“My Top 10 Movies for 2015”

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With 2015 coming to an end, I wanted to take a look back at the movie reviews I wrote this year.  When I counted the reviews I have written this year (=24), I wanted to see what would be my top ten favorites.  It was a bit easier to make a “listicle” than in past years, since I did not think this year’s output was as stunning. No film in the same league as “Imitation Game” or “The Theory of Everything”.

With the Golden Globe Awards now announced, I have taken a look back at the movie reviews I have written over the past year, not only this year’s releases. Both television and cinema have continued to produce phenomenal story-telling, but this year did not reach 2014’s pinnacle in my opinion.

The following list is not ranked –only grouped by genre. [Full disclosure: I have not yet seen several being considered for Academy Award nominations –Room, Carol, Brooklyn, Danish Girl, The Revenant, Concussion, and Steve Jobs.)]

INDIES and FOREIGN CINEMA

1) Headhunters (January 25 review)– Based on the  2008 bestseller by Scandinavian novelist Jo Nesbø, “Headhunters”  is a crime thriller with more twists and turns than any similar film I’ve seen in the last ten years.

2) Wild Tales (March 2 review) Grudges, minor insults, infidelity, and heinous crimes all lead to mayhem, revenge, and murder on a cataclysmic, sometimes savage scale.

3) Woman in Gold (September 6 review) An appealing film on several levels: as history, narrative, and as emotional gratification that retribution does happen sometimes. Maria’s story is also a poignant one, of memory, family ties, and growing old.

 

COMEDIES

4) Trainwreck (July 16 review) This is the best and funniest rom-com since “Bridesmaids”, another hilarious feminist film by Judd Apatow. The scenes that are the most memorable and vivid, however, are comic fireworks. Written and starring Amy Schumer, “Trainwreck’s” humor is raunchy, pushes the boundaries of conventional one-liners, and is as sexually explicit as Schumer’s Comedy Central TV series.

 BIG STUDIO MOVIES:

Political and Sociological

5)  Bridge of Spies – To be reviewed on January 4, 2016.

6) Spotlight To be reviewed on January 10, 2016.

7) Southpaw (September 13 review) Neatly fitting into the mold of Raging Bull, Rocky, Million Dollar Baby, “Southpaw” nevertheless has some interesting surprises, not just a re-tread of previous boxing blockbusters.

INDEPENDENT:

Musical biopics

 8) Muscle Shoals (July 9 review) “Muscle Shoals” is the love story of American music roots in the Deep South. The movie gives the impression that the principals of FAME, the iconic recording studio, were unaware of the significance of their race-neutral music production.

 9) Love and Mercy (July 12 review) Based on Brian Wilson’s biography, “Love and Mercy’ tells the horrific tale of a pioneering musician and the wounds which seemed never to heal.

 10) Straight Outta Compton (August 30 review) Chronicling the rise of N.W.A. (”niggers with attitude”), this biopic of music pioneers belongs in the company of “Ray”, “Walk the Line”, “8 Mile” “Love and Mercy”  and “Muscle Shoals”.

“The Big Short”—We Were All Duped

The Big Short
The Big Short

“The Big Short”, based on Michael Lewis’s book, is a film that wildly fluctuates between comedy and deadly serious criticism of Wall Street.

The producers, shouting out “Finance For Dummies”, follow a group of outlier financial analysts who predicted and bet on the fall of the U.S. housing market. 2011’s “Margin Call” told a similar story. “Wolf of Wall Street” also focused on investment banking as one excessive party, with attempts at humor.

The Big Short, a true story, feels like a lecture with subtitled definitions of arcane financial acronyms like CDO in PowerPoint slides. The tone becomes wearying, even nonsensical. For example, placing the beautiful Margot Robbie of “Wolf on Wall Street” in a bubble bath to explain what a “subprime” loan is. Laughable?

More a powerful expose of the securities market and how Wall Street bet against the ignorance of the average investor, “The Big Short” sometimes does entertain the viewer as we laugh at ourselves for our guileless trust in those folks who duped us out of billions of dollars of our hard-earned money. We feel the horror of understanding that on Wall Street greed trumps common sense. The film shines light on the backrooms of the financial meltdown and collapse, bringing self-interest and corruption into the stark light of the banking and financial world.

