Directed by: Ramin Bahrani
Written by: Ramin Bahrani, Amir Naderi
Starring: Andrew Garfield, Michael Shannon, Laura Dern
A tremendously thrilling film about the years following the financial and housing crisis in late 2000’s United States, carefully directed by Ramin Bahrani. Bahrani directs Michael Shannon to an incredible performance that has become the most celebrated part of the film. Andrew Garfield delivers a heartfelt lead performance, showing exactly why he should be given the chance to star in more award worthy dramatic films. 99 Homes sat at the very top of my list until a disappointing rewatch revealed many of the screenplay’s flaws, especially during the film’s very rushed last act. On top of the lackluster third act, the over-acted supporting performance by the talented Laura Dern only hurt the believability of the movie. Still, there’s a great deal to appreciate in 99 Homes, and it’s clear that Ramin Bahrani is a name to look out for in the future.
Bridge of Spies
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Written by: Matt Charman, Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Starring: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Amy Ryan, Alan Alda
Steven Spielberg’s follow-up to his incredible Lincoln in 2012 sees him once again teaming up with Tom Hanks, this time for a post World War II/Soviet era period piece featuring elements of spy and espionage thrillers. Bridge of Spies features more terrific cinematography from Janusz Kaminski, another Spielberg regular. The film looks and feels like its 1960’s era setting, but somehow manages to feel more modern in its film-making techniques and use of lighting and darkness than other period pieces. Tom Hanks delivers a typically solid performance as lawyer James B. Donovan, but it’s relatively unknown stage actor Mark Rylance as Rudolf Abel who absolutely steals the show. Rylance disappears into the role of the alleged German spy Abel, and delivers what I believe to be the second best supporting performance of the year. It’s terrific to see Rylance up for an Academy Award, and to see Bridge of Spies be deservedly recognized in the Best Picture and Best Writing categories. I wish it luck in the next month, as it’s up against some terrific competition.
The End of the Tour
Directed by: James Ponsoldt
Written by: Donald Margulies
Starring: Jason Segel, Jesse Eisenberg
David Foster Wallace is a man who has greatly interested me ever since hearing about the epic novel Infinite Jest, one of the most intimidatingly deep pieces of modern English literature ever published. The End of the Tour chronicles journalist David Lipsky’s (Jesse Eisenberg) interactions with the famously reclusive writer (Jason Segel). Foster Wallace eventually opens up to Lipsky after a number of days spent together, forming a bond with the young journalist. Jason Segel gives a career best performance as David Foster Wallace, and is very easily the highlight of The End of the Tour. Segel is almost unrecognizable in the film, paying homage to Wallace through the use of the writer’s famous quirks and paranoias. Jesse Eisenberg proves once again that he’s a skilled supporting performer when the screenplay is strong enough, and he too gives an impressive outing as Lipsky. James Ponsoldt, who directed 2013’s beautiful The Spectacular Now, films The End of the Tour with a subtle hand, never making any sort of judgment on the characters of either man. The End of the Tour is a perfect example of an interesting and brief biopic that never overstays its welcome, and doesn’t try to become something bigger than it is, and I can’t wait to see what Ponsoldt does next.
I’ll See You in My Dreams
Directed by: Brett Haley
Written by: Brett Haley, Marc Basch
Starring: Blythe Danner, Martin Starr, Sam Elliott, Malin Akerman, June Squibb, Rhea Perlman, Mary Kay Place
I’ll See You in My Dreams is a relatively small film that has gone mostly unnoticed by the masses this past year, featuring an incredible lead performance and subtle and sensitive direction. It may not be a thrill ride on par with some of the year’s biggest films, it’s undoubtedly a very touching and poignant drama that I wish would have found a bigger audience. Veteran actress Blythe Danner gives an amazing performance as Carol Petersen, a widow who is struggling to find meaning in her life. Through a series of events, she meets the young Lloyd (Martin Starr), and the two form a friendship that inspires Carol to start living her life once again. She meets Bill (Sam Elliott), and falls in love with his natural charm and charisma. Director Brett Haley brings very impressive performances out of the entire cast, which is fairly unique for somebody with such a short resume. If I’ll See You in My Dreams had found more of an audience, there’s no doubt in my mind that Blythe Danner would have been a major Oscar contender this awards season. I’ll See You in My Dreams is a quiet, charming, and very funny film that I implore everybody looking for a lovely drama to look into. You won’t be disappointed.
