Crown Heights (2017)


Lakeith Stanfield shows off his intensity.

(2017) Biographical Drama (Amazon/IFC) Lakeith Stanfield, Nnamdi Asomugha, Natalie Paul, Adriane Lenox, Luke Forbes, Zach Grenier, Josh Pais, Nestor Carbonell, Joel van Liew, Bill Camp, Amari Cheatom, Skylan Brooks, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Carlos Hendricks, Ron Canada, Gbenga Akinnagbe, Shana A. Solomon, Brian Tyree Henry, Sarah Goldberg. Directed by Matt Ruskin

 

Justice is portrayed as a blindfolded woman holding a balanced set of scales. This is meant to convey the impartiality of justice. In modern America, experience has taught us that justice sometimes peeks behind the blindfolds and the scales are weighted against the poor and those of color.

Colin Warner (Stanfield) is an immigrant from Trinidad living in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn. He is no saint – one of the first things we see him do is steal a car – but he’s not the devil incarnate either. He’s just a guy trying to make it in a world that isn’t well-disposed towards people with his skin color or economic station. He hopes for a better life and along with his best friend Carl “KC” King (Asomugha) is attending a school to become a certified auto mechanic. He also has an eye on Antoinette (Paul), a neighborhood girl who has unfortunately put him in the friend zone.

One night as he walks home with his mother’s television set which he picked up from the repair shop, he is arrested by a pair of New York’s finest. When he learns that the charge is murder, he is almost incredulous. The more he discovers about the crime, the more confident he is that he’ll soon be freed; for one thing, he didn’t do the crime. He didn’t know anyone involved. He had no motive and no record of violence. Surely the police will see that and let him go.

To his horror, they don’t. Even after they find the man who actually pulled the trigger (Forbes), they refuse to let him go. An eyewitness puts him on the scene; never mind that the 15-year-old boy (Brooks) has a criminal history of his own, or that his story is wildly inconsistent with other eyewitnesses. Even the presiding judge (Canada) admits the evidence is flimsy. Nevertheless, an all-white jury convicts the shocked Colin and he is sentenced to 15 years to life in prison.

Colin’s family and particularly KC are livid and on a mission to get Colin home where he belongs. The appeals process turns into a nightmare as the lawyer that is hired is so woefully unprepared that it is clear that he’s all about getting the cash up front and after that, he doesn’t really much care. KC’s determination leads him to take the process server’s exam so that he can circulate among lawyers and perhaps find a good one to take Colin’s case. Eventually it leads him to William Robedee (Camp) who together with his Irish wife Shirley (Goldberg) run a tiny practice. The lawyer agrees to take the case after looking at the transcripts and discovering what a shockingly inadequate defense Colin received. Still, the system is grinding Colin down and although Antoinette has thawed on the whole romance thing, it looks like Colin might just rot in prison.

This is based on true events which should be enough to make your blood boil. These things really happened and Colin Warner really spent a ridiculous amount of time in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Ruskin uses contemporary clips of various presidents talking tough on crime to illustrate the tone of the times and reminds us that crime is the political equivalent of a slam dunk – everybody wants to be perceived as tough on crime. The results of the rhetoric was largely cosmetic; the effects on the poor and those unable to afford good representation, devastating.

Stanfield has been turning heads over the past few years with performance after performance, always delivering something special. This might be his best work yet, showing us a man who is pretty laid back and soft-spoken most of the time but frustrated by the injustice of his situation, driven to despair (he wakes up each morning murmuring to himself “Please don’t let it be a cell”) and eventually rage, lashing out at brutal guards and equally brutal inmates. Only his love for Antoinette, his mother and grandmother back in Trinidad and the support of KC keeps him going. Stanfield captures the full range of Colin’s emotions.

I’m not sure where this was filmed but I suspect it was either in a working prison or a decommissioned one. It looks a little too authentic to be a set. I could be wrong on that count of course and if I am, the production designer Kaet McAnneny is to be doubly commended. Ruskin also gives a very stark look at life inside. It isn’t as brutal as, say, Oz but it does capture the feeling of simmering anger and violence that exists in a prison and especially the hopelessness.

The movie suffers from an inconsistent pace. Certain parts of the movie seem to move very quickly (the arrest and initial trial, for example) and others seem to drag. Ruskin utilizes graphics to tell us how long Colin has been incarcerated. There are some jumps in time and quite honestly there is a lack of consistent flow here. I didn’t get a good sense of time passing; other than the graphics, all of the action could have taken place within the same year with the viewer being none the wiser.

Stanfield is impressive here and I wouldn’t be surprised if down the line he became one of the very best in Hollywood, the sort of actor who is a threat to win an Oscar every time he signs up for a movie. He elevates this movie and he is supported by a thoroughly professional cast. The acting is uniformly good and other than what I discussed earlier there aren’t really any serious faults to really distract from what is a very good film. It tells a story that will outrage but sadly isn’t uncommon as graphics near the end of the film show. Definitely this is one if you’re looking for a serious movie to see that may have some outside Oscar implications later on.

REASONS TO GO: Stanfield delivers a performance that just sizzles. A cathartic ending enhances the gritty portrayal of the brutality of everyday prison life.
REASONS TO STAY: The pacing is inconsistent..
FAMILY VALUES: There’s lots of profanity, some violence and sexuality as well as some nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Asomugha is a pro football player who is a two-time All-Pro defensive back for the Oakland Raiders.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/8/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Hurricane
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Man in Red Bandana

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Love & Taxes


Josh Kornbluth gets troubling news.

Josh Kornbluth gets troubling news.

