hostile environment are all clearly on display here. But that’s missing the layers of subplots and characterizations that make this a truly unique and enjoyable journey. The science of it all is fascinating. It can get complicated, but the textbook material is made digestible by the inherently likeable Matt Damon (in arguably his best performance since The Departed). The visual effects are stunning. The production design is slick, but not gaudy. Ridley Scott is once again his old self and weaves a tale of discovery, action, suspense and the ultimate triumph of the human spirit.

 

2.) The Revenant

Visceral. If there’s a better word to sum up this film, it escapes me. If you follow film, you’ve heard the stories of a long and hellish production. Everything shot in natural light. Actors stuck in frigid, painful conditions for hours on end. Scheduling chaos that led to shifting the shoot to an entirely different continent. At every turn this could have turned into a cautionary tale. Instead, the studio’s confidence in Iñárritu and his vision of an art house tale on a grand studio scale didn’t waver. We as the audience bear the fruits of that commitment. You feel every piece of the scenery. The snow. The dirt. The blood. Danger lurks around every corner – natural and man-fueled. You can see DiCaprio pour his heart and soul into every look. Every movement of his broken body. It seems inconceivable that his efforts aren’t rewarded with something made of gold. Supporting cast is at the top of their game. Great turns from Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson, and Will Poulter. If I were making an “academy” style top 25 list, this would be number one.

 

1.) Kingsman: The Secret Service

But since this is a “favorite” style list, one film comes out a hair above The Revenant. It’s a surprising pick. I get that. It has sat at the top of my list every day since I first saw it back in February of 2015. I thought about it from every angle. Tried to convince myself that maybe I should slide it down the list a little. But no. That wouldn’t be an honest reflection of how I feel. Despite seeing 40 or 50 movies I would deem good, great, enjoyable, or affecting, this is the one that gave me the most complete cinematic experience of the year. It avoids the pitfalls of a spoof (not an easy task when making a British spy movie). It delivers equal helpings action and comedy. It is voguish and hip. It is refreshing. Colin Firth is a badass, which is beyond bizarre. Taron Egerton bursts onto the Hollywood scene as that rare likeable rogue (think Harrison Ford early in his career). Sure, silliness abounds. But that’s part of the fun. It actually takes some of the fun campy elements of the older Bond films and manages to reshape them for a new era. Judgments be damned, Kingsman was the most fun I had watching a movie this year.

 

So that’s that. Another year in the books. A ton of great films across the entire spectrum of genres and budgets. If you’re wondering why your favorite isn’t on here… ask. If you want to cruelly make fun of my choices… go for it. I’m always up for a good debate. Here’s hoping 2016 can keep up the pace. Until next January…

Matt

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Re-designing College Football for the Modern Era

How excited are we for the college football season to begin? While you wait for kickoff, read this essay I put together with another football-obsessed pal

Our take on how to modernize college football.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

2013 Cinema Review and Top 25 Films

It’s the time again. The eighth annual unveiling of my Favorite Films of the Year. A time to reflect on the new films I saw in 2013 and how they stacked up. A reminder – this list is comprised of my favorite films of the year. Interpret that how you will.

popcorn

It was another “relatively” low viewing total this year. Although I exceeded the 92 films I saw last year, I didn’t beat the total by much. I saw 94 new releases in 2013 – my second lowest total since I began keeping track in 2006. 51 of those were in the theater and 43 via home entertainment. I’ll admit, Apple TV has changed my life. It’s pretty damn easy to decide to watch something, flip on the TV, and rent it from Apple in five minutes flat.

I have missed a few of the films garnering awards buzz this year (Lone Survivor, All is Lost, Rush, Dallas Buyers Club, and Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom) and about a dozen of the top 50 grossers (The Conjuring, Epic, Planes, The Lone Ranger, Oblivion, etc), but managed to take in large number of quality films.

Some of the movies that I truly enjoyed this year just missed the cut (Kings of Summer, Warm Bodies, Much Ado About Nothing, Disconnect, Place Beyond the Pines, Enough Said, Iron Man 3, etc). And then there were those that I wish I hadn’t seen. Some truly awful fare (Prince Avalanche, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, A Good Day to Die Hard, Burt Wonderstone, Only God Forgives).

With all that said, it was a pretty darn good year for movies. Here’s my 25 Favorite. Feel free to disagree. I’d expect nothing less.

================

25.) The Way, Way Back

A cast of excellent actors brought heart and humor to a fun-filled, coming-of-age story. A fresh and funny take on the “summer of discovery” tale.

24.) World War Z

I’m not a zombie fan. I had low expectations. However, I was pleasantly surprised. This was an interesting and engaging alternative take on the zombie apocalypse genre.

23.) Captain Philips

Simultaneously a powerful and quietly, nuanced performance by Tom Hanks. Claustrophobic camera work and strikingly believable supporting players made this an entertaining flick.

22.) Don Jon

I’ll admit, I’ve enjoyed watching JGL’s resurgence since Brick. His directorial debut is clever, but doesn’t try too hard. It’s crude, but not off-putting. There’s a great deal of heart in this film about an internet porn addict.

21.) Side Effects

A well-crafted adult thriller is hard to come by nowadays. This film put together a stellar cast and a tight script with a healthy dose of suspense. It’s a shame it didn’t get a wider theatrical run.

