2015 Glennies: Best Picture (Top 10 Films of 2015)

#11: Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens

Poster for Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens

Directed by J.J. Abrams, written by Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan, and Michael Arndt

As always, the #11 spot in my Top 10 goes to a film that I liked, but had reservations about. You can listen to these [many] reservations in detail on the podcast below (one of them rhymes with “Schmeth Schtar”), but the triumphs of this film are almost innumerable. Every design element of this film was spot-on, vintage, 1970s Star Wars. This is every bit the dirty, analog, physical world on the ragged edges of the frontier that it needs to be, and director J.J. Abrams clearly understands the Campbellian story beats as well now as when he first rehearsed making a Star Wars film back in 2009. Finn (John Boyega) and Rey (Daisy Ridley) are both outstanding additions to the franchise, and deep and interesting enough characters that I’m eager to see what happens to them next (especially when guided by the able writing and directorial hand of Rian Johnson for Episode VIII). Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), and Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) all have potential. But my biggest reaction is that we now live in a world in which the most recent Star Wars film isn’t the subject of constant bitching and lamentations and fan-edits about what could have been, and Disney and Abrams deserve firm credit for making this happen.

Check out our podcast discussion here:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #81 – “Sisters” (dir. Jason Moore), “Star Wars VII” (dir. J.J. Abrams)

#10: Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation

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Written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie, story by McQuarrie and Drew Pearce

Brad Bird‘s 2011 film, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, won a three-way tie for my #11 spot in 2011, as “The Big, Dumb, Occasionally Smart Action Movie”. Christopher McQuarrie takes this trend up a notch by delivering a film that was far and away the best spy film of the year, changing up the Mission: Impossible formula in a novel fashion, and severely outperforming this year’s Bond film (which felt like an apologetic retread of Quantum of Solace) for spy action and glorious spectacle. When Benji (Simon Pegg) takes a weekend trip to Vienna, then receives a dead-drop from his fugitive spy-buddy Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise), which promptly sends him to the opera to avert an attempt on the life of the Austrian Chancellor… Even before an awesomely staged series of fights and a sniper duel break out, there comes a moment as we’re waiting in the wings at the opera and hear these men arguing over comms about their arcane plans that I just thought, “This is what a spy movie is supposed to be.” People out in the world, sneaking around, averting disaster. And while the format has had to evolve after the end of the Cold War and the dawn of 21st-century cyberwarfare (sometimes quite disastrously), it’s exhilarating to see that many of the old cinematic tricks still work so well. No matter how geopolitically or technologically complex a world we live in, we’ll always need brave men and women to go places and get shit done, and this film is a glorious showcase of how much fun and potential these stories still possess.

Plus, Tom Cruise strapped himself to a damn plane.

#9: Circle

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Written and directed by Aaron Hann and Mario Miscione

From my review:

Many high-concept horror films have striven for the strong, minimalistic dissection of the value of a human life that is on display in Circle. And yet all of them, whether Saws or Purges, have gotten lost in the weeds either going for audience-pleasing gore or on-the-nose class warfare. Circle…is the apotheosis of the concept – placing 50 participants in a room and murdering one of them every two minutes with a simple bolt of CGI lightning. The body is immediately shuffled from the room by an unseen force, and the remaining participants are momentarily insulated from the horrific truth and consequences of their predicament. With simple (and completely secretive) motions of their hands and fingers, they are choosing the next person who will die.

What makes Circle so clever is its subtle and incisive satire of the political process. At its highest levels, politics delineates who should hold absolute power over life and death. Even in the real world, a vote for a chief executive is a vote for someone who will kill others on your behalf. Circle renders this concept with a staggering level of immediacy, and through a filter of lightning-paced direct democracy.

Who should live? Me.
Who should die? Somebody else.

See the full review here:
“Circle” (#SIFF2015 review) – The allegory of the grave

#8: Beasts of No Nation

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Written for the screen and directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, based on the novel by Uzodinma Iweala

This is a difficult film to watch, owing to its subject matter about the trials and tribulations of a boy named Agu (Abraham Attah) who is abducted and turned into a child soldier in an unnamed West African nation. But more than this, this story struck me as one that I’ve seen before, but never in this much detail, and never as anything more than the B-plot that adds a bit of depth to a white Westerner’s story line in a mainstream Hollywood film. Whether in Blood Diamond or Lord of War, Agu is the sort of tragic character who’s usually little more than a background player – perhaps one that will be graphically killed in order to add weight to whatever the white person is going through. This film wants to tell that story, in its entirety, without any distractions or pretense of self-importance. At one point, we see a handful of white UN peacekeepers visible for a moment in the background, as if to emphasize the degree to which this is not their story.