(2015) Comedy (Abramorama) Josh Kornbluth, Sarah Overman, Helen Shumaker, David Keith, Robert Sicular, Nicholas Pelczar, Harry Shearer, Robert Reich, Nile Acero, Misha Brooks, Menachem Creditor, Carrie Paff, Anthony Nemirovsky, Jeff Raz, Kay Kostopoulos, Jenna Davi, Katherine Celio, Lorri Holt, Amy Resnick, Patricia Scanlon, Cindy Goldfield. Directed by Jacob Kornbluth

 

The art of the monologue is somewhat different than the art of stand-up comedy. The latter is joke after joke after joke; the former is a story, generally a humorous one. Louis C.K. is a stand-up comedian; Spalding Gray is a monologist. You’re far more likely to get rich and famous doing stand-up than you are reciting monologues, but that doesn’t stop plenty of people from going the latter route.

Based on a semi-autobiographical monologue by Josh Kornbluth who is shown performing it onstage enhanced by re-enacted portions of it, the cleverly titled film (Death and Taxes mixed with Love and Death, a Woody Allen – clearly a major influence on Kornbluth – film) shows Kornbluth who admits to his tax lawyer boss that he hadn’t paid his taxes in seven years.

To make this further ironic, Kornbluth works for a corporate tax lawyer (Keith) to pay the bills while he struggles to get his career as a monologist going. When Keith finds out that his employee hasn’t filed, he immediately sends him to a personal tax lawyer named Mo (Shumaker). Holistic and a bit New Age, Mo sees his failure to file not so much a tax problem as a tax symptom. Josh has memories of his father (Sicular), a testy communist, refusing to pay his taxes. A revelation, perhaps?

And filing his taxes seems to have helped Josh in many ways. He starts getting bigger crowds at his gigs. He gets the attention of a cheesy Hollywood producer (Shearer) who has Josh living in L.A. five days a week to write a screenplay in hopes that a studio will pick it up. He also gets the attention of a groupie named Sara (Overman) who is nearly as neurotic as himself, but in a complimentary way. Soon they are living together and talking marriage – particularly when Sara gets pregnant.

But Josh’s tax struggles are far from over and soon he finds himself in a bigger hole than he could imagine. Sure enough, things go from blessed to cursed in a big hurry. It’s a condition known to most of us as life.

Josh is a charismatic and engaging personality. He’s a cross between a Berkeley liberal and a Brooklyn Jew which makes for an interesting personality. He’s no matinee idol but he nonetheless keeps your attention whenever he’s onscreen, something that some matinee idols have trouble with. His stage sequences make you want to run right out and catch his act, which I suppose is what he was after all along.

While the movie could have used a little more editing (it drags a bit at the end of the second and beginning of the third act) it still doesn’t ever really wear out its welcome. It’s not the kind of film that is going to have you screaming with laughter but instead elicits a quiet chuckle – a whole lot of them, in fact. The interweaving of stage monologue and ensemble film sequences works well together, keeping the movie humming along for the most part. Sometimes there is a little too much shtick but by and large this is an entertaining and funny movie that is an improvement on Haiku Tunnels, the first film collaboration between the Brothers Kornbluth. I hope the two of them continue to make movies if they’re going to come up with stuff this good.

REASONS TO GO: The weaving of the stage monologue and the acted re-creations is nicely done. Josh is an engaging storyteller.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie runs a little bit too long.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of mild profanity as well as some mild sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is adapted from a monologue that Kornbluth first staged in 2003 in San Francisco; he later refined it in the Sundance Theater Lab, San Francisco’s Z Space Studios and Washington DC’s Arena Stage.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/2/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Producers (1967)
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Last Laugh

Breaking a Monster


There's still room for a purple haze.

There’s still room for a purple haze.

(2016) Music Documentary (Abramorama) Malcolm Brickhouse, Jarad Dawkins, Alec Atkins, Alan Sacks, Annette Jackson, Kevin Jonas, Tracey Brickhouse, Moe Dawkins, Johnny Karkazis, Tabitha Dawkins, Douglas Wimbush, Q-Tip, Nile Rogers, Samantha Sacks, Jolene Cherry, Gary Adelman, Jimmy Webb, Ernestine Charles, Gloria Atkins, Annette Van Duren. Directed by Luke Meyer

 

The music industry is an absolute bastard to break into. Finding success in it is nearly impossible, particularly now in an era of digital downloads and pirated tracks. Success isn’t a function of how hard one works or how talented one is; the road to success is littered with the carcasses of hardworking, talented performers who simply didn’t make it. Sometimes it’s a matter of being in the right place at the right time to meet the right person. Few other careers have luck play as important a factor.

Three young Brooklyn boys have had a yen for heavy metal ever since their dads took them to wrestling matches where the ring entrance music of the wrestlers is almost always metal; also their favorite videogames tended to have a metal soundtrack. Soon Malcolm Brickhouse, Jarad Dawkins and Alec Atkins – three lifelong friends – began to put together a band of their own. Doesn’t sound too unusual, right? Throw in that all three are African Americans (a rarity in the metal world which is almost uniformly white) and that they all hadn’t reached their teens as of yet and you’ve got something different. Add in that they are extremely talented musicians not just for their age but period and you have something special.

The boys practiced in their basements and eventually went to Times Square to play. A passerby caught their performance on video and uploaded it to YouTube. That video went viral and soon it caught the attention of industry veteran Allan Sacks, who on paper wouldn’t sound like a particularly good fit. In the 70s he was in the television industry and helped create the classic sitcom Welcome Back Kotter and by the 90s had switched to the music industry where he helped discover Demi Lovato and the Jonas Brothers. He flew out to New York from the West Coast and signed the band to a management contract. Good fit or not, his clout helped open doors and the septuagenarian manager soon had the band signed to a two-album contract with Sony for a cool $1.8 million.

