10. THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY / SPRING
Ties are for young boys at their first communion. They have no business being on a top 10 films list. But alas, I cannot settle on a movie to fill the #10 spot on my countdown. I’ve narrowed it to two pictures, both rich in style and atmosphere, both mysterious and deeply satisfying, both erotically charged, yet both individually peculiar.
The Duke of Burgundy tells the story of Evelyn and Cynthia, a pair of Lepidopterists (that’d be persons specializing in the study of moths and butterflies) who like to dabble in S&M. Actually, Evelyn likes to dabble, Cynthia acquiesces because she loves her partner. But one can deal with whips and chains only so much and Cynthia is soon appealing for a more conventional relationship.
Director Peter Strickland, whose last offering was the delightfully ghoulish tribute to Italian Giallo, Berberian Sound Studio, has fashioned a provocative testimonial to the gore-and-gazingas filled thrillers of the 1970s. Yet, despite its all female cast and sensual subject matter, the movie never becomes gratuitous.
There’s both a supreme bliss and a deep sadness to the relationship on display. Strickland arranges the girls’ games of pleasure and pain around eerie images of butterflies pinned in glass cases. Like the relationship they symbolize, the butterflies are brittle. The diurnal insects, however, can be relaxed and shaped into a desired position. No matter what role-playing scenarios the girls think up, regardless of the scripts and instructions they give one another, their emotions cannot be orchestrated.
The film is gorgeously shot in burnished browns. The seasoned actors lend a sense of authenticity to the story. They are aided by impressive set pieces. They dusty manor and handsome costumes bring the movie to life. It is an absorbing commentary on love and relationship roles – much more effective than that other lesbian love story released this year.
Spring defined: 1. to leap suddenly
2. to be released from a constrained position
3. to come into being
Evan (Lou Taylor Pucci) is an attractive, fun-loving guy who’s recently lost his mother. One day he snaps. In a fit of grief, he breaks a man’s teeth and quits his job. He flees his California home for Italy to clear his mind. There, he meets Louise (Nadia Hilker).
In the second book of Samuel, King David of Israel expressed feelings for Bathsheba when he saw her bathing. But it wasn’t love. It was the feeling guys get when they see a girl nekkid. Most guys would fall in lust with Louise upon first sight. Those deep set eyes, those lush, dark lips, those amber locks of hair…I’m sorry, I got distracted. But it takes Evan only a moment to realize Louise is his soulmate. Louise is not as quickly enamored. You see, Louise is an immortal. Allowing herself to fall in love would mean losing her perpetual life.
Most of the remainder of the film is spent with our couple as they roam the city discussing their pasts and their plans for the future. With every stolen glance and every hopeful kiss, their romance blooms. The mystery surrounding Louise’s condition combined with the warm and fuzzy feeling of budding love is spectacularly entertaining.
Pucci and Hilker have a wonderful chemistry. They are guided by the moody direction of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead. On an aside, is there something special happening with horror and directing duos? I mean Starry Eyes, Goodnight Mommy and now Spring. Something to consider. And the creature effects actually made me gasp. Creature effects? Yes, creature effects. This movie offers one crazy cool surprise after another.
Rocky was one of those rare movies that could be enjoyed by my father after a long day swinging the hammer as well as provide a source of debate among my film theory buddies regarding the social realism of the medium. There was a rawness to the presentation and a tangibility to the goal-driven central character that spoke to a blue collar America smitten with dreams of success. It was the perfect blending of the anti-establishment principles of the New Hollywood period with the blockbuster mentality of the 1970s.
The sequels lacked that aesthetic edge. They were designed with mass appeal and mass profit in mind.
Creed is a return to form. It is a well-cooked kernel of popcorn cinema, sentimental, predictable and a ton of fun. Yet, for all its brain candy, the movie takes a formal approach to storytelling, motivated by the authorial vision of its director.