The Commandant (Idris Elba) is a terrifying villain, both for his insistent self-righteousness and his effectiveness at recruiting, grooming, and maintaining child soldiers. His training is equal parts military discipline and psychological torture, with drugs and sexual abuse added in for good measure. No component of this framework feels excessive or unrealistic, so much as a procedural for creating the sort of hollowed-out child that should never have to exist in the modern world. But Agu is far more than a martyr construct as the film goes on. And the Ghanian newcomer Attah brings an array of personality and complexity to the character that is remarkable for such a young and first-time actor. The film deftly conveys Agu’s constant struggle not to lose his humanity, even as he is compelled to perform monstrous acts.

This is an important film that is worth watching just once if you can stomach it. I’m glad to see that resources were devoted to telling this particular story as a part of Netflix’s expanding library of original films, even as Adam Sandler‘s The Ridiculous 6 dropped in the same year.

#7: Sleeping With Other People

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Written and directed by Leslye Headland

Between this film and 2012’s Bachelorette, writer/director Leslye Headland is really starting to remind me of 1990s Kevin Smith in the best way. This romantic sex comedy, which Headland herself pitched as “When Harry Met Sally for assholes,” actually reminds me more of Chasing Amy. It is a film which combines unrelenting crassness of dialogue with human characters and a profound sense of heart throughout the proceedings. Sleeping With Other People begins with a pair of students, Jake (Jason Sudeikis) and Lainey (Alison Brie) bonding over a night of collective heartbreak and loneliness in a college dorm room and ultimately losing their virginity to one another. Smash cut to 12 years later, and a series of romantic failures (thanks to womanizing and serial cheating respectively) lead the pair back into each other’s lives, causing them to strike up an intense – but deliberately unromantic – friendship. What makes this work so well (apart from the film’s reliably amusing repartée) is that Sudeikis and Brie have otherworldly great chemistry as we watch them explore their fractured love lives against the backdrop of New York City.

I rewatched both this and Trainwreck in the final week of the year, and ultimately settled on this as the superior film (although they are both quite good). The reason for this is that Sleeping With Other People feels most like it takes place in the real world. This is as opposed to Trainwreck, which has at least one foot firmly situated in Comedy World, where people occasionally stop acting like humans and start acting like comedy characters (Sisters has both feet firmly in Comedy World). Sleeping ventures out of the real world only a handful of times (when the pair take ecstasy and attend a child’s birthday party, for instance), and instead, relies on character and relationship for the majority of its laughs. This permits perennial zany side-players Jason Mantzoukas, Andrea Savage, and to a lesser extent Natasha Lyonne to shine as actual members of the ensemble, rather than just being the reliably funny friends who show up to riff on-camera for a minute at a time when the movie feels like it’s dragging (although Billy Eichner briefly shows up as one of those). I haven’t even reached the end of the list of strong characters here – Amanda Peet is particularly enjoyable as Paula, Jake’s boss (and potential love interest) at his digital media company.

And finally, there is Adam Scott as Lainey’s on-again, off-again hookup, Matthew. This character has maybe a dozen lines of dialogue in the entire film, and yet he hangs over it as one of the most effective romantic villains ever put to screen. Matthew treats Lainey quite monstrously, and she maintains a long-standing romantic obsession with him. What makes him such a thoroughly well-drawn and loathsome rival is both his casual cruelty and his genuine inability to see himself as a bad guy. This character is best summed up with a moment late in the film when Lainey drops an obscure literary reference, and Matthew ignores it, before acknowledging that “Just because I don’t applaud your intellect doesn’t mean I don’t notice it.” This is such a specifically disturbing thing to say to someone, it struck me as perhaps a line gleaned from real life – and that may be what makes Matthew so unnerving. If there’s any part of this film that was almost certainly culled from the real world, it’s this asshole.

#6: Mad Max: Fury Road

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Directed by George Miller, written by Miller, Brendan McCarthy, and Nico Lathouris

Like my #4 pick below (along with another barely-speaking Tom Hardy), the appeal of this unrelenting action-adventure is largely in the big-screen viewing. The subtly CGI-enhanced desert vistas, the preposterously spike-armored death-cars, the stunts, the explosive-tipped spears, the blood-bags, the harnessed, flamethrowing electric guitar player – this feature-length car-chase film is relentless in blasting forth its detailed post-apocalyptic world, and quickly proves itself as one of the finest action films of the year. And that’s before writer/director George Miller proves, via Charlize Theron’s stellar performance as the fierce, capable, and humanly vulnerable Imperator Furiosa, that men of a certain age are quite capable of bringing bad-ass, well-drawn female characters to the big screen if they simply choose to do so. Furiosa is essentially the film’s lead, leading a rebellion against warlord Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), and driving nearly all of its action and only relying tangentially on the titular Max at any point. The credits of this film read like the band roster at a GWAR show, featuring such absurdly theatrical names as Rictus Erectus, Toast the Knowing, The People Eater, The Bullet Farmer, The Splended Angharad, and one woman known simply as “Capable”. Apart from featuring some of the most splendid practical vehicle action outside of the Fast and Furious saga, this film just has an outstanding sense of fun and imagination. Who broke the world? We don’t find out here. But the one they rebuilt is breathtaking.

