Heretofore unmentioned movie reviews

I forgot to post these movie reviews, which all ran in LGBT Weekly over the last few months.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

Wonder WomanI was unable to see the mega-hyped, mega-budget Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice before other critics ran their reviews. And because many of the reviewers were so dismissive or so hyperbolic in their criticism, the news of the film’s opening was overshadowed by the blood sport of Internet overkill. The Wall Street Journal’s Joe Morgenstern called it “underdeveloped, overlong and stupendously dispiriting” and NPR’s Chris Klimek described the film as “a ponderous, smothering, over-pixelated zeppelin crash of a movie scored by a choir that sounds like it’s being drowned in lava.” A meme of Ben Affleck’s dejected facial expression in response to hearing about the reviews was shared by millions of people who weirdly find glee in the sadness of others. I found it impossible to avoid knowing that a lot of people thought the movie was terrible. But when I did see it, I was perplexed. While BvS is certainly not a masterpiece of the genre – neither as morally complex and smart as The Dark Knight nor as fun and thrilling as The Avengers – it is hardly a “zeppelin crash.” It’s pretentious and bombastic and it rewrites the central ethos of its main characters in ways that are disconcerting for some longtime fans. But it’s not an ineptly made film. [Read the rest.]

Hello, My Name Is Doris

Hello, My Name Is DorisAt various times in my life, I’ve frequented nightclubs: loud music, overpriced drinks, spinning lights, smoke machines and usually young people dancing in outfits chosen to attract the gaze and attention of other, hopefully very attractive dancers. Occasionally, people would stick out. A guy who arrived in loafers and Dockers, a bachelorette dancing in a white veil and an older person in what someone might call “age-inappropriate clothing.” There’d be that one woman over 60 in a miniskirt, a glittery wig, chunky earrings and an original Sex Pistols concert T-shirt. I always loved this woman, not just because it takes a lot of guts to go dancing in a club full of kids younger than her children (if she had any), but also because I knew she had a story, a good story. Hello, My Name is Doris is one such story. Starring a brilliant Sally Field and co-written and directed by Wet Hot American Summer’s Michael Showalter, the delightful Doris is both heartfelt and cringeworthy. [Read the rest.]

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny

Sword of DestinyCrouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is one of those movies that everyone likes. The seamless blend of ground-breaking martial arts action, two epic love stories, feminist character arcs, high art visuals, gorgeous music and the great director Ang Lee made the film beloved of everyone from teenage action fans to cineastes, men and women, boys and girls. More than once, I was told seeing it was like seeing Star Wars for the first time – revelatory. Even though the film is based on the fourth novel of The Crane-Iron pentology by Du Lu Wang, no one seriously suggested that Ang Lee make the prequels or a sequel. But the Weinstein Company is never one not to see branded opportunity, and 15 years later they decided to make a film based on the fifth of Wang’s books, Iron Knight, Silver Vase, and release it on Netflix and in theaters simultaneously. (Most theaters balked.) Despite hiring Woo-Ping Yuen to direct and convincing Michelle Yeoh to reprise her iconic role as Shu Lien, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny is forgettable, mostly pleasing as a reminder of a much, much better movie. [Read the rest.]


Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) reacts to Colossus’ (voiced by Stefan Kapicic) threats.

Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) reacts to Colossus’ (voiced by Stefan Kapicic) threats.

One of the problems with the takeover of popular culture by Marvel and DC superheroes is how seriously the stories take themselves, how easy the morality is and how family-friendly everything is. Monster-budget films likeThe Avengers and the upcoming Batman vs Superman, or network dramas like The Flash andAgents of SHIELD, aim to reach the broadest audience possible, which means no swearing, little irony and barely a hint of sex. (The Netflix shows Daredevil andJessica Jones are the exception, as they are niche shows.) Then there’sDeadpool, the raunchy, hyper and hilariously violent, anti-hero’s tale that exploded a dozen box office records last week. Based on one of the edgiest characters in the Marvel X-Men universe, the film both panders to the basest sensibilities of the young men who make up the lion’s share of comic book fans and mercilessly mocks superhero story conventions. [Read the rest.]

Hail, Caesar!

