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December 30th, 2015 - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
Below are the ten most satisfying and memorable films I saw in 2015:

song of the sea 10. Song of the Sea A-

This is technically a 2014 film, but whatever! It didn't open locally here in Seattle until late February, and it's one of the two best animated features I saw this year, this one flying far further under the radar. And it's too bad. You need to see it! It's not streaming on Netflix currently, but if you're an Amazon Prime subscriber, you can watch it there. This is old-school conventional animation, rendered spectacularly, offering a modern-ish take on the Celtic myth of the "selkie," a mermaid-like creature that is part woman, part seal. The story here is of a young brother and even younger sister, whose deceased mother was a selkie. This was nominated for the Best Animated Feature award at the Oscars last year. It should have won.

What I said then: Not since Sita Sings the Blues (2009) has a film so successfully married mesmerizing animation with a story that is in a class of its own. Here, the visual aesthetic, with striking lines of circles, arcs and spirals filled with lush colors, enhances the story in a truly unique way.

star wars episode vii the force awakens 9. Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens A-

This one's tricky. How much of our love of this movie is just a perfect mix of relief at how much better it is than the prequels, and the simple preconceived love of the franchise brought in before even seeing it? I would argue that millions of people love this movie just because they decided they will. To what extent is that the case with me? Will I still love it as much when I see it again in a week, in several months, years from now? I can tell you already that Leia and Han have some seriously stilted dialogue. But then, let's get real, ever single Star Wars movie has problematic dialogue -- even in the original trilogy. THAT'S RIGHT I SAID IT (again). But, whatever. Hashtag: #loveislove. I love movies, and Star Wars is the modern mythology of American pop culture. This may be a broad rehash of A New Hope, but hey, maybe J.J. Abrams has some serious revelations saved for the next episode, as also happened in The Empire Strikes Back? Whatever the case, even in the face of legitimate criticism, this is spectacular cinematic entertainment that transcends the VII of its "Episode," it transcends the cinema house in which it screens, and it transcends generational differences. Sure, it's just a movie, if you choose to look at it that way. But it's also more. It means something. Frankly, contrarians are missing the point.

What I said then: The Force Awakens is the satisfying addition to the Star Wars legacy that older fans have been waiting for since 1983.

the diary of a teenage girl8. The Diary of a Teenage Girl A-

How often do you see self-assured teenage women taking control of their own sexual awakening? Kind of never. Don't let the title of this movie fool you, it's not the cornball tween romp it sounds like. This is some very, very adult stuff -- and absolutely worthy of a look. It challenges the viewer in all the right ways, with a breakout performance by Bel Powley as Minnie, who seduces (or does she?) her mother's boyfriend. The mom and the boyfriend are played expertly by Kristin Wiig and Alexander Skarsgård, as things get about as uncomfortable as you might expect. But this is still an incredibly well-told story that manages not to force its intentions to be provocative -- no small feat these days.

What I said then: Neither of them seem to realize that [the boyfriend] is still the one with the power and responsibility, presenting a sort of gray area in which [director, Marielle] Heller is deliberately challenging her audience. It's precisely this challenge, in which we know clearly what the right thing to do for these characters is but we sympathize with her horrible choices anyway, that makes the movie great.

straight outta compton 7. Straight Outta Compton A-

Easily the most important movie this year that not enough people are talking about (although its $161 million domestic gross indicates it was far from a box office failure), this grabs you violently from its opening scene, and never lets up on the story of rap group N.W.A's pointed commentary on modern race relations in the U.S. It makes you weep for what still hasn't changed in the state of this country, but also provides context for mass audiences that may have had little understanding of the story going in -- with hip hop as the gateway. "Fuck the Police," indeed: the culture of apologizing for outright murder on the part of police departments that we see far too much of today is exactly what these objectively talented rap artists were railing against thirty years ago. It's tempting to say that some things never change -- except, well, now we have mainstream movies like this one telling stories that have taken this long to get told. This movie has a fair number of technical flaws, but the story it tells commands attention, and how it's told has wide appeal.

What I said then: And that's the thing about this movie: it has import, the likes of which nothing else currently in theatres does. It has something meaningful to say, about music history, about American history, about how things were then and how things sadly remain today. In the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement, the timing of this film's release could not be more poignant.

Carol 6. Carol A-

Lesbians in love! In the fifties! In great outfits and driving great cars! Okay, this is hardly a flashy or even particularly exciting movie. But, in a way, ten years after the excellent Brokeback Mountain, it's the antidote to that movie -- which, true to most movies about gay people set in decades past, ended with horrible tragedy. Not so here. Sure, these women -- played wonderfully by Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara -- face their share of era-appropriate prejudices and challenges. But they also live in New York; Blanchett plays a divorcee whom friends pity for being "alone" but she is also a particularly independent and strong, if still refreshingly vulnerable woman. Mara is the younger woman discovering herself with the older woman's help. It's all terribly romantic. It's just a thoroughly absorbing love story. It just happens to be about a couple of women. Do they end up together in the end? It says a lot about this movie that it really makes you want to know.