#5: 3 1/2 Minutes, Ten Bullets

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Written and directed by Marc Silver

This HBO documentary about the shooting death of Jordan Davis, a young, unarmed African-American teenager, is a timely film- and what’s more, it seems wholly aware of this. The film’s trailer uses “Black Lives Matter” quite brazenly as a marketing slogan, and the film is about as politically one-sided as the works of Michael Moore. But what makes this film work so well is twofold. First, Davis was shot by a private citizen, rather than a police officer, which means this story avoids many of the needlessly polarizing political questions about whether or not the public “supports the police” when they object to a specific police-involved shooting. And second, unlike other recent cases involving Florida menstanding their ground“, this one had witnesses. The facts of the case: 45-year-old Michael Dunn and his fiancée pulled up at the Gate Gas Station where 17-year-old Davis and his teenage friends were listening to loud music in a car nearby. Dunn, who was on the way home from his son’s wedding, remained in the car while his fiancée went inside to buy a bottle of wine. At a certain point, an argument ensued between them over the volume of Davis’ music, and Dunn started firing into their car, killing Davis.

And as the film meticulously spells out: The relevant legal question is not whether this is an uncomplicated case of a grown man murdering a child for petty and circumstantial reasons. Not in Florida. No, the question is: Did Michael Dunn think that Davis or his friends had a gun? Because if the answer is yes, he has no duty to retreat under Florida law, and he is permitted to fire in preemptive self-defense. Whether or not there turns out to actually be a gun, Dunn still has a positive legal defense that is effectively irrefutable. And this is what the film does so well. In addition to telling a stunning true crime story (whose outcome I was genuinely on the edge of my seat for, since I couldn’t quite recall how it had ended), the film effectively lays bare the legal absurdity of the Florida statute, which amounts to a license to kill for any gun-toting Floridian who can convincingly make a pretense afterward that they were in fear for their life. And this is true even in cases where the gun-toting person was the clear instigator of an argument over nothing – teenagers playing loud music. With a flick of the legal wrist, the victim is suddenly on trial along with their alleged killer. In this way, the film is equal parts legal procedural and emotional gut-punch. We get to know Davis’ friends, as well as his mother and father, witness their pain as they await legal closure, and hear in stark contrast the terms in which the media describes their beloved lost son and friend. “Thug” is the most popular term, acting as both noun and thinly veiled racist adjective to describe the type of music the boys had been listening to. Prior to this, they had been hanging out at the mall, snacking, talking to girls- all things that teenage boys are wont to do. This is a captivating legal thriller, but it also succeeds in humanizing one of so many innocent boys that have had their humanity stripped away post-mortem by the national media. This film will make you pity the back-talking child who had the misfortune to run into a self-appointed vigilante in America’s longest-tolerated failed state, when the latter took it upon himself to lethally punish a group of boys being boys.

Remember how I described the film as politically one-sided? I fear I’m venturing down a similar path letting my outrage at this case color my review, but it must also be said that the film does not skimp on presenting Michael Dunn as a fascinating (and chilling) criminal persona. We see everything from police interrogations, to witness stand footage, to audio from jailhouse phone calls with his fiancée. While these items are presented in such a way that makes it quite possible they were cherrypicked to make Dunn look as unsympathetic as possible, the film does not shy away from depicting the Rashomon effect that is evidently at work in Dunn’s recollection and perspective on the shooting. As his legal proceedings go on, he speaks of the incident in increasingly self-righteous terms. With each retelling, details are added to bolster his fear for his life. By the time his legal proceedings are over, he has repeated the refrain that he saw “a gun barrel” so many times that he almost certainly must believe it himself. Cory Strolla, Dunn’s attorney, is also a captivating figure, wriggling his client gingerly into the barest crevices of “reasonable doubt”. I’ll defer to my co-host’s colorful description of Strolla: “He was working the law like a two-bit whore”. This does not imply any legal malfeasance on Strolla’s part (nor does the film make such an argument). But if nothing else, Strolla’s deft campaigning for his client’s rights is the quintessential illustration of the flawed state of the Florida statute today.