20.) Hunger Games: Catching Fire

I’ve never read these books, but I became a franchise fan after the release of the first movie. The second film ups the stakes, maintains the fun, and continues to deftly build the world.

19.) The Spectacular Now

Most teen dramedies spin melodrama in the hopes of snagging an emotional connection. This film avoids those pitfalls and draws you in with realistically sculpted characters, excellent performances, and a surprisingly excellent score.

18.) Before Midnight

I shouldn’t have been surprised that this film would have incredibly fluid, crackling dialogue. Nor should I have been shocked that Hawke and Delpy would slip so seamlessly into these characters. It was smart, sharp, and emotionally honest.

17.) The Book Thief

It took me some time to get around to this film. I knew it would be good, but kept delaying my commitment to a two and a half hour WWII drama. I’m glad I didn’t delay any longer. It is beautifully shot, scored, directed and written. The performances from top to bottom are above board. Especially Geoffrey Rush.

16.) The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Granted there were some tonal shifts that seemed a bit choppy, but the spirit of this film hooked me from the word go. Ben Stiller used his cinematic canvas to skillfully capture a quirky, “find yourself” adventure framed by incredibly vivid cinematography and an energy that is infectious.

15.) Saving Mr. Banks

I’m a sucker for Hollywood history. That alone would have been enough for me to enjoy this film, featuring another excellent turn by Tom Hanks as Walt Disney. However, what I initially thought would be a saccharine, whitewashed Disney origin movie turned out to have several fascinating rough edges and a truly emotional core.

14.) American Hustle

I know this film has its detractors. Some felt it lacked structure or momentum. It was a little manic. Chaotic. I don’t disagree with any of that, but it is also part of the reason I enjoyed it. David O Russell takes talented actors, hands them outrageous characters, and lets the madness ensue. I, for one, am a big fan.

13.) Star Trek Into Darkness

The cast is perfect. I’ve believed that since the initial reboot was released a few years ago. This film only confirms it. Top-notch effects and the right balance of action and humor made this one of the most fun and entertaining films of the year.

12.) This is the End

Outrageous. Self-indulgent. Offensive. Silly. All accurate descriptions. The best word to describe this film, however, is hysterical. I laughed even harder the second time I saw it. I’m not sure who had more fun… the audience watching it or the guys making it.

11.) Nebraska

Bruce Dern is in top form. He brilliantly delivers a nuanced performance full of frailty, strength, pain, hope and resilience. Shockingly, Will Forte is pretty darn good too. Go figure. June Squibb is a raunchy revelation. Well done, Mr. Payne.

10.) Blue is the Warmest Color

Yes, there are a couple of insanely graphic (nearly pornographic) sex scenes in this French import. Yes, that garnered more press than the film itself. Yes, I felt incredibly uncomfortable watching this in a full theater. But the film is an emotional triumph in every way. Lea Seydoux and Adele Exarchopoulos give incredible performances. Truly. The writing is honest and heart felt. The production values are all excellent. And honestly, there’s something pleasant about hearing two women speak French for two and a half hours.

9.) The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug

While I liked the first Hobbit movie, I didn’t love it. Although not up to the grand level of the LOTR, this second installment does a much better job of capturing the energy, action, and adventure of Jackson’s first film trilogy. I had a lot of fun watching the comings and goings of Middle Earth. Most of all though, the Bilbo / Smaug sequence was fiendishly entertaining.

8.) Gravity

You can’t say enough about the technical mastery and visual accomplishments of this film. It truly stood as a unique film in a year of unique films. On top of that, I held my breath for at least half of this movie. While I’m not a Bullock fan (and felt any number of actresses could have been easily plugged into this role), it was the guttural, sensory tight rope act that made me a sucker for this one It represents an astonishing lesson in suspense and tension.

7.) Inside Llewyn Davis

It’s best to describe this film as a portrait. The colors. The music. The dialogue. The emotion of the central characters radiated from each glance. While the story lacked a high-powered engine, it didn’t need one. I was quite happy to be carried along with Oscar Isaac’s Llewyn at his own pace. To see the world through his eyes as he stumbled along. An impressive character piece from two of the best directors in the business.

6.) Fruitvale Station

Hard to watch. Very hard to watch. Director Ryan Coogler skillfully builds the character of Oscar Grant layer by layer. Michael B Jordan, in a role highly unappreciated in my opinion, breathes life into this tragic figure. There’s an inevitability to the film from the get go, but you find yourself hoping you’re wrong. Chilling and powerful.

5.) Blue Jasmine

I love Woody Allen flicks. How he continues to do what he does at this point in his career is beyond belief. While this film is entertaining on many levels, it is the tour de force performance from Cate Blanchett that makes it truly special. Jasmine, in her hands, is wickedly funny, terribly tragic, and obscenely awful all at once.

4.) Mud

If you ever looked out into the unknown as a young kid and fantasized about adventure just over the horizon, you must watch Mud. This story of two boys who encounter a fugitive on an island and make a deal to help him repair an old boat for his escape captured my imagination from the first scene. Matthew McConaughey delivers a stellar supporting performance that only adds to his public transformation from surfer dude action/comedy star to an incredibly accomplished, talented actor.

3.) Twelve Years a Slave

I may never be able to watch this film again. It really is that intense. It is a deep, unflinching view of slavery as seen through the eyes of a free black man tricked, captured and sold. Every technical aspect of this film is superb. The music. The cinematography. The editing. The production design. The writing is powerful and moving. But what makes this film a true juggernaut are the actors. Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, and Lupita Nyong’o offer performances so raw and true that they are hard to watch. Undoubtedly one of the best-made films of the year.