The picture opens with a young Adonis Johnson provoking a fight at a juvenile detention center. He later learns that his contentious nature is hereditary. You see, he is the son of former world heavy weight boxing champion Apollo Creed. He takes off for Philadelphia, home of Apollo’s famed nemesis, Rocky Balboa. Rocky is at first reluctant to train the young lad, however, Johnson’s determination is firm.
Creed is a welcomed revival for the floundering series, as well as an exciting and stylish stand-alone movie.
After winning the prestigious, “Best Actress in an Action Movie” award at last year’s Critic’s Choice awards, Emily Blunt returns to her ass-kicking ways as Kate Macer, the idealistic FBI agent enlisted by the government to put a stop to Mexico’s narco war.
Director Denis Villeneuve gained critical acclaim with his Canadian efforts, Maelstrom and Incendies respectively, but it was the popular Prisoners that garnered the attention of audiences. What could have been a paint by numbers approach to eliciting emotion, 1 is aqua, 2 is lavender, 3 is a box of Kleenex, Prisoners was instead a hypnotically crafted, wrenchingly haunting portrayal of grief.
His follow-up effort, the sinfully under-watched Enemy about a middle-class Jake Gyllenhaal who sees his doppelganger in a Red Box rental was equally rewarding if dissimilar in approach.
Now he’s back with his best movie yet. America’s fruitless response to the high-stakes world of drug trafficking isn’t exactly uncharted territory, but Villeneuve attacks the material with intelligence and a feminist sentimentality.
Kate heads a kidnap response squad. At the start of the picture, her team discovers dozens of dead bodies hidden in the walls of a drug house. During the raid, a homemade bomb is detonated, killing two officers. Infuriated, all Kate can do is “clean up” the mess. She’s later invited by CIA officer Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) to join a Delta Force team tasked with finding the men responsible for the explosion. Frustrated with her limited position, she volunteers to join the “big boys.” Kate is kept in the dark throughout most of the operation, her every attempt to exert influence thwarted. After fighting for information, she is forced to sign a waiver stating she was in agreement with every detail of the mission, thus forfeiting her integrity. She’s fighting two unwinnable wars, the one on drugs and the one against sexism.
The picture benefits from the somber photography of Roger Deakins. It is a beautifully haunting, powerful movie and one of the best of the year.
Everyone is a bit of an egotist, right? I mean, how many times have you said to yourself, “I could do that better than that person” or “I should have been hired over that person” or “I could have made a better Maniac remake than the guy they got”? Okay, maybe that last one is just me, but you know what I’m talking about.
David Lipsky, an American author whose first novel saw a modicum of success has a hard time accepting the praise being lavished upon David Foster Wallace for his book, Infinite Jest. The laudatory proclamations, the ten-city book tour; it all leaves Lipsky with an acrid taste in his mouth. That is, until he reads the book. Then he’s awestruck. He convinces his editor at Rolling Stone Magazine to allow him to join Wallace on the final leg of his tour to pick his brain. They spend the next five days (that’d be about 90 minutes in film time) staring at each other across grimy diner tables and discussing the neurological impact of masturbation in seedy motel rooms. Sounds like we’ve entered some pretty dreadful territory, huh? Actually, that couldn’t be further from the truth. The characters slide effortlessly from topic to topic, and despite the intrinsic competition between them, their dialogue is warm and alluring. They are at ease in each other’s company and the audience hangs on their every word.
Lipsky first meets Wallace at his architecturally undistinguishable home. It’s not the bohemian sanctum that he imagined, nor the decaying drug den rumors have implied. Rather, it’s unremarkable. Wallace has a few eccentricities, namely an unusual relationship with his dogs, but on first inspection, he more or less fails to please. As the day goes on however, Lipsky begins to see past Walace’s nerdy glasses, his embroidered head wrap and overall slovenly appearance to the intellectually gifted man he is. He begins to reappraise the relationships he has developed in his own life, his personal accomplishments and his intentions for the future. We the audience likewise begin to question what we hold most dear.
Jesse Eisenberg and Jason Segel would not have been my ideal choices as Lipsky and Wallace, but they are charmingly inspiring. They create a fitting tribute to a true talent who viewed the world a little clearer than the rest of us.