“Michael Dunn had every right not to be a victim,” said Strolla.
Davis, not so much.

Check out our podcast discussion here:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #73 – “The Chinese Mayor”, “3 1/2 Minutes, Ten Bullets” (#SIFF2015 review)

#4: The Revenant

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Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, written by Iñárritu and Mark L. Smith

The best way to describe this raw, rip-roaring, frontier adventure and revenge tale is to identify its various prior pretenders. Joe Carnahan‘s The Grey strove to tell a story of wild, burly men on the ragged edges of civilization in a dire, wintry survival situation (and utterly failed). Quentin Tarantino‘s The Hateful Eight presented its own set of wintry frontier landscapes, swearing by its “Glorious 70mm” film presentation as the superior format (before spending 95% of its runtime in a dark, static, indoor location). The Revenant is one of the most gorgeous films I’ve ever seen, with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki continuing his run as one of the premier artists in the new frontier of digital cinema (following my two previous #1 films of the year, Gravity, and Iñárritu’s own Birdman). The film was apparently shot entirely with natural light, and each beautifully painted frame provides a stunning backdrop while the film renders frontier warfare and animalistic survival in raw and unflinching terms. Domhnall Gleeson makes his second of three appearances on this list as Captain Andrew Henry, who deftly leads this pack of fur-traders as they decide whether or not to leave Leonardo DiCaprio‘s Hugh Glass for dead after he is severely mauled by a bear. In the end, Glass is left behind with his son (Forrest Goodluck), legendary mountain man (now, mere mountain boy) Jim Bridger (Will Poulter), and two-bit, penny-pinching criminal John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy). What ensues is a staggering and epic journey through the pain and muck and blood of the frontier, through thick snow, dense woods, mountain peaks, and raging rivers. And there’s little more I can say about it without using every one of those thousand words to describe such a beautiful picture. See this in a theater while you can.

#3: Ex Machina

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Written and directed by Alex Garland

Alex Garland continues to be one of the most impressive voices in cinematic sci-fi with this meta-Turing test of android/fembot Ava (Alicia Vikander) by her tech-bro billionaire inventor Nathan (Oscar Isaac) and his employee programmer Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson). The setup is quite simple, taking place almost entirely at Nathan’s underground high-tech residence/research facility where the two men will drink and hang out for the weekend, ostensibly due to Caleb winning an employee contest at his Google-analogue employer, Bluebook. After a quick and thorough non-disclosure agreement, Nathan reveals to Caleb the true reason for his invitation. He has invented an artificially intelligent android named Ava, and he wants Caleb to present his opinion as to whether or not she is truly intelligent, conscious, self-aware, etc. – or merely giving an effective impression of it. Oscar Isaac continues to excel playing characters that simultaneously own the room and creep the hell out of me, playing Nathan somewhere between your new billionaire best-bro Hank Scorpio, and Isaac’s own sadistic emo pimp from Sucker Punch. There is much to be said about how the design of Ava reflects the institutional sexism in tech culture, because it seems to be no significant leap in plausibility that this newly self-aware A.I., rather than simply being a voice on a speaker (like Her, for instance), possesses a human face, curves, and, according to Nathan, something resembling a fully functional vagina. These human touches must have taken nearly as much time and research to develop as Ava’s A.I., but hell – what’s the point of creating consciousness if it’s not in a form you can fuck?

I don’t mean to belabor this point, but Ava’s affected femininity is central to the question of whether or not she is truly conscious, since Caleb’s level of attraction to her has clear and deliberate potential to muddy his judgment on the issue. And to the film’s credit, Caleb himself realizes this, asking whether Ava’s body is the equivalent of a magician’s sexy assistant – misdirection to prevent him from seeing the real trickery involved. The answer to this question, as well as whether or not Ava is truly intelligent, is something that will inspire great debate among anyone who watches the film. Garland’s script could come down on one side or the other, but it seems content to simply present a series of events and allow the viewer to interpret their meaning, placing us in the same boat as Caleb himself. Gleeson has carved out a wonderful niche for himself playing sci-fi characters with a streak of darkness, maturely and unflinchingly rendering each one of them from the towering Naziesque General Hux from the new Star Wars, to Ash on Black Mirror (the latter being a curiously appropriate pairing with this film). As for Vikander, this relative newcomer’s performance as Ava is nothing short of outstanding. This complex and multi-layered performance is essential to the film’s appeal, since the viewer will be left interpreting the meaning behind Ava’s every word and action, and Vikander successfully imbues those words and deeds with a dense array of potential meanings.