2.) Her

The concept makes some people uncomfortable. It’s odd. Frightening. Foreign. A man falls in love with an AI operating system. While it isn’t a traditional Billy Wilder love story, it’s relevant and thought provoking in a world and time where the “norm” is evolving at light speed. For all of his personal madness, Joaquin Phoenix sure can act. He gives a heartfelt and vulnerable performance. Scarlett Johansson, though she never appears on screen, gives an equally moving performance with nothing more than her voice. It’s a story of love, loss, loneliness and humanity. Spike Jonze is one of my favorite directors on the scene today. I thank him for another gem.

1.) The Wolf of Wall Street

However… While Spike Jonze is one of my favorites, this man sits at the top of the heap. Marty delivers a manic, morally ambiguous cinematic goldmine with The Wolf of Wall Street. For those saying the film glorifies excess… you didn’t see the same film I did. Like Goodfellas (my favorite film of all time), Scorsese showcases a vile world, full of despicable acts, conducted by mostly terrible people. But how do they get to that point? How do we as a society address these characters? More often than not… we celebrate them or, at the very least, look the other way. I think Marty does a great job of forcing us to evaluate that sad truth as we watch the madness ensue. Jonah Hill… you’re an actor. A very good one. I’ll push Superbad out of my head and see you for what you are now. Leo… I’ve never been your biggest fan. However, you’re performance in this film is Oscar-worthy. You held nothing back. You poured every emotional and physical bit of yourself into this portrayal. Well done.

=================

That’s that. My favorite 25 films of 2013. If you’re curious where other films fell in my list of 94 just ask.

Here’s hoping 2014 is full to the brim with more great films. I’m looking at you, Ninja Turtles.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

2012 Cinema Review and Top 25 Films

filmThis is the seventh year that I have maintained a list of all of the new releases that I have had the opportunity to watch over the past twelve months. Some years have been thin in quality. Others, like this year, are full of exceptional films that make my annual rankings all the more difficult.

Before I jump into my Top 25 Films of 2012, I would like to acknowledge those films that I missed. My overall viewership was down this year for a number of reasons. In fact, this year represents my lowest total number of new release films viewed since I began tracking in 2006. I saw 92 new releases in 2012 (77 of them in the theater and 15 via home entertainment). It was my second lowest in-theater total and tied for my lowest home entertainment total.

Let’s start with the box office hits that I missed. Reviewing this past year’s top 25 grossers, I failed to see Madagascar 3, Ice Age 4, Hotel Transylvania, and Magic Mike. Turning to the recently announced Oscar nominations, there were a good number of films receiving either multiple nominations or significant nominations that I missed this year. That includes Amour (5 noms), Anna Karenina (4 noms), The Master (3 noms), Flight (2 noms), The impossible (Best Actress), The Sessions (Best Supporting Actress), The Pirates! (Best Animated) and ParaNorman (Best Animated).

I also have yet to see No, an Oscar-nominated film produced by a friend and fellow AFI Conservatory graduate (Daniel Dreifuss). I’ve heard nothing but good things, but unfortunately haven’t had a chance to view it before the close out of my yearly rankings.

I’ll take a look at where other top box office performers and nominated films landed in my overall list of 92 at the end of this post. So without further delay, here’s my Top 25 Films of 2012.

==========================================

25. Zero Dark Thirty
A very well-constructed film with an excellently crafted climax. However, I left the theater a bit less moved than many. A good film, but not a great film.

24. Arbitrage
This is the only title in my Top 25 that I viewed at home. Richard Gere gives an intense performance in this thrilling tale of greed, lust, and desperation.

23. Robot & Frank
Frank Langella seems to deliver a knock out performance whenever he appears on screen. This film is no exception. Driven by a high concept, it remains exceptionally intimate and personal.

22. Hitchcock
I’m an old Hollywood nut and a big fan of Mr. Hopkins. His portrayal of A.H. is exceptional, but ultimately overshadowed by the powerful screen presence of Helen Mirren as the auteur’s far less known wife.

21. Rise of the Guardians
The soft box office returns may have hurt perceptions of this film, but it was an action-packed adventure accentuated by superb animation and an amazing score.

20. The Avengers
Logical fallacies and soft plotting be damned. Maybe it’s the kid in me, but this summer juggernaut provided the right dose of humor and adrenaline.

19. Argo
Another film I thought was very good, but not great. I commend Affleck for the project, but the suspense often felt either redundant or convenient. Affleck’s direction deserves props, but I felt his performance was a bit pedestrian.

18. Frankenweenie
This film reaffirms my Tim Burton theory. Budgets $50 mil or under… good Burton. Over $50 mil… bad Burton. A somewhat simple childhood tale is brought to life with heart and imagination.

17. Chronicle
A new filmmaker with a fresh take on an overexposed genre and generally tacky story-telling format. I never expected a found footage superhero film to be this unique and entertaining.

16. The Dark Knight Rises
The Dark Knight was my favorite film of 2008 and one of my favorites of all time. I desperately wanted this film to hit that level. Unfortunately, too many plot holes and logical smudges prevented it from elevating to the previous installment’s heights.