6. BONE TOMAHAWK
Don’t call it a comeback! No, seriously, don’t call it a comeback. Modern audiences aren’t down with lone-wolf families butting heads with Aboriginal peoples for rights to the frontier. They like their cowboys and Indians movies a bit more PC.
Novice director S. Craig Zahler has found a way to circumvent audience sentimentality in his new movie Bone Tomahawk via a new brand of bad guy called Troglodytes, primitive cave dwellers with blanched skin and weird external voice boxes.
When Sid Haig and David Arquette desecrate a Troglodyte burial ground, the savage warriors seek revenge. I know what you’re thinking…sounds like fodder for MST3K (Dances with B-Movie Actors). Stick with me. The Troglodyte’s track Arquette into town where they make off with a few of the town folk. Town sheriff Kurt Russell playing classic Kurt Russell (see, told you it would get better) assembles a posse and heads off to rescue them.
The bulk of the film’s running time is devoted to the hunt, with Kurt Russell, aka Sheriff Hunt, and his team, dim-witted deputy Chicory (Richard Jenkins), the crippled husband of one of the abductees, Arthur (Patrick Wilson) and posh gunslinger John Brooder (Matthew Fox), taking to the trail in a relentless search for their comrades. Cinematographer Benji Bakshi is a nostalgic poet, capturing landscapes with a compositional beauty that recalls the days when westerns were at their greatest vigor.
Arid borderlands provide a backdrop for our protagonists to explore themes of masculinity, duty and discrimination. Viewers settle into the buddy-pic design which plays likes a chatty Howard Hawks ballad, replete with humorous yet quietly poignant dialogue and subtly heroic characters.
I’m a huge Kurt Russell fan, but I’d be remiss not to discuss the work of Richard Jenkins. He is an accomplished, though underappreciated talent. His role in Bone Tomahawk stands out among those of his lauded costars, providing the bulk of the movie’s laughs, as well as contributing to its sense of pathos.
The picture saunters at a horse trot toward its climatic final act where it transforms into an exuberant and relentless cannibal horror show. It’s a fitting if sudden punch to the stomach that will be invigorating for some, off-putting for others while providing a bit of social commentary for all.
Plus, it's got the coolest title of the year.
Having children has altered the way I respond to certain films. Like, when watching Room, I found myself constantly asking, “Why am I not exploiting my son’s cuteness to earn a buck” and “Just how much money could I make by selling my kids to the Hollywood system?” Okay, that’s a joke. Sort of. But, prior to having kids, the concept of parental attachment was an abstract idea. Suddenly movies about children in peril carry a gravity I couldn’t identify with before. When witnessing scenes of abuse, I inject my own children into the story, I substitutionally endure the hardship of the characters on screen.
Based on the novel of the same name by Emma Donoghue, Room tells the tale of Jack Newsome (Jacob Tremblay) and his mother, Joy (Brie Larson). Joy was kidnapped by a man called Old Nick (Sean Bridgers) as a teenager and imprisoned in a soundproof shed behind his house. Now, seven years later, her son Jack, the product of countless acts of sexual abuse by her captor, is turning five.
Jack is a happy-go-lucky kid unaware of life outside his cramped little world. He welcomes each morning by greeting the objects that occupy his space. “Hello, Sink. Hello, Rug.” Cinematographer Danny Cohen adopts Jack’s point-of-view, capturing room in a panoramic style that makes it appear larger than it is.
Joy labors each day to subdue the anguish of her life and to maintain the illusion for her son. When Old Nick turns off the heat and cuts back on the vitamins, Joy decides it’s time to bust out.
Room serves as another showcase for Brie Larson’s talent. She gained attention with her role as a short term care attendant in Short Term 12 (2013). That character required her to run the gamut of emotions from purifying joy to excruciating sadness. Room, likewise, is a cinematic rollercoaster that will leave you happy as a hippo in mud one moment and sad as a bird without wings the next. The audience literally hooted when Jack and Joy escaped their captor. Stifled sobs of grief were heard during the picture’s more somber moments.
