Emily Blunt delivers one of the best performances of the year in this unbearably tense thriller about a determined by-the-book FBI agent who has her eyes opened to the lawless nature of the drug war when she joins a mysterious team that shakes things up south of the border. Blunt’s Kate desperately wants to do good, to hit the cartels where it counts, but with each step deeper into the moral morass, she (and we, viewing through her eyes) comes to realize how damnably the game is actually played. Director Denis Villeneuve and legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins create a suffocating visual atmosphere and tautly establish a chain of command that has us observing Kate as she observes the horrors around her. It’s a smart move that adds depth and weight to the dramatic proceedings, while reinforcing the dark message of ethical muddying in the face of futility.
Cinematic love stories generally rely on two things: chemistry and conflict. Brooklyn’s pairing of Irish immigrant Eilis (Saoirse Ronan) and local plumber boy Tony (Emory Cohen) has plenty of chemistry, but the conflict has, for the most part, been excised from the proceedings. It’s a bold choice because this is very much a story of place, of trying to settle in one spot while your heart may be stuck in another. It’s also a love triangle that forces Eilis to choose between adoring suitors, both sweet, lovable gentleman with nary a bad bone in their bodies to make Eilis’ choice easier and ensure we side with her decision. John Crowley’s delightful, delectable picture is that rare love story that captures the tender touch of serendipitous romance without relying on conflict to generate the highs and lows. In many regards, it’s an old-fashioned story told in an old-fashioned style, but the inherent goodness of the characters in a formulaic setting usually built on friction feels sweetly refreshing.
Few movies received as vicious a beating by critics and general audiences alike as this colossally imaginative explosion of juicy pulp sci-fi joy, so what can I say? Consider me a Wachowski fan for life. Lana and Andy gave us The Matrix and Speed Racer and I’ll never grow tired of praising them for that (especially the latter), but Jupiter Ascending, by my estimation, is further proof that they’re among the greatest action directors ever to command a camera. The story of a poor immigrant (Mila Kunis) who discovers she’s the queen of the universe and that humanoid aliens have discovered a particularly gruesome fountain of youth could easily be dismissed as silly, but the Wachowski siblings cram it with such incredible visuals and strange creatures and electrifying sequences that it all feels like a singular world-building experience completely drunk on imagination. The best big-budget B-movie in years and most certainly the only one featuring Channing Tatum as a sort of human/dog alien hybrid.
This tenderly moving portrait of a mother and her son living on both sides of an unimaginably harrowing experience relies on a powerful use of perspective. Five-year-old Jack (Jacob Tremblay, an amazing find) has lived his entire life alongside his Ma (Brie Larson, tremendous) within the cramped confines of a backyard shed that he believes is the whole world. Despite the temptation to go another route, director Larry Abrahamson and writer Emma Donague, adapting her own novel, position the story from Jack’s perspective. It’s a bold choice and one that allows us to see the horror from multiple angles, both as seemingly normal reality and the hellish nightmare it actually is. Tremblay is incredible at riding Jack’s highs and lows and we get to experience the world of Room via his innocent gaze, while our own personal perception further expands our understanding. Abrahamson then uses this approach to suggest that returning to the world can be more difficult than entering it for the first time, making Room a very touching commentary on the human experience, looking at birth to adulthood, being a child to being a parent, and the spaces large and small where we find the inspiration for such change.
Since the 80s when the spate of iconic slasher monsters both peaked and ended, fright cinema has mostly employed new spins on old monsters to generate the scares. It’s more about technique than actually inventing a new Jason or Freddy. But It Follows unearths something surprisingly fresh while acting as a clever commentary on the tropes of 80s slashers. The monster here doesn’t have an iconic look, but rather a clever concept. The titular It latches on to a single victim and terrorizes that person by appearing as a random person and always walking in a straight line towards their target. Making matters worse, the monster is visible only to the victim, so paranoia quickly runs rampant. Director David Robert Mitchell exploits the concept brilliantly, making us question and fear every single figure who walks casually, coldly along, inserting us into the victim’s horrified mindset. Add in a pounding synth score and a great cast playing teens that are smarter than your average slasher set and you get a movie that references the horror genre’s past while looking boldly into its future.