15. Life of Pi
Visually stunning. That’s the headline for this title. I normally loathe 3D, but this is one of those rare films I recommend throwing down the extra few bucks. The 3D is part of an incredible visual pallet created by director Ang Lee.

14. Casa De Mi Padre
This little-seen picture starring Will Ferrell provided me with some of the biggest belly laughs in a long time. I’ve rarely seen an audience so engaged. It’s outrageous. It’s over-the-top. It’s hilarious.

13. Ruby Sparks
Paul Dano plays a writer dealing with a major creative block and a series of personal neuroses. That said… I have no idea why I identified with this movie so much. This picture is built on the foundation of a great screenplay that tackles the logical questions of the story’s premise head on, allowing the viewer to immerse themselves in journey. The ending may be a bit rushed, but the overall piece gets major kudos on this list.

12. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Whatever you do… don’t see this in 48 fps. It was a distracting experience that undercut the exemplary work of the production design, costumes, and special effects. Seeing it again in the good old 24 fps was a great pleasure. Very happy to be back in Middle Earth. Lacks the gravitas of the LOTR trilogy, but still an exciting ride.

11. Safety Not Guaranteed
A low budget. A clever concept. A collection of eccentric actors. I came out of this movie once again reassured of what creative people can do when they come together with a purpose… even if they don’t have much money.

10. Ted
I haven’t been a Family Guy fan since college. Mark Wahlberg has never really struck me as an exceptionally watchable actor. But this year Seth Macfarlane teamed the actor up with a digital teddy bear and made me laugh hysterically through multiple viewings. There’s a reason this sucker is now the top grossing R-rated comedy of all time.

9. Lincoln
Spielberg’s mastery of all things cinematic is once again put on display with this thoughtful, passionate examination of a brief period in the life of a beloved president. I left the theater completely convinced that DDL’s portrayal was more Lincoln than the real man must have been. I could have listened to him tell his rambling stories for another hour.

8. The Perks of Being a Wallflower
It took me a while to get around to seeing this one, but I’m very glad that I did. Exceptionally well-written and chalk full of great performances by a cast of young, fresh faces. Simultaneously moving, funny, and challenging.

7. Wreck-It Ralph
Perhaps the best plotted film released in 2012. Impressive animation across multiple worlds. Clever dialogue. Outrageously imaginative. Wreck-It Ralph was a pure crowd pleaser.

6. Looper
I realize this film has its detractors. I’ve heard some complain about the prosthetics used. Others felt the pacing was unbalanced between the first and second half. I won’t address all of that here. What I will say is that I found Looper to be one of the fresher films that I’ve seen in a while. I enjoyed the intricately laid out mythology and the thrilling visuals. Director Rian Johnson’s early portfolio of films (Brick, The Brothers Bloom, Looper) makes him one of my favorite young filmmakers on the scene.

5. Silver Linings Playbook
I had moderate expectations walking into the theater. But David O Russell’s star-powered dramedy is so exceptionally well-written that I left green with envy. The characters were fascinating. The dialogue was pitch perfect. Combine that with amazing performances by everyone from Cooper to Lawrence to DeNiro and you have one of the best pictures of the year.

4. Skyfall
I’ve always been a Bond fan. Even during the most ridiculous, cheesy installments. Skyfall turned out to be one of the slickest, most cinematic Bond films of all time. Great action set pieces. Fresh perspective on a 60-year-old mythology. Incredible performances. I was pleased to find that Skyfall wasn’t just a great Bond movie… it was a great movie.

3. Moonrise Kingdom
Wes… Oh, sweet Wes. I never tire of your idiosyncratic style and your special visual flare. Your films provide a platform for A+ talent to play out intriguing and often oddball roles. Moonrise Kingdom managed to meet those high expectations set by your prior films. It then managed to exceed most of them by having a sweet, emotional story played out by two superb young actors. In my opinion, this tale of young love was the most emotionally affecting of all of your films.

2. Django Unchained
I’ll say it… Tarantino is the boldest mainstream filmmaker going. Tarantino’s dialogue is some of the snappiest in the business. And Tarantino’s appreciation for cinema is unmatched. All controversy aside, Django was a blast. Christoph Waltz, Jamie Foxx, and Samuel L Jackson were incredible. The musical choices were spot on. The visual style was the perfect canvas for this particular tale. Three thumbs up.

And now, the film that has held the top spot on my list since I saw it in June…

1. Beasts of the Southern Wild
From my perspective, BotSW is far more than a movie. It is an experience. I never stopped while watching to comment on the beautiful cinematography (though it was there) or the superb true-to-life performances (which were vivid and emotional) or the imaginative storytelling (unmatched this year). I was too busy being immersed in the experience of this film. It felt like it washed over me. Drew me in emotionally and creatively. It’s all the more impressive when you realize it was Benh Zeitlin’s first feature film. Kudos to him and to the young, very-talented Quvenzhane Wallis. See this film.

==========================================There they are… my Top 25 Films of 2012. Despite my lower viewing total, it was an exceptionally good year for movies. I thoroughly enjoyed all of the films in my Top 25 and many more beyond that.

A quick post-script on where some other major movies this year fell on my list of 92… From the 25 highest grossers – #5 Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part II (#77 on my list); #7 The Amazing Spider-man (#52 on my list); #10 The Lorax (#76 on my list); #12 Men in Black III (#61 on my list); #18 Taken 2 (#50 on my list); #19 21 Jump Street (#31 on my list); #20 Prometheus (#48 on my list); #22 The Vow (#74 on my list); #25 Bourne Legacy (#49 on my list).