The term revelation is overused in film criticism, but Jacob Tremblay is just that. He has a buoyant charisma and effortlessly takes over the picture once it moves outside of room. He creates a character that you care about long after the movie has ended. Perhaps he should boycott the Oscars due to the lack of child nominees.
4. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD
Movies can act as conduits to some of our best memories. John Candy mudwrestling a group of bikini-clad babes in Stripes kindles flashbacks to my first drive-in movie and the first time I had to urinate in a cup. Lethal Weapon 2 awakens in me memories of my first “French” kiss.
I was brought up on the macho representations of Clint Eastwood, Charles Bronson and John Wayne. To me, my dad was Steve McQueen. He hunted, he roofed, he drove a beat up GMC. The first time I saw George Miller’s manic masterpiece, The Road Warrior, was with him. We sat engrossed, barely remembering the grass outside that was in desperate need of a mowing. When the screen fell to black, it took a moment to digest what my father had just shared with me, an exhilarating experience, a kinetic thrill ride of adrenaline and release and the greatest action movie I had ever seen. So, when it was announced that George Miller would be returning to his virtuoso franchise at age 70, my response was an elated, “Hell yes!”
Tyrannical ruler Immortan Joe has been doing the box spring boogie with the most gorgeous women in the post-apocalyptic land, and they’ve had enough. They deebo an armored truck and take off for a bucolic land called Green Place. Along the way, they pick up Max (now played by the prodigious Tom Hardy) who’s recently had his own run-in with Joe, and together they endeavor to evade their pursuers and win their freedom.
Mad Max: Fury Road is a visual tour-de-force and a laudable additional to the series. The stunt work is amazing and the heartrending action sequences are staged with such ferocious energy that they make The Fast and the Furious look like my grandpa playing with his slot car set. From the opening sequence, which sees Max’s lizard dinner interrupted by Joe’s War Boys, the movie’s gas pedal is glued to the floor as it serves up one giddily aggressive spectacle after another. It’s the kind of movie my dad would love.
However, the movie is also extremely feminist. Max only assists Joe’s wives after all other options have been exhausted. The true hero of the story is Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron). The women in her protection are not feeble pantywaists. They kick ass, and they do it while looking as if they’ve just jumped off the pages of an E.L. James novel (on steroids).
3. THE HATEFUL EIGHT
If you’re gonna compare a Tarantino movie, you compare it to every other movie ever made…that wasn’t made by Quentin Tarantino. That’s a lie, I just like the idea of stealing the quote. I compared it against the other films in his oeuvre the moment the credits rolled. Currently, I’ve got it sitting somewhere behind his three masterpieces (Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill and Django Unchained) and right around his highly underrated Jackie Brown.
His bio is common knowledge among evangelicals of film geekery. A middle-school dropout, he earned his film chops from watching violent spaghetti westerns and chop sockey action films at his local video store. His filmic zeal is on full display in The Hateful Eight. From the casting of cult star Kurt Russell, to the inclusion of an Ennio Moricone score, to the use of an antiquated film stock, The Hateful Eight acts as a ceremonial acknowledgement by a VHS-devouring, grindhouse-frequenting vassal of allegiance. It combines unrestrained violence, epic spectacle and perplexing insight to acknowledge its ancestral legacy while still creating a world that is totally Tarantino.
Like his previous two efforts, Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained, The Hateful Eight is a historical saga that forces persons from different ethnic groups together. However, unlike those cock-and-bull stories, which revised history so that the oppressed parties gained favor over tyrannical influences, The Hateful Eight paints an authentic picture of post-civil war America to highlight the institutional race problem of today. “The only time black folks are safe, is when white folks is disarmed,” says ex-Union soldier Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson). Major Warren claims to possess a personalized letter from Abraham Lincoln that “has the desired effect of disarming white folks.” When the truth about the letter is revealed, it has dire consequences.
