Directed by: Spike Lee
Written by: Spike Lee
Starring: Nick Cannon, Wesley Snipes, Teyonah Parris, Samuel L. Jackson, Jennifer Hudson, Angela Bassett, John Cusack, D.B. Sweeney, Dave Chappelle
The funniest movie I saw all year came from the brilliant mind of controversial filmmaker Spike Lee, director of the race relations masterpiece Do the Right Thing. Lee’s new film Chi-Raq sees the filmmaker going into uncharted territory, as it’s something of a musical, a comedy, and a satire all wrapped into one sweet package. Chi-Raq is based on the classic Greek story of Lysistrata, which sees a group of women withholding sex from their mates in order to bring two warring factions to negotiate a peace treaty with each other. The film sees a great deal of parallels with the story of Lysistrata, but applying it to modern day Chicago. Chicago is seen through Spike Lee’s camera as a dangerous, but wonderful city, where young African American men and women essentially risk death on a daily basis just because they live in gang populated areas. After the unexpected death of a young neighborhood girl, a troupe of ambitious and frustrated women young and old come together and solve the gang problem themselves, through the power of their sex appeal The film is incredibly funny in all of its biting satire, incredibly relevant in the modern age of the Black Lives Matter campaign, as well as the ever-rising number of police shootings in the United States. The entire cast of Chi-Raq plays outside of their comfort zone throughout the film, and what results is a film the likes of which I’ve never seen before. Ignore the haters of all things Spike Lee and Chi-Raq, watch this film for yourself and enjoy it for its relevant satire, hilarious performances, and terrific musical numbers. Chi-Raq is a near-masterpiece, and will hopefully elevate Spike Lee into a territory he hasn’t been in over a decade.
9. The Hateful Eight
Directed by: Quentin Tarantino
Written by: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Kurt Russell, Demian Bichir, Walton Goggins, Tim Roth, Bruce Dern, Michael Madsen, James Parks, Channing Tatum
A film that parallels Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq is many surprising ways in its dealings with hatred and race relations. Quentin Tarantino’s highly entertaining – if overlong – The Hateful Eight may not reinvent the wheel, but I don’t think that was ever Tarantino’s mission for a film of this scale. The incredible score by Ennio Morricone backs up one of the funniest, most charming, and surprisingly mean-spirited movies of the year, and there’s never a dull moment even in the film’s bloated runtime. Leading the pack with incredibly entertaining performances are Kurt Russell and Samuel L. Jackson, but the real standout performance for me was that of Jennifer Jason Leigh’s. Leigh’s character is dirty, loud, obnoxious, and pathetic all at the same time, never quite showing upfront the level of desperation her character is feeling until the very last moments of the film. Character actors like Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Demian Bichir, and James Parks all have some really fun and juicy roles that they bite into seemingly without hesitation. None of this would have been possible if not for Tarantino’s epic-length – but small and personal scope – script for The Hateful Eight. His trademark pitch black sense of humor is in the forefront at all times, but so are his occasionally insightful comments on society at large and the hatred, lies, and bigotry we tend to spew in our worst moments as people. Tarantino seems like he had a lot to say through The Hateful Eight, and while it may not reach the highs of films like Inglourious Basterds or Pulp Fiction, it still manages to soar in its own right. The Hateful Eight is a great, albeit dark, time for all moviegoers, and I can’t see how somebody couldn’t find something in this film to connect to.
Directed by: Lenny Abrahamson
Written by: Emma Donoghue
Starring: Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay, Joan Allen, William H. Macy, Tom McCamus, Sean Bridgers
Room is the little Irish-Canadian co-production that could. Lenny Abrahamson’s film, based on the novel of the same name by Emma Donoghue, is an intensely personal and emotional film that takes a look at some serious issues. Explored in Room are themes of mental illness, namely post traumatic stress disorder, clinical depression, and anxiety. Starring the lovely Brie Larson and young star Jacob Tremblay, Room is a film that sounds good on paper, and looks even better when you see it actually come alive before your eyes. I like to compare it in tone and themes to 2012’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, although that film is a little lighter than Abrahamson’s adaptation of Room. Brie Larson gives one of the most powerful and moving performances of the year, playing a traumatized mother who is willing to do anything to save the lives of her and her son. Larson’s character is constantly conflicted and hurt by the things she’s experienced, and we as the audience can feel every bit of her pain. Backing up Larson’s terrific performances is Jacob Tremblay in what I would say is without a doubt one of the best child performances in recent memory. Tremblay’s sense of wonderment seen in the first half of the film, and then subsequent acclimatization to the world around him in the second half are both incredibly believable and compelling. One of my favorite parts of Room is something I haven’t seen talked about very often, and that would be the set design of the titular Room. Although it’s revealed that Larson and her son are living in what amounts to a garden shed, Room feels sprawling in some moments, and we often see it through the eyes of a child. Room looks both large and small, and it’s a technical achievement by both the set design team as well as the director and cinematographer. While Room may not be the easiest watch of the year, it holds two of the most interesting performances of 2015, and has a great deal to say about mental illness. It’s a crowd-pleaser that doubles as a genuinely great film, I can easily recommend it to anybody.