Other Oscar nominees and where they fall on my list – Les Miserables (#84 on my list); Snow White and the Huntsman (#37 on my list); and Brave (#59 on my list).

Here’s hoping that 2013 will showcase as many quality pictures. Happy viewing!

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Love Must Give Rise

sandyhook

I am torn between fits of heavy, aching grief and an unwieldy anger. From the moment I learned of the unfolding events three thousand miles from my desk, I felt swallowed whole. In the days that have followed, this sense of agony has endured. For the loss of innocents. For the unimaginable pain of a community. For the senseless evil of it all. For the dark, unforgivable trend of violence in this nation I love dearly.

I could not possibly have the slightest inkling of the sorrow and pain the families and friends of the victims in Newtown, Connecticut are experiencing. I would gladly bare any portion of it on their behalf if I could. While I have no personal connection to the town or any of its residents, I know I share in the collective sadness of a nation. A nation whose busy and complicated lives have spun sideways at the sight of such terror and loss being laid upon our fellow citizens. What follows may be erratic or a bit unfocused. But there is little hope of clarity in the aftermath of such tragedy.

=====

While I have no children of my own at this time, I’ve been blessed in life to be surrounded by energetic, caring, precious little ones for as long as I can remember. Dozens of cousins who fill my grandmother’s house with laughter and playful romping on Christmas Eve. An adorable nephew who is about to celebrate his first birthday. Two more nieces on the way in just a few months. Three beautiful goddaughters who are talented, intelligent, and full of life. The children of friends old and new who bring a fresh spark to our collective lives.

The thought of any of them being harmed makes my blood boil. The thought of any of them coming face-to-face with such horror and fear makes me want to cry out.

What I came to realize on December 14 is that those same emotions exploded through me for children I didn’t know. For innocent lives in a town that I have never visited. My heart aches for Charlotte, Daniel, Olivia, Ana, Dylan, Madeleine, Catherine, Chase, Jesse, James, Grace, Emilie, Jack, Noah, Caroline, Jessica, Avielle, Benjamin, and Allison. Lives stolen. Laughter silenced. Bright futures snuffed out.

And to Rachel, Dawn, Anne Marie, Lauren, Mary, and Victoria, who gave all that they had to give to protect those children in their care, I pray they are given a special place in the next life for their love and sacrifice.

The loss of a child is a tragedy under any circumstances. Whether it is a quiet departure after a valiant fight with illness or a sudden, unspeakable loss in an accident. Losing a child is tragic beyond words. Lives only just begun. So much potential. So many milestones ahead. They represent the best chance for us as relatives, friends, communities, or societies. All of our mistakes can be wiped away by the hope of the next generation. When they aren’t given that chance… we are left with an emptiness.

In this time of reflection, my mind has roamed the far-flung reaches of the human experience for some understanding. Instead, it only widens my sadness. For while this is undoubtedly a time to honor, remember, and pray for those lost in Newtown, ever more senseless pain unfurls across our country and our planet.

Hundreds of children have been killed or injured in Syria since the terrible actions of that government began. At this very hour, more endure pain, suffering and death. Countless children suffer in lands both remote and front-of-mind. Infants dying of hunger in Africa. Toddlers taken by disease in South America. I realize these instances are different in many ways than the aftermath of an unexpected, violent attack. However, my heart tells me they are all connected. They are all preventable. They are all our collective responsibility.

And even here in this country, in this year alone, we’ve watched innocents taken. Not always children, mind you, but innocent lives nonetheless. In Colorado. In Wisconsin. In Oregon. All within one solitary, sad year.

In the wake of the tragedy in Newtown we have begun to hear, and will undoubtedly continue to hear, commentary from every corner. The answers to how we will stem the tide this time. Gun control, perhaps. Better mental healthcare. More security. I don’t have a blueprint for how to approach any of these topics. I doubt any of them will provide a be-all, end-all answer. But what I fear more than anything is what I’ve seen in the past… inaction. A great deal of talk. Very little progress. It happened after Columbine. It continued in the weeks after Virginia Tech. We even discussed it as we watched the horrific events in Norway unfold from afar. It was the lead on every news program after Tucson and Aurora.

But in each instance, the weeks passed and the conversation shrank. A fresh news cycle begins and we as a society lose sight of that hope for change. We can’t remember the names of the victims. It becomes a terrible footnote, usually highlighted by the name and image of the dark soul who committed the act. All is dormant until another, ultimately preventable, tragedy occurs.

I refuse to mention the perpetrator of last week’s act. His memory should be one of shame and cowardess. While evidence should be examined to help inform us as we move forward, he deserves no air time or press. It serves only to take time away from remembering the victims and moving our society forward. It only feeds other twisted minds that sadistically believe some treacherous notoriety seems appealing.

Instead, I think of those lost. Children and adults. Those who suffered and died for no good reason. For that’s the sad truth. We ask why… Why did this happen? But there is no answer that will bring us peace. Because no diagnosis of a troubled mind will make the pain less real. No understanding of some personal, demented motive will make the loss any less senseless.

=====

I own guns. I don’t have any with me in my current residence, but I do have guns at my childhood home. I grew up around a hunting culture. Around good, responsible men and women who possessed firearms for hunting game or, in some cases, protecting their homes.