Most of the film takes from the contract signing onward and gives us a good idea of how the work really begins after the contract has been notarized. The boys meet with stylists who select clothes for them to wear onstage and Malcolm gets a vocal coach which he sorely needs. One of the worries that Sony has about the band is that Malcolm’s voice hasn’t dropped yet so it’s impossible to know what his voice is going to sound like when it does and whether or not he’ll be an adequate singer; for the time being his vocals are…let’s just say raw and leave it at that.

Plus we’re talking about 8th grade kids, not seasoned professionals. The label wants them to do interviews, festival appearances and promotional interviews; the boys just want to play videogames. Malcolm in particular likes to skateboard which gets Alan and Sony all up in arms; the risk of injury is too great and could put Malcolm’s career in jeopardy if he injures his arms or his head. Skateboarding is henceforth forbidden, which turns Malcolm’s mood extra-sour.

Compounded with that is that the band wants to make a record and Sony doesn’t think they’re ready for it. Consequently they put pressure on Alan to get them into the studio and while he counsels patience, have you ever tried to tell a young teen boy to be patient? Ain’t happenin’ folks.

The boys themselves are engaging and charming. They are a bit more focused than the average 13-year-old but that’s not saying much. You don’t get a sense that the fame and money has changed them much, although they do sometimes express that it has changed the way others perceive them which is to be expected. They seem genuinely nice boys and one hopes that the pitfalls of the music industry don’t sour them too much; it’s a cutthroat industry and it takes a tremendous ego to survive it.

What matters most is the music and quite frankly, it’s pretty good. Not good for kids their age but good period. The single that they do record, “Monster” has a terrific hook and some nimble guitar work. Even if you don’t like metal, you can’t help but admire the skill that went into the song. Producer Johnny Karkazis (better known as Johnny K) works with Malcolm patiently trying to get the vocals down, even helpfully suggesting that he clench his fist and pump it during the final chorus to get the right tone. It works.

In fact, I have to say that the overall tone works for the film as well. This isn’t a story that is all that different than any other “making of the band” documentary has covered other than the fact that these are African-American kids trying to make it in a world of grizzled old white guys. In fact, when the point is raised that Sony may have signed them because of the novelty of their situation, in one of the more charming scenes Brickhouse acknowledges it but also follows that with “I don’t care!” Any means of getting the foot in the door will do and Brickhouse at 13 is worldly enough to realize that. In and of itself, that may be the most impressive thing about him of all.

REASONS TO GO: The subjects are engaging and likable. Meyer is wise enough to be an unobtrusive “fly on the wall.”
REASONS TO STAY: In many ways, this territory has been covered before.
FAMILY VALUES: Some profanity is uttered.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Unlocking the Truth continues to play as a band today; however they were dropped by Sony shortly after filming was completed.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/26/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Wrecking Crew
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Southside with You

The Secret Life of Pets


Just one big happy family.

Just one big happy family.

(2016) Animated Feature (Universal/Illumination) Starring the voices of Louis C.K., Kevin Hart, Eric Stonestreet, Jenny Slate, Ellie Kemper, Albert Brooks, Lake Bell, Dana Carvey, Hannibal Buress, Bobby Moynihan, Chris Renaud, Steve Coogan, Michael Beattie, Sandra Echeverria, Jaime Camel, Kiely Renaud, Jim Cummings, Laraine Newman, Tara Strong. Directed by Chris Renaud and Yarrow Cheney

 

We all lead busy lives. We spend most of our waking hours at work or school, hanging out with friends, being everywhere but at home. Those of us who own pets know that one of the best things about leaving the house is coming back home to our beloved fur babies (and scale babies and feather babies). Dogs, with their over-the-top “I thought I was never going to see you again” greetings, cats with their indifference – it doesn’t matter. We are always happy to see our pets. But have you ever wondered what your pets are up to while you’re out earning a living?

Wonder no more. The filmmakers behind the Despicable Me franchise have figured it out for you. Max (C.K.) is a pampered terrier living in a New York apartment with his sweet owner Katie (Kemper) to whom he is absolutely devoted as only a dog can be. Elsewhere in the apartment complex are a menagerie of pets – a fluffy Pomeranian named Gidget (Slate) who has a major crush on Max, the good-hearted but not-bright bulldog Mel (Moynihan), the punk poodle Buddy (Buress), Chloe (Bell), a cat with the kind of appetite that would put a competitive eater to shame and Norman (C. Renaud), a guinea pig lost in the air ducts for two weeks.

Max’s world is turned upside down though when Katie brings home Duke (Stonestreet), a shaggy bear of a dog who is a rescue pet. She introduces him as his new brother, but Max isn’t so sure. The ginormous Duke quickly takes over all of Max’s creature comforts from his plush doggie bed to his bowl of kibble. For his part, Duke sees Max as a rival for Katie’s affection who needs to be put in his place. The two begin to conspire against each other, which leads to the two of them after a somewhat unlikely series of events being stranded outside of the apartment.

Chased by animal control and a group of pets who had been abandoned or flushed out into the sewers, led by a manic bunny named Snowball (Hart) who has a thing against pampered pets, the two flee through the streets of Brooklyn, trying to find their way back home to Katie. Forced to work together, they develop a grudging respect for one another. However, Gidget isn’t letting Max down; she organizes the rest of the pets into a rescue team. Aided by Tiberius (Brooks), a hawk who is trying to keep his appetite under control, and Pops (Carvey), a partially paralyzed beagle who has “connections,” will they find their friends before one of the two groups chasing them do, or will Max and Duke make it home on their own? Or will everyone fail, leaving the two “brothers” at the mercy of animal control or the homicidal bunny?

I was a little bit disappointed by the movie. The animation is top notch and is definitely a love letter to New York, which is rendered with charming detail. It’s the idealized New York of Gershwin and dozens of sitcoms since, and it works as a believable environment for the characters. The cast of some of the best comedians working in the business today deliver their lines with snap and patter and there are plenty of moments that are laugh-out-loud funny for both parents and their kids.