#2: Spotlight

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Directed by Tom McCarthy, screenplay by McCarthy and Josh Singer

Spotlight, which chronicles the Boston Globe’s 2001-2002 investigation of sexual abuse of children in the Catholic Church, is a stunning look at the hard problem of institutional guilt. In my double-header review of the film below, I contrast the various ways in which this film and Peter Landesman’s Concussion explore the guilt of their respective institutions, and while I found these different approaches fascinating, Spotlight clearly treaded the more difficult path with greater success.

From the review:

Meanwhile, Spotlight meticulously catalogs the varied and sprawling investigative threads of its Boston Globe reporters – Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton), Sacha Pfieffer (Rachel McAdams) – we see clergy, attorneys, reporters, therapists, parents, teachers, administrators, and parishioners, all of whom had some level of knowledge about the situation, and all of whom were complicit on at least a minimal level in allowing it to continue. As lawyer Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci) says halfway through the film, “If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one.” This is a damning quote because the film so convincingly makes the case that the abuse was widespread, widely known, and only came to light when people (including victims) were willing to come together and put a stop to it.

[T]he Globe reporters…are clearly affected by every moment of Spotlight‘s investigation. All of them are lapsed Catholics, most of them are native Bostonians, and they have no desire to eviscerate the institutions that have comprised the fabric and background of their entire lives, and will continue to surround them after the story breaks. They’re certain of the rightness of what they’re doing, and they’re also frightened, angry, and unsure what the right approach to the story really is. Is it just a few bad apples, or is it the entire institution that’s corrupt? Which is worse – perpetrating these monstrous acts, or conspiring to cover them up, enabling further victimization? And at what point do you have a level of certainty that allows you to tell this story publicly? And when Rezendes finally loses his temper and demands that the Globe print the story immediately, Ruffalo has thoroughly sold his personal stakes in the matter, and the reactions of the rest of the Spotlight team clearly indicate that he’s just screaming aloud what all of them are struggling with internally. This struggle, with how to tell the right story at the right time, is the essence of good journalism, and Spotlight depicts it as well as it has ever been put to film.

Check out the full double-header review here:
“Spotlight” vs. “Concussion” – The Hard Problem of Institutional Guilt

#1: It Follows

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Written and directed by David Robert Mitchell

I normally deliberate a bit about my #1 choice of the year, but this has been my unwavering pick ever since I saw it twice back in April. This horror film is, simply put, a complete original and a modern classic. Its premise, featuring an invisible demon curse that is transmitted through intimate relations, is an insidiously clever hook for several reasons. First off, simply finding someone to have sex with in order to pass on the curse is not enough. That person will be killed without ever knowing why, and then the demon will be right back after you. And after you, the person who gave it to you. All the way back to the beginning, whenever that was. The ingenuity of this setup is obvious – most cinematic monsters, if you take them down, you know you’re safe, at least until the higher-budget sequel comes along. This monster – even if you defeat it, or pass it along to someone that you give adequate knowledge to fight, hide, and pass it along further – will never truly leave your heart or mind. Because for the rest of your life, you’ll never, ever know if you’re truly and finally safe from it. Call it a metaphor for heartbreak, herpes, infidelity, abuse, or any number of other relationship poisons that tend to be paid forward, but what I call it is a terrifying curse and concept. Its various powers – slow, unrelenting movement toward the camera in the form of an alternately normal (or creepy) looking human loved-one of yours is put to especially good use in the film’s various wide-angled vistas, with a single figure in the deep background often narrowly visible venturing toward the camera. And what’s more, the demon is invisible to everyone else besides the person it is following around, leading to many beautifully-staged showdowns in which none but the victim are able to completely understand what’s happening.

The film’s visuals and production design are stunning, from the elaborate interior color palettes to the film’s forcible lack of a definable era and constant sense of anachronism. The film takes place in a velveteen pastiche of the 1970s, peppered with 50s cinema and unrecognizable 21st century tech (a clam-shell compact that’s also an e-reader?). Every design element of this film feels deliberate and clever. Maika Monroe carries the film as both a sympathetic and capable heroine and victim, and also the rare cinematic horror character who acts like a human being. And Disasterpeace’s marvelously saturating electronic score is rhythmic, evoking the likes of Cliff Martinez in Drive, but also slow, echoic, and bizarrely old-timey, seemingly belonging in a 70s sci-fi film. It Follows proceeds in the manner of an unyielding dream, seizing the imagination and refusing to let go.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Racing Extinction (directed by Louie Psihoyos)
  • Trainwreck (directed by Judd Apatow)
  • Room (directed by Lenny Abrahamson)
  • The Martian (directed by Ridley Scott)
  • The Little Death (directed by Josh Lawson)
  • The Primary Instinct (directed by David Chen)
  • Steve Jobs (directed by Danny Boyle)
  • Inside Out (directed by Pete Docter and Ronnie Del Carmen)
  • Jurassic World (directed by Colin Trevorrow)

Biggest Disappointments:

High expectations, low and/or psychologically complicated results.