Tarantino’s pictures always have an impeccable sense of rhythm and exhilarating visual style. He utilizes his 70mm frame in the first part of The Hateful Eight to capture breathtaking mountainscapes, but it’s only after the characters arrive at their overnight stopover that his mastery of the format fully shines. The big scope format creates a sense of intimacy for viewers who feel as if they’re sharing space with the characters on screen. While the foreground action dominates the screen, the panoramic image allows Tarantino to establish subtle background activity as well. It is a terrific effort and commendable addition to Tarantino’s body of work.
Picture this: two police officers performing a routine inspection of a hospital parking lot discover a newborn baby left in the back of a blue Vauxhall Corsa, its tiny toes and crazy mass of hair peeking from beneath its owl-patterned bib and blanket. They break out the widow only to discover the child is not breathing, the child has no pulse, the child is plastic. This isn’t the plot to the newest Netflix thriller-drama, this actually happened at The Russells Hall Hospital in West Midlands, Dudley this past fall. The baby was one in a series of “Reborn Babies,” eerily lifelike dolls that were initially created to appease the ardent demand of collectors who wanted more realistic babies and are now often designed for consumers to resemble a child they have lost.
Ex Machina, the first directorial effort from Alex Garland, writer of 28 Days Later and Sunshine, is an enthralling take on the man dabbling in God’s domain trope. The arrogant genius at its center has taken the Reborn Baby idea one step further. Actually, he’s taken it about 165 steps further. He creates a beautiful humanoid robot capable of human thought and emotion. His (mis)treatment of her is amplified by the fact that she looks as if she’s been cut from the pages of a men’s magazine.
It is an enigmatic, cyberpunk flick whose visual luster hijacks your eyeballs as it probes into mans’ obsession with technology and beauty. Oscar Isaac delivers a compelling, yet deeply disturbing performance on a par with any award-nominated role this year, the unseemly motivations of his character evident in every facial expression and every subtle action.
Plus, it features the coolest dance sequence in a movie since Pulp Fiction.
1. IT FOLLOWS
There’s a chick being followed in the movie It Follows, not by a person per say but by an inescapable force, except it’s not totally inescapable, it can be passed off to another by engaging in what your middle school health teacher would call intercourse. Pretty soon she’s swimming out to sailboats to seduce unsuspecting fishermen.
A casual reading of the movie could yield an STD analogy, but there’s a whole lot more going on beneath the surface of It Follows. Jay Height is at a crossroads in her life. She’s no longer a three-foot girl, but a young woman nearly twice that. As a child, she dreamed of kissing cute guys and hitting the open road. Now, she’s faced with questions about work and relationships; and she’s scared, like really scared. In a scene that owes a lot to John Carpenter, Jay is seen sitting in class while her teacher lectures about the meaning of T.S. Eliot’s “The Lovesong of J Alfred Prufrock,” the tale of a man who has seen “the moment of [his] greatness flicker” (lines 72,84). The J of that story tries desperately to convince himself and us, the reader, that he’s a cool customer with all the time in the world. His foolish attempts are ridiculously translucent. The Jay of It Follows attempts to avoid her fate by reminiscing about her youth and going on a weekend getaway with friends. But the force, like adulthood, is inevitable, and it’s only after facing her fears head-on that she (possibly?) overcomes them.
We often describe our dreams as being as vivid as the world around us. Jay’s world has the surreal qualities of a nightmare, one where parents are nowhere to be found, everything is bathed in dreary shades of blue and red and time is a cryptic thing. One scene witnesses teens watching a black and white movie on a tube TV while playing with fancy e-readers.
Horror fans have been spoiled the past couple years with movies that have given them more to ponder than paint-the-walls-red grue and noisy jump scares. The Babadook painted a nasty little picture of repressed grief. Starry Eyes demonstrated the filthy lengths people will go to to achieve their dreams. It Follows bests them all. It’s a smart, terrifying little movie that will follow you long after you’ve hit stop.
I ALSO REALLY LIKED:
Anomalisa, Brooklyn, Diary of a Teenage Girl, The Green Inferno, The Kingsmen, The Martian, The Revenant, Spotlight, Steve Jobs, What We Do In the Shadows, When Animals Dream