What I said then: There's something oddly sedate about how both of them deliver their lines, but that's not to the film's detriment. It's comforting, in a way. It makes Carol sort of . . . cozy. You want to wrap yourself up in this movie, in their words, in the way they say them.

tig 5. Tig A

If you've never heard of comedian Tig Notaro, you need to get with it. This is a documentary detailing her life in the immediate aftermath of a breakup that happened near the same time as both two different life-threatening illnesses and the death of her mother, and how it informed her standup. And, guess what? This one is currently streaming on Netflix! (In fact, it never got a theatrical release. I include it here because I did happen to see it in a theatre, at the Seattle International Film Festival.) WATCH IT NOW. Not only is this woman a superb comedian (okay, perhaps her comic sensibility isn't for everyone, but that doesn't preclude anyone from enjoying this film), but this is an excellent telling of her story. Those life tragedies are actually just the beginning; we get to follow her along as she meets a woman and develops a relationship, and even works toward an attempt at adopting a child. For a film intended to be so intimate, Tig is remarkably devoid of contrivances. This woman, and the movie about her, is the real deal. She is both hilarious and a great person to follow around for a year.

What I said then: Tig Notaro has a refreshing lack of narcissism in a position of this sort, because she isn't trying to show off how blasé she is. She just is.

amy 4. Amy A

The second of the two best documentaries of the year, Amy is much sadder, for obvious reasons. This young woman died long before her time, with so much potential lost. Here we get to see early home videos that in other movies would comparatively count as filler; here we see how, from the beginning, Amy Winehouse had talent that emanated from her, changing the air in the room. Then we see how the unexpected success she never sought out changed her, or perhaps exacerbated addictive inclinations that were always there. The way some people tried to help her, and others clearly took advantage of her. With no intent to become huge, her hugeness consumed her, since she had no concept of how to control it. But holy shit, was she an amazing singer. It's to all our benefit that this collection of rare footage was put together for us all to appreciate.

What I said then: She is shy, she is radiant, she has a charisma that can't be contained in spite of her apparent ignorance of it. She is the embodiment of nuance and vulnerability on the way to a tragic end, mirrored in the story arc resulting from the nearly perfect editing of this film.

tangerine 3. Tangerine A

This one is also currently streaming on Netflix, and of all such movies, you should go to this one first, actually: watch it, be absorbed by the story and the characters, and then marvel that it was shot entirely on iPhones. It's so rare that we get movies about transgender people at all, let alone ones with touches as human as this one. Okay, sure, this is about trans sex workers, and one could argue the main character, Sin-Dee (a great Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, herself a trans woman, as are many of the actors in this film), is a bit of a caricature, as she seeks revenge on the cisgender woman who slept with her boyfriend -- who is also her pimp. But there is no denying that this is unlike any other movie out there, let alone unlike any other movie about transgender characters -- with far more trans actors than probably any other movie anyone can think of. Tangerine is groundbreaking in a number of ways, and just happens also to be incredibly entertaining. That it's a comedy with some sensational flourishes that ends with a truly touching, human moment is the icing on the cake.

What I said then: Few movies convey so much with such simplicity of storytelling. Not a whole lot actually happens in Tangerine, but each event makes an impact, particularly in the context of the world in which they occur. That is what makes this movie special.

sicario 2. Sicario A

No other movie this year contains such stunningly shot, unrelentingly gripping drama as Sicario, which straddles the border between El Paso and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. Emily Blunt is a revelation as the increasingly disillusioned FBI agent enlisted as a consultant for a task force waging the war against drugs in this location; Benicio Del Toro is unforgettable as the man using this group of agents for his own ends. It's hard to say too much about this movie without giving too much away, except that it's dark stuff indeed, but presented with a uniquely cinematic eye. Every frame crackles with energy, suspense mounting for all the reasons you don't want to face. This is a movie you simply can't take your eyes off of, from beginning to end, due to both the performances and the imagery. Who knew desolate desert landscapes could be so beautiful and foreboding in equal measure?

What I said then: Sicario is that rare movie that is excellent on all fronts. It's so competently put together that it features several sequences that go on and on, with seemingly little actually happening, and yet you can't look away. This movie is all at once complex, evenly paced, and compulsively watchable.

INSIDE OUT 1. Inside Out A

Get your tissues ready! And if you watch this one again, you're likely to start crying even earlier on subsequent viewings. Fully five years since Pixar's previous truly great film (Toy Story 3, best movie of 2010), this ranks among the studio's very best. The concept doesn't create any such expectation: the characters are all five different emotions inside a preten girl's head? What? But the great surprise here is the depth and insight with which this little girl is created, drawn and presented. It makes you think of your own childhood. You relate to the loss of beloved childhood toys as a result of nothing more than getting older. And the universe inside young Riley's head is superbly rendered, with the animators making all the right choices for how thoughts and feelings are represented. The voice work is fantastic, the animation is wonderfully detailed, but it's the story here that gets you. And trust me, it will. Few Pixar movies have contained such depth, so much so that many have rightly stated that it's the most "adult" of their movies -- a lot here will fly over the heads of actual children. But don't fret! Children will love it for their own reasons, which is how it should be, and true to the Pixar legacy -- which they sort of lost sight of with many other recent films (including the comparatively uneven The Good Dinosaur, also released this year). This is a return to what made Pixar great in the first place. And if the greatness of film can be measured in terms of how visceral the viewer reaction is -- and I think it should be -- then this one simply takes the cake.