The problems are however that you feel that you’re watching a bunch of other movies. There are a ton of references to other films, stylistically, subtly, sometimes in your face and through little Easter Eggs. It’s the kind of pop culture deluge that made some of the later Shrek films kind of a slog. While I liked the concept just fine, the execution was where it fell down. The middle third – which commences once Max and Duke leave the apartment – goes at a bit of a crawl. Yes, the animation is wonderful but I found it a bit of a bore to be brutally honest.

In a summer where it seems family movies are king, The Secret Life of Pets has been a blockbuster and a sequel has already been greenlit. I don’t know that I liked this as much as some of the other animated features I’ve seen this year – to be honest few of them have really been better than average – but there is enough to satisfy the target audience nicely and not be too difficult for a parent to sit through multiple times. I certainly have no difficulty imagining that this will be a regular request for kids once it hits the home video market. Still, I would have liked it to be a bit less pop culture-oriented and a bit more timeless, like some of the films it paid homage to. The Secret Life of Pets had all the ingredients it needed to be a classic and at the end of the day, it’s just a decent kid-flick. That’s not nearly good enough given what it could have been.

REASONS TO GO: There are some really funny sequences here. The animation is superb.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie drags quite a bit over the middle third. It’s a little too derivative for its own good.
FAMILY VALUES:  A little bit of rude humor and cartoon action.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  This is the first film to gross over $100 million in it’s opening weekend that isn’t a sequel or based on previously released material.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/7/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews. Metacritic: 61/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Toy Story
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Equals

Dark


Hey, I'm walking here, I'm walking here!!

Hey, I’m walking here, I’m walking here!!

(2015) Suspense (Screen Media) Whitney Able, Alexandra Breckenridge, Michael Eklund, Brendan Sexton III, Benny Ash, Redman, Eunice Ahn, Steel Burkhardt, James Dinonno, Kristopher Thompson-Bolden, Anita Valentini, Rose Wartell. Directed by Nick Basile

 

On August 4, 2003, New York City suffered through one of the worst blackouts in the city’s history. Anyone who hasn’t lived through a blackout will not understand what a big deal they are. They often happen in the middle of summer when temperatures are high, so your home gets gradually hotter and hotter. There’s no refrigerators so no cool drinks; there’s no TV, Internet or or radio unless you’re on a battery-operated device and once those batteries die, there’s often no way to replace them as batteries quickly sell out and most markets. You can’t cook if you have an electric stove (and often if you have a gas one) and once the sun goes down, no light except for candles. Plus, plenty of people will take the opportunity to be assholes and looters. It’s not pleasant at all.

Kate Naylor (Able) already has problems enough. A former model, she’s working as a yoga instructor and lives with photographer Leah (Breckenridge) – in fact, she’s recently moved in with her into a Brooklyn loft. She hasn’t quite unpacked yet which irritates Leah, but then a lot about Kate is irritating. For one thing, Kate smokes a ton, even though Leah is after her to quit. Kate’s also got kind of a temper and a bit of a masochistic streak, shocking her girlfriend when she asks her to choke her during a sexual encounter early in the movie.

When the blackout hits, Leah is out of town and things between the two women are disintegrating despite Leah’s best efforts to make it work. Kate seems disinterested in meeting her halfway and when she has the opportunity to pick up a Canadian biker (Eklund) during the blackout, she does so. She also fends off the advances of neighbor John (Sexton).

As the darkness deepens, Kate lights up some candles, poses for some self-portraits in lingerie, listens to tunes on her boombox and looks at old photos of old affairs. She begins getting restless, especially once she’s finished all the booze in the loft. She gets dressed up in a slinky dress and goes out to a local tavern that has a generator, and gets trashed. Once she gets home, she hears noises and sees disturbing things, like someone rattling her doorknob. Her sanity begins to erode. But then, her sanity was not too stable to begin with.

The concept of a woman alone in the darkness is not a new one as a subject for suspense movies, but this is the only one I know of in which the heroine is mentally ill. Able, who is a fine actress just starting to get some intriguing roles, gets the lion’s share of screen time and she does a pretty good job. For the most part, Kate’s issues are not easily seen unless you spend a couple of hours with her, particularly in a stressful environment.

The problem with Kate is twofold. For one thing, she’s such a bitch that it’s hard to really relate to her or root for her. That’s the double-edged sword of having someone with emotional or mental issues as your lead character; your audience isn’t going to relate to them unless they have similar issues. They may find the point of view fascinating (as Kate’s is from time to time) but after awhile the charm or lack thereof dissipates. This isn’t a knock against Able’s performance, just the way the character was written.

The movie does drag a little bit, particularly through the middle when Kate is alone in her apartment, taking pictures of herself, taking a bath and slapping herself in the face. After a little while, you may want to join her. Sorry, that was just impossible to resist.

Sound is very important in the movie and Basile makes good use of it (he also gets points for using a Dead Can Dance song on the soundtrack). There are a few jump scares but Basile uses the sounds of the city to portray the normalcy, then as the blackout rolls in, the sounds change and become much more threatening. It’s a masterful piece of the storytelling puzzle that is rarely used this well.

I also thought that the relationship between Kate and Leah was portrayed in a manner that really rung true. These two don’t sound like a Hollywood couple; they are the kind of couple that exists in the real world, far from perfect but definitely with at least a spark there. These are people probably sitting at the table next to you in the coffee shop or the bistro.

There was a minor quibble for me in the plot; during the blackout, Kate ends up drawing herself a bath. However, from a logical standpoint, she lives at least two or three stories up. How did the water get there? Most buildings use pumps to get the water up to the higher floors. That wouldn’t be working in an electrical blackout. Just saying.