One of the biggest surprises of the year was that George Miller, whose most recent directing credits consisted of not one but two Happy Feet movies, resurrected his Mad Max franchise with such ferocity and energy and also turned the latest instalment into… a feminist parable? That the movie isn’t a limp nostalgia cash-in like Jurassic World or Terminator Genisys is reason enough to be excited for the return of Max Rockatansky and his adventures in the post-apocalyptic wasteland, but it’s the gender equality angle that really revs my engine. The awesomely action-heavy script compellingly charts the breathless arc of Charlize Theron’s Furiosa, who goes from being a dictator’s right-hand woman to a symbol of muscular femininity. Miller cranks up the chaotic madness by stringing together the various sequences into one massive car chase, while making a bid for matriarchal rule and suggesting that equality can be attained even in the dark days of dystopian danger.
Easily the funniest movie I saw all year, though it’s hard to imagine anyone rolling in the aisles while witnessing the droll misadventures of two traveling salesmen who repetitiously hock comedy prop products. By the third time they introduce the creepy rubber mask called “Uncle One-Tooth” with one of the salesmen slowly removing it from the package and pulling it over his head, only to silently stare at the prospective buyer, you’ll either vibrate with awkward laughter from the absurdity of it all or fight desperately the urge to punch your screen. It’s a tough call. No one in the movie ever smiles and everyone looks nearly dead, a ghostly makeup job applied to all. On multiple occasions, a character concludes an uneventful phone conversation by uttering the line “I’m happy to hear you’re doing fine.” The viewing experience provided by director Roy Andersson is more than fine here; it’s divine, if also pointedly peculiar.
Quite possibly the most sensually romantic movie since Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love. What is it about forbidden love that makes these particular stories so sexy compared to movies with more overt treatments of sexuality? Or maybe the difference is in the directors. Todd Haynes has such stunning control of every element in this 50s-set lesbian lovers tale that there’s hardly a shot or a moment that doesn’t feel like it’s fulfilling its maximum dramatic and thematic potential. He pushes the couple into the corner of frames and closes the spaces around them to capture the suffocating sensation of having to hide from a world that doesn’t understand or accept you. He makes even the softest touch of a hand feel like the most swoon-worthy expression of love that a cinematic image can display. Of course, it helps to have great actors bring these characters to life. Cate Blanchett is flawless, as she almost always is, but the big surprise is Rooney Mara, who delivers a performance for the ages, epically and intimately capturing the awakening of a brave young woman ready to risk it all for love.
There's a scene near the end of Inside Out where heroine Riley's personified emotion Joy hits the lowest point of her journey, both literally and figuratively. She sits at the bottom of a pit covered in Riley's forgotten memories, feeling she herself is lost forever. And then she cries. Yes, happiness herself is sad. It's one of the most profound ideas I've ever seen portrayed in an animated movie. The moment poignantly encapsulates the celebrated genius that Pixar is often associated with. They can conjure such exquisitely emotional concepts that smartly speak to adults, but don't talk down to children. Pixar's best moments are multi-layered and Inside Out is entirely about a brainy balance between creative complexity and adventurous relatability for all ages. To call this Pixar's best movie still undersells its greatness. This is a landmark effort in the animation medium, a deeply moving story about being a kid, about understanding the world around us, and about the lovely power of joyful tears.
The best movie of the decade, the best martial arts movie I’ve ever seen, maybe even one of the best action movies ever made. It’s easy to engage in hyperbole when it comes to praising The Assassin because it doesn’t feel like hyperbole at all. Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s long-in-development wuxia masterpiece about a superbly skilled apprentice (Shu Qi) who can’t quite sacrifice her heart for the job really is that good. Glacially paced, intricately plotted, thrillingly transportive, and photographed so exquisitely it should be now considered the new gold standard for modern cinematic beauty, this is fantastically phenomenal filmmaking. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then The Assassin is worth a thousand pictures.