Directed by: Tom McCarthy
Written by: Tom McCarthy, Josh Singer
Starring: Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, Stanley Tucci, John Slattery, Billy Crudup, Jamey Sheridan
Spotlight is a film I knew very little about when I went into it, and when the credits rolled I was very happy for that fact. Tom McCarthy’s most ambitious project yet is also his most successful in terms of blending terrific performances, a tight script, and unblinking direction into one amazing package. The film takes a look at the Boston Globe’s early 2000’s investigation of the molestation taking place within the Catholic church, and the “spotlight” team responsible for bringing them to justice. McCarthy’s direction is incredibly fluid throughout the film, giving us up-close looks at both intimate moments between the journalists, and incredibly thrilling breaks in the case and new developments. Leading the cast are the crew of Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, and Liev Schreiber, all of whom give some of the absolute best performances of their careers in Spotlight. Keaton is every bit as strong as he was in last year’s Birdman, but is unfortunately overshadowed by a typically great performance from the very talented Ruffalo, who I hope to see pick up yet another Academy Award nomination for his performance in the film. McAdams is solid in the film too, and is usually a strong talent as long as the writing is strong as well, which is definitely the case with Spotlight. McCarthy’s script is quite possibly the most impressive thing about Spotlight, covering a great deal of information, investigating countless characters including church heads, victims, priests, journalists, etc., and yet McCarthy’s screenplay never stops to breathe for too long. Even though this is essentially a film about journalists conducting what may seem a mundane investigation, Spotlight is one of the most riveting films I’ve seen. It’s heartbreaking, satisfying, and incredibly compelling in every single moment, and I sincerely hope it picks up some big time nominations this award season.
Directed by: Ryan Coogler
Written by: Ryan Coogler, Aaron Covington
Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Phylicia Rashad, Tony Bellew
Another massive sleeper hit that exceeded everybody’s expectations, Ryan Coogler’s followup to his debut feature Fruitvale Station has proven to be both a critical and box office sensation. Creed follows the early career of Adonis (or Donnie) Creed, estranged son of former boxing World Champion Apollo Creed. Adonis teams up with another former World Champion, in the form of “The Italian Stallion” Rocky Balboa, who hasn’t trained since his one-off fight with former champion Mason Dixon back in 2006. Together, Balboa and the young Creed look to overcome all odds and elevate the second-generation star to heights even Rocky hasn’t seen, but it won’t be an easy journey for either of them. There are far too many great elements of Creed to focus on, from his incredibly energetic direction style, the quick and effortless pacing of the script, and the terrific performances from both Michael B. Jordan and Sylvester Stallone. Stallone gives the performance of his career in Creed, reminding the audience exactly why they fell in love with Rocky Balboa in the first place, but elevating the stakes to new heights. Stallone swings for the fences in every single scene he’s in, and manages to steal the show every single time. He single-handedly proved all of his critics wrong in just one performance, and I hope he’ll be able to do it again in the film’s sequel. Young Michael B. Jordan gives a terrifically physical and emotional performance through the film, always hesitant to acknowledge his roots and the influence his father had on the sport of boxing. When he’s in the ring, he’s entirely believable as the young Donnie Creed, and is featured in some of the absolute best fight scenes in the entire franchise. On top of some great performances, highly energetic direction, and a surprisingly subtle script, Creed’s soundtrack will be stuck in your head for days and days. The new pieces of score are hard-hitting and work perfectly, the re-appropriated pieces from the original film’s soundtrack don’t stick out awkwardly, and the many hip-hop tracks featured throughout had me dancing in my seat more than once. Forget everything you think you know about the Rocky franchise, and see Creed as soon as possible.