There was enough to recommend this film but only just; the use of sound and Able definitely are the things to look for here. I would have liked Kate to be more relatable but that’s more of a personal preference. I’m sure there are plenty of film buffs who wouldn’t have a problem with it. Oh, and with Joe (Gremlins) Dante as an executive producer on this, there is definitely a pedigree. All in all, a promising indie film that is flawed but mildly recommended.

REASONS TO GO: Really awesome sound. Realistically depicts the dynamics of a relationship that is falling apart.
REASONS TO STAY: Drags a little bit. The lead is too unlikable to relate to.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some nudity, a couple of sex scenes as well as further sexual content, drug us and a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Basile’s first feature film that’s not a documentary.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/8/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Wait Until Dark
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Bridgend

Top 10 of 2015


2015 Top 10After what I thought was kind of a down year in 2014, the overall quality of the movies I saw in 2015 went on the rebound and in general, I thought there were far better films in general than the year previous. A little more interestingly, I also thought that there were fewer movies that I’d give 10 out of 10 for this year, which is a bit of a dichotomy; better quality overall, but fewer slam dunks.

However, the films on this list were all as good as you’d find on the lists of any year previous with the top spot going to a movie that I thought was far and away the best film of the year – but oddly enough, very few people have seen it other than on streaming services. We’ll get to that in a moment, but the movies that followed were still of very high quality and are worth seeing every one.

While studio movies have tended to continue going with the traditional distribution model; a wide theatrical release followed by VOD/home video release once the movies are out of the theaters, then onto a premium cable outlet. They are still tending to avoid streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu Plus, although Lionsgate and Paramount have bucked that trend. With Netflix flexing its muscles more and more with indie films, having made some pre-emptive deals even before films were screened at Sundance, something tells me that the majors may start following suit and putting their films on streaming sites or even creating their own. It may not be this year but as more and more people go with Netflix and Chill, it makes good sense for the majors to start looking at that audience more carefully.

As with previous years, you can learn more about each movie on the top 10 list by clicking on the title to access my initial review, or clicking on the photo of the movie to go to the movie’s website or Facebook page when available. The other information given in each entry should be self-explanatory, with box office and critics’ scores available to help you give an idea of how audiences and film critics alike responded to these films.

As always, the list is entirely arbitrary. How I rank these movies today isn’t necessarily how I would rank them tomorrow. I am also ignoring half-points from the initial ratings so you might see a 9.0 ranked ahead of a 9.5. It’s my list. Deal with it. In any case, at the end of the day the order the films are ranked in is unimportant save for the number one movie of the year. The thing to remember is that all of these films including the honorable mention films are all of the highest quality and you can’t go wrong seeing any of them. Hopefully this list will suggest a few to you that you might have missed during the year or didn’t get distribution in your home town. Many of them will be already out on home video or VOD, while a few may still be in your local theaters. Do yourself a favor and try and see as many of these as you can. You won’t regret it.

HONORABLE MENTION

There are a number of movies that didn’t quite make the cut of the top ten. I thought I’d add them here so you can get an idea of which ones came close, were considered and ultimately not chosen. Again, I will stress that all of these are quality films worth seeking out if you’re looking for entertainment, enlightenment or insight. I didn’t include links here but if you want to read my reviews of any of these, simply type in the title into the search field and have at it. So, in no particular order;

The 100-Year-Old Man Who Stepped Out of a Window and Disappeared, Love and Mercy, The Life and Mind of Mark DeFriest, A Brilliant Young Mind, Straight Outta Compton, My Life in China, 3 ½ Minutes, The Wrecking Crew, Bone Tomahawk, Sicario, Welcome to Leith, Mad Max: Fury Road, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Inside Out, The End of the Tour, Stink!, Gett: The Trial of Vivianne Amsalem, Room, Grandma, Phoenix, Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story

It Follows

10. IT FOLLOWS

(Radius) Maika Monroe, Keir Gilchrist, Lili Sepe, Olivia Luccardi, Jake Weary, Daniel Zovatto, Bailey Spry, Carolette Phillips, Loren Bass, Charles Gertner, Debbie Williams. Directed by David Robert Mitchell

Released March 23, 2015 19-year-old Jay has just graduated from high school and it is a summer of transition – soon she’ll be going away to college and it is time for one last hurrah with her friends before they scatter, each to their own place. Everything is perfect; except they are being stalked by something terrifying and supernatural. After having had sex with a seemingly nice young man, Jay has attracted a supernatural entity to her and it is coming ever closer. Her only chance is to have sex with someone else and send the entity after them, although if it kills them it comes back after her. How do you escape the inescapable?
WHY IT IS HERE: An extremely clever concept, for one. After an acclaimed run at Sundance, the movie was given a very brief limited release but the numbers were so astounding that Weinstein hurriedly arranged for a wide release. The movie went on to be one of the more acclaimed horror movies of recent years.
HIGHLIGHT SCENE: The climactic swimming pool battle.
CRITICAL MASS: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews. Metacritic: 83/100.
BOX OFFICE RESULTS: $14.7 million domestic, $20.3M total (as of 1/19/16).
BUDGET: $2M.
GENRE: Horror
STATUS: Currently available on home video. Rent Blu-Ray/DVD on Netflix. Stream on iTunes/Amazon/Vudu/M-Go. Download on Amazon/iTunes/Vudu/M-Go/Google Play.