Guns are inherently dangerous. Their invention was solely for the infliction of damage. But as we’ve seen in terribly vivid imagery, many inventions can be used to bring about destruction. I’m not here to advocate the seizure and eradication of firearms in broad strokes. Not only is that wildly unfeasible, it is also not a logical solution to our problems.

There are, however, some individuals in this country with inconceivable positions on the issue. While I have no interest in hunting personally, I understand its place in our society and its necessity in some areas of our country and beyond. While I believe guns owned for protection of person or property are more likely to inflict accidental tragedy, I can bring myself to see the perspective of those who adamantly support this practice.

What I cannot reasonably come to terms with is the twisted logic of holding up the Second Amendment as an infallible, un-evolving proclamation. It is ludicrous for anyone to deny the obvious truth that this amendment to our Constitution was written in a radically different time. Circumstances of property and society were so very different than today that it is outrageous to suggest our interpretation of this right should not evolve as well.

In my humble opinion, there is no reason whatsoever for a private citizen to own an automatic or semi-automatic firearm. The sheer violence of which these weapons are capable should mandate that they only be possessed by the appropriate, active members of our nation’s military. And only then in scenarios of righteous action, under careful observation. You do not need an automatic weapon to hunt. You do not need an automatic weapon to protect your home.

They should be eliminated from the private homes and businesses of this country or any country. All other firearms should be regulated. Safety devices required. Detailed background checks a necessity.

Will this solve our problems? No. The sad truth is that it won’t. But if these actions can even marginally reduce the risk of violence, why do we avoid them? It seems some skewed perception of freedom overrules logic, reason, and righteousness.

But again, it isn’t the complete solution. Those with the intention of inflicting harm on others will find a way. It’s terrible but true. We as a society need to find a way to stave off that impulse before individuals find themselves on the brink. I will preface this by saying that I believe in evil. I believe in true, unapologetic, uncomplicated evil. In those cases, preventative measures to affect the impulses of individuals seems hopeless. However, we know that this isn’t the case in the majority of instances. Perpetrators of heinous acts are all too often lost souls, tormented by an ill mind that has been left untreated.

A couple of years ago we had a great debate in this nation about universal healthcare. There was a significant portion of this country that was adamantly against such a proposition. Generally it had something to do with not wanting to pay for other people’s treatment or some fear that the government’s further involvement in healthcare would mean long lines. To hell with those excuses. This country was founded on the idea that all who live here should have equal opportunity for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Universal healthcare touches all of these. We are a great society who has conquered illnesses and developed technologies the likes of which we could have never imagined. Are we to then say that profits will prevent us from providing care to those in need? That we will attach a stigma to some ailments that prevent those in need from seeking care? That people will be left to suffer, or in some cases die, because they can’t afford treatment?

Mental health is just as important an element in that discussion as is physical health. Providing care to everyone creates a stronger nation. More productive members of society. Less fear. Less hopelessness. Less instances of “nothing left to lose.”

Additionally, can we please agree that prisons are not mental health facilities? No matter how much some would like to say they can be. And clearly, the mental health of all of our citizens can directly impact the freedoms of each of us.

A house is a privilege. A car is a privilege. An iPhone. A steak dinner. Vacations. But healthcare should not be a privilege. Until we as a country understand this, millions of Americans will suffer physical and mental trauma. Their pain can manifest itself tragically in preventable death or horrifically in an assault on their fellow man. This should not be a debate.

=====

All of this would be something. Something real and tangible. Not just the cable news scroll rhetoric. It wouldn’t stop tragic events like Sandy Hook completely. And it surely wouldn’t end the suffering of children in Syria, Africa or around the world. To end all of the senseless violence and pain, we have to think bigger.

We have become a selfish society. The culture of “me” is pervasive. It’s about what I want and what I need and to hell with other people. We create so many divisive lines between us that everyone else can easily be broken down as an “other.”

Why are we here? On this planet. In this time. Whether you believe in the Christian God or worship the infinite Hindu deities or believe in nothing at all… you all wonder now and again, “what’s the point?”

I’m not a theologian by any stretch of the imagination and I certainly don’t have any definitive answers. I can only say what I believe. To me, we all find ourselves on this rock together at this very moment as part of a collective experience. We are a common species. Our biological systems operate in the same way. The instinctual urges of our Id are similar. As much as we devote time to examining our differences, our similarities are all the more striking.

We are all guilty of stumbling from time to time. Greed. Vanity. Envy. Lust. Even the most saintly among us. It’s our position in this world as an evolved species that pushes us to overcome these base urges. At least it should be.

When I leave this world, none of the money I accumulate or selfish pleasures I experience will go with me. They’re fleeting. We as the human race would be better served to focus on how to make the lives of everyone around us better… more complete. It’s a goal that can have a lasting impact not just today, but on generation after generation. It’s something we can accomplish that will last beyond our time here.

We need to focus on revealing value in EVERY member of our society. For only when we look at another human being and see someone who matters can things truly change. If this was the society we fostered, than the ill would be cared for and the desperate would be made whole. The compulsion of those to act out violently could be curtailed before it came to pass. And then, in what would hopefully be the rare instances when it still did come to pass, potential perpetrators couldn’t look coldly on those before them. They would be people, not “others.”