Hail, Caesar!While I am a huge fan of the Coen brothers, I must acknowledge that they make some odd decisions that produce some ambiguous if not totally perplexing moments: The off-screen death of a major character in No Country for Old Men, the tornado that ends A Serious Man, the lack of any plot in Inside Llewyn Davis and pretty much all of The Big Lebowski. Usually, these weird scenes are aesthetically so interesting or so funny or, after some thought, thematically satisfying that the Coens get away with them, and they often end up being the most iconic parts of the films. But it doesn’t always work that way. Maybe I need a few months to think about Hail, Caesar! but right now, the over-stuffed incoherence and very odd political choices in the film don’t work. It’s rather unfortunate, too, because the Coens put together a fantastic cast and crafted a dozen or so near-genius scenes in Hail, Caesar! – including Channing Tatum in a nearly epic song-and-dance number – but it would have been nice to see they serve some purpose. [Read the rest.}

The Revenant

The RevenantA great deal has been written, said and tweeted regarding how, for the second year in a row, each one of the 20 actors nominated for an Academy Award this year are white. According to the Los Angeles Times, the Academy is 94 percent white, 2 percent African American and less than 2 percent Latino. The median age is 62, and only 14 percent of the membership is under 50. And 77 percent of members are men.

Even if Hollywood as a whole is supposedly very liberal, old white men are in general not likely to support people of color – in whatever venue, whether film awards or politics.

The Revenant, a ruthless and bombastic tale of revenge in the cold western American frontier, is the kind of movie many men like. The Academy nominated it for 12 Oscars, more than any other this year, and the film is currently holding an 8.3 rating on IMDb, ranking it as the 124th greatest movie of all time. About 80,000 of the IMDb votes came from men, and 13,000 from women. I don’t want to say that men like The Revenant so much because no woman speaks in it, but of the two female characters, neither have audible lines in their few minutes on screen. (One is murdered, the other is raped.) According to the site’s stats, the women who saw the film rated it nearly as high as men, but any film executive will tell you that fewer women are drawn to films so violent, so depleted of female voices or faces, and so focused on themes of classic male heroism. [Read the rest.]

My favorite movies of 2015: There are a lot

My top 10 list is never a list of the “best” movies, but rather the ones I liked the most. This is because I think there are some movies that might be technically better made that I didn’t actually enjoy, for whatever reason. Like Room. Anyway, here are my favorite movies of 2015.

  1. Mad Max: Fury Road. The third sequel to the post-apocalyptic classic Mad Max is best action film since The Matrix: jaw-dropping, bold, ambitious and thrilling. Max (now played by Tom Hardy) is again a loner on the run in the barren wasteland left by a nuclear war. He’s teamed with another lone wolf named Imperator Furiosa, who Charlize Theron instantly made iconic with physical and emotional ferocity. The genius of Fury Road is in Miller’s visual storytelling, from the wrenching and dusty roller coaster chase scenes to the still moments of sometimes horrid desert beauty, that feels totally new. This is operatic action, bombastic and intense and engulfing and almost exhausting.
  2. Carol. Todd Haynes’s indelible, sublime, a perfectly observed film is based on Patricia Hightower’s 1952 classic lesbian romance The Price of Salt. Carol, played with aching beauty by Cate Blanchett, is a wealthy suburban wife in the midst of a divorce, and Rooney Mara plays Therese, a young shop girl making her way in New York. Blanchett’s sly, wise, and only just barely vulnerable performance is among her best, and Mara is also extraordinary, expressing Therese’s wonder, love, and grief with subtlety and sympathy.
  3. Brooklyn. An assured Saoirse Ronan is Eilis, who leaves stifling small town Ireland for expansive and exciting Brooklyn in the early 1950s. She falls in love with an Italian-American plumber (Emery Cohen) but then returns home after a death in the family, suddenly unsure where she belongs. An intimate but universal immigrant’s story, Brooklyn expresses the conflicts, joys, and promise of leaving home. Nick Hornby’s adaptation of Colm Toibin’s novel is seamless.
  4. Ex Machina. Alex Garland made his directorial debut with this gorgeous psychological thriller about artificial intelligence, arrogance, and misogyny. Slight and nerdy Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) wins a contest to spend a week with reclusive, eccentric tech genius Nathan (Oscar Isaac), a hard-drinking boxing enthusiast dude-bro. Caleb is actually brought to determine whether Nathan’s latest android has believably human artificial intelligence. Ava, played by Alicia Vikander, is clearly not human, but she is stunningly humanlike, both in her affect and her intuition. Vikander’s performance is epic, but it is Garland’s surprising, creepy, and powerful script that is the real star.
  5. Tangerine. This masterpiece of LGBT cinema is about one day in the lives of two transgender prostitutes in Hollywood. On Christmas Eve, hilariously enraged Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) is hunting down her boyfriend and the real fish he’s been cheating on her with. Meanwhile, weary, wise, and tough Alexandra (Mya Taylor) wanders the streets, looking for friends to tell about her cabaret show that night. Shot entirely on iPhones, the film is full of stunning compositions and saturated light. It is blisteringly funny and foul, and it is also moving: a paean to friendship and pride.
  6. The Revenant. Leonardo DiCaprio may finally win his Oscar for his harrowing and masochistic performance as the insanely determined Hugh Glass, a hunter and guide in the 18th century American frontier who is left for dead by the unscrupulous John Fitzgerald, played by a wicked and brilliant Tom Hardy. The movie is long, extremely violent, and at times unbelievable, but directed Alejandro González Iñárritu and shot by Emmanuel Lubezki, The Revenent is engulfing, gorgeous, terrifying, and by the end, transcendent.
  7. Grandma. Lily Tomlin plays Elle Reid, a recently widowed lesbian poet who is broke, unglued, directionless, and a bit spiteful. When her teenaged granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) knocks on her door and says she needs $500 for an abortion, Elle must put herself together, find the money, and earn redemption in time for Sage’s late afternoon appointment. The funny, subversive, and very gay script comes from director Paul Weitz, who provides Tomlin one of her best characters, who in turn provides Tomlin the opportunity to give one of her greatest performances (which is saying something).
  8. Spotlight. This taut and smart depiction of Boston Globe reporters’ investigation into the sex abuse scandal in the Boston Catholic Church is the best film about journalism since All the President’s Men. Tom McCarthy’s trickless direction and his and Josh Singer’s efficient screenplay impeccably merge a complicated mystery with an indictment of a culture of secrecy, silence, and deference to power. Most of the film’s major characters are occasional or lapsed Catholics, and their personal angst over what their faith has done shows the toll this kind of reporting can take. The film is as much about how these reporters got the story as it is about how the story got them.
  9. Creed. Ryan Coogler’s Rocky sequel-cum-reboot turns Rocky into the trainer and Apollo Creed’s illegitimate son Donny into the boxer with something to prove. The plot is by-the-numbers boxing movie, but Sylvester Stallone’s seventh turn as Rocky Balboa is arguably his best, and Michael P. Jordan is again sterling, this time as the young man with anger-management problems and chip on his shoulder. Coogler pulls out these phenomenal performances and re-purposes the Rocky tropes perfectly, using the Philadelphia landscape, fight choreography, and iconic music in surprising and thrilling ways.
  10. The Big Short. Adam McKay has random celebrities – Anthony Bourdain, Selena Gomez –break the fourth wall to explain the Byzantine financial procedures that were at the center of the financial collapse in 2008. It’s gimmicky but it works, and the rest of this intricate and smartly written film about the financial experts who figured out what was happening is enraging, fascinating, and funny. The latest indictment of capitalist excess and immorality features most excellent turns from Steve Carrell and Christian Bale.