Star Wars The Force Awakens

9. STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS

(Disney) Daisy Ridley, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Adam Driver, Lupita Nyong’o, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Max von Sydow, Peter Mayhew, Gwendolyn Christie. Directed by JJ Abrams

Released December 18, 2016 Three decades after the events of the first trilogy, the Empire is rising again and is being faced by a small but determined Resistance. With a new and improved weapon being brought to bear on the peaceful but ineffective Republic, unlikely new heroes will combine with familiar ones to take on a villain so heinous that he rivals even Darth Vader.
WHY IT IS HERE: The anticipation for this movie was enormous and when it finally arrived, it proved to be one of those rare films that was worth the wait. Everything about this movie worked and everything about it pleased fans who went back to see it again and again and again. It is already the all-time domestic box office champion and has a shot at dethroning the all-time global champ. In short, Star Wars is back.
HIGHLIGHT SCENE: The confrontation between father and son.
CRITICAL MASS: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.
BOX OFFICE RESULTS: $859.0 million domestic, $1.8B total (as of 1/19/16),.
BUDGET: $200M
GENRE: Science Fiction
STATUS: Still in wide release

The Hateful Eight

8. THE HATEFUL EIGHT

(Weinstein) Kurt Russell, Samuel L. Jackson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Walton Goggins, Bruce Dern, Demián Bechir, James Parks, Dana Gourrier, Lee Horsley, Channing Tatum. Directed by Quentin Tarantino

Released December 25, 2015 A bounty hunter with a reputation for bringing in his quarry alive – to be hanged – is escorting a young woman to the Wyoming town of Red Rock but is forced to stop at a stagecoach stop high in the mountains, stranded by a blizzard. There are others there, some apparently innocently enough, others of suspicious character. By the time the snowfall ceases, there will have been a reckoning of Biblical proportions.
WHY IT IS HERE: Despite controversy over alleged racism and misogyny, this is still a well-crafted cracking story that keeps audiences on the edge of their seats throughout. Seeing it in the nearly extinct 70mm format was a rare treat but beyond all the noise surrounding it, at the end of the day this is a movie that sucked me in and kept me there.
HIGHLIGHT SCENE: Major Marquis Warren and Chris Mannix get some well-deserved payback for John Ruth.
CRITICAL MASS: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
BOX OFFICE RESULTS: $49.6 million domestic (as of 1/23/15), $86.7M total.
BUDGET: $44M
GENRE: Western
STATUS: Still in wide release.

Beasts of No Nation

7. BEASTS OF NO NATION

(Netflix/Bleecker Street) Idris Elba, Abraham Attah, Ama Abebrese, Richard Pepple, Emmanuel Nii Adom Quaye, Kurt Egyiawan, Jude Akuwudike, Emmanuel Affadzi, Kobina Amissah-Sam, Fred Nii Amugi. Directed by Cary Fukunaga

Released October 16, 2015 Agu, a young boy in a civil war-torn African nation, is forced to become a child soldier for a charismatic warlord. Convinced he is going straight to hell for all the atrocities he is party to, we watch as his soul becomes more and more tainted, his eyes more and more lifeless. When hope for anything better is gone, what more is left but obedience?
WHY IT IS HERE: There is a realism here that is missing from other films that are similarly themed. It helps tremendously that both Elba as the warlord and young Abraham Attah as Agu deliver searing performances that will remain as indelible impressions for a very long time to come. I thought Elba was a sure thing for an Oscar nomination, although the Academy didn’t agree. This is one that the Academy got wrong.
HIGHLIGHT SCENE: Young Agu’s rage finally breaks free.
CRITICAL MASS: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews. Metacritic: 79/100.
BOX OFFICE RESULTS: $90,777 domestic (as of 1/23/15), $90,777 total..
BUDGET: $6M.
GENRE: Drama
STATUS: Available exclusively on Netflix.

The Big Short

6. THE BIG SHORT

(Paramount) Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Christian Bale, Brad Pitt, Marisa Tomei, Rafe Spall, Hamish Linklater, Jeremy Strong. Directed by Adam McKay

Released December 11, 2015 In the middle of the first decade of the 21st century, a brilliant medical doctor turned hedge fund manager discovered the terrifying truth; that American banks and other financial institutions were relying heavily on securities based on mortgages, securities that had always been considered stable and rock solid but had been filled with mortgages that were almost certain to be defaulted on. Other managers discovered the same truth and while some tried to raise the alarm, others moved to profit off of the information.
WHY IT IS HERE: A sobering look at how unregulated greed damn near brought the world economy to its knees with the even more sobering warning that those running those same banks and securities firms – who were never punished for their actions which often crossed the line of securities laws – are involved in the same behaviors once again, having failed to learn their lesson the first time mainly because the American taxpayers bailed them out. Although it is admittedly hard to find heroic the actions of those who eventually profited from the human misery that came of the 2008 financial meltdown, this has become perhaps the ultimate cautionary tale to come out of the 2015 movie year.
HIGHLIGHT SCENE: The mentor of a pair of young ambitious hedge fund managers tempers their enthusiasm by explaining the real-life consequences of their success.
CRITICAL MASS: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.
BOX OFFICE RESULTS: $54.2 million domestic (as of 1/24/15), $72.7M total..
BUDGET: $28M.
GENRE: True Life Drama
STATUS: Still in wide release.

Brooklyn

5. BROOKLYN

(Fox Searchlight) Saoirse Ronan, Emory Cohen, Domhnall Gleeson, Julie Walters, Jim Broadbent, Maeve McGrath. Directed by John Crowley

Released November 4, 2015 In the 1950s, a young woman in a small Irish village leaves for New York, knowing that she has no future at home. However, she is best by homesickness and finds life in the Big Apple lonely and unsatisfying, but eventually she meets an Italian man at a church dance and is slowly won over by her persistence. However, bad news from home will send her packing back for Ireland where she’ll be courted by an eligible bachelor and where she finds she is fitting in more than she ever had before, but where will her heart lead her; to stay in her native land or to return to the man she loves in America?
WHY IT IS HERE: An award-worthy performance by Ronan in the lead role for one. Crowley, working off of a script by Nick Hornby, has delivered a lyrical and moving paean both to Ireland and America. Beautifully shot, rendering the sweet Irish countryside as well as the charms of Brooklyn, well-acted throughout and buoyed by a terrific script, this remains one of the most charming and lovely movies of the year.
HIGHLIGHT SCENE: Two lovers are reunited.
CRITICAL MASS: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews. Metacritic: 87/100.
BOX OFFICE RESULTS: $26.4 million domestic (as of 1/24/15), $34.5M worldwide.
BUDGET: $10M
GENRE: Romance
STATUS: Still in limited release.