The cast, particularly Steve Carell and Christian Bale, own “The Big Short”, channeling the “Boiler Room” and “Glengarry Glen Ross” as whistleblowers who realize that gaming the system can’t last. Playing a changed man whose brother paid the ultimate sacrifice in Wall Street battles, Mark Baum (Carell) vows to uncover the corruption that allowed the system to become rogue.

Bale’s Michael Burry, a doctor turned broker, has an analytical brilliance about the pending financial doom which goes unrecognized, even thwarted, when his bosses are threatened. Annoyingly, his character beats on drums in his basement while projecting when the housing market will crash.  Reflecting  on subprime loans and duplicitous securities created to bundle high-risk mortgages in such a complicated way, Burry understands  that professionals as well as the average investor have no clue what the mortgages represent or who owns them.

As the debacle is in free-fall, Baum is incredulous that his team has bet against their own umbrella entity, Morgan Stanley. The imploding financial system caused by corporate greed and deceit has even fooled him.

Both Carell and Bale give some of the best performances of their careers. Yet cinematic clips jump from one scene to the next, attempting to evoke the financial crisis of 2008, with rap and other distracting scenes overlying the depressing subject of capitalism gone amuck. Ryan Gosling narrates by talking directly to the camera a la Kevin Spacey in “House of Cards”, one of my least favorite film conceits.

The demented and corrupt circus of Wall Street can only exist based upon a society which blindingly trusts them. Even the “good guys” (Baum and Burry) are ultimately motivated by making obscene amounts of money. Isn’t that what society tells us we have to do, in order to be valued? It’s sick and the whole thing has started up again, “The Big Short” informs us before the ending credits. Neither regulators, nor banks, nor the public seem to care enough about the damage of a cycle of boom and bust to really do anything about it. They – we – smell money. Ultimately a bleak repeat of history.

Not as good as “Wolf on Wall Street” or the superior “Margin Call” but we need reminding: we are all being duped.

 

“Fargo”: Season 2—Still Far to Go

 

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Season 2 of the award-winning Fargo mini-series is a stunning repeat performance not only of the Coen brothers’ iconic movie by the same name but also in its succession to Season 1. The season finale of Fargo was broadcast this week.

Comedy meets tragedy. Humor meets violence. Surreal meets the real with an infusion of the main theme: the loss of innocence. Hell descends, though the characters are ill-prepared, and now there is no turning back. Their unexpected dark side grows like a cancer. [And the ferocious transformation of characters is not unlike Walter White in “Breaking Bad”.]

Welcome to the world of Fargo, where wisecracks about food sit comfortably next to corpses in bloody scene after bloody scene. Season 2 is planted firmly in 1979, when the tensions of the Vietnam War have left their scars, when women’s changing roles and race relations are in the average American’s consciousness. Even in North Dakota and Minnesota, there is no escape. Social change will be traumatic for some, even in this isolated enclave where Lutheran pragmatism dictates avoiding self-expression and standing out from one’s family and community.

The ensemble cast is remarkable: Ted Danson, Patrick Wilson, Jesse Plemons (from “Breaking Bad”) and most of all Jean Smart and Kirsten Dunst. Jean Smart’s performance as Floyd Gerhart, matriarch of a small-town family syndicate, is a standout. Kirsten Dunst, in her first major television role, as Peggy, is stunning as the quiet beautician wanting to make her dream– “I just wanted to be someone”– come true. Echoes of perhaps the most famous quote in “On the Waterfront” (1954) by another dreamer, Terry (Marlon Brando): “I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody.”  Flash-forward twenty-five years and Peggy is yearning for the same thing.

Their 1970’s North Dakota and Minnesota is populated with UFO’s (a sighting in Fargo was reported in 1975), crystals, “self-actualization” EST seminars , sideburns and bell bottoms. Peggy is so self-absorbed in becoming a new person, that in perhaps the most bizarre of the episodes , [Spoiler Alert!!] she is nonplussed when a UFO descends in the midst of a shoot-out. “It’s just a UFO, Ed. We gotta go”. Both startling and silly, the scene nonetheless epitomizes Fargo, North Dakota and its residents at that time.