As corny as it sounds, love must rise up. We must love each other so much that we aren’t willing to let someone spiral into darkness. We must love each other so much that we aren’t willing to let innocents suffer needlessly. To starve. To be sick. We must love each other so much that when tragedy occurs, we don’t forget so quickly.

In remembering the tragedies this year alone, we shouldn’t forget those in Colorado… Jonathan Blunk, AJ Bolk, Jesse Childress, Gordon Cowden, Jessica Ghawi, John Larimer, Matt McQuinn, Micayla Medek, Veronica Moser-Sullivan, Alex Sullivan, Alexander C Teves, and Rebecca Ann Wingo.

Or Wisconsin… Sita Singh, Ranjit Singh, Prakash Singh, Paramjit Kaur, Suveg Singh, and Satwant Singh Kaleka.

Or Oregon… Cindy Yuille and Steven Forsyth.

Or those innocent souls taken from Newtown, CT this past week… Charlotte Bacon, Daniel Barden, Rachevl Davino, Olivia Engel, Josephine Gay, Ana M. Marquez-Greene, Dylan Hockley, Dawn Hochsprung, Madeleine F. Hsu, Catherine V. Hubbard, Chase Kowalski, Jesse Lewis, James Mattioli, Grace McDonnell, Anne Marie Murphy, Emilie Parker, Jack Pinto, Noah Pozner, Caroline Previdi, Jessica Rekos, Avielle Richman, Lauren Rousseau, Mary Sherlach, Victoria Soto, Benjamin Wheeler, and Allison N Wyatt.

May all of these lives cut short be at peace. May the families and friends who loved them dearly find comfort in the midst of such darkness. May we do what we can to help them. May we never forget what was lost and how vital it is that we do EVERYTHING possible to prevent these terrible events in the future. And may we as one people, one world, embrace love over ignorance… love over apathy… love over prejudice… love over selfishness.

My prayers and thoughts are with those lost, their families, and a community in need of healing.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

I’ll Meet You At the Fountain: In Memory of Del Reisman

To those not in the know, “I’ll meet you at the fountain” may sound like a romantically laced bit of dialogue uttered by Grant or Bogart. Few would guess that it had become the familiar refrain of a friendship between an elder statesman of the writing community and a hopelessly confused wannabe writer in his mid-twenties. By the grace of God, or whatever cosmic puppet master pulls the strings, I was given the opportunity to be the hopeless part of that very important equation.

In the years proceeding my time at the American Film Institute Conservatory, I would find every opportunity to corral Del Reisman into a lunchtime chat or a screening of a film neither of us had seen (a true challenge due to our insatiable viewing habits). It didn’t take much to get him to do so. That was the quality of the man. He surely had immensely more important items to deal with; matters at the Guild he loved so dearly, a fresh batch of eager minds at AFI, his own robust creative work, or simply important members of the industry who desired his time. But none of that seemed to weigh on him heavily when I came calling. As the phone rang, I would wait with great anticipation for the steady and familiar tone of his voice. It was warm and inviting and showed no hint of age. We would chat for a few moments before picking a time to meet. That was really all that needed to be decided. There would be the shortest of pauses and Del would say, “I’ll meet you at the fountain,” adding just a bit flare to what had become our inside joke.

I always arrived early for those meetings. This was partially due to overestimating traffic, but more significantly because of the genuine excitement of seeing my friend and mentor. I would stand at the stone railing of the fountain located in the center of the Grove and watch the shuffling masses coming to and from the Farmer’s Market. His slight frame would emerge from the tangle of bodies and he would greet me with a warm smile and a hug. And there it was… the meeting at the fountain. I may be a bit partial, but I prefer our meetings there to anything drawn up on paper by Billy Wilder.

Several years before those lunchtime rendezvous over Italian food became the norm, I was lucky enough to be assigned to Del’s second year writing workshop at the AFI Conservatory. There were many accomplished instructors there at the time, but from the moment I walked across the creaking wood floors of our classroom and sat down opposite Del for the first time, I knew that I was one of the lucky few. He began as my instructor. In that capacity he embodied all of the qualities of the greatest men of academia. He not only possessed a truly gifted mind for story, but he was insightful, honest and constructive. A classroom full of insecure, strung out pseudo writers can be a daunting crowd to face. But Del never wavered or let slip a frustrated sigh. He not only faced our barrage of insecurities and unpolished techniques, but also did so with such composure and patience that you couldn’t help but find yourself slowly pulling your own neuroses back into check.

The second screenplay I ever wrote under Del’s watch was an epic fantasy adventure (as if we needed more of those, right?). Perhaps in retrospect it was too large, loose, and advanced of a concept for where I was at as a writer. Another instructor may have pushed me to tackle a more easily conquerable beast. However, Del could see my genuine enthusiasm for the concept and agreed to face the choppy waters alongside me. The first full draft I handed him was over two hundred pages long. A lesser man would have slapped me upside the head with the tome and said to come back when I’d written a screenplay and not a novella. Del chose a different tactic. He read through the thick, overwritten language and convoluted subplots. He came out on the other side and pulled up his bootstraps. He met me many times outside of our normal class structure, guiding me through the rewriting process. He wouldn’t let me settle or throw in the towel. He made me believe in me.