Spotlight

4. SPOTLIGHT

(Open Road) Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Live Schreiber, John Slattery, Brian D’Arcy James, Stanley Tucci. Directed by Tom McCarthy

Released November 6, 2015 At the Boston Globe, the Spotlight investigative journalism team begins to look into allegations of covering up for a single Catholic priest who was accused of pedophilia. As their investigation widens, they discover to their horror that the problem is widespread on a global level. In a city where the Catholic Church is an immense political and social force, they encounter resistance to their investigation but their perseverance will lead to a scandal that will shake the very foundations of one of the oldest and most powerful institutions in the world.
WHY IT IS HERE: This may be the most realistic film about print journalism ever made. The emotional impact of the story itself cannot be overestimated as we see victims recount their harrowing experiences and the devastating aftermaths. The ensemble cast is made up of some of the most accomplished actors in the business and while Keaton and Ruffalo have been getting the lion’s share of the acclaim, the truth is that the performances here are outstanding top to bottom. It is fitting that one of the best-written films of 2015 was the movie about journalism.
HIGHLIGHT SCENE: The Spotlight team begins to realize the enormity and the impact of their story.
CRITICAL MASS: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews. Metacritic: 93/100.
BOX OFFICE RESULTS: $33.2 million domestic (as of 1/27/15), $34.5 million total.
BUDGET: $20 million.
GENRE: True Life Drama
STATUS: Still in general release.

The Martian

3. THE MARTIAN

(20th Century Fox) Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Pena, Sean Bean, Kate Mara. Directed by Ridley Scott

Released October 2, 2015 The first manned mission to Mars has to be cut short when a massive storm heads for the landing site. As the team of astronauts scurries to get their things stowed and the landing vehicle launched, one of their number is struck by flying debris and apparently killed. Reluctantly his team leaves without him but in the immortal words of Monty Python, he’s not quite dead yet.
WHY IT IS HERE: This tale of survival is certainly one of the best films of the year and is in my mind superior to other reality-based sci-fi films like Gravity for a number of different reasons. Not only is the science far more accurate than other films of this ilk, it has an Oscar-worthy performance by Damon, a terrific cast behind him and one of the most edge-of-your-seat plots you’ll see in this or any other year.
HIGHLIGHT SCENE: Matt Damon “sciences the shit” out of a problem.
CRITICAL MASS: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 80/100.
BOX OFFICE RESULTS: $227.7 million domestic (as of 1/28/16), $598.6 million total.
BUDGET: $108 million.
GENRE: Science Fiction
STATUS: Download from Amazon/iTunes/ Vudu/M-Go/Google Play.  Stream from Amazon/iTunes/Vudu/M-Go/Google Play. Rent DVD/Blu-Ray from Netflix the week of February 7.

Ex-Machina

2. EX-MACHINA

(A24) Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson, Alice Vikander, Sonoya Mizuno, Corey Johnson, Claire Selby, Symara A. Templeton, Gana Bayarsaikhan. Directed by Alex Garland

Released April 10, 2015 A young programmer wins a company competition that spirits him to a weekend at the reclusive founder’s fortress-like mountain hideaway. There he discovers that the tech wizard is working on something game-changing; an artificial intelligence in a robotic body, taking the form of a beautiful woman. However whatever the plans are that both men have for her, she may have an agenda of her own.
WHY IT IS HERE: This speculative science fiction film made on a budget that probably didn’t cover the costs for massages and manicures on Star Wars: The Force Awakens is one of the smartest and most provocative movies to come out this year. I was completely done in by Vikander’s performance which was outstanding and kicked off an amazing year for her in which she’s been transformed into one of Hollywood’s brightest stars. Isaac and Gleeson also performed solidly, leading into a year when both of them also emerged as names to look out for.
HIGHLIGHT SCENE: Caleb and Nathan have a conversation on a glacier.
CRITICAL MASS: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 78/100.
BOX OFFICE RESULTS: $25.4 million (as of 1/29/15), $36.9M total.
BUDGET: $15M
GENRE: Science Fiction
STATUS: Available on home video. Download on Amazon/iTunes/Vudu/M-Go/Google Play. Stream on Amazon/iTunes/Vudu/M-Go/Google Play. Rent Blu-Ray/DVD on Netflix.

Message From Hiroshima

1. MESSAGE FROM HIROSHIMA

(Cinema Libre) George Takei (voice), Kazuo Fukushima, Akinori Ueda, Ryoga Suwa, Hisako Miyake, Kinue Nakamitsu, Chieko Fujiki. Directed by Masaki Tanabe

Released August 4, 2015 The atomic bomb that dropped on Hiroshima was a watershed moment in modern history. We read about in history books, but that really doesn’t come close to telling us what it was really like. This amazing documentary collects some of the few still-living survivors of the blast and details their stories, complimented with some excellent computer graphics that reconstruct what Hiroshima looked like before the bomb fell.
WHY IT IS HERE: There is no movie, no documentary, no television show, no book and no social interaction that will affect you as much as this movie will. It will literally change your life. Seeing a beautiful, vibrant city come to life before your eyes – and then to watch the astonishing destruction, hear the account of people who were children at the time explain what it was like to lose parents, friends, brothers and sisters – to see the emotions still raw 70 years later, is absolutely unforgettable. The movie barely got any sort of theatrical release and is mainly available on Hulu, but it’s also available on DVD. This should be required viewing for not just our political leaders, but for everyone human. Never again.
HIGHLIGHT SCENE: Basically, every one of the survivor’s stories.
CRITICAL MASS: Rotten Tomatoes: N/A. Metacritic: N/A.
BOX OFFICE RESULTS: N/A
BUDGET: N/A
GENRE: Documentary
STATUS: Currently available on home video. Stream from Hulu.