The wonder of wonders is that this season marks the repeat of a new trend in mini-series: a continuation of the mini-series with a completely new story and cast, a trend started by “True Detective”. With far more sophistication and complex plot devices, the creators of Season 2 (notably Noah Hawley) leave no question in the viewer’s mind that this is indeed Coen territory. Fargo pays homage to Season 1, with the same characters (different actors) in a flash-forward to their older selves.

Although this season can stand on its own (for those who haven’t seen Season 1), tying in the principal characters from the first season into Season 2 is masterfully crafted. Moreover, I’m hoping some of the new characters added to the story will undoubtedly also be reborn in Season 3, whether as a flash-forward or as backstory. There is still far to go in this anthology in the Coen spirit. Season 3 of Fargo is now underway. The surprise and intrigue continue!

“Trouble with the Curve”—Catching the Unexpected

Trouble with the Curve
Trouble with the Curve

This 2012 film is another  Clint Eastwood sports movie. That being said, “Trouble with the Curve” is not so much about sports as it is about a father-daughter relationship. It also touches on how the human element (and an “old-school” methodology) cannot be discounted in favor of technology. (Think: “Money Ball” as its opposite!)

In the opening scene Gus Lobel (Clint Eastwood) is attempting to hide his macular degeneration from the execs at the Atlanta Braves, because, as one of their top scouts, he must be able to spot the next star. But crusty, aging Gus is more than a pair of eyes with over forty years of experience. He can tell a pitch by the crack of the bat and now must fight for the career that defines him. Gus’s daughter Mickey (Amy Adams), a high-powered lawyer on the partner track, has also gained an astonishing knowledge of the sport. But father and daughter are estranged and rarely see each other.

Forced to be together for the first time in years, Mickey and her father travel to North Carolina to look at the slate of possible rookies. Mickey risks her own career to do this. A classic double-bind plot device.

In a surprise supporting role Justin Timberlake plays an aspiring recruiter and former baseball rookie, who tries to woo Mickey even though she is reluctant to become involved.

Even if you are not a baseball fan, you will enjoy this movie. A thoroughly entertaining, feel-good film with some humorous dialogue and some totally predictable scenes. The family secret for the estrangement between father and daughter is one curve this viewer did not expect. A good movie for both adult and teen audiences!

“Mr. Holmes”—Not the Sherlock We All Know

 

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“Mr. Holmes” is an imaginary and revisionist take on Sherlock Holmes as a 93-year old dispirited and retired detective, featuring the incomparable Ian McKellen in the title role. This 2015 British-American film , based on Mitch Cullin’s 2005 novel A Slight Trick of the Mind, takes place in Sussex two years after the end of the Second World War. This interpretation, among the many Sherlock Holmes we have seen, focuses on the lonely and contemplative man struggling to remember his last case, not the analytical mind associated with the world’s most famous fictional detective.

Holmes, in the first stages of dementia, retires to his remote country home in a Sussex village with his housekeeper, Mrs. Munro (the superb Laura Linney) and young son, Roger (played by the astonishing newcomer, Milo Parker, who is a standout in every scene with McKellen). The young boy and his dour mother are the only human contacts Holmes now has. Holmes’ memory isn’t what it used to be.

Soon we see that Holmes has forgotten much of his last case’s details as he tries to become accustomed to retirement. Holmes only remembers fragments of the case: a confrontation with a worried husband, a secret with his beautiful but unstable wife, and a puzzling side story about the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and a Japanese family. Having returned from a journey to Japan where, in search of a rare plant for dementia, Holmes has witnessed the devastation of nuclear warfare and seems visibly shaken. The little boy Roger gradually becomes his closest confidante and assistant in recollecting what happened to the woman in his final detective assignment.

What I loved about this film? It captures the nuances of aging, of losing the identity most treasured but now diminishing as dementia sets in. The pace, unfortunately, can be painfully slow , even for BBC. Multiple flashbacks do not help either, leaving the viewer to guess why these scenes are important, but often frustrating with plot holes (especially the Japanese subplot).

Although “Mr. Holmes” is not fast-paced and not to all tastes, it is a niche movie for those who like character-driven stories as the main plot. The layering effect of the years and lives and incidents in the story require close attention. “Mr. Holmes” is an introspective journey—into the rabbit hole of the mysteries of life and love, before it is too late to remember.