  • Crimson Peak (directed by Guillermo del Toro, written by del Toro and Matthew Robbins)
    Crimson Peak is as beautiful a period-piece horror film as I’ve come to expect from Guillermo del Toro. And it’s also rather boring and telegraphed, with a mystery whose resolution is obvious in the first 45 minutes of a two-hour film. As we put it on Facebook, “The glorious crumbling facade of CRIMSON PEAK is proof positive that an elaborate story is no guarantee of a good one, and a dull mystery is no more compelling when revealed in three parts through a gramophone cylinder.”
  • Avengers: Age of Ultron (written/directed by Joss Whedon)
    I know what you’re thinking. Glenn, you produced two reviews (one written, one audible), in which you rated this film 8 out of 10. How can it be in your Biggest Disappointments, much less not in the Top 10 above? Let me explain. This is not a bad film, and I do stand by my review as an accurate reflection of what I felt right after watching it. But as I’ve had more time to digest this film, and had myriad other globe-trotting adventure films (and well-drawn female characters) to compare it to, I find that it has aged poorly in my memory. And while the 2012 Avengers film still holds up to repeated viewings, I don’t feel much desire to revisit this film, and as I think back upon it, it all feels a bit slight and inconsequential, like the real story is still yet to come. Avengers: Week And A Half, Tops, of Ultron had a lot to live up to, and it’s possible that its own hype-train derailed in my mind about three weeks after I saw the film. Will I still hand Marvel my money for whatever the Avengers are up to next? Certainly. But I suspect I’ll need a bit more convincing that any of it matters next time.
  • The Martian (directed by Ridley Scott, written by Drew Goddard)
    This is why I can’t have nice things. The Martian is not a bad movie (it even appears in my Honorable Mentions above), but I’m going to call this one a firm case of “Would’ve liked it better if I hadn’t read the book first”. Matt Damon was never my dream casting for Mars-stranded astronaut Mark Watney (Sam Rockwell seems the obvious choice), but after all the money America has spent bringing Matt Damon home in fiction, I figured he would be acceptable. The thing is, everything else about the film somehow inspired me to nitpick it to death. Some details omitted from page-to-screen left me in an understanding mood. The complicated, days-long scientific process by which Watney figures out that he’s in the middle of a slow-moving, hundred-mile-wide Martian dust storm, for instance, would never have worked on screen. But other changes from the book just struck me as bizarre and unnecessary. Example: At one point, Watney patches a hole in the side of his habitat with what appears to be clear plastic and duct tape. And it looked dumb and implausible, and immediately took me out of the film. In the book, this feat was done with spare canvas and epoxy, which could’ve been communicated quite simply with a slightly-modified visual in the film. Many of the film’s performances also felt minimalistic and lazy (looking at Jeff Daniels and Kristen Wiig), and as capable an actor as Chiwetel Ejiofor may be, I did not need Dr. Venkat Kapoor’s name simplified for my fragile American ears into “Vincent Kapoor”. For a film that seeks to inspire its audience to care about the grand exploration of human knowledge, this was a surprisingly condescending choice. This film was gorgeous, made perhaps the best use of David Bowie‘s “Starman” ever, and I would probably watch it again. But I might just re-read the book instead.

Pleasant Surprises:

Low expectations, high results.

  • Ant-Man (directed by Peyton Reed)
    A perfectly serviceable beat-for-beat remake of Iron Man with absolutely no surprises except that it turned out to be the Marvel film I ended up liking better than Avengers: Age of Ultron this year. This film felt like a second-rate MCU property in every possible way (even bringing in one of the most recently added Avengers for an utterly perfunctory guest appearance), but Paul Rudd and the supporting cast conspired to make this film a fun, goofy superhero romp that I find myself shocked that I’m eager for more.
  • Jurassic World (directed by Colin Trevorrow)
    Check out our podcast for our full (and fairly complicated) thoughts on this film, but I’ll first defer to the reaction we had on the night:
    Dinosaur captioned with
  • Furious 7 (directed by James Wan)
    Furious 7 was a solid introduction of a new director to the franchise, with Wan doing his very best mash-up of Justin Lin and Michael Bay to solid action effect. But the real stunner is that this film did such a good job glossing over the untimely death of lead actor Paul Walker, it almost felt like an indictment of the role of an actor in a modern action franchise. It’s not to say his absence in the film wasn’t noticeable, but there were a number of action scenes that – had they featured a living actor – I would’ve simply assumed were shot by an middling cinematographer. Middling, but not bad. They’re comprehensible – they just don’t show his face as much as they should.
    But you can do a lot these days with stunt doubles, dim lighting, CGI face replacement, and quick camera movements (just ask Natalie Portman in Black Swan), and as far as the action scenes were concerned, it felt like Walker was present for the entire film. The acting and character work – which has always reliably lent weight to the otherwise ridiculous action in this franchise – only suffered a bit. Watching Jordana Brewster share a tender familial dialogue scene with the back of an obviously-different actor’s head actually made me a bit sad watching it. The action was ridiculous and fun as usual, even if it felt a lot more episodic with the thinly-justified globetrotting this time around. And James Wan‘s directorial style, while noticeably different from Justin Lin, was mostly adequate, at least when it wasn’t doing its best superfluous-ass-shaking impression of Michael Bay. All in all, I’d say this film falls firmly in the category of “As good as could be reasonably expected.”

Daniel’s Top 10 Most Hated Films of 2015

FilmWonk Podcast co-host Daniel also saw a lot of films this year, and decided that he’d prefer to make a “Bottom 10” list for the year. Here are Daniel’s Most Hated films of 2015.

  1. True Story
  2. Inherent Vice
  3. Avengers: Age of Ultron
  4. Blackhat
  5. The Transporter Refueled
  6. The Visit
  7. When Animals Dream
  8. Fifty Shades of Grey
  9. Self/less
  10. The Hateful Eight

“Spotlight” vs. “Concussion” – The Hard Problem of Institutional Guilt

Combined movie poster for

It would be easy to say that Spotlight, director Tom McCarthy’s dramatization of a 2002 newspaper investigation that first brought to light the rampant sexual abuse and cover-ups in the Catholic Church is the same film as Peter Landesman’s Concussion, dramatizing the outside medical investigation of chronic concussion-related injuries in the NFL. But while they hew to a similar formula, they really have completely different approaches to both their underlying subject matter, as well as to institutional guilt itself.

Dr. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith) is introduced in Concussion as a capable and unbiased outsider (both as an immigrant from Nigeria, and a non football-fan) who discovers chronic (but subtle) neurological degeneration in the brains of deceased former NFL players. He comes with impeccable credentials and education, and both he and the film know that he’s always right. He’s Dr. House without the sarcasm or pill addiction. He is, in essence, a paragon. And this makes it all the more difficult to accept him as an unapologetic moral crusader in his investigation of a newly named condition, Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a condition that causes former NFL players to undergo rapid neurological degeneration similar to Alzheimer’s at a young age, often coming to violent self-inflicted deaths in the process. The reason why his moral crusade doesn’t play nearly as well is because, simply put, the film has no clear idea of what the NFL might have known about the condition and when – and scientific discovery doesn’t work on a schedule. Omalu is well-meaning, but he only has a handful of initial cases, and while it’s easy to make comparisons between the NFL’s alleged “We don’t know and we don’t want to know” attitude, and the Catholic Church’s well-established institutional enabling and protection of pedophile priests (or, if you like, the tobacco industry as depicted in Michael Mann’s The Insider), the films really are dealing with completely different scopes of corruption and institutional guilt. There’s nothing ambiguous or scientifically controversial about child molestation. It’s either happening, or it’s not. A newly discovered medical condition that is poorly understood and difficult to detect (not showing up on brain scans of the living) is a bit harder to be so dogmatic about.

Meanwhile, Spotlight meticulously catalogs the varied and sprawling investigative threads of its Boston Globe reporters – Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton), Sacha Pfieffer (Rachel McAdams) – we see clergy, attorneys, reporters, therapists, parents, teachers, administrators, and parishioners, all of whom had some level of knowledge about the situation, and all of whom were complicit on at least a minimal level in allowing it to continue. As lawyer Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci) says halfway through the film, “If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one.” This is a damning quote because the film so convincingly makes the case that the abuse was widespread, widely known, and only came to light when people (including victims) were willing to come together and put a stop to it. Contrast this with Concussion‘s clunky proclamations about how millions of Americans love the game, and the NFL employs hundreds of thousands of people, and cities and states have built massive stadiums even as they can’t afford to fund their schools (which struck below the belt as far as my home State of Washington is concerned), and it really just doesn’t have much bite to it. Even as Dr. Omalu gets late-night phone calls asking why he wants to “vaginize” football, the stakes are thoroughly muddled. Every change that has ever been made to American football has “ruined the game” in someone’s eyes, and it’s hard to imagine that trying to reduce the frequency and treatment of concussive blows to the head would be any exception. Yes, America loves football. And perhaps the NFL knew enough about CTE that they should’ve done something earlier to try to prevent any further cases of it, or at least stop trying to wriggle out of paying adequate disability pensions for those players who were affected by it. But apart from the men we see succumbing to their illness and dying on-screen, any guilt (whether individual or institutional) is poorly delineated, and no solutions are offered. Given that Luke Wilson appears in an essentially silent role as NFL chairman Roger Goodell, I can’t help but wonder if any desperately-needed context was left on the cutting room floor.

Another way the films differ is in how they depict the effects each investigation has upon its investigators. Dr. Omalu’s devastated outlook as the NFL makes various attempts to blackball and discredit his research is probably the most interesting part of the film, if only because Will Smith so thoroughly sells his disappointment that America didn’t live up to his immigrant expectations. “This is America,” he says to his future wife Prema (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) early in the film, “Where you must be the best version of yourself.” As he comes forward to tell the NFL about this problem (by way of a case study in a prestigious medical journal), he genuinely believes that A) The NFL couldn’t possibly have known, and B) They will thank him and want to work with him. Obviously, this isn’t what happens. And Dr. Omalu is devastated to learn the true nature of the country that he has adopted as his own.

Beyond this, there is little in the way of personal stakes involved for this investigation. Sure, he’s paying for many of the medical tests himself, but we never really get a sense that this is causing him any hardship. He doesn’t know football, understand it, or enjoy it. This makes him non-malicious, but it also makes his arc as an outsider and moral paragon that much less interesting. Dr. Julian Baines (Alec Baldwin), a former Pittsburgh Steelers team doctor, has a bit more reluctance about attacking the game he loves, but he only ever voices it after he has already committed to helping Dr. Omalu. So any internal conflict that he may have experienced feels fleeting. The inevitable moments of confrontation are well-acted, but feel perfunctory and unrealistic. When Dr. Omalu meets privately with an NFL doctor, Elliot Pellman (Paul Reiser), and gives an impassioned sotto voce demand that he “Tell the truth!” about what’s going on, Smith sells the moment with his acting, but it has not been earned in the least, if only because science doesn’t deal in practical or moral certainty. It just deals with increasing degrees of understanding, to the point where we can reasonably make decisions based on them. But I suppose, “You should conduct a longitudinal study on the issue and begin taking basic precautions out of an abundance of concern for the players’ well-being” doesn’t roll off the tongue quite as well.

Contrast this with the Globe reporters, who are clearly affected by every moment of Spotlight‘s investigation. All of them are lapsed Catholics, most of them are native Bostonians, and they have no desire to eviscerate the institutions that have comprised the fabric and background of their entire lives, and will continue to surround them after the story breaks. They’re certain of the rightness of what they’re doing, and they’re also frightened, angry, and unsure what the right approach to the story really is. Is it just a few bad apples, or is it the entire institution that’s corrupt? Which is worse – perpetrating these monstrous acts, or conspiring to cover them up, enabling further victimization? And at what point do you have a level of certainty that allows you to tell this story publicly? And when Rezendes finally loses his temper and demands that the Globe print the story immediately, Ruffalo has thoroughly sold his personal stakes in the matter, and the reactions of the rest of the Spotlight team clearly indicate that he’s just screaming aloud what all of them are struggling with internally. This struggle, with how to tell the right story at the right time, is the essence of good journalism, and Spotlight depicts it as well as it has ever been put to film. It demands that the viewer place themselves in the shoes of people scrambling in the dark to reveal what had previously been unimaginable.

In the end, both films have value, even if Spotlight has a treads a much more difficult path toward the story that it’s looking to reveal, whereas Concussion often just feels like it’s going through the motions (everything to do with Dr. Omalu’s wife, for instance). However, one area in which both films excel is in depicting the victims of their respective institutions, and it is perhaps where both films deserve credit for elevating the importance of what they are depicting. David Morse, Adewale Akinnouoye-Agbaje, and Matthew Willig all play former NFL players whose horrifying deaths are at the center of Concussion‘s mystery, and even if it lacks the moral clarity of Spotlight, the viewer is at least left with a sense that we owe these men an explanation for their largely uniform mental deterioration. Conversely, the victims of Catholic clergy sexual abusers are depicted in a variety of states, both in deep denial, chemical dependency, and relative normality. There is no such thing as a perfect victim outside of fiction, and between the two films, Spotlight is certainly less interested in perfection. It shines a light into the darkness, and shows us whatever may appear there.

FilmWonk rating (Spotlight): 9 out of 10
FilmWonk rating (Concussion): 6.5 out of 10