What I said then: We can get regular old silly fun anywhere. Here we have emotional complexity, complex symbolism, and the wistfulness that comes with the earliest lessons of growing up -- the very kinds of things that made the Toy Story films so great. Except this time, it all revolves around a totally relatable little girl instead of a little boy.

Five Worst -- or the worst of those I saw

As always, it should be noted that indeed a whole lot of worse movies were released this year than these five. But I don't get paid to review movies, so why should I go to movies I already know are even worse than the crap on this list? This just represents some of the few films I misjudged and thought I might actually enjoy -- and was wrong.

7 chinese brothers 5. 7 Chinese Brothers C+

In short, I just plain didn't get this movie. It was a mess. At least it had Olympia Dukakis in it, and she makes everything better. But Jason Schwartzman doesn't quite cut it as the slacker barely holding down a job at Quick Lube. I'd tell you more about the story except there really isn't much of one.

What I said then: There are some genuinely funny moments here and there, but on the whole 7 Chinese Brothers leaves you wondering what the hell the point was.

the-interview 4. The Interview C

Okay, here's another one that was technically a 2014 film, but the hype surrounding it, even a year later, was far too great to ignore -- and I didn't see it until early January. I could have seen it before the New Year, but that just would have put it on my worst-of list for 2014. So you get it now! And guess what? This incredibly stupid movie, featuring James Franco in one of his worst performances ever, did not live up to the hype. Did North Korea really hack Sony Pictures in response to this movie depicting their sitting Head of State getting assassinated? Didn't they? Once you see this movie, the only question left is: who cares? I'll admit that some of this movie made me laugh, but the laughs were actually few and far between. Mostly it's just dumb.

What I said then: What other movie has ever precipitated international cyber provocations, let alone depicted the death of a currently sitting head of state? Would that the movie had actually been good. Taken on its own merits, this movie is hardly worth anyone's time.

chatty catties 3. Chatty Catties C

This movie is weird as hell. It might be worth looking at on that basis alone. For ten or twenty minutes. Presented at SIFF, it features a plethora of cats, with voiceover narration indicating their thoughts -- exclusively with the use of deaf or hard of hearing actors. Some of it is so bizarre, it's funny. A lot of it is just bizarre. A fair amount is actually really funny. But that doesn't make it any better of a movie. If you're into bizarro movies, though, this one might just work for you.

What I said then: Chatty Catties is maybe the funniest shitty movie I've ever seen.

the avengers age of ultra 2. Avengers: Age of Ultron C

Ugh. I mean, seriously: Ugh. A whole bunch of people actually liked this movie! People in this country are so stupid. This one finally sealed the deal: no more superhero movies for me. I'm so fucking done! They're all the same stupid shit. This one is no different, unless you want to count how bloated it is with too many characters and how it begins with an incomprehensible action sequence with stunningly bad CGI special effects. This movie's only redeeming quality is James Spader's voice work as the villain Ultron. He was kind of fun. But not enough to keep it from being an overlong junk fest. At this point, Marvel movies are like a drug the popular has acclimated to, flocking back to it like sedated zombies. What a waste of time.

What I said then: Why this movie is getting a fair amount of critical praise is a mystery to me. Who is supplying the Kool-Aid to these people? After the last Avengers, I had no expectation of wanting to see a sequel. But then it was announced that James Spader would be the villain. Surely he would elevate the proceedings. And he did! -- to the level of "mind numbingly average."

fifty shades of grey 1. Fifty Shades of Grey C

You know what? Even if I did get paid to review movies, I think this one might still have ended up on my worst-of list. Granted, a solid C sounds downright generous when I put it that way . . . but the thing is, for a while, Fifty Shades of Grey is surprisingly engaging. Dakota Johnson has an undeniable charisma and screen presence. Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey is, comparatively, devoid of personality. He's just a vessel for so-called "naughty" fantasies about a guy who is into S&M. Except the most explicit sex scene involves . . . spanking. Are you yawning yet? I am! By all accounts, the book on which it was based is even dumber than this movie, which makes me weep for the state of literacy in this country. And the most interesting thing about the film adaptation, at least for locals, is that it's set in Seattle. This is just another idiotic, conventional romance disguised as something sexual and sensational. This movie is far from erotic, and it quickly moves into the unintentionally hilarious. This movie is begging for the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 treatment.

What I said then: For a story about someone supposedly super kinky, this movie is surprisingly vanilla. When Anastasia asks him to give her his worst, he whips her ass six times. I thought, That's it? If you want to see some truly shocking sex in a mainstream movie, you won't find it here. Try Last Tango in Paris (1972), there's a memorable scene that involves a stick of butter.

And now, below, the perennial film log . . .Collapse )


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