Brooklyn


The romance of Ireland meets the romance of Long Island.

The romance of Ireland meets the romance of Long Island.

(2015) Romance (Fox Searchlight) Saoirse Ronan, Emory Cohen, Domhnall Gleeson, Julie Walters, Jim Broadbent, Maeve McGrath, Fiona Glascott, Eileen O’Higgins, Peter Campion, Emily Bett Rickards, Eve Macklin, Nora-Jane Noone, Mary O’Driscoll, Samantha Munro, Jessica Paré, Jane Brennan, Eva Birthistle, Brid Brennan, Hugh Gormley, Jenn Murray. Directed by John Crowley

There comes a time in the lives of some people – a lot of people, actually – in which the realization that they have no future sets in. At that moment, they may choose to accept that fate or they may choose to pack up and leave and try to make something of themselves elsewhere.

Eilis Lacey (Ronan) had that decision made for her, by her fiercely protective big sister Rose (Glascott) who wrote Father Flood (Broadbent) in New York to help find Eilis lodging and a job in the Big Apple and so he does, in Brooklyn which in 1951 (when this is set) was full of a rainbow of different cultures, including the Irish. Leaving Rose to care for their widowed mother (J. Brennan) and leaving the employ of a miserable harpy (B. Brennan), she sets sail for the Land of Opportunity.

Once in Brooklyn, she is given lodging at a boarding house run by the no-nonsense Mrs. Kehoe (Walters) who tries to keep Patty (Rickards), Diana (Macklin) and Sheila (Noone) in rein which given their Irish high spirits is no easy task. Desperately homesick, Eilis tries to fit in at the boarding house and tries to fit in at the high-end department store where she works under the watchful eye of Miss Fortini (Paré).

At a dance put on by the local Church, she meets Tony Fiorello (Cohen) who has a thing for Irish girls. His soft-spoken geniality and gentle self-deprecating humor appeals to her and slowly she starts out liking her new beau to falling in love with him. However, a family emergency calls her home to Ireland where she ends up facing a new wrinkle there in the form of a new suitor who is equally kind-hearted and quite the catch, young Jim Farrell (Gleeson) who by the standards of Enniscorthy in County Wexford is well-off. Now the young woman’s heart is torn between two continents and two very different lives. Which will she choose?

Da Queen is fond of describing acting performances that she admires as “quiet,” a trait I find curiously endearing. It means something much different to her than to thee and me and yet in this case, I think she might have something. Ronan is absolutely outstanding here, almost certain to get a nomination for Best Actress at the forthcoming Oscars. Much of her acting takes place in her eyes and on her expressive face; her lilting Irish accent is easily understood, and her longings and yearnings are written in her expressions. Any critic who dismisses the role as bland and unmemorable clearly hasn’t been watching this actress closely, and they are well-advised to – methinks she will be one of the industry’s outstanding actresses for decades to come.

The film is beautifully photographed, from the lush greenery of the Emerald Isle to the windswept barrens of the Long Isle (Long Island NYC) to the brownstone comforts of Brooklyn. Much of the movie takes place in the latter location, a Brooklyn where the Dodgers are still Dem Bums, the streets are alive with color and vitality, Coney Island is still the working class escape and the world is full of possibilities. Sure, this is an idealized Brooklyn because it is largely the Brooklyn of memory and memory makes fonder the places we’ve lived in. The Los Angeles of the 1960s was far from perfect but in my own memory, it is an idyllic place and probably nothing like what it really was and certainly nothing like what it is now. That is the nature of places; they change, often faster and more profoundly than we do ourselves.

While the love triangle between Jim, Tony and Eilis is a bit of a stretch (finding two really nice guys who are actually gentlemen is damn near impossible as any woman will tell you), the relationships that Eilis works out with the two of them feel authentic. Eilis is at times too good to be true – a little naive but with an absolute heart of gold (in fact, the movie has no real antagonist other than the harridan Miss Kelly at the grocery where Eilis works at the movie’s start) and a sweet nature that is straight out of a 50s romance movie.

The world has changed a lot since the time Brooklyn was set in and much of the innocence of that time is long gone. It is not uncommon for those who remember that era to long for its simplicity. Don’t discount the value of nostalgia in marketing a movie – as fellow critic Roger Moore correctly pointed out, the movie seems to be consciously aimed at those who like The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and My Big Fat Greek Wedding. And there’s nothing wrong with going after that demographic either; certainly the audience we saw at our screening skewed older. However, nostalgia isn’t all this film has going for it; Ronan’s star turn is likely to get that Oscar nod and could well attract more film buffs here than nostalgia-seeking retirees. This is a contender for my year’s best ten list; go give this one a watch and it might end up on yours too.

REASONS TO GO: Ronan is magnificent. Beautifully shot. Well-written. A lovely slice of life.
REASONS TO STAY: Maybe a little too idealized.
FAMILY VALUES: Some brief profanity and a scene of sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although Ronan was born in The Bronx, she was raised in Ireland by her Irish parents; this is the first time in a movie that she’s used her native Irish accent.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/16/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews. Metacritic: 87/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Avalon
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT: The Ridiculous 6