Directed by: Veronika Franz, Severin Fiala
Written by: Veronika Franz, Severin Fiala
Starring: Susanne Wuest, Elias Schwarz, Lukas Schwarz
The creepy and incredibly atmospheric Austrian horror film directed by the team of Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala garnered a great deal of critical acclaim this past year, and rightfully so. Goodnight Mommy is a slow-moving, but tremendously atmospheric and dread-filled horror film that actually does a great deal to spook its audience. While there may not be anything truly groundbreaking about Goodnight Mommy, it’s an incredibly tense and wonderfully directed film that managed to disturb and scare critics. The direction by Franz and Fiala is beautiful, slow-moving, and handles the film’s many haunting reveals incredibly well. Goodnight Mommy never settles for cheap jump scares, but ramps up the sense of dread and suspense between every horrific reveal and scare. The performances by child actors Elias and Lukas Schwarz are quite good for child actors, and by the end of the film even I was kind of creeped out by them, wondering whether or not they were in the right. It, in addition to It Follows (my #1 film of the year) did a great deal to further the so-called “horror renaissance” the world of film has been seeing since the release of James Wan’s The Conjuring in 2013. I can’t wait to see what 2016 offers in the way of unique and genuinely scary horror films.
Magic Mike XXL
Directed by: Gregory Jacobs
Written by: Reid Carolin
Starring: Channing Tatum, Matt Bomer, Joe Manganiello, Kevin Nash, Adam Rodriguez, Gabriel Iglesias, Amber Heard, Donald Glover, Elizabeth Banks, Jada Pinkett Smith, Andie MacDowell
Effortlessly charming and incredibly fun, 2015’s sequel to Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike is another great example of a sequel that for the most part just works. Gregory Jacobs takes the driver’s seat of Magic Mike XXL with Soderbergh as his cinematographer, enlisting the services of most of the cast of the original film, as well as some welcome additions in the form of Donald Glover, Amber Heard, and Andie MacDowell. This time, Channing Tatum and the boys are on a road trip to Myrtle Beach for a stripping convention that will close out their careers. Along the way, the gang of wily male strippers meet an assortment of new and interesting characters, have incredibly funny interactions between themselves and generally whoever they cross paths with, and find any and every excuse in the book to take off their shirts and look damn good doing it. Magic Mike XXL is hilarious and incredibly fun, and while it may be a little too long and bloated for its own good, is still a fairly memorable moviegoing experience. Tatum is incredibly likeable and charismatic as the titular Mike, and the entire supporting cast make this a very memorable, if minor, experience. Don’t let the naysayers talk you out of seeing both Magic Mike films, as they feature fun performances, hilarious moments, terrific soundtracks, and tremendous direction for sure odd little films.
Directed by: Christian Petzold
Written by: Christian Petzold, Harun Farocki
Starring: Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, Nina Kunzendorf, Michael Maertens
After seeing Christian Petzold’s 2012 film Barbara, I knew immediately that the German director was going to be one to watch. His latest film Phoenix shares a great deal in common with Barbara, including its lead stars Nina Hoss and Ronald Zehrfeld, their post WWII settings (Barbara takes place in East Berlin in the 1980’s, Phoenix in post-war Berlin), and the understated but powerful stories that Petzold tells with his camera. I’d say that Petzold has easily outdone himself with Phoenix, telling an incredibly mysterious and morally ambiguous tale of a woman searching for the love of her life, even after her love may have sold her out to the Nazi’s. Nina Hoss plays Nelly Lenz, a holocaust survivor who has undergone facial reconstruction surgery. When she meets her husband (Ronald Zehrfeld), he has no idea who she is and the two hatch a plot to collect Nelly’s family inheritance. What follows is a heartbreaking, thrilling, and incredibly subtle drama about a relationship that may not have been everything it seemed to be. Phoenix is a terrific film from director Christian Petzold, and I hope he continues to hone his craft by telling such beautiful and personal stories. Phoenix will be released on blu-ray by the Criterion Collection in April 2016.
Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens
Directed by: J.J. Abrams
Written by: Lawrence Kasdan, J.J. Abrams, Michael Arndt
Starring: Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Andy Serkis, Lupita Nyong’o, Domhnall Gleeson, Peter Mayhew, Max von Sydow, Mark Hamill
When I finally got around to seeing the new J.J. Abrams directed Star Wars film, I walked into the theatre almost certain that I was going to come out disappointed. Having never been a huge fan of the franchise, I rewatched the films in the week prior to my viewing of The Force Awakens, and found myself feeling much the same about the series. I enjoyed The Phantom Menace much more than I remembered, hated Attack of the Clones, somewhat enjoyed Revenge of the Sith, adored A New Hope, liked The Empire Strikes Back (but not nearly as much as others do), and very much enjoyed Return of the Jedi. But at the end of the day, they all just felt like fun sci-fi films and not much else. I’m pleased to announce that Star Wars: The Force Awakens is probably my second favourite film of the entire series, and that it successfully managed to charm its way into my heart. Everything from the new characters, to new settings, to the sweeping action set pieces had me absolutely floored and rooting for our new cast of loveable characters. Though I wasn’t crazy about the original cast cameos for the most part, they did their part and didn’t hog the spotlight from the incredibly talented ensemble of Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, and John Boyega. What I got in The Force Awakens is what I hope for (but never get) in every major blockbuster franchise: a coherent and not overly complicated origin story that manages to subvert tired tropes and cliches, a cast of strong and well-developed characters, believable and epic settings, and incredibly fluid action scenes. J.J. Abrams and company managed to prove me wrong again and again, and I absolutely can’t wait to see what happens with the rest of the new trilogy.
Side note: As much as I like the guy in other films, Domhnall Gleeson was absolutely awful in this. He managed to ruin my immersion on more than one occasion, and I hope he stops overacting in future installments of the trilogy.
Directed by: Jafar Panahi
Written by: Jafar Panahi
Starring: Jafar Panahi, Hana Saeidi
Iran’s badboy filmmaker Jafar Panahi has been banned from making films for half a decade now, but that hasn’t stopped him from producing some of the most interesting works of his entire career. His latest film Taxi furthers the idea that Iranian directors REALLY love driving and filming the acting of driving, but it’s much, much more interesting and thought-provoking than that statement makes it sound. Panahi plays himself as a cab driver in the Iranian city of Tehran, picking up fares and driving them around the sprawling city. Panahi interacts with his customers, all of whom are different ages, from different walks of life, and going about their daily lives in different ways. Many of his fares recognize him as the famous outlaw movie director, and all of his fares feel like they could be situations straight out of real life. Taxi blends the line between fiction and documentary filmmaking, creating something that is almost indescribably dense and full of anger towards the government of Iran for their notorious censorship and oppressive nature. The highlight of Taxi sees Jafar Panahi picking up his young niece, who is making a film for her class. Hana, Panahi’s young niece, details all of the rules of filmmaking she must abide by, while her uncle slyly comments on and scoffs at the enormous list of rules. Taxi is an incredible experiment the likes of which I’ve never seen before, and shows that Panahi is willing to bend the rules even further when it comes to pursuing his passion. It’s a beautiful, unique film that I wish more people would seek out.
Directed by: Sebastian Schipper
Written by: Olivia Neergaard-Holm, Sebastian Schipper, Eike Frederik Schulz
Starring: Laia Costa, Frederick Lau, Franz Rogowski
Sebastian Schipper’s incredible experimental film was shot in one complete take, one of the first feature-length films of its kind. Victoria never hides its cuts like other famous “one take” movies like 2014’s Birdman or Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, but instead is completely unblinking and seemingly flawless in its timing and blocking of scenes. The film sees a young woman, the titular Victoria, taken in by a group of rowdy young men for an evening of fun. The men and their new friend become embroiled in a large-scale robbery plot. After falling for one of the young men, Victoria is recruited as the getaway driver, further complicating matters. Victoria isn’t just a one-take gimmick, but also manages to tell an incredibly tense story and features a cast full of characters that are easy to root for (or against, depending on your perspective). While it may have been a little too long for my preference, there’s no denying the impressive craft that went into the making of Victoria. The tonal shift taken halfway through the film only helped to raise the stakes and further my dedication to the film, and I was very thankful that it went where it did in the end. Victoria is a terrific exercise in tension and unique filmmaking that everybody should check out at least once. It may not be perfect, but it looks and feels like something of a trailblazer in its best moments.
Movies I’ve yet to see from 2015 include:
The Brand New Testament
The Danish Girl
The Good Dinosaur
Hard to Be a God
The Keeping Room
The Look of Silence
Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation
Shaun the Sheep the Movie
Son of Saul
Straight Outta Compton
When Marnie Was There