Movies that I also liked a lot or thought were very well made: The Martian. 45 Years. Sicario. Straight out of Compton. Steve Jobs. Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Anomalisa. The Clouds of Sils Maria. Room. Antman. Inside Out. While We’re Young. Magic Mike XXL.

I wrote a bunch of reviews over the last few months

Since February, I’ve reviewed a bunch of movies. Here are some highlights, in case you missed what I do over at San Diego LGBT Weekly.

CinderellaCinderella, one of the most indelible of Western fairy tales, has been reinterpreted countless times since it first appeared in print in the 17th century; but mostly the story stays true to its origins: a wealthy girl is turned into a servant by a horrible stepmother and a fairy godmother helps the girl win the heart and hand of a charming prince. The animated Disney version released in 1950 is the most famous, and its story structure, characters and lyrics from its songs are so iconic that most people cannot think of Cinderella without thinking of Gus the mouse, the wicked stepsisters Drisella and Anastasia, and “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo.” While Disney’s Sleeping Beauty was wildly reimagined into the commercially successful but artistically and thematically messy Maleficent, with Disney’s massively budgeted live action version of Cinderella, they didn’t stray more than a few inches from the source material. And the result is an instant classic. [More]

Get HardPeople laughed during the preview screening of Get Hard. This is what bothered me most about the comedy featuring Will Ferrell as a clueless finance executive who hires a much more clueful Kevin Hart to prepare him for 10 years in prison. More than how terribly made it is, how pathetic and offensive its humor is, how simply dumb it is, what irks me most about Get Hard is that people liked it. And more than whether or not the people in Hollywood are gay, straight, black, white, conservative or progressive, Get Hard’s tickets sales are what will ensure that Hollywood continues to make movies likeGet Hard, movies that, yes, are inept, but are also, and more importantly, bad for our culture. [More]

Going ClearI now live five blocks from the giant blue Scientology building in Hollywood, and I often catch a bus at the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Vermont Avenue, where young Scientologists, wearing blue blazers and solicitous smiles pass out proselytizing leaflets proclaiming, as all religions do, that they have the true answers to enlightenment. I avoid them. This is unfair and, honestly, bigoted, because the vast majority of Scientologists are good people looking for answers to life’s problems; they are not among the members of the Church hierarchy who, according to critics, operate like an organized criminal syndicate that happens to also be a cult. But you never know who among the foot soldiers is actually, well, a soldier who might eventually con me, stalk me, or keep me prisoner in a desert compound. As someone who has spent his life looking for answers to deep emotional questions, I have great empathy for people doing the same thing. But after watching Going Clear, Alex Gibney’s extraordinary and damning documentary based on Lawrence Wright’s book of the same name, I worry for these young Scientologists and what might happen to them. [More]

While Were YoungMaybe it’s because I’m about the same age at the characters Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts play in While We’re Young that I so identified with them, their ennui about aging and their adulation of a much younger, fresh and earnest couple played by Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried. Josh (Stiller) and Cornelia (Watts) have reached their early middle age and discovered that they have not become the people they’d planned to become. They seem comfortable – he teaches documentary filmmaking and she produces the movies of her famous father and they have a nice apartment somewhere in New York City – but Josh, especially, is not the successful, lauded documentarian he wanted to be, and they do not have children. At the beginning of the film, they talk about how great it is that they’re free to do whatever they want because they’re not tied down, that they don’t need kids to be fulfilled. But when they meet Jamie (Driver, playing a version of Adam from Girls) and Darby (Seyfried, adorable but underused), Josh suddenly, Cornelia more slowly, realizes that they are somewhat unfulfilled. [More]

Ex MachinaHollywood is enthralled with big budget science fiction and fantasy films, particularly those starring superheroes, but despite their technological sophistication few of them do much more than please the eyes and leave you a little hard of hearing. Too much of a good thing is not good. These films have also brought along with them a renaissance of “hard” sci-fi, speculative fiction that makes you think more than it makes you drop your jaw in awe of the special effects. In the last few years, brainy big budget films like Inception, Interstellar, and District 9 have joined the exquisite, modestly budgeted Her and Under the Skin. Belonging to the latter category is Alex Garland’s fantastic Ex Machina, a gorgeous psychological thriller about artificial intelligence, arrogance, and, deliberately or not, misogyny. [More]


Max is a blood bagBefore I went to see Mad Max: Fury Road, I spent a weekend watching George Miller’s three previous films about Max Rockatansky, all of which were filmed more than thirty years ago and starred Mel Gibson in the role that made him a superstar. I’d never seen them, and it hadn’t occurred to me to do so until now. This is a little odd, considering my taste in movies, but it happened. I watched them in order, first Mad Max (1979), then Mad Max: The Road Warrior (1981), then Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985). All of them feature Max (Gibson), a stoic hero who tries to avoid a conflict between good and evil around him but then becomes its hero; the films are progressively more expensive and more explosive.

The first film, a low budget Australian surprise that for many years was the most profitable film in history, is an exploitation film; a hyper-violent revenge fantasy about a nearly lawless near future that happens to be directed by an auteur. It’s stunning and unnerving and brilliant. The second is a Hollywood-budgeted post-apocalyptic spectacle so stylistically influential that we cannot imagine dystopian depictions without the mutant vehicles, steampunk machinery, the clothing made of leather and feathers. The third is more of campfest, with Tina Turner as an evil queen and an army of abandoned children that make the film more family friendly. It was the only one of the films not rated R, and that was clearly a deliberate attempt to bring in more money.

Decades later, after Miller made Babe and won an Oscar for Happy Feet, he’s returned to Max, recast him with the wonderfully intense Tom Hardy, and paired him with an astonishing Charlize Theron, and made a film as surprising as Mad Max was. It’s the best action film in years. I haven’t seen a movie so jaw-dropping, so bold and ambitious and thrilling, since The Matrix 16 years ago. And by jaw-dropping, I mean my jaw actually dropped as I leaned forward in my seat in giddy awe. [More]

SpyMelissa McCarthy’s patented under-her-breath dirty jokes work extremely well in Spy, partly because we’re led to believe that she is a schlubby cat lady, so the jokes are a surprise, and partly because they are very, very funny (but unprintable in this publication). Susan is endearing and sympathetic because she looks and acts a lot more like a typical American woman than absurdly skinny Rose Byrne does. Her quest to become a superspy is all the more fun because it is seemingly impossible for a woman who everyone assumes is uncoordinated and weak. But she’s actually not what we assume; she’s almost superheroic in her abilities. [More]

I also reviewed The Last Five Years, Focus, Chappie, Insurgent, The Water Diviner, The Avengers: Age of Ultron, The D Train, Pitch Perfect 2, Tomorrowland, San Andreas, and Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.


Movies. 2014.

This year’s Golden Teddy Awards for Most Excellence in Movies starts with the list of my ten favorite movies of 2014 from LGBT Weekly and then goes into choices for excellences in various Oscar-ish categories as well as things like “prop chomping” and  “dystopian art direction.” It’s not quite as absurdly long and detailed as previous years, but I don’t have that kind of time anymore. And I’ve been sick. So there.

  1. [expand title=”Grand Budapest Hotel”]The-Grand-Budapest-HotelIn Wes Anderson’s greatest film so far, it is 1932 and the Grand Budapest Hotel is in its heyday. A treasure of the fictional Eastern European nation of Zubrowka, it is packed with suited dignitaries and their bejeweled wives, and the regimented staff is legion; over all of it presides the hotel’s slightly foppish and nearly over-competent concierge M. Gustave, played by a miraculous, David Niven-inspired Ralph Fiennes. Gustave is not only devoted to his hotel, but also to the numerous lonely older women who frequent it, and his favorite is Madame Desgoffe-und-Taxis (Tilda Swinton), an 84-year-old countess who adores Gustave. When the countess dies, Gustave and his favorite bellboy Zero (Tony Revolori) go to the reading of the will. The countess’ dastardly son Dmitri (Adrian Brody) is livid that Gustave is given a priceless painting called Boy With Apple and demands that this never happen, but with Zero’s encouragement and help, Gustave steals the painting and returns to the hotel. The caper that ensues is thrilling and hilarious and full of idiosyncratic supporting figures played by the likes of Willem Defoe, Saoirse Ronan and Harvey Keitel. The actors are directed to such mannered behaviors as to be almost abstracted; they archly speak as if they have hopped out of a Roald Dahl or JD Salinger story, and they move like gorgeously drawn cartoon characters, sharply and exaggerated, influenced by slapstick and mime. The result is the opposite of natural or subtle, but Anderson’s direction, of actors and art and photography, communicates the themes and emotions – the sadness of nostalgia and growing up, the power of loyalty and courage – with something that achieves grace. On DVD.[/expand]
  2. [expand title=”Boyhood”]BoyhoodIn 2002, Richard Linklater cast a boy (Ellar Coltrane), his sister (Lorelei Linklater) and their mother (Patricia Arquette) and father (Ethan Hawke), and he filmed them as a growing, living, changing family over 12 years. Linklater deserves a slew of awards simply for overcoming such a film’s logistical difficulties – flighty children, lengthy contracts, the ravages of time and history – but he and his actors also managed to create a film as true to the emotional journey of childhood and modern American family life as any other movie in a generation. Like the life that Linklater is depicting, Boyhood does not have a plot as much as it has a series of vignettes focused around key moments in Mason’s childhood. The film feels like cinéma vérité, but the emotional power of the editing, the acting Linklater elicited from his actors both young and old (particularly Arquette, doing the best work of her career), and in the beauty of his landscapes and light is something we usually only see in finely crafted narrative films. Boyhood is not perfect – it’s long and rough in places and the plotting seems a bit forced at times – but it is nonetheless an extraordinary monument to the power of art, film and family. On DVD.[/expand]
  3. [expand title=”Under the Skin”]Under-the-SkinJonathan Glazer’s hypnotic masterpiece follows a woman (Scarlett Johansson) as she drives around Edinburgh, stalking men, seducing them and then enveloping them in a gooey blackness. After an encounter with a disfigured man, she seems to develop introspection. She wanders into the Scottish countryside, pursued by mysterious men on motorcycles and less mysterious men with dirty minds. We assume she’s not human, but we don’t know what she is. The audience needs to do a lot of work to piece things together, and this is often the hallmark of what we call “art films.” This kind of abstraction can become pretentious, but in Under the Skin, the abstraction is what makes the art. Glazer’s sublime use of the foggy Scottish landscapes, Mica Levi’s truly haunting string-heavy score, Scarlett Johansson’s brave and subtle performance and our own expectations of science fiction combine to create one of the most original and indelible films of the year. Streaming and on DVD.
  4. [expand title=”Only Lovers Left Alive”]Only-Lovers-Left-AliveA luminous, sublime, and brilliant Tilda Swinton plays Eve, an achingly-sweet, centuries-old aesthete who happens to be a vampire. Her similarly afflicted husband Adam, played by Tom Hiddleston, is a glum musical genius who hides from the world, composing from afar, talking to no one but a clueless hired hand (Anton Yelchin) and his wife, but to her only over Skype. She lives in Tangiers, along with her friend Kit Marlowe (yes, that one, played by John Hurt), and Adam lives in a particularly dilapidated section of Detroit. She decides to come to him after he expresses more suicidally depressive thoughts about the weight of the world. During her visit, as they discuss history and art and their love, Eve’s crass and silly sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) arrives and creates situations that force this short story in the lives of Adam and Eve to climax in hunger and, of course, blood. Funny, haunting, weird and sad, Jarmusch’s movie is the rare one about the undead that is actually about the living. On DVD.
  5. [expand title=”Nightcrawler”]NightcrawlerLewis Bloom, played by a balls-out brilliant Jake Gyllenhaal, is a nightcrawler, a freelance reporter who spends the nights wandering the city, waiting for a police scanner to announce a car crash or a murder that can be filmed and turned into the bloody local TV news. Lewis is pathologically ambitious, solicitous and aggressive, and he speaks almost entirely in the aphorisms of self-help books and online business classes, always with a broad smile and wide eyes, all the more creepy on his tightly gaunt body. He unnerves Nina Romina (Rene Russo), the news director of a low-rated Los Angeles morning show, but he also brings in great footage, which she craves. How he does it, and how he plays Nina is what makes Nightcrawler thrilling and more than a little bonkers. This is the first film directed by Dan Gilroy, who pulls out Gyllenhaal’s greatest performance and gives us the best thriller of the year. The two are inextricably connected, because it is Gyllenhaal’s unexpected actions and off-kilter affect that kept me on the edge of my seat and muttering “wow” over and over. Gilroy also handles the car chases and random violence on Los Angeles’s iconic streets with skill, evoking the L.A. noir of Drive and Heat. The film is disquieting and, even at its most fantastical, somewhat believable. Lewis may not exist, but the stories that he records for Nina’s broadcasts do. We’ve all seen them. In theaters.
  6. [expand title=”The Lego Movie”]The-Lego-MovieThe Lego Movie is the greatest advertisement for a toy ever made, but it’s also a great movie in and of itself and easily the best animated film of the year. Emmet (Chris Pratt) is a construction worker in a city that runs with clockwork precision: Everyone is perfectly regimented, efficient, and properly tasked. Everyone loves the same song “Everything is Awesome!” and the same TV show “Where’s My Pants?” and their leader President Business (Will Ferrell). But the president is actually a dictator with a massive army of evil robots and nasty cops (the leader of which is voiced by Liam Neeson) at his command, and he is planning to destroy the Lego universe using a weapon called the Kragle. Is Emmet their prophesized savior? Some rebels (voiced by Elizabeth Banks, Morgan Freeman, and others) think he may be, and hilarity and action ensue. Writers and directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, in addition to mixing witty and sly adult-oriented jokes with kid-pleasing slapstick, work on multiple thematic levels, creating a morally and ethically complex film out of what could have been a cynical advertisement. The film sets up a battle between mindless, automated corporate capitalism on one side and creativity, freedom, and, in a way, mysticism on the other. It culminates in a surprising moving third act that left me in tears. And wanting Legos. Streaming and on DVD.
  7. [expand title=”Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)”]BirdmanInnovative, hilarious, and moving, Birdman is film about theater, film, and actors, as well as regret, love, family, and, in a way, the meaning of life, and it soars. Michael Keaton is blockbuster star Riggan Thomas, who wants to earn respect by appearing on Broadway, so he writes, directs, and stars in a stage adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story. His recovering addict daughter Sam (Emma Stone) is his assistant, and his costar is lauded, but unhinged, method-actor Mike Shiner (Ed Norton). The film veers from slapstick comedy to melodrama, but the depiction of Riggan’s interior life makes the film wholly original. He has conversations with and sometimes becomes Birdman, the superhero he once played, and whether or not Riggan is crazy or actually super powered is never really made clear. But his depression and frustration and desire for relevance, to the world, to his daughter, and to his ex-wife, are all real. This is by far Keaton’s greatest performance, a true tour de force of versatility, believability, and emotional honesty. Keaton has never had material like Birdman, and he’s never had a director like Alejandro González Iñárritu, who elicited an epic performance from Keaton and an equally brilliant performance from Norton, whose Mike is a caustic, hilarious, nutty Lothario of surprising depth. In theaters.
  8. [expand title=”Stranger by the Lake”]Stranger-by-the-LakeThe power of lust is at the heart of this quiet, erotic, disturbing and very French film. Lithe and beautiful Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) comes to a lakeside beach every day to swim and cruise men. He is infatuated with Michel (Christophe Paou), a mustachioed man with a particularly skillful freestyle stroke and a clingy boyfriend. One evening, Franck watches Michel drowning his boyfriend before calmly swimming to the shore, dressing and driving away. Franck does nothing, and the next day, Michel starts flirting with Franck. Despite some apprehension, Franck returns the affection and they begin to have trysts every afternoon. Still, Franck clearly worries that Michel will do to him what he did to his previous lover. The strange and almost cynical morality of the characters and the ever increasing tension about Michel’s potential make what at first seems like a bland sex comedy into something much more complex, metaphorical and even epic. It’s hard to know exactly what writer-directed Alain Guiraudie is doing, whether it is an existentialist homage to Camus’s The Outsider or just the story of how far lust and connection can warp a man’s moral compass. The lack of clarity in the Guiraudie’s message makes the film’s sex more disconcerting, but also more powerful. Streaming and on DVD.
  9. [expand title=”Wild”]WildReese Witherspoon plays Cheryl Strayed, whose memoir Wild is based on. Like the book, the film is partly autobiography and partly the story of her six month trek of the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert to Oregon. This experience is powerfully cathartic to Cheryl; she has just extracted herself from a failed marriage, an addiction to heroin and some extravagantly self-destructive habits that seem to have been a failed coping mechanism to deal with the grief over losing her mother. While Cheryl walks and hikes and gets blisters and nearly starves and narrowly escapes rape and hypothermia, her earlier life is shown in flashbacks, many of which feature a luminous Laura Dern as Cheryl’s mother. Director Jean-Marc Vallée, whose direction made Dallas Buyer’s Club vastly better than its screenplay, took Nick Hornby’s script and crafted a visual and emotional experience that goes far beyond the words, either Hornby’s or Strayed’s. Vallée dwells on the beauty of the landscapes without sentimentalizing, shows Cheryl’s bad habits without being prurient, and guides Witherspoon and Dern to flawless and naturalistic performances. In theaters.
  10. [expand title=”Snowpiercer”]SnowpiercerBong Joon-ho’s first English-language film is astonishing, breathtaking in its visuals, bleak in its plot and enraging in its refusal to do what most American audiences expect from their science fiction action films. The film is set in 2031, 17 years after an attempt to fix global warming goes horribly wrong, freezing the planet and killing all life. All life except for those who made it onto a long, high-tech train on a constant circumnavigation of the planet. The train was built by a visionary inventor named Wilford, who predicted the environmental calamity and manages the miraculous engine that keeps the train moving and its inhabitants alive. While the train features greenhouses, a fish farm, livestock, a school, restaurants, clubs, these luxuries are available only to the riders in the front of the train. In the back, the riders live in squalor, surviving on blocks of mysterious, rubbery protein and subject to the violent whims of Wilford’s brutal security forces who steal the riders’ children and freeze the limbs off riders brave enough to fight back. These tail riders are plotting a revolution at the beginning of the film, with Curtis (Chris Evans), Edgar (Jamie Bell), Tanya (Octavia Spencer), and the tail riders’ de facto leader Gilliam (John Hurt) trying to find the best moment to push through to the other cars, past the security forces and their absurd, saccharine chief, Mason (Tilda Swinton). When they do, the film takes you on a shocking, weird and wonderful journey unlike anything offered in American films in years. Streaming and on DVD.

locke-poster1-404x600Honorable Mentions: Locke, Foxcatcher, Begin Again, The Homesman, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Love is Strange, Interstellar, Gone Girl, The Way He Looks, Guardians of the Galaxy, Pride, The Imitation Game, and Whiplash.





Moore in MapsMost Excellence in Being Amazing in a Lead Role: Julianne Moore is heartbreaking as she vanishes into Alzheimer’s in Still Alice and hilariously frail as an aging starlet in Maps to the Stars; Tilda Swinton is an incandescent vampire aesthete in Only Lovers Left Alive; Tom Hardy is heroically ethical in the monologic Locke and heroically criminal in The Drop; and Jake Gyllenhaal is the best sociopath since American Psycho in Nightcrawler.

birdman-keaton-nortonMost Excellence in Being Amazing in a Supporting Role: Ed Norton is hilarious as the maniacal narcissist in Birdman; Emma Stone has insight and charm for days as the Birdman’s daughter in Birdman; Ethan Hawke is a haphazardly responsible dad in Boyhood; Laura Dern glows in Wild; Tilda Swinton is a toothy and hilarious postmodern Eichmann in Snowpiercer.

still-of-steve-carell-in-foxcatcher-(2014)-large-pictureMost Excellence in Prop Chomping and Scenery Munching: Steve Carell’s prosthetic makeup and WASPy speech impediment are intermittently hilarious and pedophile-creepy in Foxcatcher; Meryl Streep is witch-tastic as the Witch in Into the Woods; Bryan Cranston is CRAZY! as the MAD! scientistic who is actually SANE! in Godzilla; the crazy ladies of The Homesman screech their psychopathologies, play with dirty dolls, and stare off into space.