It wouldn’t be the last time I required his steady hand. In the first year out of graduate school I found myself in a dark and hopeless place. The naïve confidence and zeal of a twenty-four-year-old kid with an MFA in hand suddenly had come face-to-face with a very different and very difficult reality. Lacking a familial war chest of cash and laden with vast academic debt, I entered the grind of Los Angeles and suddenly realized the astronomically improbable odds of accomplishing what seemed like a sure thing only months ago. I was forced to take on a 40+ hour-a-week day job that included an additional hour commute each way. This was new to me. My life to this point had been spent in the familiar confines of academia. Now my days were filled with spreadsheets, corporate meetings, and invoices. I would drag myself home each night, sit in front of the computer, and find that no words sprang forth. Eventually I wouldn’t even sit in front of the computer. It was too depressing.

Enter Del the mentor. When I first met up with Del during this period it had been several months since I left AFI. During our time at the Conservatory he had developed an uncanny ability to read me. So despite my best efforts to bury my feelings of frustration and dread, Del addressed it head on. After what must have been a truly painful rambling mess to sit through, Del calmly and deftly began the process of rebuilding me. I was on the brink of throwing up my hands in surrender and marching my ass back to Pittsburgh to work in a coal mine. Del wasn’t going to let that happen. I’m not sure if he always believed in the words I wrote, but for whatever reason he seemed to believe in me as a person. He didn’t simply brush aside my struggles and tell me to suck it up. He didn’t casually say, “It takes time,” as so many are apt to do in that situation. Instead he related to me his personal experiences and then helped me re-discover my voice.

I have had many wonderful, supportive people standing alongside me in my life. Family, friends, and teachers who have pushed me, cared for me, and inspired me. Del Reisman did those things, but more importantly he saved me. He saved me from giving up. He saved me from myself. He saved me from a creative netherworld from which I probably would have never recovered.

He checked in on me after that to ensure my return to sanity was sticking. Feeling better than I had in over a year, it was then that I reconnected with an AFI directing fellow from my class and our writing partnership was born. Over two years have passed and I have never known a more productive or fulfilling period in my life. I may not have yet made it to the next level, but I relish the creative work we are doing and have faith in where we are headed. I owe all of that to Del. Had it not been for his mentorship, I don’t think I would have lasted out here among the ruins of so many cinematic aspirations. He didn’t use bravado or heavy-handed tactics to set me straight. No, Del simply was Del. Strength and wisdom. Craft and spirit. Patience and grace.

Despite the difficulties of that period in my life, I am thankful for it. From that point forward our meetings at the fountain became a normal part of my life. Every couple of months, on a holiday or weekend, I would have the incredible pleasure of spending several hours in the company of Del… my friend.

Many know that Del was a master of the screenwriting craft in all forms. He had traversed the winding paths of Hollywood many times over in the course of his impressive career. His depth of understanding of craft and his seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of the industry were unmatched. Even in his later years, Del’s mind was so sharp that he could reference an apparently innocuous subplot from a movie released in 1976 and then tell you what day of the week an important Guild meeting was held on during the strike in 1988. It was a marvel to behold. Here I was, a country kid from Pennsylvania, sitting across from a man of such incredible knowledge and experience. How lucky was I? How lucky were any of us who spent any quality time with Del?

There were days that we met on which I felt absolutely horrible by the end of the meal. I asked so many questions that I was sure his Penne Arrabiata had gone stone cold while he fielded them all. But Del would never complain. He had faced personal struggles that defined the quality of his character. I never felt as if he looked at me in some lower capacity. Instead, totally undeserving of the honor, Del treated me as friend and fellow writer. It wasn’t just his tales of delivering packages on the RKO lot as a young boy or working for the studios here in Hollywood and in France that I found fascinating (though I undoubtedly did). No, Del’s story was so rich and compelling that he could have talked about nearly anything and found a captive audience on the other side of the table. Del was too humble to simply dive into the incredible story of his life without prompting. That required me to continually pester. He would eventually oblige and recount moving to Southern California from the upper Midwest as a child, attending Hollywood High School, serving in WWII, returning to the industry he had grown up in to work as a writer, finding a great love with a Parisian beauty, watching that love evolve into an eternal friendship, working with the WGA on labor issues or restoring credits in the post-blacklist era, leading the Guild as its President, supporting the City of Lights, City of Angels festival, contributing to the Library of Congress’ film selection body, teaching young writers, and so much more between all the spaces. I felt especially fortunate to hear him recount the television and feature projects he himself was working on at present. Hearing bits about his own creative process was much like standing over Edison’s shoulder as he slipped a filament into a glass sphere. What a life. What a man.

Last year, I visited with him on several occasions after he had fallen ill. It was a frightening time. I didn’t dare think of a world without Del. Despite his age, the spark he carried with him seemed untouchable. If there was one man who deserved to test the limitations of the world record for longevity, it was Del.

It was hard having our chats in a care facility rather than over pasta at Maggiano’s. His body was obviously weak, but his mind and voice remained unequivocally Del. He still had spirit and optimism beaming from within. He faced the adversity as he faced all things in life, with grace and poise.

I don’t exaggerate when I say that I feel truly blessed to have had Del in my life as an instructor, a mentor, and a friend. Many will never actually know a great man or woman during their time on this earth. Whatever happens from this point forward, I will at least know I have had that privilege.

Having lost him is incredibly painful. I simply cannot believe I won’t get to hear one of his stories again. But I know that his memory and the kindness and friendship he showed me during the last handful of years has forever altered my course through this world. I thank him for that. And I thank him for all of the times I was lucky enough to meet him at the fountain.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments