Cop Car (directed by Jon Watts)
I usually throw in an honorable mention pick each year to highlight an unusual film I stumbled upon during the year. Late one night I gave this little flick a spin and had a blast riding along with a pair of ten-year-olds as they take a crooked Sheriff's car for a joy ride. Shades of Stand By Me linger in the background as the reckless abandon of childhood logic plays out in a very dramatic, hilarious and deeply emotional way. Kevin Bacon rarely disappoints and delivers a character performance border-lining slapstick making the perfect antagonist for this quirky thriller. Give the kids a chance when you stumble across them- it's a quick trip at under 90 minutes.
Time Out of Mind (directed by Oren Moverman)
Richard Gere lived as a homeless man and was easily mistaken for such during the filming of this movie. I think it's a feature film which isn't very well received by audiences or critics because its painful. Its frustrating watching George suffer the indignity and engage in the self-destruction which hold him back from a stable life. It's difficult to relate to a character who's main plights are things we take for granted daily. I found in this film an honest portrait of homelessness and depression which is probably long-overdue for the big screen. It's not one which will have a high re-watch value or keep you on the edge of your seat but you will get a course in method acting from one of the finest.
99 Homes (directed by Ramin Bahrani)
Michael Shannon and Andrew Garfield front a film which captures the emotional levity of the housing crisis in our country. Based on a true story, Garfield plays a single father (Dennis Nash) forced to work for Shannon (Rick Carver), the real estate broker who recently seized his own home. The film points out the shady areas of real estate and home financing which so many families fall victim to. The morality in the scripting of this film is rich and complex pulling explosive performances from the actors with a higher drama than you would expect from its subject matter. In the vein of Wall Street, I hope it finds an audience which is receptive to its social levity. Its a story about finding humanity amidst corruption- a bleak task for us all at times.
The Lobster (directed by Yorgos Lathimos)
In a near dystopian future, single people are given the opportunity to bed at The Hotel for 45 days in order to find a life mate. What happens if they can't find a match? Well, then they get turned into the animal of their choosing and are let loose into the wilderness. This strangely beautiful film was shot giving the actors minimal makeup with most scenes being filmed under natural lighting. It's part sci-fi, part romantic comedy and part opium-induced lucid dream inside Terry Gilliam's head. Love has never been stranger (or perhaps it is and there's something to that.)
The Danish Girl (directed by Tom Hooper)
This period piece is loosely inspired by the lives of artists Lili Elbe and Gerda Wegener. The film deals with Lili's gender identity which transforms from Gerda's husband, Einar. Poetically, her transition roots in serving as a model and sitting for her wive's paintings. The artistic process comes into play in some ways which are original material as far as exploring art as an outlet for our selves. The film is often sensual but subtle in portraying Lili finding herself. It's a biopic which shifts from art film to romance to tragedy in documenting the struggle of sexual identity. It's an emotional portrait with more stunning acting from Eddie Redmayne who plays the transgendered pioneer.
Chi-Raq (directed by Spike Lee)
Spike Lee let loose a primal scream with this adaptation of the ancient Greek play, Lysistrata by Aristophanes set against the backdrop of gang violence in Chicago. Samuel L Jackson serves as the story's narrator, Dolmedes (an uncanny incarnation of Rudy Ray Moore's Dolemite) who guides us through a commentary which tackles the multiple social plights of our time. Gang leaders' wives go on strike and refuse their men sex in a protest to end the black-on-black violence plaguing their community. By blending a bit of comedy and black culture with a clever appliance of a centuries-old sattire, Lee not only confronts but offers solutions to the problems holding back and entire generation of inner-city youths.
Beasts of No Nation (directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga)
Brutal and savage is the life of Abu, the child soldier we follow in this film as Civil War rages in a fictional West African country. Director Cary Fukunaga took full advantage of the African landscape just as he did with Southern Louisiana in directing the first season of HBO's True Detective. Each shot utilizes its surroundings and the cast and crew were so entrenched they dealt with malaria, food shortages and actors being arrested as suspected mercenaries. One of the Academy's biggest snubs was to Idris Alba this year who gives a blistering performance as The Commandant, who leads the soldiers on a path of terror through the fields and jungles where a child is a man when he's old enough to hold a gun.
Mad Max: Fury Road (directed by George Miller)
George Miller gave one of the biggest surprises this year with his return to Post Apocalyptic Australia for another installment of Mad Max. As director of the original trilogy, Miller had thirty years to let this marinate and what we got was one helluva thrill ride! It's basically a two hour chase scene with everything we loved about the source material x 1000. It's a high octane orgasm of science fiction, blistering feminism, and road rage. Everything from the makeup to the vehicle, sets and sandstorms jumps out in a very unique and refreshing way. If they could build it, they built it and the end result was epic in scope giving us a perfect blend of traditional special effects leaving the animation only where it was necessary.
The Revenant (directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu)
Filmed in Canada and Argentina, each frame of this movie makes full use of the epic landscape surrounding the actors. From the panning to the extreme angles, the scope of the film itself is metaphorically defined by the miles of backdrop rushing by. The journey of the hero and theme of revenge drive the true story of our frontiersman Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) who survives one of the best on-screen brawls every shot when he has a one-on-one showdown with a Bear! Tom Hardy also steals the show as the film's antagonist, citing Tom Berenger's Sgt. Barnes from Platoon as inspiration for his role. It's an incredible story of survival and a movie which will stand the test of time fully embodying the label of epic.
A young programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is selected to take part evaluating the human qualities of a line of humanoid robots being developed by the film's inventor Nathan (Oscar Isaac). The original screenplay by Garland (the film's director) reads like the song of a lovechild birthed by Aldous Huxley and Isaac Asimov. Nearly every scene of dialogue has a quotable line in this unique look at its subject. The film delves into the complex questions of morality and ethics brought about by both the master and servant in terms of artificial intelligence Based loosely on The Tempest (with thick Kubrikian inspiration), it's a freshman masterpiece from a new director which is cleverly simplistic yet brilliant science fiction.
Dope (directed by Rick Famuyiwa)
Dope is a coming-of-age film for a post-hip-hop generation (and will serve as one of the very best coming-of-age flicks every made). The story follows Malcom (Shameik Moore) and his friends on a sprawling L.A. adventure when he's taken out of his comfort geek zone and attends a party which will set in course the film's events. The action and storyline play like a 90's indie film. It is very much a movie exploring millennial youth where 90's hip hop is retro and the internet evens the playing field for everyone. There's plenty to love fusing geek culture with street culture. Take this fresh journey with Malcome and his crew as he finds himself and learns the many meanings of Dope.