Snowpiercer movie2Most Excellence in Dystopian Art Direction: Since not one of the many scifi dystopias this year depicted a particularly original world, no one wins. Snowpiercer wins an Honorable Mention for the gorgeous, Fauvist, idiosyncratic train, which was brilliant but looked more like a Terry Gilliam film from 1980s than a vision of the future. Tied for Dishonorably Cliched: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Divergent, Interstellar, and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1.

domMost Excellence in Unbelievable Homosexual Hair: Dominic West in Pride. It’s cute movie but only truly interesting because the queer activists helping the striking miners in Thatcher’s early 1980s plot is true. Otherwise, it’s just Harvey Milk joins the cats of the The Full Monty, and not in a good way. West plays Jonathan Blake, one of the Britain’s longest surviving people with HIV, and he’s not remotely convincing as disco queen, partly because of his affect, mostly because of his hair, which is just ew.

rocket-raccoon-guardians-of-the-galaxy-2Most Excellence in Superheroics: Rocket Raccoon. Because he’s a fucking raccoon space pirate. Chris Pratt is awesome in so many ways except for being a raccoon, which he’s not. And Rocket Raccoon is.

Most Excellence in Making Things Difficult for Movie Reviewing: The Los Angeles publicists who make it so very difficult for me to review movies. You don’t know who you are because you don’t even read my emails.

Tom Hardy’s Perfect Storm


As I was walking out of Locke, a man behind me told his wife, “That’s my worst nightmare.” I was thinking of other clichés, too: for Ivan Locke, the events in the film are a shitshow, a tsunami, his Waterloo, a perfect storm. Most American audiences know Tom Hardy, who plays Locke, for sci-fi action roles: the perfectly suited, smoldering Eames in Inception and the masked nihilist Bane in The Dark Knight Rises. They might expect Locke to be suffering in a spaceship battle or an espionage caper gone wrong. Ivan Locke, however, is not worried about the physical world ending, but rather about the destruction his personal, familial, middle class world. And we watch him worry about it for 90 minutes while he drives to London, the only physical action coming from him answering the phone, blowing his nose, and shuffling papers. Ivan Locke is as opposite from his Hardy’s most famous roles as possible, but it is his most powerful and moving performance.

The film opens with a wide pan of a construction site, a giant hole in the ground that will be the base of seemingly very large building. It’s evening and the workers are leaving for home, and we see one unlock a BMW, change out of dirty boots, and climb into the driver’s seat. He connects his phone to the Bluetooth and dials someone listed as “Bastard,” and he leaves an urgent message for a man named Gareth (Ben Daniels) with one word: “concrete.” Then he dials Donal (Andrew Scott); Ivan tells him that he will not be at work the next morning. Donal freaks out because it is the next morning when Ivan is supposed to supervise pouring the concrete foundation of the building, and it is going to involve the largest pour of concrete for a non-military site in the history of Europe. (You will learn a great deal about concrete while watching Locke.)

Next, Ivan calls home. His wife is at the store but he tells his oldest son that he won’t be home to watch the game. Then Ivan dials Bethen (Olivia Colman) and tells her that he got her message and that he’s on his way to London. Bethen, as it turns out, is a woman Ivan had sex with once, and she is now having his baby, two months early. And when Katrina, Ivan’s wife, calls, he finally tells her that he slept with another woman who is giving birth. It does not go well. Many of Ivan’s phone calls do not go well that night.

As all of the action takes place inside a car, with Hardy the only person visible and the other characters’ only heard, that writer-director Stephen Knight manages to make Locke riveting is near miraculous. The film is paced almost like a thriller, but the stakes in a thriller are usually much higher. Ivan’s predicament is not life and death, but rather his ability to be good man. Before this night, no one had ever doubted him. He was an impeccable person. But he made a terrible mistake in a moment of weakness, and he is trying to live up to his own standards, to do the right thing, right by Katrina, by Gareth and Donal, and by Bethen. His father had not done the right thing by Ivan, and Ivan refuses to be his father. That it is impossible for all of this to be fixed is clear very early in the film, and Ivan knows it. But he still tries.

Though his situation is desperate, Ivan’s nobility is constant. That Hardy can balance these two is remarkable. A lesser actors would use this kind of role to be explosive, to wail at the world, or to chew scenery. Hardy’s Ivan is cold, but this is made clear to be a defense against the emotional chaos of Ivan’s childhood. But it wasn’t a defense enough against the the night his life falls apart, becoming, yes, a nightmare.

Written and directed by Stephen Knight
Starring Tom Hardy, Olivia Colman, and Ruth Wilson
Rated R